To the End of the World and Back

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.

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The end of the world route

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.

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Heading into the park

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Caravan photo op

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Guanacos grazing on the side of the road

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We were lucky to watch this enormous condor soar around right above us

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.

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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:

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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).
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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.

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Site of the avalanche. You can see snow piled up at the bottom of the mountain.

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.

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Cuernos del Paine

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Hiking up up up into the Valle del Frances

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Valle del Frances

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…

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A lovely refuge in Valle del Frances

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.

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One last look at the spirals of Cuernos del Paine, my favorite mountain.

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.

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Hey buddy

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A penguin debate

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.

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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.

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This adorable baby fox payed us a visit while we camped

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!

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The good ol’ van at the end of the world. Thanks vany, we made it!

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.

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Camping with friends at the end of the world

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!

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At the end of the road

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.

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Argentina’s Route 3

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.

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Punta Piramides, the only town on the Valdes Peninsula

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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.

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Seal snatching orca beach

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Look at those tasty little morsels

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!

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Only 1000 km left to go!

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.

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View from our balcony

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Saturday antique market in San Telmo

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!

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The van’s adventures continue as it sails through the Panama Canal!

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.

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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.

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Thanks for a fun night out Valentin!

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!

Categories: Argentina, Chile | Tags: , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Adventures with Friends in Patagonia

Futaleufu, Chile- the place where three adventures converged into one. It was there that we met up with our good friends George and Teresa of Road Adventure and our new friends Joe and Kylee of Patagonia or Bust. George and Teresa began their trip in Seattle, Washington a year and a half ago. We first ran into them back in Columbia and met up again in southern Ecuador. Joe and Kylee are from Hood River, Oregon and have been traveling in a cool custom made truck since October 2012.

We wasted no time in finding a lovely campsite along a river, popping open a box of wine, and cooking up a scrumptious campfire macaroni and cheese dinner- the first of many delicious meals shared.

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Camping with friends is the best

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Dutch oven magic

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Baked mac n cheese, sauteed carrots, and avocado salad

And so began our joint adventure down the Carretera Austral through wild Patagonia. We caravaned along the dusty dirt road, through forests, past rivers, lakes, and waterfalls, camping wherever we pleased amidst the spectacular scenery.

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Lago Yelcho on a beautifully clear day

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Camping alongside the ocean in Puyuhuapi

Each day we would do a few hours of driving while stopping along the way to fish, pick fresh berries, and to marvel at our surroundings.

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Hunter or gatherer?

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The windy Cuesta del Diablo

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Stopping to enjoy the views at a mirador of Cerro Castillo

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A welcome stretch of pavement

On the Chilean side of Lago General Carrera, an enormous lake shared by Chile and Argentina, we slowed down for a few days to explore. Most visited in this area is the famed marble cathedral- an incredible formation of soft blue caverns sculpted by water. Finely ground glacial silt gives the lake its unbelievable azure color as it reflects dazzling light onto the walls of marble creating a surreal spectacle.

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Too many hues of blue

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Fishing on Lago General Carrera

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Then came one of the most beautiful stretches of the Carretera Austral- the road to Glaciar Exploradores. We drove the dusty road to its end, past mountains, glaciers, and spectacular scenery until we reached a river where we had heard whispers of giant salmon in the waters.

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The caravan

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The crew

Aron, George, and Joe caught a ride across the river in a little boat to a tiny dock while the ladies hung back in hopes of fresh fish for dinner. We were more than a little surprised when the guys came back with an enormous salmon! After cooking it up on a fire that evening the three of us couples had more salmon than we could eat for days. Salmon sandwiches, salmon pasta, salmon and eggs, even salmon sushi- we really lived it up in Patagonia.

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Hunters or gatherers?

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Riverside fish cleaning

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Driving around Lago General Carrera

We followed Lago General Carrera all the way around until we crossed the border into Argentina where the lake is known as Lago Buenos Aires. Once in Argentina, we had our first taste of pampa- flat, dry grassland that stretches as far as the eye can see. The comical shrubs and the abundance of wildlife kept us entertained during a two day drive to El Chalten, a base town for the remarkable Mount Fitz Roy. We saw armadillos, hundreds if not thousands of guanaco– a sort of llama type animal, and rheas which are like small ostriches.

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Middle of pampa camp spot after a long day of driving

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A fuzzy armadillo scampering across the road

When Mount Fitz Roy came into view in the distance we were in awe. The granite towers stood out spectacularly against the blue sky.

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Upon arriving in El Chalten we packed our bags and hoped for good weather as we set out for a three day hike that would take us to the base of Mount Fitz Roy. Through mossy lengua forests and up wind blasted ridges we wandered until we were right below the rock towers. The water in the rivers along the trail is sparkling clean as it flows directly from the glaciers that top the mountains. It was a blissful experience to be able to drink pure water directly from a stream. It reminded us of how precious these last pristine places in the world are and how important it is to preserve them.

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Sheltered from the wind in a mossy lengua forest

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At the base of the towers

Luckily the weather held up during our hike and then unleashed with torrents of rain and wind as we arrived back in town. With not much to do in the rain, we hopped in ours cars after a much needed hot shower and some pizza and headed south for El Calafate, the gateway city to the famous Perito Moreno glacier. We slowed down a bit and found a nice campground in the center of the city where we grilled empanadas and more of Argentina’s famous meat- lots of ribs in particular thanks to George, the rib master.

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Hamburger party

We were blessed with another gorgeous day when we set out to see the glacier. The Perito Moreno glacier is famous for it’s size, the enormous ice chunks that break off and thunder into the lake below, and for its accessibility. You can get right up close and appreciate the massive size of the twenty story glacier, and that’s just whats above the surface of the water. The glacier moves forward up to two meters per day. As it creeps between the mountains enormous pieces of ice, some the size of houses, come crashing down creating huge waves in the lake.

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A tourist boat provides a little perspective of the size of the glacier

We spent all day gawking at the glacier, strolling along the walkways and hanging out at the different viewpoints. Seeing such beautiful, diverse, and awe inspiring landscapes just doesn’t get old. Even after fourteen months of traveling, nature never ceases to amaze us.

Categories: Argentina, Chile | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Carretera Austral

The Carretera Austral is a mostly dirt and gravel highway that traverses 800 miles through Chilean Patagonia. The road is rough, windy, and dusty but the scenery it winds through is unparalleled. Never in our lives have we seen wilderness as majestic as this. Our friends from Oregon described it as the American North-West on steroids. Crystal clear rivers, lakes bluer than imaginable, pine and beech covered mountains, and craggy, snow covered peaks were a part of our everyday scenery.

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Making our way into Southern Chile’s lakes district, we stopped at Parque Nacional Conguillo, famous for the giant cone of Volcan Llaima towering over a forest of monkey puzzle trees out of a Dr. Seuss book. We camped alongside a beautiful glacial lake surrounded by snowy mountains and hiked up a ridge where we enjoyed magnificent views of the park.

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Wild camping at its finest

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Volcan Llaima

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View of the park from the Sierra Nevada trail

Chile’s lakes district has a huge German influence. Back in the 1800’s the Chilean government opened the remote south to Germany for settlement, providing land in exchange for the development of agriculture and forestry in the region with European technology. For an example of how prevalent the German influence is, all of Chile and Argentina use the German word for cake- “kuchen” (pronounce koo-hen). We stopped for some coffee and kuchen in the lovely lakeside German town of Frutillar, then continued around the lake to Puerto Varas to stock up on food and send out Christmas cards before heading into the wilderness of the carretera austral.

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Kuchenladen- German for cake shop

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Apple strudel- a taste of Germany in Chile

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There’s always time to stop and smell the roses

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Feeling the Christmas spirit in Puerto Varas

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Beautiful old architecture on the road between Frutillar and Puerto Varas

Our first stop on the carretera was Cochamo Valley, known as the Yosemite of South America. The sides of the river valley are covered in virgin temporate rainforest and old Alerce trees encompassed by giant walls of granite drawing climbers from around the world. We backpacked into the valley and spent three days fishing, swimming in the frigid river, and hiking up the steepest trails we have ever encountered. So steep in fact that one hike involved steel cables and climbing ropes to get up sections of slippery granite rocks.

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The pretty town of Cochamo

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Hiking into Cochamo Valley

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The granite domes of Cochamo

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Backcountry transportation

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A very steep climb- going down was almost scarier!

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At the top of the valley

From Cochamo we drove the dusty road to its temporary end in Hornopiren where we loaded the van on a ferry to cross the fjord to where the road begins again. The carretera is broken up by a road-less section of Parque Pumalin, one of the largest private parks in the world created by Doug Tompkins of The North Face. Tompkins started buying tracts of land in Patagonia in the 1990’s in order to protect it from exploitation and turned it into a giant conservation project, the result of which is beautiful Parque Pumalin.

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The pier in Hornopiren

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A gorgeous ferry ride from Hornopiren through Parque Pumalin

Parque Pumalin encompasses an area of temperate rainforest, like a jungle but in the cold south. Ferns, bamboo, and giant leaves of rhubarb perforate the forest floor between the trees. We had luck with the weather and camped on the way to Volcan Chaiten at one of the most scenic campgrounds we have ever been to. The volcano erupted just a few years ago in 2009, spewing hot ash for miles around. The barren landscape of dead trees and the slowly recovering town of Chaiten remain evidence of the destruction.

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El Volcan campground in Parque Pumalin

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Smoky Volcan Chaiten

Christmas brought rain but luckily we were at a campground with a nice shelter and we celebrated with wine, homemade pizza, and the last episode of Game of Thrones season three. It was a lovely Patagonian Christmas but after two Christmases away from home we are looking forward to spending the holidays with family again!

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Christmas Eve sunset

The weather cleared as we arrived in Futaleufu, a cute little town on the Futaleufu river, one of the top three whitewater destinations in the world. It is the bluest, most raging river we have ever seen and somehow we ended up rafting it… The class five rapids were a little intense for us river amateurs but we had a blast! The area is also a haven for fishing and hiking- we had a hard time leaving this beautiful place.

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The town of Futaleufu

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The incredibly blue Futaleufu River

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Braving the rapids

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On top of Piedra del Aguila- Eagle Rock

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Fishing for rainbow trout in the Futaleufu River

Futaleufu is only fifteen minutes from the border of Argentina so we wandered across to explore a little of the Argentinian lakes district while we waited for some traveling friends to catch up with us.

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The first things we noticed about Argentina was the delicious food and the cheap gas. After scarfing down some freshly baked pastries and filling up our tank, we headed out to Parque Nacional Los Alerces. No hiking here because it rained for days but Aron caught his first sizeable Patagonian trout!

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For New Years we camped in the cool, hippy town of El Bolson backed by a jagged toothy ridge of mountains. We grilled pizza over a fire (our holiday specialty) and shared our first Fernet with some new Argentinian friends. Fernet is a liquor similar to Jaegermeister, made of herbs and spices including rhubarb, camomile, cardamom, and saffron and is very popular in Argentina- we jumped right on board.

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Cerro Piltriquitron in El Bolson

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Early morning at a mirador over El Bolson

The feria – market – in El Bolson was a treat, just like the market back in Ocean Beach, San Diego that I miss so much. Freshly made jams with raspberries from the surrounding mountains, cool wood carvings, homemade cakes and cheeses, and delicious food- I was in heaven. We wandered around sipping local brewed beer and enjoying the live music.

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We mosied on up the Ruta 40, Argentina’s famous highway that runs from north to south through the entire country passing desert, pines, and pampa. We camped alongside beautiful lakes and did some hiking in Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, Argentina’s oldest Nacional Park. The hike up to Refugio Lopez, a mountain refuge, passed through dense forest home to comical woodpeckers and revealed gorgeous views of the lake below.

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Refugio Lopez overlooking Lake Nahuel Huapi

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Woody the woodpecker

In the southern section of the park we visited Mount Tronador, a snowy beast that got its name from the thundering of ice chunks falling down its slopes. Instead of heading up into the snow we hung out along the rivers where Aron fished for trout and I figured out how to bake bread on our camp stove (success!).

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Mount Tronador

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Lago Mascardi

While I was baking in the van Aron ran up with a rainbow trout in his hands that he had wrestled out of the river. A little lemon and garlic and voila- dinner is served!

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Chile and Argentina have turned out to be some of the best countries for traveling in the van. The landscape is breathtakingly beautiful, there are campgrounds and places to wild camp everywhere, and good vibes abound. We can’t even remember the last time we stayed in a hostel. Our little house on wheels is all we need when the outside is this gorgeous!

Categories: Argentina, Chile | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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