Holidays in the South

We’ve been listening to our Christmas playlist in the car for about 2 weeks now and we’ve had our first summer snow so it’s time for the real deal. From El Fin del Mundo, as Ushuaia likes to call itself, we’re now crossing the Beagle Channel further South for some trekking and possibly a white Christmas.

It’s exactly a week before Christmas when we arrive in the port of Ushuaia for the most expensive zodiac trip ever. 200 USD per person is what we pay to get to Puerto Williams on Isla Navarino and back. The operator tried to justify it by “the large amount of people involved in this international border crossing trip” when she saw us frowning but it doesn’t take an economics degree to spot a duopoly here. Just 2 tour operators are allowed to make the trip and as long as Chile doesn’t have any closer access point to the island than Punta Arenas – 33 hours by ferry – little is going to change about the price. We booked it anyway and are now embarking on a small covered zodiac. There’s a steady Westerly hitting the channel and as we slowly leave the quiet waters of the port, passing by the impressive Antarctica-bound research and cruise ships, the water gets rough and the boat sways up and down in the white foaming waves. We’re glad we only had a light breakfast and get flashbacks to last time when we had to cross over to an island. We thought about going to Antarctica but that would mean eating up a significant chunk or our travel budget for just 2 weeks. And theoretically we’re already going there since Chile counts Isla Navarino to it’s Antarctic territory. Along the way we float for a little while next an enormous blue-eyed imperial cormorant colony. These long-necked birds are joined by giant petrels as they come and go from their nests on the rocks. A mere 40 minutes after leaving Ushuaia we set foot on Chilean soil at Puerto Navarino and after an equally bumpy and even more sickening busride we arrive to the town of Puerto Williams.

Before our trip we received a lot of tips from our friends Babette and Carsten, who had been in Patagonia the year before (you can read their impressive stories here). One of these tips was Camping El Padrino with its lovely host Cecilia. So upon arrival we head straight for the campsite to check it out. The plan is to start the Dientes trek still today, even though our arrival was delayed by 2 hours, and we hope to leave some stuff behind at El Padrino. Tranquilo is the word here. We can put our stuff here, as long as we put a name tag on it and let Cecilia know when we think to return. We quickly go for a decent hot meal before we start living of crackers, couscous and chickpeas again for the coming days. Well, quickly… They forgot about our order and added another hour to the delay. Back at the campsite we’re warmly greeted by another woman. This turns out to be Cecilia, instead of the French lady that instructed us before. We tell her we hope to be back in 4 days and finally walk out of town around 4 pm. The first leg is only 12 km so that should still be doable.

The Dientes trek is not the easiest, with some serious ascents and descents along the way, but especially the weather can make it tough. Storms coming directly from Antarctica can hit the island without notice and could have you caught up in a blizzard even during summer. It doesn’t take long for us to experience the precarious weather firsthand. Soon after we had left it started drizzling lightly, followed by heavy rain where an hour before we could see the sun. Fog now covers Cerro Bandera which we are supposed to climb. As we won’t see anything we take the easier route through the valley – or so we thought. Mud, mud and more mud is what we encounter for the next few hours. Finally we arrive at the final climb to the lake where we will camp when suddenly we see the rain becoming suspiciously white… It’s snowing now! We are so glad we went to buy the extra cap in Ushuaia! We pitch the tent with blue hands and quickly change into some warm and dry clothes. That night the sky clears and the cold only gets worse. We wake up to the feeling of ice cold water dripping on our faces. The condensation of our breaths froze to the outer tent and with the morning sun above the horizon it is now slowly melting again, showering us in the process. This was by far the coldest night we’ve had so far and we struggle to get out from under our down. Especially Stefanie had a bad and freezing night: “3 more days with such frozen feet? No thank you!” It takes some more consideration but in the end she manages to get up, thinking that moving around might get her warm again. After all it would be a shame not to continue, having paid such an expensive transfer to get here. The second day we are lucky with the weather though: the sun is out all day and it’s pleasantly warm, everything considered. Immediately the trail leads us up Paso Australia after which we have several more climbs waiting. The descending and flat parts in between unfortunately are as intense. The rough terrain higher up and marshy stretches further down make for a tiring hike. But the sights are very rewarding and put the effort in some perspective again! We can spot National Park Cabo de Hornos – or Cape Horn – in the distance, pass by shimmering blue lakes and continuously get spectacular sights of the Dientes from different angles.

After a much more comfortable second night we set out for the highest pass of the trek. The route markings of a recent trail running competition lead us away from the regular path and via a scenic traverse back to the original trail just before the steep trail to the summit. Respect for anyone who completes this while jogging… It’s only just after 4 p.m. when we see the campsite already from high up above. After that it’s only 4 km to the road. So with an optimistic mood we start the gruellingly steep decent, sliding down in the loose gravel. We treat ourselves to some tasty carbs and decide we have enough light and energy left to make it to the road today. At first we make great progress through the plateaus ravaged by beavers. But when we enter the forest the trail seems to go everywhere and nowhere. Here and there we come across a faint route marking, but the terrain is too absurd to be called a trail. The forest is completely devastated by the fierce winds and fallen trees have formed a maze through which we have to crawl and tumble. The sun is about to set and just when the woods start getting uncomfortably dark the trees give way to open pastures grazed by horses and cows. The trail has vanished completely now and we rely on our GPS app to lead us straight to the road. It took us some 3 hours for only 4 km, but then finally we make it and reach the dirt road. We plan to camp here and walk the last 8 km into town in the morning. As we sit down and enjoy the tingling sensation in our legs after a long day we hear something in the distance. Could that be a car? At this hour on a road with hardly any traffic? It is! And they are happy to give us a ride back into town.

Exhausted, but satisfied and proud – we did the 4-day trek in 2 and a half days – we stumble up the stairs of the campsite. Cecilia greets us warmly when we walk in and invites us to relax, have a cup of tea and take a hot shower. We’re not planning on doing much for the rest of the evening. Hannes still manages to make it to the shop for a bottle of wine, a well-deserved treat, but that’s it. The common area of El Padrino reminds us of home a lot: normally we would be in our family cabin in the Ardennes right now. The cold, the wood stove and rustic environment make us feel at home in an instant. We spend our next days tranquilamente at the camping with a book and steaming coffee, now and then alternated with a glass of wine. On Saturday the ferry from Punta Arenas arrives and apart from new visitors it also brings the weekly load of fresh produce to town. That means we better hurry to the supermercado so we can finally buy something else than a shrivelled carrot that’s ready to slither off on its own. A significant portion of the recently arrived tourists invariably saunters straight to El Padrino. We walk in to have breakfast in the morning and it’s cosily busy around the table when in the chatter we hear someone say “I’m from Belgium”. That’s how we meet Sophie. The rest of the talk is made up of Germans, Austrians, Canadians and Chileans mixing German, French, English and Spanish in the room. It’s funny to realise that we understand at least the basics of all their conversations while they have no clue what we, Flamencos, are discussing. The whole bunch gets along pretty well and when Katie, a Canadian girl, jokes she wanted to be invited to a real asado it doesn’t take long before a whole BBQ feast is organised for tonight. As the Pisco-cola – or Piscola – and Pisco-tonic flows after dinner we decide to carry on in the local disco. It turns out this just opens on Fridays so we’re obliged to hit the only bar in town. It’s a great night and there’s light on the horizon already – or still, it doesn’t really get dark here this time of year – when we stroll back to El Padrino. The next morning it’s strikingly silent as many a head hurts. The only movement every now and then is someone grabbing out of a tent to a bottle or glass of water. After waking up properly we dedicate the rest of our day to a beaver cake. These creatures are a hot topic on the island as they form a real pest. Once introduced for their fur and meat, they have no natural predators here and have been ravaging the forest ever since. Another Canadian, Pascal, comes here to hunt them and, knowing that, we would really like to try a beaver steak. Unfortunately he will not be back from the outback before we leave so we opt for the vegetarian option and bake a beaver-shaped cake. Katie advises us on how a beavertail looks and finally the masterpiece is ready to be devoured. We had an amazing time and met some really nice people on this cosy campsite, but on Monday morning we hug, say goodbye and leave the island again.

We spend Christmas Eve in a lovely hostel with two amazing ladies whom we met earlier that week at El Padrino. Celebrating with Katie and Sophie is probably the best that could happen to us in order not to be too homesick these days. On Christmas day we leave the city for a festive meal on the Southernmost road of Argentina next to the Beagle Channel. It’s beautiful out here but the car is taking a serious beating for it. Miraculously we had earlier found chicory in Ushuaia so Hannes is very happy that he can make the traditional family meal. We’re camping out here for a couple of days hoping to spot whales or orcas and on the 2nd evening Hannes has a lucky and intimate encounter with a king penguin. At first he is flapping his wings across a narrow river mouth. But then he swims right at him and walks up to just meters away from him, a truly magical experience. With a penguin and some little Patagonian foxes rushing around the car we saw some rare wildlife. It wasn’t what we hoped to see but it sure was spectacular.

Upon our return to civilisation we decide not to spend New Year’s Eve in Ushuaia. We still have 3 days and figure that this should be enough time to drive back to El Chalten for NYE and check out the last remaining sights on our to-do list of the island along the way. And so another road trip kicks off. On the Argentinian side we make a detour via the Desdemona shipwreck. It would have been an amazing location in the evening light – read: for Hannes to make pictures – but we don’t have time so just settle for a quick lunch on the beach. We have to make it to Rio Grande that same day as we want to say hi and deliver some Christmas presents before we leave the island. We expected to be there around tea so when we knock the door late in the afternoon we are greeted by the fragrance of freshly baked apple cake. Once more we say goodbye to Charo and Sergio – read about last time here – and we head for the border through the vast, open nothingness of Southern Tierra del Fuego. Our return to Chile – albeit just for a day – is sooner than expected so we still have fresh vegetables and eggs which we can’t take into the country. When asking the police next to the Argentinian immigration office where we could cook them, sheltered from the wind, they invite us into their kitchen. The 3 of them are playing a shooter game on the Playstation and are sharing a bucket of Fernet-Coke to pass the time. They are more than happy to test our best Spanish while cooking and even follow us on Instagram now. We make ourselves a nice pot of spaghetti sauce and bid them farewell. Across the border it’s time for our last stop on the island: the only colony of king penguins in South America, the second largest species after the emperor penguin. As spectacular as Hannes’ meeting with such a lonely bird was, as disappointing is seeing this entire colony. For the average price of a zoo ticket we can watch some 50 penguins from afar as they sit in the grass and on the beach. Probably the horrendous weather is partly ruining the fun but anyway this is a highly overpriced sight. To compensate we pass by for a free shower again on the way to the ferry and then we cross the Magellan Street back to mainland Chile.

Our past 3 weeks were an impressive road trip in the true South of Patagonia – and South of the world for that matter. Endless plains with guanacos and gauchos, Westerly winds that bend even the sturdiest of trees, alpine peaks rising from the sea and warm-hearted people is what we found here. A Flemish stew recipe and some rusted car parts is what we leave behind. From now on Somewhere South is heading North!


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