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2nd Dip into Argentina, ARG


January 18th, 2019

Entering Argentina took about 20 minutes and we had no “inquiry” about what food we might have onboard.  One young officer did the paperwork by hand, stamped our passports, handed us our TIP and opened the gate.

It had been suggested that a more scenic route to the Ruta 40 (the main north south overlanding route through the country) was to take the Ruta 39 south and then east.  The road was supposed to be better but it was not great – continued to be dirt/gravel with washboard sections but the scenery was reminiscent of the American southwest.  There were many mesas and it was pretty dry here.  Temps are now reaching into the mid 20’s C / 70’s F again and the sun is glorious.

We spotted more rheas, another rabbit, horsesband one guanaco and a small lake in the distance with flamingos.

As mentioned in our last post, we have returned north to enter Argentina this way as it is the most southern border crossing for travelers with vehicles.  We crossed at Paso Roballos and are heading back into Chile to see the southern most part that is not accessible by land from Villa O’Higgins and the Carretera Austral.

Our first stop was the Cueva de las Manos Monument and enroute we saw many guanacos.

The Cave of Hands is a cave or a series of caves located in the Santa Cruz province of Argentina 46 km northeast of the Ruta 40 out of Bajo Caracoles.  It is famous for (and gets its name from) the paintings of hands. Several waves of people occupied the cave, and early artwork has been carbon dated to ca. 9300 years ago (about 7300 BC). The age of the paintings was calculated from the remains of bone-made pipes used for spraying the paint on the wall of the cave to create silhouettes of hands.

The site was last inhabited around 700 AD, possibly by ancestors of the the people known as the Tehuelche. It was entered on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1999.

The cave lies in the valley of the Pinturas River Canyon in an isolated spot in the Patagonian landscape. The main cave measures 248 m (814 ft) in depth, with an entrance 15 m (49 ft) wide, and it is initially 10 m (33 ft) high. The ground inside the cave has an upward slope; inside the cave the height is reduced to no more than 2 m (6.6 ft).

The images of hands are negative painted, that is, stenciled. Most of the hands are left hands, which suggests that painters held the spraying pipe with their right hand or they put the back of their right hand to the wall and held the spraying pipe with their left hand.

Besides these there are also depictions of human beings, guanacos, rheas, cats and other animals, as well as shapes, like zigzag patterns, representations of the sun, and hunting scenes. Similar paintings, though in smaller numbers, can be found in nearby caves. The binder is unknown but the mineral pigments include iron oxides, producing reds and purples; kaolin, producing white;  natrojarosite producing yellow; and manganese oxide, which makes black.

The tour last over an hour and we returned to Tigger, drove about 3 km / 2 mi to a wild camp outside the site and spent a quiet, dark night.

Our water filter has seemed to developed a tiny crack in a small connector and after a few different attempts to repair it, we gave up.  We doubt we’ll find this part down here, so we’ll have to make a new plan whenever we reach a large city – which could be in three months….

In the morning we had two curious guanacos less then 80 metres away from us.

We returned down the dirt road to the Ruta 40 again spotting many more guanacos and stopped in Bajo Caracoles for gas at some cool pumps outside a little hotel – most expensive gas on this continent so far!  This town is said to have a population of 15! but they are situated in a good place for gas on this somewhat lonely road.

Now we had some Argentine pesos left over from our time around Mendoza back in November and as this tiny station did not take credit, we had to part with a good portion of them hoping that the next town, Gobernador Gregores, had a functioning ATM.  We’d had to spend 400 pesos ($10) for the cave visit and 1700 on gas here so we were left with 155 – about $4.50 .  Well upon arriving there, the ATM was working and open but did not take our debit card.  We’d read that Europeans had had issues but no North Americans had posted about this issue; so we’ve updated iOverlander and hope we don’t need too much cash in the next few days as the next bank is 450 km / 270 miles away!

Doug asked the attendant if he could “overcharge” our credit card and give us some cash back (we’d heard that others have managed to do this) but that didn’t work so Fran went into the shop to see if they’d change some USD but no.  Then she went back in with a $20 bill and asked if she could buy something and get pesos back in change and that worked.  So we got about $16 back so we had enough to pay for camping for a couple of nights.

We drove to the town’s grocery store and Fran went in to see if she could use a credit card to pay and fortunately, they said yes so she stocked up on a few items for our short stay in Argentina.  Meanwhile Doug “McGyvderd” the water filter and we’re back in business – we’re hoping it lasts until we can replace the part or the entire unit.

In between Gobernador Gregores and our next stop, came a 72 km / 44 mi stretch of gravel road; some parts decent and graded, others deep gravel.  The sign at the beginning claimed  “it was under construction” but we saw now equipment or signs of recent work.  This was slow going and we probably lost at least an hour’s time through this part but we did get to see Lago Cardiel and the viewpoint made a nice break from the rough going:

and the never ending wind.  Patagonia is notorious for its relentless wind and we understand it only gets worse the further south you go.

We drove through to a tiny town called Tres Lagos where there was supposed to be fast WiFi and hot showers and it was cheap.  We paid for one night at a time and stayed two.  WiFi was pretty good the first afternoon but it sucked later – very temperamental. It was supposed to rain here and at our next destination on Sunday so we decided to take a day off driving as we are ahead of schedule mileage wise.

We met a German couple here and chatted for a bit otherwise did our own thing.  They left Sunday morning as did a couple of motorbikers who’d arrived much later yesterday and we were alone using the slow WiFi.

SIDEBAR: If anyone is interested in coming to Chile, a great way to see more of the country is to rent a camper; now we’ve not looked into prices but there are several companies that seem to do this out of Santiago (including Camper Travel where we spent a good deal of time).  The one we see most often is “Wicked Campers” that rents VW vans and rooftop tents on small SUV’s.  Keep this in mind if you want a taste our lifestyle. 🙂

It rained all day but Doug was brave enough to go for a walk and did find a small shop that would change another $20 to give us a bit more cash.  We did get a message from Will & Cate, who are now ahead of us and they use the same bank as we do.  They advised that they were able to get money in El Calafate where we plan to be by the weekend.

Monday morning we left Tres Lagos and arrived in El Chaltén in a couple of hours. The town is known as Argentina’s youngest city because it was founded in 1985 and only to stop the Chilean government from taking over this area.  It is located inside the national park boundaries and is the northern sector of the Los Glaciars NP.  A few hundred residents live here year round but in summer, like now, so many trekkers come to town that the population is a few thousand.

Our first stop was a “Gomeria” (a tire repair place) where Doug wanted one of the rear tires looked at as he was having difficulty when filling it with our compressor.  The guy put on a new valve stem and hopefully that fixes the problem but Doug is also thinking our compressor could have a leak……

It was raining and there was no views of any peaks to be had; Fran went to the bank machine in town while Doug was at the tire place; first place had two ATM’s but neither were dispensing cash; the other was inside the bus station and people told her it works but the fees are higher (since we are Schwab clients, this does not matter to us as we get ALL ATM fees reimbursed).  After standing a long line for a while she managed to get some cash – two withdrawals that equaled about $100 USD each.   She hit a grocery store and bought a couple of items and then returned to the bus station to try the ATM again and managed to withdraw another 4000 ARG pesos, so now we have about $300.

We parked Tigger in a parking lot across from the National Park entrance where motor homes are allowed and walked over to get information on the “treks” around here.  The famous one is to see Mount Fitzroy

And we hoped to get a view of that.  The ranger told us that today, it was not going to happen but tomorrow would be the best day all week and you could view Fitzroy on the trail, on the road that goes north out of town, from town and from a lookout about the visitor’s centre.

We walked back into town to check it out and had a nice lunch at a restaurant while it poured rain outside.  We returned to Tigger and decided to go for a drive up that northerly road to see what we could see as it was beginning to clear.

No sign of Fitzroy in the clouds and we went back to our parking spot.   We spent a quiet night and got up early Tuesday morning to head out on a hike.  It was somewhat overcast but looked like it was clearing.

We decided to do the hike to the base of Fitzroy without actually going to the difficult part at the end as the weather did not make it worth it.  It did rain, sort of a spitting rain that ended up turning to small round snowflakes but never that hard or enough to accumulate (remember this is summer here in Argentina….).  It did this for a few hours.

There is a view point at 4 km in to see Fitzroy but it was socked in except the glacier at the bottom

and as we walked further, we could get glimpses as we continued on past it and the sky got bluer…..

Where the trail takes you up to the base, we turned right instead (the last kilometer is supposed to be quite steep and with conditions as they were, we felt it wasn’t worth putting Fran through that for no reward).  Instead at this point we went north to the Mirador of the White Rocks where you see a glacier feeding a lake through a series of waterfalls.

The hike to this mirador was a total of 10 km / 6 mi and there was some elevation gain in the first 3 km but after that fairly flat.  We turned around and headed back continuing to keep an eye out for our “prize”.  Back at the mirador we could see the peaks on either side but the massif itself, did not get uncovered.

The weather continued to improve and was lovely and sunny but still rather windy the rest of the way back and in town.

As we drove back to our camp spot, we caught a glimpse of the top of the massif and around a corner, there it was in all its glory.

We watched for a while and then went to park for the night and we had a darn good view from there.

We walked back over to the Info Centre to ask about where we might get closer to it and the mirador in back was mentioned but it appeared to be a steep climb for the same view we were already getting.

We wandered back into town enjoying the view of Fitzroy towering over El Chatén and found ourselves a bakery/coffee shop to treat our selves to some goodies as  a reward for our 6.5 hour, 20 km / 12 mi hike after making a stop for more cash at the ATM.

this bench is a giant backpack!

The sun continued to shine and we kept looking out Tigger’s window the rest of the afternoon enjoying the view.  Doug checked with the Visitor’s Centre about tomorrow’s weather and we’ll decide in the morning if we want to do another longish hike (Fran’s knees will factor into that decision as well after a good night’s sleep).

Despite the sun, the almost constant wind keeps the temperature cooler than we’d like but it’s not freezing by any means; mid teens C / low 60’s F.

That evening we didn’t have much appetite for dinner after all the goodies we indulged but as Fran was looking out the window she saw movement: it was an armadillo!  She went out with her camera as did the man in the camper on that side of us and he accidentally hit some alarm button which set off his truck horn and sent the poor creature scampering back into the bushes where he’d come from.

About five minutes later when silence reined, it ventured back out and made it’s way to the picnic table right behind and between our two rigs.  It had found some leftovers from someone’s meal and was happily munching away.

We watched him for a while until he had his fill and wandered back to the bushes.

Wednesday we awoke to mostly clear skies and Fitzroy was visible but Cerro Torre was not; we decided to hang another day in the hopes that it would clear and maybe do a lookout hike.  We did chores around the house, met the Germans in the camper next to us and the Argentinians from the other side of us.  We walked into town to get rid of garbage and try the internet at the bus station as well as hit a grocery store for a couple of items.

Torres showed itself for a brief instant

So Doug decided to climb up to the mirador behind the Park Visitor’s Centre and Fran caught views from the ground.

That afternoon it got super windy and there’s no wind protection at the parking lot we’re in so we decided to begin the drive towards El Calafate around 5 and but only went about 55 km / 32 mi to a somewhat sheltered spot.

We arrived at this tiny dirt road by a hill and settled.  By bedtime, the wind was not bothering us but around midnight it began coming from a different direction and for about an hour and a half Tigger was swaying some.  We finally got back to sleep and awoke to a light drizzling rain but it didn’t last too long.

We completed the drive to El Calafate spotting a fox and a rabbit and enjoying the views of Lago Argentina,the southern most of the country’s lake and named by the explorer, Perito Moreno. It collects much water from the nearby ice field – the largest in the southern hemisphere excluding Antarctica.  The ice field stretches across the Chile-Argentina border and measures approximately 360 km / 223 mi in length.

We reached out to Will & Cate who were in town after we decided to camp for free at an old Tourism office with a few other overlanders but they were in a campsite.  We made plans with them to meet for dinner.

We then ran a few errands and met them for a beer before going to a restaurant for burgers and beer.  At the wild camp spot, we saw a large imposing camper called “Heffalump” in the lot (we’d seen this rig in El Chaltén but never got a chance to meet its owners) with Ontario licence plates and here we got a chance to meet Joe & Stacey who are from Ottawa.  They began their journey five months after we did back in 2014.

The young man with a German vehicle we’d met in the rain back near Chaiten (at the dolphin spot) was here too with his family.  He is actually Moroccan and Mehdi told us he was awaiting new shocks for his motor home.

Friday morning we were up early so we could be at the park gates to visit the Perito Moreno glacier.  This is the one of the few glaciers in the world that is not shrinking too dramatically.  It grows and shrinks over the course of a year and although it’s not as deep as you used to be, it’s trying holding its own against global warming.  The front glacier wall is 70 m / 230’ tall and it measures 5 km / 3 mi across.  It sprawls around 30 km / 20 mi down off the ice field that Chile and Argentina share.

At the entrance gate, we met a couple from Oshawa, Canada, Frank & Cathy; we ran into them again inside the park.  They are here on a vacation and we took photos of each other on the balconies.

The park is set up with about five different coloured coded walkways to various “balconies” to sit and amaze yourself at the spectacle of this natural wonder.  We checked out many of them but spent most of our time on the Second balcony videoing the wall for calving.  We would set our camera phones on “record” in one minute increments hoping to catch some action.

This worked quite well and we managed to catch about five different good minutes of activity including see a condor fly by!

We spent over four hours admiring, oohing and aahing.  We were lucky we had a mostly sunny day; it was windy and a cold wind at times, but travelling with your “home” allows you to carry all the things you might need.

Around mid afternoon, we wandered back up to the parking lot and made our way back towards El Calafate to spend another night.  We saw Will & Cate heading into the park on our way out and then later drove past Joe & Stacey on their way in.

We went for a walk to find an ice bar for happy hour.  They were super pricey for what you get and one had this sad looking polar bear OR yeti outside:

so instead we found a bar that was playing nice music and Doug enjoyed a cold Stella while Fran expermented with a “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds“:

We spent a fairly quiet night in town and left Saturday morning for the border once again.  We are re-entering Chile to continue the journey to Ushuaia.  Enroute to the border crossing at Paso Dorotea, we were able to spot the three “torres” (towers) of Torres del Paine, National Park.  Stupidly, we waited until we drove down the road some before remembering to stop a take a photo so this pic only shows two.

The Argentine border exit proceedings took about five minutes and we continued about 3 km / 2 mi to the Chilean entrance crossing.