Patagonia and Altiplano Expedition | #22 – Puerto San Julián to Puerto Natales

From Puerto Deseado we drove further south along the Ruta 3 to Puerto San Julián. The Ruta 3 is quite boring but it’s in very good condition with only a few curves. There are mostly heavy trucks on this road but since you can see far ahead overtaking them is easy. An average speed of more than 100 km/h is possible and you can get at least really fast to your next destination.

Puerto San Julián

Puerto San Julián is a small town with a harbor that was used in the past by famous explorers like Ferdinand Magellan or Francis Drake for overwintering during their expeditions. Later Robert FitzRoy and Charles Darwin stopped on their Beagle expedition in Puerto San Julián. A replica of a historic sailship is a memory of those past times.

Nowadays the town itself has not much to offer for a visitor. But north of the town starts the beautiful Circuito Costero, a 30 km gravel track that leads through some beautiful landscapes along the coast.

Halfway on the track, there was even a lost place, an abandoned historic factory.

Our next destination was Comandante Luis Piedra Buena.

Comandante Luis Piedra Buena

There were two reasons for us to stop there. First, it’s a good basecamp to explore the nearby Parque Nacional Monte León. Second, we had a huge backlog of a few thousand images from the Península Valdés and needed a cheap apartment where we could stay a few days, look through our images, and prepare the next blog posts. The apartment we found on booking.com cost us 18€ per night. It was clean and had a kitchen. Hard to beat for this price. We decided to stay there for five nights.

Luis Piedra Buena is a bit weird. There were a couple of mediocre restaurants similar to what you typically find in small villages in Patagonia which are rarely visited by tourists. But strangely there were also dozens of cartoon characters and other odd figures placed throughout the city.

The village is located next to the beautiful Rio Santa Cruz.

On one of the days, we did a day trip to the Parque Nacional Monte León.

Parque Nacional Monte León

It’s a 30 minutes drive from Luis Piedra Buena to the entrance of the national park. The entrance is free but you have to register at the ranger station which is located a few km before the park entrance at the Ruta 3.

The landscape in the park is really stunning.

In addition, you can find another large colony of Magellanic penguins at Monte León. To get there you have to walk for about 45 minutes on an easy track.

Depending on the season there are up to 60,000 penguins in this colony.

You can get really close to the penguins at Monte León.

Or sometimes they get really close to you 🙂

They also nest often directly next to the trail.

It was also a good season to visit the penguin colony because many chicks had just hatched and they were so cute to watch.

On the day we visited Monte León it was extremely windy with gusts close to 100 km/h. Combined with the sandy environment this can get quite unpleasant. At the end of the day, we had sand everywhere.

Rio Gallegos

Sadly I was not able to remove all the sand that I got into my eyes at Monte León, even with lots of water. We, therefore, had to do an unplanned stop at Rio Gallegos on our way to our next destination Puerto Natales. Rio Gallegos is a big industrial city, normally not visited by tourists. We were even asked in Rio Gallegos a couple of times what the heck we are doing in this city. Luckily there are a couple of large and modern eye clinics in Rio Gallegos. We went to the Centro de Ojos Gallegos and were extremely happy with them. After a few minutes of wait, an ophthalmologist checked my eyes with the newest equipment, found some grains of sand, and removed them. In less than 15 minutes we were back on the road and had to pay only 10€ for everything. In Europe, I would have to wait at least 2 hours and pay probably more than 100€ for this. Hopefully, we won’t need another medical service on our trip. But so far we were very impressed.

Border Crossing

Next, we wanted to visit the famous Torres del Paine National Park. The gateway to TdP is Puerto Natales. To get there we had to do another border crossing. This time from Argentina back to Chile. Our first plan was to use the Paso Laurita Casas Viejas. But since Covid, this border is closed and won’t open any time soon. The next best option was the Paso Dorotea near Rio Turbio. Getting from Argentina to Chile is much more challenging (and time-consuming) than the other way around. The main reason is that Chile has very strict regulations for importing food and plants. And these regulations are enforced very thoroughly. If you are carrying any kind of food it’s highly recommended to declare it, whether you think it’s legal to import or not. We had to take nearly all the bags and boxes out of our car and about half of them went through an x-ray machine.

Just at that moment, there was a tremendous downpour and we got completely soaked. But all the people at the border were extremely friendly and relaxed. During the thunderstorm, they just shrugged their shoulders, smiled, and said ‘this is Patagonia’ and continued their work.

Every food item was thoroughly inspected by hand and checked for origin and its ingredients. Interestingly we could keep even critical items like dried fruits if their origin was Chile. In the end, it took us 15 minutes at the Argentinian checkpoint and about one hour at the Chilean checkpoint to cross the border, and none of our food was confiscated.

Puerto Natales

From Paso Dorotea, it’s a short 20-minute drive to Puerto Natales where we rented an apartment for a few days to do some preparations for our Torres del Paine visit. Since in TdP are neither any gas stations nor any supermarkets we had to refuel our car and restock enough food for two weeks.

We hadn’t high expectations about Puerto Natales but were positively surprised. It’s a very touristy city but a beautiful one. We would even say it’s one of the most beautiful cities in Chilean Patagonia (ok, admittedly the competition is not very strong).

There are some interesting artworks and monuments on the coastal road and a nice church and many handicraft shops as well as some nice restaurants and coffee shops in the city center. If you are looking for some great cakes or really good bread El Obrador Panadería Artesanal close to the Plaza de Armas can be highly recommended.

Puerto Natales is also located at the the beautiful Última-Esperanza-Fjord.

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