Self-Drive Expedition through Chilean Patagonia

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

Incase you missed reading Part 1, here is the link.

Part 2: Beginning of our Self-Drive Expedition through Chilean Patagonia.

Our official motoring expedition started on day three. Some of us woke up early to witness the beautiful sunrise. With a hot cup of coffee in our hand, we climbed to the roof of the hotel to catch a glimpse of the spectacular Admiral Montt Gulf and Fjord of the Last Hope. Charles, wild in excitement, managed to get a time-lapse of the moment. Everywhere he looked, a beautiful shot was awaiting him. He was literally jumping in joy like a kid in the candy store.

Charged up with the morning’s sightings, all the explorers wrap up their breakfast quickly and eagerly show up on time for their respective adventurous expedition vehicles. We do the usual routine check before we leave – a short prayer followed by a quick radio check, lining up in the vehicles in a sequence, and off we go.

One of the main features of Patagonia self-drive is the strong winds that blow here all the time, without ceasing, throughout the day, all year round. When we first hit the road, we did not understand why our 4×4 cars were moving from side to side. The route we had taken for the day was mostly dirt roads, and we thought probably we were driving too fast. So, we slowed down, but it felt like the car was still being pushed, and we realized it was the wind. This is definitely not the case in Europe and much of the world, so you have to be very careful when self-driving in Patagonia.

First up on our self-drive Patagonia expedition is the most famed Torres Del Paine National Park.

The drive was across beautiful, wide landscapes: pampas, forests, steppe, and mountainous areas, all molded by ancient glaciers. It is only when we looked around the landscape, the feeling started to sink in – the feeling of becoming insignificant in comparison to the nature. Embarking on a self-drive Patagonia expedition is a captivating way to immerse oneself in the region's untamed beauty. With a map in hand and the open road ahead, travelers have the freedom to explore at their own pace. Picture driving through ever-changing landscapes, from sweeping pampas to rugged mountains, as the Patagonian wind sweeps across the horizon. The allure of self-drive Patagonia lies not only in the stunning vistas but also in the moments of serenity found while navigating the dirt roads, far removed from the hustle of more populated destinations. As the journey unfolds, marveling at the iconic 'horns' of the Paine Massif, a testament to nature's awe-inspiring artistry.

One of the main features of Patagonia is the strong winds that blow here all the time, without ceasing, throughout the day, all year round.

If you’ve ever seen a picture of Patagonia’s dramatic mountain landscape, odds are it was taken in Torres del Paine. Chile’s most famous national park hugs that the Argentina border and is named for its razor-like peaks that form the Cordillera Paine. Travelling along the southern side of the massif, we were delighted by the different shades of blue of the lakes Nordenskjöld, Sarmiento and Pehoé, varying from deeply intense blue to milky green to unbelievably turquoise.

Our first activity for the day (apart from driving) was the navigation to Grey Glacier. Embarking on this captive excursion allows you to journey to some of the most important glaciers to travel in Chile. What it comprises of is incomparable landscape composed of floating icebergs, lush vegetation and imposing mountains. From the parking lot of Hotel Grey Lago, a 25 minute walk, through an old-growth beech forest (lenga, Nothofagus pumilio) towards a wide beach where we saw gigantic icebergs stuck against the shore, offering a magical panorama. Then we were aboard the catamaran that will take us on an unforgettable tour (3 hours round trip) on greenish-grey waters in contrast with the vibrant blue floating icebergs.

From the boat the views of the mountains are amazing: constantly changing our point of view of the Cuernos, Mount Paine Grande, and the white Andes holding the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. After an hour, we reached the Grey Glacier front wall, the most important one inside the Torres del Paine National Park and an International Biosphere Reserve. The waters were covered by ice sediment and huge floating icebergs that left us breathless.

We spent around 45 minutes traveling along the glacier’s front, enjoying the breath taking depth of the many shades of blue and the impressive shapes and size of the ice. Then we turned back to the south shore where we started and got off the catamaran to start our walk back to our cars. On the way, we saw a huge Iceberg closer to the shore. We spent some time taking pictures and soaking in the nature as much as possible before everyone got hungry.

We had packed lunch boxes from the hotel that morning. So, once we got into the car during our self-drive Patagonia adventure, we drove a little and found a very beautiful wide-open area where we stopped to have a picnic lunch. From here, we were able to see the amazing monolithic, unforgiving outline of the Paine Massif’s distinctive ‘horns’, just as jaw-dropping as you would imagine. The three granite towers actually gave the Patagonia National Park its name: Torres del Paine, meaning ‘Blue Towers of the Sky'. Made of granite, it playfully reflected the constantly-changing Patagonian sunlight and nearby waters.

After lunch, we started our Patagonia self-drive tours which was completely dirt roads, through Magellanic “estancias” (huge ranches) where you could spot sheep herd moving along the road with the whistling of “gauchos” on horses and the barking of their many dogs.

On our way did an unplanned stop at Salto Grande Waterfall. Part of the famous Paine Hydric System, Salto Grande is the second largest waterfall in Torres del Paine National Park and is the result of the drainage of Nordenskjold Lake into Pehoe Lake.

Photo Credits @Karan

And then we drove on the edge of Torres del Paine where we stopped at rarely-visited Laguna Azul (Blue Lagoon). The trail along Laguna Azul took us through open grass fields and up a gentle incline for a picturesque view over the lagoon with the three towers in the distance. On calm days, the unmarred reflection of the landscape in the water would have been surreal. We did manage to get some pretty interesting shots from here.

And we continued our self drive Patagonia tour towards Estancia Cerro Guido, where we had planned our stay. The sunlight was perfect – Charles immediately sent his drone (fondly called as PeeWee – A DJI Mavic Pro) to capture the landscape and our overland expedition vehicles. The dusty trail did add to the drama and we had the perfect shot for the day.

Covering an area of 101,000 hectares, Cerro Guido borders the eastern side of Torres del Paine National Park and is the largest estancia in the area. From the restored farmhouses you can gaze at the iconic towers of Paine and enjoy the vast Patagonian landscapes. It’s a great spot for nature and wildlife-lovers thanks to a wide variety of flora and fauna in the area.

We arrived at the right time giving us adequate time to freshen up and take a stroll around the property to watch the incredible sunset and the typical estancia. Simple, white-painted zinc houses sat above orchards and vegetable gardens, and lilac and honeysuckle grow by the door. The charming bedrooms and sitting rooms retain all the elegance of the original ranch, but have been modernised to add warmth and comfort.

With an irresistible view of Torres del Paine, we enjoyed authentic and rustic flavours of Patagonia. The view from the dining area was something very special. And the menu was even more delightful prepared based on each one’s personal request. Though the food was simple rather than gourmet, with priority to the use of fresh products from the estancia’s vegetable garden and meat from their farm. The wine came from the Matetic vineyard near Santiago. We couldn’t ask for more to bring the perfect day to an end.

Day four was packed with activities around Cerro Guido. First, we were meeting Mr. Victor Sharp, a Chilean cowboy in his private estancia, La Criollita. With no real “road” leading to his property, we forded the baguales river with our 4x4s, and with the dramatic mountain backdrop it felt like we were in a scene from an action movie! Charles did make it look like a professional movie shot, with his PeeWee. And after a bit of adventurous driving, we reached the Estancia and for a private tour as well as a deeper conversation with Victor to understand more about their culture and way of life.

We knew about cowboys, and even have heard the gaucho of the Argentinian Pampas, but we didn’t know much about Chile’s baqueanos.

The word ‘baqueano’ is usually just translated as cowboy, which is the closest equivalent outside of Chile, but in reality, a baqueano is so much more than that. Strong, reserved, silent, proud, courteous, loyal… these are just some of the defining characteristics of the archetypal baqueano, who has become a symbolic character of the Chilean countryside. Above all things, the baqueano is man of the land with detailed reserves of knowledge about vast expanses of Patagonia. He is a skilful rider, with an almost telepathic connection to his horse. Dressed in long riding boots, baggy trousers, a beret and neckerchief, and sometimes a wool poncho for warmth, he wanders at will through the untamed wilderness.

Spending time with him was one of the best ways to have experienced this enchanting part of the world, as we absorbed their knowledge of the land and wildlife along with entertaining stories of their heritage and famous baqueanos of the past. He was more than hospitable and took time from his regular schedule, to engage us with great stories and experiences. And it was time for us to get back our next planned activity for the day.

We drove through beautiful mountains and undulating hills with no trails ahead of us. Having our own 4×4, lend us complete the sense of freedom to explore this incredible landscape on our own terms. Amazing winding dirt roads, a we took special trails that were ideal for 4×4 driving.

We had planned for a trek through Sierra Baguales, which sits right on the border with Argentina. We parked our cars on top of a hill, and started to trek. We were accompanied by a very renowned palaeontologist, Mr. Jose Luis Oyarzun. He personally accompanied us throughout the trek to give us the complete understanding about why and how the fossils were found around this place.

We went downhill, and amidst the trail’s deep valleys and cliffs, we found shark teeth, mollusks, and other fossils of marine fauna that once flourished in the Atlantic Ocean nearly 23 million years ago. We learnt on our self drive Patagonia tour that the entire region was a seabed once. After 2 hours of trekking, crossing small streams of water and then eventually we decided to head back to our vehicles.

And once we started the Patagonia self drive, we found a remote spot which wasn’t a specific destination you’ll find in any guidebook – but it was a beautiful place, hidden deep in the Sierra Baguales. There, with no one else around except the wild guanacos and horses – we decided to setup a surprise picnic lunch. The self drive Patagonia adventure left everyone spellbound by the pristine beauty of this untouched wilderness.

We all enjoyed the packed lunch amidst pure nature. One thing that is very interesting about this place was the behaviour of the wildlife. For example, the guanacos, which inhabit this landscape are completely wild, unlike in Torres del Paine National Park where they are accustomed to the presence of people. We were also lucky enough to spot the Patagonian Fox.

After lunch we decided to head back to Cerro Guido tracing our way back through the mountains and off-road trails. Back at the estancia, the expedition members had an option to either rest or a tour of the Estancia. Those who went on the tour, got to watch the sheep shearing, round ups, mustering and sheep dipping to experience a true working farm life. And for us, as expedition management team, we had organized fuel from Puerto Natales since there are no gas stations around. Our ground support team had carried the fuels in jerry cans and dropped it at the Estancia. While the expedition members were on the tour, we ensured that all the cars were fuelled to the brim.

Another beautiful day came to an end as the sun slowly went down, bending over the end of the world in gorgeous light. Because of Patagonia’s location at the bottom of South America and its steep changes in altitude, the scene is set for exquisite sunrise and sets, often illuminating the sky pinks and purples that extend in a sunset that completely encompasses. Before we called it a day, we did a quick briefing at the dinner table regarding the plan for next day, and the roll out schedule.

Part 3: Expedition through Argentinian Patagonia.
A Driving Adventure across Patagonia in a 4×4
Motoring Expedition through Argentinian Patagonia
Final stretch of our Motoring Journey across Patagonia