Monday, 14 January 2013

Patagonia Roadtrip - Part 1

Happy New Year! It has been a few months since the last post but rest assured that there will be an end to our story of travel abroad. I didn't have much time for writing during our roadtrip but did manage to catch up with the writing before we returned home. The problem was photo editing. I'm not saying Chris was slacking off - there were just so many photos to go through from the final month and a half of our adventure! And with how jam-packed the end of our trip was, Chris really didn't get a chance to work on them until we arrived back in Canada. Anyway, they are finally ready so here's the long-awaited next installment of our blog.

On the morning of Tim and Kayla's arrival, Chris and I could hardly contain ourselves. We tried various methods of distraction but still found ourselves waiting anxiously by the windows of the common area of our hostel. Finally, backpack clad and looking a tad lost, they appeared at the end of the driveway. I leaped from my seat, tore through the front door, and nearly knocked Tim off his feet with an enthusiastic hug. Kayla was welcomed in much the same way and thus we made her acquaintance at last.

Pablo at the parilla (photo credit: Tim Lutic)
Weary from traveling practically non-stop for the past few days, Tim and Kayla were happy to take a breather and enjoy a day of rest in Bariloche. We took care of last minute errands and caught up over a few bottles of wine alongside another delicious parilla prepared by our host at the hostel, the one and only Pablo. Chris and I thoroughly enjoyed watching Tim's eyes pop out of his head when Pablo served him the gigantic hunk of beef known to Argentinean's as a steak. After sleeping off some rather heinous meat comas it was time to begin our journey south to the wonders of Patagonia.

Our rental vehicle was a Renault Kangoo, which, obviously, we immediately renamed The Kangaroo. Hideously boxy, The Kangaroo had more than ample space for all our packs and gear. We loaded it up, taking care to stash some snacks near the top of the heap, and waved farewell to Pablo. We didn't go far before making our first stop to do a short hike up to a lookout for spectacular panoramic views of the mountains, lakes, rivers, and valleys west of Bariloche. Despite the gale-force winds at the top, it was a very enjoyable little hike. We all maintained that our minor struggle to get up the steep path was completely a result of our lingering "meat hangovers" and not a true measure of our fitness for upcoming treks.

Tim taking some of his first epic scenery photos of the trip

The epic scenery of Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi

Action pose from Kayla

Sexy eyes from Tim

MUCH easier on the way down, albeit a bit terrifying!
Cool tree overhanging the lake where we stopped for lunch
After a quick lunch we officially began our road trip, turning The Kangaroo onto Ruta Nacional 40: the road immortalized in Che Guevera's memoir (popularly known as The Motorcycle Diaries) describing his journey through South America. It was during this time that Che`s political ideologies were cultivated, leading to his later exploits and recognition as the most prominent Latin American Revolutionary in recent history.  Ruta 40 is known for being a seemingly endless stretch of lonesome gravel road running parallel to the Andes, rarely passing through a blip of civilization while providing access to the highlights of Patagonia such as Mount Fitz Roy and the Perito Moreno Glacier. Portions are now paved and there are plans for completing the remainder. Though we certainly grew tired of bumping slowly along the gravel, we also take pride in being among some of the last travelers to experience Ruta 40 in its rough, undeveloped state. What a remarkably strange experience it was to drive for hours and see less than a handful of other vehicles.

But I`m jumping ahead.

En route to Trevelin from Bariloche. A nicely paved portion of Ruta 40.

Chris loves the Saint Bernards (Photo credit: Kayla Dawson)
Our initial jaunt along Ruta 40 was on a paved stretch south to Esquel. There we left the main highway to head west to the small town of Trevelin where we found an awesome cabaña to spend the night. Two massive Saint Bernards slobbered all over us in affectionate greeting and Chris, joined by fellow cat-lover Kayla, fawned over the resident cats and tiny kitten. We made a nice dinner and then tucked in fairly early to rest up for the next day`s drive.

Kitties too
The awesome Cabana at Trevelin. This shot is for our next album cover. (photo credit: Tim Lutic)

Continuing west, we found our way to the border along a highway that was more like a small back-road passing dozens of quaint ranches and quiet cottages. We were a bit nervous about our first border crossing with The Kangaroo but everything went smoothly - once we found the control point... We were heading so deep into remote farm country that we were beginning to wonder if we'd missed a turn. Perhaps the remoteness of the border outpost was responsible for our atypically rapid passage into Chile  (compared to Chris's and my past experiences with the country`s stringent customs procedures).

Pensive Kayla.
Perhaps she was pondering the interesting advice given to her by a Chilean man we randomly encountered during our lunch break - he told her to "keep writing", which is exactly what she needed to hear. #goosebumps

Pretty place where we stopped for lunch before the border-crossing

Leaving the control station we emerged into a fantastically scenic area of rocky mountains towering over lush green slopes. The road (paved again now) was lined by large, dense bushes sporting hundreds of tiny, brilliant yellow flowers. It was gorgeous. We paused briefly for photos and enjoyment, an act that would become routine throughout our journey.

Four intrepid adventurers about to begin their journey into Patagonia.


The boys vying for the ultimate photo spot.
Luckily there was  almost no traffic along the highway so
everyone could take a turn. (Photo credit: Kayla Dawson)

We thought we were on the trail... but we weren't.
(Photo credit: Kayla Dawson)
Further down the highway we came upon the small community of Futaleufu nestled in a pretty valley with apparent access to a multitude of outdoor adventure pursuits according to the plethora of advertisements we saw for tour agencies. Since it was a beautiful day we decided to make the most of the afternoon. We stopped at the town info center and got directions to a the trailhead of a short hike up to a viewpoint called Piedra del Aguila (Eagle Rock). The trailhead proved harder to find than we`d expected. After following one path a few hundred meters along a riverbank we arrived at a dead end where a fence barred our way. We retraced our steps and drove back up the road we`d come in on looking for any other signs of the trailhead between the private properties that lined the road. We were just about to give up when we came upon some locals walking and were able to get directions from them (plus a little bit of good-natured teasing of the gringos). Despite feeling like I comprehended their instructions we still had a bit of trouble finding the actual start of the trail. Fortunately we got within range to see our destination high above in the distance so we set out in that direction, eventually finding our way. Classic South America - even parks and trails that are maintained by a government body are poorly signed (usually not at all) and elusive.

A steep switchback led us past wary cows and their bewildered calves, affording great views of the river and surrounding farmland below. Passing under the namesake rock feature we came upon an isolated farmstead carved into the pass. From there we were able to hike up to a lookout over a beautiful  emerald laguna as well as climb up to the Piedra del Aguila itself. The wind was extremely strong at the latter point, adding an extra element of terror to the already nerve-wracking final ascent onto the rock`s small  upper surface where you could peer out over the sheer cliffs into the valley below.

Tim and Kayla on their way up to Piedra del Aguila in beautiful countryside of Futalafu.

Where's Tim?? Contemplating the final ascent....
Chris overlooking the valley (photo credit: Tim Lutic)
Eventually we made our way back to The Kangaroo and continued down the highway to the junction with the Carratera Austral - Chile`s north-south route through northern Patagonia and the final stretch of Ruta Nacional 7, which connects the port city of Chaitén to Cochrane and Villa O'Higgins in the south of Chile's Region XI. The route is paved around the city of Coihaique but several hundred kilometers of winding gravel roads lay between us and that unexpected metropolis.

Camping in the wild of Patagonia! Sort of... 
We didn't get very far in what was left of the day; the way was fraught with potholes and dangerous curves where we seemed to barely cling to the cliffsides. The scenery was spectacular, however. And we rarely saw another vehicle. Longing to experience the thrill of pitching our tents somewhere in the wild of Patagonia we began scanning the roadsides for potential spots as the sun dipped towards the horizon. Surprisingly, we found much of the route lined by barbed-wire fences and all the intersecting access roads were gated. Who knew so much of Patagonia was owned? After some time I spotted a road that didn't have a gate and appeared to open into a grassy field whose only occupants were scattered piles of graying deadfall. We backtracked and Tim and I got out to explore. We quickly deemed it suitable in terms of having flat spaces for our tents and not requiring blatant trespassing (Propiedad privado? No vemos una puerta...). Some minor road reconstruction allowed us to get The Kangaroo over a small gravel berm and somewhat hidden from view. Then we set up our tents and cooked dinner in the shelter of the back of The Kangaroo. We ate cheerfully but all the while eyeing an ominously soggy cloud drift over the mountain tops. Sure enough it started sprinkling soon afterwards. 

Our first camping spot in Patagonia. FREE! (Photo credit: Kayla Dawson)

Making dinner in the back of The Kangaroo (photo credit: Tim Lutic)

Campfire in the rain. (photo credit: Tim Lutic)
Chris was so caught up in the pioneeriing spirit that he could not be dissuaded from building a small campfire despite the increasing rainfall. There was a perfect spot already set up at the edge of a steep riverbank across the field from our camping area. We all pitched in to find firewood and Chris managed to get quite a blaze going. He even dragged over some big stumps for chairs. We huddled around the flickering pile for about half an hour before giving in to the rain and retreating to our tents.

No one came to evict us overnight and we stayed dry even though the rain persisted. After a quick breakfast we were on the road again, making our way further south through more gorgeous scenery along the Carretera Austral. Low clouds shrouded most of the peaks but we still enjoyed countless waterfalls crashing down from spectacular outcroppings and cliffs. Sadly, the clouds didn't lift and we missed out on the extraordinary elephant buttes of Parque Nacional San Rafael. Somewhat of a redemption occurred when the weather finally did break and graced us with a brilliant rainbow arching across the valley below the highway. It was so surreal we had to stop and take photos.

Beautiful rainbow after a very rainy day of driving.
Our next stop was Coihaique where we picked up more food supplies and then drove to a hostel outside the city where we'd hoped to find cabañas. We arrived to find the place deserted and the occupants of a neighboring cabin told us we were the second group to show up at their door wondering where the owners were. We gave up and started looking for alternative accommodations near the city. After a few more failed attempts we crossed a very sketchy looking bridge and found availability in a cute, rustic A-frame next to the river. We had one minor debacle after dinner when we discovered that the gas had run out and we had no hot water for showers! Unfortunately the owner gone home (off the property) for the night so it was our problem to solve. After some searching in the dark I finally found a shed behind our cabin. Inside were two large gas cylinders and I managed to figure out how to switch our cabin onto the full one. Hurrah! Hot showers for all.

Tim making friends with the "guard dog" at the cabañas.
Continuing south the next morning we kept our fingers crossed for more pavement but were back on gravel within an hour or so. Nevertheless, the surrounding landscape remained captivating. The contrast and changes in the terrain from one hour to the next were incredible. It was hard not to stop every few kms for more photos.

Interesting ridge following the highway.

Getting to higher altitudes - snow!

Back to gravel.

Some crazy switchbacks down into a lush valley.

"Small Things Big" view of the switchbacks (photo credit: Kayla Dawson)

After another full day of driving we found a campground next to windy Lago General Carrera. We registered and paid up at reception and then had to go down the highway a ways to the camping access road. We'd barely turned onto it before we saw a huge group of teenagers emerge from the bushes next to the road. They kept coming and coming and we just stared agape in disbelief that we were going to be stuck camping next to an entire schoolgroup. Luckily they weren't actually staying at the campground.  We were also very happy to discover that there were windbreaks protecting each site!

Setting up camp behind a very necessary windbreak. (photo credit: Tim Lutic)

Gorgeous Lago General Carrera. But oh so windy.

Chris on the runway (photo credit: Kayla Dawson)

When Kayla and Chris were told to draw something with their headlamps,
Kayla wrote her name and Chris drew a penis.
Perhaps we can conclude they are both self-absorbed?  :P
(photo credit: Tim Lutic)
After setting up camp and having a quick dinner we made our way back up the hill to reception for a real treat - an hour in the campground's sauna! Ahhhh bliss. We snuck in some wine and relaxed completely in the steamy goodness. Noticing a bit more chill in the air when we emerged, we decided to make a campfire before bed. The boys amused themselves taking night shots and Kayla got into the fun "painting with light" like we'd done way back in Costa Rica with Jill and Modest. It was a fun night!

The next day we followed the highway along the shoreline of the lake east to towards the border. The views from the road were incredible. We stopped to take photos several times and had to resist stopping countless more times. 

Giving an idea of how high up the road was - see gap in mountainside near the center of the frame
(photo credit: Tim Lutic)

Our lunch stop - looks like we're  parked at the shore but we were actually at least a hundred meters above it. Awesome views!
Lunch spot (photo credit: Tim Lutic)

At one point the road veered away from the lake to pass through some lazy ranch lands surrounded by gorgeous mountains. There we came upon a gathering of Chilean gauchos assembled in a fenced-in area and they waved at us to come over when we slowed to see what they were up to. One of the guys came over to let us know they were just having a rest (which consisted of them swigging beers in the shade) but would start the action again soon. 

A few minutes later they spread themselves around the arena and began twirling lassos while a others tried to encourage one of a few dozen terrified young calves to enter the ring. Not an easy task! Finally one broke away from the group and began a frenzied dash around the dirty enclosure, desperately dodging the flying loops of the gauchos. The first calf escaped but the next one was not so lucky. After a humbling tumble face first into the ground the poor beast was then subjected to the searing pain of a red hot branding iron. Amazingly he didn't even yelp and trotted off happily enough once he was released. We watched the gauchos progress for a while longer before giving them a round of applause and heading back out on the road.

Photo credit: Tim Lutic

More of Lago Carrera. It just went on forever!

Laguna Verde - a fraction of the size of Lago General Carrera/Buenos Aires but a jewel unto itself.

At Chile Chico we made it through our second border crossing without any fuss and continued along the shore of the lake, now called Lago Buenos Aires (because heaven forbid Argentina and Chile use the same name) to the quiet village of Los Antiguos. We passed through continuing onwards to Perito Moreno: a sh*thole town etched into the dusty desert past the lake. It was getting late so we sought out the municipal campground only to be told it was closed for renovations. What sort of renovations does a campground need? Anyway, we began searching for alternate accommodations, stopping at virtually every place in our guide book but being turned away because they were all full. While idling in a residential area consulting our map we were offered a camping spot by a rather sketchy fellow watering the patchy lawn of a rather sketchy property.... desperate as we were, we returned a polite "no thanks". Just as we were about to give up on Perito Moreno and drive on to the next town Chris spotted a hotel and pulled over to check it out. Success! Totally overpriced but we were all able to stay in one room. Plus, the owner looked remarkably like Al Bundy so that was kind of entertaining.

The next morning we hit the road to go south on Ruta 40. Riding shotgun as Tim took the wheel I noticed that the road (paved in this section) was covered with a lot of tiny black pebbles. After a while I thought I saw some of the pebbles moving and began to watch them more closely. Eventually we were all suspicious of the pebbles so we slowed to inspect them more closely and found that they were actually some sort of grasshopper. So, sadly, The Kangaroo was responsible for a mass insecticide along Ruta 40 that morning. Oops.

Conflicting reports about the extent of paving completed to date had us crossing our fingers that the pavement would continue. No such luck. We were soon diverted onto a gravel detour that ran parallel to newly paved sections of the highway. Sometimes they were just graded and packed, ready for paving. But regardless, they always looked to be in much better shape than our obligatory route and we stared longingly at them as we drove alongside. Every once in a while the detour would end and we'd get to drive a stretch of pristine pavement. Ahh, so lovely to actually be able to hear the music for a change! Inevitably we'd be redirected onto the detour. None of us could fathom why the road construction would be done in such a way (i.e. versus making continuous progress from one direction) but we were grateful for the short reprieves.

Ruta 40 was even more deserted than the Carratera Austral. It was so desolate that Kayla began documenting when we encountered signs of life. We passed no more than a handful of oncoming vehicles and only saw the occasional guanaco (a wild deer/llama-like critter), rhea (wild ostrich-like bird), or hare. There was no doubt we were quite alone out there.

Somewhere between Perito Moreno and El Chaiten we stopped for a photo shoot.
Tim and Chris: International Male Photographers. Extraordinaire
(photo credit: Kayla Dawson)
Making slow progress we worked our way down to the turn-off for our next destination: El Chaiten. Shortly before the exit we were once again treated to pavement and this time it lasted all the way to the small town. As we turned west off of Ruta 40 we could see the shadowy blue outline of mountains in the distance; a stark contrast to the flat, dusty scrubland we'd spent the day crossing. The sun was low in the sky as we rounded a bend and were suddenly granted a glimpse of the magnificent pointy towers of Mount Fitz Roy and its sister peaks. It was such a beautiful vista that we stopped more than once for photos. Frankly, it was hard to tear ourselves away and continue on to El Chaiten. But we hadn't booked any accommodations and the sun was about to set. So, on we went to begin our search for cabañas.

Mountains!! It seemed like forever since we'd seen them after all that dusty desert.

First glimpses of the Fitz Roy Range near El Chaiten.

Mt. Fitz Roy and surrounding peaks at sunset (photo credit: Tim Lutic)

As per usual, we had a few failed attempts to start but we eventually found a nice place to bunk down. There was even a great view Fitz Roy from one of the upstairs bedrooms! After unloading our packs we picked up groceries and then Kayla (along with sous-chef Ange) prepared a version of chicken cacciatore for dinner. Yum!

The next morning we drove to the National Park office to get the latest information about hikes in the area. After an compulsory lecture by one of the rangers we dropped The Kangaroo back at the cabaña and walked through town to the trail-head for Circuito Las Lagos#, which would bring us to the mirador (lookout) for Fitz Roy. The weather in El Chaiten is notoriously bad; low clouds and strong winds are the norm. It's not uncommon for visitors to spend several days in the area and never catch a glimpse of Fitz Roy. We got exceptionally lucky. Crystal clear blue skies and only moderate winds!

The hike was extraordinarily beautiful and wasn't particularly challenging other than the last hour or so when we made the final ascent to the mirador. Stunning. Truly amazing. I'll leave it to the photos to provide some sense of what it was like but even they don't capture everything.

Not a cloud in the sky as we began our hike. Incredible, really. The weather here is rarely so good.
(photo credit: Tim Lutic)

A glacier tumbling into the valley.

Seriously!! Look at that blue sky! Perfect day for a hike.

The final vertical push at the end of the hike.

Came over a crest to discover we still had a ways more to climb.

Some people haul snowboards all the way up here. Pow pow.

Tim. Magical.

Panorama from the top (photo credit: Tim Lutic)

We figure we walked around 22 km in total so were pretty beat by the time we got back. No one could decide what to do for dinner. We were so exhausted that we didn't want to cook but we were also so exhausted that we couldn't muster the energy to shower for going out. Finally we just heated up some leftovers and made do with that. Definitely a perk of staying in a cabin versus camping! 

Our plan for the next day was to tackle another long day-hike in the area but we all awoke feeling tired and sore (surprise surprise). We decided to drive out to Lago del Desierto near the Chilean border instead. It was a nice drive on a gravel road and then a short walk to the lake. Tim and I got ahead of the other two and later heard that Kayla had come around a bend to see in the distance a guy carrying part of a bloody carcass over his shoulder. She immediately hid in the bushes, waiting until he had passed before emerging and catching up with us. As hilarious as her reaction probably seems, I can't say I would've done any differently. Might've started screaming in fact. So good job Kayla, holding it together in the face of potential danger. We figured out later that it was a cow. Not sure its slaughter was entirely legal but the "hunters" had stashed the rest of the dead bovine in the back of their pickup truck, which was parked conspicuously close to the gendarmerie (military police) station. I guess those giant steaks have to come from somewhere....  *shrug*

After our none-too-strenuous excursion we returned to El Chaiten for a quick lunch before heading south to the nearby town of El Calafate. And.... that's where I think I'd better leave this blog post! Stay tuned for Part 2 of the roadtrip!

On the way to El Calafate from El Chaiten.

1 comment:

  1. Nice Blog guys

    Man, What a part of the world

    I can feel the inspiration from the pics

    Time to get back there

    I'm sure I saw that Saint Bernard in El Chalten

    If you see the lads from the Tres Lunas, tell them G'day
    (from the Aussie from Playa Blanca)