Patagonia Almost Ate Me

The man (let's call him Raul), looked at me as if I were an idiot. He was right, of course. I was an idiot. But right there and then, I didn't wish to be reminded of it. Besides, in what forsaken part of the planet can't you pay for petrol with a credit card? I'll tell you where. Tapi Aike in Argentina, that's where. A T-junction in a remote part of Patagonia with a petrol station, a couple of warehouses and a disproportionately large police station. I reached into my wallet and pulled out all the Chilean Pesos I had. Would that cover the petrol Raul had put in my car? After an elaborate conversion into Argentine Pesos, Raul announced that it would, miraculously, cover the petrol right down to the last Chilean Peso I had shown him. What a coincidence. But, he gestured, it wouldn't pay for the water and snacks I was hoping to buy as well. Frankly, having almost run the car dry in one of the remotest parts of South America, I was just happy to have the petrol. A full tank would get me to my destination: El Chaltén, a small mountaineering mecca on the Argentine-Chilean border. Another six hours away.

The Road to Tapi Aike

My journey had started on the Chilean side of the border. I'd spent a few days in the Torres del Paine National Park after my 2015 trip to Antarctica as an instructor for Luminous Landscape. It's a far-flung place, where distances and travel times concertina at will. Mostly, they get much longer than you anticipate. That means, if you are driving like I was, you need to keep an eye on your petrol gauge. Especially as the only petrol station in Torres del Paine was an hour-and-a-half round trip from where I was based. My drive from Torres del Paine in Chile to El Chaltén in Argentina would take an estimated seven hours. I had a half tank of petrol. Nowhere near enough. But that was fine. An hour into my journey was Tapi Aike, by all accounts a bustling population hub with petrol practically running freely in the streets. Or, I could do the 90-minute round trip to where I had been filling up for the past few days. But that meant going the opposite direction first. I am a man and men don't go in for that sort of thing. Especially (and I cannot stress this enough), when I had been assured that the modern sparkle of Tapi Aike and its abundance of motoring conveniences awaited me just 60 minutes in the direction I was heading. My half tank and I set off for Tapi Aike.

Getting into Trouble, the Patagonia Way

A half tank is plenty. Unless you do all of the following things: 1) Don't get Chilean rental car papers stamped upon leaving Chile. 2) Drive several miles to Argentine entry post. Get shouted at and sent back to Chile to get aforementioned stamp. 3) Eventually return to Argentine border post and get treated with great suspicion. Miss ridiculously well-concealed and understated left-hand turn immediately upon entering Argentina. Drive for miles and miles looking for said left-hand turn, which on maps is indicated as being major national traffic artery. 4) Drive miles and miles back to find mystery left-hand turn, now on right-hand side of the road, due to coming from opposite direction, and clearly visible. Trust that this single dirt track is indeed major national road. Fuel gauge now at 25%. 5) After many miles, arrive at T-junction. Turn right. Drive short distance before realising have gone in wrong direction yet again. 6) Turn around and head in right direction. 7) Now on main road. Drive for miles. Be conservative. 80 kph. Annoy other drivers who want to go 110 kph. 8) Watch stupid digital fuel gauge drop to 10%. 9) Drive for miles. Curse fuel gauge for not being analog. Still showing 10%. 10) Drive for miles, mostly uphill. 11) Watch fuel gauge drop to zero at top of last hill, but know that Tapi Aike is at the bottom. Hooray! Salvation! 12) Coast down to Tapi Aike. 13) What the hell is this place? 14) Realise Tapi Aike has bigger reputation than it deserves. 15) Find petrol station. Find Raul. Fill tank. Get subjected to highway currency conversion robbery. 16) Tell self that nobody shall ever know what transpired on the roads from Chile to Argentina.

The Sunset over El Chaltén

By the time I pulled into El Chaltén many hours later, I was done in. Even though I arrived in time for a promising sunset, I decided to forgo its delights and get some food into me. All I wanted to do was hit the reset button. Besides, sunsets feature heavily in pictures of this part of the world. They're reliably good. I'd photograph tomorrow's sunset. The sunset over Mount Fitz Roy that evening wasn't visible from my table in the hotel restaurant. But I could tell that it was pretty, based on the colour of the fragment of sky I could see. I commented on it afterwards to the hotel manager. He launched into a lyrical description of one of the most superlatively special sunsets ever to have occurred in El Chaltén, in his or anyone else's lifetime. And I'd literally been looking the other way. I was starting to dislike Argentina greatly. Clearly, it didn't like me.

Kindness Saves Me

Petrol in El Chaltén is dispensed from a big tanker. The rule of thumb is to fill up whenever you pass it because you never know when it'll be empty. I went in search of Argentine Pesos. There were three banks in El Chaltén, none of which was connected to the international credit card and debit card transaction system. I may as well have been trying to get cash out using a banana peel. None of the tellers in any of the banks could help either. I took stock of my situation: 1) No petrol. 2) No money. The hotel manager came to my rescue. He offered to loan me the money to buy petrol in El Chaltén, so I could drive two hours south to El Calafate, a larger town which had, I was assured, banks that were connected to the international banking system. This kind man saved me. The banks in El Calafate did, indeed, accept my cards. I took out a small fortune—enough, I felt, to pay back the hotelier and then buy every last drop of petrol in southern Argentina.
Los Cuernos in Torres del Paine, Patagonia
Los Cuernos in Torres del Paine, Patagonia

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