When you mention Patagonia, the first thought that goes through most people’s minds is the mountains of the Andes. If they do think about the east, it is just as a huge windy desert. If that is what comes to your mind, then you are only partially right…
“Charles Darwin found [the Patagonian desert’s] negative qualities irresistible. In summing up The Voyage of the Beagle, he tried, unsuccessfully, to explain why, more than any of the wonders he had seen, these ‘arid wastes’ had taken such firm possession of his mind.
In the 1860s, W. H. Hudson came to [Patagonia]… Hudson devotes a whole chapter of Idle Days in Patagonia to answering Mr Darwin’s question, and he concludes that desert wanderers discover in themselves a primeval calmness…”
from Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia
It is windy (we have had strong winds – 20 plus knots – almost all the time in we have been in Patagonia) but, contrary to our expectation that we would drive down the “arid wastes” of the east side of Patagonia to Ushuaia quickly with mostly day after day of long drives, we spent much more time than expected taking in the breath-taking beauty of the coast and the coastal wildlife.
Most of the driving is down ‘Ruta 3’ (which spans 3079km from Buenas Aires to Ushuaia, pronounced “Us-why-a”). Coming down from Cordoba, we joined the Ruta 3, already in Patagonia (the entry to which was marked by the outside of the van being sprayed with insecticide), near Las Grutas, on the coast, which was where we first really felt the wind and the resulting dust. We had motored through the “Pampas” from Cordoba down to the coast quite quickly, as I was due to talk to some researchers at CENPAT (Centro Nacional Patagónico) in Puerto Madryn about my work in Oxford before they closed for Christmas, giving us a deadline to meet.
Puerto Madryn is the gateway to the Peninsula Valdes, which is the principal place to go whale watching on the Argentinian coast. We were too late for the whales but we did manage to see our first penguins on a wet morning when one popped it’s head up over the cliff edge in front of the van whilst we were having a wet breakfast picnic in true British beach style in the cab of the van! A memorable moment! Further wildlife action included some Elephant Seals and a brilliant dive with Sea Lions in 14°C water (thanks to the excellent Scuba Duba, who looked after us extremely well).
Continuing down the coast, we came to Punta Tombo, which has a huge colony of penguins. The penguins on the mainland Argentina are mostly Megallanic Penguins, who nest in holes in the ground and aren’t found anywhere near snow – it is quite strange to see Guanacos (wild llamas) and Rheas wandering around the penguin colonies. There are two things that are really hit you when you see penguin colonies like this – the noise and the smell, both of which are obvious from quite a distance away. We were also lucky enough to see a female Southern Wright whale and her calf, a little late in their journey south, playing near the coast in the bay.
Christmas on the road for us was something that just happened when it did. We weren’t sure where we would be for the day itself, but getting a puncture on the way into Camarones, a sleepy fishing village, on Christmas Eve settled it. We weren’t happy to drive on without a spare (which was now on the van) and everything, including the Gomerias (the magic tyre repair shops), were shutting for the fiesta. So we figured we’d stay. And here we had another bit of “overlanders luck”, because it turned out that Camarones had a lovely campsite right on the shore, that was open (not always guaranteed), with 24 hot water (a rarity) and wifi (well, sometimes). Then we needed to find some food… and after a little driving around we found the only shop, which looked worrying small from the outside for stocking up for Christmas, but turned out to be tardis-like when we went in, stretching back and back to a good Carneceria (meat shop) and Verduria (vegetables) and one of the best selections of alcohol we’d seen for awhile! Result! While waiting for the tyre to be repaired on Boxing Day, we drove out to visit the nearby penguin colony and pretty much had the place to ourselves.
New Years Eve was a similar experience, as we drove into San Julian mid-afternoon, simply because that was where we had got to, hoping to find an open shop. Again, we found good supplies (including our favourite bottle of wine so far, a lovely white sparkler from northern Patagonia) and this time a campsite that had both good services and was busy and friendly. We huddled down in the van (it was cold and windy, as usual) and set ourselves up for a party night for two in the van, but at around 11.30pm we were invited to see New Year in with a German couple who had just put their kids to bed, in their big motorhome. Another bottle (or two) later, we stumbled back to our home…
We nearly drove past Puerto Deseado but, once there, ended up staying for three days, visiting Cabo Blanco to see a breeding colony of Southern Fur Seals (which look very, very similar to sea lions – we’re still not 100% sure) and going on boat trips up the Ria (a 4km long estuary surrounded by protected park) and to the nearby coastal Isla de los Pinguinos. These were great places to see the beautiful Grey Cormorants (along with 3 other species of cormorants) and our second species of penguin – the funky looking Rock Hopper. Roxanne at Darwin Expediciones looked after us very well. We even managed a very rare, albeit somewhat distant, sighting of Orcas, as well as lots of dolphins. She also told us about a nest of owls in a small gorge in the park, which we found had four chicks in it, overlooked by an attentive mother, which entranced us for sometime. To cap it off, we even discovered that there is a small amount of developed rock climbing there as well, albeit on slightly crumbly volcanic rock.
The rest of the journey south was penguin free for us (we were starting to be rather penguined out!), although the further south you go, the more guanacos and rheas you see on the main roads, probably because of the extremely low population density and general lack of traffic on the roads.
There were plenty of great places to wild camp, especially on the coast, where we could enjoy the long drawn out sunsets as we travelled further and further south. Finding places to park for the night was easy as Patagonia is so unpopulated and this meant that we only needed to find official campsites when we really felt like we needed a shower. One night we found ourselves on a beach next to a 100 year old shipwreck that had been used for target practice by the Argentinian Air Force in 1982 and another by a dramatic volcanic lake with a nesting colony of ibises. Other favoured spots included a beautifully located Estancia inland near an area of petrified forest (dramatic fossilised trees that have been re-exposed over time, which we managed to appreciate despite the deluge of rain that day). These camping spots culminated in a lovely site at Tolhuin in Tierra del Fuego by a lake from where we had our first proper sighting of the Andes after seeing our first trees for quite sometime earlier that day.
Tolhuin was also where stones and eggs were thrown at the Top Gear crew and, not realising that, we actually watched that episode whilst in Tolhuin having finally managed to download the programmes very slowly over several petrol station stops (all the petrol stations have wifi, usually functioning). Needless to say, Argentinians in general have been lovely and welcoming to us; it is obvious to us that the perpetrators of that debacle had been bussed in to make the most of a publicity opportunity for their campaign. The only mention of the episode we have had was a joke by the Argentinian Aduana (customs) officer at the border when we re-entered Argentina at San Sebastian after the obligatory short foray into Chile on the way down. On seeing our British V5C car registration document, he laughed, showed it to his colleague and said “like Top Gear, no?” – ha, ha, how we all laughed…
Oh, did I mention that apart from the great scenery and relative lack of people, that none of the supermarkets in Patagonia give out plastic bags – quite a contrast to the north where we have to fight to stop them giving us one for each item we bought! It does mean though that we have come close at times to running out of containers to serve as rubbish bins in the van.
And so we reached the southernmost point that the van will go (Ushuaia), although not the furthest south we have ventured this trip…
More pictures from this stage of our journey below (diving pictures by Scuba Duba). Click on any image to open the gallery in full size and see the captions.