Patagonia by car

On the road again

The first destination of our trip with the origin in Ushuaia, after crossing Andes and taking mandatory photos from the viewpoint Lago Escondido (from the lake that lies beneath), was obviously Peninsula Mitre. Although having a car instead of a horse give you only limited possibilities to discover this beautiful piece of land, but you can admire the romantic beauty of the area of Estancia San Pablo, with a unique, rusty ghost of Desdemona – a cargo ship, that although ran aground in 1985, is surprisingly intact as a structure, making a fascinating, almost symbolic sculpture of our times. Meeting a friend of our friends, enjoying camping life for two days, admiring the nature around, chilling out, running, writing, talking, talking and laughing… Singing songs and playing guitar by a fire place, sleeping on a hammock under the stars, eating locally acquired guanaco meat or fish and drinking some malbec… That was the first of our typical stopovers during this travel.

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It has been years since I took my last road trip and I nearly forgot how much one can enjoy when travelling on land. Not only getting to some fascinating places but also all the way before reaching them. Somehow it seems to be much easier on a boat. There is nowhere to go and you move rather slowly comparing to a car, so either you are busy sailing rough seas or you finally have time to do things, you were postponing for so long. And you quickly start enjoying this simple rhythm of life (if you don’t, then you simply never go sailing like that again…). But when driving a car towards very specific destination, it is so easy to start rushing and then eventually to lose the whole pleasure of travelling.

That was a lesson on our first stop after we left Tierra del Fuego behind. We were heading towards the second big point of our ‘must see list’: Puerto Natales and then Torres del Paine National Park and we wanted to stop for the night soon after crossing Primera Angostura by a ferry (In circles my life goes on… It took us so much time and good planning to pass it when sailing south on s/y Isfuglen… Struggling with the wind and currents. And now less than half an hour on a ship and we are safe on the other side of this tricky waters. Relativity).

Difference of perspective: I just needed a place to stop a car and manage to sleep few hours. Foka (my friend and one of the two companions on this trip; the other was her mum, so I dare to call it a family holiday! Or “three women in a car (to say nothing about a …?)* Foka, that’s a challenge for you!) would rather search for a nice bivouac site. I could not understand, we were still on the road to get to the nice place! Why to waste our time now?!… I am so glad that she was stubborn with her idea! Only then, in the morning next day I understood why. We were already having An Adventure!! We could already enjoy and take the most of it! That was where we found a nice hut for the breakfast and quite a comfortable couch among the high grass at the seaside, with lovely view of the straight. So we prepared a nice meal from whatever was left after crossing the Chilean border (they are really very strict about the food) and enjoyed the morning.

Majority of Patagonia is flat, boring Pampa. After first few hundreds of guanaco and nandu, you stop exclaiming ‘ach’ and ‘wow’ and making photos to each one of them. You just follow the road, nothing on the right, even less on the left. Some puny fences. Every tens kilometers a little hut – gaucho’s temporary habitat for some times during a year. But, when you finally get to some interesting place, like the mountains you first saw on the horizon, it is like witnessing a long awaited miracle. It’s totally astonishing, even overwhelming sometimes, I would say. As we were coming closer to Puerto Natales, the landscape got more and more spectacular. The colors: grey, dark blue, yellow, orange, sharp edges of steep mountains and fiords between them – all look magnificent. Puerto Natales is usually the last touristic stop, where you can ‘easily’ get by plane or a ferry, before continuing your trip to one of the most famous national parks of Chile: Torres del Paine. We visited the town superficially, popping in some art gallery and grocery shop and we headed north, towards the Mylodon Cave – where the prehistoric remains of the possibly last ever ground sloth from around 5000 years ago were discovered. The reconstruction shows an animal that looks like something between an ordinary sloth and a polar bear with standing posture, yellowish fur and massive neck and tail.

If there is any place in the world that comes close to my vision of ideal home, that is mountainous part of South Patagonia. Estancia located next to the fiord, with milky like waters from the nearby glacier, austere, rough mountains on the other side. Strong, brave horses grassing on the fields, seaworthy sailing boats anchoring in a bay… Spectacular, dramatic nature, magical light playing through the Patagonian weather and wonderful cheerful people, always ready to help!

Although we were not planning to conquer the peaks of Torres del Paine, I can honestly say that was one of this tourist attractions that totally surpassed my expectations. Usually when you look at modern photos, you suspect them to be 100% Photoshop modified. Hence you don’t believe in what you see. For example the true colors of Landmannalaugar are truly picturesque in a good weather, but what you can see on some photos is just a lie. People cannot restrain themselves from making it look, what they think is better: more contrast, more saturation, unnatural colors… That’s why I try not to research to much before I go to visit some place, not to be fooled and disappointed, as my expectations usually grow quite high. Yet, when coming closer and closer to the Park, my eyes were becoming wider and wider with astonishment of the surroundings. Just passing through in a car for one day, being able to see the most dramatic sunset and sunrise in my life, would be good enough reason to visit South America. Even tourists we met inside the park, hadn’t diminish the feeling of facing the pure beauty of this place. I’m not sure if I would ever go to climb in a location like this. It’s more adequate for writing a poem or painting a masterpiece (if anybody dare to make an attempt to create a copy-version of something so powerful and yet so elusive).

Having a naked bath in a cold river during the most remarkable sunrise, can make you feel like a goddess on a stage, with the unreal scenery of this paradise-like World.” Then to the moment might I say, Linger awhile. . .so fair thou art. (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust). I think that was the best bivouac site so far!

And small reminder form the park: they instruct tourists what to do when hitting on cougar. You should remain calm, take a child to pickaback and try to look big and fearless. But they never say what to do if you don’t have a child close at hand!…

Covering the miles on flat, gravel roads of Patagonia, listening good music, thinking about past, present and future, joking, driving, driving and driving… Visiting a town, begging for few liters of fuel, driving, driving and driving again. And yet, apart from being physically tired of the bumpy road, the infinite space around, the light changing as the weather changes, somehow brings the comfort. There is no place in Europe where you can see so many miles in every direction, with the air crystal clear and no even simple distraction in the landscape. Then the landscape starts to wave a little, then the hills rise more and more and you know you are approaching something great, something spectacular again!

Glacier National Park in Argentina is another ‘must see’ tourist point. After sailing in Arctic and Antarctic, I was a bit skeptical about going there, especially taking a boat trip (motor boat trip, with all this guides talking a lot of nonsense and making stupid photos for money of naive and half drunk tourists) on  Argentino Lake. But first impression of Perito Moreno, seen from above, so close, so beautiful, made me change my mind. It’s always amazing to face the giant face of a glacier from a sailboat, to hear the murmur of the ice, to see it calving, to witness the light playing on the frozen surface and knowing there is only one way to experiance it, to sail the ocean, to deal with rough sea, to appreciate when it becomes calm. If you are lucky and there is good weather, with sunshine and no wind, you can take a bath in the ice cold water just in front of the glacier – yes. That is one of the reasons why I love sailing. But taking a motor boat on a lake, in the middle of the continent to see a glacier – I expected it would be like going to the zoo to see a poor, half dead whale after sailing side by side with them in the Ocean. And yet, it was just there, where I saw one of my favorite: Spegazzini Glacier. It is not because of its size or the location, but the shapes that form the face of it: looks like an army of eternal, terrific creatures from the beginning of time. And as the glacier lives and moves, they die slowly, one by one, just to melt and disappear in deep water around… The light spectacle that we witnessed there was deeply touching for me. Natural four dimensional piece of art!

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Well, I have learned something about myself, to open my eyes more often for the surroundings, to slow down and focus on ‘now’, to enjoy the most what I encounter in my life, rather than rush and chase whatever I think awaits for me at the end of the road. I spend wonderful time thanks to my friends, who fortunately convinced me to go with them. When I look back, after all we saw and experienced together, I cannot believe I ever had any doubts. That was like a week in Heaven. Need a lot of hard work and practice before I dare to paint some of it!

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