Motoring Expedition through Argentinian Patagonia

A Driving Adventure across Patagonia in a 4×4… contd.

Incase you missed reading  the previous stories – Part 1 | Part 2

Part 3: Motoring Expedition through Argentinian Patagonia

Day 5. After enjoying an early breakfast, we bid farewell to Cerro Guido. A short drive from the estancia brought us the overland border crossover between Chile and Argentina. Our expedition vehicles had the permit to be driven in both Chile and Argentina which made our life much easier. At the Chilean Border, we had to show our passports, documents and fill out a form. Once cleared, then the entrance point to Argentina was just 5 minutes further up the road, where we had to again fill out a form and present our documents. Both borders had few tourists so we cleared in few minutes and the process was pretty simple. Crossing the border between Argentina and Chile was a memorable journey in itself.

After couple of hours of driving, we reached the small beautiful town – El Calafate, which sits on the hill next to Lake Argentino. Named after the berry that, once eaten, guarantees your return to Patagonia. Its the gateway to Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Isolated from the rest of the world, the town is cute and friendly, with some great restaurants along the main road. After reaching the town, we checked into, Xelena Suites, a boutique hotel, located a few kilometres away from the city of El Calafate. Perfectly situated on the bay of Lake Argentino, promising idyllic scenery that leaves one in wonder. Everyone decided to have quick lunch at the hotel as we had planned something special for all the members in the afternoon.

A 30-minute drive from El Calafate we reached Hosteria El Galpon Del Glaciar. The property is surrounded by 3.5 kilometres of shore of the Lago Argentino and by 1.5 kilometers of riverbank of the Centinela River: both offered an ideal environment to enjoy activities in contact with nature. The amazing landscape surrounding the estancia contains all of the ecosystems that typify Patagonia: The Andean range, immense Patagonian steppe, turquoise glaciers. We had organised a private tour of the property where we got to see the farm work such as sheep shearing, visiting the sheds, iron-works and exploring the old farm premises.

After the tour, we all saddled up to get ready for our horseback riding. We were accompanied by the owner of the estancia himself, Marcos Lopez, along with his best friend “Aiko” a thoroughbred German Shepard. Some of us had no experience riding horses so we decided to follow the trail slowly at our own pace. And some who were really interested in riding horses in the open wilds of Patagonia. Since they had prior experience riding horses, they went way ahead of us unleashing the real horsepower. As we moved along, we got to hear great stories and interesting facts about the region by the gaucho who accompanied us. We crossed a river, learning more about patagonian flora and fauna and spotted some of the 40 species of migratory birds that considered this place as their home. The views were mesmerizing and picturesque.

After couple of hours we returned back to the Estancia to the end the tour. The plan was to head back to the town for a special dinner we had organized. But the views from the ranch were irresistible and the expedition members made an impromptu decision to stay back at the Estancia to enjoy some local wine which eventually turned out to be an elaborate dinner. Surrounded by luxuriant gardens of lavender and roses, the estancia boasted a humble yet cozy dining facility and casual bar overlooking a well-kept garden vista. The hospitality provided by the host was “second-to-none”. That was the most interesting dinner we had so far on this trip with loads of fun and laughter. And eventually we decided to leave the estancia before it got completely dark. Though the dinner wasn’t as per the plan, we managed to accommodate the changes by cancelling all the plans made for the evening. That’s the kind of freedom what we have in our expeditions that separates us from the rest. Not bound by rules and rigid itineraries.

On our way back to the hotel, we got the impression that a constant rainbow hangs over Lake Argentino. The climate here is rough and as the winds blow strong you will often see bright blue skies. When driving around the lake we couldn’t miss the hundreds, or even thousands of gorgeous pink flamingos that call this beautiful place home. What more to dream of? It started to get dark by the time we reached the hotel and everyone retired for the day after our short briefing about the plan we had in store for everyone for the next day.

Day 6, We had to start early today as we had a long day planned ahead of us. As El Calafate is the gateway to Los Glaciares National Park, our first stop was the famous Perito Moreno Glacier. We drove through the national park onto the entrance of the glacier. After which we had to board a ferry which took us closer to the glacier from where we had to do a trek to the glacier. We’d underestimated its size—its sheer magnitude quickly became apparent as our large boat began to feel insignificant as we got closer and closer. Every time the glacier would calve it sounded like a cannon going off, causing shrieks of excitement to ring out from our boat. The sheer force and beauty of it never ceased to amaze me.

Despite the glacier looking like a winter wonderland, spring had arrived on shore making for a landscape of contrasts. The first orange buds were beginning to appear on the trees, and a green canopy of foliage lined the wooden boardwalk we followed along the shoreline after disembarking the boat, heading up to the spot where we’d start our ice-trekking adventure.

Once we arrived at the visitors centre, we put on our crampons and began our ascent to the top of one of the world’s natural wonders. The sun was beaming down hard and there were few clouds in the sky. Ahead of us the glacier shined brightly against the turquoise lake and distant peaks.

It was like walking on a giant snow cone.

The virgin ice crunched underfoot as my crampons gripped at the glacier. With a constantly changing landscape there was no path in sight; instead, we navigated around wind-swept crevasses, digging into the divots with our spiky shoes. Towering peaks enveloped us, their snowy tips framed by wispy clouds that danced across a blue-bird sky. It was like we were on another planet, with the untouched formations creating a new vantage point at every turn.

We slowly made our way up to higher ground, often pausing to stare in wonder at the awe-inspiring scenery all around us, a juxtaposition of bright turquoise pools popping out of the milky-white landscape. The water inside each one was so pure that we crouched down and filled up our water bottles, embracing the chill as the fresh water hit the back of my throat. Aside from the quiet chatter amongst ourselves, the only other sound was a low rumble in the distance as massive chunks of ice fell off the side of the larger-than-life glacier we stood on, creating a roar as they tumbled into the aqua-marine lake below.

Nature rarely fails to impress, but it really outdoes itself when it comes to Patagonia’s Perito Moreno Glacier.

Walking across the ice was a surreal experience.  It feels like you’re on a distant planet or maybe down in Antarctica, as you’re surrounded by undulating hills of ice stretching out across the horizon. We passed ice caves, blue lagoons and deep crevices on our journey to the center of the glacier. While drinking pure glacier water and ducking into snow caves should have been memorable enough, the real highlight came at the end of a couple hours of exploring, when we rounded a corner to randomly find a bar cart stocked with whiskey and glasses— for whiskey on the glacier rocks, as you do.

Some members decided to Kayak instead of joining us on the glacier hike. Unlike the others, the kayakers enjoyed the silence not found on the boat trip, only disturbed by the crashing of ice as it calved. Sitting atop the water, exploring from a unique position and experienced the sense of scale as Perito Moreno towers impressively ahead. Both the groups had different set of experience but none disappointed.

We all regrouped at the viewing centre for lunch, and had a quick discussion on the plan for the later part of the day which was something really unique. As unique as the place we had chosen to stay for the day. Driving through some really spectacular dirt roads and terrains leading all the way to Hostería Helsingfors. An intimate rustic lodge set on the shores of Lake Viedma in the heart of Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park.

Patagonia is all about the end of the road – and this wonderful estancia in the Los Glaciares National Park is at the far end of a long gravel track.

It was not easy to arrive at Helsingfors. We had to drive through challenging roads, cross a stream and sometimes through blocked paths, more than once, by passing sheep. Finally, like an oasis in the middle of the desert, the historical home appeared, surrounded by Californian Redwoods brought especially by its founder, the Finnish explorer, Alfred Ranström. This place is exclusively for travellers with refined tastes and we had chosen this property for the same reason. Reaching here was the highest point of adventure on this expedition.

It’s harder to describe the atmosphere that surrounds this corner of Patagonia. Every expedition member was enthralled with the views and with property itself. With just 9 rooms all to ourselves and no other guests, we felt even more special in the middle of nowhere. The staff at the property were extremely friendly and helped everyone check into their respective rooms to freshen and rest for a while. And we (expedition management team) decided to make the evening very special by setting-up a bonfire and a barbeque dinner on the lawn outside beneath the stars.

As the sun went down, the weather started to get a bit nippy and slowly we could see the southern hemisphere constellations which was mind-blowing. On one side there was bonfire where all of us gathered around discussing about the journey so far and on the other side the chef from the property was preparing a very special dinner. Part of what makes Helsingfors a unique experience is the regional cuisine on offer. The ranch had its very own vegetable garden and a refined cellar with a variety of Argentine and Chilean select vintage wines to accompany traditional local dishes, such as Patagonian lamb and trout.

It’s truly impossible to forget the moments that we spent that night. Great people, great outdoor setting, great food, great wine and great conversations. Charles decided to setup a photography tour for interested members, teaching them various tricks and techniques about night photography, extended exposures and time-lapse. And the weather was getting colder and we decided to call it a day and retire for the night.

Day 7, We kept the morning schedule open and relaxed. For those who wanted to relax at the property, had an option to go for a nature walk closer to the glacier or take the trails in the mountains behind, or just sit below the trees in a hammock and read a book and relax amidst nature. For the adventure and thrill seekers, we decided to drive out through a specially identified trail where people could really test their 4×4 driving skills. There were no trails ahead of us. So technically we were in the middle of nowhere discovering routes that were really challenging until we encountered a deep fissure that ran perpendicular to the route which was impassable. So, we decided to turn around and head back to the property.

On our way back, we got to race with a JackRabbit.

There was a route before the property which was leading closer to the Viadema lake. Though it was rough, we were all excited to drive through it and go as close as possible to the lake. The views were incredible and we were able to appreciate it even better when we decided to setup the drone in the sky. The perspective from above made us appreciate the nature even more.

After some jaw-dropping photo session, we came to the property for lunch. It was set outside beneath the clear blue sky and not so warm sunlight. Surrounded by stunning landscapes, sheltered by coniferous woods which give way to panoramic views of the lake, with the Fitz Roy massif forming a northern backdrop. The sort of majestic views that make you feel like you have stumbled into your own private wilderness, lucky to be alive.

What was even more interesting was peculiar cloud formations. Not the ordinary puffy cumulus clouds. They were the Lenticular clouds looking exactly like space ships and also as if someone was watching us from the sky.

Part 4 of our Driving Adventure across Patagonia.
Self-Drive Expedition through Chilean Patagonia
A Driving Adventure across Patagonia in a 4×4