Patagonia, part two: El Chaltén

El Calafate had been about the Perito Moreno Glacier, pretty much.  El Chaltén is about hiking, and about Fitz Roy – a particularly famously picturesque and – for climbers – difficult mountain in the southern Andes.  (It may also have been a bit about cheap sugary pastry things from the bakeries, and about the DVDs of live rock concerts favoured by our host at our excellent hostel, Albergue Aylen-Aike.)

Mount Fitz Roy (right), seen from the end of the hike out to Laguna de los Tres

Mount Fitz Roy (right), seen from the end of the hike out to Laguna de los Tres

Hiking is a big deal in Patagonia.  Trekkers come from far flung places, armed with The North Face this, Kathmandu that and Colombia the other, bearing tents and sleeping bags and walking poles and sturdy boots, and sporting more layers of clothing than I have pairs of socks.  (I saw one couple pause in the sunshine to shed some of their skins at one point:  they each took off two jackets, a tshirt and then a long-sleeved tshirt, to get down to their innermost tshirt, before putting one of the jackets back on.  I was wearing a thin woollen tshirt at the time, and had only just stopped sweating from the climb up the hill.  I have no idea how they weren’t drowning in a sea of their own perspiration.  Seriously, someone from some deodorant company needs to get in touch with these guys and sign them up as advertising models.)

We weren’t quite so thoroughly outfitted as many of the travellers around us.  (Including one Eastern European group who’d also been on our Big Ice tour in El Calafate, and whom I took great pleasure in naming the “Poles with poles,” in a joke that was apparently much funnier to me than to anybody else.)  In particular, we weren’t set up to do any camping, so absent a strong desire to go hire a whole bunch of stuff to allow us to sleep less comfortably than we otherwise would in, y’know, a bed, we were restricted to the day hikes.  No five-day ‘the W’ Torres del Paine trek out of El Calafate for us, nor the two-day trek to Laguna Torre out of El Chaltén.  (Though in fairness, we confidently assured ourselves that we probably could have quick-marched the latter in a single day had we anticipated seeing anything particularly interesting at the other end of it.)

But nonetheless, El Chaltén offers a fair number of day hikes, and some beautiful scenery for them, so having lazily used up a whole day for the three hour bus ride from El Calafate (it’s alright, the weather was shit that day anyway), we set about planning how much of the area we could traverse in the time we had available.

A slightly more distant – but cloudless – view of Mount Fitz Roy, from partway along the trail out to Mirador Loma del Pliegue Tumbado

A slightly more distant – but cloudless – view of Mount Fitz Roy, from partway along the trail out to Mirador Loma del Pliegue Tumbado

Nearly all the treks in the area focus on getting a good view of Fitz Roy and/or its glaciers.  The problem with this is that Fitz Roy is, like Everest, quite often entombed in cloud.  Thankfully, Sebastian, the ever-helpful rock-DVD-loving owner of our hostel, was armed with weather forecasts and excellent advice.  Don’t do the Laguna de los Tres hike first, he said (this is the hike that is most specifically pointed to a front-and-centre prime viewing of Fitz Roy), do the Piedras Blancas one instead (a hike that ends over a lot of large boulders – the piedras blancas, or white rocks – to a nearby glacier, Glacier Fitz Roy East, aka Glacier Piedras Blancas).  The weather’s supposed to clear up in the afternoon, so if it looks clear once you’re done, then you can whip up to Laguna de los Tres.  And if it doesn’t, you can do that tomorrow, when the weather’s better.  Anyway, almost no one goes to Piedras Blancas, which is a pity, coz it’s cool.

So Piedras Blancas it was.  And it was cool.  First, we got to climb over big rocks.  And because we’re apparently about nine years old on the inside, that was fun just by itself.

In front of Glacier Piedras Blancas

Look, ma! Check out this picture of me on this big rock I climbed!

And second, the glacier was really awesome.  It’s on a rocky mountainside, and so rather than just being a big wide flat sheet of white, it’s carved out in a more interesting shape by the protrusions of the rock beneath.  And more than that, it has waterfalls.  There were several, but the most impressive was a huge cascade running down the right hand side of the glacier.  I don’t know why, but to me the fact of a glacier having a huge gushing waterfall is in itself very cool.  But cool was not sufficient.  This waterfall was alive.  Every ten or fifteen minutes we’d hear crashes and quickly look up to the waterfall.  Sometimes you’d just see a little more water pouring out, or watch as the waterfall changed course slightly, reminding you just how dynamic a glacier really is.  But sometimes you’d look up to see a cavalcade of ice tumbling down, the waterfall doubling or tripling in size and ferocity, sending large chunks of previously immovable glacier down into the lake as well as a torrent of water.  You’d see the waterfall seek out new, additional courses downwards, as the normal route filled and overflowed around the frozen barrier under which it normally fitted just fine.  And you’d sit and watch as everything slowly returned to normal, waiting for the next several tonnes of ice to break off a little later, just as thunderously, leaving just as little visible impact on the imposing façade that remained behind.

Glacier Piedras Blancas, with awesome waterfall on the right hand side

Glacier Piedras Blancas, with awesome waterfall on the right hand side

It was impressive stuff.  And Sebastian was right – almost no one else ventures out to Piedras Blancas (at least, not the whole way out – quite a few turn back once the boulder-bashing begins), and so we had the whole spectacle to ourselves.

The weather forecast was right, too.  The cloud cleared up some in the mid-afternoon, so by the time we were heading back from our glacier-watching, Fitz Roy was clear, and the climb up to Laguna de los Tres would be worthwhile.  Excellent.

Admittedly, it was an energy-sapping climb:  normally I’m the annoying git eagerly suggesting that whatever random direction has a bit more uphill is probably the more entertaining option, but this one had my legs a little tired, especially after the boulders at Piedras Blancas and the scramble up the ridge thereafter.  But while it might have been steep and long, it was also straightforward, and we made it to the top in about an hour.  Which meant were there for some good photos before and after the sun disappeared behind a mountain at 6.15pm.

The view from Laguna de los Tres

The view from Laguna de los Tres

Laguna de los Tres is apparently thusly named with ‘los Tres’ referring to the three peaks in front of you at the top:  Fitz Roy, Poincenot and Saint-Exupéry.  We got our fill of viewing those before we started our descent and turned for home (finally leaving the trail by the light of a brilliant full moon, just after the sun had set).  It had been a good day, all up – 36km walked, in about ten or eleven hours – and we felt satisfyingly tired.  We also felt not a lot like making many decisions for dinner.  So we went back to the same place as the previous night – La Brasería – and I enjoyed exactly the same meal I’d had roughly 23h earlier:  an awesome steak, topped with bacon, and with a side of eggs fried/poached in half a capsicum.  (Don’t worry Mum, there was a hearty salad in there too, as well as the plate of French fries.)

The next day we had a bit of a rest:  only 16km of hiking, to the two lookouts named Los Condores and Las Águilas, plus a waterfall a bit north of town (Chorrillo del Salto).  Nice and easy walks, although there was nothing particularly fascinating about them (we saw neither condors nor eagles at the lookouts, although you’ll be pleased to know that we did indeed see a waterfall at the waterfall).

Chorrillo del Salto

Chorrillo del Salto

On our final full day, we had another long hike:  this time out to Mirador Loma del Pleigue Tumbado.  This is the go-to panorama site for a view of all of Fitz Roy and its surrounds.  Pleasantly, this one delivered at least one condor.

A condor flying high on an updraft over the mountains near El Chaltén

A condor flying high on an updraft over the mountains, seen from Mirador Loma del Pliegue Tumbado, looking towards Mount Fitz Roy (which is out of the shot to the right of the photo)

And it was a very pretty hike through the woods to get there, too, and a rewarding vista at the end.

Mount Fitz Roy and its surrounds, here seen from Mirador Loma del Pliegue Tumbado

A view we were getting used to: Mount Fitz Roy and its surrounds, here seen from Mirador Loma del Pliegue Tumbado

After that hike, all that was left was to head back and try another recommended local restaurant.  And to try a bit more of the local wine – including a sample of the local Tetrapak-encased fare, ‘Termidor’.  A sample which had us wanting our £3 back.  We were particularly unimpressed to discover that Sebastian had been very accurate in describing it as uncannily like gasoline.  Thank god we had back-ups:  a couple of much more palatable bottles of the local good stuff.

Then, although we had a couple of days to spare before we flew out of Patagonia, it was back to El Calafate:  the internet is better there, and we had millions of photos to sort through and back up.  That and a few pairs of very smelly socks to wash.

Patagonia, part one: El Calafate

The Perito Moreno Glacier, in Las Glaciares National Park near El Calafate

The Perito Moreno Glacier, in Las Glaciares National Park near El Calafate

Arriving from La Paz into Argentina, we spent all of one night in Buenos Aires before catching an overnight flight down to Rio Gallegos, way down south.  I say ‘overnight’, but actually we arrived by 1.50am, and most of the night was in fact spent waiting, reading, napping, waiting and reading in the airport (we figured it was likely to be slightly nicer there than the bus station).  Eventually the sun came up and we headed off and get on a bus to our actual destination, El Calafate.

Argentina is richer than Bolivia.  Hell, most countries are richer than Bolivia.  El Calafate, in Patagonia, is better off than your average Argentinian town, too.  The contrast with Bolivia was, well, stark.  The bus that got us there was capable of speeds over 60km/h, for a start, and not only that but the roads were good enough to mean that that wouldn’t be an “adventure”.  And we didn’t even have to worry about whether our driver was about to fall off the road.

Where Bolivia had me thinking back to our time in the poorer parts of South-East Asia, El Calafate – which is very much a tourist town, its one real claim to fame being the beautiful Perito Moreno Glacier – reminded me of the South Island of New Zealand:  it’s basically half Wanaka, half Queenstown.  But with Argentine steakhouses galore.

As nice as it is, as I say, El Calafate is kind of a one-horse town.  The Perito Moreno Glacier is somewhat world-famous (as far as glaciers go, anyway), and that’s what everyone comes to see.  It’s slightly hard to explain exactly why it’s famous, to be perfectly honest:  I gather it’s a combination of things.  First, for a giant hunk of ice, it’s remarkably easy for tourists to get to:  you just bus out of town, without having to hike your way through snow fields or anything like that.  You don’t even have to climb up anywhere:  it’s only about 250m above sea level.  Second, like many glaciers, its face forms the edge of a lake (Lago Argentino) – but in a stroke of good luck, the part of the lake it abuts is close enough to the other side for a fantastic view from the shore just at the end of your one-hour bus trip out from town.  Third, it’s one of the few glaciers in the world that’s not receding – it’s in equilibrium, staying roughly put from one year to the next.  Fourth, although it’s in equilibrium, that’s not to say that the ice doesn’t move:  it does, and fast.  About 2m per day in the middle.  So there’s plenty of ice heading on down the valley to then melt or fall off into the lake.

The face of Perito Moreno Glacier, forming a narrow channel between the glacier and the land edge of Lake Argentina

The face of Perito Moreno Glacier, forming a narrow channel between the glacier and the land edge of Lake Argentina

Which brings us to the most special thing about the glacier:  the spectacular calving off of giant chunks of ice at its face.  The fact that it’s so close to the opposite shore of the lake means that every so often, it actually makes it across to the other side and forms a natural frozen dam, blocking off the lake’s access to the Santa Cruz River.  When this happens, the lake rises (up to 30m, apparently!) and the pressure slowly erodes away the glacier, leading eventually to a massive crash as it gives way.  Ice and water go everywhere, in a grand cacophony of H2O.  Apparently it’s quite the event.  Perito Moreno would probably be a famous tourist attraction anyway, but this much-anticipated natural extravaganza brings TV crews and spectators from all over, ensuring real worldwide fame every time it happens.

Anyway, we didn’t see any of that – there’s no ice bridge at the moment;  the last one crashed into oblivion early last year.  Nor did the glacier oblige us with one of its more frequent and regular calvings-off of big hunks of the ice face (the last one of them had happened about eight weeks ago, we were told).  So we simply had to admire the largely static face of the ice, and the creakings and groanings that promised that things were still progressing inside, even if they weren’t to come to a head during our visit.  We did hear and see a couple of ice blocks fall, and saw the power of the waves they created, so I guess we could get by with just imagining the rest.  And admiring the ice wasn’t exactly difficult in any case:  it makes for a pretty spectacular vista, even when it’s not doing anything exciting.

From there, it was over to the glacier itself:  we’d booked a ‘Big Ice’ trek, which meant we wandered up the side of the valley a bit, donned crampons, and trekked out over the ice into the middle of the glacier for a few hours.  This was a cool excursion.  We wandered along the ridges, admiring the variety of terrain around us:  the lagoons (all of which were a particularly beautiful blue), the crevasses (some of them tens of metres deep, others shallow but growing;  some of them full of water, some of them just hollow and begging to have rocks thrown down them to test their depth), the streams, the caves, etc.

A brilliant blue lagoon on Perito Moreno Glacier

A brilliant blue lagoon on Perito Moreno Glacier

The fact of walking in crampons was entertaining – even if one of mine broke on the way back and had to be repaired, once I’d half-hopped, half-slid my way along to catch back up to the group first.  It was easier than I’d expected (and I presume the same was true for most:  I overheard a few people asking before they booked the same trek whether the guides thought they’d physically be able to cope OK).  So I guess that’s one more experience I can tick off the list as having achieved on this trip:  trekking across a glacier in crampons.

At the end of the day, though, all you’re doing is walking across ice, and so once we’d got used to the crampons it became just another wander around a picturesque locale in search of pretty views and good photos.

Perito Moreno Glacier up close, just before the beginning of the ‘Big Ice’ trek across the ice

Perito Moreno Glacier up close, just before the beginning of our trek across the ice. Note the cool blue-ish tinge to a lot of the ice.

And once we’d done that, it was back to the bus, back to the hostel, and a second shot at the all-you-can-eat meatfest of a BBQ that our accommodation put on for Ar$100 per person.  Mmmm, food…

We were in El Calafate for two full days, not including the somewhat written-off first day in after our stupid-early morning flight into Río Gallegos.  So having glaciered on the first day, we struck around for things to occupy the second.

There’s a decent-looking hill nearby town, and it seemed like it’d have good views.  And on our first night in town, we’d run into a group who’d climbed it and confirmed its suitability for scenery-admiration purposes.  So we thought we’d do that.

The hill next to El Calafate – a good climb for a good view, but, err, slightly tricky in parts

The hill we climbed next to town. We climbed up the side that’s facing towards the left of the photo. Looks nice and gentle at the bottom, no? Yeah, about that… You want to go with the side right over to the right of the photo.

We queried our new friends for more detailed information on how to get up there, and utterly failed to follow their advice.  Result being that instead of a slightly-difficult climb with some scrappy bits, we spent two and a half hours scrabbling up a substantially more vertical than necessary hillside.  After a good fistful of effort, a hearty pinch of whingeing about the wind, and only a very restrained dabble of swearing, we made it to the top.  At which point we let loose with some more whingeing about the wind.  Because by jeebus was there a whole lot of air buffeting its way over that ridge.  Enough to nearly blow you sideways, if you weren’t paying careful attention.  I was grateful that it at least had the courtesy to be blowing you away from the edge.

We admired the scenery:  you can get a great view of the lake and the town from up there, although admittedly neither is particularly featureful.  And then we scouted about for a way down that looked less shit than the way up.

El Calafate, seen from the top of the somewhat arduously-climbed hill next to town

El Calafate, seen from the top of the somewhat arduously-climbed hill next to town

Eventually we found one, and we powered on down the hill, slapping ourselves on the back and noting condescendingly how easy it would all have been had we only come up this way.  And six hours or so after we’d set off, we returned to the hostel, heading for the beer fridge, and congratulated ourselves on an effort well expended, if not well planned.

Then, next day, to El Chaltén, where hopefully we would have the sense to follow the established trails rather than walk straight up the bloody side of shit.