On a rainy day in the temperate rain forests of Chile, we left a tiny A-frame cabin in the woods, headed for an international border in Patagonia. Our Overland travels would be taking us to Argentina, and it was unreal that we had begun our Overland journey in Peru nearly 2 months prior. In just a matter of hours we would be obtaining our 26th passport stamp, and entering our 9th Latin American country.
The greenery of the Puyehue Forest in Chile abruptly stopped, as soon as we passed through the Chilean border crossing and into a no-man’s land between it and Argentina. The cold and rainy broad leaf forests were suddenly transformed into towering stone peaks and pine forests covered with snow. Rain turned to sleet, and the sleet turned to a mild snowstorm as we neared the border crossing.
Crossing borders in Overland travel is always a bit off-putting as you never know what to expect or quite where you need to go. Not to mention figuring out what the process is in regards to bringing in your own vehicle. However, Argentina’s border crossing was unique in the fact that it had a welcoming feel, and it resembled a rustic mountain lodge more than an official international border. Pulling into the snowy parking lot, we were alongside huge buses with hordes of travelers after their Chilean passport stamps.
Our end goal was to obtain a document known as a T.I.P. (temporary import permit) for our Coloradoan Toyota 4Runner, Old Grey. This document is not only a necessity to drive in a foreign country, but in our case, it was doubly important. It was a necessity that we obtained it at the border, to ship Old Grey back to the states from Buenos Aires in just two short weeks.
We first obtained passport stamps as tourists among the crowd of bus travelers, and next located the line for the Aduana (the customs office). The friendly, clean-cut man at the counter was bubbly and intrigued about our trip and how far we’d come.
After some questioning that was half-lost in translation, we were wished happy travels and Old Grey’s official T.I.P. was stamped for entry into the country.
OVERLAND TRAVELS IN THE PATAGONIAN WILDERNESS
San Carlos de Bariloche is a tiny mountain town on the Argentine side of Patagonia, and a prominent place for skiing. The town is beautifully situated on Lake Nahuel, and like any other ski town, it is an upscale place to be. Expensive ski equipment and clothing shops line the downtown area, and 5-star gourmet restaurants are in abundant supply. Just outside of town, exceptionally beautiful cabin and condo rentals topped $150 per night.
For us, this was simply a place to get some rest and find out where we would travel next. These days, we were driving so much that we hardly had any time to plan. We were completely at a loss as to where we would visit in Argentina, and quite frankly, we were flying by the seat of our pants. We had no travel guide, no solid timeline as to when we would make it to the port in Buenos Aires, and no idea what we wanted to see next on our travels.
One night, as we sat in the kitchen of our $50 per night guesthouse contemplating our next steps, we met a young Argentine couple who were incredibly social and friendly. Little did we know, this chance encounter would lead to one of the most spectacular experiences we’ve ever had.
We sparked our conversation via Google Translate, and ended up talking all night over freshly baked empanadas and endless cups of mate (pronounced “mah-tay”), a traditional hot tea drink (and social ice breaker) of Argentina. Our friends mentioned that it was whale watching season on the Atlantic coast. Wide-eyed and excited, they insisted that since we had our own car we should not miss the opportunity to see them.
They informed us that in the coastal town of Puerto Madryn, you could drive right up to the beach, and witness the whales and their babies in the ocean without even needing a boat. Apparently, massive pods of Southern Right Wales visit this part of Argentina every year to give birth from August to December, and they teach their young how to swim in the calm waters of the bay before making their way north. In fact, the waters of the bay are so calm and deep, that the whales come within just a few meters of the shore.
How could we not be hooked on the idea of seeing such an amazing sight? We were elated that we ran into new friends, by sheer chance, who happened to give us the push we needed to steer our next adventure. We would have to go farther south into the Patagonian wilderness to reach the highway that would take us to the coast. Despite this, we decided on the spot that we would take our friends’ advice and go. We’d have a short stop-over in the Patagonian town of El Bolsón. Then, we would drive for two days straight to reach the coast.
The weather, however, had other ideas in store for us. The day of our checkout, we woke up to a winter wonderland full of snow in Bariloche. Our guesthouse owner gave us extreme caution when she learned we were headed farther south, stating that we needed chains on our tires as the snow was so bad. This would be a very unwanted expense for us and be a lot of trouble to obtain. Not only would we have to track down a mechanic shop and pay for the tire chains, but we would also have to find a way to store them, plus find a way to get rid of them before putting Old Grey on the boat.
Even after finding out that we could be pulled over by police for not having tire chains, we left without them. Passing into the surrounding Patagonian wildness, the snow was deep and the grey clouds above were dropping snow over the landscape in sheets. However, a lesson we have repeatedly learned in our travels showed itself once again: things are hardly ever as bad as people say they are.
The paved roadways were clear and salted, and we giggled at the fact that it was no different than driving the mountains of our Colorado hometown in the winter. Even more hilarious were the small compact cars also making the drive without any chains, slipping and sliding and speeding past us. Old Grey not only had a one-up to all the other cars on the road being a 4WD truck, but had succeeded to pull us through the Patagonian winter almost effortlessly.
The Lavender Farm in El Bolsón
In late afternoon, we stopped at a random guesthouse called Huala Hostel just south of Bariloche, which just so happened to be located on a family-owned lavender farm that was surrounded by snowy mountain peaks. We were greeted by the woman of the house, a friendly old woman with long, silver hair and a welcoming energy. She introduced us to her friendly Siamese cat, Flower, who sat contently on her shoulders. Flower was the type of cat who lives for love – and followed us everywhere during our stay, purring and jumping up on the chairs and counters begging us to be petted.
Though our host spoke no English, we communicated in broken Spanish and friendly hand gestures. Her gorgeous guesthouse was full of homestead love and we were immediately grateful for our choice to stop. She had a small shelf stocked with bags of hand-shelled walnuts and homemade lavender potpourri straight from the farm. She even had tiny bottles of sweet lavender essential oils for sale. Apparently, she was also a beekeeper, and sold large jars of raw honey with the combs intact.
For breakfast, she left us homemade walnut bread, freshly baked biscuits, and heaping scoops of her insatiable blackberry marmalade. Staying in such a calming place surrounded by the snowy mountains of Patagonia, it was our first real insight into how colorful and beautiful the Argentine culture is. We’ve met quite a few Argentine travelers in the past year of our Latin American journey, and we absolutely love their kindhearted, social energy.
On our way out, I could not resist buying two bottles of her sweet-smelling lavender essential oil. Had we not been crushed on time, we would have stayed in that beautiful place as long as possible.
TRACKING THE MAJESTIC BEASTS OF THE SEA
One thousand kilometers later, we arrived at the eastern side of the South American continent, reaching the Atlantic coastal town of Puerto Madryn. The town’s narrow and cluttered streets were an extreme contrast to the wide-open spaces of the mountains we had just been in. Traffic was chaotic and disorganized here, and the main avenues were lined with busy tour companies and sardine-can parking.
After locating a simple hostel for the night, we repeatedly overheard guests in the common areas raving about their whale sightings and spectacular experiences with the wildlife around the coast. We could feel the adventure in the air and were ready to experience a full day of exploration ourselves. In the morning, we had obtained maps from the reception desk, and set out on the hunt for the Southern Right Whales.
Just 30 minutes outside of the city, the coast was veined with dirt roads. Some lead straight the beaches of the Golfo Nuevo, where we heard most of the whales spent their time. After a mere several minutes driving with our eyes to the coast, we spotted a massive pod of Southern Right Whales making their way across the bay. Mists from their spouts sprayed into the air, and we could spot whale tails and fins jutting straight out of the water.
Immediately, we found ourselves on an excited wild chase and on the hunt for a place to park Old Grey on the ocean. Every moment we drove, we would spot another group of whales, and another, and then another. We’d slam on the brakes, hop out of the car, and make a mad dash towards the shore to spot these amazing creatures. People packed onto the beaches, on the lookout just as we were.
Locating a rough 4WD road on one of our searches, we headed down to a portion of the gulf we nicknamed Pebble Beach. A rough dip in the road had discouraged other cars from driving in, but Old Grey moved over the spot like it was nothing. The main perk of having 4WD was our own desolate slice of beach, that was teeming with mother whales and their young calves. As we neared the shore, a mother and her calf were bobbing in and out of the water a mere 10 feet from the break of the waves.
The mother was easily 50 feet in length. They were so close we could see each barnacle on the mother’s skin, and look her right in the eye as she came up from the surface. We could hear them breathing each time they came up for air. Noticing us on the beach, they steered their way back into the farther reaches of the bay.
At that very moment, our 1-day exploration turned into three. There were several places to set up camp along the shores, and we made a no-brainer decision to camp on the beach alongside the whales for two nights straight. Returning to Puerto Madryn, we stocked up on groceries and prepared for two nights of wild camping.
A SLEEPOVER WITH THE WHALES
We chose Pebble Beach as our main base. It was quiet, and more importantly, uncrowded. Though the cold Atlantic winds blew hard, we found a single tree to camp under that provided some slight protection. That day, we spent the entire afternoon sitting on the beach in our camp chairs, observing the whales as if it was a grand drive-in movie. It was an overwhelming sense of awe watching them jump from the waters, throw their tails from the sea, and mist the air as they breathed on the surface.
It was amazing how abundant and close they were, and at any given moment we could look up from our mate cup to see the bay dotted with these majestic creatures, mostly mothers and calves. Hearing them spray and splash in the sea was as frequent as the wind howling across the beach, and it became almost second nature to hear them swimming through the bay. For hours, we watched them contently straight from camp.
At nightfall, the wind died to a slow breeze, and the beach was completely silent and void of any other visitors except ourselves, and Old Grey.
It was a clear, starry night and our truck window was cracked as we settled into sleep. All night, we could hear the whales coming up for air right along the shore, and we could hear their majestic and low-pitched songs as if there was a microphone in the water. Some of them sounded so close to us as the tide rose, that we were sure we were only several feet from them. Their low grumblings and drawn out moans seemed to form conversations, and carried directly into the truck where we laid.
We noticed the males had the lowest pitches, and every so often we could hear higher-pitched wails from the mothers and calves. Their songs could be heard from different points all around us, sometimes in unison, other times one by one. We knew that we were hearing something incredibly rare, as they couldn’t be heard through songbirds and the sounds of other visitors during the day.
This experience literally brought tears to our eyes. There are few phrases in the English language to accurately depict the profound experience that we had that night. These creatures have an energy about them that is unlike any creature we’ve encountered on earth. It is an energy so significant that it seems to be beyond what human minds can comprehend. Whales are the gigantic rulers of the ocean, a portion of our world that we as humans know very little about.
There is something truly spectacular about these elegant creatures that live deep in the unknown reaches of our planet, and witnessing them in their natural habitat was incredible. The fact that we could witness the calves beginning their lives in the bay was an unforgettable experience, and one that we will be forever grateful for.
To see our videos of the whales in Puerto Madryn, click here!
The Last Morning on Pebble Beach
The moment the sun rose on the day of our departure, we looked to the bay right from Old Grey’s door to see the ocean dotted with dozens of whales waking up for the day. They were especially active as the wind had died and the waters were extremely calm. The sun was shining warmly that morning, right over the nearby cliffs and onto the bay. To our astonishment, we awoke to even louder songs from the whales than we had heard in the night. Rushing to the shore for a glimpse, two families of whales were swimming together in a massive circle, just 12 feet from the shore.
There were two gigantic father wales, singing their low, drawn out songs and talking to each other in turns. There were two mothers, coming up for air every so often, alongside their two calves. We could not believe what we were in the presence of, and it was a fantastic experience for Scott especially, as he had walked right upon them and witnessed the entire interaction between the two families.
Just before taking a last look that morning and heading on our way, we spotted three older calves jumping clear out of the water, enjoying the sunny day. The encore of our entire experience occurred exactly at that moment, as we caught an extremely rare sighting of a white whale. Far from the shore in the middle of the bay, we caught a glimpse of a whale calf that was completely stark white, swimming happily in the ocean.
The calf swam with who we assumed to be the mother and father, as one of the adults was massive and the other more moderately sized like the other mothers we had seen. We watched in awe as the small white calf weaved in and out of the ocean, and bobbed up from the surface again and again, a highlighted patch of white on a sea of blue.
As the young white whale and its family drifted out of sight, we felt a fleeting sense of gratitude come over us, which struck us both like a flash of lightening. Scott had said that this experience alone made it all worth it – obtaining Old Grey, going through the trials and tribulations of Overland life, and making it to this very spot. I couldn’t have agreed more.
Had we not made the choice to experience Overland travel in this part of South America, there is a great chance we never would have witnessed these amazing creatures in the bay, nor would we have the chance to spend hours and hours right by their side on the beach. Without Old Grey, we may not have met our friends in Bariloche either, who told us of this spectacular occurrence in the first place.
Sometimes, the best adventures are experienced without a guidebook and without a solid plan. Overland travel drives this fact home. It is a method of travel that we ourselves could not have prepared enough for, nor could we have ever known the scope of the experiences we would encounter. By leaving our first adventure in Argentina to fate, we experienced something so profound that we never could have planned it ourselves had we tried. Not only will it be a lasting memory for us both, but it has changed us forever.
It is experiences such as these that truly remind us of how grateful we are to be experiencing the world we live in. Through our breathtaking experience with these creatures of the deep, we knew for sure that we can never stop our worldly adventures. We will never cease to experience this world, no matter where life takes us. The earth is wide, and it is full of countless experiences and lessons just waiting to be had. We are determined to witness all there is to offer, and are eager to see where the road will take us.
Related Articles: The Chile Overland Series