From our trip to the deepest of souths in the Americas, we made our way back up. Beginning in Puerto Natales to see the world famous Torres del Paine National Park, we continued up to El Calafate, El Chalten and then west into Puerto Varas.
Torres del Paine – Man to man with the Towers of Pain(e)
Torres del Paine is one of the most famous treks kicking around, featuring everything that one might associate with Patagonia: near vertical mountains; bipolar weather with fierce winds; huge, deep azure lakes; wind-swept vegetation; glaciers and even the odd puma. Suffice to say, it was one of the hikes we had been looking forward to since day dot of this trip.
Torres didn’t disappoint. First day, we got the bus out to the National Park, around to the ferry boarding point to get to the western end of the ‘W’ Trek. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen winds quite like this: heading along the wooden jetty to the boat, with my pack on for extra weight, both feet planted on the boards, in hiking boots, and I was physically being blown across the jetty. The wind was creating waterspouts on the lake, and waves big enough to surf on, if you were prepared to brave a glacier generated lake. But this is what the ferry was made for, and it didn’t have any problems pushing into the fierce winds to our starting point.
Our first day was a short hike to Refugio Grey, which wouldn’t have been too bad if it wasn’t for the howling head wind, coupled with a constant mixture of rain, hail and sleet. Along the way, we were met with some incredible views of big chunks of icebergs floating in the water, until finally Glacier Grey came into view, pressing either side of a small island holding on grimly against the glacier monstering it from either side. It was a spectacular view, and improved even more when the clouds above the glacier cleared, leaving it glowing in the sun against the grey backdrop of clouds dominating the sky. As we continued along, we moved into the forest, which sheltered us from the winds. The weather kept on improving, and an hour later, the wind was all but gone, the clouds had cleared and it was all feeling rather summery.
Which led us to do something rather foolish, but with a great outcome. As part of our scavenger hunt of 10 items, we had to swim in an icy lake. By which we meant, it had to have actual icebergs in it. We figured at the refugio, with hot showers at hand, plus the sun out, there would never be a better opportunity. We asked another camper if she could take some photos for us, and she agreed. It was only then that it registered that we were in bathers, and it dawned what we would be doing. Anyways, it all went well, we ran in, dove and to be honest, it wasn’t as agonising as I thought it would be, probably thanks to our bodies going into shock. And it led to us meeting Claire and Sam, from England. Later on that night we also met up with Danes Lena and Jacob. And for the next 3 weeks, the six of us were pretty much inseparable.
The next day, the weather was a lot nicer. The same lake that had resembled a stormy ocean the previous day was now smooth enough to reflect the surrounding landscapes. The lookouts where we struggled to stand upright in the wind the previous day were right for chilling in the sun. What’s the weather’s deal? Anyway, it was a really nice day’s hiking. Doing Torres del Paine during the early spring season has its sweeteners – the wildflowers were amazing. We got our first glimpse of the ‘Towers of Pain’, crossed some beautiful rivers (albeit on some of the dodgier bridges you’ll encounter at major tourist attractions) and enjoyed more glacier fresh water.
Day 3 was the French Valley. We left our main packs in the tent and just had to climb up with a day pack. It was an excellent section: on our left were mountains, more glaciers cracking away and a gorgeous river. On the right, it rose up steeply to a range that included the Torres del Paine. Multi-hued wildflowers adorned the path. The sun was out and life was feeling pretty damn good. At Campamento Britanico at the top of the section, we all chilled out in the sun on rocks amongst the rapids on the river. Life doesn’t get much better than this. We learnt more about Denmark, the Danes learnt more about life in Australia and England, it was super. During the afternoon we hiked past more mountains and waterfalls, with half a dozen condors up above riding the winds. They’re made for this territory – they can cover what is 2 hours hiking in around 45 seconds of flying, and get a better view than any of us.
On the fourth day, we hiked around to the base of the lookout. This took us for a nice stroll along the lake, before cutting in towards the second valley. We had the leggy blonde of the camelids, the guanaco, strut and pose for us, spotted more condors and all in all just enjoyed the last leg of the W. Once we made camp at the last campground, we decided to hike up to the mirador. Sam, Claire, Lena and Jacob made the wise decision to eat half their dinner before undertaking the climb. Bron and I were keener to get climbing straight away, which backfired when my blood-sugar crashed halfway up, meaning I was climbing pretty slowly until some emergency snacks kicked in.
After 4 days hiking, we reached the mirador for the towers. Unfortunately there was a bit of cloud around but it was still a pretty glorious sight. But it was even better the next morning, when at 2:30am, Bron and I dragged ourselves out of bed whilst it was well and truly below zero, got dressed and hiked up to the mirador for sunrise. There was barely a cloud in the sky, and they only served to provide additional colour. It was a chilly wait, but we made up some hot drinks and cuddled up to keep warm. As the sun came over the obscuring mountain range the towers lit up bright red – amazing! We’d seen the pictures, but seeing it in the flesh was almost spiritual. Real tingles up the spine stuff.
Torres del Paine was one of those places where my already high expectations got blown out of the water. First day aside, we had real luck with the weather, and I’m actually glad that we got some real foul weather, because I genuinely think that is part of the experience and definitely part of the charm of the hike. And meeting some good friends (we travelled with Jacob, Lena, Claire and Sam pretty constantly for a few weeks following the hike) to travel with along the way certainly added something special to the trip. A final point on the trek, and travel in general: making the 10 item scavenger hunt was essentially an exercise to make sure we tried things travelling that we might not normally do. I have to say, it’s meant that we’ve done some really fun, odd things, and anyone undertaking this sort of trip, I strongly recommend it. Lots of fun, and the second most daunting of our items is now sorted, only 2 to go!
El Calafate – Because what’s not fun about seeing an office tower fall into a lake 3 times an hour
Let’s just be clear here. El Calafate is a one trick pony. There’s not a lot to like about the town and it’s expensive to boot. Given it lies in Patagonia, there isn’t the multitude of hiking/climbing/exploring opportunities present in many of the other tourist drawcards here. However, what a drawcard: Glacier Perito Moreno. If you’re in the area, you’d be a fool to miss it. Plus, you’re travelling: if a town’s not full of fun to be had, make your own.
In El Calafate, we were camping with Claire and Sam at a municipal campsite. Seen as there were no cheap food options, we loaded up on some wood and tried our hand at asado, but to mix things up, ours were mostly vegetable. Jeez I’ve missed nutrients. Wine’s still cheap, so we got lots of that, plus a few chorizo sausages and a bit of steak for meat for the non-vegetarians, and hey presto, delicious fun times ahoy!
But the glacier. At this point in our trip, we’ve been fortunate to see a lot of impressive sites, but it’s tough not to get moved by this. The glacier extends from way back into the ice fields, across the lake and right up to the other side of the lake. It stands, sheer-edged, around 60 metres out of the water, and a couple of hundred metres below it. Whole sections, the size of a 20-odd story office building in both height and area, collapse into the lake on a regular basis, accompanied by a hugely satisfying crash and splash, followed by waves pushing around the iceberg remnants of previous avalanches. This happens a few times an hour, while anxious photographers look on, trying to pick the next point to go.
The glacier itself looks like a monstrous, blue-tinted merengue pie, with whips of ice sculptures and cracks forming through the fast moving centre. We went trekking on it, but happily on the slow-moving, stable outside edges. Bron, Lena, Jacob and I all jumped on our boat for a very scenic trip across under the wall of the glacier (you could really start to appreciate the size of it down there…) across to the starting point, got fitted for crampons and we were on our way. The glacier was dotted with beautiful blue melting holes, rivers and grand, grand views. It was a gentle trek, although when we got thirsty there was plenty of super-refreshing glacial melt water to top up our water bottles, and at the end we were rewarded with scotch (served with ice of course) and Bron’s favourite biscuit, alfajores.
El Chalten – Rock-climbers: there’s a heaven, and it’s here.
There is something amazingly Patagonian about El Chalten, and it’s not just the changeable weather and furious winds. Argentina’s youngest settlement, it was founded in 1984 to ensure that the land around it remained Argentina. The rush to slap up something in next to no time at all has resulted in a poorly designed, un-attractive and under-equipped town. A poorly designed, un-attractive and under-equipped town that happens to be located in an achingly beautiful part of the world; surrounded by cliffs on three sides with some remarkable mountain peaks interspersed with glaciers forming the backdrop behind these. And lack of footpaths, access to a reliable ATM or affordable groceries aside, not without its own charm. In the last 4 or 5 years tourism numbers have absolutely exploded, meaning the town’s means of existence has switched from dirt farming to tourist farming, with apparently much more success.
The two major draw cards for El Chalten are Cerro Torre and Mont Fitz Roy, both of which form a striking silhouette as you approach the town. On the day we arrived, it was unusually clear, so we were treated to near perfect views, which was nice.
Sam and Claire thought so too
Unfortunately, when we hiked out to Cerro Torre, the clouds had moved in, and we didn’t get a great look, but the hike out there and back was still a really nice one – lots of streams, trees and decent views over the town and the gorgeous valley.
We had more luck with the trek out to the mirador at the base of Mont Fitz Roy, a beautiful clear day. We left a bit late, so I decided to run the flat and downhill sections were it was safe to do – I wouldn’t recommend this for most people, it was really treacherous underfoot! But the views from the mirador were really incredible. Mont Fitz Roy is a really striking mountain (for those who’ve seen the Patagonia clothing label symbol, it’s the inspiration for their logo), and at the mirador it was possible to soak it all in up close, along with the meltwater lake at the base and a couple of small glaciers hanging off the sides. Well worth the effort getting too.
As a hiker, the area around El Chalten was fantastic. But if you were a serious climber, there is so much on offer here, you could (and people do) spend months exploring the area. Mont Fitz Roy is still one of the toughest ascents kicking around, the cliffs would offer up a lot of fun, and if you’re really game, you could even try an ascent of Cerro Torre.
Whitest Boy Alive: Puerto Varas
Whilst travelling through the Salar de Uyuni, we met up with a couple of lovely girls from Puerto Varas, in Chile. We promised to meet up with them when we headed to Patagonia; as it turns out it was our last stop there. Alejandra and Anna (who hails from Germany) took us under their wing, inviting us to a couple of asados and introducing us to a bunch of amazing people.
Chilean parties are fun things. Not surprisingly, they start off with a spot of mingling, followed by almost comically huge amounts of meat, where everyone bullies each other into eating just one more piece, just one more piece. Pretty much as soon as the food has settled, the dancing begins. The first half an hour or so is gringo friendly ‘free-style’ dancing. And then out came the big guns, starting off with some salsa. Our new friend Francisco tried to instruct as in the basic steps. Based upon the giggles from the others around us, we didn’t take to it too well. After that they cracked out the cueca – Chile’s national dance. The dance involves a lot of handkerchief waving and is all about the man trying to woo the female, who plays all coy. At the end of the dance, the man will kneel down before the woman: if he’s done well, she’ll rest her foot on his leg. Can I just say, I’m not sure I’m down with dances where my performance will be graded by my dance partner? Awkward moments ahoy!
It was a pity the weather didn’t clear up in Puerto Varas, because it looks like it would be amazing on a clear day, with perfect shaped volcanoes lying behind the lake. But to be honest, it was nice just to be able to focus on having a great time partying with Anna and Alejandra, and all their friends, without having to think about an early start. We had a great time, and got to see a side of the Chileans we hadn’t really seen yet, and left really happy for the experience.
Also, this happened.