From Route 40 to the Carretera Austral: The Patagonia National Parks

From our departure point of el Chaltén, we drove to, and then over the legendary route #40 (stretching north to south across Argentina, from its southern tip all the way to the Bolivian border) Just like in eastern Patagonia along route #3, settlements along route #40 are spread thin: with a 400km stretch between the turn-off near Tres Lagos and the one to route #41 past Bajo Caracoles, it takes a good detour to reach the gas station about halfway along, at the town of Gobernador Gregores. In the hamlet of Bajo Caracoles, we found a large gathering of motorcyclists and a couple of cars waiting to be serviced at the sticker-plastered fuel pump. The guy first in line turned around, throwing up his hands in despair: they’d run out of fuel, and it would be a day or two before a new supply was expected. The next fuel station would be at least 200km either way… Caracoles had just a few buildings and one hotel with, from the looks of it, maybe five rooms … The (only) store/restaurant- half of the building had an overload of sodas and alcoholic beverages, as well as sweet and savory snacks, but little choice in nutritious food. We still had a comfortable amount diesel to get us to the next town, but I wonder about all these people waiting to fill up…

Stickers along the southern highways are the traveler’s grafiti. Tags everywhere, like on fuel pumps. (Note: This was not the Caracoles station)

The road stop at Baja Caracoles: not much in descent food to get here
Ruta #40: the famous Argentinian North-South highway is not always a smooth road.

Ruta 40 had gradually deteriorated from perfectly smooth for the first half, to a few potholes and sinking pavement, and finally unpredictable stretches of dusty corrugated gravel. And we decided we wanted to have more of this! Route 41, which connects the #40 in Argentina with the just as (in)famous # 7- Carretera Austral in Chile is a generally rough gravel road. But what a beautiful road it was! With that I mean the scenery. The land around us turned from desert grey-green, to a sparse spring-green in the wide riverbed of the Rio Blanco and, once we crossed the Paso Roballos and the border to Chile, a jubilant range of yellows, whites and greens welcomed us. Argentina’s version of Patagonia National Park is divided in several parts: we drove the part along old sheep farms (where we spotted more guanacos and rheas than sheep) between foothills of the Andes mountains, and up along the river valley of the Rio Blanco. Here, we thought it peculiar that green and wet land sits right beside desert ground. Maybe because the road cuts through it, the park had no entry fee and, since no wild camping is allowed within the boundaries of the park, we had to spend the night at the park’s (also free) camping area -with basic but clean facilities. It was nice to have trees for wind protection, to see a puma warning sign but no puma, fruiting bushes along the trail to the river, and grass to sit among the free roaming horses.

Route#41, the road that connects Argentina’s #40 to Chili’s #7, the Carretera Austral. It’s a rough road but it leads through the increasingly beautiful Patagonia National Parks via Paso Roballos

The first signs of (bright) green in the Rio Blanco river bed in the Argentinian Patagonia National park.

Near Paso Roballo the land gets wetter

The next morning we continued our rattling drive towards the Paso Roballos, where a tiny border post let us out of Argentina. Soon, even before the Chilean border post, we passed a signpost announcing the Patagonia National Park of Chile. Only there and then we learned that this is one of the parks that Kristina Tompkins (former CEO of Patagonia brand outdoor wear) and her husband Doug Tompkins ( founder of The North Face) purchased as a Tompkins Conservation project, restored and developed it as a nature park, and donated it to the Chilean National Parks system to be enjoyed by the world. The initiative started years ago, when this couple hiked and camped there and saw the potential of this beautiful land, though at the time most of the Chacabuco valley still consisted of overgrazed sheep farms. Now most of it is rewilded, with undulating grass lands, wildflowers, fruit bearing shrubs, and stands of indigenous trees; an environment that encouraged the proliferation and comeback of guanacos, rheas, chinchillas, hares, foxes, armadillos and pumas. Although the connecting Argentina-Chile road runs straight through there, driving by car when visiting is discouraged – hiking encouraged. Only one of the pristine campgrounds is accessible to camper cars, the others are walk-in, tent camping only. Most trails are for foot-traffic, but from our camper-site there was a rare track that one can drive or walk: it leads up to the Doug Tompkins lookout. Of that 6km track, one can drive up, and walk the last 500m (a ridiculously short hike) or hike the whole way, and as a third option, drive halfway, park your car and walk up 3km. Nearing the top, there are other, longer walking trails veering off in a several directions. The bottom half cuts through flowering shrub lands, with vistas over the valley, while along the top half of the trail, trees shade the path. Once we reached the lookout, we found a well-built shelter with sturdy benches and tables inviting us to take a lunch break, while gazing at the distant snow peaks and the blue Lake Cochrane below us.

Just across the border to Chile, the desert turned colorful.

Historic Lucas Bridges’ house on what formerly was an overgrazed sheep farm in the Chacabuco valley. Now lush grass moves with the winds.

As opposed to the well-known parks we recently visited, there was no-one else on the trail. We had the whole place to ourselves. The low park attendance may be due to its difficult accessibility, which is by rough corrugated gravel and dirt roads with steep inclines and descents: beside the Paso Roballos road from where we entered, there’s also the north-south artery, the Carretera Austral, which is a mostly unpaved dirt road. Plus, this park, especially in comparison to the Argentinian parks, costs a small fortune to visit and camp. But nature is so beautiful and peaceful, and the area so well managed, that it is worth the money.

The stages of this strange bloom on the patagonian beech tree. First we thought we were looking at a miniature type of mistletoe, but the yellow bunches are the budding stage of the whitish bloom fluff.

View over lake Cochrane

At the headquarters we stopped to pay our dues, and visited the excellent museum.  There are three permanent exhibits: the world’s environmental history and state, the history of the park and its inhabitants past and present; and the Tompkins Conservation initiative.

A few things however were disappointing in this park: when crossing the Chilean border, no fresh and raw food can be kept, so with the little food we had left, we wanted to splurge on lunch at the park’s restaurant – reported to be expensive but excellent. We couldn’t. Twenty-four hour advance reservations were required, and nothing could budge them, even when the grounds looked sparsely populated (mostly staff there). We were directed to the coffee shop – which we found in the administration building (the buildings were re-assigned after the handover, but the name plaques weren’t) where we could choose a prepackaged sandwich or salad. We opted for the salad and, while the weather outside was gorgeous and inside was dark and gloomy, we looked for a table or at least a seat outside…nothing there, so we ended up eating from our laps on the steps. Sometimes stupid little things like that can sour an otherwise great experience.

Sunset view from our campsite.
Our campsite in the park.
Is this a sign of clean air?

Before turning north on the Carretera Austral, we detoured south to get fresh groceries and Wifi updates – except for a few slow 3G moments, we had not been linked to the world for a while. We needed to update our phones and download photos to the cloud. The town of Cochrane – adjacent to the park – was laidback and just big enough to get your necessities. The camping we chose was the size of someone’s backyard, but with clean bathrooms, excellent Wifi, and near the shops, so we stayed for an extra day to wash the dust off our bodies, and catch up with the world. On the map we spotted our next destination, north along the bone-rattling Carretera Austral: some years ago I saw pictures of grey/white marble caves, elegantly shaped by blue water. They’d be about 114 km up the road. It took us half a day to get there, driving over the dusty road along the bright blue Baker river canyon and past pine forests, so neatly planted, they looked like an army of parading soldiers.

Carretera Austral

Baker river valley, driving towards Cochrane
The main building of the campground in Cochrane. Maybe you wouldn’t think so, but it was clean and had excellent internet. That’s what counts.
Along the Cochrane Plaza de Armas, cherries were sold off the truck. Most people bought four whole kilos!
Flowers along the road made us stop several times. This time we discovered we had a flat tire, which we wouldn’t have noticed if we had not stopped. (One of the rear dual wheel tires) Fortunately it was just the valve that must have unscrewed by the rattling road.
Big tall bushes of wild hardy fuchsias grew everywhere along the road, like I’ve never seen them before!
Carretera Austral, on our way to Lago Carrera and the marble caves.
Lago Bertrand along the Carretera Central seemed to be a popular place to spend a vacation.

The huge lake of General Carrera looked invitingly blue, even under overcast skies. Puerto Rio Tranquillo was bustling with visitors: it was a Friday afternoon during summer vacation, so of course… The weather forecast gave us just one windless sunny day on Sunday. We had time, and decided to wait, no problem. At the town’s beach, overlooking the lake, we were good.

Waiting for sunny weather at the beach of Lago General Carrero, so we can visit the marble caves under the best light. (We thought we were big, but look at our neighbors!)
Cloudy skies give beautiful sunsets

I will tell you everything about the marble caves in the next blog, coming soon.

Cute little houses in the area
Cute little houses in the area

The famous Patagonian parks of Torres del Paine and Glacier National Park.

It was full summer in the Patagonian Andes. Chilean and Argentinian vacationers were up and about, many of them like us in campers, even more backpacking, and others enjoying hotel luxury. In addition, there were the international travelers. In other words, the Patagonian Andes were packed with tourists. The best way to visit these parks while avoiding the crowds, is to start as early as possible. Under blue skies and low winds, we entered Torres del Paine at opening time, after having spent the night at a pretty spot overlooking the river valley and Paine mountain range just outside the park. We decided to start by hiking the most popular trails first. The first one led us through lush woods, over a long isthmus of moraine gravel, to a rocky island covered with flowering shrubs and plants. The island was surrounded by a grey glacier lake (hence the name: Lago Grey) where the distant glacier left a few bright blue icebergs floating around. The crisp Patagonian summer air felt like spring. Patagonian barberries already showed off their blue fruit. A shrub, covered with bright pink flowers took part in the palette of greens, yellows, reds, purples and blues. Along the mountainside, the smaller beech trees had grown pointing eastwards, resigned to bend with the westerly winds.

Early morning along the riverbed in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
Entering the trail from Lago Grey, one first enters a forest
The gravel isthmus to the island in the glacier lake. Do you see that bright blue iceberg in the distance?
That ice blue is real!
Trees bending and growing eastwards with the eternal western winds.
So much color!

On our return, we crossed paths with a multitude of people. To enjoy a sense of solitude, we had to strategize our route a bit. We admired the blue waterfall but waited till next morning to continue the hike. Again, we walked undisturbed through a burst of colors with mountain views over blue lakes. I have a habit of gently touching mosses and grasses, in order to feel their textures. The patches of big yellow-green cushions that looked like soft moss from a distance, turned out to be tough and sharp, with yellow flowers. Bees busily buzzed from flower to flower. An occasional tiny black butterfly fluttered by in front of us. At the end of the trail, we enjoyed a breathtaking view over snowcapped Cuernos del Paine mountains.

Salto Grande, the thundering blue waterfall
These yellow-green cushions look so soft from afar…
…but the green spike leaves feel like thorns!
Even these fuzzy looking flowers were hard to the touch.
Fascinating cloud formations were taking shape above the snow peaks.

At the end of the trail, this beautiful Cuernos view was worth a break and a picnic.

Torres del Paine – the tower-like monoliths that brough fame to this area, had to be reached by driving around the range, through dry grassy hills over dusty, washboard roads. We reached the crowded basecamp by noon, had lunch there, and decided against taking the four-hours track up. Instead, we continued to Lago Azul, where, in my opinion, the view over the Torres is better, albeit not as overpowering as from up close…

Around the eastern sides of the mountains, the dry Patagonian landscape prevails.
Along the way, at Toro lake, we were struck by the clear and blue water
Pretty grebe in the water
The Torres del Paine as seen from Lago Azul, which was not very blue at that moment.
The Torres del Paine as seen from Lago Azul.
The Torres del Paine
Very peculiar cloud formations developed off the snowcaps
Very peculiar cloud formations developed off the snowcaps

Having traveled the park south to north, we left the next day, and crossed the nearby border from Chile back to Argentina, to reach Calafate; the jumping-off town for Glacier National Park. Since the weather had turned windy again, we decided to stick around, wait for another sunny day, and explore the town a bit – and found a bakery with great sourdough bread!

Finally, a Gaucho with his dogs. We missed seeing them in Argentina
There must have been a dead animal around, which we didn’t see, but about ten condors, plus some other birds were gathered.
There must have been a dead animal around, which we didn’t see, but about ten condors, plus some other birds were gathered.
Thijs in the Lupine flower field

The biggest attraction of Glacier National Park near Calafate is the very accessible Perito Moreno Glacier. Knowing how many people were there to visit that same site, we started driving the 70 kilometers on the day before, and found an unbelievably beautiful spot in the fields, about 2 kilometers before the entrance of the park. Here we enjoyed stillness of nature, a babbling creek, blooming wildflowers, a tentative visit from a rhea – the South American ostrich, and a warm sun on a windless afternoon. At quarter to eight the next morning, we drove to the park entrance, where we were the first in line. By the time the gate opened at eight, we were already part of a long line of visitors, all eager to beat the crowds. In hindsight, the anxiety was not necessary, since the access to the glacier had a multitude of (steps and) walkways to get there, so most of the time we found ourselves alone with a glacier that loudly protested the warmer than usual weather with cracks that broke off large pieces of ice, which loudly thundered into the water below…even relatively small pieces sounded like explosions when they hit the water.

The Perito Moreno Glacier is one of the few advancing glaciers left. It is also one where you can hear the glacier crack and explode.
Notice the protruding piece of ice, with the brown stripes? That piece broke off while we watched.
Off course the break started while we were walking away through the woods when we heard it starting to rumble, but the actual break- off we saw from this distance. It’s scar shows dark blue, near the darker trees on the left.
Our beautiful overnight camp spot, with nothing but serene solitude.

After our glacier visit, we returned to last night’s campsite for another stay, where once more we enjoyed the serenity of the blooming desert. I found and tasted some calafate berries- the blue Patagonian berries that grow on a particular barberry bush- and decided they are not really tasty off the bush: tart and full of small seeds, but once you’ve tasted the calafate jam, you’re an addict. So delicious! There were not enough berries around for me to make a jam, so we settled for a store-bought version, to go with a great sourdough bread we bought, to take along on our drive through the dry Patagonian country side to the northern mountains of Glacier National park, and the peaks of El Chalten. (= Mt Fitzroy and Cerro Torre).

Calafate berries are ripe. They are best as a juice or a jam (just like black currants)
One more time at our wide open camp site.

The village of El Chalten is really too small to accommodate the numbers of people that come to walk the trails of the mountain range in the northern end of Glacier National Park. Since free range camping in one’s vehicle is not allowed anywhere around the National Park, including El Chalten, over forty-five camping cars had to be packed on the one small, designated riverside parking lot at the entrance of town (and two small, fully booked commercial campgrounds) Just one pit toilet had to serve around ninety people: imagine the impact on the environment, when most people want to avoid that stinky hole in the ground and rather go in the bushes – on a daily basis….this place really grew too fast, and I wonder what it will look like in a couple of years.

El Chaltén (the indigenous name for Mt Fitz Roy) in evening light.

Hiking is what you do here, and the trail to the base of Mt. Fitzroy, and the one to the base of Cerro Torre are the most popular, so again it made sense for us to start early. We walked up to Laguna Capri, where we arrived in time to see the majestic peaks mirrored in the lake water. An hour later all was shrouded in clouds. I know I huffed and puffed to reach our goal, but going back down, I felt so sorry for those people in questionable condition struggling to catch their breath working their way up, only to get to a viewpoint and see clouds… At least the winds were gentle that day. When two days later the winds picked back up, we let ourselves be blown away – north over Ruta #40, until the next pass over the Andes mountains, back to Chile.

The Patagonian Beech grows these funny looking things as flowers. They feel downy soft.
The eternal western winds do a job on these poor trees. Frequent storms have them falling all over each other and prevent them from growing straight; makes for an eery looking forest.
Mountains mirrored in Lago Capri. This time we did not have sunny weather.
Is it fungi or lichen that paint the designs on this rock?
Lunchtime, looking at el Chaltén over Lago Capri
El Chaltén, or Mount Fitz Roy in Glacier National Park, Argentina
The ground under the trees around the lake got restored to it’s former natural state.
Beautiful little waterfall along the road, just past El Chaltén