16 Dec Southern Chile, Argentina, & The End of the World
Days 546 – 549 –
After a very productive, yet uneventful day in town, we started our long two day drive towards El Chalten.
Finally we got a taste of the vicious Patagonia winds that we kept hearing about. Unfortunately, the rain canvas on the camper shell could not quite handle the wind and the highway speeds. In order to avoid a disaster,we had to take it off and fold it up, and crossed our fingers that the weather would not spill too much rain on us.
We arrived in El Chalten in the early afternoon and started looking for a campground but we weren’t really interested in the ones that we saw for the price. We found a free spot down by the river instead. The wind had only gotten worse, and we decided it would be nearly impossible to cook on the tailgate with our campstove, so we ate burgers at a trendy place in the town and even had a couple gin and tonics for a treat. The wind shook the truck the whole night.
The next day was cloudy, so we opted to wait until the following day which predicted better weather. We spent the day doing short viewpoint hikes from town, and browsing the many outdoors shops. In the early afternoon we went out to see about sleeping at the trailhead for the Fitz Roy hike, but we didn’t love the spot so we drove around some more. Trying to avoid the wind we ended up choosing a campsite along the river between a bunch of piles of rocks. But after awhile the wind really started to pick up again, so we flipped up the mattress and cooked our pork chops inside the truck. It would have been impossible otherwise. We spent another night in the truck shaking vigorously in the gusty wind. This night was much worse than the night before.
But the next day the sun came out as predicted so we packed our backpacks and started towards Fitz Roy. the group of peaks made famous by the Patagonia clothing brand and their logo. The first sight along the trail was the Piedras Blancas Glacier.
After the forest we took a steep climb and arrived at the Fitz Roy viewpoint, Lago de los Tres just before lunch, leaving us time to take some photos before eating our PB&Js.
The hike was very crowded and therefore not too pleasant, but the top was really spread out so we could go find our own viewpoint amongst the rocks. And because most people loop back down to the city after the hike, the way back we had almost entirely to ourselves and we could enjoy the forests and rivers a bit more.
After two nights of windy, wild camping we were ready for a shower, and maybe even an indoor space to cook, so we opted for a campground nearby. We were the first campers of the season, so he gave us a little discount, and we had a nice indoor cooking shelter with a wood stove, and a nice hot shower. We met a nice Canadian couple who had rented a van and were doing a driving trip around Patagonia. It’s strange how few overlanders we actually meet out here.
Days 550 – 554
The next day we headed to El Calafate to see the Perito Moreno Glacier. Once in El Calafate, we rented a little furnished apartment so we could have a break from living in the wind. We didn’t do too much in the town besides wander around and buy groceries. We celebrated Becky’s 31st birthday, her second birthday on the trip with a bottle of champagne and home-cooked steak and salad, our classic Argentina dinner, and a decision to book an expensive guided tour that would let hike on the glacier itself. We chose the day that was supposed to have the best weather.
And, wow it did. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky all day, no wind at all. Our hiking guide later said that maybe 5 days a year did this happen, and usually in the summer, so we were extraordinarily lucky. We felt like we used up all of our weather karma on this one day, and that maybe it would rain for the rest of the trip.
We were the first ones to arrive at the park after camping just outside the entrance, and had the early morning to explore the glacier views from the trails and walkways of the park.
We could hear the grumbling of the ice, and watched big chunks fall off into the water.
Around 10 am we met our tour at the dock. We took a quick ferry across the lake, passing in front of the glacier.
Once on the other side, we had the option of going with an English or Spanish guide and chose Spanish, as it was a much smaller group with only 8 people and 2 guides. We began the hour hike up alongside the glacier.
Once we arrived at the glacier access point we strapped on cramp-ons, which are metal spikes that attach to the soles of your boots to give traction for walking on the ice. Walking with these was pretty tough, as we felt like we had to kind of stomp to get the full benefits of the traction of the cramp-ons. Our guides took us over the glacier to view lakes, streams, fissures, caves and other interesting ice formations.
We even drank the pure water from the center of the glacier.
We spent almost 4 hours on the ice, which was more than enough with the strange walking style with the cramp-ons. Afterwards we hiked back to the ferry and were given whisky shots with glacier ice. This was the most expensive tour we’d ever done on this trip, but we felt like it was worth it. How often do you get to walk on a glacier? We figured we had better do it before they’re all gone. We were so tired afterwards that we drove just outside the park and found a quiet, hidden place to camp for the night and relax.
Days 555- 556
We fueled up in El Calafate on our way to Rio Gallegos, but not finding a suitable place in the dirty city to camp, we drove on to a lake outside town, just before the Chilean Border. We spent the night in the parking lot, which was quiet after the picnicking families left.
The next day was a long one. We crossed two borders (including customs inspections), took a ferry and drove about 350 miles to get to Ushuaia. We could see from the forecast that that the weather would get rainy soon, and wanted to make it to the southernmost point on the continent before it started. We snapped a photo of the town sign, stopped by a grocery store and drove back out to camp by a river, tired after a long day.
Although we could have just said we made it to the end in the town, the next day we drove an extra 70 miles down a long dirt road to be able to say we finished the complete Pan American Highway.
We had driven from San Diego to the northernmost drivable point in North America in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, and this was southernmost drivable point in South America. The northern point ended at private entry gate to an oil and gas plant, where a grumpy security guard gestured angrily for us to turn around. This road ended at an open gate to a small white building of a naval facility, without a soul in sight. Both were cold and windy places.
It’s impossible to describe how you feel at a moment like this. We had been on the road for 18 months, and knew we still had over 2,000 miles left to drive to Buenos Aires where we would ship the truck back home. The trip wasn’t over yet, but we had accomplished our mission to drive the length of two continents. Like achieving any grand goal in life, the end always seems a bit anticlimactic and strangely sad. Once finished you realize, most of the joy came from the path to it, not in its fulfilment.
That night we camped in the forest at the end of the world. For dinner we cooked a steak, made a salad, and had a bottle of champagne to celebrate our accomplishment.
In the morning we went for a walk along the beach nearby. We listened to the sounds of the water, wind and seagulls, and talked about what would come next.
As well, we chose from the many choices along the beach our “southern” rock. During the trip we passed on the opportunity to purchase a single souvenir from the millions available. Instead, we took one small rock from then northernmost point in Alaska, a sand dollar from the halfway point in Nicaragua, and now a final stone to complete the journey.
But we still had a month before our return date from Buenos Aires… plenty of time for a few more adventures.