The Patagonian Wilderness – Road Trip Part 3

Perito Moreno Glacier

This post is the final part of our road trip, picking back up with us in the Patagonian wilderness of Argentina. This was probably the most difficult but also exciting section of our road trip with petrol strikes, broken cash machines and a lucky escape from a small electrical fire in the van, in the wilderness, at speed. Sound scary? it was…….

Day 15: Patagonian Steppe and Ruta 40 to El Chalten (365km)

I woke up at about 6am freezing cold in the van, although we’d parked somewhere with some wind shelter it had still become pretty cold overnight. At around 8am we gave up trying to sleep and got up to a sunny but freezing cold morning.

Wind, one of the many hazards in Patagonia
Wind, one of the many hazards in Patagonia

After a quick breakfast we hit the road to Gobernador Gregores, the provincial capital and biggest town for miles around. It was a detour away from our route south but the road was paved and we needed to top up with petrol.

We pulled into the town, found the petrol station and saw around 50 cars queueing to get in. The petrol station itself was closed we assumed just temporarily for refuelling, but when we enquired we were told that they wouldn’t have any fuel until the next day. We did a quick calculation and worked out that we could make it to the next petrol station, but would probably have to use some of our 20 litre emergency fuel can that we were carrying. We decided to go for it.

Rheas in the Patagonian steppe
Rheas in the Patagonian steppe

On the way to the next stop there was a 70km stretch of road under construction which meant that we had to take a gravel track, sometimes good but with a 20km stretch covered in big rocks that we had to slowly bump through. We eventually got back onto tarmac and just made it to the petrol station without touching the reserve. We pulled into the petrol station to find no queue, but immediately realised that this was because they also had no fuel. We spoke to someone else who’d managed to buy 10 litres in town from a man who charged them three times the normal rate. We calculated what we had left again and worked out that we just had enough to get to El Chalten, our next town and somewhere we planned to stay for two nights.

Refueling from the emergency supply on the way to El Chalten
Refueling from the emergency supply on the way to El Chalten

We decided to drive out without filling up from the reserve can, just to see how much we actually had left in the tank and sure enough 4km after leaving the petrol station the van started to struggle and then finally conked out. After filling up our tank on the side of the road we continued on and made El Chalten in good time, considering that I was trying to drive as economically as possible. We joined a line of cars at the petrol station and eventually reached the front only to be told that, although we could get fuel, we’d be limited 200 pesos (only 17 litres), enough to carry us around town, but not enough to take us to El Calafate two days later.

We got our ration of petrol and decided to stop at the police station to ask for advice. Their best suggestion was to walk back to the petrol station carrying our reserve can to try to get another 17 litres. Since this action was apparently sanctioned by the police, we decided to give it a go. I parked around the corner while Alex and Stella walked into the petrol station carrying the petrol can. Seeing two women walking into the petrol station obviously did the trick, they were nearly immediately waved to the front of the queue and a couple of guys insisted on giving them lift back to the van. All this time everyone just assumed that they’d run out of petrol on the side of the road, and the girls didn’t feel they could correct anyone as people were being so sympathetic!

A quick break on our way to El Chalten
A quick break on our way to El Chalten

Through talking to the police we managed to ascertain that the petrol workers were on strike and had blocked the road so that the petrol lorries could not get through. We now at least had enough petrol to make it to El Calafate but only if we didn’t drive around town and would risk running out once we arrived with no guarantee of a refill. In order to save on fuel, and since it was now quite late, we decided to park in a car park on the edge of town where motor homes were allowed. We walked back into town and treated ourselves to a welcome pizza and beer, the first restaurant we’d visited since our late night casino stop off on the day that we picked up the van.

Day 16: In and Around El Chalten

The day’s plan was to try and get some more fuel, drop off some laundry and go for a walk. We started by heading to the petrol station. This time I got out and stood in the queue with the petrol can while Alex took the van through. Alex filled up and when it came to me, the attendant asked me if the can was for the van. I told him it was for another car in town and he accepted that and put 200 pesos in it. We headed back into town with a full tank and nearly a full can of petrol. I’d worked out that this was now enough to take us all the way to the town which serves as the start point for the W trek in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. Finally we could be sure that even if the strike continued and we could find no more petrol in Argentina, we could at least make it to the trek in Chile where the petrol supply seemed more reliable.

The start of a walk in El Chalten
The start of a walk in El Chalten

We dropped off the laundry and started our day’s walking. We’d picked a walk up to Laguna Torres which is 18km (9km each way) and set off. It was a 6 hour round trip and we made good time hiking over hills and through a small forest. Eventually we reached a small lake fed by a glacier that reaches down to the edge of it. Thanks to the glacier the lake is freezing cold and has small icebergs floating in it. We’d brought a picnic with us so we ate lunch sitting by the lake with a view of the glacier and up to Cerro Torres above. We took the path back to the start of the walk which, since it was now mid-afternoon and baking hot, took a little longer but we still made good time.

The plan for the evening was to pick up some groceries, pop into a bar for a happy hour beer and use their WiFi to book a couple of campsites for the W trek now that we knew we had enough petrol to make our planned dates. The beer was a success but the WiFi was not. Every single time I tried to book the campsites I’d get nearly all of the way to payment and then the internet would die and I’d have to start again, a tortuous process. After about three hours of trying this and not quite managing to make either booking, even after persuading a receptionist to let us use the WiFi at a hotel nearby, my laptop went flat and we gave up.

We still needed to find somewhere to stay and also now needed to charge my laptop, so we headed for a campsite out of town that was supposed to be cheap and had power at the sites. When we got there it turned out that they charged the same going rate as most of the other campsites, but much quieter with less people and facilities seemed poorly maintained. We searched around and found a quiet pitch with a working socket. We were running low on cash so we dipped into our emergency stash of US Dollars to pay our dues. It was now quite late so I made a quick pasta sauce to go with some ravioli we’d bought.

Day 17: El Chalten Again

A valley to the east of El Chalten
A valley to the east of El Chalten

Our original plan had been to do a longer walk in the beautiful countryside around El Chalten, but after our failure to book the W trek and a dire shortage of cash, we needed to sort a few things out. I reckoned that if I sat outside the bar from the night before I’d be able to use their WiFi for free, and since the bar would be closed I wouldn’t have to share the internet connection with any other patrons. After breakfast we headed back into town and I used the internet while Alex and Stella went to collect laundry, find an ATM, and get a final top up of petrol to take us up to a full tank. They returned after an hour to find me frustrated having still been only to make one of the two bookings. They themselves were equally frustrated having been unable to find a working cash machine and having found a huge queue at the petrol station. They did have laundry however so we decided to go together back to the petrol station and fill up.

While we were waiting in the queue for petrol (it was rather long today) I finally gave in and called mum back in the UK to ask her to book the remaining campsite for us. The website was all in English apart from the card payment at the end but we struggled through, with her reading the Spanish to me and me translating it and telling her what details to put where. The only pause was when I asked to borrow her credit card to put the payment on. The question came back down the line
“Just how much is 13,000 Chilean Pesos?”
“About £13 Mum”
“Ahh.. no problem then!”
And sure enough 2 minutes later we were all booked in. The entire process that had frustrated me for a total of about 7 hours had been resolved by my mum in about 5 minutes. This was the first and last time that we genuinely had to reach out for help during our trip, but it is always nice to know that help is at the end of a phone line if you need it. By this time we’d reached the front of the queue where we finally got enough fuel to top off our tank.

Laguna Capri with mount Fitz Roy in the background
Laguna Capri with mount Fitz Roy in the background

We now only had enough time for a shorter walk but we’d worked out that we could walk part way up the Fitz Roy trail to Laguna Capri in the time we had. Although we would have loved to have gone further we still had a lovely walk and were able to sit by the lake for a few minutes before coming back down.

Since we now had fuel but almost no money we decided to wild camp that evening and to explore a spot we’d seen on iOverlander out to the north of El Chalten. It was a long slow drive on a dirt road but eventually we arrived. What we found however was that since the camping spots had been described, the road had been scraped flat leaving a humped gravel verge that made it hard to leave the road at many places. Just as we were starting to give up we found a lovely clearing that had obviously been used in the construction of the local bridges. When the workmen had finished they’ve cleared up all their equipment except for one spare piece of bridge and left a beautiful flat open clearing ringed by trees. I carefully drove the van off the road and we headed right to the back of the clearing so that we were well away from the road.

Alex poses on the way down from Laguna Capri
Alex poses on the way down from Laguna Capri

It was a bit chilly this evening so the girls sat inside in the warm chopping vegetables and I cooked up a curry out the back. I called it a curry but we’d really struggled to get all the right spices so it was more of spicy, aromatic vegetable stew but was still pretty tasty. We had a quite night and nothing passed us on the road.

Day 18: El Chalten to El Calafate (270km)

This was a rather odd day. We hadn’t had the greatest of luck over the last few days with the internet and petrol strikes and this day really topped off the whole experience.

We woke up in our spot off the road and made banana pancakes for breakfast. It was a tedious drive along the dirt road into town but it was a nice day. We had a few errands to run in El Chalten before leaving town, namely groceries, cash and fuel so we started with groceries and then went into the cash machine. Judging by the enormous queue outside we realised that it must be finally working so Alex and Stella joined the queue.

Queuing for petrol in El Chalten
Queuing for petrol in El Chalten

I didn’t have enough cash to join the petrol queue so I headed to the park rangers station to fill up with water and drop our rubbish at their recycling. I did this and then decided to nip in to use the toilet before heading back to pick up the girls. On my way into the rangers station I noticed a lot of tourists who had got off a large bus and were milling around. I walked in and found the entry to the men’s toilets blocked by an elderly woman who said something to me in rapid Spanish. Before I could ascertain what she was saying a ranger walked up and said ‘si’ (yes) in a rather aggressive tone. I obviously looked confused and he asked me what I wanted. I said that I was there for the toilet and some information and he asked me if I was with the bus. I said no and he immediately said “did you drive?” I said yes and he seemed satisfied. I turned back around and the lady outside the men’s toilets explained that a woman was in the men’s. I can only assumed that they’d decided to use the men’s as an overflow for the women’s so I waited until the woman came out, they thanked me for waiting and then I went and used the toilet. I came out of the toilets and immediately saw the same ranger waiting for me. I started to walk towards him to ask about short local walks, but before I could ask him anything he asked me to show him my car. I started to walk out to show him and he started to interrogate me as to exactly what kind of car this was. I explained we were in a camper van and at this point he went from a little aggressive to being really quite unpleasant. He accused me of abusing his facilities and told me that it was not allowed for motor home users to use their toilets. I suggested that he may want to install a sign to indicate this and he went completely crazy, making very little sense at all and threatening me with ‘a ticket’. I didn’t ask what this ticket would say and I have no idea what rule I could possibly have violated as a tourist making use of a facility designed for the use of tourists in an office funded by said tourists via the park entry fee. It was quite obvious that this guy had a bee in his bonnet about people in camper vans using the toilets in the office. This would be somewhat understandable if, like many other places that we have visited, there were other facilities in town, however in El Chalten the only officially sanctioned overnight camping spot is the trailhead car park that has no toilets or bins!

At the head of Lago del Desierto, north of El Chalten
At the head of Lago del Desierto, north of El Chalten

We had a lovely time in El Chalten (despite the petrol and cash shortage and the terrible internet) and every other park ranger we met was very helpful, however this idiot (who insisted on repeatedly telling me that he was the boss) put a bit of a downer on the place so I left in less than good spirits.

We filled up with fuel and left El Chalten behind for our 220km drive to El Calafate. About 50km into our drive I thought I could smell burning plastic. After 85km when we re-joined the main road I could still smell it so I stopped the van and had a good look around, checking the engine and exhaust, but unable to determine the cause of the smell. We got back on the road and back up to speed. All of a sudden about 30km later the steering wheel suddenly started to smoke so I immediately turned off the ignition and brought the car to a stop without power steering or brakes. I shouted at Alex to grab the fire extinguisher and Stella to get out. Luckily as soon as we’d stopped the smoke also stopped, but I was not happy until Alex was standing by with the fire extinguisher (which ironically by this point had become buried under our store of firewood).

With everyone ready to jump out of the van, I carefully tested the van’s systems and we quickly discovered that the headlights were no longer working. I removed the fuses from the lights and then carefully unscrewed the plastic casing from the steering column. It was immediately obvious what the problem was as there was a large wire that had burnt through and started to burn the plastic casing around it. It was hard to tell as it was all melted, but it looked like it had burnt through at the place where the wire had been previously repaired. After carefully testing that everything else was still working and watching for any more smoke, I reassembled the steering column and started the engine. We sat for a few minutes watching out for any more problems before cautiously setting off again.

We were in the middle of nowhere with very little passing traffic and no mobile phone reception so I was very glad that we were still able to carry on to the next town, our destination of El Calafate.

As soon as we got mobile reception I called the Wicked vans emergency number. They were reassuringly concerned when I explained the problem, but relieved when I explained that we’d been able to carry on and had already located a garage on the map. We were told to get the repair done and that they would cover the cost. A short time later we arrived at the garage (really just the owner’s front garden), and the owner explained that as it was the weekend he didn’t have anyone with electrical expertise, but recommended someone around the corner. We drove over and found a shed with ‘batteries’ daubed on the front in paint. Not especially reassured we wandered in and found a workshop. We explained the problem in our best Spanish and the guys immediately came out to take a look. Once they’d seen the problem it was all business with barely a word spoken as they reconnected the wire and tested it. Once they were happy they got me to pull the van into their workshop and quickly got to work on the repair. They showed me where the wire had been previously repaired not once but twice, and then proceeded to replace the whole section, properly soldering in a new wire and using heatshrink insulation to ensure that the new wire was properly protected.

Half an hour later with everything retested we walked out having paid £10 for the repair. Relieved, we drove into the centre of town only to find a long queue for petrol. Alex and Stella went to buy food while I sat in the petrol queue. When I got to the front an hour later I was at least able to buy a full tank, and now with groceries and fuel we headed out of town in the direction of the Perito Moreno glacier.

Camping on route to the Perito Moreno glacier
Camping on route to the Perito Moreno glacier

There were limited camping options around El Calafate, but about 20km out of town there was a pull off from the road to a dirt track that led down to a river. Although we weren’t as far from the road as I would have liked, it was at least a quiet road and we were protected from some of the wind. There was also already another overland vehicle down there that we recognised as the Swiss guys that we’d met a few days previously. We found a flat spot and set up our BBQ for a quick dinner, eaten inside the van as it was a little too windy outside. The Swiss guy even came over with some coals to help get our BBQ started and we in turn gave him our recommendation for the mechanic in town as he needed one for a minor repair to his old Pinzgauer. We had a quiet night and slept well.

Day 19: To Perito Moreno Glacier (118km)

We woke up in our campsite by the road. The first thing I heard was the occasional car passing by on its way to the Perito Moreno glacier, the main reason for coming to this area. We got up and had a quick breakfast then joined the trail of tourists. We caught our first glimpse of the glacier from a few miles away and stopped for a photo. We eventually parked up and took the path up to the glacier, it certainly lived up to all the hype in the guide books!

A huge chunk falls off Perito Moreno glacier
A huge chunk falls off Perito Moreno glacier

The glacier stretched in front of us. It was 4km wide and we were looking right at it from the centre. We could see over the top as it stretched 14km away from us up the mountain. As we watched we heard a few cracks and finally a 20m long section fell off into the water with a huge crack.

The wind was fierce, often feeling like it would blow us off our feet, and it was quite cold so we sought some shelter to make lunch. We made our sandwiches and since we were still freezing we stopped in the snack bar for a hot chocolate with whiskey. After warming up nicely we headed back out for a last look at the glacier. As we were watching we heard a huge crack and suddenly a full 55m high chunk of the glacier came crashing down. It created a huge wave that washed up on the shore below us. A couple of minutes later a second huge chunk fell, seeming to fall in almost slow motion even though it was really just an effect of the distance and scale of the giant glacier in front of us.

Having seen nearly as impressive a collapse as was possible, we watched for a few more minutes and then headed back to the car park. In the car park we saw two other Wicked vans, the renters of one came over to us and we shared stories and news of the road ahead and behind. After leaving the glacier we drove 40km along dirt roads, leaving the national park then re-entering it further south. We drove to Lago Roca where there was a free campsite. There were very few other people there and lots of well spaced out camping spots with fire pits and a view of the lake. We found a nice spot, somewhat sheltered from the wind. We built a fire and I sat by it as the sun went down to reveal an incredible view of the stars and milky way above us. As I sat by the dying embers of the fire I could see shooting stars in the sky above, and although it wasn’t too cold the wind occasionally picked up to remind me how lucky I was to only have a light breeze this evening.

Day 20 – El Calafate to Puerto Natales

Our campsite at Lago Roca
Our campsite at Lago Roca

We got up, had a light breakfast on our picnic table with a view of the lake and, once we were ready, headed into town. Once again we saw a queue for petrol so I joined it and left the girls to find a cash machine and buy groceries. I quickly noticed that the queue was not actually moving and managed to understand from the guy in front of me that they were re-filling and would be open again soon. I sat there waiting for about an hour wondering how long it could possibly take to refuel a petrol station and also towards the end of the hour how long could it possibly take for the girls to find cash and groceries. That second question was answered first when the girls wandered back to the van. Between them they’d spent the last hour queueing at every cash machine in town only to find that none of them would give them any money. Seeing that I was still waiting they went back to the store to buy supplies. Luckily we knew that the shop took credit cards and we still had a little cash so we’d be OK for now.

Eventually my petrol queue started moving and soon enough I was parked up outside the supermarket waiting for the girls. I didn’t have to wait long and we were quickly back on the road. We left El Calafate and headed for Puerto Natales in Chile via a border crossing. We’d spotted a town a with a a couple of cash machines on the way and although the first couple did not work the 3rd and final one did so we were once again okay for a few days. We were now pretty far south and infrastructure was clearly getting poorer and towns more spread out and smaller.

Beware of the Guanacos
Beware of the Guanacos

As we drove towards the border we came across a mining town that seemed to be experiencing a strike. The miners had partially blockaded the road but didn’t seem to mind us driving through and soon enough we reached the Chilean border. We drove through the Argentinian border post first and then had to drive a few miles to get to Chilean immigration. On the way we saw a couple of girls hitch hiking so we stopped to pick them up. I knew that Puerto Natales was only a few miles after the border post so they wouldn’t have too perch for too long in the back of our van. The girls climbed in and turned out to be a pair of French girls from Reunion Island off the coast of Africa. We drove on to the border and, as we arrived, I suddenly realised that we were now carrying two total strangers. If they were found to be carrying drugs or any other illicit cargo we could get in some serious trouble. Even if they weren’t drug smugglers we were now carrying five in a car with only three seats and three seat belts (a far more mundane alternative to my drug smuggling nightmare). There was nothing now for it except to hope for the best so we all headed into the border together. The paperwork went smoothly even when I presented the van passport to the customs official. We went back to the van for the search. The guard made the French girls take their bags out for scanning and we got the usual cursory inspection of the back. We’d got pretty good at knowing what we could and couldn’t take by now so we only lost some lentils which the girls were particularly annoyed about having only bought them that morning. Pretty quickly the French girls came back and we found that instead of the kilos of cocaine that I’d worried about they’d only been caught with carrots so we all helped to eat them and quickly got back on the road.

Looking out from Puerto Natales
Looking out from Puerto Natales

A couple of miles later we were pulling into Puerto Natales and dropping the French girls at the bus station. There were no proper campsites in Puerto Natales but there were a couple of hostels that allowed camping in their back gardens. The first we visited would let us park Amanda down the side of their place but when we went in and inspected it we found the whole place to be pretty run down and sad looking. We carried onto the second hostel and found a garden out the back full of tents, a nice spot to park Amanda and, although it’s not going to feature among the best hostels that we found in South America, it was miles better than the first place. We parked up, found somewhere local to drop our laundry and headed into the centre to find some dinner. We managed to find a bar that had reasonable food and it’s own microbrewery so we enjoyed a couple of pints before heading back to the hostel. Since we were surrounded by tents there was a little more noise than the desertion that we were used to but everyone kept fairly quiet so we slept well.

We had one more day in Puerto Natales before starting on the W trek in Torres del Paine National Park but since we spent it preparing for the trek you’ll find it in the next post.

Our next post covers our preparation for and walk of an amazing five day trek in the Torres del Paine national park in Chile. A truly fantastic experience in all weathers with some great people.

Us and Stella near Perito Moreno glacier
Us and Stella near Perito Moreno glacier

In the meantime, although we weren’t quite finished with Amanda, this was really the end of our road trip proper. By the time we dropped her off we’d driven 4483km and by now nearly all of that was behind us. We’d had an incredible few weeks and, editing this post several months later, this road trip is the one part of the trip that I really miss and would happily go straight back to given the opportunity (despite the small fire petrol issues). By the time we gave Amanda back we had become really attached to the freedom that she gave us. As you’ll see soon enough this wasn’t our last adventure on four wheels in South America but we have plenty more excitement to go before then starting with the W trek!

Author: Chris Greenwood

IT Consultant, traveller, foodie, husband and occasional blogger

One thought on “The Patagonian Wilderness – Road Trip Part 3”

  1. I remember the phone call well and have used that story a few times to demonstrate the “global village”. the rest sounds a bit hairy but reading it is a salutary reminder that not everyone has the things in life that we take for granted – fast internet, working cash machines and only tiny queues for petrol – although they often have better weather!

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