January 26thth, 2019
We arrived at the Chilean border entry post and in less than twenty minutes we had our new visas (complete with stamps this time) and the TIP and made our way to the small city of Puerto Natales: gateway to Torres del Paine National Park (“TDP”) at latitude of slightly below S51º.
We had hoped to meet up with Angela and Graham (our British friends that we spent so much time with back in Sucre, Bolivia) but we got a message from them upon arriving that they were going to make their way to TDP today instead of hanging around here as camping is pricey here.
We stopped to do some shopping, including getting new spark plug wires as we’ve gone one cylinder that keeps misfiring and check out the Visitor’s Centre where we got some good park info and two great maps before spending the night on the town square with free Chilean government WiFi but no other services.
Next morning Doug tried to install the new spark plug wires he’d purchased but they didn’t work; being Sunday the parts store would not be open to return/exchange them so we stopped by, left a note that we’d be back later in the week and made our way towards Parque Nacional Torres del Paine – another bucket list item.
Enroute we made two small detours:
- On the outskirts of Puerto N Natales, there is another hand statue:
- and right across the road from it, a monument to the giant sloth – some of its remains had been found and are in the Royal British Museum in London but you can visit the cave where it was found not too far from town;
Giant Sloth – Myoldon: The giant sloth is a relative of the modern sloth, anteater and armadillo. It stood between 2 and 2.5 metres / 6.5 ‘ to 8’ tall and weighed about a ton. It was a herbivore covered in hairs up to 20 cm / 8” long with a thick skin like a suit of amour. It lived between Bolivia in the north and Tierra del Fuego in the south. The word mylodon is from the Greek: mylos = to grind and odon = tooth.
- Laguna Sofia to check out the view as we’d heard it was quite stunning but the weather was not great: lots of grey clouds over that area – clear in the other direction, of course. We took a photo from a lookout before the lake and turned around.
We arrived at the national park entrance to buy our entry fee. The entrance is 21,000 CLP ($30 USD more or less) per person and it gives you a three day ticket with in and our privileges. You can stay in the park as long as you like after those first days assuming you are in the park on that third day. There are about five “parking” areas for RV’s at welcome for free – and there are toilets but no showers.
Torres del Paine National Park encompasses mountains, glaciers, lakes, and rivers in southern Chile. The Cordillera del Paine is the centerpiece of the park. Paine means “blue” in the native Tehuelche language and is pronounced PIE-nay. The Torres del Paine themselves are the distinctive three granite peaks of the Paine mountain range or Paine Massif. They extend up to 2,500 metres (8,200 ft) above sea level, and are joined by the Cuernos del Paine. The area also boasts valleys, rivers such as the Paine, lakes, and glaciers.
Lady Florence Dixie, (a Scottish writer/traveler) in her book published in 1880, gave one of the first descriptions of the area and referred to the three towers as Cleopatra’s Needles. She and her party are sometimes credited as being the first “foreign tourists” to visit the area. Several European scientists and explorers visited the area in the following decades and Gunther Pluschow, a German aviator, was the first person to fly over the Paine.
The park was established in 1959 as Parque Nacional de Turismo Lago Grey (Grey Lake National Tourism Park) and was given its present name in 1970. It was designated a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1978.
The park has had more than its fair share of issues with forest fires. In 1985, a tourist started a fire that burned about 150 km2 (58 sq mi) of the park. In February 2005, an accidental fire started by a Czech backpacker, which lasted for about ten days, destroyed 155 km2 (60 sq mi) of the park, including about 2 km² of native forest. The Czech government offered aid after the fire and donated US$1 million to reforestation efforts.
In late December 2011, an Israeli backpacker was found by guilty of starting a fire after being caught by a park ranger when lighting up some paper in a forbidden area. This burned about 176 km2 (68 sq mi) of the reserve, destroying about 36 km² of native forest but did not affect the park’s centerpiece. The Israeli government sent reforestation experts to the zone, and has committed to donate trees to replant the affected areas.
This area is a mecca for trekkers and there are several multi day hikes in the park with campgrounds, hotels, hostels and refugios to spend the nights. These hikes require advance reservation and can be frustrating to arrange due to a number of systems you must wade your way through.
Pic of the towers as they are supposed to look on a clear day:
We paid our fees, got our passes and some info (some of which was slightly different than what we’d been told back in Puerto Natales…..) and made our way down the road (still paved) to the first mirador – Lago Toro.
Here we met a German couple, Ralph and Petra, enjoying the view while having their breakfast. They are in a Land Rover with a roof top tent and only arrived in South America earlier this month. We agreed to meet at Pudeta Ranger Station for the night to share a happy hour. We are not major trekkers so we’ve chose to do a number of short hikes/day hikes to enjoy what the region has to offer. While we are here, Christine & Mark, are actually doing an 8 day trek with a number of friends who’ve flown down from Canada – we wish them good weather in this unpredictable region.
We carried on down the road to the Visitor’s Centre which was not much and all in Spanish but we met an American couple from Idaho, Barb & Pete, who told us of their shipping woes and the hassles they’d had on their journey.
Today we had partly sunny skies, with some wind so far. The road turned to gravel and it seems most of the main park roads are the same with some small paved sections near two entry points (there are four of these).
We drove to the Lago Grey ranger station with the intent of doing two shorter hikes there. In the parking lot we saw Angela and Graham’s van but they must have been out on a hike.
The first hike in our plan was to the Lago Grey Glacier viewpoint and it was about 5 km / 3 mi return. It starts off quite flat through some trees and then you reach the rocky beach which you have to cross to reach a peninsula that juts out into the lake. This section was super windy and that didn’t help with walking along the pebbly beach.
When you reach the rocky outcrop you climb a little bit and at the end you reach the look out. We could see the glacier but it was not in the sunlight and there are “ice bergs” in the lake.
Here it was super windy
We pushed on through the wind back to the parking lot and Graham & Angela were there; we went inside their rig, Baloo, and chatted for a bit. We all decided (for various reasons) not to do the other hike to a mirador due to the wind and cloudy sky and decided to meet up at the Pudeta Ranger Station for the night. We saw Ralph and Petra’s rig before leaving the Lago Grey lot but never saw them; they had told us they us they were taking the Lago Grey boat ride out to the glacier.
We stopped at a few view points and actually caught glimpses of two of the three “torres” at times and there are many, many turquoise lakes and glacier green rivers. And then at our third choice of a short hikes, we drove to Mirador Condor. This was an uphill climb in some windy conditions but we were rewarded with 360º views (although the back side was not that impressive and the good side we could see from the ground).
We drove up to Pudeta Range Station and found a parking spot. There was a family of ducks here and a couple of caracara birds made some attempts to nab the little ones but all seemed to survive this.
Angela and Graham arrived a bit later and we did happy hour in their van before a quiet but somewhat windy night parked on the lakeshore. The tourist buses all leave by 7 pm ish and arrived again around 7:30 am. Here you can catch a catamaran across the lake to a starting point for a few longer hikes but it’s pricey: $50 USD return. We had originally planned to do this for a one of the longish hikes but the cost of the boat didn’t seem to make it worthwhile only for lake views….
The days now are long but presumably getting shorter now that it’s the end of January. The sun seems to rise around 6:30 is down before 10 pm.
Monday morning, we did the nearby shorter hikes with Angela and Graham; one to a waterfall
And the other to the Cuernos (means horns) view point but, of course, it was not clear skies. The Cuernos is a set of mountains that are quite magnificent and here you get a better view across the lake than you get on the road.
This was not a very difficult walk – rather pleasant despite the sections of 80 kph / 50 mph wind.
We had some company on the way back:
We arranged to meet Angela and Graham at the Laguna Amarga Ranger Station for the night and made our separate ways there over the course of the afternoon. Enroute we again stopped at many viewpoints like the Lago Sarmiento view point – a very deep blue lake:
we spotted guanacos, black necked swans and two flocks of flamingos on two different lakes,
One viewpoint was over the actual Laguna Amarga itself which is again, a different water colour and one of the flocks of flamingos. It was super windy here too so difficult to hold the camera steady:
Another major viewpoint was at the Paine Waterfall which reminded us of Hogsback in Ottawa except for the water colour of course.
We arrived at Laguna Amarga ranger station, rechecked in as on our drive we’d left the park boundaries. Doug asked about the weather and looked at their forecast and it looked like Wednesday would be the better day to do the big Torres lookout hike. Angela and Graham pulled up a bit later and again we had happy hour in their van.
Four other rigs arrived overnight and as we pointed our nose the right way tonight, we had little bother from the wind but it did rain off and on during the early morning and we awoke to mostly cloudy skies and you could see fresh snow in the mountains – yes this is summer in Chile! The low last night was 5 C / 41 F so not freezing but not anywhere near toasty.
Since today was supposed to be super windy, wet and a chance of snow again, we opted to take a “chill” day and attempt the hike tomorrow with Angela and Graham.
We did move up to the parking lot closer to the trail head (where we’d heard different information on whether camping here was free or not) and learned we had to register to hike. It rained on and off all day so we are glad we put it off until tomorrow. The ranger here told us that Wednesday looked good between 6 and 6 for no rain and some periods of sun so we’re holding thumbs.
We were all up and ready to hike at 6 am on Wednesday and the views were spectacular from the parking area in the dawn light.
The hike to the Torres Mirador is 10 km / 6.2 mi one way. It began mostly flat, then went up hill for awhile along a rocky path, then through the “Wind Pass” until you reach the Chileno campground at the river where we could just make out two of the towers peaking through.
Then you begin walking along the river in a forest, cross the river and climb uphill again to a flattish section and then the steep stuff begins with lots of tree roots, boulders, streams with wooden bridges.
We begin to see patches of snow before the final section of over one kilometer which is now is up, up, up and full of boulders and get this – there is now snow all over the place that gets deeper the further up you manage to get yourself.
Yes this IS summer in Patagonia! We reached the mirador but the mist and clouds had set in so the tops of the towers never became visible. The lake was quite pretty.
We did spot a few of mice foraging in the snow, hung around for a while eating lunch but it was really, really cold up there maybe a few degrees below freezing and the windy is very icy so we resigned ourselves to not seeing the three towers fully.
It had taken us 4.5 hours to get up there and now we had to make our back down the slushy path and back in another 4.5 hours we were back at our rigs.
We were all exhausted except Doug, of course as none of us walked at a pace he would have preferred. It was a tough slog but we were all glad to have done it. The clouds never fully lifted that evening although they really tried the next morning, which again was sunny.
We packed up and drove back to Puerto Natales and enroute saw a family of rheas:
We all parked on the square but after a bit Angel & Graham decided to move to a campsite to get showers and laundry done. We are booked into the same place for tomorrow and Saturday as Christine & Mark will be back in town and we want to see them before they sell their camper and head north by ferry to Puerto Montt.
We ran some errands, used the free WiFi from the square. We awoke Friday the 1st of February to cloudy skies and after breakfast moved Tigger over to the campground where we were to meet Christine & Mark; Angela and Graham were already there and we too wanted to have our laundry done. When we’d made the reservation yesterday they told us to come early and drop it off when we checked in. We got there around 9 am and apparently that was not early enough; Angela said they had to bring theirs over at 7 to get same day service. So we left our clothes bag for tomorrow and took our sheets elsewhere as we need them back the same day. It rained a good part of the morning but, hey, we had hot showers!
Christine and Mark showed up mid-afternoon with their friends that had done the hike with them. Most of them got their belongings that they left behind in Mark’s camper and made their way to hotels. Their one friend, Brad, hung back and after they sorted through the their stuff we joined them as well as Angela & Graham, for happy hour at a local gin distillery (one of only five in Chile and this one is only two years old).
We enjoyed a distillery tour, some samples and drinks before meeting the rest of their friends at a pizza restaurant. We celebrated the end of their TDP trek, our fifth year anniversary of moving into Tigger and our friendships. It was a fun night that ended back at the campsite having a few last drinks before midnight.
Mark left the next morning for Punta Arenas with Brad and another couple to take them to the airport and he was leaving their camper and truck with the new owners. Christine hung behind sleeping in a ten for two nights waiting for Mark to return. Today the weather was clearing and actually warming up. Angela & Graham left the campground to return to the town square for another night.
We had the rest of our laundry done, did some errands and had dinner in our rig with Christine sharing the wine she’d bought Fran back in Mendoza. A fellow overlander, John, “the German” (whom we’ve bumped into a few times over the years) arrived today and joined us as we finished dinner for a late happy hour. He’d arrived in town late last night but the campground was full and he parked elsewhere and unfortunately he’d reached out when we were already out for happy hour and dinner so he’d missed joining us.
Sunday we awoke to glorious blue sky and warm weather and temperatures reached into the mid 20’s C / 70’s F so now it’s feeling more like summer at 51 degrees below the equator. Tomorrow is supposed to be even warmer – yeah summer!
We moved Tigger out of the campground and back to the town square as the price we were paying there was a lot for crappy WiFi – granted they had hot showers but that made for a pricey shower.
Doug managed to remove the spare tire off the front of Tigger and using tie downs that we got from Mark (they gave us a lot of stuff from their rig (sheets, towels, odd kitchen things, new floor mat, tools, their “patio”, and more). In Argentina, we had one issue with our spare on the front and want to avoid getting a fine. The law is nothing that is not actually part of the vehicle can be sticking out from the front or back – so far we’ve had no issues with the storage boxes the back probably because they are mounted to the frame of the truck
Around 5:30 Christine and John walked over and we went for a beer
Then sat in the park by Tigger and had some more drinks to finish happy hour.
Monday was one of those days where we spent hours booking flights home for our trip in the fall. We know, first world problem, but it’s done and we’ll be flying from Asuncion, Paraguay to Toronto for about three weeks in mid September and will be attending Fran’s godson’s wedding in early October. During that time, Doug will fly to Vancouver to visit his mom while Fran visits hers in Kingston.
In the afternoon we helped Christine get her bags to the bus station with John and Mark returned by bus from Punta Arenas after having transferred the title of their truck and camper to the new owners and sorting out the paperwork with the Customs Officials.
It was absolutely gorgeous out today and we’re enjoying it while it lasts wearing shorts cause rain and cooler temps are coming soon in the forecast.
We all went back to our rig and sat in the park chatting until we got thirsty for happy hour and went back to the bar we’d gone to yesterday for beer and then decided to stay for dinner. We said farewell around 9 pm and they left for a walk before their bus to the ferry.
Tuesday morning we took off for Punta Arenas about 230 kms / 140 mi away and arrived before noon.
Enroute we saw much in the way of (mostly) wildlife:
lots of rheas:
and a few ducks
one guanaco, lots of sheep, some horses, cows, caracara birds.
Our first stop was the ferry office to find out about sailing across the Strait of Magellan to the town of Porvenir on the island of Tierra del Fuega – which is half Chilean, half Argentinian. The line up was long so we tried to get reservations online later, but could never complete them.
We stopped for lunch and continued down the Ruta 9 to reach the most southern point of mainland South America – at least the most southern point you can get to by road.
Enroute we passed by the remains of a frigate called “The Lord Londsale”
This ship was built in Germany in 1899. In 1909 in began a voyage from Hamburg to Mazatlan, Mexico. Since this in the pre Panama Canal days, it had to go via the Strait of Magellan. Turns out it only made it as far as the Falkland Islands and it caught fire. Somehow, no one knows for sure, it made its way here, to Punta Arenas (560 kms / 350 mi away from Stanley Harbour in the Falklands) and now sits as a memorial to all sailors who’ve traveled these southern waters.
As we were driving down, Fran spotted one dolphin and then we thought we were seeing penguins sitting on a rock:
only to discover they were a type of black and white cormorant once we were able to zoom in:
There were a few historical monuments/sites on the way south:
- Monument to Philip Park King – an early British explorer of the Patagonian coast from 1826 to 1830
- One side of the same monument paid tribute to Charles Darwin who also explored this area in 1827 on the HMS Beagle
- A small foreigner cemetery where Captain Pringle Stokes, a British naval officer who commanded Darwin’s ship, The Beagle, was buried – he committed suicide caused by severe depression in 1828.
There were a few campers here and an actual food truck and after taking the picture we drove back up the road a little to find a quieter spot with a beach view to camp for the night.
We were not lucky enough to see whales or dolphins at the beach but did sit outside for a while enjoying the warmth of the sun and the water view. This was the third of three summer days we’ve had in Patagonia.
We awoke Wednesday to partly sunny skies and the odd sprinkle enroute back to the city of Punta Arenas and did see three dolphins frolicking in the Strait. Doug wanted to go to a welder to have our storage box braces reinforced to take the weight of the spare and have little give in them. That took a few hours so during that time, Fran walked to the ferry office and got us a reservation for Saturday.
The weather did not warm up much and we then parked in a lot that takes campers and while it does not offer bathrooms, it has water, power and WiFi for a reasonable price and it is right in town and quiet so we’ll spend at least one night there using our own “bano” facilities including the shower since we can easily fill the tank. It was a pretty darn quiet night and we felt shiny and clean after our showers.
Next day we went to find a mechanic to adjust our emergency brake that was a bit loose. The place we had in mind from iOverlander was too busy so we returned to the welding place to ask Luis if he knew of a place. He drove Doug in his pick up to find two and when he returned we went to the first one and they took us right away and the work was done pretty quickly. Turns out there was a security camera place right next door so Doug arranged for us to see him next (we’ve still be trying to sort out this new camera we brought back with us last summer!).
After Doug left the garage at the brake place, he drove back out front and although the camera place looked 0pen it was all locked up and no one answered when Fran tried to call about two dozen times. So Doug began trying to sort it out on his own, figuring the guy would eventually return which he did around noon. He worked with Doug for over an hour without much progress. Doug thinks it has to be the port in the NVR, not the camera so we gave up and paid him for his time.
Now Punta Arenas is a large port town on the Strait of Magellan (btw Punta Arenas is celebrating 500 years since Magellan came here next year)
and there is a large “duty free” shopping area like we’d visiting back in northern Chile at Iquique. We parked in the large lot and wandered through the five big shopping centres and then down the “main drag”. We had a few things we wanted to get and found most of them. Doug got new shoes, Fran got new hiking shoes, we each got thermoses for our upcoming cruise, we found some rooibos tea but Doug couldn’t find Sambuca; Fran did find a new caramel liqueur called “Wild Africa” that looked yummy. It began to rain while in the final shoe store but luckily it let up some when we left so after getting back to Tigger we drove to the ferry terminal where there is a lot that allows motor homes to park overnight. We actually spent a super quiet free night there with no services and the plan is to return tonight since we catch the ferry on Saturday.
Friday morning under cloudy skies and threatening rain, we drove to the Nao Victoria museum where they have reconstructed three famous vessels:
- One of Magellan’s ships, the Nao Victoria
- The Beagle that Darwin sailed on
- The Ancud (which we’d seen the original of back on Chiloe island
- And, last but not least, the James Caird – a small lifeboat used by Shackleton’s expedition when their vessel, the Endurance, sank.
Next was a visit to the city’s cemetery which has houses many a mausoleum which some fine architecture. It is not that old, began in 1894 but it was a pleasant stroll through.
We left Tigger parked safely out front and made our way to the Plaza de Armas about a mile away and had lunch at a restaurant called “The Beagle”. We had the tallest burgers we’ve ever seen for lunch:
Upon returning to Tigger after a brief stop in a Chinese dollar type store for a few small items, we returned to Tigger and drove back to the ferry but the lot was full. Fran figured if we went to park elsewhere and returned after the next ferry left, there’d be room and that worked. It didn’t start raining at all today until after we got here so we timed our outings well.
Friday night was on and off rain, three motor homes joined us in the lot but it was too cold and wet to meet anyone. Saturday morning we caught the ferry across the strait and were in Porvenir by lunchtime.
It was a less than two hour uneventful sailing; weirdly, only the driver can “drive” onto the ferry so Fran had to embark as a foot passenger but we were able to leave together in Tigger.
Tierra Del Fuego is an island shared by both Chile & Argentina. It can be reached only from Chile. It was named by Fernando Magellan and was named the “Land of Fire” as when he sailed through the strait, he saw a multitude of cooking fires lit by the indigenous hunter/gathers along the shoreline. There are a few islands south of Tierra Del Fuego but they are not easily accessible. FUN FACT: 12,000 years ago, this was part of the mainland and the Strait of Magellan did not exist! In the scheme of things, it’s not been an island all that long.
There’s not a lot here in Porvenir but we have lots of time to make it to Ushuaia before our cruise so since we’ve found fast and free WiFi on the town square we think we’ll relax here for a couple days.
We went for a short walk in the cold to check out the town – again not much here and as usual, it’s windy. We barely hit 14 C / 57 F and we had a few sprinkles.
We stayed a second night – Sunday was super windy and quite “brisk” but mostly sunny. The wind seems to die down at night and we had a second quiet night. The internet was pretty darn good, especially ‘cause it was free and we got some stuff done.
Monday we decided two nights here was enough and it was long overdue for a shower. After Doug went for his run, and we had breakfast, Fran walked over to the Museum/Tourist Info and asked where we could get water and/or a shower. The nice lady showed her tap right outside their door! and suggested trying the local sports club for a shower. Fran walked over there but it was not open yet so instead we used the tap and our two one gallon jugs to fill our water tank, had showers inside Tigger and then filled up again. We actually have showering in Tigger down to a pretty good science and don’t use a great deal of water; the hassle is emptying the bathroom so nothing that shouldn’t get wet doesn’t, and then we have to wait for it to dry before putting in all back in. Not a huge deal, but there is a “hassle factor”.
Doug aired down the tires since we know there at least a couple of hundred kilometres of dirt road ahead and we began the drive to the King Penguin Park about 100 km / 60 mi away. We made a quick stop at a local bakery for some treats, picked up a local guy who was looking for a ride and drove most of the distance when Fran saw a cell phone tower. We dropped off our passenger and using the nearby cell signal made a few phone calls on Google Hangouts to our mothers and our daughter and then drove 2 km past the penguin park for the night. It was nearly 4 pm and a good time to stop anyway. The Penguin Park is not open on Mondays so the plan is to be there as soon as they open at 11 tomorrow to beat the tour groups that start coming in around 1 pm.
From our camp spot, with our monocular we could make out the penguins on the beach, that’s how close were were camped and we were a little up a slope so the sight line was good but even with Fran’s 83x zoom, they were blurry but there seemed to be a good number of them.
The King Penguin is the second largest penguin in the world (second only to the Emperor Penguin). They like to live between 45 and 55 degrees below the equator and are found only on islands, most of which are in the South Indian Ocean. Their diet consists of small fish and they can dive to over 300 metres underwater and are able to remain submerged for nearly five minutes. They breed on land, hence the colony here on Bahia Intiul.
The king penguin stands up to 100 cm (about a yard) tall and weighs up to 18 kg / 40 lbs. The colour difference between an emperor penguin and a king penguin is that the latter is more orangy on the cheek than yelllow. The king’s bill is also longer and straighter than the emperor’s.
The king penguin begins to breed after three years of age and is serially monogamous – meaning it takes a new mate each breeding season but remains “faithful” all that season. The breeding cycle is about 15 months and generally one egg is produced every second year. The egg is incubated for nearly two months by both parents taking shifts of 6-18 days. Chicks are born at the beginning in December and by April they are almost fully grown.
This penguin colony is located on private land and the owner has set aside this area for the colony. Apparently, they used to come to this location for many years but were “frightened away” by the ranching. In 2010 they resurfaced and today we saw about 100 birds. The entrance fee is about $20 per person and there are walkways and lookouts to view the birds from. You cannot walk amoung them which we think is a good thing. There is a small river/stream that runs between the shore of the bay and the walkways/lookouts and the birds tend to keep to their side of the river but we did see them swimming in the stream as well.
(f you need more penguin pics, cause really, can you get enough? 🙂 then please check our gallery)
It was an exceptional experience. We arrived when they opened at 11 and around 1:30 it got busy with tourist vans so we went back to Tigger for lunch and then as the buses left, we visited for another half hour or so. We drove about 60 km / 40 mi east towards the border and find a wild camp to spend the night in a sort of meadow.
Another vehicle, a Citroen drove in later and we met them in the morning. Jie, Chang and their 5 year old daughter are from China but currently live in England. They took two years off work and drove across Asia through China, shipped to Vancouver and made their way down here. They are making their way to Uruguay now to ship back to England.
We saw many, many guanacos and this guy decided to pose for the camera:
Much of the land here is for grazing and a hundred years ago it was mostly sheep but now there’s lots of empty ranches/estancias but we did some a few small flocks of sheep and small herds of cattle.
Just a few kilometres before the border, we got a flat tire!
Have not had one since Newfoundland Labrador in 2014! Doug managed to air it up so we could make it to the border post; we checked out of Chile in about ten minutes then drove the one kilometer to the Argentina office where Fran dealt with the paper work while Doug began the process of changing the tire.