Patagonian Road Trip – Part 2

Lago Menedez, Los Alerces National Park, Argentina

This post returns to our road trip through Argentina and Chile, in which we pick up a friend and start to experience the real wilderness of Patagonia with all its beauty and occasional difficulties.

Day 9: Bariloche (Argentina) and around (92km)

We awoke in our lakeside campsite and had breakfast before heading into Bariloche to collect Stella, our new companion for the rest of our time in the van. We had met Stella in Salta at New Year and had stayed in contact. Realising we were all heading the same way with the same time scale after Bariloche, we decided to travel together in Amanda.

In the cab of Amanda on the ferry to Chile Chico
In the cab of Amanda on the ferry to Chile Chico

We needed to more than just a vague plan for the rest of our road trip so the three of us used the WiFi in Stella’s hostal to plan the rest of our road trip. While it it’s never nice to lose so much time to planning, we finished a few hours later with a rough plan. We also used the opportunity to do some laundry and stock up on supplies. While we waited for the laundry we sat outside in the sun enjoying a pint of beer from a local microbrewery and then drove to a nearby campsite.

The campsite turned out to be one of the busiest we’ve been to but we managed to find a pitch with a grill and a picnic table and enjoyed a BBQ with corn on the cob and veggie kebabs. I slept okay that night, not as well as I had previously mostly due to having an extra person in the van, but I would get used to that within a few days.

Day 10: Bariloche to El Bolson (140km)

In the morning we went on a short walk up Llao Llao (pronounced Shao Shao as we’re in Argentina) from where we had a fantastic view of the surrounding lakes and mountains. On the way back down we walked via the creaking forest, full of tall trees, many of which are dead and have fallen onto other trees and constantly creak in the wind. We then set off for our next destination, El Bolson.

Metal sculpture in El Bolson
Metal sculpture in El Bolson

El Bolson is a small town around 150km south of Bariloche. The drive down is a beautiful winding road between lakes and mountains. Unfortunately, we’d picked a hot day for the drive (something that we would never have imagined only a few days before in Chile) so we arrived at El Bolson hot and tired. The first petrol station that we came to only had one working pump and a queue, we decided to join it in case this was the only petrol station in town. Once we’d filled up we drove into town and found a campsite within walking distance of the centre. We parked up and walked in to see the local market.

El Bolson is a bit of a hippy town and this was more of a market for tourists rather than locals, selling incense and lots of handmade jewellery and hand carved wooden items, but they also had a few stands selling artisanal beer which, thanks to us having already parked the van, I was able to partake in. While walking around ther market, beers in hand we walked past a man dressed as a leprechaun resplendant in emerald green with a huge belt buckle, pointy shoes and a ginger wig. He was sitting around talking to his friends while smoking a joint. This made somewhat of a surreal sight and only proved to us that El Bolson’s reputation is well deserved! After the market we wandered back to the campsite to enjoy a dinner cooked on the BBQ with a tasty bruschetta to start.

Day 11: El Bolson to Lago Futalaufquen in Los Alerces National Park (134km) 

Birds congregating in the campsite at El Bolson
Birds congregating in the campsite at El Bolson

We got up the next morning having not slept particularly well. Some people had come back to the campsite around 2am and, as we discovered from the cigarette butts on our picnic table, sat around next to our van talking before going to bed. This didn’t disturb us enough to prompt us to get up and ask them to move, but just enough so that we woke up all feeling like we hadn’t slept well. We had breakfast and started to head south.

After a while we reached the border of Los Alerces National Park. They had a fee structure where locals pay a small fee and foreigners pay a lot more to visit. I don’t mind this too much in cheaper countries, places like Bolivia where locals pay 50p and we pay a few pounds since foreign incomes are so different, however this grates a little in Argentina when locals pay what we’d see as an acceptable fee and we have to pay an extortionate fee, at least double what we’d expect to pay at home just to drive through a national park! Anyway, my good friend German had told me that this national park was one of his favourite places in the world so we grit our teeth, paid the fee and drove in. It didn’t look much at first (the surrounding countryside was equally beautiful) but we arrived at a car park where we could leave the van and go for a walk. What further surprised us was that we’d also have to pay for the privilege of parking in the national park! Anyway we sucked it up, paid for parking and started our walk.

Los Alerces National Park, Argentina
Los Alerces National Park, Argentina

After five minutes we were rewarded, we reached a bridge over the Rio Arrayanes and saw the bluest water that I’ve ever seen. Actually what went through my head when I saw the river was that the only time I’d ever seen water this blue in my life was in Las Vegas at the Venician, which was an implausibly artificial shade of blue. This river however was not artificially coloured but was the result of being filled by glacial meltwater. Sitting by the river watching this unbelievably blue water pass by in the peace of this beautiful national park, I could understand why German likes this place so much. We continued our walk and were treated to a many beautiful views of this amazing place.

A couple of hours later we got back to the van and set off to find somewhere to spend the night. We’d picked out a campsite a little further through the park that was free (finally, no extra charges!) and had been described as being at the end of a bumpy track but well worth it. We reached the turn off and found that it was blocked by a car struggling to reverse back up a steep descent. They had started to descend, decided that the track was too rough for their vehicle and then struggled to get back up. They warned us that we shouldn’t go down there because of the condition of the road. The girls were keen to carry on and look for somewhere else but I decided to walk down and investigate just in case it was feasible (we had a higher clearance than a car after all).

Camping by Lago Futalaufquen, Los Alerces National Park, Argentina
Camping by Lago Futalaufquen, Los Alerces National Park, Argentina

What I found was 25m of bumpy dirt road. It was so bad because it had been churned up by all the vehicles heading up and down the road. It wasn’t actually that steep but for 25m it was in terrible condition. At the bottom of the hill the road continued and was totally flat and in much better condition. I decided to follow it just to see what the reward was if we decided to tackle the hill. After 5 minutes I was still walking but having come this far I didn’t want to go back not having seen the end. I carried on and luckily after another five minutes the road opened out onto a beautiful little campsite on the edge of a huge blue lake. It was fringed by mountains and there were 16 individual camping spots with a BBQ. About 5 spaces were in use by vehicles that ranged from camper vans to fairly normal looking cars.

On the pebble beach at Lago Futalaufquen
On the pebble beach at Lago Futalaufquen

I decided that since these vehicles had evidently managed the road we would also be able to and, if we did get stuck on the way back up at least there was someone around to ask for help. I also figured that since the road was so bad we had a decent chance of other people being put off by it and therefore a quiet night at the bottom. I walked back up to the van. When I returned I could see that I was in trouble, I’d been gone for about 20 minutes and worried, Alex had started walking down the path to find me but had given up and gone back to the van before reaching the campsite. I explained what I’d found and that I thought it was worth the risk. I’m not sure the girls were entirely convinced but they trusted me and we agreed to head down.

Driving down the hill was not hard. Although the road was very bad I had gravity on my side so all I had to do was to very slowly and carefully bump the van down the hill and we safely reached the bottom without grounding on any of the bumps. The road that had seemed so long on foot took only a few minutes in the van and, as we pulled into the campsite, all worries about the road vanished as the girls saw what a beautiful place we were going to stay in.

Lago Futalaufquen
Lago Futalaufquen

We found a lovely flat spot for the van with a picnic bench right next to the beach and immediately decided to go for a swim. The beach was pebbled which meant that the water was beautiful and clear and nearly as blue as we’d seen at Rio Arrayanes. Because we were in the mountains the lake got very deep very quickly (apparently 500m in the centre) and was quite cold but we had a wonderful refreshing swim.

Camping by Lago Futalaufquen, Los Alerces National Park, Argentina
Camping by Lago Futalaufquen, Los Alerces National Park, Argentina

After our swim we sat on the beach trying to chill our beer in the cold water. Eventually we decided to make fajitas. We’d managed to buy everything we needed except the tortillas but Stella had been told that they could easily be made with flour, water and salt. I decided to give it a go and despite having to guess the consistency and improvise a wine bottle as a rolling pin, they turned out so well that we’ll be giving them another go at home. Thanks to making the tortillas from scratch we ate a little later than planned (I was cooking after all), but we all enjoyed sitting by the lake drinking our slightly warm beer in the meantime.

Day 12: A Welsh Town and Crossing Back into Chile (268km)

We woke up the next morning and the realisation hit me that it was now time to try and make it back up the track, a feat that I’d told the girls I was 95% confident would be fine. After breakfast we drove back down the track and reached the start of the hill. The back of the van tends to bounce quite badly on bumps so the girls got out and took the chairs, table and food boxes with them so they didn’t get damaged. I decided that the only way I’d make it up the hill was with the help of momentum but didn’t want to go too fast, if I hit one of the bigger bumps at speed I could damage the suspension and ground the van.

Day 12 - escaping our campsite in Los Alerces National Park
Day 12 – escaping our campsite in Los Alerces National Park

I reversed so that I’d have a run up and hit the accelerator. It started well and I managed to avoid the worst bumps, but as I ascended the hill the van got slower and slower and I couldn’t get enough grip to speed up. Eventually I ground to a halt only 2 metres from the top of the hill. It may have been only 2 metres but there was nothing I could do to get the van to moving forward again and the back wheels were sinking into the sandy ground with every attempt. I decided to reverse before I became totally stuck, my only option being to go all the way back down the slope to firm ground and start again. This time Alex and Stella stamped out the worst of the bumps first, then I took a longer run up and put my foot down a little harder. I again managed to get over the first few bumps without losing too much speed and this time I just managed to crawl up onto the road.

Relieved that we’d made it to the top, we reloaded the van and hit the road. We were heading for the Chilean border and the start of the famous Carretera Austral road, but first we had one small stop along the way.

Outside the Welsh tea room in Trevelin, Argentina
Outside the Welsh tea room in Trevelin, Argentina

I’d read that in the 19th century a number of Welsh people had emigrated to Argentina and that there were still several Welsh strongholds in Argentinian Patagonia who have their very own dialect of Welsh. Although we were a long way from most of these towns, I’d managed to engineer the route so that we passed through Trevelin, one of the smaller settlements. As we approached the edge of the town we were not sure what we’d find in terms of traces of Welsh heritage, maybe a plaque or a statue, but we realised that we might find a little more as we passed an estáncia (ranch) on the way into town and saw the Welsh flag proudly flying above the gate. We drove into town and started to see businesses with Welsh sounding names and suddenly noticed that all the road signs were in Spanish and Welsh. We arrived at the centre of town to find a large carved sign with a Welsh dragon and a list of Welsh tea shops in town. After taking a photo we drove to one of the tea shops but we were too early and it was closed. I would have loved to have spent a little more time exploring this interesting little town and learning about it’s history, but we had to get to the border with Chile and had no idea whether the crossing would take 10 minutes or three hours. We drove out of town and very quickly the road turned into a poorly maintained dirt track.

The Welsh town of Trevelin in rural Argentina
The Welsh town of Trevelin in rural Argentina

We carried on driving past estáncias with Welsh flags while wondering whether this tiny, empty dirt road could possibly be the route to the border. Sure enough though we eventually arrived at the Argentine crossing post. It was totally deserted so we just walked straight in and got our passports stamped. When we got to the customs desk the guy seemed a little distracted, looking over his shoulder regularly. We looked behind him and saw, out of the back door of the building, a proper brick parrilla (Argentinian BBQ) loaded up and cooking meat. He was obviously the cook and was anxious to get back to lunch, this made our customs check very speedy!

We got back in the van and drove towards the Chilean border post. This was our first time crossing back into Chile in Amanda and we knew that Chile has strict laws regarding the import of fresh fruits and vegetables, so we expected to come across a queue of people waiting to get in. Once again however, we came around a corner and saw the building with no queue of cars. We had enough fresh veg to make some sandwiches so we parked up by the side of the road, got out our chairs and table and had a nice lunch of sandwiches right on the borderline with a giant ‘Las Malvinas son Argentina’s’ (the Falklands are Argentina’s) sign behind us just on the Argentinian side of the border.

A view from the Carretera Austral, Chile
A view from the Carretera Austral, Chile

After lunch we drove to the Chilean border post and got our passports stamped. The customs agent had a look at the food in the back of the van but only confiscated half a butternut squash that was in the coolbox. Upon reaching the Chilean border we’d been greeted with a paved road and this lasted all the way to Futaleufú, the next town, but petered out shortly afterwards leaving us back on a slow dirt road. This was more than compensated for however by the scenery, which was truly stunning. We carried on driving until we reached Villa Santa Lucía, a small town. Since we now had no fresh fruit or vegetables we stopped at one of only a couple of shops in the town. They had no bread but directed us a couple of blocks south to where we found a local ‘bakery’ which was actually the home of a local lady who sold bread from her kitchen.

Camping by Lago Risopatron
Camping by Lago Risopatron

We headed south out of the town to find that the road was in the process of being paved, which was not of much use to us but did mean that we regularly encountered road works where we were forced to stop for 5-10 minutes while the crews worked on the road. We eventually reached a campsite next to Lake Risopatrón run by the Chilean national parks service. It was only a small campsite with a few individual camping spots looking out over the lake, completely isolated from each other with a BBQ, picnic table, covered shelter and drinking water tap. The toilet block actually had showers with warm water too! We built a big fire from wood that we found on the site and prepared some dinner. Once dinner was made we sat down to eat, Alex and I sat down on the same side of the picnic table and unfortunately it had been designed badly and our weight was enough to unbalance it so that suddenly we were falling backwards and the table and our food was coming towards us. Luckily we managed to avoid it completely flipping, but things were flying everywhere! By some stroke of luck we weren’t injured and only one of our dinner plates had been lost onto the floor, the other two had magically landed upright. There was enough food that we could redistribute what remained between the three of us for dinner and only had to mourn the loss of a couple of beers.

Day 13: Carretera Austral to Puerto Ibanez (370km)

It had rained most of the previous evening and all through the night so the ground was pretty wet. We made the most of the warm showers and got ready to leave. Before leaving the campsite we walked over to a viewpoint formed by a wooden pier built on top of a huge old tree that had fallen into the lake. We walked to the end of it and looked across the lake. The water here was not as beautifully blue as we’d seen elsewhere, but it was very clear so we could look down and see the bed of the lake around us with thousands of clam-like creatures sitting on the base. We noticed a huge beetle standing right on the very end of the pier seemingly looking out across the lake. It didn’t move the whole time we were there and we realised that it must be dead. It had somehow climbed along the whole length of the pier and died standing on the very last point looking out over the water. I like to think that it came there to die on purpose, and with the amazing view across the totally deserted lake first thing in the morning it seemed like a very peaceful place to choose.

The park guard arrived to collect a small fee and we made our way back over the soggy ground to the gravel road. Although we’d been making OK progress we were finding that on the unpaved roads we weren’t making good enough time. We had planned a few nights in one place once we got to some of the great hiking destinations, and we didn’t want to risk not having time to stop for the hikes. We left with the resolve to try and get a couple of really long days driving under our belt. Our original target for the day was Coihaique, the largest town in a region that is very sparsely populated. It is not connected by paved roads to the rest of Chile because they haven’t yet got down this far.

Carretera Austral, Chile
Carretera Austral, Chile

The drive that morning was beautiful, we climbed up a pass of steep switchbacks that was in the process of being rerouted. We could see why it was being rerouted rather than simply paved as the turns were incredibly steep. The only way to get van round many of them was to drive on the outside of the corner which meant being on the wrong side of the road at every other turn, thankfully it wasn’t a busy road. We eventually made it up and back down the high pass and drove for many miles though a beautiful valley alongside a river.

The Carretera Austral, Chile
The Carretera Austral, Chile

Suddenly we hit a section of road that had been paved since our map had been printed and we quickly sped our way into Coihaique, arriving much earlier than expected. We stopped in town for supplies and were firstly surprised to find a proper supermarket and then even more shocked when I found Waitrose Essential Mayonnaise on the shelves. I have no idea how it got there, but they seemed to have a whole bunch of Waitrose Essential products. Unfortunately however we couldn’t find the Waitrose ‘Essential’ Caviar or Quail’s eggs so we did the best with what we could find and carried on.

One of the local lumberjacks we encountered on the Carretera Austral
One of the local lumberjacks we encountered on the Carretera Austral

Our original plan for the next day’s drive was to get to Chile Chico, on the other side of a large lake that straddles the border between Chile and Argentina. The lake is huge and is called Lago Buenos Aires by the Argentinians and Lago General Carrera by the Chileans. We had three options to get to Chile Chico on the other side. Our first option was to take a beautiful but several hundred kilometre drive round the Chilean side of the lake on dirt roads. The second option was to drive around the Argentinian side, crossing the border much earlier and skipping Chile Chico altogether. Although much shorter than the Chilean route, the roads on both sides of the border looked small and unpaved. Our final, preferred option was to take a ferry across the lake. This was our original plan but upon further research it looked difficult to get tickets. The main ferry sailed once a day in the afternoon from our side of the lake and although there appeared to be a second smaller boat that left in the morning we didn’t know if it took vehicles. What I had discovered however was that the ferry company had an office in Coihaique, so we decided to try and reserve our passage before heading onwards. We got to the office and asked about departures and they told us that the only departure was the evening one. I asked specifically about the other boat and she asked a colleague and discovered that, sure enough, there was a boat in the morning. She wrote out tickets for us, but when I asked how much we would pay for the van she stopped and told us that the vehicle spaces were sold out. We couldn’t afford to wait for the boat the next evening, so we decided to take the route around the Argentinian side of the lake. We still had a few hours of light so we pushed on as far as we could go that night to Puerto Ibáñez, the departure point for the ferry across the lake.

There was almost nowhere to camp in the area but yet again the iOverlander app came in very handy, and we found a reference to a German farmer who brewed his own beer and let people stay on his land. He lived 10 kilometres outside of Puerto Ibáñez. It was a 10km detour on a terrible unpaved road, but there was a stunning waterfall on the way and we made it just before dark.

Waterfall on the Rio Ibanez just outside of Puerto Ibanez, Chile
Waterfall on the Rio Ibanez just outside of Puerto Ibanez, Chile

We drove into the farm and immediately this huge barrel-chested man walked over to us along with a much smaller, quieter, and corporate looking version of himself. This turned out to be his brother who was visiting from Germany and we quickly realised that they were both quite drunk after the girls had received extremely friendly hugs while his brother looked slightly embarrassed. Our new German friend was especially keen to know who the single one of my female companions was, he obviously didn’t receive many female visitors. It was all good natured however and he quickly showed us where to find the toilet block and where to park the van. He charged very little to camp and seemed entirely relaxed about us paying. His farm had a beautiful view over the lake but the location was a quite exposed and a little windy, our first taste of the Patagonian wind.

On the road to Puerto Ibanez, Chile
On the road to Puerto Ibanez, Chile

We settled in and started up the BBQ for some dinner. It was quite cold outside in the wind, so once the food was cooked we ate up quickly and retreated into the van to catch up with diaries before getting an early night.

Day 14: Puerto Ibáñez to the Patagonian Wilderness (369km)

The lady at the ferry company office hadn’t filled us with confidence in her abilities, since she worked for a company that solely existed to run one ferry route with two boats, yet she seemed to be entirely unaware of this second boat. With this in mind, and since we were camping near Puerto Ibáñez, we’d decided to get up early the next morning, and pass by the ferry terminal about 30 minutes before the ferry was due to leave on the off-chance that there was a no-show or room to squeeze us on. We drove in and found the ticket office in a tiny porta-cabin. We asked if they might possibly be able to find space for us and were immediately told they had space, and a couple of minutes later we had tickets.

The ferry from Puerto Ibanez to Chile Chico
The ferry from Puerto Ibanez to Chile Chico

We went and joined the queue with some lorries and waited. A few minutes later a guy came to check our ticket and when he saw it he pointed in the opposite direction to a smaller ferry that was parked directly up to the shore and was getting ready to leave. We quickly turned around and bumped across the rocky shore towards the ferry than had lowered a steep ramp onto the rocks. The ferry crew directed me to turn around and reverse up the ramp. The visibility out of the back of Amanda is not great, so this seemed like a risky move but I turned around and carefully started to reverse up. This was too much for the van and we got about halfway up before having to come down and try again. I couldn’t see much behind me but apparently at the top of the ramp another customer had opened his car door and was standing around, oblivious to the fact that I was trying to reverse into a space not much wider than the van at the top of a steep slope. Once the ferry crew had finished shouting at him, I was beckoned to try again and this time I put my foot down and we just made it to the top of the ramp and into the space without hitting the vehicles on either side.

The only comparison I have for this experience, and what it reminded me of at the time, is when you see the guys on Top Gear on their adventures around the world trying to get battered old sports cars with low clearance onto battered looking ferries with a lot of difficulty while the locals look on with mild annoyance. In fact it is possible that they took this exact ferry as we later discovered that, from the point that we picked up Stella in Bariloche, we followed an almost identical route to the Top Gear team on their infamous Patagonian special.

The ferry was a small, open-topped affair but it did have an interior cabin to sit in, plus some toilets. It wasn’t the nicest cabin, with no windows, so we followed the example of most other passengers and sat in our vehicle. Since we had Amanda, we were able to set up the table in the back and enjoy a little more comfort. The journey took several hours and the lake, although very large, was surprisingly calm so towards the end of the passage we made our sandwiches and had an early lunch, to allow us to get on the road quickly once we arrived. We docked in Chile Chico and disembarked onto the shore. The angle was a little steeper on the ramp this time however and the crew put boards under the wheels as we reached the end of the ramp to ensure we didn’t bury the front bumper in the ground.

Memorial to the Falklands war in Los Antiguos, Argentina
Memorial to the Falklands war in Los Antiguos, Argentina

Chile Chico is very close to Argentina, so we were at the border in minutes and through with very little fuss to Los Antiguos, the town on the Argentinian side. We’d decided to save filling up on fuel until we got to Argentina since petrol is about 30% cheaper there, but when we reached the petrol station in Los Antiguos we were surprised to find that they had none. This turned out to be prescient for the fun that we’d have over the coming days. Luckily we still had plenty of petrol so we drove on, but stopped when we noticed a memorial to the Falklands war when we headed out of town. The memorial was on a small square and was very recent and appeared to show Argentinian planes attacking a British aircraft carrier. We’d already seen lots of signs on the Argentinian roads declaring the Argentinian ownership of the Falklands but this was the first memorial we’d seen to the war itself. We still don’t really know what to make of it, but to us it felt like it sat on the wrong side of the line between a memorial and a glorification.

A long straight road in Argentinian Patagonia
A long straight road in Argentinian Patagonia

We left Los Antiguos and pushed onto Perito Moreno, the town which is nowhere near the far more famous glacier of the same name. We were pleasantly surprised to find that the road was paved, as it was not marked as such on our map, so we made excellent time all day. In Perito Moreno we found petrol and, much to our surprise, a brand new supermarket. We’d been told that, as we headed South, fresh vegetables would get harder to find and since we’d just crossed the border we once again needed to stock up. We left Perito Moreno and continued on our journey.

Refueling in Bajo Caracoles, Argentina
Refueling in Bajo Caracoles, Argentina

We’d now entered the Patagonian steppe where the land was a lot flatter and nothing much taller than a few centimetres grew. There was the occasional stand of Cyprus trees planted to provide wind protection around buildings and the occasional green streak where a river ran through the landscape, but otherwise the land was near desert-like and we could see for miles in all directions. The next town on the route was called Bajo Caracoles and it would be undeserving to call this a one horse town because there really was almost nothing there. The main point of its existence and sole local economy seemed to be the petrol station which consisted of two pumps. There was no associated building or canopy, or anything you normally expect from a petrol station, just two pumps standing by the side of the road with one guy pumping petrol and collecting cash. We didn’t really need fuel here and it was more expensive than a proper petrol station, but with the vast distances between towns and our earlier experience, we decided to top up anyway. We went to stretch our legs and walked around the town finding a closed shop, a closed hostel, a police station and a small collection of houses.

We pressed on, keen to get as many miles under our belts as possible. There were no campsites for miles around, but we had seen a description on iOverlander of a place to pull off the road next to a river at a few metres lower than the surrounding countryside, therefore giving a little protection from the wind. When we arrived there was one other overlander vehicle there, a Swiss couple in a huge six wheeled ex-military Pinzgauer, an ancient vehicle that had previously been an ambulance for the Swiss army.

The view across the steppe from Bajo Caracoles, Argentina
The view across the steppe from Bajo Caracoles, Argentina

We parked up in a spot with the best wind protection and had a BBQ by the river. We were only about 10m from the main road but there was no traffic, only a couple of vehicles passing us all evening.

This was just the start of our Patagonian wilderness experience. There will be another post about this road trip and the true beauty and challenges we faced driving in remote Argentina.

Author: Chris Greenwood

IT Consultant, traveller, foodie, husband and occasional blogger

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