Patagonian Express

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South America » Argentina » Santa Cruz » Río Gallegos
February 23rd 2010
Published: March 15th 2010
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So after the long road south, it was time to head north again and hopefully to the warmer weather! There is nowhere to go from Ushuaia but north. Our plan from here is to head north through Argentina up the coast to Puerto Madryn and then crossing the country to Bariloche and the lakes region, heading north again, up to Mendoza and finally crossing back into Chile around 14th or 15th March. Only 4 weeks of our big road trip left!

We expected to see Liz and Phil somewhere along the road on our way north through Tierra del Fuego, and sure enough, about 40kms north of a small town called Tolhuin, we saw them and their bikes stopped at the roadside having lunch. We pulled over and made them a cup of tea and offered choc-chip cookies purchased especially for the occasion. They had done really well in their first couple of days and were in great spirits. It was great to see them.

We pressed on and finished our day back at Rio Grande and back in the Hotel Villa again. The next day, we found a windscreen fixer, Dr Resin, but unfortunately we had to wait around until 3.30pm for the fix. So we had a leisurely morning and lunch in the hotel (the hotel staff probably wondered if we were ever going to leave - there is nothing in Rio Grande to keep tourists there!). Windscreen fixed, we were on the road again and headed north, aiming to get as far as possible to keep on schedule. We drove across Tierra del Fuego to the northern crossing point of the Magellan Straight at Bahia Azul. We arrived in the golden evening sunlight. We could see the other side of the channel, but the when we stepped out of the car, the wind was incredible and we could see nothing but white horses on the channel. We watched one transbordadora (vehicle ferry) come in sideways, give up and head further along the bay. After a short wait, we were boarded. It was a rough crossing, with the boat rolling from side to side and sea spray reaching the windscreen of the car!

Back on mainland South America again, we soon crossed back over the border to Chile at San Sebastian and then continued through Chile until the final Argentine border about 65 km south of Rio Gallegos. (Next time we leave Argentina will be the day we drive back to Santiago). As you approach Rio Gallegos in the dark, it looks just like a forest of lamp posts. There are no buildings higher than 2 storeys - and we found out why in the morning, when we stepped outside and could barely walk against the wind!

It was 10.30pm when we arrived, so we went into the first hotel we came to and asked for a room. It was really only somewhere to sleep for the night, but the Hotel Paris, would make Fawlty Towers look like the Ritz! It was so late, we didn’t even try to go out and find dinner. A lukewarm shower in the morning persuaded us to skip breakfast and head off to get an early start.

Again, we weren’t sure how far we would get that day, but if possible, we wanted to get right up north to Trelew, just under 1,200 kms from Rio Gallegos. We were travelling on route 3, which begins near Buenos Aires and finishes in Tierra del Fuego national park, over 3,000kms later, having crossed more vast stretches of desolate land, with no life but a few guanaco and foxes and the odd distant estancia.

As we left Rio Gallegos, the wind was incredible. By the end of the day we had had tail wind, cross wind and headwind (the wind in Patagonia is predominantly from the west and varies north-west or south-west). We had heard about these Patagonian winds, and had thought we’d seen windy already in Patagonia, but this was much stronger! You have to be careful when opening the car door, first that it isn’t ripped from your hands by the wind, and second that the contents of the car don’t get blown a mile down the road! You see motorcycles going along leaning at an angle of 45 degrees, and the huge trucks tail each other within a metre, to shield themselves from the wind. We can only imagine just how difficult it must be to cycle! Aside from the wind, the landscape is vast and barren - there are scrubby, thorny bushes, but no shade and no shelter and hundreds of kilometres between towns. This was definitely not somewhere we would choose to wild camp!

Around lunchtime, we took a brief detour into Puerto San Julian, to see what was there. We popped into a panaderia (bakery) for something to eat and drove down to the sea front, where we found the memorial plaza complete with fighter jet (see picture). We though we shouldn’t hang around here too long, so headed out of town again to the fuel station, intending to keep our habit of always fuelling when we have the chance, particularly when the distances between any sign of civilisation are so vast. However, there was no fuel in town, so we had to continue another 150kms to the next middle of nowhere village. (We’ve carried 20 litres spare in the boot the whole trip, so we weren’t too worried, but a serious fuel shortage could seriously curtail our plans!!)

Another few hundres kilometres and we came to a small town called Caleta Olivia, a small port town on the Atlantic coast. Most of the towns down here in Patagonia are there because of oil - either past or existing, and when the oil dries up, the towns become very rough and rundown. With such a pretty name, we expected something really nice, but as we approached the town, the hillsides were plastered in wind-blown rubbish and plastic bags. The sign post pointing to the campsite looked like it was pointing to the rubbish dump. There was clearly no reason to stop here!

The next town is Commodoro Rivadavia, which is a very big town, again there because of the oil and as we drove in, it looked pretty uninspiring. The only reason tourists stop here is to change buses and the beauty of having our own set of wheels is that we can decide where and when to stop. Although it was late in the day, we decided to push on the extra 380kms and get to Trelew, which put us a day ahead of schedule and once there, we would be able to stay around the area for a few days. We drove as the sun set across the vast plains and then drove on in the dark, which Sarah found rather nerve-wracking (and Steve was driving!) The roads are so long and straight for literally tens of kilomtres, with small ups and downs, but then suddenly there will be a corner and then another long straight. It is very hard in the dark on unlit roads to see where the road goes and how fast traffic is coming in the other direction, when wanting to overtake.

We finally arrived in Trelew, a town founded by welsh immigrants back in the late 1800’s/ early 1900’s and again found the first hotel we could. This was better than Hotel Paris, and we even managed to find a greasy parilla (grill restaurant) for some food. All they had left on the grill was one measly chorizo sausage each, accompanied by the leftovers at the salad bar and washed down with some cheap red wine. Not a great culinary experience!

We covered nearly 1200kms that day, having driven from the south of Santa Cruz province all the way to the north of Chubut province. But 12 hours on the road meant that we had passed a huge chunk of nothing and we could relax a bit for a few days.

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