The distances are huge. We aimed to drive further down the Carretera Austral to take in the scenery before cutting over to Argentina for the Cueva de las Manos, Fitz Roy and Ushuaia. To make them all before heading north to Puerto Natales, we would be covering more than 2,000 miles.
We had the truck for six days – Sunday afternoon until Saturday afternoon.
Sunday 24th: The Carretera Austral lived up to its reputation as being one of the world’s most beautiful roads. It zigzags up and down through dramatic mountain landscapes, skirting fjords, rivers and the Pacific. We pulled up in a lay-by to watch the pink sunset over misty lakes before settling down for the night in the truck.
Monday 25th: We followed the road to the east to cross the pass into Argentina at Chile Chico. Passing the cabins for excursions out to the lakes for fishing and kayaking, I knew one day I wanted to return.
An hour detour off the Ruta 40 took us to the Cueva de las Manos – a site of 1archaeological importance. Situated in a canyon, the cave shows hundreds of beautifully preserved examples of cave painting from as long as ten thousand years ago. The cave is named after the many hands that have been painted on the walls: negative prints made by blowing paint mixed with a fixative through a straw onto the rock. There were also scenes depicting the hunting of guanacos. We could look out across the canyon landscape and really imagine seeing prehistoric man chasing the herds with their weapons of rope and spear.
Our aim was to reach El Chaltén before sleeping, giving us the next day to enjoy hiking around Fitz Roy in the Los Glaciares national park. We stopped at Tres Lagos, a few miles east of the park, as we knew there would be a petrol station where we could fill up in the morning.
Tuesday 26th: The petrol station couldn’t accept card and we had no cash, so we had no choice but to make the 300 mile round-trip to El Calafate to find a cash machine. As I say, the distances are huge.
We arrived at El Chalten in the early afternoon and were lucky enough to accidentally park right by the start of a trail that would take us to a glacial lake looking out onto the famous Torres del Paine mountains. We couldn’t have timed it better, reaching the lake shortly before the sun dipped below the line of the mountains, causing the different lights of the evening sun to twinkle and sparkle across the lake.
After the 10 mile hike we got back in the truck and headed down to Rio Gallegos where we slept by the side of the road close to a military base.
Wednesday 27th: On the map, Rio Gallegos to Ushuaia doesn’t look far: both are on the toe of Argentina. But it was a full day behind the wheel, setting off at 8am, catching the ferry over to Tierra del Fuego – Land of Fire, the massive island at the base of Argentina – and continuing south until the end of the road. Tierra del Fuego is barren desert steppe in the north, much like most of the rest of Argentine Patagonia. As you head south, you pass skeleton forests of hardy trees with their leaves ripped off by winds and branches spiking out to the sides, sculpted by the inhospitable environment. It’s only when you get right down to the bottom that snowy mountains appear. The road climbs up and over a couple of mountains and as we drove through we were hit by a snow blizzard. Risky, as roads sometimes get closed down here and we had to make the boat on Saturday.
But coming down from the mountain into the cradle of Ushuaia and the snow eased to a light drizzly rain. We found a place to spend the night before heading out for a meal to celebrate our reaching the end of the world.
Thursday 28th: Plenty of cycle tourists we’ve met along the way have advised not to bother with Ushuaia. We kept hearing the refrain that there’s nothing much there, and that the monotony of the landscape for hundreds of miles north of the city makes the journey a waste of time. But we loved it. Aside from the poetic element of being located at the world’s most southerly stretch of land, we found the scenery as stunning as Chilean Patagonia, with lakes, mountains and autumnal forests untouched by human interference.
We spent the day walking around the Tierra del Fuego national park and breathing in the pristine air, happy that we had made it and excited that our journey from here would be taking us northwards for the very first time.
We were lucky to have the truck. I can understand why people had advised against visiting, simply because on a bike it would take you a good two weeks to get from Ushuaia to the next point of interest, which would be the Los Glaciers national park. I would imagine those two weeks would be gruelling and lonely. But in the truck we could enjoy the landscapes for what they are and appreciate the long open desert roads for their space and seclusion.
Friday 29th: We saw the Atlantic and then the Pacific within a couple of hours of each other and soon enough we were in Puerto Natales. We found the truck drop-off point, the office for the boat we would be catching, and drove out of town again to enjoy the evening sun.
Saturday 30th: The road signs in Puerto Natales all show a picture of a mylodon – a sport of giant sloth – in the bottom corner. Not far from the city is a huge natural cave where in the nineteenth century a settler found fossils from the extinct creature. We drove out to the site and took a walk around, learning about megafauna that lived there thousands of years ago, back when huge channels of ice were still carving the landscape.
And then back to town to drop off the truck and board the boat that will take us north through the fjords to Puerto Montt.
It’s been a glorious holiday from the bikes in one of the world’s last remaining wildernesses. Goodbye for now Patagonia. Hopefully I’ll see you again.
Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!