El Chalten - Calafate - Perito Moreno
Have you ever stroll through the photography section in a bookstore? Find yourself a landscape photography book, flip through it, and you’ll probably see pictures from Patagonia. Or a white-bordered poster of a black and white photograph of sharp and incongruous peaks… And wonder if you’ll ever see those sights for yourself. Well I was lucky enough to this past winter break.
Patagonia have inspired many adventurers and explorers. From Magellan during his voyage around the world, Charles Darwin aboard the HMS Beagle, and Francisco “Perito” Moreno--the Argentinian John Muir. Doug Tompkins (late founder of North Face) and Yvon Chouinard (founder of Patagonia) filmed their road trip here to climb the mountains, and eventually both sold their company to become the largest advocate of conservation, albeit controversial, of the lands here.
To get there, we flew in to Calafate from Buenos Aires. As soon as our plane approaches the airport, I was surprised to see the largely desert-like lands… and the vivid turquoise colored lakes and rivers. I’ve never seen lakes and rivers with such a bluish/green tint before.
Patagonia is mostly defined as the southern region of the South American sub-continent, spanning from the Andes mountains in the west to the Atlantic shores in the east. Also commonly included, the island of Tierra del Fuego in the south tip. The region itself is largely a semi-arid plains with mesas and steep canyons, with glaciers and snowy peaks; covering a large part of Southern Argentina and parts of eastern Chile. In Argentina the region covers the provinces of Santa Cruz and Tierra del Fuego. Calafate is in the heart of the region, popular because of its accessibility to the Glacier National Park (Parque Nacional de los Glaciares).
From Calafate, we took a 3 hour bus ride to El Chalten (every bus rides feels like a 3-hour ride, btw). Located at the northern end of the national park region, Chalten feels like a city that was built by and for backpackers. It is filled with hostels, hotels, restaurants, and gear outfitters. And it is the gateway town to the trails and famed mountains of the park. Aside from the seasonal workers here, everybody else in town are backpackers and travellers alike. It’s a nice place, I like it a lot, probably wouldn’t mind spending more than a week here.
Senda Laguna Torre (Distance: 12 mile RT | Time: 9 hours | Weather: Cloudy/Rainy)
After a mostly relaxing afternoon, and a nice dinner at La Tapera, we set out on our first day to do the Laguna Torres hike (1 of the 2 main hikes in the park). It was a pretty cloudy, cold, and damped day; the clouds were low and covered most of the mountains during the hike. The hike itself is around a 12-13 mile round trip (20-22 km) and mostly moderate with just a few steep inclines, takes about 8-9 hours total to complete. The hike starts out at the hillside west of the town, from which you get to see the complete layout of Chalten.
You go through a few meadows and lenga forests, while far ahead you can see glaciers and on a clear day, the Cerro Torre peak. It was a good introductory hike for us, getting acclimated to the terrain and temperature. Wearing layers helped since we go through phases of being too warm and too cold throughout the hike; a fleece and a windbreaker worked out well for myself.
Unfortunately, once we reached the lake, it was so cloudy that we were not able to see the fabled peaks. But still, seeing the glaciers edge for the first time with smaller chunks of ice floating on the pale turquoise lake is still a sight worth hiking to. Some hikers could go around the lake to get a closer view of the glaciers, but the weather was turning on us and started raining (with some ice) pretty heavily, so we quickly finished our empanadas lunch and started our hike down.
About 4 miles back, we reached a meadow and stopped a little bit for a rest. To our surprise, the clouds broke for a bit and we were treated to a view of the Cerro Torre peak… I guess all was not loss in this weather. And that was another lesson that we quickly learned about the weather here in Patagonia…. never trust the forecast.
Senda Laguna de los Tres (Fitz Roy) (Distance: 16 miles | Time: 13 hours | Weather: Sunny/Clear)
With the weather looking much much nicer, we set out on our third day in Chalten to see Mount Fitz Roy and Laguna de los Tres. If you’ve seen the Patagonia clothing logo, that’s mount Fitz Roy. Once you’ve seen it, it’s not hard to see why they picked it as a symbol.
Instead of doing the traditional there and back hike from Chalten, we took a bus ride to Hosteria Pillar north of the town to start our hike at the other end of the trail. This made the trip shorter by about 5 km and the extra benefit of seeing the Piedra Blanca lake and glacier.
The hike was mostly moderate, with just a few hills, but passing through a beautiful meadow right before the junction to Camp Rio Blanca.
Past the campground, we hit the last kilometer mark, with a warning of steep incline for the last kilometer. And this last bit is no joke, it was very steep and rocky. It also felt a lot longer than 1 km as well, i’m not sure if they were just measuring horizontal distance on Google Maps. While we were averaging around 2-2.5 km / hour during the hike here, this last part alone took almost an hour through countless switchbacks and steps.
But as soon as we come over the hill, the reward was visible and imminent…
The view is beyond spectacular. Huge, sharp, rocky spires covered in snow, surrounding a green glacial lake. The scale of this is amazing, none of the pictures I took could really explain how encompassing and overbearing these mountains feels like.
We must’ve stayed by the lake for almost 2 hours, having our lunch, and staring at this scenery. We can hardly take our eyes off of it. Francisco “Perito” Moreno was the first European to caught glimpse of this peak, and instead of naming it on his own, he named it after Captain Robert Fitz Roy who had commandeered the HMS Beagle to the Santa Cruz river, and opened the area to exploration for the settlers.
Heavy heartedly we had to pack up to start our hike back to Chalten. We kept looking back though, not wanting to part with the view just yet.
We woke up a little later the next morning to pack up and check out of the hostel. After storing our backpacks away at the reception, we strolled the town a little bit and towards the park’s visitor center. We walked up the trail towards Mirador los Condores, but decided not to go all the way because we’ll have to catch a bus back at the hostel. But from the start of the trail, the peaks were still visible from afar. We didn’t realize that it was that visible from the town because of the cloud cover. It was a nice last sight of the mountain before we head to Calafate.
Nothing much to say about Calafate, other than it’s a quaint little resort town and a good starting point for visitors to explore the region. The downtown street is lined with restaurants, tour offices, and souvenir shops. A few supermarket and shops as well where backpackers can stock up on food and supplies.
We stayed at a very nice little B&B near the edge of town. The hosts were very nice and accommodating, and our room was very spacious with a window overlooking the front garden. Our first dinner was at Pura Vida restaurant where they serve a variety of pastas and stew, and a rear balcony overlooking the lake. I ordered a meat and pumpkin stew cooked in the actual pumpkin, it was hearty and warm. A good fill-up before the hike tomorrow.
Perito Moreno (Distance: 7-8 miles | Time: ~5 hours | Weather: Mildly Cloudy)
We were picked up by our excursion operator from our B&B for a bus ride towards Perito Moreno Glacier. The 3rd largest glacier in Argentina, it’s one of the very few stable glaciers in the world where it has not retreated over the years. It is also the most accessible glacier from land, with its northern face yards away from land.
The glacier itself is named after the explorer-scientist Francisco Moreno (“Perito” is his given respected title meaning “specialists” or “expert”). There is only one tour company sanctioned by the park to operate in this area, and you have the choice of doing a shorter “Mini-Trek” on the glacier, or the longer “Big Ice” guided trek.
The first part of the excursion allowed us to see the glacier from the very accessible boardwalk. Various terraces and viewpoints where you can see the edge of the glacier.
You can hear the continuous rumble and cracking of the slowly moving body of ice; and if you’re lucky you might even see ruptures where parts of the ice will fall under its own weight to the lake.
We took a catamaran to the other side of the lake to start our trek. After a brief orientation and safety notices, we started our trek alongside the glacier. Once we reached the starting point, we put on harnesses and crampons, then we promptly started walking on ice. ON GLACIER ICE! How f-ing cool is that? Never thought I’d ever get to walk on a freaking glacier. It was very crunchy.
Perito Moreno is probably the only glacier in the world that is so accessible for visitors that most everybody can just do it without having to do a long trek up to it first. The blueness of it all is surreal.
It also gives you a lot of appreciation of how massive but yet fragile these ice sheets are. Though this particular glacier has not retreated over time, it's but one of a very rare group.
At some points you can take a peek down a crevasse. Or see the clear deep blue streams and creeks that you can drink out of. Yes, the water is drinkable and it is as fresh as you’d think it is.
After venturing inward on the ice sheet, you can see where the glacier keeps on going towards up the mountains, seems like it never ends. We hiked back around the edge and headed back to the docks. Aboard the ship we were treated with chocolate candies and whiskey… I need to start ending all my hikes in whiskey now.
We got on a bus back to Calafate and spent another night there. The next morning we’d hop on another bus to cross the border to the Chilean side of Patagonia and Torres de Paine National Park...
Continue to Patagonia Part 2: Torres del Paine - Ushuaia
Backpack/Daypack: Osprey Aether 70L / REI Flash 18
Camera: Fuji X-E1
Lenses: Fuji XF 55-200mm f/3.5-5.6, XF 10-24mm f/4.0, XF 35mm f/1.4
Tripod: Mefoto Backpacker
Food & Accommodations:
Chalten Accommodation: Hostel Condor de los Andes
Chalten Restaurants: La Tapera, Viejo Nando
Calafate Accommodations: Posada Karut Josh
Calafate Restaurants: Casimiro Asado & Parilla, Pura Vida
Glacier Trek: Hielo y Aventura
Planning & Coordination: Lisa Maria