Saturday, January 4, 2014

Patagonia - Hiking, wind, and icebergs in El Chaltén

I took some sage advice from a new friend and kept my time in El Calafate brief, in order to go ahead and get to El Chaltén sooner rather than later.  I'm so glad I did - as it turned out, the first full day that I had in town was my only day of great weather!  Plus, Chaltén is one of the only relatively cheaper towns in tourist-friendly Patagonia, so if I was going to spend some extra nights somewhere, better to be in a less expensive hostel.  I took a mid-day bus from El Calafate, having thankfully booked a hostel in advance the evening prior.  At this point, high season was creeping up in Patagonia (December being the official start), so it became more and more important to book things in advance.  Coincidentally, I had booked the same hostel (Patagonia Hostel) where my friends Mike & Kirsten from my 30 hour bus adventure were staying, so we met up that evening and planned to hike to the base of Fitz Roy - one of the longer hikes that's possible to complete in a single day - the next morning.   We enjoyed dinner that evening at a spot called La Cerveceria just two doors down from our hostel - warm and cozy, with beautiful natural wood features and low light, they had two excellent beers on tap and a fantastic menu full of filling comfort food.  

There are two basic options for hiking to the base of Fitz Roy in a single day - you can start directly from the town of Chaltén, hiking up and back the same route, OR you can start from a spot called El Pilar and hike in from the opposite direction, allowing a spectacular view of one of the glaciers in front of Fitz Roy on the way (and providing two separate sets of scenery rather than the same to/from route).  To get to El Pilar, you can either walk down a long, boring road, or catch a bus from your local hostel.  We chose to do the El Pilar route, and we caught a relatively cheap bus from our hostel around 9:30 the next morning.  The bus should only take half an hour, but after some driving around to pick up people and whatnot, we didn't arrive at El Pilar until 10:30.  Not a big deal - the sun doesn't set until incredibly late during the Patagonian summer, so we had plenty of time, but we did wind up missing some clear views at the base of Fitz Roy by about an hour.  So, my advice is, get started as early as possible!

The view of Cerro Fitz Roy from our drive to El Pilar, the start of our hike.

Now that the logistical part of the post is over… the hike was absolutely incredible.  We started off in an area full of trees that appeared to still be hibernating for the winter, and many that were dead or falling over.  But the tops of many of the trees were full of leaves, and the ground beneath our feet full of grass and small plants, providing a striking contrast as we made our way through the forest.  This part of the hike was relatively easy, with rolling hills and smooth ascents, as we walked parallel to the Rio Blanco, catching occasional overlooks to the river below and the mountains surrounding us, including an incredible viewpoint of the glacier and Piedras Blancas glacial lake, with Fitz Roy towering in the background.  We finally emerged from the forest onto a flat grassy area where our path intersected with the one from town.  From here, we turned into base camp, a wooded, flat area near the river just before the steep ascent to the base of Fitz Roy where camping is allowed.  From here, hikers can camp out to get in an early morning sunrise hike to the top.  We weren't *quite* so adventuresome this time!  We continued through camp, crossed the river, and began a very steep ascent up numerous switchbacks towards the top.  The loose, rocky path had very few trees, providing excellent views of the valley below.  We finally reached the summit at Laguna de los Tres, a glacial lake covered in ice and drifts of snow at the base of Cerro Fitz Roy.  Despite a cloud having permanently encamped itself over the top of the rock towers, the view was still amazing, and well worth the long climb.  I sat down to enjoy a quick lunch of some fresh rolls with bits of cheese and salami as we admired the beauty of our surroundings.  Thanks to a few tips from friends, we made sure to check out the small path around the left side of the lake, which led to an even more striking view - a steep look over the deep turquoise water of Laguna Sucia, over which is perched another section of glacial ice at the base of the left side of the tower.  Small streams of glacial runoff fed the lake, and as we watched, a large chunk of ice tumbled down, creating even more flows of water into the lake below.  

A view of Fitz Roy and one of the glaciers, during the first part of our hike.

The view of the river valley below, from near the top of the trail.

Fitz Roy, partially obscured by clouds, and Laguna de los Tres, covered in ice.

Laguna Sucia with my new friends Mike & Kirsten.

Having spent about an hour at the top of the trail, we finally started heading back down the steep path towards base camp.  We made quick work of the path, and after noticing ominous clouds moving in from the west, we decided to make a fairly rapid return to town.  We passed over a boggy area with a long wooden bridge fashioned out of halved logs, and entered a forested area similar to the one we had seen as we started our hike.  We took a small detour off the main path to swing by Lake Capri, getting a nice view of the lake just as the sun decided to peak out from behind the clouds.  We continued our rapid pace, walking along the edge of a gorgeous river valley as we quickly descended towards town, passing thorny shrubs and towering boulders (great spots for climbers, by the way), until we finally made our way back to the hostel.  

Part of the return trail.

A gorgeous view of the river valley as we neared the town of El Chaltén.

This was also the evening of the now-infamous Iron Bowl (an annual football match between arch-rivals Alabama and Auburn), and despite the complete lack of wifi in the town, I found a decent enough spot to pick up the gamecast (a basic text play-by-play on a long delay) and receive some texts from friends back home.  The game had started during our return, so I sat down immediately to follow what I could.  Being an Alabama fan, the game (coupled with my inability to actually watch it) left me an exhausted, emotional, grouchy wreck, and I finally got some food, a hot shower, and a good night's rest late that evening after the game had ended.  

The weather the following day wasn't great (high winds, lots of clouds, bits of rain), so I took advantage of the opportunity to have a low-key day and get some rest after multiple buses and treks in not so many days.  I would up meeting a Swiss guy at the hostel who was also doing some longer travel in Patagonia, and we explored the town for a few hours, sampling empanadas and the "best ice cream in Patagonia" according to our hostel.  (Okay, it's seriously good - Heladeria Domo Blanco - go and try the Montaña, vanilla with ripples of dulce de leche, and the Calafate, the sweet berry that the nearby town is named after.  You will thank me later.)  I also decided to book an ice climbing trip on the nearby Viedma Glacier with Patagonia Aventura for the next day, in hopes that the weather would cooperate.  We then finished up our day of wandering the town with beers and bowls of incredible beef stew at La Cerveceria, perfect for a cold, windy evening.  

I got up early for my ice climbing adventure, boarding the bus at the nearby outfitter that would take us to the glacial lake, where we would board a boat that would take us out to the Viedma Glacier, similar to my experience with the Perito Moreno Glacier in El Calafate.  I was actually a bit surprised that the weather hadn't cancelled our trip, but as we rode towards the lake, it appeared the sun might just come out and give us a nice, clear day.  Unfortunately, the wind had other plans!  We began the one hour boat journey to the glacier easily enough, but as we grew nearer, we started hitting enormous choppy waves and navigating around enormous icebergs that had been pushed away from the glacier with the wind.  The closer we got, the more icebergs filled the water, and the more difficult the navigation actually became.  We wove in and out, backed up and tried again, but we couldn't find a clear path, and the wind continued to pound us.  Finally they announced that we would be turning back for safety reasons, as we all gave a collective sigh of relief.  Then we began to have engine trouble, apparently.  We started drifting, scraping across one of the smaller icebergs.  Thankfully, a larger boat from the same company (full of families who had opted to view the glacier from afar rather than climb or trek on it) was called over and rescued us - we were tied up to the boat and actually towed in the rest of the way.  It was certainly a bizarre and unique way to get a view of the glacier!!  Thankfully, the company also gave us a full refund.

We wanted to avoid any near-Titanic experiences.

With not much time left in the day, I set up at La Wafleria, a cute little spot on the edge of the town that serves incredible sweet and savory waffles, to do some writing and photo editing.  I also happened to hear from my friends Nick & Frances - remember the couple from South Africa I met while riding bikes in Bariloche? - who were headed towards Puerto Natales to get started on the W trek in Torres del Paine in a couple of days.  Having been fully convinced that I wanted to give the W a try, I jumped at the chance to hike it with such a fun couple, so I *attempted* to make arrangements to meet them in Puerto Natales the following day.  Unfortunately, travel likes to throw little wrenches in our plans, and as it turns out, the only bus from El Calafate to Puerto Natales the following day left at 8:30 AM.  Being in El Chaltén, I would need to ride 3 hours to even get to Calafate, and the earliest bus between the two points left at 7:30.  No dice.  Instead, I caught a mid-day bus to Calafate the following day, booked one more night at America del Sur, and planned to catch the bus to Puerto Natales the following day, giving me only a half day to meet my friends and find gear, but I was going to make it work!

Waffle with warm cinnamon apples, ice cream, and chocolate.  Incredible.

I departed El Chaltén the following day, a bit disappointed that I hadn't gotten to see and do more, but unwilling to wait around for the weather to improve, and excited to get to Torres del Paine.  And sometimes those logistical hurdles just have a way of working out.  I made it to Calafate and met a Belgian guy in my hostel that decided last-minute to venture off to Puerto Natales for the W as well, since the Big Ice trip in Calafate was booked up for the following day and he had a limited amount of time in Patagonia.  As a result, I wound up with a fantastic trekking partner and an amazing group of four for the duration of the hike.  But, more to come on that!


  1. Ah El Chalten... my favourite place in Patagonia :)

  2. Wow, beautiful icebergs. Patagonia is beautiful place and its good for adventures also. Book patagonia tours with us