From Punta Arenas to Rio Gallegos

As part of work we needed to know if a close-by airport located in the city of Rio Gallegos in Argentina is a suitable alternative and what to expect if our airplane should have to land there. So a road trip was in order.

End of the World Road sign in Chile
End of the World Road sign in Chile

Rio Gallegos is a short 3.5 hour drive away from Punta Arenas. The Road to the End of the World was winding through a vast landscape of shallow valleys, gentle hills and endless prairie, interrupted here and there by sparse man made features like fuel farms or ranches. Numerous guanacos and nandu could be seen everywhere along the road, sometimes close to the pavement and some times a good distance away. Apparently some guanacos are not careful enough and quite a few roadkill ones were also seen, providing ample food for the protected foxes – which we also saw darting across the road, and for vultures.

Ghost town of San Gregorio on road 255
Ghost town of San Gregorio on road 255

The road to the End of the World goes along the shores of the Magellan’s Straight, in some areas running close to the shore. In one such area a ghost town, the Estancia San Gregorio, is located. The estancia today consists of several warehouses that are quite well preserved and almost not vandalized, with only a little bit of modern trash in some of the buildings. One of the warehouses I peeked into contained a large number of bundles of wool – looking as if prepared for pick up at any time – although who knows how many years has that wool been there. On the other hand maybe that warehouse is actually in use, although it being open on the side of the road like that makes one wonder.

Amadeo and Ambassador
Amadeo and Ambassador

A short distance along the shore from the warehouses two ship carcasses laid on the pebble beach. One of them is the steam ship Amadeo and the other is barca Ambassador. The two ships are laying half buried in the sand, rusting away on the shores of the Magellan’s Straight, and one can climb up on Amadeo and look through the empty windows of the bridge as some fearless people did 80 years ago, and imagine what it was like sailing the Amadeo through the waters of the Straight, maybe picking up the wool from San Gregorio, or maybe taking passengers to Tierra del Fuego. The old wooden bridge, tilted to one side, keeps its history to itself, only slight creak of boards audible when you set your foot where the captain stood before.

The Ambassador is even more decomposed. The graceful ribs of the ship are impressive and leave the feeling that is difficult for me to relate. It is like standing next to a fallen knight of the old, or to a castle taken by time, or in a ghost town that still keeps its ghosts around, and you could hear them if you close your eyes and listen. When I looked at the slanted, rusty structure that used to support the upper deck I imagined people scurrying across it, setting the sails, manning the tiller and sailing the ship through the cold waters of the ancient Straight that was here way before the Magellan’s visit. These people had their stories, their lives, their precious few things they loved. What were those things and thoughts – who knows? who cares? – perhaps I do, standing here 150 years later, thinking about them and trying to catch that fleeting connection with the people of the past.

Well, enough of the creepy sentiments already, right? Ok then, let’s move on. From San Gregorio we kept on driving, ever slightly faster, towards the border, and we finally made it. A few necessities for those foreigners thinking of driving across the border between Chile and Argentina:

  1. You want paperwork from your rental car company that authorizes driving your car into Argentina.
  2. You want your current passport with the Chilean entry paper.
  3. You will need a reciprocity fee paper for $160, as of 2015, if you are a U.S. person. If you forgot to pay it you will have to turn back unless you are able to go back to the Chilean post and sweet talk the people there into allowing you to use their computer with Internet to log in and pay the reciprocity fee right there. So far there had been no Internet on the Argentina side.
  4. And it is helpful to know how the border works, as at least for me, if for the first time I ended up there without my Spanish speaking and experienced friend, it would have been very difficult.
Argentina entry control point on road 255
Argentina entry control point on road 255

The border point consists of two entry points, one on the Argentina side of the border and one on the Chilean side, which are some 200 meters apart. When driving East one simply drives past the Chilean post and stops at the Argentina post. You go inside and go through a sequence of stations: Chilean passport control, where they stamp you out of Chile and take your entry slip; one step along the counter to the right and you hand your passport to the Argentina officer to stamp your passport in; another few steps to the right, and you hand the papers to the Chile customs (aduana) to check you out of Chile; then, moving on again, hand the same papers to the Argentina aduana. Lastly, you go to the agricultural control officer who asks you if you have fruit or meat. And at each of these stations the person at the station will stamp a slip of paper that they give you at the first station and which you carry with you through all of them, and finally this paper slip will have five stamps. Once out of the agricultural station you can now go to your car and drive up to the gate where an officer will take your slip of paper with five stamps, look into your trunk and wave you through. The procedure repeats on the way back to Chile except this time you drive past the Argentina post to the Chilean post and go inside and do the station circle visit there.

There are several interesting things that happen in Argentina once you cross the border. First, the Chilean 3G cell connection that we enjoyed, well surprised, the entire 2.5 hours of the drive to the check point, disappears instantly on the Argentina side. How do they do this is a mystery to me, the technology the Chileans have must be very advanced but they don’t allow their radio waves across the border. On the Argentina side our phones almost immediately went from four bars of 3G to “No service”. Secondly, the road turns from concrete to asphalt and pot holes appear, along with areas where asphalt has washed out across the entire width of the road, and vehicles slow down and go over gravel areas that are almost, but not entirely, at the same level as the paved road. This “almost” can be as much as 10 cm so if you have not learned your lesson yet and run into one of these at 120 km/h you are guaranteed to notice the event, probably from hitting your head on the roof of your car and saying things that should not be recorded, or will have to pull over to verify whether your car’s axle is still underneath it. Only one such lesson is necessary, and after it you become paranoid enough to slow down even for cloud shadows on the smooth highway.

The rest of the land changes a little too. There are quite a few ancient volcanoes on the Argentina side, which were not seen much on the Chilean side. Old lava flows are still jagged and not yet covered by vegetation, and remind of much younger areas such as Hawaii – the same sharp and abrasive-looking surface with a few plants breaking through here and there. But give it another 500,000 years and this ancient lava will be just as covered by the same plants as everything else in these pampas. Life goes on, for sure.

The number of guanacos has reduced slightly, and the nandu were farther from the road, on average.

Arriving to Rio Gallegos caused mixed feelings. On one hand this is a city far south in Argentina, and you are excited to see it and anxious to discover it for yourself. On the other, the first acquaintance feels like a visit to the site of a massive explosion at a plastic bag factory. Thousands of plastic grocery bags are stuck to barbed wire fences, picket fences, bushes, corners of houses and every other surface that has any kind of friction to it. Trash is dumped along sides of the road, and the relentless wind takes it all apart and redistributes it all over the vast plains. I gazed at this in sadness when my friend commented, “Wow, they really cleaned it up! Used to look a lot worse”. After that I looked at the suburbs with a different eye – people recognized the disaster they caused and are beginning to clean up. It is easy to blame people for trashing out a place but one has to remember how easy it is to criticize, sitting in an armchair next to a fireplace, your trash taken away by a truck every few days to a place you have never even seen but you know is far away from your house, and forget that in a less prosperous place people are concerned with making their ends meet, not about what happens to the trash they produce. So don’t criticize – appreciate the fact that they recognized it, outlawed the plastic bags and are cleaning up, slowly but surely. And it is interesting to note that all the people in Rio Gallegos and Punta Arenas buying groceries in stores come in with their own bags made of cloth, that are used over and over again, something other cultures may use as an example. Thoughtless convenience is what results in disposable bags, and Rio Gallegos is a glaring example of why people should look a bit further than the tip of their nose. I mean it not towards the Argentinians, by the way.

A nice house near the bay in Rio Gallegos
A nice house near the bay in Rio Gallegos

After a visit to the airport we decided to go eat and explore the city a little bit. The city of Rio Gallegos was busy and people went about their business everywhere. In the park, a band of school children made a lot of noise using what we at first thought were trash cans but upon closer inspection turned out to be actually tin drums. They wore red hats and appeared very happy with what they were doing. Interestingly, when we were driving back two hours later they were still at it. Must have been a practice session for some event. We parked and walked around town, looking and asking people for a “authentic restaurant” but it turned out that those only open at about 8 pm, apparently that being the time when normal people in Argentina begin to think about an evening meal. We were not prepared to wait that long and settled for a pizza, which was very good, wood-burning-oven baked. We then walked to the shores of the Rio Gallegos, which at that location is more or less a bay of the Atlantic Ocean, and walked along it, looking around. In a park, children played. Cars drove along the embankment, accelerating nervously and braking hard before the cruel, sharp and high, speed bumps. It became painfully obvious that the Chilean respect for pedestrians does not extend this far East and those without cars, not crossing near a green light, really ought to watch out and escape the vehicles, which appear to have an open season for pedestrians. We darted across the road near the speed bumps along with the few locals, who appeared unconcerned about this as if it were a normal part of the daily routine.

Sunset on road 255 East of Punta Arenas
Sunset on road 255 East of Punta Arenas

We had a long drive back to Punta Arenas ahead of us, so after a short walk we returned to the car and took back to the road. In another hour or so we were back at the border, this time prepared for the gravel death traps on the road here and there. There was no line at the border post and in no time at all we were on the road again, this time in Chile. We regained the 3G connection, although the phones were hesitant as if confused, and connected and disconnected a few times for no good reason. I decided for myself that they were shaking out the leftover jamming radio waves for a while. The guanacos and nandus moved far off the road by the evening time and we only saw a few here and there, not as many as we have on the way East. A short distance from Punta Arenas we were treated to a beautiful sunset with glowing golden sky draped by shaggy steel-colored clouds, in contrast with the totally clear sky in the morning when we left Punta Arenas – a cold front moved in over the course of the day. We drove into the city in near darkness and went to celebrate the good trip in the bar at the Dreams hotel by tasting a few calafate sours. In case you don’t know yet, tasting the calafate berry ensures that you will come back to Patagonia. If that is so then I made sure not to leave any doubt with the spirits by having a couple of the tasty, tangy drinks, and when I do come back I will have calafate again, because I have no second thoughts about returning to this windswept land of unforgettable sunsets.

Domain of the Wind

This country is described by one word: wind. Everything here bows to it: trees, grass, dust, guanacos, people. Ocean does not, it is a domain of its own but it certainly shows its temper when the wind is reaching for the ocean’s domain – the interaction between the two forces is spectacular.

Trees shaped by the wind on Brunswick Peninsula
Trees shaped by the wind on Brunswick Peninsula

This is Patagonia – the tip of South America where the world travelers have now landed with a new project. We are in Punta Arenas, and there are things to do and places to explore ahead of us. As usual we are not tourists, we have work to do but in between we manage to explore as we always do, and sometimes the need to work makes us see things better than tourists do, in a way.

When the time is short you tend to notice more and value what you notice still more… and I think this applies not only to sight seeing.

When we landed in Punta Arenas the wind was not very strong, probably only 10 m/s. It is about the normal wind here and it goes up from that. Jumping ahead, on the second day after our arrival the weather turned really strange and we arrived at the airport in completely calm air, and discovered that the airplane was covered in frost – all of it! The wind sock was hanging limp and lifeless, and the low sun just barely warmed up the land with its morning rays. Since the Gulfstream can’t take off with frost on any surfaces we delayed the take off by an hour to let the sun come up and melt off the frost from the wings, tail and the fuselage. The Gulfstream sat on the ramp, lit by the rising sun, slowly dripping water from the wing trailing edges, as the science crew worked inside, preparing for a 11-hour flight.

It is difficult to stay put in a new place, so as soon as the time allowed I immediately drove to the North side of the Brunswick Peninsula, to the Otway Sound. There are penguin colonies up there but at this time of the year there is still no access to them, and the road is closed at the turn point. Nevertheless I took the road further Northwest and soon was on the shores of the Otway Sound.

Snow capped mountains on Isla Riesco tower over Otway Sound
Snow capped mountains on Isla Riesco tower over Otway Sound

The wind was relentless, and being here really showed that the air truly is a force of nature. Anyone who had witnessed storms and tornadoes will have due respect for the moving air but here it takes on another meaning. In a storm one can sometimes see the temporariness of it, and sometimes an end to the brutal onslaught of the wind. Here, you do not. The 20 m/s wind that was blowing over the Peninsula was everywhere – the endless ocean of air flows over this country from as far as an eye can see, to as far as it can see in the other direction, without pause, slowing or gusting. This is a massive, non-stopping flow of the wind that impressed me to no end. Opening the car door immediately teaches you that you either have to hold on to the door hard if you want it to stay with the car, or to push it hard to open and it will slam shut instantly once you let it go, depending on whether your car faces into the wind or away from it. You soon discover that you are fairly stable leaning into the wind a little bit, letting it take some of your weight – and it doesn’t let you down, it is always there to support you.

In memory of an unknown soul, a slanted cross on the shores of Otway Sound
In memory of an unknown soul, a slanted cross on the shores of Otway Sound

The endless gravel road was weaving along the coastline, and I took several stops and pullouts to get off the road and walk along the coast, taking photographs and just watching the three greatest domains of nature come together – the wind, the ocean and the snow capped mountains far away beyond the Sound, on the shores of Isla Riesco. The slopes of the mountains were gleaming with snow, so bright that it was hard to look at them, and so beautiful that it was impossible not to. A camera usually can’t pass along the feeling that the scene inspires, and this scene was no exception. The blinding sun glint off the ocean, the flares of the remote glaciers on the mountains and the sparkles of sunlight in the tears in your eyes from the wind – I couldn’t tell which made it most difficult to see into the distance that was looked onto through centuries by so many people who wanted to have nothing to do with commonality.

Abandoned fishing boat rests on the banks of a creek
Abandoned fishing boat rests on the banks of a creek

Several kilometers apart from each other small shacks stood on the shore, some having short chimneys from which smoke escaped, spreading a pleasant smell of burning firewood and food cooked, on occasion. At the mouth of a small river several abandoned boats were cast, capsized and broken. I stood there for a time, thinking of the people who are probably no longer here, who built those boats and launched them into the unrelenting wind, and of those other who watched them go every day, wishing for them to come back, not knowing if they will for sure. What life did they live? It probably was so hard by today’s standards that nobody today would ever even think of doing it. I wished on that shore that I could go back in time and look at these people, and sit by their fire and talk with them, and learn about how they lived on this remote coast under the howling cold wind.

I could stay there for many more hours but there is always that feeling of obligation that makes us turn around and go back to what we must do.

And so I left. But only for now.

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