Torres del Paine and Other Delights on a Road Trip
Driving Patagonia: A Very Southern Road Trip
By Julie Vick
Next, we completed the prior damage report: large chunk of exterior missing above the rear tire, slightly cracked windshield, and splattered black asphalt marks on the passenger side door.
Finally, our rental rep handed us the keys to the compact Chevy Corsa and said, “Be careful of the animals and the wind. You’ll have light until 11pm – have fun!”
As we drove away from the airport, I wondered what we had gotten ourselves into. Before leaving I had a vague picture of Patagonia as a rugged section of South America reserved only for the toughest climbers and adventurers, something I am not.
I grew up in Colorado and am no stranger to the outdoors, but a fear of heights keeps me out of climbing harnesses and crampons and I can be a baby about getting too cold.
Still, images of penguins and glaciers drew me to the area, and I knew I could handle a little adventure – so we booked a trip and rented a car to explore the area. While there were plenty of tours available, we liked the idea of being able to create our own itinerary.
Having our own wheels turned out to be a completely accessible adventure – many roads were paved and those that weren’t were still traversable without four-wheel drive. While I didn’t summit the rugged peaks of Patagonia – I did get impressive views.
View of the Perito Moreno Glacier from the catwalk Day 1: Perito Moreno Glacier
We had picked up our car in El Calafate, Argentina after flying down from Buenos Aires. Our first day we opted for an easy day trip to the Perito Moreno Glacier.
We investigated a few tour options ranging from boats to mini ice treks, but settled on just driving to the glacier ourselves. The half hour drive took us on a well-paved highway lined with open expanses and green-blue glacier lakes until we hit Los Glaciares National Park.
The 19 mile long ice-blue glacier set against the backdrop of rugged snow-capped mountains was mesmerizing. Truck-sized chunks of ice periodically slid into the adjoining lake and there was something satisfying about scanning the glacier – a fortress of solitude-like expanse of ice formations -- to catch a glimpse of the next calving section.
Even pieces that looked no bigger than an average snowball created rumbling echoes. The extensive system of catwalks surrounding the glacier was traversable in tennis shoes and allowed for viewing areas away from the crowds. Several tour buses arrived and departed as we stared at the glacier for hours -- I didn’t want to leave.
Day 2: El Calafate to El Chalten
Next we opted for a more ambitious day trip to El Chalten. The drive took about two and a half hours and the long January day allowed enough time to complete a hike and the roundtrip drive in the daylight. The two-lane highway was paved the entire way and we only encountered a few other cars on the road.
More impressively, we saw a few cyclists weighed down with overnight packs battling the strong Patagonian winds. It looked painful. I doubted they could make it to the next town before nightfall and food and bathroom options looked limited. As I watched one biker push his load uphill against the wind I crossed “Patagonian bike trip” off my list of future travel itineraries.
In El Chalten we were greeted by a small town with a Wild West ends-of-the-earth type feel. The dusty streets held small hotels, cafes and the occasional tumbleweed. We had sandwiches in a friendly café before heading out on a hike the visitor’s center had suggested -- “Mirador Fitz Roy.”
After all the wind on the drive I was worried we were in for a blustery walk, but it was calm. A hiker we passed on the trail said the previous days had been rainy so we caught a lucky break to have sunny skies that allowed for a great view of Fitz Roy.
A traffic jam of guanacos on the windy road. When I read Enduring Patagonia a few months later I realized just how temperamental the weather in the region could be as some climbers spent weeks waiting for a clear opening. I also realized I will never be an extreme climber.
Day 3: El Calafate to Torres del Paine
With a couple short drives under our belt we geared up for the big one – driving across the border from Argentina to Chile’s Torres del Paine national park. Before the trip we had figured out that the drive was possible, but were fuzzy on the details. We debated trying to bring a GPS but the coverage maps looked spotty (as did cell phone coverage).
I was worried we needed a four-wheel drive vehicle to do it, but our compact car had paperwork showing it had successfully made it across the border before. Our rental car company (Hertz) provided us with the paperwork necessary to get the car across the border and advice on the route. They also provided us with an important piece of advice, “Get gas when you can.”
On the trail of our Mirador Fitz Roy Hike. We woke early in the morning to embark on the trip but when we went to the gas station near our hotel they had no gas. So we drove to the only other station in town and heard the same news – no gas until 5 pm.
We had heard the trip might take around 5 hours but didn’t want to push our luck with arriving in the park too late, so we returned to the Hertz office to ask their advice.
We had a half a tank of gas which was enough to get us to the next town – Esperanza (fittingly, “hope” in Spanish) – but didn’t know whether they would have gas. Our Hertz rep called ahead and confirmed they did, so we got in the car and a few hours later had a full tank of gas.
We crossed the border at Cancha Carrera since it was closer than the border crossing at Rio Turbio that most tour groups seemed to use. The downside was it was also less frequented and a bit more confusing.
A small building was bustling with travelers coming in and out of Argentina, and after some exchanges in my rusty Spanish we figured out that we needed to show our passports at one window and our car documents at another.
Bridge crossing on the Mirador Torres trail. After the
Argentine office, we drove a few more miles across the border and did the same paperwork routine at the Chilean office. Thankfully, the Chilean office’s process was clearer (and that they had the first public bathroom I’d seen in miles).
It took us about eight hours including the border crossings to make it to our hotel in Torres del Paine (we were able to shave it down to six hours on the way back). We stayed at Hotel Pehoe – a rustic place with an assigned-seating dining room that felt a bit like the summer camp setting in Dirty Dancing, but our table had unbeatable views of the surrounding mountains and glacier lake.
We had initially thought about staying in one of the dome tents at the nearby Pehoe campground, but that night as I listened to the wind howl against the walls of our room I was glad we had opted for more solid walls.
Day 4-6: Torres del Paine
After hearing the wind all night I was a little leery to hike the next day – but set out for the Mirador Torres trail just the same. About an hour’s drive on washboard dirt roads brought us to the trailhead near the Las Torres hotel, another popular place to stay. The wind had died down a bit and the trail was fairly busy so we headed up toward the lookout.
After an initial climb, the trail ahead of us wrapped around the mountain and I couldn’t see where it led next. The wind whipped up and there was a steep drop on one side with no rails. I paused for a moment to consider whether I really wanted to keep going. Seeing my concern, Dave offered to run ahead to peek around the corner.
“It is pretty exposed on that corner but once we get around it’s more protected,” he reported.
I tentatively agreed to continue, staying as far from the edge as possible as I inched around the corner. On the other side I started to feel like a baby when we saw a couple families with young kids who were traversing the same trail, and then I saw an actual baby. An American couple was Bjorning a baby back down the mountain and the child didn’t seem to be too happy about it. I wasn’t sure if I should be impressed or concerned, so I just pushed on.
We made it up to Campamento Torres which had a nice view of the jagged tooth-like Torres del Paine mountains, but we stopped short of the top lookout since the weather looked like it was rolling in (and Into Thin Air had long ago convinced me of the importance of a turnaround time).
We rounded out our trip with a ferry ride and hike the next day and after another night in our cozy summer camp lodge we made our way back to El Calafate to round out our Patagonian adventure.
When to Go:
We visited in January, which meant more people because of the high season but also meant more daylight allowing for longer drives. We had light from around 6am to 11pm, which allowed us to pack a lot more into one day.
• El Calafate: Linda Vista Apart Hotel ($130/night in high season)
• Torres del Paine: ($215/night including breakfast in high season)
Maps: One challenge of not taking a tour was finding maps. We got a basic road map of the Argentine area from the gas station in El Calafate, and then picked up a map of Torres del Paine from the visitor center on the way into the park.