One of our worst weather days came on Friday (2/3), our last day in El Chaltén.
Thankfully, this was always intended to be a rest day so we didn’t miss out on any hiking plans. We took advantage of the situation by having a lazy start to the day and eventually walking to La Wafleria to demolish waffles for a late breakfast. The menu for this place has long lists of savory options and sweet options served over a base of waffles. I opted for a mixed fruit topping which was deliciously sweet and fresh, Sean had an ultra-sweet option with berries and ice cream, and Alastair went full-on Argentinian machismo style and had his waffles topped with steak (like, a whole steak) and grilled peppers and onions. He was so excited.
The rest of the day was incredibly mundane as we occupied ourselves with basic chores while dodging the cold and rain. We left El Chaltén in the early evening and set up camp at our previous roadside wild camping site outside of town to get a head start on the next day’s mileage.
Saturday’s driving route involved crossing the border from Argentina back in to Chile. When previously crossing into Argentina we had been told by the Argentinian authorities to be careful not to bring any meat or produce back into Chile as the Chileans can be strict about their regulations and could potentially fine us. We were being very diligent in our efforts to avoid having any fresh food in the van come Saturday morning.
We arrived at the Argentinian border crossing in the early afternoon. I grabbed my passport and all of the paperwork for the campervan, then Alastair and Sean both handed me their passports so I could take the lead at the customs and immigration counters due to my (miserable but still better than Alastair’s and Sean’s) Spanish speaking abilities. Minimal conversations were had with the authorities, they stamped all of our paperwork, and we were on our way.
We drove a few kilometers down the road and then arrived at the Chilean border crossing. The immigration encounter went smoothly and we each got our respective stamps, again with minimal need for conversation. We then went to the customs officer who had more questions regarding our destination and our vehicle. Not only were we unable to communicate in any English, but he was also seated inside a booth which had a glass window with a small opening to talk and listen through. This, combined with his quiet voice and the noise of others in the lobby area, made it extremely difficult to hear and understand what he was saying. To make matters worse, the opening of the window was likely best suited for the height of your average South American; it was basically aimed at my mid-torso.
The customs officer and I struggled through the process but eventually got all the paperwork sorted out. Now it was on to the vehicle search. We had Sean bring some backpacking food with him when he flew down and he didn’t have any trouble getting it into Argentina via the airport. Each of us completed a declarations form at this border crossing and we all checked “yes” for the food declarations since some of the food Sean brought contained dehydrated vegetables and grains. We figured it was better safe than sorry, even if it resulted in the border patrol raiding the entire van and leaving us food-less. Our assigned officer followed us to the van, we opened all the doors, and waited to see what would happen.
As with our prior vehicle search when entering Argentina, the process was very anticlimactic. He peeked in our cooler, took a quick glance at the kitchen and inside the main area of the van, then said “bueno” and slowly walked away. He was so nonchalant that I went back inside the border control building to make sure we were actually cleared and able to leave. This thoroughly confused the authorities (because why would anyone question the ease at which they were allowed to enter the country) but they ensured us everything was fine and sent us on our way.
We drove to Puerto Natales for groceries and gas, then continued farther north to camp at an estancia called Pingo Salvaje, next to Lago Sofia. Their campground was fully booked but the property was in a gorgeous valley, the location was great, and we were all ready to be done for the day so we splurged on a night’s stay in their refugio. It was a quaint, Patagonian-style cabin with a small kitchen, living room and bathrooms downstairs, and two loft bedrooms upstairs with multiple beds in each room. Alastair, Sean and I stayed in one bedroom and the other bedroom was occupied by a friendly couple from Austria. We enjoyed a relaxed evening and nice conversation before retiring to (an actual) bed (for the first time in a month).
The next morning while packing the campervan it occurred to us that we hadn’t seen the camera recently. We remembered taking pictures prior to the Argentinian border the day before but not since then. We started searching the campervan but the camera was not in any of its usual places. We dug deeper. And deeper. Until everything was taken out of the campervan and strewn about the ground as if we were gearing up for a yard sale with Michael Jackson as the centerpiece. Everything was out. And still no camera.
We thought back to the previous day. Who took pictures last. Who touched the camera last. Then we suddenly had a sinking feeling that the camera may have fallen out one of the sliding doors of the campervan during our border crossing. Logistically, this was definitely not the easiest scenario for back-tracking.
But back-track we did. All of our belongings were returned to the campervan and we spent the next couple hours driving back to the border crossing where we had so easily gotten through the day before. While en route, I drafted a few translated phrases on my phone including “I think we lost our camera here yesterday” in an attempt to make communication easier and more efficient. I was in no mood to practice my Spanish and figured we would look suspicious enough asking if we could rummage through the bushes near the parking area.
The Chilean officers said they had not seen any camera but that we were welcome to search the area where we had parked the previous day. We slowly walked along the parking area, kicking around the bushes and thick grasses, but came up empty-handed. One of the officers said we could give him the entry/exit paperwork for the campervan (as collateral), drive to the Argentinian border to look for the camera there, then have our paperwork returned to us on our way back to Chile. We took him up on the offer, got clearance from a Chilean police officer for the plan, and drove toward Argentina with our fingers crossed.
The process repeated itself at the Argentina border: display pre-written translated phrase on my phone explaining our situation, search parking area, come up empty-handed. We thanked the officers for letting us search the area, ensured them we did not intend to enter Argentina, and turned around to go back to Chile once again.
Driving a vehicle with a massive Michael Jackson mural on each side came in handy upon our return to the Chilean border crossing. The officer we had originally spoken with easily recognized the campervan and waved us forward, past the vehicles waiting in line to get searched. He asked us how it went, gave his condolences, and returned our paperwork as promised. Although it was a frustrating and saddening experience to have lost the camera (including two memory cards with videos and hundreds of pictures from hiking at El Chaltén), I was relieved and impressed with how friendly and understanding all of the border control officers were on both the Chilean and Argentinian sides. They gave us no grief and seemed unconcerned with three foreigners in a Michael Jackson campervan asking to search the bushes.
By the end of the day tensions had eased and we made it to our intended campground at Rio Serrano, located at the park entrance for Torres del Paine National Park. After staying here for a couple nights we’ll start a shortened version of our backpacking trip (positive side note: my ankle is in much better shape!). In the mean time we’ll be settling for cell phone pictures and keeping our fingers crossed for finding a similar replacement camera once we get back to civilization.