The Patagonian Steppe, or Patagonian Desert, is the eight largest desert in the world. Stretching from the Andes in the west all the way to the Atlantic in the east, it is constantly blasted by extreme winds coming over the mountains, while an average precipitation level of 200mm per year and cold temperatures with an average of just 3 degrees Celsius contribute to its reputation as a rather hostile environment.
And yet there is far more to the steppe than meets the eye. At first glance it comprises of nothing but barren grass- and shrublands, but in fact there is almost always a ridge somewhere in the distance hinting at a far-off plateau. River valleys and canyons come from nowhere, cutting deep channels through the earth with the unexpected presence of running water, and further west the azure blue waters of massive glacial lakes contrast with the grey and tan tones of the rocks and lands surrounding them.
The steppe can also offer a highly productive ecosystem for many types of wildlife; birds ranging from tiny burrowing owls to pink flamingos to massive rheas, small rodents, wild horses, domesticated sheep and livestock, deer and other ungulates, iguanas, snakes, foxes, puma, and more all call the landscape home.
… and before we crossed the border from Chile into Argentina, we had no idea what was in store for us for countless hours on thousands of kilometers of highway as we made our way south and back north again through Patagonia.
Our journey into the steppe began when we picked up two hitchhikers in a small Chilean town and made our way around much of the massive Lake Buenos Aires to the town of Chile Chico. With the beetle piled high with our fellow travelers’ bags, we bumped and rumbled and skidded down the gravel roads for hours, rarely going much faster than 30 km/h. As we made our way up and down steep switchbacks hugging the ridges surrounding the lake, it was as if the topography instantly let us know we had crossed over the Andes as it switched from the lush temperate forests of Chilean Patagonia to the dry, rocky deserts we would find in Argentina.
When we actually crossed the border into Argentina, the vastness of the steppe opened up before us, and luckily we had prepared the perfect soundtrack…
In a nutshell, that video clip represents how we spent days upon days driving through the desert, but just like the desert itself, there was far more beneath the surface that awaited us.
One of the particular highlights was a deep canyon that we stumbled upon for our first night in the desert. As Poncho the super-capable beetle made its way down steep roads that have stopped other travelers in their tracks (some of whom apparently only escaped by reversing out in low gear!), we caught our first glimpse of what we then thought was “some sort of strange deer-llama thing,” but turns out is one of the steppe’s most visible residents, the guanaco!
About the size of a big Saskatchewan white-tailed deer, guanacos are almost always found in herds from about 10-50 individuals in number. They can run fast, jump high over fences, and have an almost 360 degree field of view, meaning that it’s basically impossible to sneak up on a herd before one of them sounds the alarm. Across much of the steppe their numbers are only now recovering after some rough years over the last century. Despite that, they are now encountered quite often along the roads of the steppe, and we lost track of how many times one walked into the middle of the road as we were approaching, forcing us to slow right down, with the guanaco and its pals then running off in alarm and easily jumping the fences along the sides of the road.
Unfortunately, however, not all of them make the jump, and we also saw a number of carcasses with their hind legs caught up in a fence, presumably having gotten stuck while jumping and suffering a long, painful death of starvation, scavengers, predators, or a combination of the above.
The canyon itself was spectacular. While the winds howled on the steppe above, it was almost completely still and silent within the shelter of the towering walls around us. After we reached what seemed like the end of a rough vehicle trail, we set off on foot to discover what mysteries and secrets this strange secluded valley might contain.
The first thing we discovered was a valuable lesson that even the dry-looking parts of salt flats can be deceptively wet and mucky, something which Lisa learned the hard way.
With a couple of different coloured boots we ventured further into the valley. Through twists and turns it seemed to go on forever, with only the setting sun limiting how far we were able to go.
We discovered all sorts of animal bones and armadillo plates, caves, salt flats, wild horses, and incredibly beautiful colours and formations in the rocks along the canyon walls. We also saw some evidence of people having used the walls for climbing, but it was completely isolated and desolate for us as we walked back through the valley and made camp by the beetle for the night.
The next morning we continued further down the road and ended up at the main canyon, complete with a river, to which our little canyon was simply an offshoot.
Nestled in the main canyon is the Cueva de las Manos, or “cave of the hands,” a UNESCO world heritage site. For anybody driving through Argentinian Patagonia, this is definitely an absolute must-see.
Cueva de las Manos
Between 13,000 to 9,000 years ago, a hunter-gatherer society lived upon the Patagonian Steppe and made a bold mark on the place they called home.
Back then, the Pinturas Canyon pictured above was much as it is now, although without the willows lining the river that were introduced by Spanish ranchers in more recent times. Living in a group of about 30, the people relied primarily upon the guanaco but hunted other animals as well. They were most likely nomadic, but would return to known places at certain times of the year.
One of the places they returned to over countless generations is the Cueva de las Manos, where they busied themselves with something remarkable. Inside the cave, which served as their home and refuge while in the area, are countless works of art painted by the inhabitants. Most of the paintings are hand prints painted over generations, but abstract patterns, hunting scenes, red dots on the ceiling, and other images are present as well.
After mixing pigments from rock or other natural sources with some sort of fat to act as a binding agent, the people would put the paint in their mouths, place their hand on the wall, and blow the paint through a hollow animal bone acting as a type of air brush. What resulted are fabulous negative or stenciled hand prints serving as a testament to the fact that they were there, almost always of the left hand (and including one with six fingers!).
It truly is a remarkable piece of cultural heritage, and imagining what life would have been like for our distant relatives as you gaze upon their very hand prints is enough to fill anybody with wonder and fascination.
As we made our way further south we were surprised at how little there was in the way of settlements or services. In some parts of Canada we’re used to driving long distances without anything in between, and Argentinian Patagonia was very much the same. The distances were never too great that we couldn’t make it on one tank of gas, but often times the gas stations were expensive, almost improvised, and sometimes don’t even have gas available to fill up with. While we heard horror stories of travelers getting stuck in the middle of nowhere for several days waiting for the gas truck to arrive, we were lucky enough for that not to happen, although we did use our jerrycan of gas several times to help us get from one reasonably priced fill-up to another.
Down and down we drove, and the further we went lakes started to spring out of nowhere. With light blue waters, windswept shores and not a boat in sight, they were much different than most other lakes we’d seen prior to that point. We camped at one of them, with the beetle providing whatever wind protection for our tent that it could, and were treated to an absolutely magnificent sunset.
The whole point of heading south was primarily to check out the mountains in a series of national parks (in places like El Chalten and Torres del Paine), so we also left the never-ending Route 40 and took some detours east. As we got closer to the Andes on these detours, dramatic mountains came into view in a spectacular backdrop, with Fitz Roy and his surrounding mountain friends being particularly spectacular, and El Chalten having a very welcoming and traveler-friendly vibe without being too pretentious or pricey.
On some of these detours we also encountered backpackers trying to hitchhike between destinations. On the Chilean side of the Andes it seemed quite common and easy enough, but over here we felt a lot of sympathy for some of them. We picked up one traveler from Spain on the outskirts of El Chalten and took him to El Calafate. He was just about to call it quits and head back into town when we picked him up, so he was very happy to get a ride. About 80 kilometers down the road we came to a junction with a gigantic metal fish (art, most likely!) where he saw some hitchhikers waiting for a ride north who had been in the same place as him the day before. They had taken the risky decision to get a ride out to the junction, but apparently had spent the night and much of the next day waiting in an absolutely barren spot of desert with no luck. If we had been going north we would have tried to take them too!
After days and days of driving through the desert, with at least eight almost purely travel days in the beetle but probably more, we eventually got into the groove. We became masters at avoiding guanacos and slowing down to 10km/h at a moment’s notice to dodge massive potholes in an otherwise perfectly tarmacked road. Given that we drove most of the same stretch of road twice (first south and then back north), we knew which towns had bakeries or gas, and where we could access a free wifi signal. We learned never to take the steppe for granted, because right when you think you know what to expect something totally unexpected like a massive river out of nowhere or a flock of flamingos or the best empanada you’ve had in weeks will come your way.
On our way back north from the national parks and the mountains, we couldn’t resist but to stop one more time at the Pinturas Canyon that we had loved so much on our journey south. Entrance is free, and there are a number of short-ish hikes available. There is no free camping nearby, but we pitched the tent at a turnout close to a crumbling bridge that betrayed the presence of the old Route 40 (we looked for some sign of Ernesto “Che” Guevara from when he traveled the Route 40 by motorcycle, but no luck). The night was still and peaceful, and the air crisp and refreshing the next morning.
The desert had surprised us with some sort of mild food poisoning from a gas station empanada the day before (always a bad idea), but we managed to slowly make our way up to the top of a ridge and gaze out over the colours and contours of the Pinturas Canyon below. Black widows be damned, we found a nice spot to lay down and let the fresh desert breeze and the warming sun of the mystical Pinturas Canyon rejuvenate us, perhaps in the very spot a hunter-gatherer sat thousands of years ago.
And then, as we continued further north, the desert suddenly stopped.
On the very same Route 40 that we thought we knew, the barren plains gave way to mountains, trees, green plants, and rain within the space of about an hour. It was yet another surprise, and as we said goodbye it left us wondering what other secrets and surprises lie waiting to be discovered by the next traveler who heads out onto the Southern Patagonian Steppe.