We were preparing the trip one evening and were pouring ourselves onto maps, travel guides and a laptop around the table when I noticed something odd. The most detailed map we had of Patagonia showed with large, clear signs the positions of gas stations, and there were not many of them. It didn't register in our minds as one essential thing to remember at that point —many months before the actual trip— but, that would become the proverbial non-negligible detail on the field. There are indeed only few places on the road in Patagonia were you can fill up the tank, especially on the Argentinian side. And it becomes quite essential to plan carefully and it's advisable to build-in time for long queues at stations waiting for fuel to arrive.
The most striking anecdote probably happened when we approached the gas station in El Chaltén, this time with no queue, and upon asking to fill-up please, were told by the servicing lady “Sorry, we don't do fill-ups here, we need to share the fuel fairly. So how far do you plan to drive?” When we told her the next stop (about 150Km further) she did a quick mental computation and said “OK, I will give you 10 liters”. I think this anecdote reflects well the fact that even though Patagonia has become by now a popular travel destination among Europeans and North-Americans, infrastructure is not developed everywhere at the same level. Thinking about it ... it is perhaps better like that —this region is still very pristine and it should stay so.
Patagonia is a geographical term with no clear delimitation, but you can safely say it covers the large part of the South-American cone (say, below latitude -37º). Typical for the whole region is that it is not easily accessible. On the Argentinian side the next larger city is Rio Gallegos (about 400Km away), on the Chilean side you can either fly to Punta Arenas and drive or take a two day ferry from Chiloé. Our trip would take us to selected parts of Patagonia on both sides of the Andes, starting in Punta Arenas on the south, driving north via Puerto Natales towards El Calafate and El Chaltén in Argentina and then back to the Torres del Paine national park on the Chilean side.
Our first aim was the Perito Moreno Glacier (about 80Km west of El Calafate), one of the few glaciers in the world that is still growing. And growing it is: the glacier pushes continuously its ice upon the landing offered by the opposite coast of Lago Argentino. Every couple of years or so, the pressure built up by the contained water gets released by an explosion of falling ice masses —called a rupture. We didn't witness a rupture in our trip, but we did see the regular fall of some 70 meters high ice towers onto the water, a majestic and at the same time humbling experience, as we realize how small we are. The Perito Moreno glacier is part of the glaciers national park that includes other large glaciers (Upsala and Spegazzini) and the typical iceberg landscape on Lake Viedma.
About 300Km further north lies El Chaltén at the skirts of mount Fitz Roy. Most impressive is not the mount itself, but rather the chain of peaks around it that can be seen from a long distance standing tall above the pampa plane. The area north of the town is surely an alpinist's paradise (I should say “andinist”) with its many hiking paths, lakes and stunning landscapes —just try to book good weather when you go there ;-)
I remember intensely one occasion. We were coming back from a walk to Laguna del Pato, following a narrow path on a steep slope when a condor started to circle some 10 meters above our heads, and it wouldn't go away for minutes, and suddenly we felt transported into a different reality, the field of view narrows and the only sound one seems to hear is the flapping of the condor's feathers. An exalted moment ... oh, did I mention that after a few breath(-less) cycles I remembered my camera and spent the rest of the episode struggling with the auto-focus to try to catch the bird in full flight?
A “must do” tour in this area is the hike to Laguna Torre (mirador Maestri). After an ascension of about 400m through thick forests, the path reaches a bright blue-green lagoon that likes a crater surrounded by steep borders. It is a rewarding view for the effort spent in getting there. The lagoon is in fact nothing but a natural sink of the ice waters of the glacier Torre, and the ice crystals in the water create the stunning bright blue-green color.
Back to the Chilean side of Patagonia, our aim was the Torres del Paine national park. The park is a well organized natural reserve that, in spite of growing touristic volume manages to maintain the purity and breath-taking beauty of this environment. The combination of strikingly shaped mountains, bright green lakes, smooth valleys and the ever present guanacos and emus make for unforgettable memories. The Torres themselves are a group of three steep mountains that surround a small glacier water lagoon. There is a great hiking path up to the Torres that takes you to the lagoon, but do expect company, for this is by now quite a popular hike destination.