Sunday, October 31st; Halloween in Puerto Natales
Today was Election Day in Chile, meaning shops were closed for the day. One hotel we "interviewed" told us they would not be serving an evening meal, so we moved on.
Trick or Treat shenanigans work the same way in Chile as in America... shops sell masks, stores sell candy, and little (and not so little) kids roam the streets about sunset, knocking on doors asking for treats. We don't know how "Trick or Treat" translates into Spanish.
Offering little beyond a bus stop and a gas station, Puerto Natales is surrounded by incredible snow-capped mountains around a bay.
Monday, November 1st
We got up early to beat the rush into the "Torres del Paine" park, but there was no rush to beat. One family beat us to the "Cave of the Milodon," home of an extinct 10,000 year-old sloth. Their three kids appreciated having their pictures taken in front of the eight-foot tall replica at the cave entrance. Six-thousand pesos later, one more "Wonder of the World" got checked off.
Even with two good maps (and several bad ones, none of which agreed), the signs on the road were so confusing, we stopped a bus to ask directions. The driver told us to follow him, which we were happy to do. After paying the park entrance fee, we passed the bus which could not continue across the bridge to the Hosteria Las Torres. The bridge was so narrow, I couldn't make it across in the Jeep without opening the window and pulling in one of the rear-view mirrors. Arrogant to the bitter end, the young lady at the reception desk informed us the $209 (US) rate couldn't be discounted without permission from the management in Buenos Aires, and they couldn't be reached under any circumstances. I folded the driver's mirror on the Jeep and crossed their micro-bridge once again.
The Pehoe Lodge, where we stayed one night, offered a rather sparse room with a single TV-set in the main lounge, for $160 (US). When we took issue with the fact that we weren't told there was an Internet charge until I had run up a big bill, they told us we could go to the next hotel down the road if we didn't like what they offered. If hotels in the park hadn't been so few and far between, I would have done just that. So much for Chilean hospitality. In the end, they put up a sign detailing their Internet charges and dropped the item from my bill.
The Towers of Paine park caters to the hiker and the bird-watcher. Other than those activities, there isn't much to do except marvel at the raw beauty of the snow-capped towers. Rain clouds in the evening turned into white wisps in the morning, with the early rays lighting the peaks at a very photogenic angle.
Tuesday, November 2nd
The more rural border crossings are the easiest, with no big busses to follow and more friendly agents. Our final departure from Chile was finished in five minutes. The entry in Argentina, a few kilometers down the road, was just as easy. The Customs guy, who actually came out to the car to make sure it wasn't full of illegal aliens or drugs, told us the gravel road improved in 40 km. Our map predicted a full day of gravel roads, so this was good news. Five kilometers later, the bad road ended at a "T" junction on a brand-new paved road. Sometimes bad information can still be good news, even though there was no sign to show which way to go. It didn't last, however. There were several hours of gravel road, complete with detours around bridge construction projects, before the final hour on pavement.
El Calafate, gateway to the Perito Moreno Glacier, owes it's existence to this singular attraction. The town consists of alternating restaurants and tour-guide-to-the-glacier offices. We asked one of the tour-guide offices to call the only hotel located at the glacier, 80 km past the town, and inquire about a room. When they told us the price was $540 US dollars, per person, we weren't disappointed when they added that the place was fully booked. We found a room in town for $85 US for two people, figuring we could drive there in the morning and be $995 ahead.
Wednesday, November 3rd
Knowing that the tour busses were going to leave for the glacier at 8:30 AM, we left at 8:00 AM and didn't have to eat any dust.
Chile bills their "San Rafael" Glacier as the best thing since sliced bread. Argentina does the same for the "Perito Moreno" Glacier. They are quite different, so it's hard to say who wins this one. The weather we had in Chile was cold and rainy, so the warm, clear day we had today works in favor of Argentina. The little boat we used to approach the glacier in Chile allowed us to be close enough to the water to scoop a few of the thousands of blocks of ice by hand. The boat we had today kept us far above the water, but there weren't any small chips to grab; only a few large blocks floated by.
The Perito Moreno Glacier is very active, advancing more than one meter per day. In half an hour we saw three large blocks of ice break off and plunge into the water. Sharp cracking noises from the glacier gave an indication of the intense pressures created as the ice-field, some 100 meters high, shifted.
Thursday, November 4th
"Get off to a early start to be able to meet unforeseen circumstances," has always been Elsa's motto. It worked in her favor today.
We knew the run to Puedrabuena, 280 km, was going to be a choice of one day over gravel (for 240 km) or two days via the paved road through Rio Gallegos. "It won't take more than 4 hours. Give it a try for 5 km and see for yourselves how good it is." suggested the hotel receptionist.
It didn't take 5 km to figure out the 60 km/hour we needed to make her estimate, assuming we made it at all, was going to put our poor Jeep in the junkyard. We could go only 50 km per hour at most and at the end of the first hour, covered only 40 km. It was starting to turn into a long day. It was two hours before we saw another vehicle, a truck full of horses, coming toward us in the other lane. In the next hour, two small pickup trucks passed by. There were plenty of guanacos, sheep, horses and ostrich-like nandus, running stupidly down the road in front of us, instead of turning to the side and disappearing in the brush.
There was little to suggest anyone lived along the road. Ranches, called estancias, were marked on the map in place of cities which didn't exist.
Five hours later, we hit the pavement and celebrated by eating yesterday's left-over pizza from the box heating in the sun on the dashboard.
In order to avoid repeating our stay in Piedrabuena, a clean little town with only one hotel, we decided to go another 123 km to San Julian. The guidebook promised an adequate supply of places to stay, even though the town had only 4000 residents. The first hotel we checked was fully booked, due to some sort of "Congresso". So was the second, third and so forth, on down to the bottom of the list. Go back an hour or go forward into the unknown? The kind attendant at the Alamo Hotel called ahead for us and reserved a room in Tres Cerros, 145 km ahead.
An hour and a half later, at 4:30 PM, we pulled into Tres Cerros, a town consisting of a police station, a YPF gas station and an attached motel with six rooms. The gas station attendant was polite and helpful and got us checked in, between fueling cars and diesel trucks. The restaurant, scheduled to start serving dinner at 8:30 PM, opened early, serving us at 7:00 PM. A two-month old lamb, adopted by the owners after it's mother died, followed one of the workers around like a puppy, outside the dining room window. We hadn't been treated so well in quite a while. Except for trucks rolling down the highway all night, it was a pleasant stay.
Friday, November 5th
I stopped along the road at 10:00 AM to listen for Joachim, DJ1SP, who has a weekly ham radio contact with VE3CHL in Canada. He turns his antenna toward South America and calls me from 10:05 to 10:10. I called and listened today from a good, quiet location looking out over the Atlantic Ocean, hearing a few German and Russian stations, but not his.
After driving an hour more, a sharp gust of wind and a passing truck combined forces to knock the HF antenna off the car. The mag-mount dragged on the road at 110km per hour and the ceramic magnet was shattered into a million pieces. The tip of the 20 resonator was lost as well. So, no more HF operation from the mobile station.
Yesterday, we spent 8 hours in the car and another hour seeking accommodations in San Julian, with only a slice of pizza for lunch. Today, we treated ourselves to a short day, stopping at the Austral Hotel in Comodoro Rivadavia at noon, after only three hours of driving.
Saturday, November 6th
After three hours of driving, we arrived at Camarones, population 1200. It was 1202 after we arrived.
This is a "real" Argentinian city. El Calafate is a "fake" Argentinian city. Here, only Spanish is spoken. No tourists clog the Kodak photo processing store, because there isn't one. There are no postcards for sale. A steady flow of folks pass in and out of the "Mom and Pop" grocery mart, purchasing items for their Saturday evening meal.
The Cabos Dos Bahias Penguin reserve, down yet another 25 km of gravel road, promised a colony of 30,000 birds and delivered on at least 1,000. Most of them were sitting on eggs in their holes, but a few were waddling around on the beach. More vocal than their cousins in Punta Arenas, Chile, they lived up to their name of jackass penguins by making characteristic braying sounds.