Patagonia:The Anti-Rally–Dispatch 3

Greetings from El Chalten, Argentina, home of that incomparable peak Fitz Roy and all that is sparkling and beautiful in the world of glaciated peaks.

For those of you with a good memory, I left you wondering whether we would be able to catch a monster chinook in Torres del Paine. The answer, sadly, is No.  Bernard did catch a 7-lb brown trout, which we shared with friends at the hotel for dinner. It was fresh and delicious, perhaps because it had been nibbling on a dead cow floating along the banks of the Lago Toro before Bernard hooked it?  While at the Rio Serrano, standing in our waders in utterly frigid waters, being pelted by rain, we observed some of the mammoth chinook lumbering out of the icy depths and flumping back in.  These were no ordinary chinook, but rather ones that, so we´re told, escaped from a farm operation some 25 years ago, somehow found the Rio Serrano and now use it as their spawning ground.  Clearly they are genetic anomalies and who knows whether the above is even possible.  We were hopeful of getting into a tussle with one of these behemoths, but they kept to the deep channel in the middle of the river, and we couldn´t get close, even if I had been able to cast more than 10 feet…..

We left Torres del Paine, …on the road again…heading to Tierra del Fuego.  This was to be our first foray off the highway and onto the back roads.  On noting that our gas tank was below half full and not having seen a gas station in a long time, we posed a few judicious questions to a long-hauler parked at the start of a dirt road going in the direction we wanted to go.  No, he said, there were no gas stations along that road for far too many kilometers.  In fact, those were fateful words, as rarely in Chile or Argentina are there gas stations anywhere but on the paved highways.  Thus having defined our route for the next few days (stay on the main road, period), we high-tailed it for the ferry crossing at La Angostura, the narrowest stretch of and general entrance to the Straits of Magellan,  An efficient half’-hour crossing with 20 other vehicles brought us to Tierra del Fuego.

Tierra del Fuego is divided between Chile and Argentina.  We stayed that night at San Sebastian on the Chilean side of the border, a good stone´s throw from San Sebastian on the Argentine side of the border.  Our hotel was actually a windswept pastel-colored former sheep station, where we entertained the proprietress and her pilot-husband with photos of the Michigan River Ranch and Bernard’s helicopter. On crossing the border the next morning, we were informed by customs that the car insurance issued by Avis, which would permit us to drive our Chilean vehicle in Argentina, had been miss-issued and therefore would expire that very day.  I mumbled a quick lie about other insurance papers being in the car and there we were in Argentina.  

Suddenly finding outselves with only a day to traverse the length of Tierra del Fuego we zipped down to Ushuaia that very day, all on good paved roads.  I will not go into details about the troubles we then had with Avis.  Suffice to say that when we left Ushuaia 1.5 days later, we were driving a different car and someone at the Avis office in Santiago is going to have an awful long trip to collect their car in Ushuaia.  As Chile and Argentina are not on the best of terms, we hope that by promoting conversation between Avis in Santiago and Ushuaia we have done our bit to better relations between the two countries.

Ushuaia, a happenin´ spot on the cruise circuit, is set on a a beautiful bay fronting the Beagle Channel.   It is a spectacularly dirty jumbled hillside town, whose general problem with litter and garbage is second only to Rio Gallegos up north (which we found out later). Ushuaia beats Rio Gallegos for stray dogs, but both are totally outdone by the homeless dog situation in Punta Arena, which claims to host 15,000 pups.   Nevertheless, we got ourselves onto a lovely day excursion to see sea lions in the Channel.  By going on the tiniest boat possible (8 people on an itsy bitsy fishing boat) we had the great good fortune to dock at a rocky island and walk around inspecting flora and birds for a couple of hours.  We sat next to a rock cormorant rookery for a while and looked further south across the Beagle channel at Isla Navarina, which belongs to Chile and is the location of Puerto Williams, our hoped-for southernmost destination. There was no way for us to get to Pto Williams in the little time we had, so the island, called Isla H because of its shape, was the farthest south we got.  The other thing we learned by observing sea lions up close was that they are not seals at all, but are part of the otter family.  Well,  I didn´t know that!!!

In Ushuaia we took advantage of being close to all things marine and ate our fill of gargantuan king crab each evening.  We didn´t like the town itself and were relieved to retrace our drive back up north in our “new” Avis vehicle–a 2000 Pathfinder with 190,000 km on it, a cracked windshield and weary shocks… can imagine we felt right at home!

A long day of 571 kilometers, with 4  uneventful border crossings brought us to Rio Gallegos on the Atlantic Coast, in the far southern latitudes of Argentina north of Tierra del Fuego.  We spent a day at Cabo Virgenes, home to the 2nd largest Magellanic penguin colony in Argentina. It was just Bernard, me and over 100,000 little Magellanics, many of them chicks going through their first molt.  We walked and photographed within the reserve, getting to within 5 feet of the mangy-looking chicks, half covered with fluff.   They were not at all afraid and since they can´t swim while molting, just hung around in big groups chattering.  The air was filled with chick fluff blowing in the Atlantic breeze.  We then went over to the Cabo Virgenes lighthouse, where the Argentine Army soldier on duty gave us the lighthouse keys and we wound our way up 76 steps to the lighthouse top.  We marveled at the beautiful Fresnel lense and soaked in the view.  After that it was a quick stop on the beach below where we walked to the edge of the Atlantic, as far East as we will be on this trip.  The beach was vast and deserted, except for the 100,000 penguins sunning themselves downshore.  I got some great photos, but no one will be able to see them, because my camera was stolen two days ago.

We also had an impromptu and therefore all the more delightful lunch at Estancia Monte Dinero, a renowned Merino sheep station.  We were served 13 dishes, nearly all of them lamb prepared in one fashion or another, including lamb liver stew with caramelized onions and pickled lamb heart.  Each dish was fantastic and we ate some of all of them, followed by 3 desserts.  We then did our best Magellanic penguin waddle back to the car and returned to Rio Gallegos, where we had time to walk around the Santa Cruz region´s version of the National Western Stock Show (are we lucky or what?!).  This was the regional sheep show and we wandered by pens of sweltering Merinos, most of whom had been judged for their spectacular coats, but a few also had been in a contest for “most handsome.”  It was an exciting and happy scene, and after we tasted a variety of Argentine wines being offered for free, we were happy, too.

Rio Gallegos, a substantial city, reintroduced us to the notion of litter, though they seem to do a better job keeping their dogs at home.  Frankly we were utterly astounded by the plastic and other garbage bits hustling down the windy streets.  I am told that to the north Argentines do a better job of putting trash somewhere where it won´t blow away, but won´t be able to verify that myself.  All we can say i that there is a symbiotic relationship between the stray dogs and the garbage. All the dogs look fit and healthy, as they have so much garbage to eat, while the amount of garbage wafting in the breeze is surely reduced by all the dogs around to eat it.  In Gallegos we made a half-day pit stop for car repairs.  Those of you who followed the Peking Paris car saga will be happy to know that I now know how to say “shock absorbers” in Spanish as well as Russian……  After an efficient replacement of a U-joint, too, we were able to get on our way again.

An easy drive from Gallegos brought us to El Chalten, where we have spent the past 3 day reveling in the extraordinary beauty of Parque National Los Glaciares.  The entire landscape here lives and breathes glaciers.  Without doubt it is the most beautiful place we have been.  Yesterday we went ice climbing on Viedma Glacier, one of several which spill down from the Southern Ice Field, which at over 250 miles, is the largest ice field on earth apart from the two polar caps.  Today we hiked to the base of FitzRoy, a dream come true for me as I have wanted to get close to this particular peak for many, many years.  We have had nothing but sunny skies while here, a rarity which we have relished.

Tomorrow we take off for the rough and tumble of the Carretera Austral in our Avis jalopy.  Every day on this trip has brought one marvel or memorable event after another.  

Can´t way to see what the Carretera Austral holds for us.

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