EL CHALTEN PATAGONIA ARGENTINA
As we drove into Parque Nacional Los Glaciares (The Glaciers) and the Fitz Roy Range at sunset our mouths dropped open at the pure beauty that surrounded us. This park consists of mountains, lakes, woods, glaciers and arid landscapes. Parque Nacional Los Glaciares is unique because around the world most glaciers are found above 2,500 meters (8,200 ft), but here they originated on ice caps so you can see them from 250 meters (820 ft) to 1,500 meters (4,900 ft) above sea level. And they are amazing!
About 30 minutes from El Chalten we saw a car flipped over and a man in a shuttle van checking it out. So our bus driver stopped with his Yerba Mate gourd and bombilla in hand and joined his fellow Argentinian in what seemed to be a serious mystery case. The accident must have occurred sometime earlier that day. Hopefully, whoever crashed the car was safe because he/she were nowhere to be found and one would surely freeze to death out there. Eventually, our bus driver got back on the bus (probably because he ran out of yerba) and off we went to the quaint town of El Chalten as his co-captain made him a fresh mate.
The bus station was a little further than I expected from our hostel, but perhaps it only seemed that way since it took us 20 minutes to roll our bags in the misty, cold and windy air. Luckily, our hostel, Lo De Trevi had a heater in our room, a large warm common area for guests and we had stocked up on a bottle of Fernet in El Calafate, so we were nice and toasty in no time. Now, when I say room, I really mean a 10 ‘ x 10’ divided space in a shipping container. It wasn’t the most spacious of rooms, but it did have a window with a million dollar view of the Fitz Roy Range and only cost us $33 US (182 AR pesos)/night, so we we’re happy. On our first night, we met a large group of travelers, mostly Argentineans in the back common dining building. They were all enjoying freshly made pizza and I’m sure stories of their hikes. They even offered us some. And even though we had full bellies, we couldn’t pass up a small piece. The laughter and joy was contagious. We too were so excited to finally have made it to Patagonia!
We had four nights and 3 ½ full days to explore the Fitz Roy Range. There were 3 major hikes that I had hoped to do, Laguna Torre & the base of Cerro Torre (supposedly 6 hours round trip), Laguna de los Tres & Fitzroy base camp (supposedly 8 hours round trip), and Loma del Pliegue Tumbado & Laguna Toro (8-9 hours round trip). So we decided to start with what sounded like the easiest of the trails, Laguna Torre and the base of Cerro Torre. As I mentioned before, summer in Patagonia is awesome since it doesn’t get dark until 11pm, so starting a long hike doesn’t need to be early in the morning. We slept in, enjoyed some breakfast, got a few tips from other hikers that had been there a few days, rented a pair of waterproof pants for $5 and off we went.
The hike started out beautiful and sunny. Many hikers that had gotten a head start on the day and were heading back were soaked and tired, so we knew we would see some rain on the trail. As you can see in the video, we stopped off in a woodsy area to enjoy lunch, which consisted of a hot dog, olive and cheese sandwich. As I mentioned in the last article, buying all your food in El Calafate is a must. The mini grocery stores in El Chalten are very limited on supplies. Hotdogs, yogurt and cheese are the primary protein sources and vegetables are far and few between. However, there are plenty of different restaurants to choose from, at a premium of course! Sure enough after hiking for an hour, the weather turned cold and rainy, but we still wore big smiles on our faces and said hi to everyone that passed by. The tired ones weren’t so quick to say hi back though. We couldn’t believe it, 30 minutes later we had made it to Laguna Torre. I thought for sure that was too quick! The emerald lake was beautiful with crystal blue ice chunks floating to the waters edge. We stood in awe and took a few photos. But since the rain was persistent, and we were still determined to find the trail to the base of Glacier Cerro Torre that we could see in the distance, we didn’t stop for long. Another couple pointed us in the right direction. Said it would take about 45 minutes, but they wouldn’t recommend it in this weather. We set off anyway, only seeing two other brave hikers on the trail. It took us exactly 45 minutes on a fairly easy yet very rocky and of course wet hike. It was well worth it. Our photos and videos don’t do the glacier justice. We finished the other half of our sandwiches hiding behind a rock overlooking the glacier and lake and decided we should get a move on.
Now Abe didn’t want to go back the same way we came since he noticed another trail and thought it would be more interesting to see somewhere new. So of course we had to take that one. Unfortunately, this new trail ended, dumping us in the woods. Every step we took our soaking wet feet sloshed in the muddy puddles. We turned back around, but Abe was determined to find the way out without having to go all the way back to the lake. And just when I was done following him around in circles, out we came back on the trail. I guess that’s one of those marriage learning moments where you have to trust your husband.
It took us a total of 6 hours round trip to make it back to our cozy hostel. We showered, cooked up some pasta with of course hotdogs and olives, shared a tasty bottle of Malbec and a few sips of Fernet before crawling into bed.
The next day was once again beautiful and sunny. We set out to hike to Laguna de Los Tres & the Fitzroy base camp, which was supposed to be a bit strenuous (and it was). We were told to just follow the road and we would see the sign. We saw a trailhead sign, but it wasn’t for our trail, so we continued to walk down the road. A few tour shuttle vans passed us by. After about 30 minutes, I said we should stop one of the drivers and ask if we were headed in the right direction. Abe didn’t want to and since my Spanish was a little shaky, I held off. So we continued to walk, until I finally stopped a driver and asked him in my broken Spanish if the trail was ahead. He shook his head and told us to get in. This was one of those moments where you have to trust your wife! He drove us all the way back to the trailhead we had first seen and told us we were getting a really late start at this point. But we took our chances anyway. The hike was beyond beautiful. In and out of forests, crossing streams with the freshest water we have ever drank. There were lots of people at the beginning of the trail, but you could tell that a majority of them wouldn’t be making the whole trek. We passed by 3 different base camps along the way filled with people and pack llamas. By the time, we reached a very steep incline, which we assumed to be close to the end, it was time for our favorite hiking sandwiches. We took a seat on the side of the trail as people passed us by. We even enjoyed a little entertainment as we noticed a wasp trying to carry a spider across the rocky trail. It kept dropping it in the rock cracks, then walk up a little further checking under the rocks for what we figured was his home. Then he would go back, grab the spider that was twice his size and continue the search. We watched him do this for what must have been at least 10 minutes until a girl, obviously tired and not paying attention stepped on them with her big hiking boot. Abe and I gasped! All that effort and the wasp was taken out by a hiker. I have to admit we were a little devastated and angry with the girl. But without fail, our mighty wasp friend sprung back to life, retraced his steps, found the spider and off he went to his home.
We continued the steep hike up the very rocky and somewhat slippery trail. Once we reached the top we could see the 3,405 m (over 10,000 ft) Cerro Fitz Roy and feel the extreme high winds. This made trying to walk up the final steep and sandy hill difficult and a bit dangerous. But we both made it up, getting an up close and magnificent view of Cerro Fitz Roy and the crystal clear Laguna de Los Tres. A Canadian woman offered to take our picture and said that we were really fortunate because Cerro Fitz Roy had been covered by clouds all morning except for the last 15 minutes. Timing is everything in Patagonia! We hide the backpack and scrambled down the rocks to the lakes edge. We just sat there in awe giving our cameras little rest. We’ve never seen anything like it. Every so often a huge gust of wind would come down the glacier and across the lake pelleting us with hail size balls nearly knocking us over. Then silence would sweep. It was unreal. We decided to explore a bit to the left of the lake. Like the water rides at Disneyland you were sure to get wet. The wind was blowing a waterfall back up and over a hillside creating an endless spray and gorgeous rainbow. Holding on tight and staying low we scampered over the hillside to get a better view of this waterfall and Laguna Sucia below.
It was nearing 5pm and we still had at least 3 ½ hours to hike back, so much to our sadness, we got back on the trail. But not before we got to witness a man take off all his clothes and jump in Laguna de Los Tres. He lasted about 60 seconds as his friends took endless photos. Back on the trail, I quickly noticed how bad my blisters on both feet had become and Abe’s knee was starting to bother him. What was a fast paced walk to our epic destination became a slow and very painful return. I became one of those tired and no longer smiling hikers we had seen the day before. Only our second day of hiking and I was already done for. I guess that extra hour down the wrong road didn’t help either. When we finally made it back our hostel, I immediately took off my shoes and elevated my beyond pained feet. Abe was still keen to film some trout, so he continued back down our lost road to the rivers we had seen earlier for a little solo mission. That night we ate polenta with you guessed it, hot dogs.
The next day was our last full day in El Chalten. I still could barely walk, so Loma del Pliegue Tumbado and Laguna Toro were out of the question. This is probably where camping along the trails is a good idea. You will get to see more landscape and not have to tire out your feet by doubling back. But just the same, camping in the rain and wind is not fun either. By the late afternoon, we decided we should at least go see the miradors just outside of the Ranger Station. They were supposed to only be an hour round trip. Both miradors were nice and only took about 20 minutes to get to each. We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing in the warm common building catching up on internet stuff and staring out on the beauty of the Fitz Roy Range. That night we decided to treat ourselves to dinner out. A parrilla with lamb on an open grill just down the road from our hostel looked like a great place. They had lamb and french fries on special for 85 AR pesos ($20 US). It was 9pm and the restaurant was packed and bustling. The owner said it would only be about a 15 minutes wait, so we stood outside in the crisp air patiently waiting for our nice dinner out. We shared a salad, which in South America is always lettuce, tomato and raw onion. I picked out the onions and Abe picked out the tomatoes. The dinner ended up being mediocre at best. But it was better than hot dogs and we had a tasty Malbec to wash it down.