On this leg of the journey we have really taken advantage of the camper and got off the gringo trail. It’s been a bit of an adventure, driving on dirt roads that don’t even feature on maps and getting lost in beautiful places we never imagined we would see.
After Bariloche we headed towards the East Coast of Argentina in search of wildlife but not before seeking out a taste of Wales. Trevelin is a small Welsh settlement in Argentina that cropped up during the late 19th century when 50 Welsh families moved there with the objective of preserving their traditions, language and religion. Disappointingly we did not find any distinctly Welsh people or houses, as we had expected, but we did find a Welsh tea house. Having afternoon tea in the middle of sunny Argentina was somewhat surreal but very tasty. With unlimited tea, scones, cake, and of course, Bara Brith it was a great little taste of home. Other than that the town was rather sleepy so we headed onwards.
After too many hours of driving and light fading fast we were under pressure to find somewhere to set up for the night. However this was easier said than done, we were driving on what seemed to be the longest, straightest road in one of the flattest and most remote places in the world. Just as we were thinking we would have to drive through the night (not advisable here due to the amount of animals – Rheas (small Ostriches), Guanacos (Llama family) and Cows) we found hope. We came across a banged up petrol station reminiscent of a scene from the Hills Have Eyes. To add to the appeal of our potential home for the night, it sounded like the owners pet Rottweiler’s took a disliking to our presence and as we entered the door made an eerie creak like you’d imagine it would in a scary movie. However, needs must, we continued through to ask if it would be OK for us to park up for the night. We were greeted by a 10 or so year old girl and her mum who seemed to be genuinely shocked at our arrival. After some questionable Spanish we got across that we wanted to park there for the night, they said that was fine and we bought a few supplies off them for their hospitality. We then got on with making dinner in the van and contemplating whether we would make it through the night….
We survived but headed off early just in case they were the type of serial killers who preferred to ‘hunt’ in the morning. After miles of dirt roads and viewing more squished animals than we have live animals in England we arrived at Peninsula Valdes. Peninsula Valdes is a national park home to sea lions, elephant seals, penguins, armadillos, rheas, guanacos, and much more. Our first sighting was sea lions. Well actually we heard them before we saw them. It was breading and mating season meaning adult males were roaring to protect their harems (around 2-6 ladies) from adolescents with no harem of their own. When we walked down to the viewing platform we got a glimpse of the action; huge manned sea lions were fighting each other, sometimes drawing blood, to protect their patch. On top of this adult women were giving birth to grub like pups who were having to dodge the fighting males almost before they had a chance to open their eyes. It was quite a spectacle. It was also our first experience of Patagonian wind and with this came the realisation we would have to be saying goodbye to the shorts and flip flops ready for the even more windy and much colder Southern Patagonia. We admired the scene until it felt like we may loss our extremities and then parked up for the night by some sand dunes overlooking the sea.
The next day was spent on a mini self-drive safari of the peninsula. We found a nesting area for Magellanic Penguins and their chicks but, with many more penguins to come, we moved on in search of Elephant Seals. We found them in no time but only young females which meant we missed out on seeing an iconic male with the long trunk that gives them their name. We were told that the males and adult females live out at sea during January. The young females were also pretty inactive, mostly sleeping, due to recently returning from a long migration. That being said the sheer size of them was extremely impressive. They were residing next to a large group of sea lions and must have been twice as big as the males. This gave an idea of just how huge male elephant seals must be as they are 3x as big as the females. An adult male weighs an average of 4 tonnes- gutted we didn’t get a glimpse. We then went to another, larger sea lion colony, much like the first, it was all kicking off.
The drive was made even more enjoyable by the numerous animals we saw going to and from the main highlights. We saw guanacos, rheas, hares, foxes and, the best out of the lot, armadillos. We decided they look like enormous woodlouse. They were adorable, one came to join us for a spot of lunch. These animals however also proved a hazard; they had no sense of road safety, it was almost like they wanted to be a pavement pizza.
These dare devil animals kept Mike alert on route to our next stop, Punta Tombo. With no suitable camping spot insight we had no choice but to make our way through winding dirt roads in the dwindling light. Along the way we did see one of the most amazing sunsets ever, the colours in the sky changing every time we stopped to take a picture. We arrived in the pitch black but as soon as we got out of the car decided it was a good call; we could hear thousands of penguins making their donkey like calls and the waves crashing over the dunes beyond.
In the morning we were up early excited about the day ahead. We got our first glimpse of the penguins at 8am, with no other visitors to the national park for another 2 hours, we had the place to ourselves – perks of sleeping in carparks! Punto Tombo is the largest colony of penguins outside of Antarctica. Numbers can reach up to 1 million at its peak which happened to coincide nicely with our visit. The park is also one of the only places in the world where you can walk through the penguins nesting area giving you an up close experience- there were actually signs informing you to give way to penguins! The photos sum up the experience better than we can but highlights included seeing a mum feeding her two fluffy chicks, couples courting and viewing a mass exodus to the beach for a midday dip and bathe. It was great to see how the penguins go from a clumsy waddle on land to effortlessly gliding through the water. As we were leaving the majority of other visitors were turning up, their experience won’t have been the same as ours though. With all the penguins cooling of in the sea and chicks deep in their nests keeping cool (unable yet to get their fluffy feathers wet) it would have sucked to be them. We hauled arse towards Chile and stopped for the night at another beautiful lake.
Today we got spectacularly lost- it had to happen once! We headed out in search of a tourist attraction called Cueva de los Marmol (Marble Caves) which trip advisor informed us could be accessed through a place called Rio Ibanez in Chile. Unfortunately our Sat Nav did not have this as a destination offering Puerto Ibanez as an alternative – how far away could the two be? We happily hit the road but soon all idea of getting to our destination before dinner were quashed. At the world’s most inefficient border crossing we first had a man pretend to look at our car documents for an hour before passing us on to window two, who still had no clue in which direction we were travelling. Finally, after randomly stamping bits of paper, they ushered us to window three where we were greeted by what can only be described as a mountain troll, similar in both brains and brawl. He began in exactly the same manner as window one, pretending to read our documents, although this guy even held them upside down, barely being able to grip the tiny pieces of paper in his club hands. After all this rigmarole he followed us to the car, opened one door and said we were good to go- this is definitely the border to smuggle if you’re in that trade. We then hit the seriously bumpy, seriously windy but amazingly beautiful Carreta Austral- stag and all. When we arrived at Puerto Ibanez the town was very sleepy and there seemed to be no signs of anyone offering tours of the caves so we asked a local. They gave us the standard confused look but this time it was not due to our bad Spanish. They informed us that we had detoured an hour away from Rio Ibanez, our original destination and, although tours can be accessed form there the main tourist hub and closest area to the caves was another 3 hours away from there at a place called Rio Traquillo. Given that it was late and we had been driving for hours we decided that Puerto Ibanez was a nice enough place to stay for the night. We parked up next to the lake where Grace had a naked and very cold wash (the place was deserted) before dinner and a very comfy night’s sleep.
Yet again it wasn’t a straight forward journey to the Marble Caves. The drive was amazing again, following the Grande General Lake that straddles both Chile and Argentina most of the way. However this time some areas of the road were a bit tight, it’s at these narrow points the last thing you want to see is a 3 tonne truck hurtling towards you. Sadly this is exactly what happened, with no other choice we had to ditch the van. We swung a right into the gravel trap at the side of the road, stopping a bit too close to the steep drop for comfort. Luckily Toady was okay but despite our best efforts we failed to dig him out. Thankfully some kind locals in 4X4’s offered us a tow out, with 8 people pushing we finally managed to get free however not before snapping their tow rope, oops!
At Rio Tranquillo we hit our next disaster, the day before we had breezed by the only town big enough on route to warrant an ATM leaving us with little more than shrapnel and useless Argentinian Pesos. To make matters worse this rustic town lacked the technology to allow card payments. Determined to see the Marble Caves after such an epic journey we whipped out some US Dollars and convinced an operator to take us. It was well worth it! The boat ride was super bumpy and mind numbingly cold but the caves themselves were insane. The crystal clear blue waters contrasted perfectly against the pristine white, smoothed surface of the marble – making for some unforgettable sights.
We left Rio Tranquillo, with hopefully enough petrol and provisions to get back to Argentina, following the Lake and it’s amazing winding mountain passes to our cliff top spot where we spent the night.
With caves on the agenda our next stop was Cueva de los Manos (cave of the hands). This is a cool archaeological site with Indigenous cave paintings, some dating back 7000 years ago. The most iconic of these paintings are negatives of these indigenous peoples hands; they would place their hands on the cave and blow paint through straws to create an imprint. All the family would do this so you can view all different sizes. The cave was set in a beautiful canyon which we had an amazing view of from the ‘carpark’ our guide was nice enough to let us stay in for the night.
On on to climb a glacier……………..