10 Important Lessons for the End of the World
Patagonia is probably the most "off the beaten path" place we have been yet. Its remote location, minimal tourism infrastructure, and the language barrier all combine to make for a challenging, yet rewarding experience. And while Andrew and I manage to travel around the world, I will be the first to admit that I can be rather forgetful, Andrew is sometimes oblivious, and we both have an awful sense of direction---which makes for some pretty interesting stories! However, as any traveler knows, the more you venture outside of your comfort zone, the more likely you are to find yourself in exciting, awe-inspiring, and sometimes unpredictable situations. Therefore, for your knowledge and enjoyment (and my parents' anxiety), here are 10 of our most memorable adventures, misadventures, and discoveries during our time in Patagonia.
1. This place is remote. Like--really remote.
Since we don't own smartphones, traveling internationally in remote areas is always a gamble since we have no means of communication. Patagonia has an average of 1.5 people per square kilometer, which means that when you drive from one "major" town to the next, chances are you won't see a single person, gas station, diner, or house. Which would equal bad news if we ever broke down on the side of the road. Therefore, we filled our gas tank at every opportunity since destinations were almost three hours apart. However, we quickly discovered that we could not always rely on fuel availability. Locals provided directions using gas stations as landmarks, and even let us know which gas stations no longer existed (but were still notated on our map) or were habitually out of gas. And lo and behold, when we arrived in El Chalten (population: 1,000), we found the single-pump gas station empty. The two attendants explained there wouldn't be any more until the next day, when the truck arrived at 8:00am. So we found a place to stay for the night, and drove back to the gas station bright and early to fill up...only to discover a line of vehicles snaking their way down the street. This happened throughout our time in the region. With gas stations so far apart, the trucks only deliver gas a couple times a week, meaning long lines for gas is commonplace. So we just took it in stride, pulled out a book (me) and headphones (Andrew) and enjoyed the views as we waited for the gas truck to arrive. It arrived two hours late and took an hour to wait our turn, but you learn to be patient when you are at the end of the world.
The Argentinian "Pampa" was particularly desolate.
2. No Money, Mo' Problems
If you go to Patagonia, please listen to this advice---bring cash. I read this nugget of wisdom multiple times during my pre-trip research, but for some reason, I still did not heed the warnings. After a long day of driving, we arrived starving in El Calafate, ready for dinner. However, we quickly realized most places did not accept credit cards. Luckily for us, there were a whopping five ATMs located in the town! The first machine we approached seemed to be out of service (it was hard to tell, because it was all written in Spanish), so we moved to the next machine, which promptly denied our request. After we tried a third machine, it slowly dawned on us that all of the machines were out of money. As were the machines at the next ATM location...and the next...It turned out the whole town was out of cash, another normal occurrence. We luckily found one restaurant that accepted credit, so we didn't go hungry, but hunting for money became a recurring theme during our trip, and actually prevented us from later crossing into Tierra del Fuego. While traveling, you have to make the most out of every situation, so when we went to the ATM, we pretended we were in a casino. If the ATM granted us money, we jumped and hollered as though we had won a game of slots, much to the confusion of the Patagonian locals.
Who needs money when you have views like this?
3. The Patagonian Wind can literally blow you away.
Ok, well maybe not literally, but one thing we were unilaterally warned about was the intensity of the infamous "Patagonian Wind". It can reach speeds of up to 120mph! We were even briefed how to correctly open our car door, lest the wind grab it from our hands and dent the sides. There were also a multitude of warning signs for unwitting tourists (see below photo). And even though we visited during the summer season, we wore winter gear for a majority of our trip.
4. You have to pack "the bare necessities"
As in, bring your own toilet paper, hand sanitizer, peanut butter, plastic bags...you get the idea. When I visited the first rest stop bathroom, I thought the lack of TP was a fluke, but when I started to notice a pattern, I knew we weren't in Kansas anymore. And flushing your TP was out of the question--it was all supposed to be thrown in the garbage. We also noticed a lack of available soap dispensers in most bathrooms (thank goodness we came prepared with baby wipes!). So I would recommend brining your own TP and hand sanitizer. On a less "necessary note," (if you consider peanutty-goodness unnecessary), it was very difficult to find peanut butter at any grocery we searched. Considering PB&Js are delicious and filling, this was a bit of a bummer. On the other hand, grocery stores also didn't carry plastic bags. Customers brought their own reusable bags, or were provided with re-utilized cardboard boxes. An environmental win! We also didn't pass a single McDonald's or any other fast food restaurant. Overall, the trip served as a stark contrast to the immediacy and ultra-convenience of the US.
5. An unplanned detour may turn into a great adventure
Our trip to El Chalten was completely unplanned. We booked a last minute glacier hike in "the next town over" and had three days to kill, so we drove to El Chalten, a small town of 1,000 situated inside Los Glacieres National Park, Argentina. We had not originally intended on driving so far north, but we are so glad we changed our plans! El Chalten is truly a haven for trekkers, adventurers, and campers. Every person you see is shouldering a huge backpack or wearing hiking shoes (or more likely, both). During the summer months the town's sole purpose is to support tourism in "the Trekking capital" until the winter months render it uninhabitable. It was so different from our typical idea of a National Park, where there are strict visiting hours or guided tours. The entire population of 1,000 all live, work, and play within and for the benefit of the park. There was a ranger station, restaurants, hostels, and even a school! One of our servers told us that she lives in the town during the tourist season, and then relocates to Buenos Aires for the remainder of the year, when the entire town shuts down.
The small town of El Chalten at the base of Mount Fitzroy.
The town was absolutely gorgeous, and we couldn't believe we had almost missed it! We went out for drinks one night at an "American" themed bar (complete with beer, burgers, and top 40s music), and spent the evening chatting and drinking with travelers from America, Germany, and Israel until the sun went down. The slower pace in Patagonia definitely encouraged us to go with the flow and I am so glad we decided to make the detour to this picturesque town!
A freezing summer evening sipping drinks with some new friends from Germany. Also, please note that this photo was taken at 11:00 at night.
6. Enjoy Patagonia from sun-up to sun-down
The sun never sets on a Patagonian adventure! Well, it kind of does--but only between the hours of 12am-4am. Since Patagonia is at the bottom of the world, and we were visiting during their summer (early January), the sun did not fully set until almost midnight! It was pretty incredible and made for some very long days---there is no incentive to stop hiking (or sleep!) if the sun is still in the sky!
7. Keep your receipts--especially if they were handed to you at customs Here is where our forgetfulness and absentmindedness comes into play. When we crossed the border from Chile into Argentina, we stopped at a small customs office where I confidently handed over our passports and rental van documents to the customs officer. The agent didn't speak any English, and it took me a while to understand that he required an additional clearance document we supposedly received at the Chilean airport. Panic-stricken, I wracked my brain for any recollection of this small, seemingly insignificant piece of paper ever entering my hand. Andrew vaguely recalled receiving the paper, but I was positive I must have thrown it away, because it didn't look official at all (it literally resembled a receipt you might get from a convenience store). Andrew ran out to the van to search its contents and I began to re-plan our entire itinerary in my mind, certain that we were not entering Argentina. Minutes passed and my attempts at small talk fell flat. Clearly, this agent was not amused by our apparent ineptitude. Finally, Andrew returned with the receipt that I had absent-mindedly stuck into a folder. Relief flooded me, until the agent cooly informed us that each of us should have a receipt. Deflated (and certain that there was a better snowball's chance in hell that we could locate a second receipt), Andrew turned back around to search again. This time, I remained silent while I waited, aware that the office was supposed to close in fifteen minutes. Miraculously, ten minutes later Andrew returned triumphantly, having found the other receipt at the bottom of our garbage bag. We completed our forms, waited as our vehicle was thoroughly searched, and were happily on our way to Argentina. Lesson learned---always pay attention to what they hand you at the airport and NEVER throw anything away!
8. Watch out for guanacos, llamas, and alpacas, oh my!
Yes, they are all different, and yes, they were all in Patagonia. Much like sheep in Iceland, wallabies in Australia, or deer in New England, guanacos are prolific in Patagonia.
Andrew loves guanacos. Here, he tries to hug one.
9. Not all campsites are created equal
After our late night border crossing from Chile into Argentina, we were desperate to find a place to camp for the night before the sun set. After driving for miles, we began to get a little worried. Luckily, we found a sign for a campsite as the sun dipped behind the mountains. We breathed a sigh of relief as we pulled into the entrance and saw RVs and trucks surrounding campfires across a river (and thank goodness, what looked like a bathroom facility!). However, we couldn't find a way to get our van across the water. All we found was a small footbridge. We drove around looking for a way to cross, but finally gave up and decided to park near the entrance to wait until morning. The campers across the way partied late into the night, and the music kept us up for hours, but we finally fell into a fitfull and uncomfortable sleep. Around 7:00am the next morning, I had to go across the way and use the facilities, so I left Andrew snug in his sleeping bag and nervously crossed the rickety, swaying bridge to the campsite...only to find it absolutely deserted. No cars, no tents...nothing. I couldn't imagine why everyone would have collectively woken up and left so early without a trace. I looked to see where the cars would have crossed in the night, but could find no way for a vehicle to get out. It seemed like the campsite had been fenced off. Finally going to the restroom, I quickly discovered that they had not been in use for quite some time--they were dirty and had no running water at all (and no TP or soap, of course). I confusedly went back to the camper and told Andrew that I thought the campsite had actually been abandoned for some time. By the light of day, it definitely didn't look like a functioning campsite, with the check in booth boarded up and dilapidated...and I didn't know where all the people had gone. Now, I'm not saying the campsite was haunted...but I'm not saying it wasn't haunted. We both eagerly agreed that it was time to leave and we still think it was our strangest night in Patagonia.
10. Take time to stop and hike the glaciers
Argentina's Perito Moreno Glacier is 100 square miles and one of the only three glaciers in the world that is not receding, growing at a rate of seven feet per day. It is also the third largest source of fresh water in the world. Every day, groups of eager tourists strap on crampons to hike on the glacier, admiring its pristine blue color. During our trip, we happily joined that number, hiking between the intense blue fissures. The tour ended with whiskey on the rocks---that we watched our guide hack right from the glacier with a pick axe. My favorite part of the day was sitting on an observation deck, watching the glacier as huge chunks of ice broke off and fell into the water (Andrew's favorite part was when I didn't finish my drink, so he became the happy recipient of two drinks on the rocks). The fall was preceded by a sound of rumbling thunder before a sharp crack heralded the crash of ice. It happened multiple times while we watched in awe, amazed by the raw power of nature.
Our time in Patagonia was definitely magical, but it came with its fair share of quirks. However, for me, this is one of the joys of traveling. You are swept away into unfamiliar situations and you have to be flexible, patient, and resourceful. In life, I think this is a muscle that is not flexed nearly enough. In Patagonia, we were without electronics, cell phones, and oftentimes electricity (oh, and toilet paper), yet found our way through two countries, using our Spanish skills (which were rusty, but better than I would have thought!), navigating by old fashioned map, and talking to local people for recommendations and advice. This meant we had an experience that was uniquely ours and uniquely Patagonian.
Honorable Mention: Our Trusty Campervan
Our method of transportation was a highlight of our trip for a number of reasons. It was such an experience that it actually gets its own blog post. Stay tuned!