After Torres del Paine we had nothing big left in our Patagonia “to do” list but cross back into Argentina and drive down to the end of the continent to the tip of Tierra del Fuego. Ushuaia was the city we were aiming for and we had a border to cross and another ferry ride ahead of us. It seemed like a simple plan, but sometimes nothing is simple on the road.
As we headed south to Punta Arenas Sam began to notice the clutch felt a bit soft. We have had ZERO problems with our Dodge the entire trip, it has been a super reliable truck, so we were not on high alert. We found a great free campground near the ocean outside Punta Arenas and thought we would settle in for the night. As Sam was trying to find us a place to park, he found it harder and harder to put the truck in gear. By the time we were parked he was not sure if he could even get us in gear the next day.
CRAP! The good news is we were in Chile (a very competent country for repairs and parts), the bad news was we would have to try to understand Chilean Spanish when we found a mechanic and pray that we could get a spare part if we needed it.
The next morning we were both stressed out, hoping we would not have to pay for a tow. Luckily, Sam got the truck into second gear, and told me he could not shift it into any other gear. So we drove 30 kilometers in second gear into Punta Arenas to find a mechanic. As we got into town we could not stop for red lights, so we would try to time them. Let’s just say we ran a few lights. Good thing we are so huge, people had to yielded for us, I actually enjoyed driving without stopping through the city, it was a bit nuts, it was like the movie Speed, just at 15 miles per hour.
We found a mechanic, but then suddenly realized it was Sunday and nothing was open. So we had to park on the street near the shop. The bad news was we would have to get towed into the shop the next morning, the clutch was officially done. While we were trying to figure out how we would get the truck into the shop, we discovered our friends Michael and Simone were also in Punta Arenas, so Fritz to the rescue!!!
After three days and many very confusing conversations with our mechanic, we sort of understood what the problem was and vaguely understood how he fixed it. The gist of it is, our slave cylinder had a leak, maybe a seal had failed, which would be easy to fix if it could be bled. But the Dodge slave cylinder is a entire part that needs to be replaced, it is all sealed and can’t be bled, so we needed a new part which would need to be imported. However, by the South American mechanic miracle, Christian fixed it (we never understood how), but told us we would need a new part when we got to the states. He told us we should be fine, which is not a very confidence inspiring statement when you are getting ready to drive off to the wilds of Tierra del Fuego.
To celebrate the truck moving again, we drove down the Straits of Magellan to find a remote wild camp on a beach where we watched migrating black and white Magellanic Dolphins play in the waves.
From Punta Arenas we had a long drive and a final ferry crossing to get to the island of Tierra del Fuego. For us the ferry was easy, we only waited about 45 minutes and the seas were relatively tame, but our Swiss friends waited six hours in line to cross the straits. We think there is less traffic in the afternoon when we crossed because in the morning many tourists are crossing over to see the king penguins from Punta Arenas, and the tourist buses take up the limited ferry space.
We had planned to see the king penguins also, but we arrived too late in the evening to make it all the way down to them, so we had to drive down back estancia roads through the wild, flat pampas that makes up most of Tierra del Fuego to find a place with wind shelter to camp. In Patagonia, wind shelter takes priority over everything when wild camping. View, privacy, hidden from the road, none of that matters if there is wind (and there is always wind….). We found a space behind a giant pile of sand off a back road and actually slept really well.
The next day we drove the beautiful dirt coastal road that hugs the Strait of Magellan to the king penguin habitat and randomly ran into our biker friends Michelle and Brian who we last saw in Peru, which was crazy since they were the only other vehicle we passed the entire drive. We stopped and chatted until we all were almost frozen solid. Then at the penguins, we ran into Josh and Shannon and their dog Kaleb who we had not seen since Ecuador. Crazy what a small overlanding world it is!
After visiting the penguins we had to cross back again into Argentina. Tierra del Fuego island is half Chilean, half Argentinian, so to get to Ushuaia we needed to cross the border yet again. The drive to Ushuaia is a long one, but the scenery gets prettier the closer to the end of the continent we got. The rolling pampas disappeared and snow capped mountains and alpine lakes began to appear. I had no idea what to expect from this part of Patagonia, but I never expected it to be as rustically beautiful or as cold as I found it to be.
For us, getting to Ushuaia was a huge milestone. It was officially the time on the trip when we got as far south as the road would take us and we would have to turn around and go north again. It symbolized a lot of things, but I think what it symbolized the most for us was that the trip was almost over. As we drove through the famous gates into town I got a bit emotional. We stopped to take pictures (FYI the police do not like you stopping on the side of the road….) and then sort of had a “now what” moment.
We were feeling a bit sad as we drove into town, but as we pulled into the parking lot we saw the craziest thing, Moby, the truck of our friends Toby and Chloe , whom we had not seen since Machu Picchu! I jumped out of the truck and literally screamed with joy, we had been sure that we would not see them again on this trip, they were months behind us. How they had driven into Ushuaia on the same day we had without planning was the craziest and best coincidence ever. We went from feeling sad to being so excited to arrive at this huge milestone with some of our best friends. We went into town in search of them. Let the party begin!!!!!
We found Toby and Chloe in town and decided to go free camp at a great little campground outside the city. It was so cold while we were here, SO COLD, that this was the first time we ran our heater all day in the XP. The damp cold just got under our skin, this was the coldest place of the trip for me.
To make our celebration even better all four of our Swiss friends got into town and we decided to all get together and splurge on a king crab dinner at La Cantina Fueguina de Freddy to celebrate arriving at the end of the world together. I could not have hoped for a better end to this epic adventure.
National Park Tierra del Fuego
After a few drunken days of celebrating (which would continue on for an alarming number of days hence….) we headed into the national park to camp and see the sites. This park can get very busy on the days when the cruise ships dock in town, and be very empty when they don’t. After paying the park entry fee you have two days of free camping and there are a few good hiking trails. It is not the most beautiful national park in Patagonia, but looking out across the Beagle Channel down the cold green waters, I felt like not much had changed since the first explorers saw this land.
The next day we explored more of the park and mailed some post cards from the farthest south post office in the world. This post office gets VERY crowded inside, so if there is a tour bus, be warned.
While we were in the park we got a text from Robbie and Kristin from Adventures on Tap who had driven to Ushuaia in 4 months! So many different ways to do this trip. They wanted to meet up and we all planed to camp together in the park. That was until the ranger saw Tia and we got evicted. So we moved the gang over to the only other campground in Ushuaia (that is sadly now closed) which worked out well because it had a wood fired room we could all hang out in. It was way too cold to be outside and it was pissing icy rain. We could have all fit in the XP, we have had six in it before, the the great room at the campground was much better. Kristin was so sweet, she made all of us dinner and Robbie bought us a very nice bottle of Scotch, so the end of the world celebration continued and we made some great new friends. (FYI, we are all so brutally hung over in the picture. Just looking at it takes me right back!) =).
Coming up next: We feet like Tierra del Fuego has more for us to discover so Toby, Chloe, Sam and I head off for some serious adventure.