Happy Feet – Penguins and the Road to Ushuaia

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.


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).

All I could think about was Dick Van Dyke doing his thing in Mary Poppins. The little guys had such character. The lot of us couldn’t help but provide a voice-over for their constant activity.

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.

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).

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.

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.

The Big Three (Fitz Roy, Perito Moreno, and Torres del Paine)

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.

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.

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 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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.



Pushing deeper into Chilean Patagonia on the Carretera Austral

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.

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.

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.

Featured posts: Wild Pantanal and FIFA Worldcup@Conundrum


Check out our latest post on exploring the beautiful Wild Pantanal in Brazil.

Sunset at hotel Porto Jofre

Sunset at hotel Porto Jofre, Pantanal, Brazil

On the way back from Pantanal we also visited Arena Pantanal in Cuiaba.  This is one of the new stadiums for the FIFA World Cup 2014 in Brazil.  Here is a little post about that as well.