SOUTH AMERICA OVERLAND #2

29-Dec-2008: Puerto Montt, Chile to Ushuaia, Argentina

G’day Folks,

We have arrived in Ushuaia, the most southerly city in the world. Ushuaia shares the same latitude as Macquarie Island in Australia so we are very much at the bottom of the world. 

We have been having a fantastic time in Chile , enjoying the company and support of our three amigos, Ruperto, Eamon and Simon. All three have travelled extensively around the world and all share a love for adventure travelling and motorcycling. When we are at camp, there is always plenty to talk and joke about.

When we arrived in Puerto Montt, Chile our mission was to explore options for taking a ferry to Chaiten and then drive the Carratera Austral Highway south to Patagonia. We heard conflicting reports about this option. Some people say the ferry is not running while others say the road is not driveable since it was destroyed by a volcanic eruption earlier in the year. Since it was Saturday, the shipping offices were closed which meant that we needed to wait till Monday. We set up camp at Los Parades campground about 6 km out of Puerto Montt. This was a lovely campground with lots of shady trees and grass run by a lovely family. Once again, Geoff was able to pick up free WiFi internet in one corner of the campground. While waiting, we spent the weekend exploring the island of Chiloe.
 
On Monday morning, we fronted up to the shipping company offices where we were told that there was a ferry to Chaiten but that it was fully booked for the week. We then enquired about driving to Quellon on the Island of Chiloe and then picking up another ferry to Chaiten but there was a lot of doubt as to whether this ferry was running. We then visited the Navimag ferry office and found that they had a service leaving that afternoon for Puerto Natales. This would take us about 150 kms south of Torres Del Paine which meant that we will miss driving the Austral Highway. However, we decided we could do this drive on the way back from Ushuaia, Argentina. After a bit of haggling with the Navimag sales representative, we were able to get a good last minute deal. They offered us a group discount on a four birth cabin as well as a 50% discount on each vehicle. So like eager beavers, we booked and paid for our 4 day cruise from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales. The ferry company told us that we needed to check in immediately, but after explaining that we needed to go back to the camp ground and pack our bags they gave us an additional hour. We heard that it is an amazing journey weaving in and out of the navigable channels around the Chilean islands, through fjords and glaciers with breathtaking scenery.
 
We went back to our campsite to pack and fuel up and within an hour, we found ourselves loading our vehicles on board the MS “Evangelista”. The loading of vehicles and trucks of all sorts took over four hours. We were able to find our 4 berth cabin and acquaint ourselves with the facilities on board. It is not a fancy cruise ship but is adequately equipped with private two to four berth cabins with private bathrooms and the dormitory style 4 berth cabins to which we were allocated. There were some 150 other passengers who came on board. The majority of them were independent backpackers who were hoping to do some serious hiking in the Torres Del Paine National Park in southern Patagonia.
 
By late afternoon, the ferry was fully loaded and ready to sail. We counted ourselves very fortunate to be able to get a place on this ferry as it seemed every conceivable place for vehicles was occupied. Despite the miserable rainy conditions, our journey was very smooth as the ferry cruised in channel waters weaving its way from island to island. In some places, the channels were very narrow. We felt as if the ship would scrape the sides of the islands! The Patagonian snow capped mountains stood tall and imposing on the mainland, sometimes shrouded by misty fog and rain.
 
On board the “Evangelista” we were very well fed and entertained throughout the four days of our journey. We had daily informative briefings about the indigenous culture of the area, flora and fauna and a lecture on Glaciology. We were able to pass the time on deck getting to know other travellers and watched movies in Spanish and English like Spiderman and My Big Fat Greek Wedding and an interesting movie on how Argentina and Chile almost went to war with each other in the 1970s . We were very impressed with the friendly and helpful crew of the “Evangelista”. Even the bathrooms were cleaned three or four times a day.
 
The ferry had to go out to sea on the second afternoon. The going got a bit rougher as we approached the Pacific Ocean. The ferry was rocked about by the big ocean swells. We had taken our sea sickness tablets earlier and by late afternoon, the whole ferry was fairly quiet as many of the passengers had a siesta, probably due to sleepiness from the sea sickness tablets. The rough passage continued for most of the night until we turned back into the much calmer channel waters once again.
 

The next day was just an incredible experience to see Glacier Pio X11. This glacier is 5 km wide, 90 metres tall covering an area of 1260 km square. The Pio X11 is a blue/white glacier and the only advancing glacier in Chile, moving at a rate of 200 metres a year. It is said to be the largest glacier in South America. There was an air of anticipation as all the passengers crowded at the bow with cameras ready to capture the grandeur and beauty of this glacier. We weren’t disappointed. The misty weather cleared just in time for us to behold the beauty before us. It was a very satisfying finish to our 4 day ferry journey.
 
We arrived late morning in Puerto Natales, the gateway to the Torres Del Paine National Park, with a population of 20,000. This town appeared to cater for backpacking tourists, with shops selling adventure tours in Torres Del Paine and Southern Patagonia. We bought fresh supplies and headed for Torres Del Paine on a beautiful, smooth concrete road. Once again the scenery was breathtaking with jagged snow-capped mountain peaks in the background. The valleys were lush green, grazed by horses, sheep and cows. We were excited to see the Guanaco (Chilean Lama). They looked like a cross between the camel and deer.
 
Torres Del Paine is part of the Parque Nacional de Chile. The park entry fee was not cheap at 15,000 pesos (A$35) compared with only 4000 pesos (A$9) for locals. We arrived at Base Torres mid morning. While Eamon set off to do a ten hour hike, the rest of us decided to take a leisurely walk as Rupert, Simon and Kienny have bad knees and Geoff had a sore toe. So the walking wounded set off rather casually and before we knew it, we had actually gone on a 6 hour 12 km hike. The hike gave us great views of the glacial mountains. We walked uphill, downhill, across wooden and suspension bridges. We crossed streams flowing with blue fresh water and walked through a very pretty wooded area.
 

While the others went off to stay in the private campground, Geoff and Kienny spent the night sleeping inside Troopy in the carpark of the fancy Hotel Torres. The weather overnight was cold, wet and windy. We made ourselves quite at home sitting in the hotel lobby accessing internet. To date, we have not had to visit any internet cafes. Along the way we have been able to pick up free WiFi at various service stations, hotels and businesses.
 

We left Torres del Paine and headed back to Puerto Natales for lunch to celebrate Geoff’s birthday. We tried the “plato el dia” which was set meal for the day. The entrée dish was sea urchin in a vinegar dressing. It tasted much stronger than fresh oysters with a slimy texture and one definitely had to have an acquired taste for this Chilean delicacy. The main course consisted of steak and rice with coconut pudding for dessert. The 3 amigos organised a cupcake and candle with strawberry sauce which was a lovely surprise for Geoff.
 
After lunch, we continued south towards Ushuaia. We set off with Malcolm whom we met on the “Evangelista”. Malcolm is 70 years old and this was his maiden motorcycle trip after spending 26 years sailing solo around the world in his yacht. We were in awe as he shared his sailing experiences with us. What an inspiration to us all! We drove against strong winds all afternoon. The landscape was gently undulating sheep grazing country most of which was quite uninteresting and monotonous. We made camp just past Villa Tehuelches not far from Rio Verde in a shallow gully to give us some shelter from the wind. It was a cold, windy and wet night but I guess this it to be expected at this latitude.
 
The next morning, our departure was delayed by stockman herding cattle through our campsite. Just when we thought the road was clear, we were startled by lots of curious eyes staring at us. Another stockman was herding sheep. It was another windy drive as we approached the coast on the Magellan Strait, separating the South American mainland from Tierra del Fuego. We stopped to inspect a shipwreck near Estancia San Gregorio. Not far down the road at Punta Delgada we took the vehicle ferry across the Magellan Strait to Tierra del Fuego. We journeyed on past Cero Sombrero, Cullen and San Sebastian. This area seemed to have plenty of oil and gas beneath the bleak and seemingly desolate landscape.
 
On the way to Ushuaia, we stopped to lend a helping hand to two American overland bikers, one of whom has broken down. The route we took from Puerto Natales to Ushuaia was mostly excellent concrete roads with the exception of around 80km of rough gravel road linking Chile with Argentina. Much of the area is bleak, windy and dusty. The countryside is like the South Australian scrubby salt plains with only the hardiest of sheep strong enough to brave the harsh conditions.
 
We finally arrived at the Chilean town of San Sebastian at about 6 pm. This border post reminded us of the Tashanta border post in northwest Mongolia. The border officials were very friendly and courteous and it took no time at all to get stamped out of Chile. The customs collected our vehicle import document and we were allowed to continue on our way.
 
The Argentine border proceedings were also straightforward. Immigration and customs were friendly and courteous. We had been told that our vehicle would be searched as agricultural products are not allowed to be taken across the Chile-Argentina border. As such we had already eaten all fresh fruit, vegetables and meat prior to exiting Chile. We were pleasantly surprised when we were waived through by customs without the vehicle being searched. We had read and were told about compulsory third party insurance in Argentina. We tried to enquire with the customs officer who prepared our vehicle import document about where we could purchase “seguro” but he merely told us to not worry about it. So, we decided not to pursue the matter. We will definitely buy the insurance when we next cross back into Argentina.
 

We arrived in Rio Grande at around 8 pm. There was still plenty of daylight and we were able to withdraw Argentine pesos from an ATM and do some grocery shopping which we paid by credit card. We went to a family run restaurant for dinner at 9.30 pm. Argentines eat very late. It was not until after midnight that we finished our meal. This made for a very late night camp below a bridge on the outskirts of Rio Grande. Again, a very windy night but we were very snug sleeping inside Troopy.

It was an effort for our 3 amigos to get going the next morning after a late sleepless windy night. The noise of their tents flapping in the strong wind kept them awake for half the night. We called into Tolhuin for an early lunch and found the best tasting Empanadas we have had so far on this trip. Fuel was also considerably cheaper here due to being so close to the oil fields and the government fuel subsidy that is available in the south of Argentina.
 
Tolhuin to Ushuaia was the most scenic and breathtaking stretch we have driven through in our short time in South America. The Sierra Lucio Lopez mountains looked very treacherous and formidable with snow covered dagger pointed peaks. The road was windy and steep in places . We passed stunning alpine lakes with different shades of turquoise green and blue. We found ourselves pulling over at almost every bend to try to capture as much beauty as we could.
 

Finally, after a long 100 km drive from Tolhuin, we arrived in Ushuaia, “fin del mundo” (the end of the world). Ushuaia is a city on the Beagle Channel, surrounded by snow covered mountains. The city is hilly like Murmansk Russia. The main city centre and the area around the pier is very developed with tourist hotels, souvenir arcades, high end Goretex and other adventure clothing stores. The weather was windy and cool with light sprinkles of rain.
 
Our first task in Ushuaia was to see if we could find a last minute deal on a ship going to Antarctica. We went from travel agent to travel agent and were horrified at the prices. In the end, the agent for Quark Expeditions gave us a good deal on a Classic Antarctica expedition cruise for 12 days. The price included one night’s stay at an up market hotel and a very nice parka. Wellington boots were supplied for every passenger so we would not need to hire these. The Clipper Adventurer ship has a capacity of 122 passengers compared to other ships that took 450 to 800 passengers. There is an agreement between tour operators and the authorities governing Antarctica that only 100 people at a time are allowed to make landings on Antarctica. As such, being on a smaller ship has its advantages.
 
With the tour booked, we set up camp at “La Pista del Andino” campsite, which is popular with overlanders. This campsite is located on the hillside with a good view of the city and the Beagle Channel. The managers are very friendly. There were many German and French overlanders in their very fancy campervans and mobile homes. We also met three Brazilian families in their large luxurious motor homes. We became friendly with a couple from Australia and two young Dutch guys who were backpacking through South America.
 
With a few days spare, we were able to refill our Australian gas bottles. We also took Troopy to a rapid oil change workshop which was well equipped. Each oil change station had a hydraulic hoist. Mounted on each wall were oil dispensers of different grades of engine oil. The staff were very professional and friendly. Customers were able to watch the oil change process from a counter with bar stools. They also provided free WiFi internet! The weather in Ushuaia has been very temperamental. It changes from fine to miserable from hour to hour. In the past week it had been warm, sunny, cold, gloomy, wet and windy all within the same day. Yesterday, it snowed overnight! We woke up to winter wonderland which was just magical.
 
With Christmas only a day away, the campsite was a hive of activity with people decorating their campsite and the communal kitchen with tinsel, balloons and Christmas tree. The Germans had a 3 course roast dinner catered for by the camp managers while the Brazilians had a group dinner around tables and chairs set with white tablecloths, candles and flashing fairy lights. Meanwhile, all the French ladies were busily cooking crepes, sweet and savoury fillings and making entrees for their crepe party. They even had a Santa Claus lugging a sack full of gifts for all the French children. The rest of us “homeless orphans” got together for a big Argentine barbeque in the open car park with slabs of meat , sausages and salads. It was a different but special Christmas eve celebration. On Christmas Day we shared our Harrods Plum Pudding which Geoff had purchased on a recent business trip to the UK. Kienny cooked up some custard with the aid of her Spanish dictionary as all the cooking instructions were in Spanish. We were a little unsure if we had purchased custard but was pleasantly surprised when the taste test proved positive. Being only a small plum pudding, all the Aussies lined up with spoon and bowl in hand to sample a small morsel of this special Christmas treat. It was delicious!
 
Well, we are about to make our way down to the pier to board our ship to Antarctica for the adventure of a lifetime! We wish you all a very Happy New Year.
 

The pictures for this section of our trip can be found by clicking here or by selecting the Next arrow button at the bottom of this page.

A map of our trip can be seen by going to http://dreamers1.com/americas/GoogleMaps/SouthAmerica.html or by selecting the Map button at the bottom of this page.

The WEB site containing our travels in Africa, Russia and South America is http://overland.dreamers1.com or by selecting the Contents button at the bottom of this page.

Best Wishes,
Geoff and Kienny Kingsmill
Email: gkingsmill@yahoo.com
WEB: http://overland.dreamers1.com

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