All cold things great and small

Glacier Perito Moreno in Glaciers National Park, El Calafate Argentina

A general theme of our trip through Argentinian Patagonia has been the cold: wearing every available layer of clothing to stay warm, huddling in our ECamper at night to hide from the winds, complaining about the cold, lusting after the heat wave that is currently baking Buenos Aires. Because of this cold though, we were able to see two really unique things. After leaving Ushuaia we spent two long days driving northwest to reach Glaciers National Park outside of El Calafate. Home to the world’s third largest ice cap (Antarctica and Greenland are numbers one and two), this national park also boasts one of the world’s most accessible glaciers, Perito Moreno. It’s easy to get right next to this glacier without donning crampons or hiking any distance. We just drove our car up to the parking lot, walked about 100 yards on a well maintained board walk, and the glacier was staring right at us. I have never seen a glacier before and it blew me away. Towering more than 200 ft over Lake Argentina, deep aquamarine and cobalt blues radiated from inside the glacier’s icy towers. Huge chunks of the glacier periodically calved off and crashed into the lake. The initial whip-crack of the ice breaking followed by huge chunks of ice cannonballing into the lake sounded like thunder rumbling from the surrounding mountains.

We watched the glacier calve for several hours before the approaching snowstorm and whipping winds drove us back into the warm comfort of Caballo. I think we did a little damage to our poor car’s undercarriage on the next day’s drive. Five hours of gravel roads separated us from paved highways. Because the scenery was so monotonous and the road completely empty we might have driven a little quickly. We tried to ignore the frequent sound of large stones ricocheting off whatever is under our car, some hitting the undercarriage so hard we could feel the impact through our feet on the car’s floor. Miraculously we made the drive without any flat tires (and apparently without puncturing the gas tank or whatever other important things reside under the car) and gratefully pulled on to smooth Ruta 3. After two days hard driving along the coast we arrived at our next destination, Punta Tombo.

Magellenic Penguin stretching his wings at Punta Tombo Provincial Preserve

Punta Tombo is home to the world’s second largest colony of Magellenic Penguins. Between September and April thousands of penguins arrive to lay eggs and hatch their young. The penguins dig nests in the gravelly dirt and protect their eggs as a couple, occasionally taking turns to waddle down to the water to fish. These little guys may be some of the cutest animals I have ever seen. They seem quite unperturbed by people walking next to their nests, and some will walk right by you like they don’t even see you (kind of like being in high school). While penguins are awkward on land, flopping down on their white bellies to bask in the sun or slowly making their way up from the beach, once they hit the water they turn in to sweet swimming torpedos. We wandered among their nests for several hours before hitting the road again. As we get closer to our final destination of Buenos Aires, the long hours in the car seem to get more tiresome. We plan to relax in the beach resorts just south of Buenos Aires for a week or so before hitting the big city.

Random observations from a very long drive

Leaving Trevelin we tried not to think about the 1,200 miles that separated us from Ushuaia. A long, boring drive awaits, but we did see some interesting things on the way. Here are a few of the random thoughts and observations that have been rolling around my brain the last couple of days that we spent speeding down the highway.

The end of the line for the Patagonia Express

We first made a quick stop in the city of Esquel to see the end of the line of the Patagonia Express, an old railroad that used to traverse much of Argentina. When we first started seriously planning for this trip over two years ago, we read a bunch of travel novels about Latin America. One of my favorites was a novel by Paul Theroux, The Old Patagonia Express. He chronicled his travels from Boston, Massachusetts to Esquel. Whenever possible, he traveled by train, taking buses or flying only when absolutely necessary. Though I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys great writing and a cynical sense of humor, I would not suggest that someone interested in learning about Latin America read his novel. He made this trip in the late 1970s when many countries were extremely unstable due to civil wars and/or dictators. While poverty and corruption still plague many countries in Latin America today, I think the situation has improved greatly. And beyond the social or political situations in the 1970s, Paul Theroux himself seems like he’s probably a pretty depressing guy. He could put a negative spin on any situation, and tends to put himself in particularly difficult circumstances, like taking a train through Latin America in the 1970s. Trains back then apparently were the mode of transportation of last resort for the poorest people, so frequent breakdowns, filthy conditions, and desperate poverty surrounded him during his travels. The Patagonia Express’ traveling distance has been greatly reduced since Paul Theroux’s travels, although within the last ten years some of the track has been restored and the train’s itinerary extended.

Leaving behind the Andes for the bleak Atlantic Coast of Patagonia

Leaving Esquel we headed southeast across upper Patagonia on a long drive for the Atlantic coast. This was the last we would see of the Andes, trees, hills, or lakes for several days as we entered the desert of coastal Patagonia. Small towns and sheep farms infrequently interrupted our drive. While driving through this vast ranching country, we observed an unsolved mystery. The first time I saw this phenomenom, I thought it was some sort of freak accident, but after a couple of sightings it became obvious that this was done on purpose. Barbed wire fences stretch for miles along the freeway, keeping the sheep, horses and cattle (for the most part) off the road. Strangely, dead animals were strung up on these fences every once in a while – mainly dogs, the occasional sheep, and I think I saw a rhea (looks like a small ostrich). We have no idea who does this or why this happens. If you really want to see a picture of a sad animal strung up on a fence, click here. And if anyone knows why people do this, please leave a comment, we are very curious.

That’s one way of thinking about it

On our drive across Patagonia, one of the few notable things we saw were official roadsigns stating that ‘Las Malvinas Son Argentinas‘ or ‘The Falkand Islands Are Argentinian.’ An interesting point, but I think from most historical and political perspectives, pretty whack. The history of the Falkland Islands is complicated. Originally uninhabited, they started being slowly settled by sheep ranchers, pirates, and castaways in the 1700s. At some point they have been claimed as property by France, Spain, the Netherlands, the UK, and Argentina, but the UK and Argentina have been fighting over its sovereignty since the mid 1800s. By the 1980s, the island was mainly inhabited by English speaking descendants of Welsh and British immigrants who preferred to be citizens of the UK. However, Argentina continued to assert that they owned the islands. In 1982 Argentina was facing economic collapse, so then President Galtieri attempted to stir national pride and distract from the economic situation by sending Argentinian troops to the islands to remove the occupying UK forces. The UK, led by Margaret Thatcher, responded with overwhelming force and the poorly trained teenage forces of Argentina were totally routed within 72 days. Despite this defeat, to this day Argentina claims the Falkland Islands and relations with the UK continue to be chilly.

High winds warning (and they weren’t kidding)

While the roads are good in Patagonia, driving was still challenging because of whipping winds that constantly rocked our car. The highways are peppered with a silly excess of a road signs (quite a change from the rest of Latin America), but in particular our favorite was the ‘high winds’ warning sign. We had to pass a couple of these before we realized what they signified. An evil combination of these crazy winds, the high speeds allowed by the empty highways, and the day-long drives added up to some whopping gas bills. Since we were blowing through our daily budget on gas alone we tried to live cheaply. Luckily this is easy in Argentina if you like camping. Many of the wonderful gas stations in Argentina have free camping areas, in addition to great cafes, high-speed wifi, clean bathrooms, and hot showers. Both the YPF and Petrobras gas stations served as our home for the three nights we spent on the road in Patagonia.

Chris signing Scott’s guestbook

At a lonely gas station about halfway through our journey down the Atlantic coast we spotted a wind-burned bicyclist fueling up on cookies and soda. Curious about his journey, Chris stopped to chat. Turns out that Scott is very close to breaking the world record for the fastest bike-ride from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Ushuaia, Argentina. The previous bicyclist had done it in something like 140 days, and Scott was on track to break the record by about 2 weeks. Biking an average of 110 miles a day, and taking only 3 days off in the last 4 months, Scott has survived what I consider to be the ultimate physical and mental challenge. I can’t imagine spending that much time alone, biking through unfamiliar countries, camping on the side of the road, and enduring rain, snow, wind, burning sun and who knows what other extreme conditions.

The first sign of something interesting in 3 days in Tierra del Fuego, Chile
By a strange quirk of geography and politics, to get to the end of the road in Ushuaia, Argentina, you have to drive through Chile. We hit the first Argentina-Chile border in the morning and sped through the customs and migration process. We then crossed the straights of Magellan by car ferry to finally enter Tierra del Fuego, where the road turned from smooth pavement to rough ripio (gravel). While less than 100 miles of Chile separate Patagonia, Argentina from Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, it was a rough drive. We image that Chile doesn’t have much incentive to pave a road that is really only used by people trying to get from Argentina to Argentina. At the second Chile-Argentina border, Argentina proudly marked the beginning of pavement again with a large sign. We saw snow-capped mountains peeking over the desert, and as we got closer to Ushuaia the landscape changed dramatically. Two hours later we pulled in to the southern-most city in the world as the crescent moon rose over its quiet bay. Next up: the end of the road.

Drinking mate and driving for 3 solid days