More of Hoi An
Phu Quoc Island
Ho Chi Minh City
The last leg of our Argentine adventure was in the Southernmost city in the world — Ushuaia. We were both curious to make it all the way to the end of the continent since we were already so far south but, in truth, our main goal while there was really just to see penguins.
We stayed at the Macondo House — a nice guest house set on the hill away from the heavily touristed streets. Ushuaia is a cruise ship stop, so the streets would periodically fill with tourists when one (or more) of the huge cruise ships came in. The city is also a jumping off point for tours to Antarctica and tourist agents were selling last minute tours at discounted prices (unfortunately lack of time, funds, and Julie’s concerns about being able to handle the seasickness meant this wasn’t in the cards for us). The city felt a lot like Seattle — a rainy port city. We found Ushuaia to be a bit rough around the edges, but the setting was pretty spectacular.
Our first day in town we walked down by the docks and booked a Beagle Channel boat trip for that afternoon. We booked a tour with Patagonia Adventure Explorer; we’d read that they use smaller boats that can get closer to the islands than the large catamarans that some of the tour companies use. The trip was indeed on a pretty small boat, and there were only 15 people on the tour so it wasn’t crowded. The trip took us out and around the picturesque lighthouse, by two islands with Rock Cormorants, by an island with a noisy sea lion colony, and then we had a brief stop on Islas Bridges where we disembarked and walked around to view some of the flora. Unfortunately it was a bit cold and started raining, so we didn’t linger too long before returning to the boat.
The next day we took a tour out to see a penguin colony. The tour involved first taking a minibus to Estancia Harberton. Surprisingly, this drive was the most harrowing of our entire trip, and we were both looking green by the time we got to Estancia Harberton. We then got on a little boat which took us out to Martillo Island (about a 15 minute ride). When we got about within 100 ft of the shore they cut the engine, and then we realized that there were penguins in the water all around us. We had been talking and joking about seeing the penguins for the whole trip, and for months before. When we did finally head out on this tour we both tad worried that it wouldn’t live up to our by now totally outsized expectations. Those concerns vanished when we got off the boat onto the shore. There were penguins everywhere (mostly Magellanic but maybe a couple dozen Gentoo as well), getting into the water, getting out of the water, jumping out of the water, laying on the beach,walking up to their nests, squawking, and occasionally looking to see what these tourists were doing. Perhaps if penguins were as numerous as pigeons then they wouldn’t be so novel and amusing, but seeing these goofy, tubby, awkward birds in their own habitat was just super-cool; not to mention having the dramatic scenery of the Beagle Channel as a backdrop.
On our drive from the park entrance to Hosteria Pehoe we got our first taste of the incredible scenery and wildness of the park. Shortly after entering the park we came across this group of guanacos moseying along the road. Over the next couple days we’d routinely see guanacos, both alone and in groups. Maybe a bit surprisingly, we only saw them when driving — it seems like they stay in the foothills around the lakes and don’t wander much into the valleys of the big mountains.
Our first night in Torres del Paine we could hear the wind howling outside our hotel room at Hosteria Pehoe and were happy to be inside solid walls. We had looked into staying in a dome tent at the nearby campground, picturing the weather would be somewhat similar to the Colorado mountains, but after experiencing the Patagonian weather we were happy that we opted for something more substantial. We had heard Pehoe was a little shabby but in a beautiful setting, which pretty accurately described it. The room didn’t have any sort of view, and was kinda shabby. However the view from the dining room, looking across Lago Pehoe directly at the Cuernos del Paine, was pretty incredible.
After hearing the wind all night we weren’t sure what to expect on our first hike the next morning. We decided to head to Mirador Torres trail which began near the Las Torres hotel. The drive there from our hotel didn’t look too bad on the map, but ended up taking around an hour since it involved navigating dirt roads. As we neared Las Torres hotel we crossed a sketchy, but scenic, narrow bridge and the road became quite a bit rougher. Torres looked like a nice hotel, but it definitely took a little effort to get to.
When we started the hike we were pleasantly surprised to find the wind wasn’t all that bad. Once we got up to the valley the wind was intermittently stronger, but in general not that bad. We hiked up to the Campamento Torres, which had a nice view of the Torres, but we didn’t make it all the way up the trail since the last part of the climb looked really steep and the weather looked questionable (which we eventually came to realize is pretty much a permanent state of affairs there).
The next day we decided to take the ferry across Lago Pehoe to the Paine Grande Lodge. We caught the first ferry across and then did a hike to see Glacier Grey. The trail was pretty easy, without the vertical gain that Mirador Torres has, but was windy at times. We reached the view looking out over Glacier Grey in about an hour and a half. The view was cool, you’re about 1000 feet above Lago Grey, but we had to brace ourselves against the wind and so didn’t linger too long.
After our hike we had some time to kill before our ferry left so we had a couple local beers in the lodge; it was a nice treat for such a remote location. We then caught the last ferry of the day back across the lake. Since the ferry is taken by a lot of circuit trekkers and day-trippers we were a little concerned about not getting a spot on the boat so we got to the dock early. In the end it looked like everyone got on the boat, but we talked to some people later who said that a few people weren’t able to get on the earlier ferry they had taken over, so getting there early seems like a good idea.
Overall Torres del Paine was stunning. The wild and remote setting, precariously sheer peaks, hanging glaciers, turquoise lakes, and slightly comical guanacos combine to make a place that lives up to or exceeds its reputation.
After a few days in El Calafate we were ready to head to Torres del Paine in Chile. We had tried to find information about the drive prior to our trip and managed to figure out that it was possible although we were a bit unclear on the state of the roads. We did manage to gather that the drive was possible with certain rental car companies (like Hertz) and that it didn’t require a four wheel drive vehicle.
Hertz was helpful in providing us with the paperwork we needed to cross the border, and we were somewhat comforted to see stamps indicating the car had made it across the border before since it didn’t exactly feel like a rugged vehicle. They had also given us guidance on the best roads to take — from the map there looked like two options. The rental car rep had recommended we not take what looked like a shortcut (the unpaved section of Ruta 40 that bypasses Esperanza) because of poor road conditions and the need to fill up at the gas station located on the longer route. She also mentioned another station closer to the border that we should stop at. “They may not have gas here. But if they do, you should get it.”
On the morning of January 5th we ate breakfast and went to fill up our gas tank before leaving El Calafate. Unfortunately, the gas station near our hotel was out of the gas we needed (Super) and when we drove to the other station in town they were also out and said they wouldn’t get more until 5:00 that evening. We were estimating the drive would take at least 5 hours but didn’t want to head out so late. We had half a tank of gas but were unsure if that was enough to get us to the next town, so we drove to Hertz to ask what they recommended and they were kind enough to call ahead to Esperanza (fittingly “hope” in Spanish) to see if they had gas. They did, so we jumped in the car and made it to the town, which didn’t seem to consist of much more than a truck stop. But they did have gas.
The road from El Calafate to Esperanza and from there to Cancha Carrera was paved and in good condition. We stopped in Estancia Tapi Aike for gas, having learned our lesson about getting gas when we could. It turned out the small store did have gas, the attendant just had to run out to turn on the generator in order to pump it for us.
About four miles before reaching the Argentine border crossing we turned onto a dirt road that continued most of the way to the park (although there was a brief span of pavement just after the Chile Border crossing).
When we came to the Argentine border crossing were at first unsure if we needed to stop both there and at the Chile border crossing, but after some broken Spanish exchanges we figured out that we did need to stop. The office was small and a bit chaotic, but we made it through, drove a bit more, and then reached the office for the Chilean border. That office was bigger, a bit more orderly, and had public bathrooms (the first of which we’d seen since Esperanza).
Nearby there are several small gift shops/convenience store type shops. We stopped in one in order to change some US dollars to Chilean pesos (they only accepted US dollars or Euros for exchange — we had come to realize that the cross-border relations were a tad chilly). The exchange rate seemed reasonable, but they would only change our pristine bills; they didn’t even take a clean $20 that had been folded.
Once in Chile we drove for about another hour on pavement and dirt roads before encountering the park entry office, where we stopped to pay entrance fees. From here on the road became significantly more sinuous and the scenery more impressive. From the park entry it probably took us about another hour to get to Hosteria Pehoe, where we were staying.
The next day we decided to drive up to El Chalten to see Mt. Fitz Roy and to go for a hike. The drive was pretty straightforward and the road was paved the whole way and it probably took us a bit longer than two and a half hours to get there. The traffic was pretty much non-existent; we were maybe expecting to see a few more cars and buses doing the drive since El Chalten was relatively close to El Calafate and it was peak of the travel season. We did, however, see a number of bike tourers. Now riding across Patagonia would certainly be a hell of an adventure, but unless your idea of a great bike ride involves high winds and long stretches of flat and empty roads it would also be a hell of a slog. We also couldn’t quite figure out where these guys were staying at night — with the distances between towns they would have to be camping out pretty much just by the side of the road for nights on end.
As we neared El Chalten we came across our first stunning view of Fitz Roy, nearby Cerro Torre was shrouded in clouds, as it would stay the entire day. A bit further down the road we came into El Chalten, which is tucked into a river valley below the mountains — “tucked” in enough so that you didn’t have a view of the stunning nearby mountains from in town. We stopped at the park visitor center which is right at the entrance to town. They were helpful and suggested “Mirador Fitz Roy” as a good day hike. After lunch at a a low key cafe in town we drove over to the Fitz Roy trail head and started up the trail.
The weather during the hike was possibly the best that we had the whole time in Patagonia: sunny, warm, and not windy. After talking to someone on the trail who had been backpacking in the rain for the past couple days it confirmed that these sorts of days weren’t terribly common there. The trail gained probably about a thousand feet over a couple miles, then reached a broad valley with Fitz Roy as the backdrop. Right upon reaching the valley is the “Mirador Fitz Roy”, but the great view continues as you progress up the trail. We probably continued on the trail for another mile or so; with the great weather and the long day we pretty much had to force ourselves to turn around and head back to the car.
On January 2nd we flew from Buenos Aires to El Calafate. When we picked up our rental car in at the airport the first thing the rental guy showed us was where the spare and jack were, so we knew it would be a bit different driving experience than at home. Then we walked around the tin can of a car, a Chevrolet Corsa, and noted a chunk of exterior missing above the rear tire, a slight crack in the windshield, and splattered black asphalt marks. After running through the checklist the Hertz rep said, “Be careful of the animals and the wind, you have light until 11:00 and it’s beautiful country — have fun!”
Despite the hesitancy that the Hertz guy left us with, the drive into El Calafate was quick. There is a police checkpoint just at the edge of town though. That first time through we were not sure what to expect, and so when we pulled up to the checkpoint we had just about every available document we could get our hands on at the ready but when the policeman asked us “Where are you coming from?” (in Spanish of course) we just looked at him like idiots. We weren’t the first tourist idiots he’d seen (and it was pretty clear that we weren’t a threat to the security of El Calafate) so he waved us on, and of course shortly after pulling away Julie figured out what he was asking us. From then on we got the gist: if they stop you on the way out of town they’d ask “Where are you going?”, and then on the way into town would ask “Where are you coming from?”.
We stayed at Linda Vista Apart Hotel during our three nights in El Calafate. Our room, really two separate rooms and a small kitchen, was nice, and probably the largest we stayed in during the trip. The owners were friendly and helpful, and the location was close enough to the center of town that we could easily walk to dinner. The restaurants in town were better than we were expecting, if a bit more expensive than in Buenos Aires. In fact we had some of the best pasta we ate in Argentina at Casimiro Bigua Trattoria. Overall it was a nice town to spend a few nights in, and had a surprisingly familiar “Colorado mountain town” like feel.
Perito Moreno Glacier
The day after we arrived in El Calafate we drove out to see the truly impressive Perito Moreno Glacier. The drive was straightforward and took us a bit longer than a hour and a half. At the entrance to Parque Nacional los Glaciares, which you reach about twenty minutes before reaching the glacier, there is a ranger station where you stop and pay the entrance fee. The road from here becomes narrower, and begins winding through a forest of southern beech trees and crossing the occasional burbling stream. Eventually we were directed into a parking lot where we left the rental car and took a minibus that shuttled us to the top of the hill where we got the first expansive view of the glacier.
On one side of the small parking lot at the hilltop is a recently constructed and very nice cafeteria, gift shop, and public bathroom. On the other side a network of catwalks leads down the hill towards the glacier. They are still completing construction of the catwalks, but when we were there it seemed as though there was about a mile of catwalks spread across the hill. The lower levels of the catwalk are at least a couple hundred feet below the level of the upper parking lot, and feel amazingly close to the glacier. They also spread out far enough horizontally that you can both get totally different perspectives of the glacier and also can get away from the crowds. The most entrancing aspect of the glacier is the nearly continuous calving. Even the “small” pieces that fall off the face of the glacier generate a surprisingly hearty “boom”, and truly big chunks sound like what I’d imagine a head on collision between two freight trains would sound like. At the end of the day we really had to tear ourselves away to leave. Even standing at the top of the hill waiting for the minibus to take us back to our car we’d hear the booms of the ice being shed off the glacier, and it was difficult to resist the urge to run over to the overlook to try to catch another glimpse.