We left Ushuaia on January 13th with the compass finally reading north. Our drive south had been through Chile. Our drive north is through Argentina. That doesn’t mean it’s a straight shot: After leaving Ushuaia, which is in Argentina, we had to cross the border into Chile, catch the ferry across the Strait of Magellan from the island of Tierra del Fuego to the Chilean part of Patagonia, then cross back into Argentina. As usual, the Chilean agricultural inspectors at the border took all our meat, vegetables and eggs. We have have provided several good meals for the inspectors.
The ferry crossing was short, the ferry small and the wind was fierce. Our GPS showed we were rising and falling 20’ in the cross seas.
We overnighted beside a crater in Pali Aike National Park in Chile. Windy, cold, desolate and beautiful, the campsite has 3 little corrugated steel huts for shelters. They are covered with rocks set in cement that we soon realized was not just decorative but helped anchor the huts down. We parked in the lee of a shelter and turned on the furnace. At night, miles from the nearest lights, the stars were bright and unfamiliar. The strange stars and strange landscape brought on an instinctual uneasiness, like being on another planet.
Morning took us to another border crossing, back into Argentina. The Toyota dealer in Ushuaia had put the wrong oil into the truck. They couldn’t provide a filter and used 5w50 oil which is suitable for a diesel but not advisable for our gas engine. The oil pressure erratic and we were concerned. We had stopped at the next town, but the Toyota dealer there was unable to come up with the 5w20 that we needed. We stopped again in Rio Gallegos at an automotive service station where they sourced the right oil and changed it. The bill for the first oil change came to $185 Canadian. The second cost $245 US.
Fuel is relatively expensive in Argentina, and sometimes hard to get. There are often long line-ups at fuel stations. Part of the reason for the line-ups is the slow service. We haven’t seen self-service since we left the States, and in Argentina there must be a shortage of gas station attendants. The gas stations can be enormous, often with mini-markets and restaurants, Wi-Fi, parking areas, showers and, at one place, even a pharmacy.
At San Julian we stopped for gas primarily because Nancy wanted a coffee. The attendant came down the line-up to ask us what we wanted. It appeared they were out of one type of diesel. “Gasolina” said Bill. “Ultra?” asked the attendant. “Si” said Bill. As our after-market oversized tank is difficult to top up, Bill had talked the attendant into letting him do it. He noticed the “Ultra” he was adding was diesel. We discovered that, contrary to the station managers assurances, the truck will not run on gasoline contaminated with diesel. The engine quit pretty much immediately. A group of Australians stopped to make sure we were OK and a passing stranger who rents campers to tourists in Argentina stopped to assist. The gas station took full responsibility, and paid to have us towed to a mechanics house where he drained the fuel and replaced it with gas. To our relief, the engine fired up immediately.
Most of the trucks here are diesel, but the diesel is not the same as North American diesel. We have been told North American diesel vehicles have ongoing problems with their injectors. We felt a Toyota would be ideal for our trip because there are Toyota dealers all over South America. What we hadn’t realized is that Tundras are rare or non-existent here, and parts have to come from the States. An engine or even a windshield could take weeks to replace.
We hate to admit it but driving in Patagonia is boring. Seeing the first 20 or so herds of guanacos is exciting. Same with the flocks of rheas. After that, spotting them gets a little old, and we stopped noticing them. This is dangerous because guanacos slip over the highway fences with incredible ease, are the size of elk and are often on the roads. Rheas, which have grey feathers the same colour as the gravel and much of the landscape, must weigh about 20 kilos and are obviously hit fairly frequently. We still get excited about the foxes, and pink flamingos and the various geese but it was a relief to get to the northern boundary of Patagonia and start seeing trees and farm land.
Some things about Patagonia are unforgettable, such as a bay full of pink flamingos, dabbling with only their pink bottoms showing, or the crested quail, the geese with bronze necks, and seagulls with black wings and white flaps and ailerons whose call sounds like a donkey. Patagonia was settled by Europeans at the start of the 20th Century, when Argentina was one of the richest countries in the world. They came from Wales, Croatia and all places in between. The result is that many people have northern European features, and we no longer stand out as gringos. Houses, often made of plaster, brick or stone and red wood are very European, and each one is unique.
Antoine de Saint Exupery flew in Patagonia, a pioneer of the airmail service. We saw the island he described in The Little Prince as looking like a top hat or a boa that swallowed an elephant. And it does.
After a horrible night in Puerto Piramides, where little kids raced through the overcrowded campgrounds in ATVs at top speed at all hours and rock bands and drunks duelled on the beach until 4 AM, we stopped for two nights in a peaceful sports fishing town on the Atlantic called Bahia San Blas, where we rented a cabana and did very little.