On Wednesday 23rd March we travelled by bus from Puerto Natales (Chile) to El Calafate (Argentina). Border crossings in this part of the world are frequent and time-consuming. Everyone has to get off the bus at Border Control for the country you are leaving, and queue up to get exit stamps in your passport. A few miles later, the process is repeated to get entry stamps for the other country. When entering Chile all the luggage has to be off-loaded from the bus and put through a scanning machine, to ensure that you are not importing fruit, vegetables or other undesirable items; on one occasion a sniffer dog was also used.
If you look at a map of S America, you’ll understand why border crossings are frequent. The southern part of the continent is very narrow, and shared between Chile and Argentina. So to get from one interesting place to the next, you often have to switch countries. This means remembering which currency to use at any given time – but at least they speak the same language!
While in El Calafate we visited the Perito Moreno Glacier, which juts out across an arm of Lake Argentino, and is an impressive sight from the hundreds of yards of walkways set into the hillside opposite. We even were able to watch part of the glacier collapse into the water, with an impressive rumble and splash. We also took a short boat trip to view the south face of the glacier from the water.
Another day we did an extended boat trip on Lake Argentino, which is shaped like a giant squid, with a big body and twisting branches stretching out to the west. We sailed up some of these arms, and saw another glacier (Spegazzini) as well as a wall of icebergs shed from the giant Uppsala glacier. Finally we sailed to the north face of the Perito Moreno glacier to get another view of that. Altogether it was a long day on a rather crowded boat, with some great views of glaciers and icebergs.
El Calafate is an interesting town, very much geared to tourists. We used our spare time there to do some ‘housekeeping’, including laundry (after our trek in Torres del Paine we had a lot of dirty washing!) and getting our hair cut. We also enjoyed some excellent meals. We’d been given recommendations for a veggie restaurant and three other restaurants which had several unusual veggie options. As we were in El Calafate four nights, we were able to sample them all. Argentina is famous for its beef, but we’ve been impressed by how well Patagonia caters for veggies.
From El Calafate we headed north on a two-day bus journey along ‘Ruta 40’, which has the same iconic status in Argentina that Route 66 has in the USA. But there the similarity ends. Patagonia is very big, and very empty. We’ve driven across Kansas and the north of Australia, but Patagonia makes them seem built-up. We spent the first day doing 660 kilometres, mostly on a very rough unsealed road. The bus was the only one we’ve encountered so far without an onboard toilet (there were very infrequent stops at places where the toilet facilities were vestigial, to be generous).
The landscape was barren and monotonous, with only very occasional signs of human life. In order to pass the time, we decided to count vehicles and buildings seen. After an hour the score was 1-0 to cars, and that was fairly typical for the whole day. However, we did occasionally see guanacos (similar to llamas) and rheas (big flightless birds), as well as an armadillo that the driver spotted and stopped to hold up for us to photograph. We also pondered the question: if you get your kicks on Route 66, should you be naughty on Ruta 40?
After 13 hours of travel, we arrived in the village of Perito Moreno (not to be confused with the glacier of the same name). It’s a small place, but after 13 hours in the wilderness it seemed like a major city. It boasts a hotel where Ruta 40 travellers stay the night, before embarking on the second half of their journey.
The second day was better, in a bus with a loo, and more towns and signs of habitation. The scenery also became more interesting, changing from steppe to mountains as we continued north. This section of the road is mainly sealed, so we were able to cover a greater distance (800 plus kilometres) in the same amount of time. We finally arrived in Bariloche, in the Argentinian Lake District, after 900 miles of rugged travel.
Bariloche is another tourist town, but it’s convinced it’s in Switzerland; it has Alpine architecture and more shops selling fancy chocolates than you could imagine.
While there we took a local bus to a chairlift up a mountain where we got the most fantastic 360º views of lakes and mountains all around. It’s impossible to capture in a photo, but of course that didn’t stop us trying! There is a café at the top, so we were able to enjoy a glass of wine and some excellent cake while enjoying the view. A family of hawks put on an aerial display just in front of our window.
Afterwards we went on a bit further by bus to the Llao Llao peninsula, where we walked out to get good views of the lake and the smart houses there. We visited an interesting wooden church, and ended up with tea in the extremely posh Llao Llao Hotel, where we definitely lowered the tone of the place in our scruffy trainers and t-shirts. The hotel has an amazing location overlooking the lake.
Leaving Bariloche, we travelled by bus to Puerto Montt (Chile), crossing the border again in the process. Puerto Montt is definitely not a tourist town, and not particularly attractive. But it’s a useful stopover place, and we had a really lovely apartment there, so it was a great opportunity for more housekeeping – another blog and yet more washing!