Rugged & Remote

On Sunday January 3rd, Stefje and I packed up our bags for the first time in over two weeks, lugging our collection of gear away from our homely hostel in El Chalten and out to the side of the road. It was time to start an intensely long hitchhike journey north, as we had our sights set on getting to Chile’s Carretera Austral more than 700 kilometers away. Heading away from El Chalten’s proximity to the mountains, this part of Patagonia is exceptionally desolate; it features wind-swept plains stretching as far as the eye can see and stretches of hundreds of kilometers without a single sign of human existence. 

The traffic coming out of the tiny mountain town was more of a trickle than a flow, but eventually an Argentine traveler heading home from holiday celebrations pulled over, happy to have some companionship for the tiring, boring drive across flat roads. Unfortunately, she could only take us 90 kilometers to the intersection of Route 40, where she turned South towards Tierra del Fuego and we positioned ourselves heading North. Traffic here was few and far between and on the side of the road in front of us was even an ominous warning to fellow hitchhikers scrawled out in chalk: “Just take the *bleeping* bus!"  Even though we could see cars approaching here from more than a mile away, most of them turned right in front of us on their way to El Chalten. 

Finally a pick-up truck slowed down and the cab was full but we hopped in the flat bed, happily subjecting ourselves to ferocious winds in exchange for a fast ride across the open road. At over 100 kilometers per hour, the flat brown landscape morphed with the cloudy sky, making for a morbidly endless view of nothing.

It wasn’t the most comfortable ride but it sure was effective, and eventually the driver pulled into the town of Gobernador Gregores. She was even kind enough to drop us at the gas station on the outside of town, where dozens of cars were lined up to take advantage of their last chance for gas for more than 200 kilometers.

Just 10 minutes later a massive 18-wheeler stopped and give us a lift North along Route 40. All afternoon we plodded along at the truck’s stingy pace, rumbling on the interminable highway for hours on end. This is the section of Patagonia where estancias predominate over towns and the low bushes of the pampas are the only signs of life in an otherwise deserted world. Four hours later we came to the next reasonably sized town, Perito Moreno. It was getting late in the day, but we still held out hope for grabbing one more ride across the border into Chile. Lo and behold, our prayers were answered and an hour later we rolled into the tiny town of Chile Chico, having covered an astonishing 700 kilometers for free over the last 12 hours. 

In Chile Chico our driver even brought us directly to the town’s lone campsite, a wind-sheltered oasis of travelers, ping-pong, and outdoor BBQs in the otherwise lonesome landscape. Just a block away was the white-capped surface of Lago General Carrera. The lake’s astounding size makes it the second largest in all of South America and from our vantage point it was an azure blue, the water so clear we could see deep below the surface. 

The following morning we made vague attempts to continue our journey towards the province’s main highway, but the lure of a sunny and comfortable campsite was far too much to overcome. Having made more progress on the journey than expected on the previous day, we insisted decided to lay up for an extra day and bask in the sweltering sunlight, doing yoga in the lawn and exploring the oddities of the little idiosyncratic town. Chile Chico was unique among all the cities I’ve visited so far in South America due to one glaring omission: the lack of bread. Most destination are overrun with the one food that seems to fuel the entire continent, but the one bakery and two supermarkets stocked only barren cupboards more often than not. When we went to get groceries in the evening, a swarm of a dozen locals were waiting for the next batch to come out, a sure sign that supply here is simply not keeping up with demand. 

In the evening we were reunited when Max, a German cyclist who we’ve now encountered three times in the last month, came rolling into the campsite. He invited us to share in his resplendent dinner of ratatouille and rice - truly gourmet for a campsite - and we had a great night relaxing under the stars. 

Tuesday our luck finally ran out on the hitchhiking front. For almost five hours we stood at the beginning of the gravel road at the end of town, and for almost five hours we were greeted with nothing but solitude and rejection. Most of the cars headed North avoid this stretch by taking a ferry across the massive lake before reuniting with the highway 200 kilometers later, but we held out hope that a exploring tourist or lost soul would also want to head towards our destination, Puerto Rio Tranquilo. Exposed at the edge of town, the wind roared in great gusts and the sun scorched our skin, but that didn’t stop us from having an enjoyable time while waiting chatting with the dozen other hitchhikers also stranded in nowheresville.

At around 3pm Stefje and I decided to call it quits and retreated back to the campsite, which actually turned out to be a great decision. We lounged in the sun and grilled up an afternoon BBQ, stifling laughter as all of the hitchhikers eventually joined us after three more hours of fruitless waiting. 

On Wednesday we didn’t take any chances, purchasing bus tickets for the five hour journey to Rio Tranquilo. The ride was nothing short of jaw-dropping; we got our first taste of why the Carretera Austral is such a popular destination for adventurous travelers from all over the world. For the first two hours we passed along the Southern shore of the aquamarine surface of Lago General Carrera, lined on either side with rows of wooded forest and steep mountains jutting straight up out of the earth.

As we were heading West, in front of us lat the snow-capped peaks of the Cordillera, the only line of defense between us and the violent weather that rolls in off the Pacific Ocean. The road the whole way was rutted gravel, keeping us bouncing back and forth in our seats and severely restricting speed for the brave bicyclists taking in the epic scenery at a slower pace. In the early afternoon we pulled into Rio Tranquilo, one of the first signs of civilization on the largely unconnected stretch of land. 

Now on a protected inlet of the Western shore of Lago Carrera, the winds in Rio Tranquilo finally died down and we were left stifling in the heat on the main drag. Along the lone lakeside road I could see straight across from one side of town to the other, which was lined with a bourgeoning tourist economy inhabiting wooden shacks, oversized tents, and converted trailers that all suddenly served as travel agencies. Before even finding a campsite, we were whisked away on a boat tour to the city’s main attraction: Las Capillas de Marmol (The Marble Chapels). 

Over millions of years, the imperceptibly slow erosion of the lake cutting into nearby stone has caused nature to carve out the most unbelievable caverns my eyes have ever seen. Marble white rocks hang precipitously over openings wide enough for boats and kayaks to navigate directly through, allowing us to get up close and personal with the smooth rocks and the perfect reflection along the still water. 

The Marble Chapels were incredible examples of Nature’s beauty and the main reason why tourism seems to be booming in this tiny little nondescript town, but just an hour away was an experience that turned out to be even more spectacular. The next morning Stefje and I hopped into a van and by 10:30AM we were hiking towards a massive ice field, but not before first stopping to pick up some pure glacier water from a rainbow-adorned waterfall. 

Glacier Exploradores was our destination, a rolling expanse of icy hills and slowly melting ice retreating its way up a wide valley ringed by some of the largest mountains in Chile. As we packed our way over huge boulders and fine rocky moraine for the first hour, the 4058 meter high San Lorenzo massif was affixed firmly at the focal point of our field of vision. It looked just a short hike away, but our guide assured us it would take an experienced mountaineering team almost a week to reach the summit from where we stood. 

The boulders eventually gave way to smaller rocks and then to ice, marking the point at which we attached six razor sharp edges to our feet and continued forward on crampons. The first section of the glacier was surely the most interesting and dynamic. Everywhere we turned rivers of melting ice snaked through the hills of glistening snow, forming thunderous noises deep within the glacier and caverns so wide we could venture inside to stare in wonder. 

The water also cut through wide sections of ice, forming smooth bowls and valleys of pure white and stunning deep blue. 

Every time I’ve seen a glacier so far in Patagonia I’ve imagined what it would be like standing on the surface: monstrous winds whipping at my face, ice cold air, and flat ice as far as you can see. But the real thing turned out to be much different as we were graced with spectacular weather and not even a slight breeze, making the trek feel easy. 

Progressing forwards towards the mountain, any signs of rocks slowly withered away and the caverns from before were replaced with a shining reflecting surface of white in every direction. 

Now it truly felt like I was immersed in an ice world, where only rolling hills of white provided any sense of perspective to the landscape. We stopped for lunch perched on one of the precarious hillsides, our crampons firmly secured into the ice to prevent slippage. 

On the way back our guide took a different path, enabling us to see another series of caverns and waterfalls in the constantly changing ice field. My favorite was the 30 foot high sheer vertical wall of ice, so smooth that I could barely place my hand on it without slipping away. 

That evening we were back in town and enjoyed a hearty dinner at our campsite, thoroughly exhausted from such a taxing day yet newly inspired by the wonders of Patagonia for the umpteenth time. 


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