Southern Patagonia; exploring the wilderness

After skiing for nearly two months in Argentina it was time for a change. Early November I’ll have to be in Ushuaia, the most Southern point of Argentina in order to board the cruise to Antarctica. Until then I had about a month to spend in Southern Patagonia. Its wilderness with some impressive glaciers and beautiful trekkings sounded like the perfect “stopover” in between skiing…

On the agenda in Southern Patagonia were visiting the Glaciar Perito Moreno from nearby El Calafate, trekking around El Chaltén in Argentina and Torres del Paine in Chile before making my way South towards Ushuaia. A stopover in Punta Arenas might be included in order to break up the journey towards the so-called “End of the world”.

In order to get to Southern Patagonia I had to cross an immense piece of land. From San Martin de los Andes, located in the North of Patagonia, a busride of a mere 34 hours was required to take me to my first destination in the South, El Calafate. The famous “Ruta 40” could not be taken all the way down, hence the ridiculous busride. Because the direct access was closed due to maintenance, the bus drove through Rio Gallegos, even further South, before making its way back up to El Calafate. Luckily the bus was relatively comfortable so I arrived in decent shape.

During my trip I had been recommended to stay at the so-called “I Keu Ken” hostel (for you Dutch readers out there, this is not a kitchen invented by Apple…). From the bus terminal it was a five minute stroll through this immense metropolis consisting of one main street and a couple of houses. The hostel turned out to be a friendly place and a good base to explore the surroundings. The town offers a protected area for local wildlife (read: birds) but basically serves as a base in order to visit perhaps the most famous glacier in the world: Glaciar Perito Moreno.

The first day the weather was … Patagonian, so I explored Laguna Nimez with its many birds and postponed my visit to the glacier with one day. After all, the glacier would be at its best in blue skies. The main attraction of the birdpark are the flamingoes but two big lakes and some other birds make a visit quite interesting. From the park you also have access to the beach from where you have some nice views of Lago Argentino. It is a nice introduction to Southern Patagonia…

view from Laguna Nimez

view from Laguna Nimez

It was a warm up of course to the big event, visiting the main attraction of El Calafate: Glaciar Perito Moreno. This glacier is located in the National Park Los Glaciares and is named after the explorer Francisco Moreno, a pioneer who studied the region in the 19th century and played a major role in defending the territory of Argentina in the conflict surrounding the international border dispute with Chile. The glacier ends in a fjord where it is 5 km wide and more than 70 meters high. Through a walking circuit visitors can have close-up views of the southern flank and the east facing edge of the glacier. This glacier is one of the very few growing glaciers.

A 1,5 hour busride brought me to the first stop of the day, a viewpoint. Due to continuous giggling and chattering in both Hebrew and Spanish with an uggly German accent of a couple of young backpackers who thought they were so cool, this busride was a rather uncomfortable one. Add to that a great night sleep in a dorm that was too hot and you have the perfect ingredients for a lack of sleep and an ideal start of the day. Yes, you’re absolutely right, I’m more than done with dorms and typical backpackers!

Luckily for me, the glacier was so impressive that I soon forgot the earlier events of the day. After a short visit to the first viewpoint, we continued to a small harbour. A one hour boatride would give us a close look at the glacier. I have been on many glaciers in my skiing career (dream on Polly…) but never had I seen one from this perspective. It was truely spectacular to see the big wall of ice rising out of the water. When everybody was finished taking the most stupid pictures for their facebook profiles, we turned back towards the harbour. Next stop was the visitor center with its walking circuit. As soon as I could, I left the bus and my fellow daytrippers and enjoyed the views while walking around…

Glaciar Perito Moreno, pretty big...

Glaciar Perito Moreno, pretty big…

The walking circuit consists of a couple kilometers of trails from where you have slightly different views of the glacier. When walking around you’ll hear loud noises every now and then from big chunks of ice falling in the water of Lago Argentino. At one point I noticed some ice falling in the water leaving a stand alone pillar of ice behind. It was simply a matter of time before the whole thing would go down. I waited a couple of minutes before my expectations were met. A lot of noise and waves created by the force of the ice that went down were the consequence. Wow, that was impressive!

After two hours of plessure it was time to return to El Calafate. At the hostel I enjoyed some self-made scampi with broccoli and grilled potatoes. After eating out for more than 600 times (lunch and dinner) it was nice to cook for a change. In the evening I had planned to enjoy one of the best local beers, Gülmen. Unfortunately I was joined by some typical backpackers. One of them was surprised I didn’t have a huge beard by now. Hey, look in the backpacker-bible on page 72 and read the section about shaving. When you travel for more than three months you’ll have a beard, no question about it. Next he asked me what annoyed me the most after 10,5 months of traveling. I mentioned the fact I had to answer the same questions over and over again. Next, this guy asked me which countries I had visited during my travels…

Time had obviously arrived to leave El Calafate. I booked an open return ticket to trekking paradise El Chaltén and who knows…I might enjoy a Gülmen when coming back to the I Keu Ken hostel, a great place by the way. El Chaltén, built only in 1985, is another Patagonian metropolitan area with a population of around 1000 people. I was looking forward to do some beautiful treks but unfortunately the weather was … Patagonian again. Three days of rain and very strong winds kept me inside. Internet was down and the town is very, very boring so I watched a bit of Big Bang Theory and some movies to kill the time. After about 20 episodes I had enough of Sheldon and his nerdy friends so I went outside. Luckily the weather had changed and according to the weather forecast three days of sun and hardly any wind were ahead of me. I planned a trek of three days so that was a perfect match. My planned itinerary could be done in one day but I wanted to see the famous mountains of Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre during sunrise so I created a little camping trip. Let’s call it my version of “Into the wild”…

Even though civilization was just around the corner, and therefore the comparison with the movie doesn’t hold very well, it was still an amazing adventure. I rented camping equipment in town and used my backpack to its full potential. I started with an afternoon hike towards the Rio Blanco campsite. This campsite is for climbers only and registration is required but because the climbing season did not start yet, it was empty according to two French guys I had met. There should also be a nice shelter to make cooking easier in case of wind. The map mentioned 3,5 hours to get there. I guess they kept in mind that people of all ages and in all physical conditions walk these trails because in around two hours I had setup my camp. On my way to the camp I was greeted by a beautiful Harrier, a typical South American bird of prey who was looking for a nice meal by scouting the valley from the air. It was very impressive!

a Cinereous Harrier is scouting the valley for food

a Cinereous Harrier is scouting the valley for food

Once I had taken a break in the shelter I continued towards Laguna de los Tres, a lake in front of the mighty Cerro Fitz Roy (3405 m). A pretty steep trail took me to the lake in about 45 minutes. The view was stunning but would be more amazing the next morning. Exploration of the trail in daylight would hopefully help me the next day to find it in the darkness of the early morning. I cooked a delicious plain pasta (no sauce and water as a drink didn’t make the best dinner of my life…) before I went to bed early. No snoring, no backpackers, only me and nature. I fell asleep to the sound of the nearby river…

Woken up by my alarm I quickly went outside the tent and started hiking the same trail as the day before. I was so excited to see the same mountainrange but in beautiful early morning sunlight. The granite spires show a red glow if I was informed correctly. At 6:30 am I was back at the lake, it was freezing cold. There were two other people who left before the sun started to shine its light on Cerro Fitz Roy. Hello, are you guys crazy? To quote famous Dutch footballcoach Louis van Gaal: “Am I so smart or are they so stupid?”. At least they were stupid… Well, it was good news for me anyway because as a result I was alone with Mr. Roy. After the sky turned into several combinations of spectacular colours the light finally started to shine on the mountains. Wow, it was a true spectacle of nature!

Cerro Fitz Roy in its full morning glory

Cerro Fitz Roy in its full morning glory

It was difficult to leave because it was so beautiful but at some point one has to go. With pain in my heart I said goodbye to my dear friend Mr. Roy and descended to my camp. Instant soup and bread with dulce de leche (the Argentine version of caramel) were on the menu for breakfast. After breakfast I took a nice nap, after all I wasn’t in a hurry. At 11:30 am I had packed all my stuff and went back on the road or trail in this case. My next destination was campsite Agostini. From Rio Blanco I could take a shortcut and hike towards this campsite without having to go back to town. A two hour walk passing several lakes (Laguna Madre y Laguna Hija or Mother and Daughter lake) took me on the trail towards the campsite. More bread with dulce de leche gave me enough energy to keep going and around 15:00 I arrived at campsite Agostini to find out I was alone again. I expected the campsites to be crowded because many people would have been waiting for days in order to go trekking because of the weather and use the great weather to its full potential. Apparently the other people prefer to do daytrips and miss the sensational sunrises. Too bad for them…

After setting up my camp I went up to the lake to have a first glimpse of Laguna Torre and the second famous mountain of the area, Cerro Torre (3128 m). Whereas the lake in front of Fitz Roy is frozen at this time of year, Laguna Torre is open with some floating chunks of ice that recently fell off the Tower glacier just in front of Cerro Torre. I hiked to Mirador Maestri to have a good view of this glacier before going back to camp for dinner. I was starving. Again pasta with some water satisfied my hunger but nothing more than that. After dinner I went back to Laguna Torre. All the people who visited the area as a daytrip had to go back to town in order to be back before dusk so as a result, I had the whole area to myself again. I sat down for at least an hour to soak up the surroundings and be one with nature, magical! However, the next morning the view would be even better and I was guaranteed a private meeting with Cerro Torre because it simply is impossible to get there at 6:30 am starting from town. I couldn’t wait and went to bed…

enjoying beautiful Patagonia in the early morning, Cerro Torre in the distance

enjoying beautiful Patagonia in the early morning, Cerro Torre in the distance

Only a 10 minute walk was required to get to Laguna Torre, so I got out of the tent around 6 am in order to get ready. Around 15 minutes later I was at the lake. The same ritual as the previous morning was a fact. First the sky showed all sorts of colours before the sun gave it its best to shine through a cloud. For about 10 minutes it succeeded resulting in a great panorama, again. After that, the sun was hidden behind the clouds for the remainder of the morning unfortunately. Still it was fantastic to be there, alone with nature again. Some birds and an occasional drop of ice in the lake took care of the early morning music. It really felt as if I had gone into the wild…

Three hours later I was back in town. My plan to camp for two nights worked out perfectly. The weather was great and because the high season still had to start, the campsites were empty. This way I could enjoy early mornings and late afternoons on my own in the mountains. For me, this is the only way to really enjoy everything that nature has to offer. I wasn’t disturbed by other people complaining about cold hands or being tired or just wanting to drink a beer. For me October was a great month to be in El Chaltén. Take into account a couple of bad weather days and take advantage of the good weather once it arrives. And, go camping to get those special moments in the mountains. Let the others go on daytrips while you’re out there enjoying the real beauty!

From El Chaltén I made my way back to El Calafate which was a stopover towards Chile this time. I had only one thing on the agenda on my return to this town, drinking a Gülmen without being disturbed by lousy backpackers. This time I succeeded. This beer is the closest to Belgian beer that I could find in Patagonia. The next morning my bus departed at 8:30 am to Puerto Natales, the gateway to Torres del Paine which is known to be one of the most beautiful national parks in the world.

In the Lili Patagonico’s hostel Felipe, the guy behind the desk at the moment of arrival, explained everything I needed to know about the National Park. I made my plan for a 4-day trek and started shopping. Soup, pasta with some Parmesan cheese and spicy Mexican sauce and bread with dulce de leche were on the menu for the coming days. After renting my camping equipment I was good to go. I enjoyed a La Trappe Blonde (by far the best Dutch beer!) and went to bed in order to get the 7:30 am bus the next day to Torres del Paine.

The National Park of Torres del Paine is a huge park with its 250,000 hectares approximately. It is located in the far South of Chile, in the region of Magallanes and Chilean Antarctica. It has mountains, glaciers, lakes, and rivers and is home to several wild animals of which the most prominent is the puma. The Torres del Paine are the peaks of the mountain range, Cerro Paine. They extend 3,050 meters above sea level, and are joined by the Cuernos del Paine. The well-known lakes include Grey, Pehoé, Nordenskiöld, and Sarmiento. The glaciers, including Grey, Pingo, Tyndall, and Geikie, belong to the Southern Patagonia Ice Field. The park offers two famous trekkings, the O-circuit and the W-circuit. The O-circuit goes around the whole park in around 7 days but was closed at this time of year. The W-circuit is the more popular 4 days option. I decided to walk the so-called W-trekking from West to East in four days, meaning I would have to walk up to and back from the Grey glacier on day 1, go up and down the French valley before setting up camp at Los Cuernos on day 2 and visit the viewpoint of “las Torres” on day 3. On the last day I would only have to walk back down to the busstop in front of Refugio Torre Central.

the view of los Cuernos del Paine from Salto Grande

the view of los Cuernos del Paine from Salto Grande

I took the bus and arrived at the departure point for the boat towards Paine Grande. Nearby is the Salto Grande, a waterfall in the Paine river. Together with the lake and “los Cuernos del Paine” this made for the best view of the whole trekking, a bit of a disappointment that one starts with the highlight…

Around 1 pm I arrived at the campsite of Paine Grande. In the National Park there are both free and paid campsites. The difference is that the free campsites only offer toilets whereas the paid ones have an enclosed cooking area, hot showers and a refugio to hang out with a mini market. Paine Grande had a paid campsite. For 4800 Chilean pesos (around 6,5 euros) I could set up my tent in a horrendous wind, interesting. Shortly after, I left the campsite and started walking towards the Grey glacier. According to the map it was a 3,5 hour walk but that must have been based on old people walking backwards because it took me two hours. Beautiful lakes with turqoise water, prominent mountain formations and some icebergs made a great scenery. At the end of the track I arrived at a viewpoint from where glacier Grey could be observed. It was not as impressive as Glacier Perito Moreno but it was still nice. I spent quite some time there before walking back around 6 pm. The walk back was beautiful in the evening light. Back at camp I made dinner and took a nice hot shower. From the cooking enclosure I noticed one tent had been set up poorly, guess whose tent that was…

During the night it felt like I flew from one continent to the other. It was windy to say the least and the next morning I had to take note of a broken tent stick. I only had three days to go. On day two I left early in order to get rid of an annoying Austrian “bergfuhrer” (she was constantly studying the map as if it was a serious expedition, in reality there is only one way and there is nothing serious about it…) who was doing the same itinerary. In under two hours I arrived at campsite Italiano where I left the majority of my luggage behind in order the check out the viewpoint of the French valley. On the way I met a Dutch couple and we exchanged some stories. It turned out the guy plays in the same hockeyteam as a former IMS-colleague, a small world. At the viewpoint there were three proud Chileans and we joked around a bit. Saying that everything in Argentina is better always works with those guys!

Back at campsite Italiano I got my gear and we continued to another paid campsite, los Cuernos. According to the Dutch couple this was located in a superb setting and on arrival it turned out they hadn’t lied. The beach on one side and los Cuernos del Paine on the other. We enjoyed the sunset together with many condors. After nine hours of walking a cold coke was very refreshing. Thank you Coca Cola company for making such a great product!

The mountains in the National Park of Torres del Paine have some interesting shapes. Glacial erosion is mainly responsible for the sculpturing of the massif in the last tens of thousands of years. A fine example are los Cuernos whose central bands of exposed granite contrast strongly with the dark aspect of their peaks.

The mountains in the National Park of Torres del Paine have some interesting shapes. Glacial erosion is mainly responsible for the sculpturing of the massif in the last tens of thousands of years. A fine example are los Cuernos whose central bands of exposed granite contrast strongly with the dark aspect of their peaks.

The next morning the Dutchies had left early in order to catch their boat, they were on a different route. I continued East towards the hotel las Torres because that would be an ideal point for a short break to enjoy a cold coke. The 4,5 hours of walking mentioned on the map were covered by the flying Dutchman in just under 3 hours. The coke was well deserved if you’d ask me. Next on the menu was a decent uphill trek to campsite Chileno, another paid one. Shower, pasta and a nap made my afternoon before I walked towards the last viewpoint of the trekking, Mirador las Torres. The weather forecast mentioned this would be the last sunny day before the clouds would come in so I better made the most of it. I had imagined the Torres in beautiful evening light, that’s why I left late afternoon. On arrival however, the Torres and the lake in front of it were almost completely covered in shadow. Next time, it might be useful to get more information about the light before setting off…

I decided to take it easy the next and last morning because of those forecasted clouds. However, I opened my tent around 8 am only to notice the skies were blue and I had missed the best opportunity to see the Torres in spectacular conditions. A weather forecast 4 days ahead is not that reliable. I should have paid more attention during my statistics classes… In one hour I almost ran down the mountain to the Refugio Torre Central and waited for the bus to bring me back to Puerto Natales. The trekking in Torres del Paine had been a beautiful one. It is more organized than in El Chaltén. You will have to take a bus in order to get there which means everybody starts more or less at the same time and because 99% of the people walk the “W” you see the same people over and over again. It is definitely more crowded than in its Argentine counterpart, even in lowseason. It is of course nice to have a shower and a drink every night. I’d say trekking in Torres del Paine is like a nice excursion whereas trekking in El Chaltén is a true wilderness experience. At least this time of year.

The night before the trekking I enjoyed a La Trappe Blonde and I had to celebrate finishing the “W” by drinking another La Trappe. This time I opted for the Tripel, not bad either. The next day I watched El Clasico (Barcelona – Real Madrid) in a clubhouse before leaving to Punta Arenas. Two taxis rejected me, not because I was smelling so bad but because of my skibag. Crazy folks. I finally got a cab and three hours later I arrived in the largest Patagonian town filled with Germans. Punta Arenas has just over 120 thousand inhabitants and its main attraction are penguins. Because I expect to see many in a much more spectacular setting very soon, I skipped the excursions. After chilling out for a couple of days I continued my journey to the “End of the world”. According to my little niece, Pien, the end of the world is located in New Zealand because that’s where one would fall of the world (it’s true, look at the map!) but officially the end of the world is in Ushuaia. At least if you believe the city’s slogan…

Over all Southern Patagonia has been quite impressive. I only visited the more typical places in a huge stretch of land. To experience the real Patagonia one should be able to speak Spanish, and I mean the one with a strong local accent, fluently and drive a car. Only then you can stop every now and then in remote towns to get a better feeling of local culture. Another interesting culture to witness would be the one of the gauchos in the far South. I have ‘only’ seen great scenery around some touristy towns. Especially the area around El Chaltén was impressive if you’d ask me. In case you consider visiting this part of the world, keep in mind that time is your best friend. Go before or after high season and be prepared to have quite a few down days. It will be rewarded with some great experiences!

I’m in Ushuaia right now preparing for the final chapter of my initial trip: skiing on the Antarctic peninsula. In case you haven’t heard yet, the trip will not be over yet after my visit to the White Continent. Yes, I’ll go home to celebrate Sinterklaas (a Dutch holiday for kids) with the family but December 10 my trip continues. Ecuador and Colombia will be visited first before I will really finish my trip with skiing some lines in the European Alps I have been dreaming about for too long now.

Click here to see more pictures of my trip to Southern Patagonia!