Into the great wide open

When we reached Punta Arenas, we checked into a hotel as a respite from two things that have become very difficult–staying warm at night, and fast Internet. We’ve seen so much in the past two weeks that it seems like a lifetime since our ride on the steam train in Esquel.

Driving through Patagonia feels like a real road trip–with vast landscapes and small towns and run-ins with odd characters in far-flung places. We have been covering great distances between remote towns. In the town of Facundo, sheltered from the wind in a small valley a few hours’ drive from Esquel, we encountered nothing in the town of note except a campsite at its entrance, and then just off the town square, a mural of the campground.

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A painting of the town’s most prominent feature: and it wasn’t even open

In the next town over, about an hour away, we found our way into a private campground, where we encountered two Buenos Aires college students hitching their way as far south as they could manage. We gave them a lift to the town of Perito Moreno, which incidentally is nowhere near the famous glacier of the same name. Rather misleading. It is strange to see so many hearty travelers in such isolated places. We drive for hours through nothing and see more and more cyclists, hitchhikers, and motorcyclists in these barren, windswept places. But as far south as we may be, the ‘Ruta de fin del mundo’ becomes more well-trodden as it narrows toward the end. We ran into two friends we hadn’t seen since Peru on the road, and they told us how the wind had ripped off both of their doors. I don’t know how these cyclists and motorcyclists manage in the wind. Or in the cold, for that matter. Even sleeping downstairs, I have to be fully layered in a hat, hoodie, gloves, wool socks, and my hot water bottle. Oh yes: and the dog.

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Three cyclists in the remote town of Gobernador Gregores

The landscape is alternatively monotonous and then dazzling. Whenever we encounter one of the region’s numerous lakes, I think of my brother’s recent trip to Antarctica and how impressed he was by the numerous shades of blue. Here’s just a sampling of some of the waters we’ve come across.

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Blue upon glacial lake water blue in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares

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Blues in the windswept Lago Buenos Aires, nowhere near Buenos Aires

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Limestone green waters of Laguna Amarga in Chile’s Torres del Paine

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Lago Argentino, near El Calafate

This was an exciting time because we glimpsed our first glaciers. Arriving into the base camp of El Chaltén, we were wowed by the impressive ridges and the glacial blues spilling out between the peaks.

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A little hike in El Chaltén. The third peak left from the tallest, Fitz Roy, is named after Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince, who piloted postal flights in the region.

I was so excited when we got to the Perito Moreno glacier that I somehow managed to lose Juan in the maze of walkways. It was an astounding 70 degrees that day and I ran around sweating, looking for him while listening for the distinctive crackshots sounds of glacier chunks falling into the water. It was really awesome. If you look onto the glacier head-on it seems to stretch all the way back into the beginning of time. Even better than hearing the glacier break apart, we happened to witness the amazing spectacle of bus-size chunks of teal-blue ice emerging from the underside of the glacier and breaking through the surface of the water like breaching whales. It was completely silent.

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An ice field like none I have ever seen.

As if the month could not get any better, I got to celebrate my birthday! My birthday eve, we arrived in the nondescript town of Río Turbio, a border town where we hoped to spend the night before crossing back into Chile to visit Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. We encountered two union-run campsites outside of town, a teachers’ campground which was closed, and an electrical workers’ campground whose insane manager wanted to charge us 1200 pesos to camp–the equivalent of $120. We probably would have stayed to argue with him if it hadn’t been so cold out. Juan drove us 200 meters further down the road, where we pulled off next to a river and spoke with two gauchos about the possibilities of sleeping there. “Tranquilo,” they assured us, waving us good night.

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Good morning, 35th year of life!

We crossed back into Chile via Paso Don Guillermo, which was the easiest border crossing since entering Peru. The only thing about entering Chile is that we have to visit a vet and get a SENASA certificate for Milo each and every time we enter the country. Fortunately, there was a SENASA office in El Calafate, but it’s just a hassle. Crossing via Don Guillermo was easy and it dumped us directly into the Torres del Paine national park, where we camped another free night on Laguna Azul. The ranger there helped us to celebrate my birthday with many bottles of Chilean wine. Unfortunately, many Chileans do not eat dinner so much as once, a light snack, and this did not bode well for our merry-making the next day–but nothing a hot shower and a nice hike couldn’t cure.

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One of my birthday hikes around Laguna Azul

Finally, I have to say that I love the wildlife down here. In addition to ostrich-like ñandus and llama-like guanacos (which absolutely drive Milo insane), there are flamingos in many lakes. Flamingos! Some of them are practically neon pink, which make for such a beautiful sight against the varying hues of the lakes. I can never get close enough to take a photo.

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A ñandu running alongside the van. I am a little obsessed with ostriches ever since I saw an ostrich farm in southern Illinois.

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Guanacos are like llamas, but fatter

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Milo had the best (my) birthday ever