It is cold, far and expensive. It is almost at the end of the world. A land of ice and mountains. It is Patagonia.
Seventy metres high, thirty kilometres long, five kilometres wide
The upgrade on our airplane seats was a nice touch but the good news were not to last long. As soon as we landed, the fruit we had bought in Buenos Aires was taken away – restrictions to protect the local plants – and then we found out that the short transfer from the airport to the city was going to be the most expensive five kilometres of the last few months. Welcome to Patagonia.
We were in El Calafate, at the doorstep of Los Glaciares National Park, the third largest ice cap in the world. A city built for tourism it seems, which had everything we needed that day: hiking gear and warm local food – Cordero al Disco, a delicious Patagonian lamb stew.
From El Calafate, a short bus ride takes you to Perito Moreno. One of the few glaciers in the world that is actually growing: up to two metres in the middle part and forty centimetres on the sides, per day. This growth pushes the glacier over a lake, creating a natural dam and splitting the waters into two. Every few years, the pressure produced by the water breaks through the ice causing a spectacular rupture. We missed it by just a few weeks.
The silence and stillness of the glacier is only disturbed when patches of ice break away from the main glacier and crash into the waters. It is mesmerising. After half a day wandering around the viewing platforms, we made our way to our next port.
Not having a car feels a bit weird. Relying on buses, not being able to stop whenever we want – it is going to take a while to get used to it.
A rainbow instead of a mountain
After a comfortable bus journey, we finally arrived at our home for the next few days, El Chalten. A few restaurants, two bakeries, a handful of outdoor shops and a bunch of hostels and campsites. Did you ever watch Doctor in Alaska?
There is only one reason to visit Argentina’s Trekking Capital – the mountains. And the best thing about it? One can just walk to the start of the hikes, no need to take a bus or anything. Within a few minutes, you will hear the sound of the locals.
A woodpecker! To some, the best time to visit Patagonia is during the summer months, when the weather is warmer. Others argue that it is the autumn with its red colours, that really shows Patagonia’s best side. And I can’t disagree with that.
Our destination for the first day was Laguna Torre, named after Cerro del Torre, one of the world’s most charismatic rock climbs. Famous are the pictures of the mountain’s reflection on the lake and we could not wait to see it.
However, instead of all that, we found clouds and rain, and the majestic Cerro del Torre was nowhere to be found. Someone was not particularly happy.
To our right, a narrow path that seemed to make its away around the lagoon. A bit of rain was not going to stop us, after all, we live in London and grey skies are our natural habitat. We pushed on.
At the end of the path, the greens and reds reminded us that there is more to Patagonia than high mountains. And there are glaciers everywhere too. This one may not be Perito Moreno, but it is wild and it was all to ourselves.
On the way back, finally some blue skies. If the views are going to be like this every day, then let it rain, please.
After nearly eight hours of walking, that night we shared a bottle of Malbec. The forecast for the next few days did not look promising but we could not care less.
Greens, reds, rocks… and clouds
El Chalten is the only place in Patagonia still relying on satellite connection for internet. It is also the only village that voted against the current governor of the region. Coincidence? I think not. But then again, who needs internet with forests like these:
The blue skies quickly gave way to more clouds and a strong wind. I suppose that sometimes, things are just not meant to be and our chances of catching a glimpse of one of the mighty mountains in Patagonia were slim.
Yet the autumn colours were still there in all their glory. A hundred shades of greens and reds to welcome us to a very special place.
Laguna de los Tres, at the base of Cerro Fitz Roy – the most iconic of all Patagonian peaks and according to some, one of the most technically challenging mountains on Earth. Fear not, we had no intention of conquering the summit only get a glimpse of it.
After a strenuous climb, we found a rather different landscape. No more vegetation, only rocks and behind all those clouds, the Fitz Roy – or at least part of it.
Slightly better views than the previous day, yes. And not so much rain, that was a plus. But boy it was cold and windy.
The lagoon changes colour with the sun. Ah yes, there was sunshine, but not quite enough to light up the whole mountain range or warm ourselves up.
And that is Patagonia in Autumn. It is cold and windy and cloudy. But it is also less crowded and more colourful. We did not choose to come on this time of the year, but we are glad we did.
In total, just over twenty kilometres and hundreds of pictures. Another great day in the mountains, despite the weather. And the best, in theory, was yet to come.
We will be back
Except that it did not come. La Loma del Pliegue Tumbado, our last hike in El Chalten, welcomed us with rain and snow. It was meant to offer the best views of the valley, including the Fitz Roy and Cerro del Torre, but it did not. We got to the end of the track and, sadly, turn back. And as with the previous days, the weather turn for the better as we got closer to town.
El Chalten was created in 1985 to help secure the borders with Chile. The village itself is not particularly pretty, but it has certain charm and plenty of hiking options to keep you occupied for weeks. Our only regret is to not be fitter and better prepared to tackle some of the more challenging treks. Don’t get me wrong, being able to do hikes of 8 hours to the base of these mountains straight from our room is fantastic. But a four day trek into the ice field, spending the nights surrounded by white and blue would have been something else. Although I am not sure we would have got dinners like this up there.
Maybe it is better like this. A full day hike followed by a glass of wine, comfort food and a comfy bed? Or maybe not. It is one of the few places on this trip where we feel we’ve left unfinished business behind. Patagonia, we will be back.
A thirty hour bus journey. The destination? A little bit disappointing. Luckily, the people and the food made up for it.