El Chaltén, Argentina and Glacier National Park
After two weeks of recuperating from our trip in Las Torres, we headed back into Argentina and into the wilderness. Again, we chose to skip over one of the country’s more famous sites, Glacier Perito Moreno, located outside the city of El Calafate. We made our decision based on the fact that we had seen the incredible Glacier Grey already and didn’t want to deal with the touristy crowds. Instead, we decided to head straight up to Glacier National Park to lay our eyes on the famous Mt. Fitzroy, located just outside the city of El Chaltén.
El Chaltén is a very small town, which, like Puerto Natales, mainly exists to serve as a gateway to a national park. All the same, it was cute and quaint and had a campsite in town for mochileros, called Albergue y Camping del Lago. From the campsite, it was about a 15-20 minute walk to the trailhead inside Glacier National Park. From the entry point, it was a short but uphill climb through wooded forests to Lago Capri. The forests were enchanting and quiet, except when some Magellanic Woodpeckers were tapping away at tree bark searching for grub. When we arrived at Lago Capri, were received by fabulous vistas of the mighty Mt. Fitzroy. It was then only another hour or so to the free campsite, Poincenot. This site boasts even more incredible views of Fitzroy’s towers, providing a comfortable spot to relax and enjoy a colorful sunset.
The second day in the park, Matt and I hiked to Piedras Blancas, which, as the name clearly establishes, is a location filled with white rocks. The backdrop, however, is a large glacier and additional views of Fitzroy. It was an easy hike and an overall lazy day that ended early, because the following day we woke up at 5:30 am to catch the sunrise at Lago Tres at the base of Fitzroy. The hike through the darkness was steep and took about an hour and a half to complete, but was well worth the burn. Like Los Torres, the towers are mystical when glowing a warm orange-red in the early morning sunrays. However, Fitzroy’s glow was even more vibrant. Just incredible! Although we had woken up early and done an all uphill climb that morning, it was no problem coming back down to camp and unhurriedly packing up our things for the next trek to the Agostini site. The hike there was pretty flat and was only about 3-hours long. We walked along several lakes and through forests filled with the changing colors of autumn until we reached the Agostini site, set beside the rushing waters of a river.
In comparison to Las Torres National Park, this portion of Glacier National Park, outside of El Chaltén, has short treks between destinations (no more than 4 hours walking at a leisurely pace), trails are fairly well-marked, and the level of difficulty is easy. The great thing is that all the campsites are free! I would highly recommend this to anyone who is in good health and doesn’t mind a few days in a tent. You get to enjoy similar landscapes and natural beauty seen in Los Torres but with half the effort.
We were fortunate that three out of the four days we were in the park were sunny and warm. But, you can’t hike in Patagonia without expecting at least one day of rain. Luckily, it was just a short walk out of the park to the warm refuge of the kitchen at the Albergue in El Chaltén. We didn’t stay the night, there, however, because we were catching a night bus to the famous town of San Carlos de Bariloche, located in what is known as the lakes district of Patagonia.
Day 5: El Paso a Camping en Refugio Grey
It was another mostly misty day, but a much-needed short 3-hour hike through tranquil green wooded forests. We were able to sit and observe the Glacier even further at an excellent mirador at the (free) Campamento Los Guardas. We continued on through the half-way point on the circuit and were now traveling along what is considered the west side of “The W” trail. When we arrived at our final destination, the campgrounds of Refugio Grey, we couldn’t believe our eyes. The refugio there is more of a resort than a refuge, with a recently remodeled dining area. It was very fancy, to say the least. To toast arriving on “The W”, we splurged on the lunch special of beef sandwiches and happy hour beers, which was unbelievably delicious after 4 days of pasta for dinner.
Day 4: Perros a Campamento El Paso
The weather couldn’t have been any uglier for the day we had to cross the pass. Or, maybe it could have been. It was a bad sign when we awoke to rain. The dark clouds hovered limitless over the peaks around us and their presence seemed as though it would be permanent. It wasn’t a hard rain, just persistent. My two hiking partners and the rest of our band of Torres Trekker all decided to push through the rain and climb over the pass. This would have been a less challenging experience if we had been equipped with some waterproof pants and also if we had not left our warmer jackets and clothes packed deep into our bags. Matt goofily crossed the mountaintop in only a t-shirt and hard shell outer layer jacket! It was a steep rocky climb to the top of the pass where sleet would assault us even further, frosting our already wet gear. It was exciting to reach the top but simultaneously miserable – it was soooooooooo cold. Luckily, Matt was able to manage to get his fingers to work long enough to snap a picture proving we had survived. Had the weather been decent, we could have seen the very impressive Glacier Grey below. We couldn’t enjoy its splendor, though, because we had to keep moving before hypothermia set in.
The trek down the side of the mountain was a muddy mess. For some reason, the trailblazers didn’t think of switch-backing the path down the hill. I guess they wanted it to be a greater challenge so they just ran the path sharply down the face of the mountain. Although I’d like to think of myself as a graceful person, the path would shame me into believing I was too clumsy to walk upright like a human. I slipped and slid down the side of that mountain so many times I lost count and can now, from experience, say I know what it’s like to be a turtle trying to get up after falling back on its shell.
We finally made it down to a level path, the weather cleared, and the sun came out to warm our bones. Then, before we reached the simple (and free) El Paso campsite, we found a mirador that finally allowed us an up-close and personal view of the striking ice fields and face of Glacier Grey. The glacier, 28km long 6km wide and 30m high, is the southern tip of the Patagonian ice fields that stretches into the valley for over 350km. Due to their incredible size, the ice fields can seen from space, although, the view from the mirador was much better.
This is a tiny, seaside town with a notable amount of businesses and shops dedicated to tourists going to Torres del Paine National Park. One reputable and well known business, Erratic Rock, offers daily briefings that cover current conditions and hiking in Las Torres. Besides being the gateway to the national park and several caves, the city itself offers few other tourist attractions. However, we did meet a family via www.couchsurfing.org, who made our stay warm and welcoming. Generally rough exterior of the structures holds a warm and intimate family setting inside. Every night, all the visiting travelers (up to 15 at once!) ate a home-cooked meal with the family and exchanged stories of culture and adventure. We arrived in the evening and made a fast dash to the only large grocery market, where we stocked up on essentials for the 8-10 day hike. We packed mostly pasta, several hard salamis, garlic, onion, red pomodoro sauce in a bag, a couple kilos of dried fruit and nuts. Food at an inflated price is available at some of the refuges, but as we later confirmed, it was often sweet snacks if anything at all. After our long hike through the park, we returned to stay with the same family a couple of days before heading down to Tierra del Fuego.
Cruisin’ to Patagonia
Navimag Ferries is a great way to travel between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales, the town just outside Torres del Paine National Park. This trip allows you to bypass a long bus ride and two border crossings via an adventure at sea. It’s a cargo ship that also transports passengers, so it’s not really a cruise, but almost. The accommodations were comfortable, the food was pretty tasty, the staff was friendly, and the boat’s MC provided hours of entertainment with his spunky attitude and educational lectures regarding glaciers, Patagonia, and the fauna of Antarctica. Also, unlike a cruise, the captain allowed passengers a free walkthrough of the bridge.
Matt did his thang on the internet, researching diligently, until he found us a great deal through www.mercandolibre.cl and www.groupon.cl. This gave us access to a room with a view. Otherwise, the prices for the bunk beds are reasonably affordable (considering the time/board/food) and the ride is definitely worth the money, especially if you are fortunate enough to have decent weather. Overall, it was a fantastic voyage. The captain sailed us through various canals, gulfs, channels, and straights, which exposed us to spectacular views of Chile’s fjords. We came up close to the face of South America’s largest glacier, Pío XI at snset and ejoyed great views and clear skies. The following day we sailed by the Capitán Leonidas shipwreck located in Canal Messier. We were also fortunate to catch sightings of a great variety of flora and fauna (e.g. lengua and cypress trees, humpback whales, dolphins, penguins, sea lions, etc.).
Finally, one of the best parts of the Navimag trip was meeting interesting travelers from all over the world, like Holland, England, Germany, Chile, the Basque, and Turkey, to name a few. Your days are spent lounging on the upper decks, conversing with fellow travelers and soaking in the sights. We were fortunate to enjoy the journey with two great roommates, a couple from Ireland. Everyone was so friendly, that it made the final night playing BINGO and dancing to Reggaeton music a night to remember. Overall, Navimag is highly recommended!