Roadtripping to the Land of Fire, or is it Ice?

We’ve had some intense first weeks since our car arrived in Buenos Aires. Sadly we’re now saying goodbye to our dear friend, Rob, for quite a while. Now that we have dropped him off at the airport, we want to shift gear and slow down for a bit. First we decide to splurge on a fancy hotel for 2 nights. The spa is exactly what we want after more than 100 km of hiking. A free suite upgrade only makes it even more memorable. With our feet healed and bellies filled we start a road trip through Southern Chile and head all the way down to Tierra del Fuego. We want to build some furniture in our van along the way before heading to “the end of the world”, Ushuaia. Somewhere South is Southbound yet again!

It’s a 700 km drive from El Calafate to the ferry crossing the Magellan Street to Tierra del Fuego so we take our time. After making a hitchhiker’s day by taking him all the way from El Calafate to Torres del Paine we look for a place to spend the night. Earlier we decided not to go hiking in Torres del Paine because of the reservation system – everything was completely booked – and the expensive campsites. After all we just had 6 days of amazing, free hiking in El Chalten. But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the sight of the Torres for free. We park for the night at one of the miradors outside of the park and cook up our first meal with the stove Rob brought with him from Belgium. What a machine! We are going to enjoy that a lot! Both sunset and sunrise with a view on the Torres are magical. And so after an early start we leave for Puerto Natales via the scenic route, where we just stop for a delicious pizza and guanaco carpaccio. But lord, these prices in Chile… That’s not what we have gotten used to in Argentina when eating out?! Glad we invested in our van kitchen! And glad we can just go off the grid and spend close to nothing for a couple of days when we feel like it. We want some time to edit pictures and work on the blog so that’s exactly what we’ll do. We find ourselves a nice spot off the highway in a coastal bay for two nights. We cook, read, work a bit, make waffles and drink wine. Now that’s a gear we like! We simply enjoy watching rural life go by: the sight of swans playing in the bay, mounted gauchos driving their cattle through the dust and a dramatic sunset to top it off.

After two days we wave our camping neighbors goodbye and drive on towards Punta Arenas. The biggest city in the area is mainly our stopping point for stocking up non-perishables as alternative to astronomic vegetable prices in the far South. The regular border hopping between Chile and Argentina doesn’t allow any fresh produce to cross so anything canned, dried or cooked is our staple food for the moment. We don’t really like the city so leave before dark and sleep nearby. In the evening we notice that one of rear tires looks very deflated. We decide to head back to the nearest gas station to have it inflated. The friendly assistant assured us that if in four hours it’s still OK, we’re all good. The next morning it’s still rock solid so we don’t worry about it anymore and continue the journey. On our way to the ferry we make a quick – well, 100 km of which 50 on gravel – detour via Parque Nacional Pali Aike. The vast steppe broken up by a pitch black volcanic moonscape is pretty cool and especially the close encounters with guanacos, a skunk, flamingos and choiques are awesome. But alas, no puma here either… we had good hopes though when the ranger handed us a leaflet titled “Puma – what to do when you see one”. Ah well, we have a year to spot a big puss. Time to catch the 20-minute-ferry to the Land of Fire. Hannes is hopefully looking for dolphins outside although the weather is turning sour quickly. It costs him a salt shower – barely saving the camera from a soaking – but he does spot two. Good for him, Stefanie thinks while turning another page in her book…

Tierra del Fuego is split in a Chilean and Argentinian half, with the border running straight down the middle. The Chilean part lacks some touristy attention, so in the places where they do try to hook you and offer some oil-sponsored free facilities, we gratefully park our van for the night to enjoy the wifi and hot showers. Apart from our stop in Cerro Sombrero we rush through the Chilean part on our way to Rio Grande, Argentina. This city is also not really the island’s sightseeing hotspot, but we are meeting family of Soledad here. Tio Sergio – uncle Sergio, as Soledad calls him – could help us our with tools to build some furniture in the van. Upon arriving we immediately know we have hit the jackpot with the loveliest people in Tierra del Fuego. They are waiting for us with dinner, have breakfast ready for us every morning, lunch, tea, dinner, whatever we want. They take us into their home like family. Apparently we are really lucky with the weather… Almost 20 degrees out there?! So we head out into town with Francisco, Soledad’s cousin. As we said, there’s not too much to see, but we do get to go to a presentation by NASA researchers from the local observatory and end up in the regional newspaper. After a coffee in town we find our car with a flat tire… Right in front of a Volkswagen shop. Would it be on purpose or could it be that our tire was actually pierced before in Punta Arenas and just deflated very slowly again? Anyway, some help from Sergio, a check at the mechanic and just 7 euros later – got to love pesos – we’re rolling again! Ready to install some furniture. Sergio is not just borrowing us some tools. He’s spending his days joining us to make the drawings, find wood and construct the perfect closet in the van. Amazing work! We can’t thank Sergio, Charo and Francisco enough but we try by making our signature Flemish stew with red cabbage and then we hit the road again. Finally we can get the car organised a bit and we’ll not be sleeping on our cutlery and under our dirty pants.

In the worst of weather we arrive in Tolhuin, as we had read about a gaucho festival here. Luckily the sun is out the next day when we head out to find the local cowboys. We didn’t know what to expect and ultimately arrive to a large field filled with horsemen and a big crowd watching them best each other in a crazy rodeo competition. It is pretty spectacular but not without danger. Multiple ambulances leave the field with flashing blue lights carrying off trampled riders. The locals know how to have a feast: asados smolder on every corner of the field, maté, wine and beers are shared and the rodeo reporter doesn’t just tell you what happens, a whole band sings about the course of the competition. After an exciting day we find ourselves at a glacial lake where we cook and camp – great to cool the white wine as aperitif for our real Patagonian lamb curry. After the dishes in the morning, which unfortunately come with the van life as well, we’re off to the “Southernmost city in the world”. We know that’s untrue, but more on that coming in the next blogpost. To get to Ushuaia we have to cross the alpine peaks of the Cordillera Darwin. All of a sudden we find ourselves in 2 degrees and it’s actually snowing. Hello Austral Summer! This is Christmas weather as we would hope to have in Belgium, not during summer somewhere South.

In Ushuaia we mainly visit the Hard Rock Cafe and camp at the YPF gas station. Both have wifi and that seems like a rare thing in the South! Christmas is upon us and this really is the best region we could have picked to get just a hint of Christmas feeling in South America. It might be the only place where Rudolf and snowman decorations don’t look completely ridiculous and out of touch. It’s about time to take a closer look at our plans for the holiday period as this is not the greatest season to spend halfway around the world. We’ll need some fun distraction for Christmas in order not to be too homesick. Even more South than Ushuaia is Isla Navarino, with Puerto Williams as the only town. We want to go as far South as possible and that is it. Isla Navarino hosts the Southernmost trekking in the world, a circuit through the snowy Dientes peaks to boost our Christmas feeling some more! The trek is a must on our itinerary but in case we don’t feel like spending Christmas in Puerto Williams we want to be able to timely return to Ushuaia. If only the Antarctic weather will agree with our plan. We quickly drop by an outdoor shop to each buy a fleece beanie before the next morning we cross the Beagle Channel towards the truly Southernmost city in the world.

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