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The Drive North – RN3, Argentina

The drive north from Ushuaia, Argentina on RN3 was really just an exercise in keeping ourselves entertained.  3,094 kilometers to Buenos Aires in five days isn’t really that bad, but the straight roads, relentless headwinds, and never changing scenery meant we had to keep busy between gas stations and empty campgrounds.  We spent months driving south along the Andes, so it took some time to get used to flat plains and the epic sunsets through the driver-side window of the truck.

Our road trip Groundhog Day looked a lot like this: wake up at the empty campground (it was off season) or behind the YPF gas station (beside the truck drivers), fill up on fuel and coffee, and settle in for a long drive.  We had some audio books, so we started listening to the longest one we had, Shantaram, and drove north for hours and hours.  When the sun went down we found another campground or gas station and prepared to do the exact same thing the following day.

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The drive north along RN3 to Buenos Aires, Argentina is flat and straight with minimal traffic so Richard was a bit surprised when out of nowhere a red Land Cruiser with Montana plates that read “WEH8MUD” filled the sideview mirror.  Jeff and Monica?  We only knew these two through social media so it was crazy to see them in what felt like the middle of nowhere.

We pulled off the road and finally met with Overland The World… in the middle of nowhere Argentina on RN3. We stopped for a chat, then ate an impromptu lunch together, and before we knew it three whole hours had passed before it was time to part ways.  

Once again we shake our heads at how small this world is. We knew each other through other friends (and the power of the internets) but ended up meeting randomly at the bottom of South America.

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Magellanic Penguins

Ah, something else to break up the long day.  Penguins!  We stopped at the Punta Tombo Provincial Reserve in Chubut to see the largest colony of Magellanic Penguins in South America.

You can see thousands of penguins here and many of them will be an arms length away from you, but as the sign below says, don’t pet the penguins.

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Welsh Tea in Gaiman

The province of Chubut is home to the largest Welsh community outside of the UK.  During the 19th century many Welsh families emigrated to Patagonia after British officials attempted to restrict the use of their native language.  In the 1800s Argentina was very welcoming towards immigrants, especially those who agreed to live in the isolated land outside of Buenos Aires.  In 1865 a large group of 150 Welsh people sailed to South America, far from the influencing reach of the English.  The greatest concentration of remaining Welsh people and the hub of their culture can be found in Gaiman.

A large part of the Welsh culture are the tea houses.  Ty Gwyn is one of the oldest in the area so as we rolled into town, road weary and hungry, and knew this would be the most authentic place to stop and experience the “Welsh tea service.”

We were excited for tea and snacks, naively unaware of what was about to come.  A never ending pot of black tea, covered in a knitted cozy of course, was first to arrive.  Our tea with fresh milk was a perfect accompaniment to buttered fresh baked bread, biscuits and jam, and small cheese sandwiches.  This alone satisfied the road hunger and left us rubbing our protruding bellies.

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And then a couple of extra plates of desserts arrived.  What is happening?  Cream-filled chocolate cake, lemon tarts, apple pie, raspberry cream pie, blueberry scones, and some sort of Christmas cake finished up service.  We did our best to make our way through this gauntlet of desserts, put the remainder in our ARB fridge, and continued to enjoy those leftover desserts for two more days.

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Burrowing parrots

It became harder and harder to tear us away from RN3 to go and see anything.  As we motored north the pull of Buenos Aires became stronger and stronger.   The burrowing parrots at Balneario El Condor were only a half hour detour, but we were so focused on making progress that we almost didn’t stop here.  We realized that we were being dumb, so a quick u-turn and detour brought us to El Condor and one of  largest colonies of burrowing parrots.

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San Antonio de Areco

This is where shit stuff starts to get real.  After 12 months of travelling through South America it was time to clean out the truck and load it on a boat destined for Florida.  We stopped in the small town of San Antonio de Areco in the pouring rain and had to make a quick accommodation revision when the local campsite was not only closed, but completely flooded as well.  We found an inexpensive and completely empty B&B and started the lengthy process of cleaning out the truck.

All that hard work required sustenance and we found plenty of it in the form of picadas.  All of the local bars, cafes and restaurants served their own version of meat/cheese/bread on a platter.  We sampled these delicious spreads from every restaurant in walking distance.  After 3 days of indulging we were longing for a salad.

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Finally shipping day arrived.  We had contacted K-Line about their RORO (roll on, roll off) service from Buenos Aires to Jacksonville, Florida approximately a month before and had the drop off and shipping date pre-arranged.  Pablo gave us a time and contact person at the dock so all we had to do was show up.

The process in person was ridiculously easy compared to shipping from Colon-Panama.  We unbolted the small and easy to steal parts (just in case!), locked up everything else, signed a couple pieces of paper, handed off our key, grabbed our bags, and gave Little Red a couple of thank you pats on the hood before heading for our Buenos Aires apartment.

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So there we go, 48,800km over a total of about 18 months from Vancouver to Ushuaia, Argentina and a drive north along RN3 back up to Buenos Aires.

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Ushuaia, The Southernmost City in the World

Upon leaving Puerto Natales we realized that literally within several days we would arrive at the end of the road: Ushuaia, Argentina. Despite this fact, we still had close to 1,000 kilometers to go. A quick boat ride from Punta Delgada across the narrowest section of the Strait of Magellen placed us onto the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego, translated into English as “Land of Fire.” The name is derived from a Portuguese explorer by the name of Ferdinand Magellen, who was the first European to visit the archipelago in 1520.  He and many other Europeans saw fires on the shores as they passed by ship.  The fires were built by the indigenous inhabitants of the region called the Yaghans, who built the fires in order to keep warm in the frigid environment.

It sounds magical, doesn’t it? The Land of Fire!  Mostly northern Tierra del Fuego was kind of a (Richard wouldn’t let me use the word I wanted to here) place lacking in visual attractiveness . A barren wasteland stood before us with the wind whipping our jackets, hair, and the hats off our heads as we stopped at several border crossings along the way as the archipelago is split between Chile and Argentina. We spotted dozens of oil wells bobbing their steel arms into the ground, while flares lit up the sky.  Petroleum and natural gas extraction fuel (see what I did there?) the economic activity in northern region of the archipelago.

Our first stop was at Parque Pinguino Rey (King Penguin Park) to check out the… wait for it… a King Penguin colony! This would be our first real-life Happy Feet experience. The pinguinos were kind of far away from the viewpoint, which was fine, as we didn’t want to interfere with their peaceful existence. They were chatty little creatures, waving their necks back and forth as if spineless, crowing and cawing loudly. One thing I didn’t realize was that penguins actually lie down on the ground to sleep. Many were lying on their stomachs having a snooze while the tourists hovered behind a wooden fence attempting to zoom in and snap some shots. The babies were really cute, and were easy to spot with their thick, brown coats.

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After getting our fill of penguin watching and our noses running from the cold wind, we jumped back into the truck and continued south. It was late in the season and most of the campsites were shut down, so we spent the night in the parking lot of a nice YPF gas station in Tolhuin. The next morning we stopped by the popular neighbourhood bakery for some hot tea and baked treats. It is common for gas stations and bakeries to have a hot water dispensary (for a price, of course!) available to fill up maté cups while on the road.  Richard made sure to keep a full thermos vacuum insulated bottle at the ready for Nescafe on the go.

As we headed towards Ushuaia the landscape really started to improve. It became lush and green with lakes and wispy clouds. Little did we know that there is actually a pass on the road towards Ushuaia called Paso Garibaldi.  At the summit, bits of snow covered the ground, and the lenga trees changed from rust, copper and burnt orange to green.  A bit of interesting history here: the pass was built in 1956, and three days after the route opened a USA-licensed Jeep became the first successful vehicle to travel from Alaska to Ushuaia.  Cool.

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Before we knew it, we turned a corner on May 10, 2016 and the huge Ushuaia sign popped into our view.  We had seen dozens of photographs of this place, usually with couples and their rigs in front of it, with big grins on their faces.  There wasn’t really any build up for us, but more of a surprise when I saw the sign before expecting it.  Mostly what happened was that I shrieked, “Oh my god! There’s the sign!” and we pulled over to get some photographs.

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We headed through town to the end of the road sign and gasped, “17,848 kilometres to Alaska?! Are you serious!?”  We departed from Vancouver nearly three years earlier and meandered so much that we clocked a grand total of 45,755 kilometres.

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Free cookies from strangers for the win!

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We hadn’t heard too much about the town of Ushuaia from other travellers other than, “Oh, it isn’t that great.  There’s nothing special about it, just a town at the end of the world.”  Partially due to our low expectations we really enjoyed the town.  The snow-dusted peaks in the background were a surprise, as was the great scenery and street art.

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We popped in for a quick nosh and warm-up at the Ramos Generales Restaurant, enjoying the interesting decor and hot beverages.

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We visited the one-man run post office in Tierra Del Fuego National Park in order to send out some postcards from the ‘end of the world’ and to get our passports stamped.  Well, only my passport was stamped as Richard needed his last remaining page to get back through Chile and into Argentina when we made our final push north.  The old radiators inside the building warmed up our chilly bones due to the cold winds from the Beagle Channel, so we took our time inside picking out cards and smiling at the man running the place.  He had a great mustache.

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By the way, unbeknownst to us, you can obtain a Fin del Mundo stamp for free at the Visitor’s Centre in Ushuaia, but then you won’t get this cool sticker to go with it.

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We spent a couple of nights camping in Parque Nacional Tierra Del Fuego, close to a beautiful river.

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It was cold and damp, and we decided to book ourselves into a cheap hostel for a couple of nights to keep the blood flowing and maintain our motivation for life in general.  We skipped the popular celebratory lobster dinner and lugged our gear into the French-run La Posta Hostel and it was worth every penny.  Free breakfast, nice warm dormitory, hot shower with heated floors.  Definitely a nice treat during our last couple of days in Ushuaia.

With our joie de vivre returning, we headed to Laguna Esmerelda for a short but enjoyable and scenic hike.

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Only one direction to go.  With a shipping date set, we had six days to drive 3,094 kilometres to Buenos Aires.  Vamos!

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Los Glaciares National Park: Mt. Fitz Roy, Argentina

From Parque Patagonia we continued to the Argentinian border.  This border crossing was tiny, just a little house in the middle of nowhere.  It became pretty desolate, and we spent what felt like forever meandering over the washboard roads to the paved Ruta 40.  Patagonia seemed to be taking its toll — dust and dirt had embedded itself in the zipper of our tent cover, making it impossible to close.  While we were driving, the wind whipped our rain fly out from beneath the cover and snagged it on the roof rack, ripping a hole in the fly.  Our awning was starting to crack on the mounting plate connection and we temporarily fixed that solution with some duct tape.  Our amp/stereo contraption started to crap out while driving over the washboard roads because the RCA (wire) actually started wearing out from all of the vibration.  After almost 46,000 kilometres and close to a year and a half on the road total, things were starting to show some wear.  Our main goal was to just patch things up until we could get the truck on a ship and figure things out in the USA.

Eventually we arrived at the free municipal campsite in Gobernador Gregores well after dark, and fell asleep immediately as our heads hit our pillows.

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We saw some familiar stickers on these gas pumps in Bajo Caracoles.

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Our next destination was the northern sector of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares— home of the Fitz Roy Range. You may recognize this mountain range from the clothing brand Patagonia as its logo features the same spires.  We crossed our fingers that the weather would hold as we planned to spend several days in the park on various trails. Once again, this well-known park does not charge any entrance fees and camping is free. Looking back, this park was one of our top three favourites of the whole trip.

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El Chaltén is the tourist hub located within walking distance of many of the main trailheads in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. The town is known as being overcrowded, expensive, and to say that it lacks good wifi would be an understatement. Patagonia’s infamous fierce winds run rampant in this little town, sweeping dirt particles up from the road and into your eyes, nose and mouth. In peak season the campsites are unpleasantly filled to the brim with a sea of tents jammed together on the grass. Fortunately for us it was late in the season so the campground wasn’t too busy. We didn’t mind El Chaltén one bit. We enjoyed the mountain town vibes and appreciated its convenient location to the trailheads in the park.

As we were driving into town we spotted our buddy Ian (from Bolivia and Lorraine’s place in Chile), so we grabbed a couple of happy hour beers at Fresco Bar and swapped travel stories.

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Our first hike was to Laguna Torre. We completed its 19 kilometres as a long day hike. We were spoiled with the epic scenery and close-up views of Glacier Torre from Mirador Maestri.

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That night back at camp we had a crazy storm with a ton of wind, rain, thunder and lightning. We set up our ground tent behind a wind block (aka wooden fence), which helped keep us protected. Our little ground tent held up pretty well and we were fortunate not to have any flooding or leakage. We decided to wait an extra day before starting the Fitz Roy hike as we would be climbing to Laguna de los Tres, the lake at the base of the Fitz Roy range, for sunrise. Luckily the weather cleared right up the following day, so we packed up our bags once more and hit the trail.

desktoglory_fitz_roy-21 desktoglory_fitz_roy-22 desktoglory_fitz_roy-23The Fitz Roy Range is indescribable. It is so mesmerizing. I just wanted to sit and watch the clouds weave in and out of the seven peaks for hours. Richard would literally stop to take a photo and move five steps and take another photo and so on. It is beautiful and powerful, but mysterious and captivating. I fell in love with it just gazing at its epic-ness.

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Mt. Fitz Roy is considered to be among the most technically challenging climbs for mountaineers.  French alpinists Lionel Terray and Guido Magnone completed the first climb in 1952.  Recently in 2014 Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold completed the first ascent of the “Fitz Traverse,” across the entire ridge-line of Fitz Roy, including its seven surrounding peaks.  They documented the experience in A Line Across The Sky, which is a pretty entertaining watch if you have the time.

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We camped that evening at Campamento Poincenot, which is around an hour of vertical hiking from Laguna de los Tres. We spotted a pair of Canadian girls (they had a MEC tent, classic giveaway) who spent the previous stormy night up at Campamento Poincenot. They were attempting to clean out their tent, which was full of dirt and mud, and their sleeping bags were hanging to dry in the trees nearby. Another neighbour of ours from Japan boiled water on her camp stove and filled up waterbottles to put in her sleeping bag for warmth.

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Our alarm woke us at the ungodly hour of 5:30 a.m. to start our ascent. Our headlamps guided us along the trail, which involved a series of steep switchbacks and large rocks. We must have been the first ones up, as we could see a steady line of flickering headlamps below creeping up the trail in the dark. When we arrived at the top it was still pitch black out but we could see the outline of the Fitz Roy Range with large patches of snow and ice. We hid behind a giant rock as the wind was incapacitating. It felt like we waited for an eternity for sunrise. We chatted with some other hikers, ate some chocolate, worked on keeping our hands warm, and watched the white caps on the lake behind us. We could barely stand up because the wind was so strong. Eventually we found a spot out of the wind tunnel, took some pictures and enjoyed the sunrise before starting our descent back to El Chaltén.

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