27th January 2019: We’re back!
No problems arriving in Santiago (flight time about 14 hours) then left the bags mostly packed and after a clean up it was down to the bar for dinner and Pisco Sours.
Nothing much to report here except all went according to plan.
Nan & I navigated ourselves to the Wild Hostel via GPS, having been here before is a big help. Must say that an easier check in procedure when carrying backpacks would be nice; like first to the room, unpack the required documents etc then go down and check in, rather than trying to do all this in the restricted space at the Hostel counter that also serves as a cafe.
The weather for the next few days is surprisingly cool to cold. The outlying mountains covered in cloud that, when clear, showed the fresh snow falls. Our unintended extra day here in Puerto Natales proved very beneficial in lining us up with a great weather window.
31st January 2019:
An early start from the Hostel where we have left gear not required for the next few days. Being slack, we caught a taxi to the bus depot rather than walk.
Our bus to Torres del Paine departs on time,the display at the front of the bus running a loop video on the park regulations in Spanish and also English. It was good arriving at Laguna Amarga to find our earlier online registration meant not having to join the long entry queue nor watch the induction video. Rather, we simply paid our transfer fee and jumped onto a mini bus and headed to Las Torres.
Note that this is a quicker option than catching a larger bus. Also note there is a document check and form to fill out at Las Torres before commencing your trek.
Our trek to Chileno started off pretty easily as the first couple of kilometres is fairly flat and this gave us the opportunity to chat to a few other trekkers. After this, however, there begins a steady climb up to a point known as Windy Pass then back down again to Refugio Chileno where we arrived for an early lunch whilst waiting for the camping check in office to open.
Once done, & tent set up on the platform using the supplied hammer and nails, we headed north west over undulating terrain to the Campamento Torres site (closed 2018 & 2019) then the hard climb up to Mirador de las Torres.
On the climb up the moraine, Nan was running out of steam and I was overheating despite the cold wind and occasional sleet / drizzle. I took off my hike pants just leaving the thermal base layer which was much more comfortable. The climb, once out of the trees is generally steep and steady over loose terrain before leveling out somewhat prior to cresting the top of the moraine and dropping down into the Laguna Torres.
Although the weather was not brilliant, it was great to finally get here ( nearly 2 years of planning and 2 trips half way around the world).
Watching our footing, it was certainly faster and easier on the return to Chileno where we were able to shower and change prior to sitting down for dinner at the prescribed hour (7:00 PM – note this if you have booked full board and are travelling from further afield).
1st February 2019
Not too cold overnight plus we awake to a dry tent which is always good. Mostly packed up prior to breakfast at the Refugio before continuing our jaunt; bach up the hill towards the entry before taking the deviation southwest to Refugio Cuernos.
The deviation turn off is well marked and the track is not as well defined as that to Chileno which probably has something to do with lower traffic volumes. As we were travelling down hill, the going was not too hard. That said, I consider our plans of last year to get from Italiano to Chileno in a day would not have been achievable regardless of Nan’s leg.
Once reaching the main track, we had a break. The track then runs above Lago Nordenskjold and below the Paine Massif. Lots of ups and downs making the travelling slow. In the distance, we could see a building which we thought was our Refugio and did wonder if we would ever get there? This turned out not to be Las Cuernos but Refugio Frances which is some 2 hours further on.
Finished up the day by mid afternoon, once again setting the tent up on a platform. Hot water was allegedly available from 5:00 pm but was not available any time at all. Spent the afternoon admiring the view and watching Condors.
Dinner again at the Refugio, time spent chatting with other travellers – most of which were surprised on our trekking of the circuit rather than the shorter W. Another midl night and once again, a dry tent in the morning.
2nd February 2019
Again breakfast at the Refugio before heading west to Campamento Italiano. The map stating this should be a relatively short hop of 2.5 hours which seemed spot on, inclusive of some stops along the way; it being very pretty where the track runs along the lake shore. The weather is not hot nor cold and even an occasional drizzle which is actually quite pleasant.
Arriving at Italiano by late morning, we checkin and establish camp before heading up the Frances Valley with our lunch.
It is a steady climb up to the Mirador which is a s far as we go. The weather is relatively fine but windy. With Nan suffering from some blisters, it is decided tot to continue any further to Britanico but instead just prop here, watch the ever changing scenery and glacier avalanches.
On returning back to Italiano, we investigated the area over the river to the west and found a nice beach in the sun. Nice to wet the feet (and head) in the frigid glacier fed stream. Back to our camp site and our first camp meal for this trip, inclusive of our left over wine from Chileno!
3rd February 2019
Dry again over night and neither early nor late start. Today is a 7.5 km trek to Paine Grande that will see us complete the circuit. The walking is relatively flat and easy going but supporting some great views.
Approaching Paine Grande, we can see the early ferry approaching (it is a bit late) so we pick up the pace and make it to the ferry terminal in time. This later proved very fortuitos as our scheduled bus did not wait for the later ferry which was also running late – we had planned to be on this ferry and not the earlier one.
Splendid weather on the boat (this early ferry is not the one depicted above) which is not crowded had everyone enjoying the views and sunshine from the top deck.
Arrived back at the Wild Hostel in the late afternoon.
Tonight we need to sort out the bags in readiness for the two bus trips that will see us cross into Argentina to El Calafate then to El Chalten.
4th February 2019
An early breakfast at the hostel followed by a short taxi ride to the bus terminus to catch the 7:15 am bus to El Calafate.
Last year clearing the Chilean Immigration took more than 2 hours due to congestion. This year, we were the only bus present and it only took 30 minutes. This had a flow on affect in getting us into El Calafate much earlier and enabling us to catch an earlier bus to El Chalten, arriving there in the late afternoon. A rest stop is had at Hotel La Esperanza about 1/2 way to El Calafate and another at Estancia la Leona, 1/2 way to El Chalten and has history related to Butch Cassidy and the Sun Dance Kid. We grabbed a bite to eat here, not having had time at El Calafate.
Found our way by GPS to our Hostel (Hosteria Lago Viedma which is located away from the bus terminus near the steps leading to the Laguna Torre walk. El Chalten is quite compact so even this walk with full packs was short enough.
A good find after dinner was a food outlet in the main street called “Simple” which provided a range of sandwiches using wholemeal as well as white bread. Also available in a lunch plack including a drink and snack. An order can be placed the day or evening before for a morning pick up. We utilised this for our trip to Laguna Torre & Lago del Desierto.
5th February 2019
More unfinished business today. Complete the walk to Laguna Torre. The weather is great (much better than last year) and we are blessed with great views over the lake and to the Torre. All up this is close to a 20km round trip from El Chalten and not overly difficult. We had our lunch by the lake.
Returning to the hostel, I again checked out our travel details for tomorrow that were organised through Robinson Crusoe to get us to Villa O’Higgins. I was concerned that there were no pick up details. Having spied an office in town spruiking travel to Villa O’Higgins, I walked there to discover that: This was the correct place; they had none of our details; that my concern and follow up was fortunate as, without the soon to be supplied vouchers, we would not have gotten anywhere!
6th February 2019
The 8:00 am pick up is a bit of a milk run. Luggage storage in the mini bus is very tight. Some passengers are simply being transited to an alternate and easier starting point to Mont Fitzroy. Others like us heading to Lago del Desierto and beyond.
We stop past a great view point of Mont Fitzroy; it is very windy.
Then, reaching the ferry at Punta Sur. I am surprised to see a group of 4 passengers actually traveling with suitcases.
All up, it is about 90 minutes by mini bus to reach the lake and close to the same time to reach the Argentinean immigration post at the other end (Punta Norte).
Argentinean immigration is no big deal, the only issue here being that Riccardo would not be arriving with the horse to carry our back packs until at least 3:00 pm and it was now approaching 11:00 am. Not being inclined to wait (the horses should travel quicker than us), being unsure of transportation once at the border and finally not liking all our worldly possessions lying around unattended, we decided to carry all our gear ourselves. Had the company of Meghan, a much younger Canadian lady commencing a south to north adventure of South America over 6 months.
I stripped Nan’s weight to as light as possible and I carried my pack with the tent strapped to the back, two food sacks clipped to the front, Nan’s daypack on the back and wearing my day back on my chest. This had Nan down to 15 Kg but me close to 30 Kg.
The trek to the border, according to the map, is 5.5 kilometres with an elevation gain from 525 metres to a tad over 700 metres in just over 3 kilometres, the first few hundred metres being quite steep.
The trail is easy to navigate. There are a few creek crossings, one of which is quite boggy and churned up by horse traffic. If you had a bike, I think it would need to be carried or pushed for a fair distance rather than be ridden.
Approaching the border, traffic travelling towards us increases and we even met Riccardo with a few horses. My guess is that a the travellers going in the opposite direction to us were transported to the border, a small truck we were to see later probably being the mode of transport & I guess this truck took some of our travelling group that was in front of us.
We had lunch at the Chilean / Argentina border then caught a ride in a Mahindra four-wheel drive down to Candelario Mancilla. This leg is done on a reasonable gravel road (ruta x-915) come track that undulates heading generally downwards for close to 10 kilometres then a sharp decent over 5 kilometres first down to the Chilean border then to Candelario Mancilla, our home for the night.
Candelario Mancilla is a private home that accommodates travellers as well as a separate bunk house and also camp ground. Meals are held in the kitchen / dining room which affords views over Lago O’Higgins / Lago San Martin. We are joined by the suitcase people (French & Italian – their cases arrived at around 9:00 pm) plus a lovely family group from near Santiago who we were to meet by chance in Santiago city.
Our room is a relatively small one with a king single bed – very cosy!
Our day commences with breakfast followed by a stroll around the farming property before walking across to the jetty on Lago O’Higgins.
Our transport, the L/M Quetru arrives late and we depart closer to 12:00 noon rather than the scheduled 11:30 am. Prior to boarding, many passengers disembarked, and all bikes were unloaded, even if their owners were continuing on the cruise to Glaciar O’Higgins. Note that there is also a smaller boat that runs direct from Puerto Bahamondez and return from here and it appears the schedule is twice daily. This boat also brings supplies to Candelario Mancilla.
At first, we are running with the prevailing sea but once reaching the junction of Brazo del Desagiie to the north, Brazo Poniente to the west and the arm heading down to Glacier O’Higgins, the water becomes very choppy as the wind directions conflict due to the proximity of all the glaciers and open water. The further we progress to Glacier O’Higgins, the calmer it gets atlthough the wind is quite significant, our boat at times sheltering behind icebergs. Nan & I found a sheltered spot on the top deck next to the warm exhaust funnel.
Finally we get to the glacier and are lucky enough to see some large chunks of ice breaking off an iceberg in front of the glacier as well as the glacier itself. Scotch with glacier ice is served, and a decent sized shot too!
Our return at first is again running with the prevailing weather until again reaching the open area where all the weather was against us, waves going over the top of our boat at times; many passengers are using the toilets and sick bags. It is probably just as well we had not eaten anything since breakfast.
Returning first to Candelario Mancilla to drop off passengers plus ice for the customs people then back into the weather to Puerto Bahamondez where we arrived closer to 10:00 pm than the scheduled 8:15 pm and then grabbed the front seats of the Robinson Crusoe mini bus that took us (after first having to find the keys) to the lodge.
A very late dinner then bed for us.
8th February 2019
Today is Friday. Good rest in a full sized bed and breakfast at 8:00 am
The Robinson Crusoe Lodge is far from full, Breakfast, as are all meals, is served in the main front building that is set to maximise the views. Accomodation is in two separate wings that have a number of self contained rooms linked via a raised covered verandah.
Our rental car had in fact arrived the previous day (A red Mitsubishi Triton).
Nan & I have a wander through the town of Villa O’Higgins; it is not large.
Finding a very helpful tourist information office was great (located adjacent to the park towards the south end of town) and they provided previously hard to get maps and information on the Carretera Austral.
Had difficulty finding a gas canister for our stove as none of the super markets had the correct type. Eventually found one (the only one) back at the lodge. We picked up a few supplies, an early lunch at Le Leonides then a walk to Mirador del Valle, the return trek taking only 2 hours.
Back at the lodge, sorted out packing as many items as possible into the cabin of our car.
As it was raining and we were feeling lazy, we just had dinner at the lodge again complete with a Pisco Sour.
9th February 2019
6:30 am rise today. Shower (when would the next one be?) followed by breakfast then loading up the car.
With Meghan and friend in the back, we headed north on the Carretera Austral at 8;00 am; wanting to get to the ferry Rio Bravo around 1 hour prior to the ferry departure at 11:00 am.
The misty rain and drizzle too care of most of the views. The driving not difficult and the road surprisingly good. We arrived at Rio Bravo just after 10:00 am and joined the small queue.
If not for the vehicles arriving later that have priority (Room for 1 truck, them mini busses, CONAF and more, we would have easily made it onto the ferry. As it was less than a handful of vehicles in front of us made it on, we missed out by 3 spots. Only thing now to wait for the 1:00 pm ferry and hope that no more “priority vehicles” rocked up. The official number of vehicles is 14.
We had lunch, waited, got on the next ferry (50 minute crossing) then continued to Tortel, (note that the initial travelling once off the Barcaza Padre Ronchi, can be slow going due to congested and variety of the vehicles departing from Puerto Yungay) a side trip (23 km) off the Carretera Austral (road is fairly open and flat following the Rio Baker) Tortel is a fishing and tourist town on the confluence of the Rio Baker and the many inlets linking to the Pacific Ocean. Car parking here is rather scarce!
After Tortel, we continued onwards towards Cochrane. Roadside campsites looked a bit scarce so we pulled up a little earlier than intended at the site below, some 15.5 km from the Tortel junction. The following day we noted that there were more camping sites in the forest to the north but they diminish somewhat approaching Cochrane.
We had a hummingbird join us here for breakfast.After Tortel, we continued onwards towards Cochrane. Roadside campsites looked a bit scarce so we pulled up a little earlier than intended at the site below, some 15.5 km from the Tortel junction. The following day we noted that there were more camping sites in the forest to the north but they diminish somewhat approaching Cochrane.
We had a hummingbird join us here for breakfast.
The road continues north towards Cochrane affording splendid views. It (the Carretera Austral) is certainly better north of Tortel.
We refueled at at the first opportunity once in Cochrane (COPEC). There was a bit of a wait but fortunately we were second in line.
11th February 2019
Lots of bushfire smoke hanging around this morning. After breakfast we headed east along the X-83 towards the far end of the park; our intention to walk the 12km Lago Chico loop. The trail head is around 1.5 hours drive from West Winds, the last little bit stating 4WD vehicles only.
We were the only car in the car park and headed out along the well marked trail that took us up hill and down dale before circumnavigating the lake where we had lunch. Very pretty, great views and an overlook of Lago Cochrane. The return leg has some steepish up hill sections.
Returning back to our camp, time for a cup of tea then shower before dinner. Looking forward to not having a freeze dry hiking meal!
12th February 2019
Our journey northwards up the Carretera Austral continues. We picked up a hitch hiker inside the park and gave him a lift to the park entry. Then we continued, stopping at a bridge crossing of the Rio Chacabuco then morning tea by the Rio Baker.
Stopped at Puerto Bertrand for a yummy hamburger then continued towards Puerto Tranquilo. This road was a bit of a bone shaker and very dusty once past the Chile Chico intersection due to increased traffic.
Our original plan was to camp just to the south at Bahia Manza, camp there and visit the Marble caves the following morning. Plans changed as there was a bushfire at the turn off and water bombing helicopters trying to put it out. Instead continued to Puerto Tranquilo, re-fueled, met Meghan again and caught a 4:00 pm boat to view the caves (10,000 CLP each).
It is a short journey on Lago General Carrera to the Marble Cathedrals. We are fortunate that the usual afternoon winds have not arrived (most recommendations are to visit in the usually calm mornings!)
The Marble Cathedrals are exquisite in colour and formations and well worth the visit.
Puerto Tranquilo however is not a “Tranquil Village” but rather a bustling tourist town & did not find it inducing to stay the night so instead pushed on to Cerro Castillo.
Must have misread the road sign, thought it said 100 km but the map shows it at 122 km and 2.5 hours. Would have been better finding a campsite en-route excpt there seemed little offerings. With Driver and truck now in rally mode, we headed off, finally making our way to the Senderos Patagonia camp ground 2.25 hours later. This was not too easy to find, the entry requiring a hard left turn immediately on entering the town. (Not sure why I am giving directions as this place proved to be a complete dump and should be avoided – 5000 CLP per person).
That said, we were tired and it was getting late and dark – 9:00 pm.
Well the shower were putrid, no hot water, the fridge did not work, broken toilets and a filthy 4 burner domestic stove and a stuffy & stinky inside atmosphere. We set up our camp stove outside in the fresh air. Oh, the tent site, excavated into the side of the hill provided magnificent views of Cerro Castillo but was barely big enough for our 2 person hike tent!
Note to self, the whole Cerro Castillo village is a bit of a dump. Rustic camping at the park entry may be a better option.
13th February 2019.
Outside breakfast then into the Cerro Castillo national park. Our aim to walk up to the Mirador overlooking Laguna Castillo.
This is no mean feat, 7.5 kilometres and all up hill with an elevation gain of 1100 metres taking us 3 hours and 40 minutes for the ascent with plenty of stops. A hard slog! The view is great without being fantastic, it being hard to beat the stunning scenery around El Chalten!
Only 2 hours 15 minutes for the descent.
Back at the campground, we had the company of a New Zealand couple over dinner. Both them and us cooking “Back Country” meals on our own stoves outside; this being much more pleasant than the horrid conditions in the so called kitchen.
We even managed a warm shower. Looking forward to getting out of here.
14 &15th February 2019.
A short drive planned today to Camp Chiguay in the north of the Cerro Castillo national park. The drive is all on bitumen and one section involves a circuitous climb with great views back south into the valley.
We reached the campsite around an hour or so after leaving Cerro Castillo; the distance being less than 40 kilometres.
This campsite is a real gem. Each campsite has its own water, a cooking hut which could also hold a small tent, table and bench seats.
There is a central shower and toilet block (hot water available in the evening) which was kept very clean. Park HQ is on the opposite side of the Carretera Austral and there was a waste bin located here. Cost 10.000 CLP per person per night.
We stayed two nights, wandered around the walking tracks and mostly dry lake.
Also took the opportunity to wash the car, this may sound a bit anal butI was keen buff out some scratches. Watered down tooth paste makes a mild cutting compound!
We also did a run into Balmaceda to check out the airports and where to return the car.
This proved a wise move as we were required to return the car with a full fuel tank but there is no fuel in Balmaceda, resulting in a run out to Coihaique and back for fuel.
The Carretera Austral where it meets the road out to Balmaceda is a contrast to what we had previously experienced. Gone are the snow capped mountains, rivers and glaciers and instead there is more undulating fam land. At Balmaceda, the terrain is as flat as a tack and just as barren. Nothing here of note except the airport!
16th February 2019
We departed our campsie by around 9:00 am and headed into Balmaceda, less than an hours drive. Sorted out the Hertz car rental. A note with this is that we had never actually signed anything nor paid a deposit until today.
Airports mean waiting. Checked in on our SKY flight, had lunch in the restaurant and the flight departed on time, arriving in Santiago a couple of hours later. Grabbed our bags and headed straight to the Holiday Inn. Thought we may have a swim but the pool was closed. Instead it was a clean up then to the bar for some Pisco Sours and a light seafood platter meal.
17th February 2019
Today begins a change of scenery. Gone are the ragged mountains and glaciers of Patagonia, instead we head to the Atacama Desert area which typifies northern Chile, Argentina and Bolivia.
Up by 5:00 AM, 5:30 breakfast then to the airport for a 6:00 Am check-in for our SKY flight to Calama. The majority of passengers are FIFO workers; Calama and environs is copper mining territory & many are sped out from overhead. Very impressive pits and massive solar panel arrays plus wind turbines. No electricity grid out here!
All went well at the airport & picked up our rental, this being a Toyota Hilux – once again red. A trip into town that we discovered was much bigger and more modern than anticipated (mining dollars?)
We are soon fueled up and on the road to San Pedro de Atacama. The scenery is quite stunning with vast flat terrain bordered by snow capped volcanoes.
The approach to San Pedro on Ruta 23 takes you past the back of Valle de la Luna to which the entry road is on the RHS not long past the entry to the Valle de la Muerte. The Luna Valley is our first stop with many hours spent exploring the major attractions in the area. A bit of walking is required. The road is blocked past the Three Marias thus needing to repeat our drive in to exit. The scenery is a cross between our own outback “Break Aways” and Desert Dunes.
Now to find a camp site. First to a camp ground depicted in on line research & located in San Pedro called Camp Quilacray. Well, this campsite reflected our thoughts of the San Pedro town ship. Dirty, crappy and of little appeal. Thus began what became an ongoing problem, to find a half suitable camp site! Other potential sites to the south of town turned to naught and we ended up at a “bush” site off the road to El Tatio and about 5km north of San Pedro. This became our fall back home.
18th February to 22nd February 2019
It appears there is only one fuel station here in San Pedro. It is a round about journey on one way bumpy dirt roads to get there. It is a bit hard to navigate & glad for the GPS. The roads are often narrow with higher walls on both sides that limit visibility. That said, we achieved our goal and headed south into the Salar de Atacama until……
Just out of town, the police had the main south road blocked off. There was traffic traversing this road coming towards us but there was no way we were going to be let through. Now, this is where our camp site exploration of the previous evening came to play, being able to navigate some back tracks and minor dry river crossing to bisect the same road further south.
First stop was Laguna Cejar, this being a thermally heated salt lake with views of snow capped volcanoes beyond. This was also our daily wash (shower before & after exit). The water is not quite as buoyant as the Dead Sea in Jordan but much warmer. No life guards.
Next, heading further south on back roads to the main highway then reaching 4000m+ in altitude we visit Lagunas Menique & Miscanti. Furter south there is no access to Piedras Rojas but we get a nice view on the expansive Salar de Aguas Calientes. Unsble to find a campsite offering any protection from the now gale force winds so headed hack towards San Pedro, finally spotting a suitable side track well to the north of the Lagunas Menique & Miscanti exit.
Sheltered by a rock outcrop, we had a stunning sunset quickly followed by a full moon over the volcanoes. Cold overnight.
The following day we kept to the main highway, crossing over the Tropic of Capricorn & noting hwy the road may have been closed, it having been all but destroyed by heavy rains 2 weeks prior,. Glad we had 4WD.
We visited Laguna Chaxa in the Reserva Natural Los Flamencos then to San Pedro, refueling and heading north towards El Tatio, looking for a suitable campsite en route.
Well, there was nothing availabe at or near Machuca Village, or at an abandoned site further north. Here, with the increased altitude, the sleet turned to snow. We about faced & found a place well south at Red Rocks only to be warned off by a local concerned with Pumas. Our long drive continued to our fall back camp site.
Awoke early to the sound of vehicles in convoy heading at a slow pace up to El Tatio Geysers. The most popular time is the early dawn where the temperature differential produces maximum steam. Put the head back down & tried to sleep.
At a more respectable hour with clear day light, we continued back towards El Tatio, meeting some of the now returning morning traffic. At the park entrance where fees are paid we took note of some others camped in the carpark area. Guess they would have had a disturbed morning?
A really fascinating area, some of the highest altitude geysers in the works mostly to our selves. There is a heated swimming pond that was too relaxing, getting high altitude sun burn whilst chatting to a New York couple.
Back to San Pedro, the road south to Lagunas Baltinache was closed, fuelled up again and brought forward our visit to the Yerba Buenos Petroglyphs and Rainbow Valley
The former were interesting enough without being stunning, the later proved difficult to find & re ended up recovering a bogged vehicle in the washed out river crossing. In the end we found an alternative high level albeit narrow road to Rainbow Valley which is best visited in the evening to exploit its natural colours. The only potential camp site had been washed away.
Back to the Petroglyphs for directions; A “caravan park” opposite was suggested. Very dubious as we had not noticed anything, the site appeared to be a long abandoned yet locked waste land.
Following another road that leads North East to a village, we found a pull out where some road drainage works had been completed & camped there. Far from ideal but it sufficed. Lesson learnt, the Atacama Desert is not great for tent camping – get a campervan!
An early start with change of plan. Being a day ahead of schedule. We are soon Calama bound and destined for a decent bed, shower and a meal not out of a packet. The local budget Ibis Hotel was 5 star to us. Uneventful night. The car was returned at the airport & we promptly flew south back to Santiago. Pisco Sours and a Seafood Platter once more at the Holiday Inn. Next stop, Buenos Aires.