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CHILE - PATAGONIA

Boundless landscapes, penguins and guanacos, long roads and wonderful treks
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CHILEAN AND ARGENTINE PATAGONIA: PHOTOS AND TRIP REPORT

This is the continuation of a long trip to South America. If you haven't read them yet, have a look at the travel information and full map of the travel itinerary here: www.wildtrips.net/chile-argentina.htm. Here below are lots of photos and the intrepid trip report.

Cowboy riding a horse in Patagonia
Cowboy riding a horse near an Estancia in Patagonia

PATAGONIA: TRIP REPORT AND PHOTOS

After having visited Atacama and Central Chile, by travelling to Patagonia we felt as if in a new vacation.
We landed in Punta Arenas at 1PM and we went straight to the Europcar counter to collect our rental car (booked on the internet through the Chilean agency Lys rent a car). Amazingly, though, our booking apparenty didn't exist. Andreas Gabor, Lys' owner, didn't answer. Moreover, there were no more cars available. In short, probably we had been scammed and certainly we had to go walking instead of driving.
Luckily, at a certain point the Europcar clerk found a car for us and we could hit the road.
We will never understand what happened, but I must say that days later we found out that it wasn't a scam, just bad service. At that point everyone in Lys and Europcar was very kind and later we were fully reimbursed. I wouldn't recommend Lys because an agency that, in case of problems, replies 15 days later is not very reliable... but Andreas Gabor was a very honest person.
From Punta Arenas we drove to the Pinguinera on Seno Otway.
Penguins, Seno Otway, Patagonia
One of the best pinguineras in Patagonia
We saw thirty penguins in a very beautiful Patagonian landscape: strings of clouds, flat colorful ground with flowers and shrubs, snow-capped mountains in the background. The entrance to the Pinguinera is expensive (8000 pesos each), but acceptable especially if, as it happened to us, there was no one to collect our money... and we tried a few times!
Penguins on seno Otway, in Patagonia
Penguins on seno Otway, in Patagonia
We saw thirty penguins in a very beautiful Patagonian landscape: strings of clouds, flat colorful ground with flowers and shrubs, snow-capped mountains in the background. The entrance to the Pinguinera is expensive (8000 pesos each), but acceptable especially if, as it happened to us, there was no one to collect our money... and we tried a few times!
From the Pinguinera, a two-hour drive through beautiful, boundless scenery took us to Puerto Natales. Here we found a nice room with bathroom for 32000 pesos including a good breakfast (we had to browse several hostels as many of them were closed because it was the 1st of January!). During breakfast we met a group of Italians (who were part of a guided tour) that gave us some advice. One of them was an annoying lady who acted as the self-proclaimed leader of the group and didn't let anyone else talk. Dear lady, if you're reading, I tell you that your traveling companions hated you. We, too, but only a little, because we didn't have time to hate you more.
The next day, in a couple of hours drive, we reached the Torres del Paine natural park. We were lucky to find a beautiful day: the views were breathtaking.
Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Chile
Glacier on the Torres del Paine
From the Laguna Amarga, we drove along the dirt roads up to the campsite on the Grey Lake, stopping at several scenic spots to do some short treks. Along this itinerary we admired hundreds of guanacos and some nandus (a kind of ostrich).
The longest and most spectacular walk was a two-hour trek from the Salto Grande to a memorable panoramic viewpoint over the lake Nordeskjold.
Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Chile
Torres del Paine, Patagonia
Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Chile
Relax while admiring the Torres del Paine
Along the trail we saw two armadillos. This was our first encounter with this funny little animal, so the five minutes spent with the Patagonian armadillo under the majestic peaks of the Torres del Paine were really exciting.
Armadillo sotto le Torres del Paine
Armadillo under the Torres del Paine
We also had a good walk near the Lake Grey, with views on an iceberg with a flatiron shape.
Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Chile
Lake Grey in the Torres del Paine National Park
We left the park through a new road from Rio Serrano, thus cutting several kilometers and passing under the Cueva del Milodon (we were happy to see it only from afar). Back to Puerto Natales, we withdrew from the local office of Europcar the papers necessary to drive to Argentina. Then we wandered through the roads of the picturesque town, among may trekking-enthusiasts. We had a good dinner in Puerto Natales with a gargantuan barbecue.
The goal for the next day (3rd of January 2015), was an intense trekking in the Torres del Paine national park. Here there are amazing opportunities for hiking, starting from the famous "W" circuit and the complete trekking itinerary around the towers. These paths allow walking for days in a spectacular scenery, sleeping in equipped shelters (or in a tent). We didn't have time for this, but we were happy to take an adventurous day-walk.
There were two main possibilities: to the Grey Glacier, but we had to reach the departure point by ferry at the crazy price of 70 euros per person, as I recall; or to the base of the towers, a magnificent place that, from the photos, looked exactly like the three Peaks of Lavaredo, in the Italian Dolomites, with the addition of a glacial lake.
We opted for the latter, but unfortunately the weather didn't agree with us. There were low black clouds and rain - unfortunately frequent conditions, together with the strong winds, in the Torres del Paine. We were reluctant. We spent one hour in the park, visiting a small waterfall, but in the end we gave up. (Only consolation was that we could go to Lavaredo once we were back in Italy).
The weather forecasts talked about nice sunshine in Argentina, so we suddenly decided to drive for about 400 kms to El Chalten (destination that we had excluded from our travel itinerary until that moment, because it was too far away).
Lago Viedma, Patagonia Argentina
Viedma Lake, Patagonia, Argentina
It was a long drive, but the landscapes were always pleasant and we ha no problems crossing the border between Chile and Argentina. At the customs we met an Italian who had arranged with his agency a spectacular motorcycle trip along the Americas: unfortunately the ten motorbikes were locked in a container in Buenos Aires and the customers were traveling in a van instead.
The last stretch of road to El Chalten ran along Lake Viedma; in front of us, stood the Fitz Roy.
El Chalten and Fitz Roy, Argentine Patagonia
El Chalten and Fitz Roy, Argentine Patagonia
El Chalten and Fitz Roy, Patagonia Argentina
El Chalten and Fitz Roy
Excited by so much beauty, we arrived in the small and messy village in the late afternoon. There were plenty of climbers and hikers and a funny atmosphere.
We settled in a double room for the night, we bought the necessary for the sandwiches of the next day and we had dinner with some excellent stew.
The next day, at last, we were able to make the trek in Patagonia that we had so much desired. The sun shone bright, the squirrels run around and the Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre scraped the sky.
Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, Patagonia Argentina
Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre
Our destination was the impressive Cerro Torre - the base, not the top, which is one of the most difficult mountaineering feats in the world.
After a 10-km trek through beautiful mountain landscapes, we arrived at the Laguna Torre, a glacial lake at the foot of Cerro Torre rocky fingers. There were many small icebergs moved by the waves and the wind. We were lucky to enjow that amazing view under a blue sky.
Cerro Torre, Patagonia Argentina
Laguna Torre, under the Cerro Torre
Cerro Torre, Patagonia Argentina
Icebergs in the Laguna Torre
I continued alone towards the Mirador Maestri, positioned just above the glacier. There, the wind, hardly present in the valley leading to the Laguna Torre, reached crazy speeds: it was hard to walk against the gusts, and some of them almost threw me to the ground. I cursed against Eolo, who turned the blame on God, who at the time was busy causing an earthquake somewhere else and couldn't do anything for my problem. But that's okay.
Cerro Torre, Patagonia Argentina
Cerro Torre
I don't know if I reached the Mirador because there were lots of rocks and no trail, but I definitely arrived at a beautiful vantage point above the glacier. Meanwhile fast clouds covered the Cerro Torre summit. I walked back to the lagoon, and from there we run away from the bad weather.
Cerro Torre, Patagonia Argentina
Leaving Cerro Torre
We arrived in El Chalten and we drove to El Calafate, a couple of hours away. El Calafate, on the shores of Lake Argentino (fancy name!), was the main tourist center in Patagonia, full of hotels, restaurants and shops, a metropolis compared to El Chalten. We found a double room in the huge and cheap Calafate Hostel - if even this is full, you're in trouble.
Prices in Argentina are weird. The official currency exchange (used by banks and credit cards), was, at the beginning of 2015, approximately 10 Argentine dollar for 1 euro. However, due to the economic crisis and the mad inflation in Argentina, on the "black market" it was possibile to buy up to 15 Argentine dollars with 1 euro, with a net gain of the 50%. So, if you go to Argentina I strongly recommend to bring cash and change it at gift shops and hotels. As long as this situation goes on, by cash you can pay as little as 20 Euros for a 300 Argentine dollar room, or, to make another example, just 70 cents per liter for petrol. Big savings.
The prices of the restaurants of El Calafate, on the other hand, were inflated by tourists, but we did have a gargantuan Patagonian Asado.
The next day we woke up early to visit the famous Perito Moreno.
Perito Moreno, Patagonia Argentina
Perito Moreno
We arrived at 9am and there was hardly anyone. We paid our $ 235 apiece and we drove to the Mirador. We had a first view on the immense glacier, then we drove to the main car park. From there, it was possibile to walk on a number of boardwalks from which we could admire the Perito Moreno for a couple of hours. The gigantic proportions of the glacier were amazing. One of the seven wonders of the world, a must in any travel itinerary, but, from my point of view, less exciting than a trek in the Torres del Paine National Park or in the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares (the one with Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre). Too much tourism, too many boardwalks: the Perito Moreno looks less natural and there's no adventure. It's true that you can do expensive excursions such as the glacier trekking, between blue crevasses.
Perito Moreno, Patagonia Argentina
Perito Moreno
Returning to El Calafate, we admired the beautiful and colorful countryside near the glacier. After lunch, as the weather was getting worse, we decided to drive to Rio Gallegos. It made little sense to stay there while the mountains were covered by the clouds, and we also wanted to travel off the beaten track.
The road to the Atlantic coast crosses typical Patagonian landscapes: flat, windswept, wide horizons... at first you are fascinated, then hypnotized and in the end you might fall asleep. In short, you have to drive carefully.
Patagonia Argentina
The colourful landscapes of Patagonia, crossing the southern part of Argentina
Rio Gallegos is mainly a commercial town, not particularly attractive for a tourist. We were hoping to find some sort of deep, rustic charm, but maybe we didn't try enough, and we were disappointed even by the restaurants. However, there was a quite attractive border town atmosphere: for one night, it was fine.
The next morning, we spent our last 21 Argentine dollars in the supermarket to buy a big water bottle and a yogurt: at that point, we were ready to cross again the border with Chile. At the customs, while we were waiting in the queue, we talked with a kind couple from Argentina who praised the quality of their own country (as most Argentinians do). They claimed that Chile was much more expensive and that the Italian food was disgusting there.
We finished our paperwork rather quickly and we headed to our next destination, Park Pali Aike. The Lonely Planet was very enthusiastic about it, and so were the Rough Guides. Some sentences on the two guides were almost identical, which was suspicious.
Pali Aike wasa strange place, with craters, lava rocks, lagoons and guanacos scattered in the grasslands.
Pali Aike, Patagonia, Chile
Pali Aike National Park, in the Chilean part of Patagonia
Unfortunately the crazy wind didn't allow us to fully enjoy the site. We couldn't take one of the most interesting treks in the park because walking against the wind was as tiring and annoying as having a fat door to door salesman in the backpack. Overall, Park Pali Aike deserved a visit, even if it was certainly not as stunning as Torres del Paine... it shouldn't be a priority in a travel itinerary, but it's worth a detour.
Pali Aike, Patagonia, Chile
Pali Aike National Park
Continuing along the road that leads from the Argentine border to Punta Arenas, we met the legendary Magellan Strait, where many seafaring epics were lived. The strong wind rippled the sea, that wasn't inviting at all. The weather was stormy. Along the way we met a big rusty wrecked ship. We were near a fascinating abandoned village. It was very interesting to explore that ghostly area.
Magellan Strait, Patagonia, Chile
Magellan Strait, in the southern part of Patagonia
We arrived in Punta Arenas, who in just over a century had evolved from a disadvantaged English outpost (originally named Sandy Point) to a modern town rich of commerce and tourism. There were bars, restaurants, shops, interesting buildings, tree-lined squares and a seaside promenade that was fascinating both for the historic importance of the Magellan Strait and for the amazing rainbow that we met. We had dinner with fish, crab and other local products.
Rainbow at Punta Arenas, Patagonia, Cile
Rainbow at Punta Arenas, the biggest city in Chilean Patagonia
It was the evening of the 6th of January, time to return to Italy... very slowly, because, for a series of bureaucratic reasons, we roamed the skies around the world in order to return home.
The night between the 6th and the 7th, we slept in the car, in the parking lot of the airport (again, we were surprised by how comfortable are the reclining seats). At dawn, we flew from Punta Arenas to Santiago.
And that's it for our Patagonia. For the last part of the trip report of this South American itinerary, return to the Central Chile travelogue.

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