“How long to Lago Yelcho?” we asked the owner of our hotel over breakfast, expecting the answer to be the six hours we had planned. He paused, in that way that people do before they tell you the only road is closed for three months. “Ten hours. At least.” Great. We wouldn’t arrive until 7pm. And that was only if we didn’t stop all day.
At midday, three hours but two thirds into our journey, we were confident that we knew more than our helpful hotelier. We passed through the small town of Puyuhuapi confident that we would finish in under five hours. That was, until we tried to leave. “The road is closed”, said a road worker who blocked our way. It would be closed most of the afternoon. A quick recalculation put our arrival time at 7pm. Exactly as he had said.
We were driving from Punta Arenas in the far south of Chile to the capital Santiago along two of the most stunning roads in the world – the Argentine Ruta 40 and the Chilean Carretera Austral. We had 16 days to cover a journey that would be 3500km in a straight line, but turned out to be over 5000km including detours (and mistakes).
The trip had been a dream since first seeing a wall mounted map of the country on a visit to Chile. It was no less than a foot wide, but was so long it needed to be folded up – the wall wasn’t tall enough. Every Chilean I met during the trip had recommended a different place to go, towns and cities dotted all over this four thousand kilometre stretch of South America. San Pedro de Atacama, Puerto Natales, Valpariso, Pucón, Punta Arenas. “It depends what you want to see” they would say, “do you prefer deserts, mountains, steppe, coast, volcanos?”. A little bit of everything, I thought to myself, quietly calculating how long it would take to drive the whole length of the country.
We had planned this journey only a few weeks out, booking accommodation on booking.com and a pickup from Recasur. Deciding not to bite off more than we could chew, we decided to cover only half the country, accepting that we would drop out of the Andes into Argentina when necessary. The terrain in Chile is so inhospitable that it still isn’t possible to drive top to bottom without using a ferry or leaving the country. Our journey started in Punta Arenas on a road aptly named the Ruta del fin del Mundo – the Road at the end of the World.
Punta Arenas, Chile
Punta Arenas is a frontier town, situated at the far south of the South American continent on the Strait of Magellan. Founded in 1843 to claim the strait for Chile, it is the oldest settlement in Patagonia. To the south is the island Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn. After that Antartica, only 800km away. We collected our pickup and headed straight for Otway Sound, home to a colony of Magellanic Penguins. Late March was the end of summer, though, and the Penguins had already left. Too cold even for Penguins – this didn’t bode well for us. At least we were headed north.
Punta Arenas is the place to stock up on food and money. Most hotels in Patagonia, especially in Argentina Patagonia, only accept cash. And we had read that cash machines in El Calafate and El Chaltén often don’t accept foreign cards. The Mall Espacio Urbano Pionero has a supermarket and late night change shop for converting to Argentine Pesos.
The following day we drove to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine along the long concrete road at the end of the world. We passed through endless flat Patagonian steppe, punctuated only by small farms and villages.
The backpacker filled port town of Puerto Natales sits about three hours in to the drive. Filled with outdoors shops, hostels and tour companies you can stay here and arrange day trips to the park, or just collect last minute supplies. From here the drive to the park is off road and takes a couple of hours. The Patagonian steppe gives way to mountains and finally the Paine Massif appears ahead.
Torres del Paine, Chile
The Torres del Paine (meaning “Blue towers” in a mixture of Spanish and the native Tehuelche language) are 2,500m towers of granite soaring above lakes of crystal blue water and glaciers that drop down from the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap. They sit in a 250,000 hectare national park described by National Geographic as the fifth most beautiful place in the world. Attracting 150,000 visitors a year it is certainly one of the most popular destinations in South America.
Visitors – who mostly come in December, January and February to take advantage of the southern summer, can climb, hike, drive and/or take boat trips through the park. The highlights are the famous Grey Glacier and the towers themselves, visible from a viewpoint accessible via a 22km round-trip hike. More adventurous hikers can attempt the five day ‘W’ route that visits all the key sites, or the eight day ‘O’ route, first pioneered in 1976, that completes a circuit around the massif. Read more here about the Torres del Paine National Park and the excursions available.
You can camp in the park or stay in one of the hotels or lodges, or there is a small collection of hotels on the park’s southern border. We stayed at the Pampa Lodge, a beautiful wooden lodge on the shore of the lake looking toward the Paine Massif built by a local champion endurance horse racer.
You can’t buy fuel in the national park so fill up in Puerto Natales and bring extra if you want to drive extensively inside the park. Some hotels will sell you fuel from their supply but it won’t be cheap and can’t be guaranteed. Food is also difficult to get hold of inside the park – there are restaurants for the evenings, but it is worth taking food for lunches for hiking to supplement the snacks that are easy to acquire along the routes.
El Calefate, Argentina
There aren’t many directions that you can drive out of Torres del Paine. We had come from the south, and to the west is only ocean. To the north, Chile becomes inaccessible as the mountains rise to meet the Patagonian ice cap, large parts of which are still unexplored. So to continue our journey we headed east, over the border to Argentina. During the five hour drive, the road drops out of the mountains and begins to cross the steppe, a large, open and barren space with only the occasional Guanaco for company along the way.
Most of this journey is along the famous Ruta 40 that runs the length of Argentina. Down in the south the route is mostly paved and fast going and locals, tourists and buses (in Summer) will be passing along it regularly. The exception is a short section between the junctions with Route 5 and Route 7. This part of Ruta 40 is a well maintained gravel road.
El Calefate sits on the shore of Lago Argentino and is a well developed tourist destination. Famous for its wildlife (including wild Flamingos), Calefate is also the last stop before the Parque Nacional de Los Glaciares home of the famous Perito Moreno Glacier. There is plenty to do in the area, but the Perito Moreno Glacier is an absolute must. You can drive into the park from Calefate, park and take a national park shuttle bus to the balconies that overlook the front of the glacier. The face of the glacier rises 60 metres out of Lago Argentino and if you’re really lucky you’ll see it ‘calve’ an iceberg into the lake.
Tours onto the ice itself are also popular, though they need to be booked in Calefate itself. You will typically be given a time to turn up at the dock, from where you take a boat across to the far shore. You’ll be fitted out with crampons and taught how to use them, before being taken onto the ice for a walk of between two and six hours. Take warm clothing, sun glasses and en empty water bottle (you can collect pure glacial water from the glacier itself).
There is plenty of wildlife in the area too; we spotted tour buses photographing both Caracaras and Hawks along the road from El Calefate to the National Park.
The town is full of hotels, hostels and tour companies all competing for business. It will be busy in peak season but was quiet when we visited in late March. We stayed at the Terraas Del Calefate and ate at La Lechuza.
El Calefate is a great place to stock up on food if you’re heading north. El Chalten is a much smaller town and supplies (and petrol) were scarce and expensive.
El Chalten, Argentina
Listed by Lonely Planet as one of their top 10 places to travel in 2015, El Chaltén sits 220km north of El Calefate on the northern side of the Parque Nacional de los Glaciares and at the foot of the striking Mount Fitzroy. The mountain was named for Captain FitzRoy, who navigated Darwin’s expedition in the Beagle up the Río Santa Cruz in 1834. The town itself takes the mountain’s Tehuelche name, meaning ‘Peak of Fire’.
The road to El Chaltén leaves Ruta 40 around 90km south east of the town and runs along the shore of Lago Viedma. The final approach to the town is regularly described as one of the most beautiful roads in the world, as the Fitzroy range looms up at you in the distance.
The town was founded in 1985 during a land dispute with Chile to help Argentina’s claim to the surrounding mountain range. It has the feel of a frontier town and is full of travellers, trekkers, climbers and mountaineers. Walks – particularly around the base of Mount Fitzroy – are well signposted and guides or tours can also be easily arranged in the town.
As well as hiking around Mount Fitzroy, there are two viewpoints to the south west of the town that are worth visiting, one to view eagles, and the second to view Andean Condors. The Condor, with a wingspan up to 3.2m across, is the largest bird in the world and normally extremely difficult to view in the wild.
The road from El Chaltén to La Laguna del Desierto has a great view of Mount FitzRoy from the back and is worth a drive. It’s a gravel road and is slow going but the first 45 minutes are the best. If you make it to the end, you can camp at the Laguna del Desierto and take a ferry to the far side where you will find a lonely Chilean border crossing from which you can hike the 10km to Lago O’Higgins and pick up a ferry to take you to the Carretera Austral. Unfortunately, you can’t take a vehicle so we headed back to the Ruta 40 to head north through the Argentinan steppe towards La Cuerva de Las Manos and the Chilean border.
We stayed at Hotel Poincenot, a charming hotel full of black and white photography of Mount Fitzroy, the glaciers and nearby mountains. It offers packed lunches for hikers, advice on routes to walk, and free hiking maps of the area.
If you are attempting to drive further north than El Chalten on Ruta 40 you should consider carrying a second spare wheel and tyre, additional water and food, a can of fuel for emergencies and patches to patch your fuel tank should it become punctured by the gravel. Few tourists drive this route, even in Summer, and you could go several hours without passing another vehicle. The road is paved for the first hour and is then gravel for an extended period.