What starts out crazy usually ends up crazy. Prelude to our (mis)adventures going north up the Carretera Austral
We should have known from the start that it was going to be crazy. It started out crazy. Why wouldn’t the mayhem just escalate from there?
We started our journey north. We took a nail-biting plane ride from Ushuaia to El Calafate on the budget (soon-to-be discovered why) airline LADE. LADE is a very inexpensive, quick way to travel around Argentine Patagonia and especially if you need to cover long distances (they even fly to Buenos Aires). If you use the link I provided, keep in mind you can’t actually BUY your ticket online, you only reserve a spot. You have to call them or go to their office in person to pay within 24 hours to receive your actual ticket.
Tickets are the same price (or even cheaper) than taking the bus. There are a few reasons for this. The airplanes are small, ancient and look (& sound) as if they might disintegrate somewhere midair. Luckily the views over Tierra del Fuego were amazing:
They will also fly in any crazy weather (the day we left the winds were whipping!). I thought I might die. So I reached over for Laurent’s hand, only to discover the clammiest, wettest palm! One look at his pallid face frozen in terror and I knew he was more alarmed than even I was! In addition to that, the plane stops everywhere along the route to drop off people/pick people up. Like a taxi of the skies!
We arrived in El Calafate having barely endured the flight on LADE. We started to follow our nice little plan. First order of business was to get some Chilean pesos. We were going to need a good amount of Chilean money due to the lack of banks or ATM’s along the Carretera Austral. And we had none since we had been in Ushuaia, Argentina.
El Calafate, being the tourist mecca that is was, is loaded with banks, ATM’s & money exchange places (cambios). Laurent headed straight to the cambio which was conveniently closed. It opened up again at 6. It was 3. We had a bus ticket to El Chalten for 4:30. Great. We skipped our bus ticket, to which we could not get a refund. Now we were forced to spend the night in Calafate.
We returned to the cambio at 6. They informed us that they had no Chilean pesos and weren’t sure if they would be able to get them the next day or the next week. Okay. Laurent discovered they charge about 15% to exchange the money and since we needed such a large amount of money to get us by, we would end up being totally ripped off, that is if they could even get said money. Plan D.
The town of Puerto Natales, Chile (from where we made our trek to Torres del Paine) lie a mere 5 hour bus ride away from El Calafate. We started to think it would be best for Laurent to take a bus over to Puerto Natales and then he could use one of the many ATM’s in town to withdraw the money that we needed. Made sense. A bit ridiculous but it made perfect sense given our current situation.
He departed the following morning at 8 am and returned that night around midnight. Only in South America would you have to cross the border twice, via a 10 hour bus ride, in one day to try and get money that you needed.
Naturally, they only let him withdraw a set amount of pesos for the day. Fortunately he used both of our cards. Even with the Chilean pesos in hand, we weren’t sure it would be enough money. The only ATM en route would be 500+ km (300 mi) from where we would start out. We hoped it was enough.
After the fiasco obtaining money, we took the bus to El Chalten the following day. I figured the chaos was behind us and of course we had to expect a few bumps along the road! How true this would become!!
We arrived in El Chalten in the evening and began asking around town where we could go to reserve our horse for the border crossing. We read that it was possible to hire horses to either carry your belongings and/or you across the border into Chile. This is the sole reason we agreed to actually trek over the border. Between Laurent & I we had nearly 70 kilos (140 lbs) of stuff. We didn’t mind walking the 23 km that lie across the border but we did NOT want to carry our stuff. We had read (what we falsely assumed to be accurate) information here but we wanted to speak with a real person that would tell us we could have a real horse. And we found her here:
The friendly, real-life, English speaking (lying!!) woman at Zona Austral told us, no-she assured us we could have a horse….on Friday. It was Sunday. Really? Ok. It’s just another bump in the road, I tried to reason. We had time. We could wait 5 days. El Chalten was beautiful!
We could camp. We could take hikes. And oh, that ice cream here! And steak! This is Argentina, after all. We could feast. No big deal. We’ll wait. We told her to go ahead and reserve the horse and she did it (over a real chat with a real guy that was supposed to bring us our real horse). “Your horse will be ready at 1 pm on Friday” she informed us with clear confidence. We smiled broadly. Things were working out!
The next day we hiked one of the best hikes we ever took and were lucky to see Cerro Torre and the glacier in clear skies:
You could see the diversity in the landscape from the top:
Overhead were some of the most incredible clouds:
We ate our last Argentine beef (sniff, sniff):
I ate ice cream 4 of the 5 days we stayed here (this place is sooo good!):
Waiting wasn’t so bad! I could have patience in these conditions forever! On Thursday, we decided to head to Lago Desierto a day early because we had heard it was a beautiful place to camp. So we took the bus (1 hour) leaving El Chalten behind along the dusty, bumpy road, that led us to the boat which crosses the lake (1 hour):
The lake boasts excellent views:
and that evening we arrived in the truly beautiful Lago del Desierto. We got our passports stamped out of Argentina and we thought everything was perfect! We had an amazing view of Fitz Roy from camp:
We cooked our dinner. We went to bed without worry.
Friday morning we awoke to a beautiful day. I remember thinking, could things get any better? We packed up and dutifully waited at 1 pm for our horse. I was happy to find a group of 4 Japanese people and a Chilean couple also waiting for horses! This made it seem even more real. 1 pm came…no horses showed up. 2 pm. Nothing. I figured this is South America, we have to be patient. Punctuality is not a virtue in this part of the world.
3 pm. I started to worry a bit. The Japanese were sprawled out in the grass laughing and telling stories. The Chilean couple ate snacks and cuddled. No one else seemed worried, so I tried to relax a little too. 4 pm. The customs official came out to tell us that there would probably be no horses today.
No horses? What the hell do you mean no horses? The Japanese seemed unfazed because of their lack of understanding Spanish. I translated to them in English what the guy said. They had no tent/sleeping bags and it was already 4:30. They seemed in shock. One of the girls pulled another cigarette out and started taking long pulls.
It takes at least 6 hours to hike the 23 km to the Chilean customs. In Lago Desierto (where we were), there is no place to sleep. Only the very rustic campground (no toilet, running water). They asked the custom officer if they could sleep in his refuge:
He promptly showed them where the trail was to start walking across the border!
We spoke with the Chilean couple and the four of us agreed to camp that night and get an early start the following morning. Ok, I thought. I was a bit worried because Laurent had so much weight he was carrying-nearly 40 kilos (88 lbs!!!) and I had pretty close to 30 with me (66!!). How on earth would be able to carry that for 23 km!!
I didn’t think of that though. I still believed that a horse might come, although I think I might have more luck believing a unicorn would show up. Feeling hungry, we started to cook our dinner and midway through…the gas fizzled out. Great. The Chilean couple talked the customs guy into letting us build a fire and we were able to cook our dinner. We watched an amazing sunset which kind of compensated for all this grief. It was really like an artist painted the sky. This is what we came here for:
Stay tuned for the next chapter!