Long before we left on this journey we had dreamt of exploring the magical world of Patagonia. We imagined glacier-clad peaks looking over turquoise lakes, out of which ran bubbling rivers through verdant green forests, with deer, guanacos, and hares running wild and eagles gracing the skies. We realized that this was probably an unrealistic expectation, but we still had dreams of an enchanting place at the southern end of the world. As we fished, hiked, and camped our way through the Lakes District we realized our Patagonia dreams were beginning to come true. As we got further south, into the heart of the deep south, it only kept getting better. Patagonia showed us many faces, but almost all of them were beautiful and wild.
When we crossed the border into Chile we immediately noticed an increase in the density of the vegetation. We were now in a lush temperate rainforest. Our first stop was just past the border in the lovely little town of Futaleufú, well-known for its spectacular white water rafting. We wasted no time in booking a rafting trip with one of the many outfitters lining the central plaza. We got lucky and woke up to a bluebird morning. Before long we were all decked out in wetsuits, life vests, and helmets and piling into one of the rafts on the shore of the incredible Río Futaleufú.
All three of us had some rafting experience, so we signed up for the excursion that included a few of the more serious class V rapids. We had a great guide, who gave us a good short training session, and before long we were gliding down the turquoise waters, pulling hard on our paddles every time he called out “adelante!” The early lower class rapids were a good warm up and by the time we got to our first class V we were ready. We had a good team and navigated every turn with ease. The excursion lasted a few hours and went through some thrilling white water. A few times the whole raft would be sucked into a hole beneath a massive wave, then we’d be doused with cold, crystal clear water, and bounce out the other side. In between each set of rapids, there was plenty of time to take in the views of the beautiful river canyon. The Futaleufú is one of the top whitewater rivers in the world, and for good reason. The river is so clean that you can drink straight from the water as you float along and the color contrast between the calm blue-green water and the bright white rapids is stunning.
From Futaleufú we drove west with anticipation for the Carretera Austral. The only road that runs north-south in the isolated southern reaches of Chile, The Carretera Austral is notorious amongst adventurers. It was historically an extremely remote dirt road with few cars and fewer gas stations. Currently, there is a major push to pave the entire length of the road in order to make the beautiful scenery and quaint towns more accessible and boost tourism. We witnessed the work in progress as we passed through many a construction zone. Some sections were smooth new asphalt, which gave us some respite from the jarring rock and dirt stretches and the extremely rough sections that are currently under construction.
We were happy to be driving the Carretera Austral before the paving is completed and the traffic increase that is sure to redefine the area, but already times have changed. Gas stations were frequent enough that we didn’t need to use our full jerry cans that we had stored on the roof, and traffic was common enough that we never really felt all that remote. Along the length of the route we passed dozens of cycle tourists making their way up or down the notorious highway. One night at a beautiful boondock spot two female German cyclists asked if they could camp nearby. We welcomed them with fresh-cooked beans and rice and they told us about their adventures as they happily munched away. They said they actually preferred to ride the unpaved sections to the south as it was much more peaceful with far less traffic zooming by. We realized that if we ever want to cycle the Carretera Austral we had better do it soon.
While waiting for a Colorado friend to arrive we spent a few days getting to know the small city of Coihaique, which offers amazing fly fishing, climbing, and hiking all within a couple of hours drive. We spent the weekend of Emily’s birthday camped out in a very remote spot along the lovely Río Ñirehuoa, which is full of large trout. Tim cast his fly in pool after pool while Emily and Hobie explored and hung out in the grass along the banks. It was in Coihaique that we finally met up with Carpe Viam, some fellow overlanding friends that we had been communicating with via email for several months. They are one of the few other overlanders that also travel with a dog. It was great to share some beers, stories, and laughs with them, swapping tales and jokes that only other overlanders could understand.
We picked up our friend Ryan and wound our way further down the Carretera Austral toward the second largest lake in South America, Lago General Carrera. The scale of the lake was mind-blowing and the color of the glacial water that fills it stunning. As we pulled into our campsite we were greeted by the infamous Patagonian wind that we had been warned about. The waves on the lake were nearly surf-able in size and no amount of shelter could keep Chimera from rocking us to sleep. If there was one thing more impressive than the enormous Lago General Carrera, it was Rio Baker, the massive river that flows from the lake bubbling and broiling down its wide valley sparkling a deep turquoise hue.
Leaving the Rio Baker and the Carretera Austral, we turned eastward and into the new Parque Patagonia. This park is a huge chunk of land that was bought up by Doug Tompkins, the founder and owner of Patagonia clothing company, and is in process of becoming a national park. We were turned off at first by the pretentious luxury lodge at the park entrance, but the natural beauty of the surroundings quickly won us over. This was the first place that we saw guanacos, the fourth camelid in the alpaca family. Large herds of guanacos graze in Parque Patagonia, taking back the land that had been overrun by cattle for so long. We were excited to see them and snapped many photos, not realizing that they would become super common throughout the rest of our journey south.
We took two days to backpack a beautiful trail that ran through Parque Patagonia. We started off climbing up a ridge, then wound our way along lovely little lakes, stopping to watch the condors soar right above us. We made camp in moss-covered trees near one of the lakes and were thankful for our down jackets and warm sleeping bags during the cold night. In the morning we hiked back down another ridge, through meadows where guanacos grazed amongst the wildflowers, then back to the van.
We exited the park to the east, where the green hills gave way to the vast rolling Pampa that stretches all the way to the Atlantic. The border station for entering Argentina was one of the smallest we’ve seen yet, just a hut and a gate across the road. We completed our paperwork with a gruff military man and a soldier opened the gate for us. Just as we were driving away, Chimera’s horn decided it’d had enough, but it wasn’t going to go easily. The horn died in a loud cacophony of honks and screeches. Corey stopped and looked back to make sure everything was ok and the military men must have either though us crazy or super excited to be back in Argentina.
After a long bumpy dirt road we turned back onto the Ruta 40, which we’ve followed on and off since we first entered Argentina far to the north. We only went a few kilometers before turning off to visit the Cueva de los Manos. This important and impressive archeological site covers an area along a cliff where early human inhabitants painted outlines of hands, likely as a part of some sort of ritual. Some of the pigments have been dated to almost 9,000 years old, preserved by the dry climate and protected location. The paintings are not handprints, but instead the outlines of hands, where pigments were blown around a hand placed on the rock. There were also a few scenes depicting hunters chasing guanacos and strange alien shapes and figures, but most of the walls were covered with thousands of hand outlines, including babies and one with six fingers.
Like the Carretera Austral to the west, the southern section of the Ruta 40 is notoriously remote, but is also going through a transition, namely paving. For a few hours as we made our way south we cruised down smooth open highway, but then we got to the “fin del pavimiento” and slowed down to a bumpy crawl. It had rained hard the night before, which turned the dirt into a muddy mess, splattering every vehicle up to the roofs. While some two-wheel drive vehicles struggled through the mud we had a great time and appreciated the cushioning the mud provided over the hard rocky road surface. At one point we passed an A-frame tent set up just off the road with two touring motorcycles parked behind it and a man lazing in the doorway. We assumed that they had given up on trying to traverse the mud and set up camp right then and there to wait for the sun to dry things out.
We first spotted the majestic spikes of the Fitz Roy Towers just after we turned off the Ruta 40 and headed west towards the little town of El Chalten. As we got closer to Parque Nacional Los Glaciares Mt. Fitz Roy grew bigger and bigger. Soon we were camped at the base of the looming peaks and eager to get out on the trail to explore. Ryan took off on a two-day backpacking adventure, but since dogs aren’t allowed on the trails we opted to do the whole loop through the park in one long day. We were super lucky to get a beautiful day with few clouds, no rain, and little wind, which offered spectacular views of the peaks soaring above the picturesque lakes. The 25km loop took us through tall beech forest where the ground was covered with fuzzy caterpillars, along the shores of turquoise lakes where low thorny bushes overflowed with Calafate and other types of berries, around the edges of red and green peat bogs, over low rocky ridges, and down the long grassy slope back to El Chalten. It was a superb hike and at the end we indulged in delicious local microbrews and ice cream. El Chalten reminded us of a Colorado mountain town and despite the touristy aspect of it we liked the vibe. We must be getting homesick.
A few hours further down the highway we stopped for a night in the busy tourist town of El Calafate, then spent an afternoon admiring the amazing Glaciar Perito Moreno. At somewhere around 14km long and 1.5km wide at it’s toe Perito Moreno spills down from the mountains, filling a wide valley and creating a seasonal dam between two lakes. The ice damn causes one lake to fill with sediment from a river, giving it a milky brown-blue color, while the lake on the other side is a light blue-green. The park service did an excellent job of building a very nice walkway that winds along the front of the glacier with several large balconies lined with benches.
As we approached the glacier from the parking lot we heard several loud cracks and saw large chunks calving off, then a massive piece of ice came crashing down with a thunderous roar. As we made our way along the walkway we kept one eye on the ice at all times hoping for more large calving events. It’s easy to lose hours sitting on a bench at one of the viewpoints admiring the cold blue sheen of the ice, trying to grasp the glacier’s vastness and power, and listening to the noise of the wind flowing through crevasses and the crackling of ice shifting and breaking.
Our next stop was the much-anticipated Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. This is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Patagonia and while the crowds were slimming somewhat as the summer season ended, we still shared most of the trails and viewpoints with plenty of people. As soon as we arrived in the park Ryan took off on his own to do the longer backpacking circuit, and we set off with Corey for a long day hike to the viewpoint at the base of Cerro Torre. Poor Hobie had to hang out for another boring day in the van as he wasn’t allowed in the park. Of all of the places we’ve traveled to on this journey Chile has been by far the most difficult to visit with a dog. We got lucky with the weather again and got a warm day with blue skies, which made for great hiking and a fantastic view of the peaks.
The next morning Tim and Corey strapped on their backpacks and headed out on the next leg of the popular W Circuit, while Emily and Hobie took off in the van to explore some of the park’s back roads. The next morning Emily took the catamaran ferry across a lake to intersect with the trail, then hiked in to meet Tim and Corey as they left their camp after a morning hike up the French Valley. We all trekked out together, then said goodbye to Corey as he headed off on the longer circuit and we caught the ferry back to the van and a very patient Hobie. We spent the next several days exploring the southern part of the park, doing a long day hike to Glaciar Gray, and cuddling warmly in our sweet little van while the gale force winds howled and the rain lashed the sides. We are thankful over and over again for our little turtle shell, which always keeps us dry, warm, and safe.
After five days in the park we picked up Ryan, met up with Corey and headed south once more to the lovely little bayside town of Puerto Natales. We took advantage of a campground with wonderful hot showers then went out to celebrated our time in the park and our time together over pitchers of microbrews and pub food at a local brewery. The TV over the bar was showing climbing videos, many of which we knew, and featuring many Colorado climbers. With the exception of the Spanish being spoken all around us we could have been in Boulder.
The next day Ryan caught a bus back to El Calafate to catch his flights home and we hit the road south once more to the bustling, grungy city of Punta Arenas. As we walked around the city with our overlanding friends Toby and Chloe a bitter Antarctic wind stung our faces with tiny raindrops. Across the Straight of Magellan Tierra del Fuego beckoned.