Heading North - Punta Arenas to El Calafate

Heading North - Punta Arenas to El Calafate

February 28, 2015

Punta Arenas is one of the largest cities in Patagonia. It was historically established as a strategic military stronghold over the surrounding waters. The port grew in size and eventually a free zone was established; this can mean a few things but to us it meant tax free shopping. We needed to service the motorbikes and hoped we could get the parts and materials we needed in the free zone at a reasonable price.

Michelle and Brian were already settled in to Hospedaje Independencia when we arrived. It was really cheap accommodation by Chile standards, made even cheaper for us because we camped in the yard along with a bunch of other campers. Brian was well under way servicing his and Michelle's motorbikes so was able to give us some tips on where to go shopping. We bought 6L of oil plus some other bits and pieces however we just couldn't bring ourselves to do the work. It was so cold there, even in the middle of the day, and we just aren't that tough so decided to put it off until warmer climate and just enjoy a few days with our friends.

Austral Beer was a drink we had become accustomed to drinking and the brewery was only a short walk from our hostel so the four of us set off with some stubbies in hand hoping to hop on the afternoon tour. Luck was against us on this occasion as the security guard informed us the brewery was closed with key staff out of town. Doh! Well it was a pleasant walk and we had beer so the time wasn't completely wasted.

Camping in the cold was a big incentive for The Pack Track to move on from Punta Arenas so we said goodbye for now to Michelle and Brian after sharing a very early hot strawberry porridge together for breakfast.

Our next destination was El Calafate to see a glacier up close and personal. El Calafate is back in Argentina about 500km away but we were told the roads were good so planned to do it in one day. There was a 80km section towards the end which is the original Ruta 40 and turned out to be very unpleasant riding on gravel and rocks. But that didn't really delay us too much, just wore us out. Our two major delays which resulted in a 9pm arrival in El Calafate, were the border crossing from Chile to Argentina and a stop in Puerto Natales. We stopped in Puerto Natales for lunch and to get some information on the Navimag Ferry that could possibly take us from Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt and save us potentially 1800km. We ate lunch while waiting for the Navimag office to open but it was worth the wait as we were able to book a private room on the ferry, a kennel for Negrita and parking for the motorbikes for a total of US$1500.

It was 4pm when we finished at the Navimag office and normally at this point in the day we would stop riding and find accommodation. We had 250km to El Calafate but a friend and fellow traveller from Ushuaia, Jenie, had helped us organise accommodation in El Calafate through www.couchsurfing.com. Jenie had been in El Calafate a few nights staying in the home of Eduardo and his gorgeous dog, Blanquita. Jenie told Eduardo about us and he happily accepted us for a few nights saving us a lot of money and hassles. It was embarrassing when we arrived in El Calafate so late (8:30pm) and then couldn't find his home. We had to find wifi and contact him to get  more instructions which honestly we may not have needed if it had been daylight and we could see things and weren't so tired. We were so happy to finally get to his house that we cracked a bottle of wine to relax and chat before hitting the sack.

We had two fantastic days in El Calafate. Our first day we spent with Jenie who was leaving in the afternoon. She showed us around town, we had tea, wine, pizza and ice cream and she helped us book our glacier tour for the next day. Jenie is a really interesting person with a kind heart. She had incorporated two art residencies into her South American travel. You can read her blog at www.learningtosee.jenie.org/category/travelingstories and see her amazing art. We said goodbye but hope to see her when we get around to riding the USA.

Yay, glacier day!!! To say we were excited is an understatement. We booked the Perito Moreno mini trek for 920 Pesos/person. We saved some money by riding 2-up to the National Park (entry 215 Pesos/person) rather than getting collected by the tour operator. Our tour started at 1pm so we gave ourselves plenty of time to ride, stop for photos and have a picnic lunch. There is a large parking area adjacent to where the boats depart. Its a really pretty lake and the boat trip to the glacier is short with everyone trying to take photo's out of the glass windows. What you don't realise is that by the end of the tour you have hundreds of better photos later on. When we got off the boat our guide, English speaking for us, met us and guided us along a series of board walks to the base of the glacier where we received a short presentation on the science and geology of the glacier.

The glacier is compacted ice so its very slippery, you can't just walk on it in shoes. The tour company provides crampons which are fitted and strapped by staff on site. The crampons work really well on the ice but take a little getting used to along with a little technique for up and downhill.  Before we knew it we were all walking confidently over the glacier, taking photos and checking out all the pretty colours, shapes, holes and cracks with water. It was the middle of the day but surprisingly warm on the glacier, especially when moving. But just in case you got a chill on the ice, at the end of the trek you get a shot of whiskey with glacier ice and a dulce de leche sweet. What a great day out that we finished over a home cooked dinner with Eduardo and Blanquita.

The day we left El Calafate was 28 February and our one year travel anniversary. What better way to spend it than riding. We said a very warm goodbye to Eduardo and Blanquita who we were so grateful to for looking after us. It was 250 km on Ruta 40 to Cerro Castillo and we were back to camping in a hostel yard so we could ride out to the famous Torres del Paine national park the next day for an enjoyable but wet hike.


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