Natural splendor on either side of the border

We start our long trip to the North on the famous Ruta 40, which runs from Rio Gallegos in the South of Argentina all the way to the Bolivian border. Along the way we will cross to Chile multiple times, so in contrast with Ruta 3 we will probably not drive every km of the 40 and will enjoy the best of both countries on either side of the mighty Andes.

After celebrating New Year’s Eve in El Chalten with artisanal pizza and a bunch of new friends we don’t linger there much longer. We’re glad to see Katie again and by chance we do walk into 2 former colleagues of Hannes and also Rhea, a friend from University of his. We already saw her in Ushuaia the week before and again we find her walking down the street when we drive by. Small world… We’ve done all the hiking we wanted last time in El Chalten so we move on to somewhere new on January 2nd. The road out of town is lined with hitchhikers when we drive on and so as the hitchhike law requires, we pick up the first chosen duo. Theo and Inez, a French-German couple join us in the van. They are travelling South America mainly by hitching rides and it seems their plans are flexible. We’re heading to the exact same place, Los Antiguos, but we had planned on some detours before driving all the way there. Perito Moreno National Park, a little visited park with splendid hikes and sights, is one of those. Hardly any tourists make it to this park because it involves a strenuous 90 km over a horrible dirt road and no public transport makes the trip. We get along really well with our new company so we invite them to join us. After some reading about it they gladly agree to tag along and grab the opportunity to see this remote place. Dusk is settling by the time we arrive so we expect to be sleeping at the entrance until we can register in the morning. Fortunately the ranger is so kind to still show up and explain us all about the park and its trails. We let him know our plans and can still move on into the park. The Northern ranger station is where we’re headed as we’ll be hiking in that section of the park tomorrow. It’s 1 eye on the road and 7 scanning the twilight hills for feline movement. Upon arrival a second ranger tells us about a refuge a bit further up where Theo and Inez could sleep, after all it’s only 5 degrees and it promises to be a cold night. We check it out but very soon we’re reconsidering the idea as the track deteriorates. We don’t want to get stuck for the night so head back to the ranger station to camp.

The park doesn’t have any multi-day treks – too bad because there is a lot of potential in this park – so we fill our day with several short hikes. In the morning we set out to Pasarela Rio Volcán. On the way we also drive by 2 viewpoints. Mirador de Aves showcases some beautiful birds, among which flashy pink flamingos. At the next mirador over Valle Volcán we are literally blown off our feet. The wind coming from the valley is so strong that we can almost lie on it. Probably it even helped to push us back up to the road as the van was struggling to get up a hill of loose sand and rocks. Only after several attempts with flying dust and the smell of burning rubber did it manage to crawl up and over the top. The hike brings us to a river gorge where the turquoise waters used to be spanned by a wooden bridge to let sheep cross. Only some wooden debris remains from the century-old bridge but still it’s a beautiful place. We stay for a bit to enjoy the views and get an air show by a handful of condors. When they leave sight suddenly 2 guanacos appear who seem to be sprinting away from something. Would this be our moment to spot a puma?! Alas, it’s mating season for these camelids and one male is just chasing the other away. When one is chased into the freezing river, his pursuer ceases to hunt him down and considers himself the victor, watching him closely from the river bank before returning out of sight again to look for his price.

In the afternoon we summit Cerro Léon. Along the trail we see some guanacos a bit further in a rather weird pose. After a closer look we realise that these ones did find their mating partners, doing it like they do on the Discovery Channel. From the top – well, some meters below it, we couldn’t go on due to the violent wind – we get a magnificent view on peninsula Belgrano, the surrounding waters with several shades of blue and the entire park with snow-capped peaks across the valley.

On our second day we visit some of the sights in the Southern section of the park but the wind keeps us from doing another longer hike. Nonetheless we are amazed all the time by the beauty and solitude of this place and can’t believe not more people visit it. The wildlife spotting, wether from the car, on hikes or on the campsites in the morning, has been truly sublime. Nowhere else before in Patagonia were foxes so curious, Ibises so numerous and rheas so entertaining – apparently that is what the choiques are called in English. We’re leaving at noon so we can still visit the Cueva de las Manos, with 9000-year-old rock paintings, on the way to Los Antiguos. The cave is also a fair bit off the main road so we shouldn’t waste any time. The weather turns sunny while driving there and when we get out of the car we realise it’s much here warmer than what we have gotten used to in the past weeks. Time to dig up them shorts and shades! The only way to visit the rock paintings is with a guided tour, but this time we don’t mind at all. The guide gives us plenty of information and it’s great practice for our Spanish. The name might have spoiled it already but the main sights here are painted hands: red, ocher, black, white, even some cyan blue and a 6-fingered one…

The next days we spend enjoying the warm weather and eating cherries. We’re in Los Antiguos, the nation’s official Cherry Capital, and the deliciously sweet fruits are for sale everywhere. We say goodbye to Inez and Theo who will continue to Chile the next day. We are also going there but only a day later. We first relax a bit at Lago Buenos Aires and Hannes can’t resist to go for a swim. As soon as he touches the water with his toes he realises it’s a bit cold for a pleasant dip. He mans up anyway and dives right in but that’s it. Immediately he hops back onto dry land. When we cross to Chile Chico on the other side of the border we hit the wrong customs officer. We knew beforehand that this could be a troublesome checkpoint, but we were convinced we weren’t crossing with any illegal foods. The lady is doing her utmost best to find something and in the end she picks out our dried peas, lentils and chickpeas. She says these are not allowed in as they are made in Argentina. The bag of mixed lentils, peas and corn, also Argentinian, is left alone so we don’t understand it at all. After trying to utter our objection in our best Spanish we realise there is little to discuss with this person. She tells us we indicated we have nothing to declare – like customs told us to do the first time we crossed into Chile – and this should have been declared, for which she should fine us. When also her colleague asks her why these foods are not allowed, we just accept that we passed by the wrong woman who wanted to show she’s the boss. She slits her knife through the bags and slowly tilts 4kg of legumes into the trash…

In Chile Chico we park in front of a restaurant and see that Inez and Theo are having dinner there so we drop by to have a beer with them, refusing to let the border crossing ruin our mood. We only stay for the night and move on the next day to Parque Patagonia with a scenic lake-side drive. Parque Nacional Patagonia is brand new: the former Chacabuco Valley, where Doug Thompkins, founder of The North Face, and his wife Kris created Parque Patagonia and gifted this to Chilean state, is now combined with Reserva Nacional Tamango and Reserva Nacional Jenimeini into one big national park. The park of the Thompkins is a whole new level! All infrastructure is brand new and well maintained and looks pretty fancy to be honest. We arrive when the visitor centre is closed already so just park next to it for the night. In the morning our car is surrounded by grazing guanacos, only adding to the beauty of this place. We drop by for a map of the trails and start with a visit to the interesting but very confronting museum. It highlights the human impact on our surroundings and the necessity of protected areas to preserve and restore what nature there is left. The weather is bad today so instead of hiking we decide to wait for a day. That evening the golden sunset in the wet, fog-filled sky is spectacular. It really is a beautiful place… We were thinking of making a multi-day hike here but in the end decide not to. Stefanie is not really feeling like walking today so Hannes starts the 20 km Lagunas Altas trail by himself. Hiking alone is not advised and warning signs of what to do when sighting a puma are all around so he decides to join a group of Germans when he passes them on the trail. There are some nice sights along the way but the views are all a bit monotonous, especially for such a long hike. So Hannes decides to speed off on his own to finish the hike sooner than his group. After all, he actually wants to see a puma!

It was an amazing week with two beautiful but very different National Parks in both Chile and Argentina. We’ve seen so much wildlife and have been looking hard for our first puma but alas still no luck. It’s all the more frustrating when we see Parque Patagonia post an instagram some time after we leave of one calmly strolling over the campsite where we were before. Let’s see if we have more luck when we drive North on the Carretera Austral towards one of the Thompkins’ other creations, Parque Pumalin.

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