Upon finishing up with our epic jaunt through Torres del Paine last week, Stefje and I enjoyed the fruits of our labor by spending two solid days in Puerto Natales relaxing and recovering after the physical exertion. It was an excellent experience enjoying some much-needed warm meals, filling in other on our experience in the park, and even celebrating two nights of Hanukkah with a boisterous group of Israelis at the hostel.
On Friday we tried our hand at hitchhiking again and continued on the route South, ending up in our desired destination of Punta Arenas by evening. Originally a penal colony and an ancient port serving ships bound for the West coast of the new world, Punta Arenas is now a sprawling metropolis of trade, highlighted by thousands of shipping cartons and a highly popular duty free shopping zone on the outskirts of town. At our hostel we quickly befriended an amiable Belgian couple, Liesbeth and Tom, road tripping through Patagonia in a retrofitted Toyota Landcruiser. That night they kindly offered us a ride South to Ushuaia, and after much deliberation and a hurried afternoon grabbing some US dollars to exchange, Stefje and I made the plunge: we were headed to the end of the world.
Early the next morning, the four of us and another French traveler crammed into their car and boarded a ferry crossing the Strait of Magellan, marking our entrance to the mythical island of Tierra del Fuego. Like a broken foot protruding off the leg that is South America, Tierra del Fuego is one of the most rugged and wild lands that man has ever civilized. It was originally named for the incessant bonfires that naked local tribes burned to stay alive through their grueling winters, but unfortunately Spanish colonization largely exterminated their culture and languages.
After crossing the Strait we worked our way across unmarked dirt roads, the landscape flat for as long as the eye could see without any signs of civilization. At a dusty inlet bay we dropped of our fifth traveler at a supposed penguin colony, but from our roadside vantage point we couldn’t spot any of the animals. Soon afterwards we came to the Argentina border, where the resounding theme was the wind. Westerlies howled across the plains with unrelenting force, violently blowing the car doors open and slamming into us with ferocious intensity.
Throughout the afternoon we passed the time on the long road dotted with miles-long estancia ranches by sleeping, eating, and telling stories about our traveling exploits. But in the late afternoon the views of the endlessly flat Patagonian steppe were finally interrupted by the intense interjection of the Martial Mountains, whose sharp snowy peaks meant we were bearing down on our destination.
After stepping outside to marvel at the picturesque lakeside views, we ascended further to a mountain pass, the trees covered in additional layers of snow. Unanimously we agreed that the snow added another layer of mystique and adventure to this journey towards the world’s Southernmost city, the place that thousands of travelers use each year as the starting or ending point for epic journeys across the Americas. Indeed, our time in Ushuaia was represented primarily by interactions with motorcyclists, bike riders, and RV towers at the culmination of trips that started in Colombia, Mexico, the States, or even Canada. They were oddly framed in juxtaposition alongside plenty of obnoxious cruise ship tourists who briefly stepped out of their heated cabins to snap a photo and purchase some useless souvenirs proving their arrival at the end of the world.
That first night we settled in at the Hostal de Momo, vastly enjoying a warm kitchen and the quiet atmosphere, as the four of us had the whole place to ourselves. The following morning Tom and Liesbeth thankfully agreed to take us on another ride, this time to a hiking trail outside of town. Blizzard conditions met us on the trailhead, but the snow wasn’t sticking to the ground so we set off without trepidation. The cold weather and winter atmosphere had us feeling like it was Christmas back in the Northern hemisphere, so we exchanged stories about our holiday traditions as we tramped through the windy winter wonderland.
The trail led us through a few muddy bogs, alongside a ride filled with beaver dams, then eventually crossed through two different types of forests before eventually ascending towards an alpine river.
Framed by a ring of glacier-capped mountains, our hike reached its culmination at Laguna Esmeralda. It was a pacifying sight after the climb, leaving us wanting spend the whole afternoon enjoying a picnic on the pristine showers.
Even though the wind had abated and some patches of blue sky started peeking through the cloud coverage, it was still cold enough that we had to keep moving and turn back after a few minutes of admiring the view.
That afternoon we retreated back to the cozy comforts of the hostel’s kitchen and ended up cooking a spectacular dinner of homemade pizza and salads, accompanied by that irresistible Argentine malbec. The wine was necessary to knock us out early, as the following morning our foursome piled back into the car at 7:30AM for a morning trip to Tierra del Fuego National Park.
Home to the indigenous feugian forests, ridiculous mountain vistas and views of the Beagle Channel that spanned straight across to Chile, we hiked and drove around the park’s navigable area, stopping only to break the bitter cold by getting in a snowball fight at the panorama viewpoint.
With viciously cold wind and snow streaming down, we were all hankering to return to the hostel after a few hours outside.
As much fun as we had in Ushuaia, the endless cold weather had us anxious to retreat from the continent’s uttermost end in search of greener pastures and a taste of spring. Monday morning we were off, crossing back into Chile. On the ferry north off of Tierra del Fuego, we asked around and luckily found some who happily shipped Stefje and I back to Punta Arenas, so we sadly wished our friendly Belgian chauffeurs behind, thanking them profusely for the fact that we never ended up hitchhiking freezing cold on the side of the road in Tierra del Fuego.
Once back in Punto Arenas, we decided to take the opportunity to visit a nearby penguin colony. Undoubtedly the most touristy activity I’ve ever embarked on, the clientele on the boat consisted primarily of cruise ship patrons and Americans wearing Patagonia fleeces in Patagonia without a hint of irony. A two hour ferry ride from the port was Isla Magdalena, a secluded island inhabited only by land-dwelling creatures proficient at navigating the seas: birds and penguins. Unimpeded by predators, both numbered in the thousands, making for a grand scene as our boat approached the dock.
Excellent swimmers, the colony of Penguins migrates almost 3,000 kilometers from an island off the coast of Brazil to the farthest reaches of the hemisphere, as they are dependent on Patagonian long summer days for their reproductive patterns.
Thousands upon thousands flock to the solitary land, burrowing caves deep inside he hillsides, both male and female parents cautiously guarding their young chicks.
Not quite a bird and not quite a fish, the adorable knee-high penguins waddled aimlessly around the island, their webbed feet much more adept at navigating water than land.
Their coats were gleaming white and sheet black, shining in the sunlight after they took afternoon dips in the icy water.
Most of them treated us humans with quizzical looks, staring at us and trying to determine if we were friend or foe.
Others were clearly more accustomed to the daily arrival of hordes of selfie-snappers and couldn't have cared less, lounging in the prone position and contemplating their next meal.
Penguins are monogamous and this group definitely proved it, with cute and affectionate actions between pairs dominating the scene.
Adjacent to the penguin groupings but not quite integrated into their lifestyle were hordes of birds, flocking and shrieking as they rose and fell back to the same general area.
On the way back into town we were even treated to an unexpected dose of wildlife, as a crew of whales swam across the bow of the ship, blowing epic trails of steam and water straight up into the sky every time they surfaced.
The following morning it was time to bid Punta Arenas farewell and cross into Argentina yet again, beginning our slow and precipitous climb Northwards. 330 kilometers away lay one of Patagonia's premier destinations: El Calafate. Despite getting a late start on hitchhiking that day, I was confident we could make it before the late sunset.
From the outskirts of town it wasn't long before we got picked up by a minivan, the driver headed into Argentina to bring $1000 worth of lamps back into Chile for the 5th time in 6 days (any more each day and he would have had to pay taxes). He dropped us at a traffic roundabout halfway to our destination in Rio Gallegos, an urban metropolis of almost 100,000 people. Usually hitchhiking in a big city is hard, so we were grateful when a rap-blasting BMW dropped us 20 kilometers further at the turn-off for Route 5 west towards Calafate. Before we could ever stop walking, an amiable driver waved us over and brought us halfway closer to the end of our journey, proving the ease of hitchhiking on Patagonia's sparsely inhabited roads.
Through the wild windswept plains of the central Pataongian steppe, we ventured further, not encountering a single human settlement for over an hour.
Our final ride of the day brought us to the doorstep of El Calafate, crossing over a series of hills that yielded stupefying views of Lago Argentina and our first glimpse of the Cordillera behind the city. Four rides, seven hours of driving, and we never ended up waiting at one spot for more than half an hour. The drivers were eager to share the knowledge and experiences with us, giving us the chance to learn much more about some of the friendly people who call this beautiful place home.
PATAGONIA ON A BUDGET
Looking for more information on how to make your own dream vacation in Patagonia a reality for just $30/day? Check out my e-book, Patagonia On A Budget. Inside, you'll find:
The best value on the craziest adventures
Prices and details for accommodation, transportation, and activities in every destination
Detailed maps and itineraries of the most popular backpacking routes
Recommended campgrounds with the best rates and facilities
Instructions and safety advice for hitchhiking
The only packing list you'll ever need for camping
The electronics, websites, and applications to depend on during your expedition
A special bonus guide on packing and cooking during long hikes through national parks