Before hitting the road for the final push to Ushuaia, George thought we needed a big breakfast to help us push through. He prepared Mekitsi which is similar to funnel cake. Guilt-free fried dough is oh so satisfying in the morning.
G-man getting his cook on. Check out that counter space.
I had one mission on the way down to Ushuaia and that was to see some penguins. The first colony we visited (Pingüinera de Seno Otway) was a 5000 strong Magellanic Penguin population situated north of Punta Arenas along a fjord (-52.980576, -71.230403).
We made our way to Punta Arenas for a few nights to reconnect with the outside world and catch the ferry to Porvenir. Having some time to kill, we sought out the mercado a few times to chow down on delicious fresh fish and crab empanadas. Punta Arenas might be remote and have limited offerings in terms of entertainment, but the seafood fare around town is to die for.
View from the boardwalk in Punta Arenas
George in a very big chair eating a very big piece of cake
Feasting at the market in Punta Arenas
Ferry to Porvenir
I think this guy is ready to get to Ushuaia too
We had heard from another traveller that there was a King Penguin population near by on Estancia San Clemente. The farm sits on Bahia Inútil (Useless Bay) and is 15km south of the crossroads with the turn-off for Onaisín along the coastal road. Typically, King Penguins are found further south, but the Kings have made this stretch of beach home a few times before in the 60s and 70s.
We arrived at the farm late in the day in hopes that the site manager would let us camp out for the night. There was already a couple of bicyclists there with a tent when we arrived, so are prospects looked good. We pulled in behind a large canvas wall in hopes that it would provide some protection for the howling wind and made a b-line for the penguins. We were blessed with clear skies and soft afternoon light for a visit. That night the temperature dropped and it started to down pour. Combining that with the unrelenting wind and I was finished. It was time to get to Ushuaia and finish this thing.
G and I pulled into a hotel for our first night in Ushuaia. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I was at the end of my rope with roughing it. We curled up with a roof over our heads and made some pasta on our camp burner.
The next day we headed to Camping La Pista del Andino to meet up with the gang. Much food and drinks followed (we were at the end of the road).
View from the highway into Ushuaia
Camping La Pista del Andino
View from the campground
Boardwalk in Ushuaia
Looking over the Beagle Channel
We made it!
We couldn’t leave Ushuaia without visiting Tierra del Fuego National Park. We hiked a trail that took us alongside Ensenada Bay, the Beagle Channel, and Lapataia Bay and camped at at a free and very beautiful campground on the Lapataia River. The next morning we were in for a surprise. A fox bit chunks out of both our flip flops. In all the months we’ve been traveling and leaving our flip flops outside, this has never happened. The occasional dog will grab one and drop it someone, but that’s it. Those flip flops made it all the way to the end of the road only to be ravaged by one of the local foxes. Ugh. It didn’t matter though because it was time to pop some champagne at the end of the road.
Tierra Del Fuego National Park
Hike along the channel
End of the world post office
View of Lapataia River in the campground
End of the road
Yeah we did.
George had his mind set on one more activity before leaving Ushuaia. If you recall, many months and miles ago we took a prop plane to Tuktoyaktuk in northern Canada and had a swim in the Arctic ocean. In Ushuaia at the end of the road, the Beagle Channel was the closest thing we were going to get to the Southern Ocean. I was not as excited about the prospect of stripping down in the biting wind, but George is a stubborn fellow. Finally, I willed myself to put on a bathing suit, and we made our way down to a secluded beach. George ran circles around me to warm up while I shot him death stares, but we went in the water and it was ice cold and numbingly painful. Mission accomplished.
There were mixed reports on the southern most drivable border crossing (Paso Roballos) from the Carretera Austral in Chile into Argentina. We decided to test our luck and go for it. The stars must have aligned for us. Not only was the road in pretty decent shape, but we encountered only a handful of cars and got to ogle the scenery.
Argentina’s Ruta 40 and miles of pavement was definitely a welcome sight though. The constant rattling of the last several weeks melted away as we cruised down the blacktop. It was a long drive to El Chaltén, our entry point to Los Glaciares National Park and Mount Fitz Roy.
Not our most glamourous camp spot
A very memorable fill up with some very pricey gas
The drive into El Chaltén with Mt. Fitz Roy standing at attention
We met up with Andamos de Vagos and Patagonia or Bust in El Chaltén and prepared to tackle the Fitz. The first day of hiking on the Laguna Capri trail and then up to the Laguna de los Tres mirador one some of the most beautiful hiking I’ve ever done. I had heard a lot of complaints about how full the trails are in Fitz Roy, but they were really no fuller than a summer weekend in Washington State. Our luck with the weather held out. We had been prepping ourselves for the storied patagonia wind, but our group remained safely on the mountain.
Camping out at the Laguna Capri trailhead
The team posing in front of Mt. Fitz Roy
Mt. Fitz Roy
Laguna de los Tres & Mt. Fitz Roy
View from the top of the Los Tres hike
We spent the first night at Poincenot Campground and then hiked to Agostini Campground on the second day to check out Laguna Torre and Glacier Grande. After checking out the mirador, most of us headed back to camp to settle in for the night. I knew George and Aron were up to no good when they took some time coming back to camp. You can see from the photos the shenanigans that ensued. There are times when I want to be alone surrounded by my own thoughts on a trail, but there is something to be said for trekking with groups. Glacier ice shots is not something you easily forget.
The details at Poincenot Campground
Laguna Torre & Cerro Torre
Can you see where this is going? – Agostini Campground
George prefers the lunge technique
The weather held out for most of our third and final day until we had El Chaltén in our sites. The walk through town back to Vida almost broke me. I was silently curing George for walking too fast and thus eliminating any possibility of him shielding me from the unrelenting wind. There was nothing to be done but lean and and keep going.
Hiking down into El Chaltén
We indulged ourselves at the local pub before hightailing it out of town heading toward El Calafate and a visit to Perito Moreno Glacier (also in Los Glaciares National Park). Safely tucked away into the campground in Calafate, we couldn’t resist another opportunity for a group cookout. This time, empanadas were on the menu.
Campfire cooking in El Calafate
The sausage just wasn’t enough meat
The Perito Moreno Glacier – where to begin? In the morning before the crowds descend on the kilometers of walkways flanking the glacier, there is a peaceful serenity about the place. We sat and watched for hours tuning into the sounds of the glacier advancing.
Moreno is a 97 sq mile behemoth that moves at a pace of up to 7 feet each day resulting in large chunks of ice dramatically breaking off throughout the day.
We took a shortcut back into Chile and Torres del Paine via a small rout off of Ruta 40 that joins up with highway 205 on the Chilean side. At the border we got the ubiquitous kick in the butt. The border officials again confiscated everything fresh we had which meant we had limited supplies and limited pesos with no town or bank machine in site – just and overpriced souvenir shop. What a racket.
From the border, we drove into Torres Del Paine park and were immediately taken by the wildlife and vistas.
Lago Sarmiento de Gamboa
We camped out in the parking lot of Hotel Las Torres. Forgetting one of our beloved titanium mugs on the wheel, George pancaked it moving the truck back and fourth to rotate the tires. He claimed (and secretly hoped) he could bang the mug back into shape. I suspect that I’m going to be reunited with this mug back in the States.
This titanium mug made it all the way south before George pancaked it with the truck
In the morning, we made the climb up to Mirador Las Torres. At the top, we were again tested with the Patagonia wind which kept our stay short.
Mirador Las Torres
Torres del Paine (Paine Towers)
The other hike I was dying to do was Valle del Francés (French Valley). George and I opted to take the ferry across Lago Pehoé to spare our knees a long hike with heavy packs. We caught the late afternoon ferry to Refugio Pehoé and then made the short hike into Campamento Italiano.
We rand into the park mascot getting on the Lago Pehoé ferry
Cuernos del Paine (Paine Horns)
The bridge into Campamento Italiano
Didn’t I tell you they will fit just fine … he said …
Early the next morning we made our way up through the Valle del Francés to the Mirador Francés. The hike was b-u-ti-ful. Taking some time to look back down the valley, your are rewarded with views of Lago Pehoé an Lago Nordenskjold. Ahead and above you are peaks and faces captivating you with constant avalanches. The avalanches are so frequent in fact that they may interrupt your sleep at Campamento Italiano.
Cuernos del Paine (Paine Horns)
Lago Pehoé an Lago Nordenskjold
Valle del Francés
We hiked back down to Rufugio Pehoé to catch the ferry back to our truck and make our way out of the park. Torres del Paine definitely lived up to its reputation.
Here is a small time-lapse that George made of Fitz Roy, Torres del Pine, and Perito Moreno. Enjoy.
I think my jaw hit the floor when we got to Futalefu and I didn’t really pull it up until we started north again on the road to Buenos Aires. The Austral has got to be one of the most scenic drives on earth.
George and I wanted to see it all, so we planned to power through the remainder of the gravel and sometimes corrugated road to the end of the line in Villa O’Higgins. We thankfully had some company (Patagonia or Bust and Andamos de Vagos) and some walkie-talkies to help pass the long hours on the road (Wiggly to the Condor! Wiggle out!).
We lucked out with Reserva Nacional Rio Simpson campground for our first night. There was a little hut complete with fireplace and picnic tables to spare us from the onslaught of rain.
Wild berries, pancakes and bacon! Yum!
After another wet night, we made it to Puerto Rio Tranquillo. There is a short dead-end road heading west and then northwest out of Puerto Rio Tranquillo (X-728) that takes you through Valle Exploradores. The drive is spectacular with a number of places to pull off and admire your surroundings. A short and pricey hike will take you to the lookout for the Exploradores glacier.
We met a couple serendipitously at the end of the road in Valle Exploradores at Rio Exploradores who informed us of the very ripe salmon fishing opportunities across the river. I knew immediately that there would be no discussion with George, he was going fishing. The guys piled in a boat taxi that ferried them across the river to the clear water. They came back with a beautiful salmon in tow. We found a sheltered camp spot along a tributary road leading to the shore of the river that evening and feasted on salmon and grilled vegetables.
Just south of Rio Tranquilo is the marble cathedral, a cave complex that you can visit with a boat or kayak. We camped out near the boat launch that evening, letting the rough roads melt away as the sun set over Lago General Carrera. The lake and the shades of blue in the cave would force the most loquacious person into a moment of contemplation.
Lago General Carrera
George taking advantage of the fishing opportunity
Catching our ride
Making it to Cochrane, we decided to take advantage of the abundant leftover salmon and try our hands at sushi in the Tomasin Campground. Huge success!
Splitting from the pack in Cochrane, George and I decided to push on to Caleta Tortel, a logging village that sits on the mouth of the Baker River. Caleta Tortel has no streets, just wooden walkways and stilt houses. The remoteness and dense forest create an atmosphere that you might think to find in Northern Alaska or Scandinavia oddly enough.
Although we had originally planned to continue south from here, we were warn out by the rough roads and rain. From here, we decided to skip Villa O’Higgins (no path into Argentina) and head north to Paso Roballos which would take us back into Argentina.
Coming off the high of Conguillo National Park, G and I were ready for the Carretera Austral (1,240 kilometers or 770 miles of one of the best road trips in the world) and some trekking in Cochamó valley purported as the Yosemite of Chile. That’s some big shoes to fill.
Getting to the beginning of the Carretera (officially in Puerto Montt) took us a couple of days to cruise south on the very well developed highway 5. The drive is not without its highlights, providing you with ample ogling opportunities in the form of crystal clear blue lakes and snow caped peaks.
Small village of Cochamó
View from Puerto Varas
There are a few ways to make your way south on the Carretera. You can take a ferry from Puerto Montt to Chaitén, drive west onto the peninsula and take a ferry from Quellón to Chaitén, or you can cut east toward Cochamó and take two shot ferries from Hornopirén to Caleta Gonzalo. We chose the gorgeous eastern path that would take us past Cochamó valley and through Pumalín Park.
We got into Cochamó in the late afternoon. There was a 5 hour hike ahead of us to get from the parking lot to the first campsite, but we were working with extended summer hours and had light until 11pm. A tabano (really large horse fly) welcome committee greeted us at the trail head. These cumbersome flies buzz around waiting for their target to be distracted before landing for the kill. These suckers can bite you through clothing and will leave a giant welt in their wake. We were loosing our minds trying to get our backpacks packed. After an hour of torture, we were finally ready to set off on the trail. Soon the tabanos thinned out and we got into a rhythm.
The uneventful forest hike into the valley skirts the Cochamó river offering you distraction in the form of mud and ample donkey tracks. The end of the trail opens up to the floor of the stunning valley with peaks standing as sentinels around the wide valley floor.
There are a number of camping/sleeping options. The main campground was peppered with groups of hikers sprawled across the grass enjoying the rest and weather. A few groups were fully immersed in a guitar accompanied sing-song.
We opted for the main paid campsite not knowing you could camp for free across the river. I didn’t mind paying so much though, it was late and I wanted to get the tent up and crawl in.
Making our way across the river to the refugio
On day 2, we committed to Cerro Arco Iris. Allegedly, the Arco Iris mirador had the best valley views. The trail is not like the well graded trails you’ll find in the US (the unsafe trail conditions would never be permitted in the US). It is a simple task to describe the Arco Iris trail in a few words: roots, rock faces and up. We had to climb up a few really exposed faces with only a knotted rope. It was absolutely the most technical hike I’ve ever done. Finally at the mirador, we were rewarded with never ending views of the valley below. George was not appeased though. It took us another hour to scramble up just below the snow line for some more spectacular views.
The hike down was even more of a struggle with the steep grade. At one point, I found myself tumbling feet over ahead, stopped by a protruding log as my head smashed into it. No damage done though besides shaky legs and crushed confidence.
It took us an hour to scramble up just below the snow line
A long way down
We took in the falls near the campsite on our last day before packing up and heading back to Vida.
Waterfall on Cochamó River
Ready to make our way back to Vida
We found a choice rough camping spot along the river in Hornopirén while we waited for our ferry ride. George got some fishing and grilling in. He even sacrificed some grilling space to throw on a veggie kabob for me.
Ferry loading went predictably quickly (this was Chile) and we were off through Reñihué Fjord to Caleta Gonzalo.
Note: You can buy tickets at the dock in Hornopirén, but it’s more efficient to pick them up in Puerto Montt (weekdays only) before setting off…especially during high season.
Yums on the fire … You see the odd one out of the bunch?
Crazy eyes …
Dolphins in the bay right before getting off the ferry.
The ferry delivers you into the lush Pumalín Park. Pumalin is endowed by Douglas Tompkins who cofounded Northface. We spent our first night at Camping Cascadas Escondidas. I took advantage of the campground shelters to have a piping hot shower courtesy of Vida’s water tank. The following day we took in the very slippery Cascadas Escondidas (hidden waterfalls) trail that winds through an alerce forest (the sequoias of the south hemisphere). I managed to fall again, this time landing on my back. The confidence tank was nearing zero by this point.
We spent our next night at the breathtaking Camping El Volcán which is in striking distance to the hike taking you to the foot of Chaiten Volcano. The El Volcán campground was inudated with Tabanos as well. Breaking down in the morning, I threw my mesh sleeping bag sack over my head. Worked like a charm. George mocked me until realizing the brilliance of the maneuver. He quickly followed suit.
The hike up Chaiten was hot, steep and accompanied by a constant sworn of Tabanos. The views from the top more than made up for the tabanos though.
Camping Cascadas Escondidas
Hot shower in the open! Thanks Vida!
This is an alerce tree similar to the sequoia trees in the Norther hemisphere in such they are the giants of the forests both by hight and width and by age. The alerces trees are considered endangered right now. The widest living alerce at the moment has 4.6m trunk and just 150 years ago Charles Darwin reported an alerce with 12.4m diameter trunk.
The house before sun down.
George’s turn for a hot shower.
Yet another steam-fried potatoes dinner.
Some of the devastation Chaiten left after it’s eruption in 2008. You can see the large river like trail of devastation left by a massive lahar.
Vulcan Chaiten. The crater is still smoldering.
Leaving Pumalín Park, we made our way to Futaleufú. We couldn’t resist the urge to celebrate being on the Carretera with some beer of the same name.
The drive to the Fu was stunning. It seemed to me that the water was getting bluer and clearer and the peaks crisper as we approached the Fu. Once on the banks of the river, it’s jaw-dropping how crystal clear the water is. We spent the first couple of nights at a campground just west of town along the river.
We met up again with Patagonia or Bust and Andamos de Vagos in the Fu. Since Aron and Linda had already tackled the Fu, Joe, Kylee, George and I were next. This was my first time white water rafting. I never did shake that feeling that the boat could flip over at any minute, but we had a fleet of rescue boats along with us, so the risk was minimal. I did relax enough to enjoy the rapids after the second one. Thanks to the folks at Patagonia Elements for an amazing day.
We had a fantastic experience rafting with Patagonia Elements (www.patagoniaelements.com). We did the bridge to bridge section which includes the Mundaca class V and a few class IV rapids.
Smiling but both somewhat actions to hit the bridge to bridge section of ‘the Fu’ – the Futaleufu river. We are both first time whitewater rafters about to do over Mundaca – a class V rapid.
A few class IV and one class V rapids made for an exciting day 🙂
Kyle cliff jumping in the river.
There are ample rough camping opportunities around the Fu. We snagged this spot by the river and feasted on dutch oven mac & cheese.
We couldn’t resist the draw of the blue water and sunny skies on our way out of town, taking the opportunity for some sunbathing and fishing. Aron needed to up the stakes by taking a leap of the rock wall above the river.
Camp west coast – Washington, Oregon and California …
Surrounded by class IV and V rapids Aron demonstrated perfect diving form and balls of steal. We concluded a mark of 9.5. Just half a point shy of perfect score for his hair being a little off while flying.
Little fishy in my belly!
On our way further south along the Carretera, we had a chance encounter with Micki and Eric (Southern Tip Trip) making their way north. It’s a very small world.