Tag Archives: El Calafate

Driving from El Calafate to Torres del Paine

Welcome to Chile

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.”

Ruta 40

The dirt section of Ruta 40 turing off from Ruta 5, this is the road that they didn't recommend we take

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.

Road to the Border

Yes, you're going the right way -- the dirt road to the Chilean border

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).

Argentinian Border Crossing

The Argentinian side of the 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.

Open Road

The open road -- this is what much of the drive was like

Practical Stuff:

  • Route (here’s a map): Ruta 11 east out of El Calafate, continue after the road connects with Ruta 40. When Ruta 40 splits off to the right (and turns into dirt) continue to Esperanza on Ruta 5. From Esperanza drive west on Ruta 7 and atEstancia Tapi Aike Ruta 40 rejoins the road. Continue on the paved road to the Cancha Carrera turnoff, where the road again turns to the west. After the two border crossings turn right and drive north to Torres del Paine.
  • Timing: The drive going there took us 8 hours, it was closer to 6 on the way back. You could do it faster if you want to drive like the Argentinians at insanely high speeds. However, it’s good to allow a full day as the Argentine border crossing was crowded and slow.
  • Borders: We crossed at Cancha Carrera (called Rio Don Guillermo on the Chilean side), which is less frequented than the border crossing near Rio Turbio, but shorter from El Calafate so a better bet if you are on your own.  They were doing some construction on the Chilean side of the border, so it may be expanding. At the border crossings we had to wait in lines to show first our passports at one window and then the documents for our car at another window. This process was more clear at the Chilean border, but harder to figure out at the Argentine border which was packed with a lot of people who weren’t exactly patiently waiting in an orderly line (on the way back we were more ready to throw some elbows to hold our position).
  • Maps: We bought road/hiking maps at one of the gas stations in Calafate and got a map of Torres del Paine from the park entry office.
  • Get gas when you can!  We aren’t sure if running out of gas in Calafate was an anomaly, but it made us understand why our rental car rep recommended filling up when we could.  We had enough gas for getting into the park for driving around the park/returning.  We met a couple who had managed to buy a little gas off of someone once inside the park, but it was for a premium ($18 per gallon!)
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El Calafate and the Perito Moreno Glacier

Perito Moreno Glacier

Perito Moreno Glacier -- wow.

El Calafate

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?”.

Linda Vista Apart Hotel

Linda Vista Apart Hotel

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 Road to Perito Moreno Glacier

The Road to 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.

Catwalks at Perito Moreno Glacier

Some of the Extensive Catwalks at Perito Moreno 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.

Perito Moreno Glacier 2

Perito Moreno Glacier 3

Perito Moreno Glacier 4

Boat Near Perito Moreno Glacier

Perito Moreno Glacier 6

Roadside Scenery

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