Crossing a border always produces excitement and curiosity. It can be like opening a door to a new world, even though it can sometimes feel like just one more step in the travel process, tedious and sometimes delayed. On my journey through South America and exploring Patagonia by hitchhiking, I came across a customs office in the middle of the Andes mountain range. This border crossing connects the towns of Villa O’Higgins, Chile and El Chaltén, Argentina, a route framed by the lakes, mountains and glaciers of Patagonia, where there are no land connections. The experience of moving from one country to another becomes a journey navigating glacial lakes and a mountain trail traversed by trek or bicycle.
I arrived on the Chile side after traveling southward for the length of Route 7, a highway which begins in the city of Puerto Montt and ends 1240 km (770mi) further south in Villa O’Higgins in the region of Aysén. Once in Villa O’Higgins, the first step in making this journey is to cross a part of the namesake Lake O’Higgins, a huge lake that rises in the southern ice field. The lake functions as a natural border and is shared between both nations, bearing the names San Martin in Argentina and O’Higgins on the Chilean side in honor of each country’s greatest liberator.
In Villa O’Higgins there are local tourism companies that navigate to Candelario Mancilla, a small villa on the other side of Lake O’Higgins, if you travel on a low budget. This part is the only one that involves a mandatory expense, then the rest of the way you can do it by yourself. While crossing the deepest lake on the continent you can take a slight detour to visit the southern glacier field aboard the same boat, although the price for navigation increases considerably.
Once in Candelario Mancilla, your unconventional immigration process begins. 14 kilometers of unpaved road takes you to a milestone that marks the border line on a route that requires a great physical effort — most make the journey by bicycle or on foot, while others pay for a van transportation service that is usually offered from Candelario Mancilla. Once in Argentine territory, the road ends and you have to walk 6 km through a forest to the northern tip of the desert lake, where the migration office and an authorized camping site are located.
During this part of the journey you can see views of Lake O’Higgins, glaciers and a lush Patagonian forest with abundant rivers, but in my opinion, Mount Fitz Roy steals all the attention. It is imposing, beautiful and poetic from any point of view, and as you get closer to Del Desertio Lake the famous Patagonia mountains loom in the distance. At the northern tip of the lake it is necessary to carry out an immigration procedure again, but there is a free camping site with a direct view of Mount Fitz Roy. Putting my tent in that place is one of the best experiences I have had as a traveler. After a long walk it is possible to swim in the cold waters of the lake to cool off and relax your muscles.
From that point the fastest route to El Chaltén is to cross Del Desertio Lake (Lake of the Desert) in a boat to the southern tip — it is equally expensive as your first crossing, but the journey is fast. The other option is to walk 12 km around the lake to the other end, a difficult path with a lot of mud and continuous ups and downs. It can get very heavy after the effort of the previous day and even more when you carry all your luggage on you, although the views that can be seen of the lake and the glacier of the Vespignani hill reward all the effort.
Once at the southern tip, there are still 37 km to get to El Chaltén, a popular tourist destination at the base of several Patagonia mountains. It is not difficult to find a taxi or someone to take you. If you should try to follow my footsteps and cross a border amongst mountain peaks and glacial lakes, you will not be disappointed — just a little exhausted!
Have you ever had an unconventional border crossing adventure? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter!