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Kat & Andrew's Worldwide Adventures

Patagonia - El Chalten & El Calafates Treasures

ARGENTINA | Thursday, 26 January 2012 | Views [3877]

The 4 of us, and 2 of the Americans we had met on our trek, boarded the Chalten Travel - Route 40 - bus at the early hour of 6.45am. Route 40 is meant to be Argentina’s version of America’s Route 66. The first few hours gave us some views of mountains, rivers and greenery but I was still half asleep so didn’t pay much attention. The remainder of the trip was very bare…. Dry and dead looking plants and grass on a flat barren plane as far as the eye could see. It was pretty cool feeling like you were in the middle of nowhere, but with nothing to look at; it got very boring, very quickly. We did see some short emu type birds though which was neat.

The bus took 11 hours with a few stops at gas stations along the way for bathrooms, buying snacks and stretching the legs. We stopped in a few towns that I would’ve liked to have a nosy at but being a Sunday, everything was closed. I was unsure if the bus was going to be a tour or just transport – Chalten Travel turned out to be a bit of both. The first day we had a guide who would announce when we were stopping and for how long, as well as answering questions, but that’s about all she did. We were offered optional tours once we had reached our destination such as boat trips or walking on the glaciers. We would’ve loved to do that but the prices were way above our budget….

Chalten Travel had organized accommodation for everyone that night. Since we had booked in advance due to the high season (yet it turned out that there were still seats available) before we knew what prices were like in the country, we had organized a private room instead of a dorm. I’m glad we did though as we had been in a dorm for 2 weeks. The hotel was very run down and reminded me of the type you would pay for by the hour… however, we had our privacy and that kept me happy!!  The town of Perito Moreno was very small and very boring. It’s so far from any other civilization, I don’t know what would draw people to live there!

The next morning we had the option of going on an excursion – trekking through a canyon for a few hours and visiting a cave with ancient hand paintings through it. It would have been really cool to do, but for the price, it wasn’t worth it. Alex and Anna opted out too so instead of a 7am start; we had a nice lazy morning and boarded the bus at 11am. (It was meant to be 10, but as usual in this country, it was late).  Another 12.5 hours of nothingness. This time there was only one gas station stop, the rest were on the side of the road.  The road was mainly unpaved the entire way which was very jarring. Both days the buses didn’t have air conditioning, so for a few hours when the sun was at its peak heat, we were roasting in a sauna. The second day we didn’t have a guide either and no movies. A majority of the people on the bus were English speaking so we got movies in English on the first day. Joy!!

The last hour of our second day travelling engaged our interest as we passed brilliant blue lagoons and the jagged peaks of Cerro Tore and Cerro Fitz Roy came into view as the sun was setting. The sun goes down around 10pm this time of year in Patagonia. Alex and Anna had bought their bus tickets in Bariloche and theirs included a night’s accommodation in El Chalten. Ours however, didn’t. I had emailed the same hostel requesting a room but they replied with a confirmation for the wrong date and I never got a reply from them when I asked them to correct it. I was very stressed as I had looked at hostelbookers online the night before and there was no accommodation available for that night and our guide book stressed that it is a small place and pre booking is essential in peak season. Most of the places in southern Patagonia close down outside of summer due to the roads being inaccessible.

Once we arrived in El Chalten, I raced inside the hostel to beat the rush to reception. My name was in their system but it had been cancelled…. ARGH! They were a great help though and called another hostel to book us in there. Only thing was, it was a 10-15 minute hike with all our stuff in the dark to the other end of town. Oh well, at least we had a place to sleep! We shared a 4 person dorm with 2 other guys.

The next morning was a bit stressful. Because we were at the other end of town (it was just one long main street, no banks, all tourist services only) to Alex and Anna, we had to keep setting meeting times and places which meant a lot of running around in a panic to get things done in time. We met them in the morning and organized renting tents, sleeping bag, sleeping mats, a small cooker with gas and some pots. We had gotten in at a good time as all the other rental shops had no tents left. Then we stocked up on supplies from the supermarket.  Andrew and I went back to our hostel to sort what bags we were going to put in storage and what we were taking with us. I booked accommodation in our next destination online and went to the bus station to secure tickets there but I was told I needed our passports and they were back at the hostel. (Why for a 3 hour bus ride in the same bloody country! Argh!) By this time I had to meet the others at the other end of town so I just left it and hoped some were available when we got back… Met the others and as the boys packed all our equipment into our bags, Anna and I raced around hostels asking for accommodation for when we returned from camping and we went to 4 before we found one that had beds available. Yikes!

After a quick lunch, we finally had it all organized and set off on our trek. It started with a gradual incline and we had sweeping views over the town and the surrounding mountains, snow capped peaks and running rivers. The wind was extremely fierce but it wasn’t cold. We continued through the trees, some of which seemed like a tree graveyard as they were all brittle, gnarled and broken in a mess. After an hour and a half we reached the first camp site at Laguna Capri, a beautiful clear water lagoon. We sat in the sun willing the clouds to clear so we could see Fitz Roy. We got glimpses and it was teasing us! We continued on towards the next campsite and came across an incredible view point. The clouds had cleared enough briefly to show us the full spiky peaks of the stunning grey mountains of Fitz Roy. We stood at a bubbling rivers edge on a rock looking up, surrounded by wilderness. It was stunning.

I have seen a lot of spectacular looking mountains during my travels around the world but this mountain range has to be my favorite by far, purely because I have never seen any others like it. The fantastic grey colour and the jagged teeth like shapes… very cool. Fitz Roy stands at a height of 3405m. After walking another hour and a half from Capri on a very easy relatively flat dirt path, we reached our campsite for the night under some trees protected from the wind and the rain which poured in the night. We set up our tents and the boys built a table and chairs out of broken bits of wood. We sat at our table in our big jackets (it was very cold at night) cooking our pasta, playing cards and talking until dark. The camp wasn’t close to being full but there were still a good number of other people there. There was even a long drop toilet which I didn’t expect. It had a shovel that you could throw dirt down it after use which stopped the smell so it was bearable to use.

The next morning was very overcast and miserable. We woke up a bit stiff and had our bread and jam for breakfast. Any hostel that includes breakfast is always bread and jam – I don’t think I’m going to eat jam again for a very long time when I get home…. So sick of it!

We left our bags in our tent and set off to Laguna De Los Tres.

We started off over a clear freezing cold water stream that we had been using for cooking and filling our water bottles. It was potable yet Alex managed to catch a tadpole in his water bottle… We climbed up a steep uneven messy rock path for an hour in the strong wind and were rewarded with incredible views at the top. Facing in one direction you could see out over the grand valley, mountains, trees and Medre y Hija Lakes and in the other direction was Fitz Roy – only we couldn’t see past the base due to the clouds. However it was still stunning as the large white glacier was directly in front of us behind a brilliant blue lagoon. We climbed down the slippery loose small rocks to the lagoons edge and walked around to the left behind more large rocks to see the view of the dropping canyon. What we found down below us was an even more stunning lagoon. The waters blue color was incredible and it was fed from the glacier that covered the base of the mountains which ran into a river rushing down the mountain side.

After exploring the area for well over an hour we climbed down the mountain back to camp and got saturated in the sideways rain. Once we reached the bottom, the skies had cleared and you could see more of the mountains. The weather is very temperamental, even in summer! We cooked soup for lunch and then packed up our tents. We walked for 3 hours along a relatively flat path in amongst short bush scratching at our sides past the Madre y Hija (mother and daughter) lakes, through some clearings then down a decline through the trees to our next camp at the base of Cerro Torre. We could barely see the mountain through the clouds. We managed to set up our tents and cook pasta for dinner before the rain started. It was a cold and wet night, we were under trees but weren’t as covered there. Wet wipes were our shower equivalent. There was no shovel at this long drop so it was in a disgusting state…

In the morning we awoke to clear blue skies, not a cloud in sight! We were a bit sore from sleeping on the ground and carrying our bags. Andrew was, like the Inca Trail, carrying the big bag with our sleeping bags, tents and a few clothes, weighing at least 13kg. Alex’s bag would’ve weighed even more – they always had anything you could ever need! I carried the small bag with 4 liters of water and all our food & snacks. It wasn’t a very supportive bag and it made me hunch over which left me with a very sore back. Anna’s bag was larger than mine, so mine being the smallest, I felt bad that I was so sore! I wasn’t struggling with the weight though. It’s the first time that I’ve been camping where we haven’t had a car (or a porter) to carry the tents and food!

We left our bags in our tents again and walked the short distance to the Laguna Torre at the bottom of Cerro Torre (3128m). The mountain is part of the same mountain range as Fitz Roy so is the same fabulous color and shapes. The glacier was a lot dirtier and the lagoon was very murky and not as attractive; it let into a rapid river that roared loudly past our campsite. We explored the area for an hour taking many photos before packing up and heading the 2.5 hours back to town. The track was flat to begin with and then it introduced some small hills and uneven rocky steps down. Walking in the opposite direction, especially on such a clear day, would’ve been stunning as Cerro Torre slowly came into view. We were very lucky to see Cerro Torre on such a clear day but I was a little heartbroken that we didn’t have such fantastic weather at Laguna De Los Tres. It was very hot by the time we got back to town.

I had so much fun and am very glad we had Anna and Alex as company to add to the experience. Camping in the mountains isn’t necessary here as it’s possible to do a lot of the main tracks by day, but staying in the wilderness is so much more rewarding, as well as having the benefit of enjoying the main sites before all the daytrippers arrive. As we were leaving, the throngs of people were arriving. I could’ve easily stayed there longer. There were many more places to explore but we covered the closest and main ones.

Once we got back to town, we went to return our equipment, but of course everything was shut after midday until 5pm. Odd hours in this part of the world! We checked into our hostel and had a glorious shower to feel human again. We went our separate ways to collect our bags from storage at our previous hostels and stopped off at the supermarket. Went to the bus station again with our passports this time, but of course, they were closed until 5pm too. Argh! Andrew cooked us a late lunch that we ate whilst dodging the hoards of flies hovering over us, and then set to the task of repacking our bags… It was quite the effort being as tired as we were! It was like packing from scratch all over again. After 5 we dragged our tired feet down the street to return the equipment and get our bus tickets for the following day. Luckily we got the last seats for the time we wanted. Finally, we could rest and sleep in a comfy bed (the 4 of us shared a 4 person dorm) and use a normal toilet!

We had completed roughly 30-32kms in part of the Parque Nacional Los Glaciars. Not a bad effort! We would’ve liked to do the W trek in nearby Torres Del Paine in Chile but it was closed due to large fire. After a good sleep, Alex and Anna went on a glacier trek tour and Andrew and I got the bus to the other side of the National Park – El Calafate, 2.5 hours away. We passed some more stunning colored lakes. Blanketing the park is the Hielo Continental Sur (Southern Patagonian icecap) which is the largest body of ice outside the poles;  around 17,000 square kms, 70% of which is in neighboring Chile.

Andrew and I explored El Calafates town, which is more built up than El Chalten. Loads of tour operaters, tourist shops and fancy restaurants. We visited all the rental car shops we could find as the 4 of us wanted to rent a car to visit Perito Moreno Glacier the following day. Unfortunately they were all booked out except for one that was twice the price than we wanted to pay… Went to the supermarket and bought our bus tickets to the glacier (and to our next destination) instead. Back at the hostel I managed to catch up on my blog and loading photos and had a rest as my stomach had gone funny again… can’t wait until normal safe food and water again! (The water in Chile and Argentina is supposed to be potable so we haven’t been buying water.) Anna and Alex arrived on a later bus that night. Unfortunately we hadn’t been able to get a dorm together. We shared a cramped 4 person dorm with 2 other guys who weren’t on the same schedule sleeping schedule as us… the joys of shared rooms… sigh.

Alex and Anna were unable to get onto the same bus as us out to the glacier but they were staying another day so it wasn’t a drama. We would’ve bought their tickets for them but none of us had phones and they weren’t sure what their plan was. Most of the local buses to the glacier depart in the morning, as well as most of the tours. There was one afternoon bus which we decided to go on as the glacier is meant to be more active and breaking from the heat of the day. It definitely paid off. The bus took an hour, cost 100 pesos each ($25 US) with another national park fee of $100 pesos each – but it was worth it.

We knew that Perito Moreno (not to be confused with the little nowhere town we stayed in on Route 40) was huge but there was no way we could be prepared for just how massive it was. It was much larger than the ones I had seen in Alaska with my aunt. The ice peaks are a glistening light blue color, shaped in jagged & curved spikes stretching back into the mountains for 35km. It’s 5km wide and 60m high and towered over the little boats circling the area. There was a series of long catwalks that you could explore to get different angles and views of the glacier. You could get close enough to feel dwarfed by its size but further enough away to be safe. Currently, parts of it are connected to land creating a dam. Roughly every 4 years, the pressure of the water explodes through the ice, breaking the dam which would be quite spectacular to see!

It was very active when we were there and it was very exciting to see. Andrew rated it number one thing we’ve seen on this trip! After seeing a few small collapses, we waited in suspense for more and BAMN – we saw 2 HUGE shelves of ice fall off making a thunderous cracking noise with the large chunks of ice splashing into the water creating huge waves! There was a mess of broken ice burgs surrounding the area. I knew we would see it calving, as I had seen before in Alaska, but I never expected to see something so dramatic! The ice that collapsed was in chunks much larger than expected and it was phenomenal. Being there in the afternoon was much quieter too and we didn’t have to fight through people for a good view point, there was plenty of room for everyone.

We watched the spectacle for a good 3 hours until the cold wind became too much for me and my stomach felt yucky so I sat in the warm café for the last hour reading before our return bus was due. Andrew was too fascinated to stay in the café for long; he went back out into the chill to watch this natural wonder. The glacier is one of the few in the world that is actually advancing, not receding, a spectacular 2 meters per day!

We had dinner with Anna and Alex that night, and breakfast again in the morning and then sadly we said our goodbyes to our travelling buddies of the past 2 weeks. They have booked into the same hostel as us for Carnival in Rio, so we look forward to partying with them next month. Andrew and I also said goodbye to Patagonia and got a 4 hour bus to Rio Gallegas for our flight to Buenos Aires.


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