Patagonia. The land of the explorer, the outlaw, the exiled – people drawn to the sheer enormity of its physical space. This is where the rivers run turquoise and lakes are so clear you can see right to the bottom. Where condors fly overhead and wild guanacos join you for breakfast. It is also where the wind blows incessantly. Patagonia is one of the crown jewels of our journey and we were excited to finally get here. Patagonia covers about 260,000 square miles in size—roughly the same as Texas— occupying most of the tapering end of South America.. It straddles both Argentina and Chile, and its boundaries are often disputed.
We pointed LoJo west, toward the Chilean border and the town of Los Antiguos. The drive there was long and boring, one straight road across Argentina’s pampas. We had a crazy strong head wind the whole way, pushing our already dismal gas mileage down to almost nothing. Gas stations are few and far between, so we now carry extra fuel in our jerry cans at all times.
We camped in the border town of Los Antiguos, and the next morning crossed into Chile at the Chile Chico border. With snow peaked mountains in the background, we drove slowly along the Grand Carrera Lake toward the town of Puerto Guadal. The route took us on gravel roads high above the lake’s edge, providing some of the most beautiful scenery we’ve encountered so far.
The Grand Carrera Lake is the second largest in South America, and the drive around it was stunning. Turquoise lakes, rushing rivers, and wide open spaces. We took our time, getting out to snap tons of photos and just stare in awe at the scenery. Getting anywhere in Patagonia requires a long drive, because no place is near any other place, and because the road often just ends.
There are only a few towns on the banks of this enormous lake. Tiny Puerto Guadal, una pequeño pueblo, is one. We found a beautiful spot to hang out at the Terra Luna Lodge. While chatting with the owner, Philipe, we discovered this part of the lake is where conservationist Doug Tompkins died. Philippe was a friend of Doug's and got the distress call when the kayakers flipped. He mobilized the helicopter and was part of the rescue team. After he shared with me the whole story, it shook me a little that we ended up here by chance. The tragedy of his death is felt deeply throughout Patagonia.
We camped a few days and then rented a cabin overlooking the water. Janice and Gregor caught up to us after a few days, and we had a relaxing time by the lake. Being in these mountains gave us energy; we all felt it. The air and the water are clean. The wildlife is abundant. You can drive all day and see only a one or two other vehicles. It is one of the few places left on earth that is virtually undeveloped. Patagonia isn't just a place, it's a feeling.
Camping at Terra Luna Lodge
Time for a haircut. It's a good thing we ain't got no place fancy to go to...
John took a freezing, energizing plunge in the lake - glacier waters feed these lakes.
We provisioned in the sleepy town of Puerto Guadal. We found a store that had everything. I even found peanut butter! A life line on drive days but very hard to find in South America. I bought every jar on the shelf. (thanks for the photo, Janice!)
Together we headed out to Puerto Tranquilo to see the marble cathedral caves. The caves, accessible only by water, are made entirely of marble that’s been carved by the water over 6,000 years. The smooth swirling blues and yellows of the cavern walls reflect the lake’s crystal clear waters. We camped in town on the beach, and in the morning headed out to see the caves. I wanted to kayak, but the water was too low for kayaks to enter the caves, and with the freezing water temps and highs winds - we all decided to take the easy way and go by boat.
Camp spot on the lake. A Canadian/German overlanding couple joined us.
When the sun sets in this part of the world, you just have to stop and watch.
A local brought his horses down to the lake to drink while we were watching the sunset. Photo by Janice.
Out on the boat at the marble caves. So beautiful and serene.
A little cold on the way there and back tho!
From there we headed out to camp along the Baker River. The Baker is one of the most beautiful rivers I have ever seen. Sapphire blue in some sections, and turquoise blue in others. It drains the Lago General Carrera and is the most voluminous river in Chile. The water flows so clear you can see river rocks sitting on the bottom all the way in the middle. We camped right on its shores under sunny skies.
Camping like this, under mountain peaks by a rushing river, reminds me of camping in the Rocky Mountains as a kid. I lived in Colorado for a while, and we camped almost every weekend and virtually every school break. I remember exploring the woods and rivers, always surrounded by nature. That kind of freedom never leaves your senses. Sleeping on a cot and peeing in a 2 lb. Yuban coffee can seemed normal. I remember ending nights around a camp fire, falling asleep to the sound of coyotes, and feeling at home in the wild. I've learned to appreciate nature because I grew up in it. I'm thankful my parents gave me that.
Colorado, c. 1975?
My very first truck camper. Here we are camping with friends from Canada. It all comes full circle, J&G!
The next morning we took off with Janice and Gregor for a short hike to a scenic lookout where the turquoise waters of the Baker River clashes with the milky-grey waters of the Neff River. The confluence of the two provides one of the most beautiful pages from nature's coloring book. The river is running very low, as the region hasn’t had much snow or rain for a few winters, but the view was still spectacular.
The Rio Baker
John at the confluence
Me at the confluence
Green meets blue.
Lucky went one way and LoJo went the other. We know we'll see them down the road, though. This is our 10th country together!
At the confluence we parted ways with Janice and Gregor again, since they needed to find internet to work. It was here we officially turned on to the Route 7, also know as the Carretera Austral (“the Austral Highway”) one of the most beautiful driving routes in the world. The highway runs from Puerto Montt to Villa O´Higgins, snaking about 770 miles past snowcapped mountains, sapphire blue lakes and rivers, and thick forest. It is the northern region’s only north–south highway. Its construction began in 1976 under Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship and continued for 20 years yet it is still almost entirely unpaved.
We headed south on the Austral toward Patagonia Park, driving through desolate canyons and past giant rocky peaks. Patagonia Park, in the Valle Chacabuco, is another of Doug and Kris Tompkins legacy parks, created by their Conservacion Patagonica, and to spend time here is truly a soul-awakening experience. From a conservation standpoint, the land is important because it encompasses a variety of ecosystems—grasslands, riparian forests, and wetlands—that allow for biodiversity.
During the drive in we saw guanacos, armadillos and grey foxes with huge bushy tails run across the road in front of us. We saw flamingos next to sheep and it all seemed surreal. Throughout Patagonia sheep are a constant presence. What seems like millions graze behind miles and miles of fences. As we drive by, mothers and their lambs pick up their head at the very first sound of our engine, and then run for their lives. We are pretty sure the reason is any time a truck gets close, more than a few lambs disappear and end up on every menu in the region.
Armadillo. The little buggers are fast!
It's hard to see, but at the bottom of this photo are flamingos and sheep hanging out together.
In Patagonia Park is herds of curious guanacos are frequently seen galloping free. Farther south, near Torres del Paine, though, it’s not uncommon to see guanaco carcasses splayed over fences; barbed wire splits habitats and prevents migration, with animals often becoming entangled as they try to leap over an enclosure. It doesn’t take long to realise there are no fences in Patagonia Park.
Patagonia Park has been open since 2014 but is not yet finished, so we camped mostly alone in the campgrounds. We had sunny skies and blissfully little wind. We visited the small cemetery where Doug is buried and had lunch at the swanky lodge restaurant. During the day, we went out for hikes, high onto the steppe plateaus.
Janice and Gregor brought us back a water filter from Canada. Instead of hoisting four 20 gallon bottles into the tank we now do this...an IV water drip. We can now fill up in faucets, streams, rivers, and lakes. I wish had found this before we left. Water independence is huge!
Guanacos joined us for morning coffee.
Our second camp spot in the park along the Chacabuco River, Stone House Campground
Our hike crossed the river and then headed up onto the plateaus.
Finally up on the steppe plateau. The valley floor is behind.
After a little more than a week, we reluctantly headed out of the park. To fully explore Patagonia is to criss cross back and forth between the two countries. So, we hit the road toward Argentina...again.