When we arrived in Ushuaia we felt like a load had been lifted, no more trying to get somewhere by a certain time. Now we could take our time driving back up North through Patagonia. After our week in Torres Del Paine we drove to El Calafate and ended up staying a week not because there was a lot to see and do but because we felt like doing nothing. No pressure to look for wildlife and no racing to get somewhere.
After long periods of being disconnected we really enjoy getting wifi to reconnect with family and friends and to catch up on our favourite TV shows. It was a week of indulgence; fast wifi, a nice city and a fabulous bakery. We were able to fully relax partly due to the fact that we were waiting for a stretch of good weather in El Chalten. We had hit bad weather our first time through El Chalten and we were dead set on doing some hiking so we were willing to wait as long as it took and El Calafate is a nice place to do some waiting.
And boy did the waiting pay off! Hiking in El Chalten was spectacular, stunning, challenging and rewarding. We picked three trails that had incredible views IF the skies were clear or only partly cloudy and we had a week of perfect weather. We had non-stop views of Mount Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre but sunrise was particularly special. Click here to view our latest Flickr album.
Happy and exhausted from a week of hiking in El Chalten we drove along Argentina’s Route 66, aka Ruta 40 to “The Cave of the Hands” an important historical site. The Cueva de las Manos is a series of rock overhangs in Canon de Rio Pinturas in Argentine Patagonia. This UNESCO site is famous for its 800+ stenciled handprints, painted over 9000 years ago. Interestingly of the 829 handprints most are male, one has six fingers and only 31 are of right hands. Cueva de las Manos is not the only example of hand stencils in the world but the main panel is the largest in the world.
Doing the guided tour was interesting and I think essential to truly appreciate what we were looking at because our guide pointed out features that would have been very easy to miss, like, the six fingered hand, the Rhea foot print, the arthritic handprint and explanations of how they determined the gender, a person’s status within the group, why certain paint colors were used, why the panels are where they are and animal identification just to name a few.
From Cueva de las Manos we headed for the Valdez peninsula but on our way we stopped at Punta Tombo for an incredibly pleasant day with the worlds largest Magellanic penguin colony. We were past the peak season to see the chicks but there were still hundreds of penguins there and most of them were in their molting phase, feathers everywhere!
Some 80, 000 tourists visit the Valdez Peninsula every year for wildlife spotting, the peninsula is a protected nature reserve and is globally important for the conservation of marine mammals. It is home to an important breeding population of the endangered southern right whale as well as the southern elephant seal and southern sea lion. It is also home to a formidable pod of Orcas that beach themselves to hunt their prey on the shoreline.
We spent a week in between Pyramides, the only town on the peninsula and Punta Norte where there were several sea lion colonies. We really enjoyed watching the interactions between mothers and their pups. It was a great atmosphere, the noise was non stop, pups calling to each other and to their moms and moms calling for their pups to come in the water for swimming lessons. We did not see an Orca come up on the beach to hunt, to be honest I am not sure I wanted to see a successful hunt but I finally saw Orca in the wild! One morning four Orca swam slowly along the shore, all the sea lions got out of the water sharpish, it was interesting to watch the change in their behaviour.
The peninsula is a wildlife haven, we saw Guanacos, foxes, armadillos, hares, flamingos, Rheas and penguins. We even saw some Burrowing Owls, thanks to a tip from a guide and unless you know where to look they are really easy to miss! Click here to view our latest Flickr album.
From Torres Del Paine we continued South staying in Chile. Before taking the ferry across to Tierra del Fuego we stopped briefly in Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas to do groceries. As we drove further and further South we were worried that we would struggle to find good, fresh produce but this was not the case no matter how remote the city or village. Patagonia really is the best of both worlds, you can get everything you need and also find places where you are completely by yourself, cut off from the human population and surrounded by natural beauty and wildlife.
Tierra del fuego is an archipelago in the southern most part of South America shared by Chile and Argentina. Tierra del Fuego’s abundant wildlife and beautiful landscapes were more than enough to entice us to explore the area for several weeks. Our first stop was a King penguin colony, we have only seen these birds in wildlife documentaries so to see them in person was amazing. My breath caught in my throat when I first saw them, their coloring is so striking which makes them very photogenic. The King is second in size only to the Emperor penguin, both species look similar but while the Emperor is only found in Antartica, the King penguin can be found on several subantartic islands including Tierra del Fuego.
We continued South to Caleta Maria, a lovely, remote spot in the Southern Chilean fjords. Here is where we saw our first Albatross! A black browed Albatross, there were several flying by the shore and it was amazing to watch these birds in flight they were so incredibly maneuverable.
Ushuaia is the capital of Tierra del Fuego and “commonly regarded as the southernmost city in the world.” (Wikipedia). When we started planning our trip to South America we always knew that we would go to Ushuaia and as soon as we arrived in Cartagena in late September it was our goal to get to Ushuaia around Christmas. Ushuaia is just over 10,000kms from Cartagena, this was a lot of driving to do in three months and we did not want to rush and miss the sight seeing opportunities on the way down. We did not make it for Christmas, we arrived in Ushuaia on Februrary 16th well past our goal but with this kind of lifestyle we do not hold ourselves to our goals. For us, goals are more like rough guidelines.
Most people visit Ushuaia on their way to Antartica via a cruise and we did briefly fantasize about booking a last minute cruise to Antartica but the logistics of finding somewhere to leave our pet would have been difficult so we decided to leave that trip on our bucket list.
It seems almost crazy to me now to think that we drove all that distance to spend all of five days around Ushuaia. In fact we only spent one day in the city and like pretty much every city we visit it was only to get groceries and wifi. We spent the rest of our time in Tierra del Fuego National Park which has some lovely trails with spectacular views over Ushuaia, the Beagle channel and the Martial mountains.
Was it worth it? All that driving? Yes, of course because after all it is about the journey not the destination.
On our return visit to Torres Del Paine national park we planned to do some more hiking and Joe was determined to spot a puma. The weather cooperated and we had great conditions for our hikes. For those of us that don’t want to book months ahead to do the famous multi-day “W” or “O” treks we found out that we could do parts of the “W” as day hikes. We chose to do the hike up to Bas de las Torres lookout, a not too difficult four hour trek up to the famous “blades.” What a sight!
Joe was tenacious with looking for Puma he walked both trails from the Sarmiento entrance daily, these trails are recommended as some of the best locations for Puma sightings for those of us not on a private tour. As always with wildlife you need a boat load of luck and sadly luck was not with us. Although Torres is known for its unusually high density of Puma there is plenty of wildlife in Torres and it was also the only place we found where we could get close to Guanaco. This elegant member of the Lamoid family was a pleasure to watch and photograph. The Guanaco’s big dark eyes, lovely face and graceful demeanor make it particularly photogenic.
We drove every bit of road we could and did every day hike trail available to us in Torres Del Paine. This park did not disappoint, although we did not see Puma we had one morning with absolutely no wind, which is rare and the reflections of the mountains in the lakes were spectacular.
Please click here to view our latest Flickr album.
We crossed into Chile in early December and this was a very different border crossing. Chile is quite strict with food entering the country. Inspectors came into the truck, first time this has happened and went through most drawers and took any produce we had left as well as all our eggs and dairy. Yikes, lesson learned.
Chile is noticeably different as an Overlander because the highways are in great condition and dotted with rest stops and service stations. We just wanted to make miles through Northern Chile but we did marvel at the “Mars” like environment of red sand and seemingly endless desert. The Atacama is an incredible site but it is a harsh environment, we found ourselves thinking that we would not want to get stuck there. We drove great distances where we encountered no water, no shade, no services, nothing.
We crossed into Argentina at San Carlos Bariloche, easiest crossing so far! Nobody looked in the truck. Bariloche is in the “Lake District” a very picturesque part of Argentina with a very noticeable European influence but we did not slow down until we got to the coast and found penguins. Joe had found a little gem of a spot, a Magellanic penguin colony off the beaten path. It was just us and hundreds and hundreds of penguins. We spent two and a half days camped with this colony, it was fantastic, a dream come true. I cannot express the sheer joy of going to sleep and waking up to the sound of penguins. We were there at a good time because there were plenty of fluffy chicks. In the morning we would wake up to dozens and dozens of parents heading off to feed in the sea, while in the late afternoon and evening we would delight in watching them come back to greet their mates and feed their chicks. View our latest Flickr album here.