Prisoners of Patagonia // Chile & Argentina
Having the option and opportunity to take our time, we enjoyed Torres del Paine National Park of Chile in 10 day segments, returning to Puerto Natales for fuel and groceries, then skipping joyfully back into the rough arms of our newest love affair. Being in a powerful place is something like falling in love. The exploration of each new curve an enchantment, the sleepless excitement of what the new day may hold, even mundane details are exciting in their newness, bad habits overlooked, rough edges charming, breathlessly awaiting more adventures in a new land, a new love affair. But there has yet to be any circumstance that has made us fall so deeply in love that we would trade our nomadic life to set roots. Not yet at least. Slow travel allows us the opportunity to explore each place as the season permits, and head off when the itch of wanderlust returns.We call this adventure “Our Open Road” for many reasons. The idea of the ‘open road’ is part of our American Heritage- like Easy Rider on the open highway, camping on the byways, wind in our hair. An updated version of Westward Expansion, Route 66 gone global. A road being not just a road, but a way between two places, a route in which many things can travel- people, transport, ideas. Openness being a quest of ours, to break down the fears or ideas which limit and judge. Not that we have reconciled all of these attributes (nirvana is still quite far off), but we address them and work towards bettering ourselves. By investing the time to document, process, edit, write about, and share these adventures, we are contributing to the larger access to the open road for all, perhaps inspiring some to adventure to places far or near with a new light in their eyes. And the inclusive all-encompassing “our” that is yes for us as a family, but also for a community, for our globe, we are all joined, all united, all one.Baguales was a region not noted in the guide books, but a place mentioned by more than one expat guide as a way to experience a rarely seen side of the area. It is a place that literally translates to ‘feral’ because the cattle roam free & often turn wild, so of course we had to step out and explore.What changes when you become a mother? Well, for one, you are no longer one. In a marriage you have an equal, a teammate, a soulmate- you are two weights seeking balance on a continually sliding scale of life. But you remain essentially you.
As a mother, you are a provider. Of love, of sustenance from your own body day and night, of comfort, of clean clothes, of interpreting dreams good and bad, of trimming hair, of wiping butts. There is nothing equal about it, you must be in charge or chaos will melt into despair. It is a complicated thing to be a parent, but if we can multi-task 15 things as only a woman’s brain can do so well, then surely turning down the volume of ones own-ness without fear of losing completely who we are in order to tune into the other channels, some blaring, some whispering, so that you can hear each beat and work to orchestrate a symphony of all the voices each with their individual needs and strengths, is a task we can master with joy as well. And it is enough. Yes, I am ME. Me as I was before I had children, but I am also more that that. I am my children, I am what I have taught them, what they will be. I do not expect to remain the same, I am forever changed, I am fearless to give my whole heart into raising these people whom I am gifted with that charge. I am Emily, but I am also, proudly, Mama. Stepping out of the van and clapping loudly in the general direction of a front door is not an altogether strange occurrence for us any more. Doorbells aren’t standard and the horn on our van doesn’t work, so this is the local way to get someones attention. There was smoke coming out of the flume, but nobody came out to talk, so we opened gates and kept going. The amethyst majesty of dusk slowly crept into camp at the end of the road, surrounding us in a frosty embrace. This nearly full-moon rising was one of our coldest nights. Sierra scrunches her nose when she giggles, giving a knowing look like ‘yes, this is the best sound in the universe.’ Over & over, people who have spent any length of time with us remark that she is the calmest and happiest baby they’ve met. We certainly adore, but laugh and say that they haven’t seen her let loose when she needs to, she is a born communicator. She is a great snuggler, a chewer of rocks and crayons, a fan of avocado and hater of eggs, a Vata dosha for sure, a slender little sprite, a light sleeper, an avid nurser, an admirer of all things Coco. Our oldest Ambassador of love & joy is an enthusiastic snowball maker, ice-licker, field frolicker, rock thrower, a hot-blooded adventurer, a tireless asker of questions, a doting if not occasionally a bit rough older sister, a daughter who tries to please us well, whose inner Tiger comes growling out when challenged, a pitta dosha. She is a four year old. To be a parent, is to take the greatest trip of your life. You get the opportunity to craft a citizen of the planet, influence the future beyond yourself, to mold a child with your words and what you put before them, fill their minds with what information you present them, what memories you make with them. To process the highlights of your own youth and forge a parental path to share moments that will glimmer or create a stone in their larger foundation. What a gift, what a challenge, what a trip. Like walking on a topo-map, the curves are highlighted by the green grass struggling against the snow that will soon envelop it in a winter blanket. Tights, long-johns, pants, 2 pairs of socks, inner layer, sweater, jacket, topcoat, hat, gloves, scarf, boots, and a shot of whiskey then we are ready to go. Well, we didn’t have any whiskey but we certainly had on all that other stuff. We were told that the ring-around-the-sun was a sign it was going to snow, and it surely felt like that. In so many of these pictures, it is Emily & the girls, but that’s not how it is. Adam is there with us, holding hands, the fourth leg of our table making us balance.
Hiking the ridge to enjoy the panorama before us, we spotted below a horseman and a herd of cattle.
This bagualero, Luis, rode up to us late in the day & he looked in the sky & said it was going to snow, which is why he was herding cattle back to the lowlands so they wouldn’t freeze. We chatted for a bit, the cattle wandering in all directions. He seemed pleased for our company, but not in need of it, a man who has spent years in these lands and knows its inner workings and his own. Asking if Coco would like to sit on his horse, he made her day.
In this land of macro-views, one must slow down and relish the discoveries on the micro-scale.Refueling ourselves with an epic vista, the heavy biting winds reminding us that hiking means warmth, that we are mere visitors in this mighty place, flecks of humanity in a vast earthen scape near the bottom of the globe. The plateau rising marked the spot in which to turn and go explore other epic valleys, vistas and small lakes, but trudging in the mush and snow on a near-freezing day with two littles, it wasn’t gonna happen. We had planned to hike in and set base-camp for a night or two further back in the region, but it was just too chilly for us. After the supremely cold night the evening before where the olive oil froze solid (while in the van), the girls would have been miserable in the tent and it seemed unfair to force such an event to happen. Plus, Colette had stepped on a patch of snow that gave way to a pool of icy water below and sank to her knee before she was able to climb out. So yeah, a kid with a wet foot in Southern Patagonia on the brink of a snow-storm, we didn’t push our luck or risk frostbite when the weak sun set. We opted to drive out of Baguales region after the hike, rather than spend another night in the harsh lands inside our tin-can home. We have no heating when stationary, which has not been too big an issue, but in this instance, it sure would have been welcome.Puerto Natales is the gateway city nearest Torres del Paine, Laguna Sofia and Baguales, but in its own right, on the Seno Última Esperanza, the Sound of the Last Hope, is a beautiful place to visit with great restaurants, cafes and friendly locals. Another area outside of park boundaries we wanted to see and had yet to explore was Laguna Sofia. Fall is a short burst of rainbow, a brilliant passing before the white blanket of cold winter sets in. We received an interesting email from an ad agency wanting us to do an Instagram feature for their client. We receive many inquiries from all manner of companies trying to have us use and review all sorts of things on both here our blog and on our Instagram feed, from Swedish socks to GMO granola bars, from casinos in Monaco to flight search engines. We usually say no, the payout usually not worth cluttering the flow and choosing to keep our feed focused on the adventure. But, when it was for the e-reader Kindle we agreed to do the job because it is actually something we need, will use, and it promotes reading and education. So we headed to Laguna Sofia with our Kindle in hand to create some content & live our life as normal in the process- a pretty sweet deal! We had made our ‘job’ pretty simple by being in such a location for the shoot. With so many beautiful angles around, it was fun to direct our own shoot, ticking off the shot list we had created, thinking up new ones as we went along. After we submitted about 100 images, we received the select list of 20. Later on, the agency communicated that Kindle would like to use the images for a broader campaign. A few months later, we started receiving emails and inquiries from people spotting our ad in the London subway and in magazines like this below pic in Vanity Fair.Of the thousand pictures we took, a few made it, a few did not.Sierra, exploring her own reflection, is coming to realize that she is a person and finds herself endlessly entertaining. A portrait of a morning in the van. Just a family living in a van, somewhere in the world, feeling small in a good way.
The beaming look of pride and glee on Colette’s face melts our heart. Yours too? To Colette, a few lucky adults and every child are just a friend waiting to happen. “¿Quieres a jugar?” she asks joyfully, usually to a positive response. This amigo grabbed his truck & set to digging in the sand with Coco, the lake ahead, smiling parents behind.Engineered in Germany, outfitted for the USA and driven to South America, our +30-year old vehicle has propane filling standards that are difficult to meet. When we ran out of the precious cooking gas, we thought we’d surely have to return 7 hours south to Punta Arenas to (hopefully) fill our tank. Driving on the familiar return route from Laguna Sofia southeast towards Puerto Natales, we passed a truck that garnered Adam’s immediate response with a splintering of gravel as he busted an A-team style u-turn from the shoulder to pavement as he floored the pedal in hopes of catching the rotund truck. If Emily’s window had been working, she would have hung out of it & waved frantically as we pulled alongside the camion, but as the motor had failed a few cold weeks before, all we could do was turn our emergency-flashers on and pass them as we slowed down, hoping the truck would figure out our intended message. Driver and passenger signaled they understood what we wanted and we all pulled over when a safe shoulder appeared. We then searched the van frantically for any Chilean pesos we could muster and finding only about $4 worth, we sadly presented our case to the gents, who waved off our sad pile of coins and heroically filled our tank for nothing more than a dose of ‘muy buena onda.’Having spent two months in Southern Chilean Patagonia, the seasons changing before our eyes, we departed northward, crossing back into Argentina via Rio Turbio. We like to think of this family string as our signature family portrait style.
The wild, windy area was breathtaking in its rugged beauty, with horses that thoughtfully matched the changing hues of the trees. Jack & Leo from Colorado had a flight to catch out of El Calafate, Argentina so we saved them the bus fare & drove them over. Coming over the pass, this sweeping view of the Patagonian steepe, part of the third largest desert in the world, opened before us. Having skipped it months before when we were in nearby El Chalten, we were excited to see the behemoth Perito Moreno Glacier inside the southern portion of Los Glaciares National Park of Argentina. This is one of the world’s most accessible glaciers, and as can be expected, the nearest town of El Calafate is tourist hub with restaurants, chocolate shops, and cafés lining the main drag. Heading in the opposite direction, we saw a milky blue VW Syncro with US plates, who had also spotted us, pulled over & was waving as only those in our Westy-club can understand. As it goes with most overlanders, we went from “hello, what is your name”, to sharing a drink and a meal within the hour. The friendship curve is sharp.
Over savory waffles and wine, we discussed our routes, insisting that Katie and Greg of Crepe Attack backtrack to El Chalten to hike amongst the Fitz Roy range. “It is world class!” we enthused. “You cannot be so close and miss it, it would be a great calamity.” So with our insistence, they agreed they would first check the weather and if clear, they’d head back for a peek at the famous towers and some of Argentina’s finest hiking.Syncro Greg as he is known on TheSamba.com is a major mechanical badass and is quite famous for his custom van and successful swap of a Subaru Boxer diesel EE20 motor, something no one else has done. Mega horse power and impressive fuel efficiency. You can read all about his build here and buy his custom motor kit here.Adam took a ride in their next level Westy and could feel the power! Departing ways the following morning, we went to see the glacier for ourselves. It was rainy, it was cold, it was exactly what seemed natural in this foreboding environment. On the verge of snow, it rained all afternoon, falling heavier still all evening, and all through the night. We waited for it to clear, but the storm did not cease.
Camped (illegally) in the park, tucked in a nook off the main road we were biding our time hoping for a break in the rain, which would lead to an enormous rainbow over the glacier and birds would bust back flips in our perfectly framed shot. One can hope, right? But it just kept raining. We snuggled lazily in the van for the day, preparing meals and watching movies while the heavy drops fell in torrents.Planning a renegade photo mission, Adam departed in the dark early the second morning hours before the official park opening, armed with waterproof layers and our oversized beach umbrella to provide some shelter while changing lenses in the storm. What he discovered in the first light of dawn was otherworldly. The monstrous chunks of ice the size of our van and some as big as a two-story house floated amongst the world frozen of blue.Like a finely polished aquamarine gemstone floating amongst a sea of clouds, this newly born iceberg stood apart.
A color wheel of complimentary colors, the orange fall forest meeting the blue affront presented from every angle a delight for the eyes.These slick, exposed areas of rock are signs that a glacier once smoothed its face, but Perito Moreno is said to be one of the few glaciers that is growing…This is the Perito Moreno Glacier, which stands some 150 feet tall, a great frozen arm reaching nearly 9 miles back before joining the main body of this great sheet of ice, the Southern Patagonia Ice Field.
Every direction is a study in blue, the shades and tonalities taking your breath away.
Even from far, the power of the face of the glacier is powerful. An eerie relic of another time, the compressed frozen rain from thousands of years ago, exposed at the razored, crumbling edge.
Returning to El Chalten for a second time no less a breathtaking sight. To witness the Fitz Roy peaks, that famously hide beneath the clouds is a rare and wonderful gift! El Chalten, in the Tehuelche tongue means ‘ smoking mountain’ as they believe it was a volcano for its peak is most of the time covered by clouds.
This portrait of our van is one of our all time favorites. It is a future classic. One perhaps our great-grand children will look at and say you drove that to there? The way these three girls came to be piled into the van on the drive from Calafate to Chalten is two cases of the small-worldies and one case of right place at the right time. Parked outside a hostel where we were poaching some wifi, they spotted our van and sent us a direct message. Theresa & Julia had been following our adventure on Instagram for over a year and had come for a college semester to Argentina inspired by our travels. They had flown to Patagonia for a long weekend, referencing what we had shared as inspiration for their own trip. Maddy, from Australia, met the girls in Buenos Aires and they were all traveling together. And now we were there, parked right in front of them! So, yes, of course we obliged them a story telling session on the half-day road trip from El Calafate to El Chalten.Months earlier when we passed this YPF gas station it was out of gas, another time it had a long line 15 cars deep waiting for their turn to fill up, so when we saw it was open and pumping with little wait, we did not hesitate to fill our tanks. This is the only station in town, and the next station lays a half-day drive away. We again crossed paths with Crepe Attack, who was on the ‘world class’ trail when the storm hit which washed out a bridge, stranding them in the backcountry for 2 days in the torrential downpour we experienced from Perito Moreno Glacier. So much for trusting that weather report. The backside of the massif is perhaps less famous, but a worthy angle of the sky-piercing spires. Our caravan goal being Lago del Desierto.Syncro Greg is on the loose! Watch out! When suddenly the road came to an end, we were quite perplexed. Had we taken a wrong turn? There were no turns to have taken! It simply came to an end in what appeared to be a boat ramp. 300 meters or more ahead, the faint markings of a gravel road continue on the other side. All that rain that had us holed up in the van and Crepe Attack in their tent, had swollen the rivers and raised the lake level, which covered the road altogether! It was the end of the road for the day, since neither of our vans had the transform into a boat option, so we set upon finding a camp for the night. Soon after finding a suitable but not dreamy place, Nikki & Jakob of Sprinter Van Diaries, who travel with their dog Leika, arrived and we circled the wagons into a triangle, then took turns drinking wine in each vehicle, inspecting and learning about each rides specialities. Katie & Greg busted out their namesake Crepe Attack, which was the deciding factor when we all piled into their ride for the night, devouring the delicious, savory and then sweet authentic French delights in the middle of Patagonia! With enough empty glass bottles to stoke out a hobo, things ended a bit blurry.
A bright beautiful brisk morning found a few folks a bit rough around the edges from the nights festivities, but with an invigorating view such as this, all woes are quickly gone. Greg, who built their van from the ground up seriously gets SO pumped about any excuse to get in, on or under his or someone else’s van. We had a few projects that needed completing, and his motivation was just the fuel Adam needed to help pump him for an afternoon changing the window seals, which whistled on the passenger side if all windows were sealed and we drove above 30mph.Late in the day it seemed all were recovered from the previous nights indulgences in wine, pastis, fernet and god knows what else, so we set off again in hopes the water level had dropped on the road to Lago del Desierto. Indeed, the part previously impassible was again a road, and our caravan motored onward. After not one but two sketchy bridges which required all parties voting on whether to cross or not, it became darker, and the puddles became larger. With neither 4wd, nor a super-high clearance, or having a snorkel, we were the weakest link in the trio and had to throw in the towel and tell the others we dared advance no further. So the others, being good sports, turned around and camped out with us at an inglorious pullout for our second night together.
With another dry day ahead, Adam and Greg set to wrenching on our ride a bit more, and Nikki, Jakob & Leika said their goodbyes for some backcountry hiking (which was obviously the better choice, but hey life on the road requires maintenance in a VW). The famous ‘Ruta Quarenta’ snakes along the Eastern slopes of the Andes of Argentina from north to south, along a stretch of over 5,000 km. In this stretch of vast Patagonian desert between El Chalten and Esquel, there is a great expanse, of soil, of wind, of space. Some say there is nothing. Colette is well versed in how to make the most of any situation, a skill we believe will serve her well as an adult.
90% of our meals are made in the van using whatever the last town visited may have to offer. Stocking our pantry with healthy sundries from green grocers and health food stores, Emily makes produce-heavy, vegetarian meals for our family. We were warned we would find nothing to eat except a tomato or perhaps an onion in Patagonia, but have found fresh produce available almost everywhere. Colette is an enthusiastic helper at meal time, offering suggestions, which is because she helps make food decisions in the market. Although this pic only depicts some breakfast version of eggs, I guarantee there was more to it than that. With Sierra pulling at the apron-strings, she is sure to be helping in the kitchen soon too. Viento, mucho viento the shirt read. We laughed to each other. Yes, SO true- wind, much wind! Reading about the region, you know it is windy, but living in it for 6 months is an altogether different experience. We first wondered what happened when we needed to fill our gas tank 25% sooner than normal, but driving into 100 kmph winds can eat up gas at an alarming rate. It can also blow your socks off! And PS, however many folks designed, okayed and produced this sign for the roadside all must be smoking something that is hard to find in these parts. There are no palm trees in the Patagonian desert. Or where there and they all got blown away?
This is a place where the movement of the sun is a sign you have not been driving in a black hole like Groundhogs Day on repeat. Folks, this is the Patagonian desert. But looking closer, there is life, and beauty, and power in this harsh place.The Pichi, or dwarf armadillo, is a weird and wonderful little creature. The only armadillo that hibernates, they hide out from May to August, their core body temperature drops from 95º to 57º as they remain burrowed in the sandy soil.
Learning to walk in Patagonia presents a variety of challenges, from wind that’ll knock you over to a constantly changing terrain, when this girl masters her steps, it will be well earned.
While she has not learned “Are we there yet?” Coco does get “a bit bored” after many hours of driving, which we try to occupy her with storybooks, coloring books, her kids computer, music and an occasional nap. A golden hour that hangs on lazily, provides illumination for the little one to burn off some steam of her own after hours and miles on the road.
Some 3 months earlier, we wished to visit the best of the early human cave art in the region. Unfortunately, the gas station at Bajo Caracoles, described in one guide book as the only reliable gas in the area, was out of gas and without a date of when they might get more so we had to pass it by. Slow travel allows second chances and for that we are so thankful. Camped on this little pullout above the visitor center, another vehicle pulled behind us in the night & we thought it was a ranger coming to tell us we would have to move, but it was other travelers looking for a pullout just like us. So they parked behind us & pulled out their tents in the cold & windy night. Cuevas de los Manos, on the Río Pinturas in an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Access is only with a guided tour, to explain but mostly to protect this site from human vandalism, which is the only threat to this location.
Carbon dating of bird bone-made pipes used by Tehuelche people for spraying paint over their hands that created these silhouettes, puts these cave paintings at 9,000 years old. Depictions of hunting scenes show they would throw a bolas (rope that had two large stones at either end) designed to capture animals by entangling their legs.
The Pinturas River is a rare source of water in this desert land, bringing water from the Eastern side of the Andes, terminating thousands of miles away at the Atlantic Ocean.
In the foreground small children’s hands mark the lowest reaches, in the middle the densest population of marks are laid and on the highest reaches, a few climbers left their marks. To look back into time, and see that history still present touches the soul in a magnificent way.
The paintings were crafted with natural mineral pigments, ground and mixed with some form of binder, probably animal fat and crushed bone. Iron oxides made red and purple, kaolin which is called china clay because of its use in making porcelain made white, natrojarosite a crystalline rock made yellow, and manganese oxide the black. It is interesting that in other such early human cave painting sites, these same minerals were used. Back on the road, driving north, a direction that we have avoided for 2.5 years will be our normal route for some years to come.
The Ruta 40 is an icon of adventure, of the road less traveled, but with so few roads to choose from, it is surely now the road more traveled in these parts.
Turning the downstairs bench into a play room, the toy bag is dumped out, and the girls can just go for it when it’s too cold to play outside.
Emily found alphabet pasta in the grocery store and just knew that Colette would flip her lid. “Colette, let’s cast a magic spell and make our soup talk to us!” “What Mommy? I have never seen soup do that! That will be so exciting!!”
Entertainment is also provided by the amaaaazing Daddy! Performing here for one night only. He can balance one, no two, no can you believe it three items on his head!
Entering Bariloche for the first time, it was easy to see that this place has many secrets to tell… but those must be explored later. We had plane tickets… the girls & Emily to Texas for her cousins wedding and Adam was headed to Peru for a 24 Hour Bazaar. We would spend 3 weeks apart and then we would all meet in California for friends, family and Emily’s brother’s wedding. The return of the boomerang to refill our love cup, to share the joy of these girls with those that miss her most.
Arriving two weeks before our flights were to depart, we put the word out to find a safe place to leave our van parked. After a few bumps in finding just the right spot, we met Cali & Connan in Villa La Angostura- a mellow hamlet an hour outside of bustling Bariloche. We came over to check out their spot and instantly clicked with them, so we spent the next week hanging out, avoiding the rain, cooking great meals. These wonderful folks make being a guest a pleasure, opening their hearts and home with a grace that filled us with so much thanks. Leaving our van well set on hibernation mode for the coming winter, we were ready to take on the next chapter!