Post #180: Flamingos and guanacos and rheas, oh my!

January 23, 2023


The late-night El Calafate revelers, the nearby road and the early sun conspired again to limit our sleep to just a few hours. We had a quick breakfast at the hostel then stopped off at a well-known German bread bakery in town cleverly named Pantagonia (“pan” is Spanish for bread) where Susan was delighted to find soft pretzels—until she tried them and found them to be more like dry, unsalted pastry twisted into a pretzel shape. Best leave the pretzels to the real Germans–or those from Philadelphia.

Susan found soft pretzels at a bakery in town – they definitely were not Philly-style
Flamingos in the lagoon
Laguna Nimez with the town of El Calafate in background

Afterwards, we spent some time exploring Sendero Laguna Nimez, a lagoon on the edge of El Calafate that is known as a habitat for pink flamingos. 

Magellan (aka upland) goose found only in southern Patagonia and the Falklands
Birds with colorful feathers – we're not professional birders so we can't tell you what type of bird this is
Ruddy duck with iridescent blue beak
Path through the grasslands at the lagoon
We enjoyed views of the distant desert hills as we circled the lagoon
Wildflowers were in abundance

A peaceful trail circled around the lagoon, offering glimpses of the birds as well as views of fields of wildflowers, marshes, tall grasses and distant dry hills.


Eventually we left the lagoon and hit the road heading to Torres Del Paine National Park area, where the real Patagonia hiking would begin. The 180-mile drive to our accommodations would take us over four hours through desert pampas along a decent road that we had almost entirely to ourselves. It felt like about the same amount of traffic as Highway 50 in Nevada, considered the loneliest highway in the U.S. 


We stopped at the only gas station along the route, not knowing exactly what to do because there was no display on the pump and no directions anywhere. I stood outside the car looking and feeling like a dumb gringo until eventually a woman in jeans came over to pump the gas after we’d figured out how to get the stuck gas tank door open. When she was done, she said it cost ARS$4,500. She could have said pretty much any number and we’d have paid, having no idea how much gas we took, the price per liter or if she even worked at the station.

The first of numerous herds of guanacas we'd see both along the roadways and, later, inside the park

Along the drive, we passed several herds of guanacos. Guanacos are predecessors of domesticated llamas. They look similar but guanacos are smaller and, unlike llamas, are wild.

Soon after spotting guanacos, we passed clusters of rheas. They’re basically South America’s version of African ostriches. Rheas are quite a bit smaller but equally interesting to observe—both birds have wings but neither flies and both are fast runners.


Nearly the entire drive was in Argentina but by mid-afternoon we reached the Argentina/Chile border, where we had to park and go to Argentine immigration and customs to begin the document dance. Susan was ready with a booklet of papers and fortunately the agents were very nice and we practiced a little Spanish as we were given permission to leave the country. The wind had been howling and pushing the little car around on the road and I asked the agent, siempre mucho hace viento aqui? Is it always very windy here? He sighed and said si, siempre. 


About a mile farther down the road, we entered Chile and did the whole process again for entry. Neither place had taken much time, but if we’d arrived just after one of the large tour buses, it could have taken a very long time.

By the time we reached the Chilean border we had views of the Torres del Paine mountains
Giant horse at the entrance to the tiny village

Not long after crossing the border, we arrived in the barely-there village of Cerro Castillo, Chile where we were greeted by a large statue of an angry-looking horse standing on two legs. The horse is a tribute to the gaucho lifestyle of the area. Horses were the main mode of transport until relatively recently when the road to Cerro Castillo was fully developed. Horseback riding remains a popular activity there. 

Our inn for a few nights

We found Hosteria Pionero, tucked away along a dirt road in the two-block town, our home for two nights. The hosteria was an older, elegant two-story house, converted to an inn of sorts and surrounded by wind-breaking trees. The wind was absolutely howling and would be a fixture for the duration of our time in Patagonia.

A half-mile walk from our inn brought us into the tiny town where we bought some Chilean pesos at the only other hotel, which also had the only restaurant. We’d have to somehow wrap our minds around the money conversion from Argentine pesos we were now used to (using the current unofficial “blue” rate of 365 per US dollar unless we used the credit card rate of 325 or sometimes the official rate of 180) to the rate of 815 Chilean pesos per dollar. We’d had no idea how much math we’d be doing in South America! 

Charles's puffy coat was at maximum puffiness in the fierce wind. He held onto the village sign to avoid getting blown over

On the way back to our room, we were nearly blown over by the gusts of wind. It was cool and sunny with a clear blue sky, but the forecast indicated our hiking tomorrow would be much cooler with some rain (and – surprise – more wind). Such is Patagonia.

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