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Back on the road

That morning we started early to be on the safe side and didn't do any other tour in Ushuaia - as it turned out later, this was the best decision. The journey from Ushuaia to Rio Gallegos has different steps and challenges that depending on how they go, can result in a longer, shorter, nicer or unpleasant day. To start, we drove up the Ruta 3 across the island of Tierra del Fuego for about four hours. Fortunately, the weather was fine and we were able to admire the Beagle Channel, the lakes and the mountains and stopped every now and then to take pictures. The first worry was the increasingly strong wind, which made driving not necessarily pleasant, we had to hold the steering wheel very tight. When we left the mountainous region, we felt unprotected and realized how strong the wind was really blowing. Hardly any cars were on the road and slowly we got a queasy feeling. At a gas station in Rio Grande, the locals advised us not to go any further and for the first time we had serious doubts as to whether the ferry would even be able to cross or not in this wind. For us, turning back was not an option - especially since we had already planned the next few days. So we drove on towards the border with Chile and were pretty much alone on the road. The Gaucha ran smooth and gentile and we kept ourselves entertained with music and mate. When we arrived at the border and were surprised by a long line of cars, we weren't sure at first if this was a good or a bad sign. On one hand, we were not alone on the road, on the other hand, nothing was happening, no car was moving for the time being. As it turned out after a short wait, we found out that the border guards were having a chilled lunch break and from 2 p.m. the cars started running again. We already knew the procedure from the outward journey: stamping out in Argentina on Tierra del Fuego, a short border passage, then stamping in in Chile for the 200 km transit route. At the border counter, we saw a hand written sign announcing that the ferry was not running anymore due to the wind gusts - and now?! We had no big alternatives, so decided we would try our luck and drove on anyway. Seán steered the Gaucha through Chilean terrain and the mate warmed us up in the Gaucha, which was fully loaded up to the roof. And then it got exciting. A kilometer-long traffic jam in front of the ferry terminal did not look well at first. But when we saw the two ships in the water, the relief was great: they were sailing again and fighting their way through the wind and the rough sea. Especially when mooring, they had the greatest problems and needed several attempts. Now it was just a matter of waiting and hoping that we would make it onto one of the ferries in time, because the border officially closed at 10 pm. After almost two hours, we made it onto the third ferry around 8:30 p.m. and after the half-hour crossing, we quickly drove towards the border! Fortunately, we were one of the first to roll off the boat and thus had a small time advantage over the other cars. We went beyond the usual 90 km/h and prepared our passports for stamping out in Chile. Despite the rush it took half an hour, so we arrived only at 22.05 at the Argentine border. Apparently, no one can stay between borders, so even after closure time, they have to let you go through - Done! The last 100 kilometres to Rio Gallegos were more relaxed and after we arrived at the hotel, we also found a pizzeria that served us a warm meal at almost midnight. What a day!- happy but exhausted we fell into bed and were eager to see what would await us the next day.

The next morning we woke up to a big surprise, and not precisely one of the good ones. One of our PCR tests was positive, so we unfortunately had to change our plans at short notice and instead of entering Chile as originally planned, a quarantine week in Rio Gallegos was what happened. Fortunately, Seán and Mariana were feeling good and able to continue their journey. We organized a bus to El Calafate as well as an alternative program on the Argentinean side. So they got to see the Perito Moreno glacier, enjoyed a delicious dinner in the caves at the lake and marveled at Upsala and Spegazzini glaciers on a boat tour on Lago Argentino. They then traveled by bus to the mountain village of El Chaltén, where they familiarized themselves with the trails before we rolled in two days later on the Gaucha from Rio Gallegos. In the meantime, we changed the oil of la Gaucha (10,000 km were already completed) and equipped her with a safety kit and the mandatory fire extinguisher. After six hours of already familiar route across the Argentine steppe, we arrived in El Chaltén in the afternoon and met our two friends directly coming back from a small day hike. The reunion joy was huge, we spontaneously went for a beer and made plans for the coming days. After that, it was time for them to have a siesta and since weather was great we walkd up to the viewpoint "Mirador de los Condores" above El Chaltén. The outstanding view of the Fitz Roy and its mountainous companions is every time sensational and impressive. We had grabbed what felt like the last two rooms in the whole village - but unfortunately not in the same accommodation. While Seán and Mariana stayed at Pudu Lodge, we booked ourselves into a small hostel. After a warm welcome from the hostel dogs and a hot shower, we met for dinner at the village's cervecería and of course had lots to talk about over delicious stew and cold beer. Reunited and ready for the upcoming hiking days, we started our ways home and quickly fell asleep after a long day.

Our first big hike was to the well-known Laguna Torre. Mariana had discovered an alternative entrance directly behind her lodge the day before and we used this new discovery right at the start. In bright sunshine but strong wind, we went uphill until we reached the plateau. We did not have a lot of energy so we took it easy, as we had to fight with the strong gusts of wind. In the end we mastered the ascent but got almost blown away by the wind, and were had success also at geo-cashing. Seán, as an experienced geo-casher, had saved the GPS coordinates of the scouted object and we found the hidden "treasure", signed the log book and continued the next 6 kilometres through the valley towards the lagoon. The wind continued to blow and the view of Cerro Torre was denied to us this day, as it was covered in dense clouds. We could test our rain and wind jacket, and they held the requirements in a good stand. Shortly before the day´s destination we took a fruit break before we passed the last small hill and suddenly stood in front of a lagoon full of small and big icebergs. It felt like the wind was a few km/h stronger here - so we fought our way down the small slope to the lagoon and gave everything not to be blown over. As soon as we arrived at the water and attempted to take the first photos, we got a wet surprise. We called it "the baptism" when a gust of wind swept right over the water and doused us with ice cold water for a few seconds. Some of the hikers lay down on the ground, others tried to get to safety spots - we just turned around and let the cold shower wash over us from behind. Luckily, the spectacle was over after a few seconds and we were all soaking wet =) But the lagoon was now swept as empty and we had it almost for ourselves. In the hope that we were spared another shower, we enjoyed the beautiful sight and the natural spectacle of the many floating ice floes in front of a dark cloud front. The location was too uncomfortable for lunch, so we ate the empanadas in the forest protected from water and wind. Then we walked back and stayed dry until shortly before El Chaltén. Only on the last meters downhill the rain announced for today really started and we took refuge in a Cervecería where we had fries and a round of Indian Pale Ale - Salud! After the obligatory hot shower and a short siesta, we had some delicious pasta and vino in the evening before making it to bed with our last grains. The next day, super weather was announced and therefore the king stage up to the Laguna de los Tres was on!

The wind was gone and the sky shone blue when we left our hostel early in the morning for breakfast. After scrambled eggs and coffee in the bakery around the corner, we bought some provisions before we were already at the starting point of our 25 km tour. We were definitely not the only ones who wanted to take advantage of the great weather and so, in contrast to the previous day, there was quite a lot going on. The first two kilometres went steadily uphill, until the first viewpoint rewarded us with views of Rio de las vueltas. After that, we continued uphill and downhill for a few kilometres until Fitz Roy showed up close for the first time. The four of us had a great enthusiasm, took a few small breaks and then could hardly wait to stand at the top of the lagoon. But before that, the final ascent was still waiting, where we had to overcome another 400 meters of steep uphill in just 1 km distance. We mastered this climb slowly but surely, and enjoyed the sensational view at the top, together with the trusty fox that lives there and the many tourists from all over the world. We had empanadas in our luggage again and the surprise was perfect when our two friends unpacked two chilled beer cans - they obviously knew us very well! After food, we went a little further, up the neighboring hill and had the "Laguna Sucia" almost to ourselves. From up here, you can overlook both lagoons at the same time, while the condors circle above you. The sun sizzled down mercilessly on us up here and so it didn't take long until we dipped our feet into the cool lagoon water - what a refreshment! Only in the late afternoon we started our way back and took a last break including a siesta at the beach of the idyllic Laguna Capri. Then we went the remaining kilometers downhill again and on the way back we saw some tourists struggling with themselves on the descent. Unfortunately, it became serious again at the end, when the local mountain rescue team rushed towards us at a fast pace and equipped with stretchers - apparently something had happened and they had to rescue someone. Hoping that everything went well, we ran directly to the small but nice restaurant "La Tapera", where we were joyfully welcomed by the owner. Marina knew him, like so many here, from her working days and after two years of pandemic break the joy of reunion was always correspondingly great. We treated ourselves to soup and a huge steak to celebrate, with a free hot chocolate volcano to finish. As darkness fell, the wind returned and made our way home with full bellies harder than expected. The last night in the mountain village was upon us and we slept like babies again.

On our last day of hiking together in El Chaltén, we set off for the "Refugio Piedra del Fraile", which was still unknown to us. To do this, we first went with the Gaucha for 17 kilometers along the gravel road into the valley, in the direction of the nearby border with Chile and the adjacent Lago Desierto. This can be crossed in normal times in a foot march of several days - at the moment, however, it is closed. After about half an hour we parked in front of a bridge, put on our wind and rain gear and walked along the river through the valley. To the right and left of us the Patagonian mountains towered up and every now and then we caught a glimpse of a peak through the dense cloud cover. The way led us through the forest, over bigger and smaller bridges until we reached the Refugio after almost two hours with the beginning rain. It was packed and all those who use the beautiful campsite of the Refugio for camping, bustled in the warm guest room. Here we played cards, threw dice, ate and strummed the guitar. We were lucky to get a few seats at the table, ordered a cold beer, hot chocolate and a warm soup and played a round of Yahtzee until the food arrived. Then the food was served and we enjoyed a delicious vegetable soup with bread. After the lunch break we went back through the forest and since the sun showed up, we could admire the northern flank of Fitz Roy one last time. Already we roared with the Gaucha back to the village and fully loaded directly further to El Calafate. Christian and Seán took turns driving and Mariana finally got her much longed for Guancaco photos on the way. After just under three hours we reached El Calafate and freshened up in our pre-booked rooms in the large Hosteria Posta Sur. Then we went for our last dinner together to the legendary restaurant "La Zaina", a converted former horse stable, of which Marina still knew the owner well. At noon we still made photos of them, in the evening we had guanaco meat for appetizer. Served with spices and pickled in vinegar and oil on a homemade bread, a real delicacy. The specialty of the house, a juicy leg of lamb, lived up to its promise, and the pancake with dulce de leche for dessert and a chocolate mousse fully rounded out the feast. Then it was off to the best brewery in town for one last beer and, thanks to the mild temperatures, we toasted our journey together outdoors with by far the best Indian Pale Ale of the past two weeks before making our way back to the Hosteria. The next morning, we had breakfast, packed, and took another walk along the lake. El Calafate is not called "Dogtown of the South" for nothing. The town is really full of street dogs that love to accompany the walkers. So we quickly had a four-legged friend by our side who accompanied us for the rest of the day, "protecting" us from other dogs and not letting us out of his sight. In the lake, the resident pink Patagonian flamingos were cavorting, but unfortunately they only presented us with their adorable rear ends for the photo. The rest of the day was used for lunch and a shopping tour before we toasted together one last time and headed to the airport. For Seán and Mariana, their journey with us ended here and they flew back to Buenos Aires - where a heat weekend with temperatures over 42 degrees awaited them. After the emotional farewell at the gate, we went back to the Hosteria and used the evening to do laundry, get Christian's backpack repaired and for a delicious dinner before we also started packing and went to bed early, as we would continue our journey north the next day.

Right after breakfast, we set off on Ruta 40 for 350 kilometers through the Patagonian steppe - a quarter of it on gravel roads - until, after a lunch stop in the afternoon, we arrived in the mini-town of "Gobernador Gregores". We knew the hostel still from the outward journey and headed from the good experience of the last time the same again. Since we were early, we secured the best tent site and got in the course of the afternoon surprisingly more and more German sounds to hear. Besides a biker from Nuremberg, an Austrian couple and a family from Switzerland arrived. In the evening we ordered pizza and made ourselves comfortable in the kitchen of the hostel. The wind increased more and more with every hour and when we slipped into the tent, it was already properly blowing. During the night we woke up several times and were not sure if the tent would hold up. We went out twice to tighten the cords. The wind shook relentlessly on all sides of the tent - but in the end it held and we could sleep until around 8am, ready for the day, after a night with little sleep. A call home quickly perked up our spirits though and soon we were back on the road 400 kilometres further north along Ruta 40. The road today was mostly asphalt, which made the ride much more pleasant and comfortable. In the evening we rolled into Los Antiguos - a fantastically situated border village, directly at the shore of Lago Buenos Aires - the second largest lake of Argentina, which lies however partly on Chilean territory. From here it is only 3 km to the border and the Chilean Andes, covered with snow, are already showing off from the other side of the lake. With sunshine it was a dream scenery, which attracted us magically. We found a place at the public campsite of Los Antiguos and took another walk through the village and had some dinner, before we took a late hot shower and, from the experience of the previous night, we chose this time our Gaucha to sleep, just to be on the safe side. The night was much better and we slept until after 9am before the sun's rays woke us. We had breakfast and did some shopping in the village and then we were off to Patagonia National Park. The entrance was only fifteen minutes away from Los Antiguos and consisted of a former estancia where mainly sheep were kept. In addition to the stables, there was also a small "matera" - a small round house where people used to gather to drink mate together, perfect to socialize and being safe from the wind. The national park was established only in 2019 and its purpose is to protect the plateau nearby, where it snows a lot in winter, and as a result many small lagoons settle. And on the shores of this lagoons, nest the rare ducks "Maca Tobiano" which are protected because its population has decreased 80% in the last 25 years. We inquired about the hiking trails and chose a beautiful 16 km route up to the "Cerro La Calle". Wind, sun and clouds accompanied us during the first 6 kilometers to the Puesto Cisne, from where it was another two kilometers uphill. The hint of the park ranger said that pumas had been sighted here, that made us feel a bit extra alert so we kept a constant lookout. At the top, the rock formations lived up to their name "the road" and we passed through an impressive mini-canyon - an ideal wind-protected lunch spot. Afterwards we enjoyed the view and made our way back to the Gaucha. Despite dark clouds, we stayed dry, stopped for dinner, and settled in for another night at the campsite. We kept awake until 12am because Marina's birthday was coming up. Feliz Cumpleanos! =)