Patagonia: Parque Nacional Los Glaciares

Sun on Perito Moreno

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Another border crossing and we are back in Argentina on our way to the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Unfortunately, to enter this park one must first pass through El Calafate. Admittedly we thought our first impression was tainted by the fact that we arrived on a Saturday when there was a weekend music festival. The town was full and it was particularly difficult to manoeuvre the truck around masses of people in festival mode. We did manage to shop, find a pharmacy, use internet, find the tourist office, and other info about the national park. Most of the people who served us were barely friendly and hardly useful. We really did not get a good feeling in this town, so we tried to get out as fast as possible.
The main reason to visit this part of the National Park is to see the Perito Moreno glacier. After a couple of nights' rest at a free campground on Lago Roca, where it rained most of the time, we set out for the glacier on Monday. The weather looked slightly better that morning - the sky was clear in parts, and cloudy in others. As we got closer the weather worsened. By the time we arrived in the lower parking lot, we were directed to, it was very cold and raining steadily (it is seldom possible to drive up to the parking lot next to the glacier during the day). We had lunch and waited for the rain to ease, and then we dressed for the cold and went to get on the mini-bus which would take us up. It is totally amazing - the glacier is right there in front of you, less than 500m from the corner of the parking lot where you get the first view. There are walking platforms right down the hill face that bring you much closer. This is one of the few glaciers in the world which is moving. It advances (at 2m per day) right across the lake and, at the moment, it actually touches the peninsular we were standing on. It is every shade of blue, and it creaks and cracks, and sometimes lets out a sound like a rifle shot, before a lump of ice goes crashing into the water. The weather was mostly overcast and it rained on and off but it was worth being out in it. We noticed when we arrived back at the parking lot, which had been full of tour buses when we arrived, that it had a lot of space and cars were now being allowed to drive up to it. We decided to get the minibus back down to the lower car park and bring our truck up too. We had the best spot in the whole car park - we could look out of the camper window and see a large part of the glacier. We had dinner and watched as the light changed. Although we knew it would be cold, we decided to sleep there so that we could see the glacier in the morning light. It was a really good decision.
Noisy arrivals, before 7:00, woke us. We were initially annoyed but this quickly changed to pleasure when we looked out of the window - I was still in bed when I looked out of mine directly onto the glacier. The morning was almost clear and the light on the glacier was spectacular as the sun rose above the mountains. Juergen walked down to one of the viewpoints with his camera before he had breakfast, coffee or a cigarette - anyone who knows him at all will be aware that this is highly unusual! I made breakfast, while keeping watch out of the window. Later I walked down to it while Juergen cleaned up. It was quite magical and superbly impressive. We were no longer at all disappointed about our failed boat trip to the Grey Glacier in Torres de Paine. We had also been contemplating spending more than $150 on a boat tour of several other glaciers in this part of the park, but after Perito Moreno we felt completely satisfied with the glacier experience. As we drove out of the park there were various points along the way to get more distant views. We stopped and had some last looks, as the weather had been too bad the day before to see very much.
Perito Moreno glacier from a distance
Back in El Calafate, not very much had changed. It was less crowded but the feeling hadn't changed. We went looking for internet. We tried a café with WiFi, but it wasn't working; nobody knew why and had no interest in finding out. Then we went to an internet place and Juergen spent the next 2 hours cleaning up the mess a particularly vicious virus had left on his USB stick. Maybe things are bound to go wrong in this town because we are annoyed by it in the first place, but we decided to leave as soon as possible because we were really keen to get out of an expensive tourist town where those serving the tourists only see the colour of their money and don't know the meaning of service. This may sound a bit harsh, but it is the truth of our experience. We were particularly disappointed by the attitude we encountered both times we visited the tourist information office. Those working there could hardly manage to put down their mobile phones to serve us, then gave us monosyllabic answers to our questions, and the only thing that really seemed to spark their interest was us leaving. We did encounter several of our friends in and around this town, so it wasn't all bad!
Some 200km north of El Calafate is El Chalten, which is the gateway to another part of the PN Los Glaciares. The road between is mostly paved, but the 20km section which is under construction is really in terrible condition. Nevertheless, we drove it in one day. Considering our luck, and sometimes lack of it, with the weather, we had decided we would only go to El Chalten if the skies were clear in that direction when we reached the deciding intersection, since it is almost a 100km detour one way to visit, and it didn't seem worth it if we didn't get to see Mount Fitzroy. Before we even reached the intersection, we could see snow peaks in full sun from Ruta 40. We were treated to very beautiful scenery all the way in. The Viedma glacier is clearly visible for a long way, with the view improving as you get closer. There are lots of rugged snow peaks around the town which is directly ahead down a long straight road, and to the northern side of the road there are other rocky mountains with interesting colours and patterns. Before we even spotted the famed Mount Fitzroy, we were really glad we came this way. We drove straight through the town because we were looking for somewhere to sleep. The road north of town is unsealed and goes to Lago del Desierto. It slowly deteriorated but the scenery was stunning. Finally we pulled off the road next to a river to spend the night. It was cold but quiet and we slept rather well.
It is the start of a trail so there was a lot of coming and going with vehicles relatively early, but we weren't really disturbed by it. Little did we know that this was the beginning of a very long day for us. There was a knock at the door and we were greeted by some travelling friends (Shreesh and Neena) we first had email contact with and then met in Cafayate in October last year. We were most surprised and pleased to see them, and spent a couple of hours sharing stories and information, before they continued on towards the lake and we started back into El Chalten. The plan was to get fuel and drive out of town since we had seen almost all we came for. The fuel station is closed for lunch - one sign says until 1:30 - another says until 2:00. At 2:30 we left for the tourist office to enquire about the possibility of finding propane in town. It took us almost half an hour to find out that wasn't going to happen. Then we returned to the petrol station and finally the attendant was at work. The strange thing about it was that I had seen this guy come into the station and leave again several times while we'd been waiting all that time, with two other vehicles, to be served. Some things just remain a mystery! At least while we were waiting, Mount Fitzroy shed all of its cloud and showed itself in all its glory. Now we thought we had seen all we came here for.
Kathy and Rick came past while we were waiting and once we had refuelled we caught up with them where they were having lunch. After a pleasant interval, which included coffee and very rich chocolate brownie, we bid them good bye and headed out of town. We weren't planning on going very far, just to find a sheltered spot off the road to spend the night. Around 60km from El Chalten Juergen suddenly fought to bring the truck to a halt. He had lost all power to the steering and most to the brakes. With great difficulty he managed to manoeuvre it off the road onto a conveniently placed flat area next to an almost unused gateway. When he opened the bonnet it was to discover than one of the pulleys in the fan belt system had completely disintegrated. It was impossible to drive this vehicle anywhere.
We realised that we couldn't do anything until the next day, so we put a triangle on the road and left the bonnet up in case someone stopped to offer help. We were just finishing dinner and Armin and Marisol drove up - it was such a relief to see them. After Armin heard the story he drove directly into town to see if he could get us a tow truck for the next morning. It was already almost 7:00. He arrived back after we were in bed with the news that there is no tow truck in El Chalten and that he hadn't had a great deal of success. Armin speaks Spanish fluently, so if he hadn't had much success, we would have found it extremely difficult without him. It was really nice of him to help us so much at that time of the day - he drove 120km and arrived back at 10:30 at night. We also discovered that they hadn't stopped to eat and Marisol was preparing food while he was updating us. This is one of the reasons why having friends on the road is so precious. They spent the night next to us and then set off with Juergen in the morning to drive into El Chalten and make some calls. We were very much concerned that it might be necessary for Juergen to go to El Calafate and bring a tow truck back, and that I might have to stay with the truck on the side of the road until he could manage that.
They left at around 11:00 and I settled in to keep myself occupied for an indeterminate period. I looked out the window and saw Shreesh and Neena stopping less than an hour later. Assuming they had just seen our truck and stopped, I hurried outside to meet them. I asked if they had seen Juergen and they pointed down the road. I hadn't noticed, but Ernst and Christine's truck was just stopping as well. They had been coming out of town and Armin stopped them. When they heard what was happening they immediately took Juergen aboard and drove on to where we were stranded. Suddenly we had as much help as we could possibly need. There were a German couple travelling with the Austrians as well and at one time it was quite funny seeing 4 male heads under the bonnet of the truck - and 4 backsides sticking out.
Ernst decided that he would tow us the 60km back into El Chalten, and proceeded to do so with the utmost care and caution. He took us right to the door of the only mechanic in town. Armin turned up and spoke for us, and eventually the mechanic was persuaded to call El Calafate to see if he could get the pulley we needed sent up from there. Since it was Friday afternoon, we had no desire to sit waiting the entire weekend if it could possibly be helped. The call was successful - the part would arrive around 9:00 that evening and the mechanic would fix the truck in the morning. Everyone then relaxed - the hard part seemed to be over. Ernst and Christine left for a campsite they knew out of town, promising to return in the morning to check on us. Armin and Marisol followed them. Since meeting Ernst and Christine in Ushuaia we have seen them again in Punta Arenas, Torres de Paine and El Calafate, and although it was always great to see them, nothing compares with the pleasure of encountering them again when they were so needed. We went to find some dinner. We had checked our guide book and discovered the Patagonicus just around the corner was recommended. I know I have a tendency to badmouth our guide book (since being in South America) about their praise of places that either don't deserve it or are no longer in existence - well the "Patagonicus" is still in existence and it was excellent, so this time the 'Footprint' was totally accurate.
The mechanics didn't start work until around 10:15, but the part had arrived, and it was the correct one, and they set to work to fit it. Ernst and Christine arrived just as they finished. We were so relieved that the problem had been solved so quickly and successfully. Since El Chalten we haven't seen Ernst and Christine or Armin and Marisol, but we certainly hope that we cross paths with them again. We filled our water tank at the petrol station and then we were off - again. I think we both held our breath a bit, particularly until we had passed the place where we had broken down. The day was clear and perfect, except for the wind - but it was coming from behind and pushing us along, so that was ok. It was warmer than it'd been in a long while, which enhanced our mood as well. We stopped to take a few photos on the way out, but once we lost sight of the mountains of The Glaciers National Park the terrain became a bit boring again. The road is paved until Tres Lagos, where we stopped for fuel and then we hit the 'ripio' part of the Ruta 40 again.
When we stopped for the night, Juergen collected more pebbles - he has been collecting a few along the way since we were in the Welsh country at the beginning of Patagonia. He tells me that the whole of Patagonia is covered in pebbles from the age when it was covered with glaciers (information courtesy of Bruce Chatwin in 'In Patagonia') and they are very pretty, so he keeps collecting them. I can see us being overweight on the flight home...
This part of Ruta 40 is marked in our road atlas as "under construction" - we have discovered that this can mean anything from "we've put a few pegs in with red flags and will get back to it one day" to "it's paved complete with lines marked and new signs posted". We had heard from other travellers that this particular part was in very bad condition, and some even suggested that we should take an alternate route. Imagine our surprise that Sunday morning when we reached the beginning of the "under construction" section to discover a beautiful tarred road - surprise number 1. It continued for almost 60 km, right up to the turnoff to the NP Perito Moreno. Then we were back on gravel again toward Bajo Caracoles. Not long after hitting the gravel we came upon serious road works. The new road was wide and level and almost ready to be paved. Alongside it was a very rough 'ripio' road just wide enough in places for one vehicle. As it was Sunday, there were no workers in sight, and up ahead we saw a truck drive onto the smooth new road - we followed him. It took us almost to Bajo Caracoles and was a pleasure to drive compared with the alternative that was on offer!
At one stop Juergen had found signs of what he thought was a diesel leak, perhaps the result of a stone hitting something it shouldn't much too hard. So we stopped in Bajo Caracoles at the petrol station but, even though the mechanic was there, it was Sunday and he was having a beer and he was basically not interested. It didn't bother us too much because the leak stopped once Juergen changed tanks (our truck has 2 fuel tanks), but it meant we had to travel directly to Perito Moreno rather than take the detour, along the mountains, to the Chilean border which had been recommended to us. We set out toward Perito Moreno*) with some trepidation. It is 125km and at first the road was really bad; worse than any we had been on down here. (That is definitely no longer true!) But about half way through the journey the grey and dull landscape began to change. There were vibrant colours in the mountains that reminded us of Purmamarca - surprise number 2. Soon after the road began to show some signs of improvement. We had passed a work camp and the start of the road works. Then another surprise: 50+km of completed pavement brought us to Perito Moreno.
We spent the night in Perito Moreno and when Juergen checked the next morning there was no sign of a diesel leak - must have been an overfull tank. Later we received information from Kathy and Rick that the alternate route suggested to us was a really bad road, complete with creek crossings. The suspected fuel leak was lucky for us! We filled with fuel and headed toward Chile again. It is about 60km along the edge of "Lago Buenos Aires" to Los Antiguos, where we crossed to Chile Chico in Chile. Even the huge lake changes names at the border - it is called "Lago General Cabrera" in Chile.

*) to confuse travellers and readers: there is the Perito Moreno glacier near El Calafate, the Perito Moreno National Park half way between El Chalten and the township of Perito Moreno further north. All named after Perito Moreno, a famous Argentinean mountaineer.

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