As I write this from back home in California, it almost feels like it was all a dream. That only a few weeks ago we were adventuring through Patagonia until we went as far as we could go- to the end of the world.
We ventured back into Chile to visit Torres del Paine National Park, a hikers paradise that draws travelers from all over the world. The park encompasses incredible mountains, glaciers, rivers, and lakes and is home to condors, guanacos, puma, and deer.
Torres del Paine is home to two world famous hiking routes, the W and the Full Circuit which take about 5 and 9 days to complete, respectively. With a limited amount of time and hardly any food, we opted to do two thirds of the W with our friends George and Teresa (Road Adventure). Chile is extremely strict with the transport of food into their country so we crossed the border with hardly anything, drove straight to the national park, and hoped for some sort of a store. We realized we blew it when all we could find was a little kiosk that sold cookies and chips for three times the normal price- so we got creative. I baked a bunch of bread rolls on our camp stove and we shelled out some money for cheese, salami, trail mix, and chocolate- you know, the hiking essentials.
The first leg of the W took us through sub polar forest before we scurried up a section of rocky, wind exposed trail to the stone towers of the Torres del Paine, probably the most visited and photographed feature in the park.
While the photo above looks nice and peaceful, once in a while an enormous gust of icy wind would blow by, nearly knocking us over. The photo below will give you an idea of what I mean:
The second leg of the hike, the middle section of the W, took us along a beautiful lake and into the spectacular Valle del Frances (French Valley).
On our way into the valley we heard a loud rumbling that we thought was thunder. We looked up at the mountain on our left and saw an enormous wave of snow tumbling down- it was an avalanche! We stood there in awe and tried to gauge whether we should run while imagining the campground we were heading to inundated with snow. When we arrived at the campground we found it in perfect order and learned that avalanches happen in Valle del Frances all the time. Well, that was quite a surprise! Throughout our hike in the valley we saw smaller avalanches and heard lots of thundering but nothing like the doomsday we witnessed on our way in.
The Valley was absolutely gorgeous. One of my favorite features was the mountain in this photo below called Cuernos del Paine, cuernos meaning horns, but I like to call it marble cake mountain. Doesn’t it look like a cake? Maybe I was just hungry and delirious.
All along the W circuit you can find nice, cozy refugios, or mountain refuges, that offer meals and lodging but with a hefty price tag. They are mainly utilized by hikers that don’t have their own gear or by tourists that are taken in on horseback. One of the refuges we hiked past even had hot tubs! Yes, that was a hard one to pass by…
We had heard about Torres del Paine for months during our travels in Chile and Argentina but never imagined it to be this beautiful. We were blown away by how incredible it was and hope to return one day to complete the whole circuit of the park.
We headed south, stocked up on food and internet in Puerto Natales, and made our way to a Magellanic penguin colony. The comical little penguins hang out on the coast of Chile about an hour north of Punta Arenas from September-March to nest and lay eggs. We watched them pop out from their burrows in the sand dunes and waddle around among the shrubs and flowers. One diligently harvested individual pieces of grass and carried them into his burrow to make a cozy nest.
We heard there was also a newly discovered colony of king penguins nearby so we hopped on a ferry in Punta Arenas and crossed the Straight of Magellan in Chile’s Tierra del Fuego. This is the first colony of king penguins that has been found outside of Antarctica and was only discovered in 2011 on a remote stretch of cold, windy, Chilean coast.
The king penguins are regal compared to the little goofy Magellanic penguins we had just visited, with a beautiful burst of yellow around their heads and necks. We watched them walk around in pairs and snuggle together for warmth. The groundskeeper let us camp on the property so we had an evening with the penguins to ourselves. It was absolutely incredible besides the icy blasting wind but that’s a small price to pay to hang out with penguins.
We woke up to a rainy morning, quickly said goodbye to the penguins, and headed out. Today we would cross into Argentina and finish the last southbound drive of our trip. With rain pattering on our windshield we drove until the landscape of dry, barren grassland changed into forests and craggy, snow covered mountains. Before we knew it we arrived in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world!
We decided not to partake in the $10,000 cruise to Antarctica (not that we had a choice) and instead camped at Pista del Andino (Andean Road), a popular overlanding campground, and celebrated with a proper Argentinian BBQ (meaning lots of meat) and wine.
On another rainy morning we set out to visit Tierra del Fuego National Park. The rain was really coming down and we contemplated bailing out, but we pressed on and luckily the sun came out the moment we arrived. A lovely coastal hike took us through forests and along sandy, shell filled beaches. The end of the world sure is beautiful!
With the shipping date for the van approaching, we reluctantly left the beauty of Tierra del Fuego, turned around, and headed north for the first time. And so began the hellish one week drive up the east coast of Argentina to Buenos Aires. We had been told how dull and torturous this drive was going to be, and it really was as bad as everyone said. It took us six days of driving eight hours a day through flat brown grass as far as the eye could see. The highway only neared the coast for a few miles during the entire drive so we didn’t even have the ocean to distract us. The only thing that kept us entertained were the beautiful clouds that dotted the sky all the way to the distant horizon and listening to podcasts.
One worthwhile but lengthy stop along the drive is the Valdes Peninsula, famous for the documentary filmed there that shows orcas beaching themselves to snatch up baby sea lions from the shore. This only happens in February and March and being the middle of February, we decided we had to take our chances if there was a remote possibility that we might see this phenomenal spectacle. We drove out to the peninsula and camped on the beach before spending a day exploring the wildlife with our fingers crossed for some action.
The peninsula is much larger than we expected and it took us four hours to drive around the whole thing. This on top of the eight hour drives we had been doing was rough, but the thought of killer whales snatching up baby sea lions kept us going. We visited another penguin colony, saw lots more guanacos and rheas, and then arrived at the beach where the action happens. We watched the adorable sea lion pups play along the shoreline and hoped with all our hearts that an orca would come snatch one up. Sad- yes, I know. Unfortunately for us, the orcas never showed up so we reluctantly got back in the car and hit the road again.
More than a year of life on the road definitely took a toll on the van and it was starting to show. We practically limped it the final stretch. A day before we made it to Buenos Aires a coolant hose blew- reminiscent of our breakdown in Ecuador but luckily we were able to find a replacement relatively easily (it only took us six hours). Come on vany, just a little further!
Never have we been so relieved to get out of the van and into an apartment when we finally arrived in Buenos Aires. We rented a sweet little place with Joe and Kylee (Patagonia or Bust) for a week in San Telmo, the oldest residential neighborhood in Buenos Aires. Our own bedroom, hot showers, a kitchen, and lots of bars and restaurants in walking distance made it the perfect base to explore the city.
First things first, we had to move all our stuff out of the van, our home for the last year and more. We donated lots of our stuff to the guy who ran the paid parking lot across the street from our apartment- clothes, food, cleaning supplies, etc. He was so happy he let us park for free and even washed the van for us.
Then it was time to part with the van. We drove an hour north of Buenos Aires to the shipping port in Zarate, handed over our keys to a port employee, and waved goodbye to the van as it entered the unknown. We are just hoping that it actually ends up back in California!
Free of the van and any further responsibilities, we set out to enjoy Buenos Aires. We strolled around the Saturday antiques market, cooked at the apartment, and went out for wine and charcuterie at a cool local bar called El Federal, a casual place with meats and cheeses hanging from the cieling. Buenos Aires has a distinct italian influence as can be seen from the homemade pizza and pasta everywhere.
It also turns out I have family in Buenos Aires- how nice! We got in touch with Valentin, who I will call my cousin although I am still not entirely sure how we are related. But it doesn’t matter, family is family. Valentin took us for a night out in Palermo, a beautiful, fun, artsy part of Buenos Aires. We toasted our final fernet and colas, pretty much Argentina’s national drink (besides wine of course), and enjoyed one last night out.
The long cab ride to the airport in the morning was surreal. It was so hard to believe that our adventures were coming to an end (for now…) and we were finally going home! Let’s see how we adjust to being back in the “real world” as everyone likes to call it. Wish us luck!