January 14 - 23, 2006 - Spires and Glaciers
The previous night was spent at one of several free campgrounds available in the Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego. It started out being quite windy, but the location was so spectacular that we decided to look no further. We were at the Camping Laguna Verde which is on an island near where Lago Roca drains into Bahia Lapataia. The birds and rabbits were plentiful and very entertaining.
The next day was spent exploring the trails in the park. We hiked a trail to visit beaver dams and peat bogs, we hiked along the shore of Lago Roca and we visited the southern-most post office in the world. The scenery in the park was magnificent and it was well worth the drive to get there.
That night was spent at another of the free campgrounds, this site on the Rio Pipo. This was the first time we were able to have a campfire and the warmth was welcome as it got quite chilly.
The next morning it was time to hit the road again, but now, for the first time since the World of Wonders expeditions started in October, 2004, we were heading north! It was a rather strange feeling to see the N on our compass instead of the S. But north we went and enjoyed the views on the way out of Ushuaia. It was sad to leave the mountains and the trees, but we know we'll be seeing more when we get back into Chile.
We stopped for the night at the Argentine/Chile border and parked on the beach. Once again it was quite windy but we parked the truck head into the wind, bundled up and went for a walk. The tide goes out for a tremendous distance here. So far, that when it was completely out, you couldn't see the water. Quite amazing.
The next morning we crossed the border back into Chile. This time we took an alternate dirt road that had much less traffic, so the road surface was in much better shape. We had been warned that if we had car trouble there wouldn't be as much help available, but as we don't expect the truck to break down, we decided to take the chance. And it was the right choice, even though the road was 10km longer (6mi), we did it in only 2 hours instead of 4. Once we hit the paved road again and picked up speed, we realized how incredibly windy it was. Some motorcyclists passed us and they were tilted way into the wind. It didn't look like much fun.
After a short wait, we were back on the ferry across the Straits of Magellan and this time the ride was much rougher because of the wind. We actually had spray coming up over the sides of the ship and hitting the cars. Fortunately later that day it rained and washed the salt spray off.
Wandering around PA we took in the sights, stopping to view the old architecture and the Braun Mansion with its grape vine/arbor growing in a greenhouse. This vine is considered to be one of the most southerly growing vines in the world. It was such a nice afternoon that many of the people in town where out and about, and the city parks were packed.
In the morning we decided to find an internet connection so that we could check our emails. When we did, we found an email from our friends Carl and Mary indicating that they and several overlanders from the Silk Route Club were planning to be in Puerto Natales that evening and we should find them if possible. Well, we had been hoping to meet up with them, one reason being that Carl and Mary also have a Fuso expedition vehicle.
Arriving in Puerto Natales we went in search of our friends. We stopped at the only campground and found that it only had room for one expedition vehicle, so obviously our friends could not be there. We then drove down to the waterfront and SURPRISE, Carl was waiting for us! This was great, we hadn't met up with any friends in South America yet and we were also getting to meet other people traveling overland with their own vehicles. We drove down the beach a couple of miles south of town and there we found the others with their four vehicles. They had found a great wild camp with gorgeous views over the Seno Ultima Esperanza or Last Hope Sound. We ending up spending two nights sharing stories and enjoying their company before we drove north to the magnificent Chilean National Park, Torres del Paine.
Driving out of Puerto Natales, we decided to take a back road. All the roads to (and in) the park are dirt and so we didn't know what we would find. But the road was not very well traveled so it was in really good condition. The scenery was gorgeous and along the way we passed a beautiful glacier-fed waterfall that was the gorgeous milky blue color that is typical. All around we saw a profusion of colorful flowers, including large wild fuschia bushes. It was a great spot to have lunch.
When we reached the half-way point to Torres del Paine, we came upon a road crew working on the road. They were installing a culvert across the road and had cut the entire road so that it was impassable. There was no warning that the road didn't go through, so signs, no nothing. We weren't very happy but there was nothing we could do, so we turned around and headed back the way we came. That was an extra 50 miles out of our way.
We finally arrived at the National Park in the late afternoon and parked in the parking lot at a trailhead for Salto Grande. We didn't know if it was OK to park there for the night, but there were no signs to the contrary, so we thought we would try it. Since the sun was out, we decided to hike to the waterfall. It was pretty windy, but we dressed for it and set out. The higher we got up the canyon, the fiercer the wind became. We got to the waterfall and it was quite spectacular. But as we continued up the path towards the Cuernos del Paine, we felt the wind resistance was just more work than we wanted to do, at one point it was strong enough to psuh us off our path. We spent the night in the parking lot undisturbed, except for the gusts of wind that really got us rocking and rolling.
That day we drove to trailhead for the lookout at Glacier Grey. The roads were being worked on in the park so the quality varied, but the views were magnificent no matter what direction we faced. We took a ton of photos, but they are each different.
When we finally reached the turnoff to the glacier, the road turned terrible and at times we wondered if the drive was worth it. But when we finally got to the lake at the bottom of the glacier we found there were big icebergs floating in it! That was great. They were that wonderful blue color that glaciers have and we could get really close just from shore. There were some really small pieces of ice washed up on the shore, and since we had been unable to buy ice for our cooler in the park, we stuck a piece in our cooler! The glacier itself was a long way away, but when the sun shone on it, it was pretty cool. We even got to see an Andean deer, which according to our guide book is a rare sight. We also saw our first Andean condor which was really impressive. He just soared on the thermals looking huge.
After visiting the icebergs, we had to brave the terrible road back out and found that we had driven over a bridge that was rated for less weight than our Fuso weighed! Considering that we had already driven across it once, we concluded it was strong enough for us to brave it again, besides which we didn't have an alternative. No worries, it was strong enough.
We decided we deserved a night in the campground and because we don't need any services, we convinced the attendant at the park campground to allow us to spend the night in an unimproved area for only $12US instead of the $30US everyone else was paying. We still had access to water (which is the only thing we need), we had an incredible view and we were able to do some laundry and use our barbecue. While we were there we also checked out several "overlander" tour trucks that were camped there. These are extra large heavy duty trucks that take large groups of generally young people on treks across continents. They are reasonably priced as they are camping trips and everyone helps with the work of setting up and cooking.
The next morning we decided to drive to the other end of the park and do an all-day hike to the Torres del Paine formation. This formation is famous and is visible from the road as is the Cuernos del Paine formation. Seven kilometers from the trailhead, we encountered a bridge that is very small and does not accommodate any vehicle larger than a van. None of our maps or guidebooks indicated this. There is a shuttle that will take you to the trailhead for $6US each, but we had just missed it and there wouldn't be another for 1-1/2 hours. Since it was now late morning, we decided to check out some other areas outside the park. We visited another waterfall and then headed off to a condor nesting site, that one of our friends had given us directions to. After passing Lago Amarga with it flocks of flamingos, we headed off to find the condors. We eventually located the site, but unfortunately all the condors had left. We were disappointed, but it had been a nice drive.
The roads in Chile stop about 40 miles north of the park so in order to head further north we had to cross back into Argentina. Luckily there is a border crossing just outside the park. This border station was the smallest station that we have crossed on this journey. Two little windows in a small building were we got our passports stamped and surrendered our Chilean vehicle permit, and another little building on the Argentine side.
Back in the Andean Steppe, we drove on a ways until we found an unfenced open spot off the main dirt road. Even now, in Argentina, we were able to look back and have a good view of Torres del Paine.
We are now officially on the road the Argentinians call La Cuarenta. Highway 40 runs the full length of the country north to south and is primarily gravel. We have read stories about high winds, flat tires, lack of fuel stations and chipped windshields. We have also heard that the sights and the scenery are not to be missed. So we will be driving this road on and off as we travel north.
Our next stop was the very touristy town of El Calafate where we filled up on supplies and fuel before spending a couple of days at Los Glaciares National Park. This UNESCO World Heritage Site contains more than 750,000 hectares (over 1.6 million acres) of glacial ice fields.