Rio Gallegos to Ushuaia
Trip Start Jul 01, 2011
186Trip End Jul 21, 2012
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We arrive at the first border crossing (Argentina to Chile) a little after 8am... and find it closed. A truck is parked on the side. The driver explains that the border opens at 8am Chilean time, i.e. 9am Argentine time, so we are about an hour early. Our gas tank is quite low so I also ask where we can find a gas station. The answer sends a chill down my spine: Punta Arenas. This is several hundred km away and it's a huge detour from the road to Ushuaia. There's only one choice: driving back to Río Gallegos! We make it there around 9am and stop at the YPF gas station. The attendant tells us he has no gas. Only the Esso station still has some. It's because of the trucker's strike. I should have listened to the news more carefully! We make it to the Esso station and find out that there's a line. A long one. It goes around several blocks. We have no other option so we find our place in line and wait. About 2.5 hours later we have a full tank of gas, plus a 20-liter jerrycan that I bought at the hardware store and asked the Esso guy to fill to the brim. It's 12pm and we are on our way to Ushuaia... again, this time with plenty of gas.
The first border crossing is easy, and it's a real pleasure to deal with Chilean police and customs folks: so fast, efficient and friendly. In thirty minutes we have all the papers done to exit Argentina and enter Chile, including the car permit and the agriculture stamp for the dogs. Of course it helps that this time we have all the official papers with us: we learned the lesson from our entry into Chile from Peru! The Chilean customs officer asks why we chose to visit Patagonia in winter. I answer that it's just the timing of our trip and we didn't want to listen to all the people who said that it was the worst time to come. He smiles and says that it's actually the best time to come because the landscapes and colors are far more beautiful: this is the real face of Patagonia. The words of a wise man.
We continue the journey through Patagonia for a few hours until the road ends abruptly into the sea. A sign confirms that this is the strait of Magellan, the spot where we need to take the ferry. I step out of the car and get instantly frozen by the strongest and coldest wind I have ever experienced. The next available ferry is at 2.30pm so we buy lunch at the local 'comedor' - a hot and hearty meal, exactly what we needed.
Getting onboard the ferry, one of the crew members sees our license plate and asks where we are from, then starts singing in English: "If you're going to San Francisco..." There is definitely something unique about the hospitality and positive energy of Chilean people!
The ferry ride is epic with rough sea conditions and strong gusty wind under a clear blue sky. Twenty minutes later our wheels touch the soil of the legendary Tierra de Fuego!
Soon the asphalt disappears and gives way to a bumpy gravel road with some snowy and icy sections. The jerrycan I bought this morning is not airtight so the cockpit of our car stinks of gasoline, and the outside temperature is just about freezing. We make a stop to empty the jerrycan's contents in the car's tank. I use a plastic bottle and a swiss army knife to create a McGiver-style funnel. Within the 5 minutes it takes to pour the 20 liters the icy wind steals every calorie from my fingers to the point where I can't feel them anymore.
We arrive at the San Sebastian border crossing after sunset. Fortunately the formalities are a breeze: we're back into Argentina with a new car permit in about 30 minutes. It is now pitch black. The road is paved but frost and ice are definitely part of the landscape. Río Grande, then Tolhuin... by now the road is covered in a white coat. We stop for gas. The guy at the pump confirms that the mountain pass (called Paso Garibaldi) is open and that I can drive there without even putting the snowchains on. The Universe is conspiring to help us get to Ushuaia tonight!
Paso Garibaldi is very impressive. Although there is no snowfall the wind at the summit is blowing clouds of snowdust on the road. It's not really dangerous as long as you drive slowly and carefully but I can imagine that in a snowstorm the situation would be very different!
Right around midnight we arrive in Usuaia and enjoy the city lights, wondering what the place will look like tomorrow morning. More than 16 hours have passed since we first left Río Gallegos (12 hours since we left for the second time with a full tank of gas). The hotel room is comfortable and warm, like a mountain cabin. Finding sleep is easy, except for this high-pitch voice in my head that keeps repeating: "You are in Ushuaia"!