I’m sitting here in El Calafate, Argentina in the common area of the hostel where I’m staying. There’s a stray dog (lab mix?) out back and a view of an enormous light blue lake and snow capped mountains in the distance. I’m traveling with a group of friends from the states. Most have already left for home. Two of us remain. We’ve spent four nonconsecutive nights in this town over the past two weeks. We were using Calafate as a launching point to get to hikes in El Chalten, Argentina and Torres del Paine, Chile (via Puerto Natales). We also saw the Glaciar (glacier) Perito Moreno near Calafate, although to call what we did there hiking would be an aggressive exaggeration of the truth.
Backpacking in Patagonia was incredible. Beautiful and challenging in the best kind of way. And with a peerless group of close friends always there for moral support, kind words of encouragement, rules & regulations (w.r.t wilderness points and how to acquire them), hard teasing, and the occasional joke. We pushed our out-of-shape selves (speaking for myself at least, as my friends are much more seasoned hikers) through blisters, heat, wind, rain, minor injuries (mostly ankle and knee stuff), serious (elevation) gains, and a cold that made its way around the entire group (probably due to sharing food (we now have strong opinions and a rank order of pretty much the entire line of Backpacker’s Pantry re-hydrated meals), water, and utensils). But in the end we had a lot of fun (type I fun (fun now) and type II fun (fun later, only in retrospect (a little phrase I learned on the trip))). And we did something I’m sure we’ll all remember for the rest of our lives.
So as I’m here scratching my head and bouncing between a couple open browser tabs with the results of various Google searches to try to figure out the best way to get myself north to Bariloche or wherever, I’ll take a little break and share some of those memories with you.
~~** El Chalten (Mount Fitzroy) **~~
The original plan was to do the W in Torres del Paine first, maybe even do the entire Q or just the O (names for different routes through the Chilean national park), but from our launching point of El Calafate all the buses to Puerto Natales were sold out for the next two days, so we changed plans and decided to head north to El Chalten to hike around Mount Fitzroy rather than lose a precious day waiting. So we got dinner at a bar by the lake shore in El Calafate, and the next morning, we hopped on the early bus to Chalten.
Upon arrival in El Chalten (a small town and the youngest in Argentina that didn’t exist until some 20-30 years ago — this information from a 60+ year-old climber who we met in line at the supermercado, while shopping for salami, soap, and surprise birthday champagne for one of our friends to have on the trail (now the climber had last been to Fitzroy before the town existed and was staying down here until the weather was good enough for a multi-day climb up the snowy peak of Fitzroy)), we needed to find somewhere to drop off our bags. We tried just about every hostel in town without luck but found one that would charge us ~$10 USD to keep everyone’s non-back-country-essential luggage for a little less than a week (if we had done this in Calafate, it would have been free). We had a nice conversation with the owners of the hostel, a middle-aged local couple with a couple kids, and booked a night for 7 people when we’d be back in town. Phew.
That afternoon we hit the trail after a short talk with a park ranger at the park entrance. Guy had a sense of humor. Then we were off.
We mostly did shorter hikes with our big backpacks and set up camp to drop off our stuff before going out on longer day hikes with our day packs. The campsites were nice. Not too crowded (a lot of people do the hikes around Fitzroy entirely as day hikes and come back in to town every night, but that’d be considerably less fun). The latrines were green Port-a-Johns with a hole right in the middle of the floor and a handful of flies to keep you company. Fires were not allowed, but you were allowed to use a camping stove anywhere in the campsite (as opposed to in Torres del Paine where you’ve got to do your cooking in a common, walled off area or inside a building depending on whether you’re at a paid refugio in the sections of the park that are privately owned or at a free campsite owned by the national park service, respectively). We made ourselves little circles of logs and rocks and trees to sit on and passed around bags and bowls of food every evening and morning.
We did several hikes, but two really stood out:
Laguna de los Tres
So I think this is the main hike. It’s a long, tiring hike up a mountain to a glacial lake on the mountain top beneath the Cerro Torre peak. It spills into two other glacial lakes lower down the mountains via waterfalls. It was the first hard hike of the trip, and I felt so good making it to the top. Then we got to stick our faces in one of the waterfalls and drink some of the freshest and best-tasting water (all of the non-standing water in Fitzroy and Torres del Paine is potable (and delicious)) I’ve ever had. The view of the peaks was terrific. We got some amazing photos. I sat on a rock and closed my eyes for a little bit. Wow.
We didn’t swim in the glacial lakes up there but we swam in another one in the valley. I highly recommend it if the sun is out and strong enough to dry you off. The water is literally icy. It will chill you to the core and through to the other side. Gotta do it!
This was technically a back country trail so we had to register with the park service at the info center near one of the park entrances so they would know to go looking for us if we didn’t turn up on the agreed upon day to let them know that we got out ok, but the trail was pretty well maintained (mostly, with the exception of some really muddy/swampy fields with a lot of cow pies sprinkling the trail (or what we were assuming was the trail — kinda hard to tell when it’s all just flat grass and mud)) and there were a fair amount of day hikers. But this was the least-crowded hike of the trip, and for that reason, extra nice. And it was once again the toughest hike of the trip up to that point (but certainly easier (shorter and less elevation change) than most of what we did in Torres del Paine). The actual Laguna Toro wasn’t mind-blowingly special (especially after seeing Laguna de los Tres), but the campsite was cozy, and the hike over there was beautiful and covered a lot of different types of terrain.
On the way back the next day we dropped our bags after lunch did a day hike up to the top of a mountain we could see off in the distance, which was mind-blowingly special. I forget the name of the particular trail, but you can’t miss the turn off. The trail was covered in loose rocks and the windspeeds felt like they were approaching hurricane levels at times (especially at the summit). The elevation change was huge. There was only one stream to fill up water along the way up. But the payoff was worth it. Even more so because it was the last day. We were able to see everything (Cerro, Fitzroy, etc.) in the park and could make out all the trails that we had hiked over the past few days. We ate some snacks at the top, met a guy from Madrid (who would join us for dinner later that evening as well and put up with our cobbled-together spanish over hamburgers because we wanted to go anywhere, anywhere at all that wasn’t gonna serve us more Argentinian pizza (it’s pretty meh)), took some pictures, and headed back into town.
Select conversations (real, slightly fictionalized, and/or imagined):
* “Wow” “Wow” “Wow”
* [silence] “What are you thinking about right now?” [silence] “You have to say whatever you are thinking right now. No waiting.” “Uh… Dinner.”
* “How are your knees doing?” “Not great.” “Ooh. Sorry.” “Nah. I’m ok.”
* “How far do you think we are away from the top?” “I dunno. Maybe about half way.” “Ugh. I think I’m more than half way tired.”
* “How do you get Wilderness Points?” “… I’ll tell you when you do something that’s worth getting a Wilderness Point for.” “Oh. So you’re like the arbiter of Wilderness Points then?”
* “Let’s listen to some woodsy music.” “What’s woodsy music?” “You know, like Mumford & Sons and Bon Iver and stuff.”
* “When did the map get so faded?” “I don’t know. I think the waterproof layer is peeling away or something.”
~~** El Calafate (Glaciar Perito Moreno) **~~
With one free day before one of our friends would need to go home and internet out in the entire town (line got cut) and a gas shortage (strikers were blocking trucks on the highway north of the city), we decided to go see the world-famous glacier near town (the purported reason for the town’s existence). Taking a bus would be surprisingly expensive (buses down here in Patagonia are seriously unreasonably priced) so we went with the alternative option of taking two taxis, which split between 7 people was a pretty good deal. The drive over there was about an hour and a half.
Our taxi driver upon learning that his fears that none of us would speak any Spanish were unfounded became quite chatty. On the ride there he mostly told us about the glacier and some getting to know each other pleasantries (where he was from originally, how many kids he has, what his opinions are on the various parts of Patagonia (Fitzroy is his favorite (he could never get bored of it), but he’s already gotten bored of the glacier (since he goes there pretty nearly every day (if not going to the airport) (typically driving tourists from all over the world (mostly Brazilians, then Europeans, but also some Middle Easterners, a handful of Americans, Aussies, etc.), with at least one person in the group usually speaking Spanish (so he’s got the feel of someone who’s been all over without ever having left Argentina)))). On the way back we mostly talked politics: Argentinian and USA-an (can’t refer to the States as America down here, since that means North and South America). He’s optimistic about things.
When we got there, we spent about 2–2.5 hours at the glacier. We’d learned from our driver (better than a guided tour guide) that as the glacier (the only advancing glacier in Patagonia (the world?)) melts in the warm months the water runs off into two lakes, one of which drains into the ocean eventually and the other gets stuck behind the glacier, and the water level just goes up and up tens of meters and fills up the valley until the pressure against the ice, which has been getting increasingly riddled with cracks and fissures in the summer heat, finally breaks, and over the course of 3 days in approximately early March, building-size glacial fragments crash into the ocean-bound lake and the water from the trapped lake comes pouring through, and the water levels between the two lakes balance out again. And then winter comes, and it gets cold. And the glacier grows. And the next summer it cracks and recedes. And again. And again.
We saw some small chunks of ice break off. Then we heard thunder. We walked around on elevated walkways and up and down steps to get some different views of the same impressive work of mother nature that endless international (and probably some local Argentinian) tourists captured with cell phone cameras and DSLRs. We frequently paused so as not to interrupt pictures and videos by tourists who felt it necessary to cordon off entire sections of the walkway to get a proper shot. We sat down on benches to eat lunch. We picked up our trash to not created extra work for the park employees we had seen scurrying around underneath the elevated walkways to scoop of the leftovers of other tourists who had not been quite as careful. +1 wilderness point.
Satisfied, we started walking back to the parking lot. A couple of us took a shortcut through the woods to get some shade. We then heard a thunderous crack behind us and turned around to see… trees, just trees. The few of us who had stayed behind for an extra minute with the glacier later told us, glowingly, that they had seen a huge (awesome, in the awe-inspiring sense) chunk of blue glacial ice break off and fall through the air into the water below, turning the water in the splash zone into a darker shade of blue. I was jealous, but hey, what can you do? We got in the cars and took off.
Select conversations (real, slightly fictionalized, and/or imagined):
* “Wow” “Wow” “Wow”
* “Where’s the rest of the group?” “Hmm. Maybe that way.” “Oh wait, that looks cool, let’s go this way.” “Ok. Cool. I’m they’ll find us.”
* “Did you hear that?” “What?” “Oh, look over there. The glacier is cracking” *Crack/Splash* “Did you get a picture of that?” “No” “Dude”
* “Can we switch cars on the way back?” “Why?” “Our guy played the same song on repeat the entire drive over.”
* “Do you mind taking our picture?” “Sure. Step over that way. It’ll be a better shot.”
~~** Puerto Natales (Torres del Paine) **~~
I’ll start off by saying that Puerto Natales is way cooler than El Calafate. Yeah, there’s not much going on, nothing’s open on Sunday, stray dogs are everywhere, and like half of the buildings are abandoned and boarded up, but seriously good vibes.
So to get to Torres del Paine it seems that everybody comes in via bus from Puerto Natales. I’m not sure if that’s the only way to do it, but it seems like unless you rent a car, that’s what you do. And there’s no airport in Puerto Natales and the Chilean landscape is pretty mountainous and fjord-y and glacial in those parts so most people seem to get to Puerto Natales from El Calafate (which is touristy and a bit ritzy at times (according to the cab driver to Perito Moreno the former (corrupt, he says) president of Argentina owns numerous properties in El Calafate, which has led to an even greater influx of people/moneyed-interests into the town) and has an airport), in Argentina. That means you’ve gotta cross the border, la frontera, to get to Natales. It’s a tedious, time-consuming process to first formerly exit one country and then enter the next, but it’s fairly streamlined (tons of people do it daily after all). Make sure you chuck out your salami (a.k.a. salam’) and seeded fruits. Chilean customs guys will have you root through your food sack, even having you pick out the illegal ingredients from your trail mix. Into the trash they go.
Then you’ll be in Puerto Natales, the “sleepy fishing village,” according to some travel blog. I don’t like to name drop if I can avoid it, but there’s a bar called Base Camp attached to a hostel called Erratic Rock (or is Erotic Rock? — no, it’s Erratic Rock). At this bar there is a daily talk in English at three P.M. (15:00) that will tell you just about everything you need to know about doing Torres del Paine. I highly recommend it if you are planning to go down there. They also serve some mean (i.e. non-Argentinian style) pizza (yes, I realize I’m being a cranky gringo, but hey, after living in New York and Chicago, I’ve got strong opinions on pizza, and as a gringo I feel entitled to share my relatively uninformed opinions about other cultures for the enjoyment of my readership and for personal posterity). [end plug]
From Natales , we went to Torres del Paine on the bus. We payed our entry fee to the park, got a talk on fire safety (don’t do fires down there, really — we saw two almost accidents with pretty simple stoves in the protected cooking areas and if you do an actual fire anywhere they’ll (the park rangers) track you down, pick you up, kick you out of the park, maybe fine you, maybe throw you in jail, and probably toss you out of the country too (a couple forest fires burned down over 40% of the park in the past 15 years and understandably they take safety seriously because apparently just telling visitors that only they could prevent forest fires was woefully insufficient)), rode the bus to a lake, got off, took a catamaran across said lake, and started hiking.
Our west→east route through the “W”:
Day 1: Arrival and Refugio Grey
A couple notes to start. Hiking in Torres del Paine is like going to an amusement park. There are tons of people. Everywhere. And lots of those people are there out of some sense of obligation to see something that you’re supposed to see without really knowing what to do or what to expect when they get there (arguably, almost everyone, ourselves included, who visit). It’s not a congo line like some other travel blogs allege, but Torres del Paine is crowded. Ironically it’s not a place to go to escape the tendrils of civilization. You will have moments to appreciate some nature, and it really is one of the most beautiful places on Earth, but you can certainly make it luxury experience if that’s your thing. You can sleep in a bed in Refugios (hostels) throughout the park. They’ll have showers and hot water and serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, at a justifiable mark-up (considering the food and supplies come in via boat or horse). You could also stay in a swanky five star hotel, if a fully stocked bar, a convention center, and a clientele sporting the latest fashions and plastic surgery procedures (mostly facelifts) is more your speed. And of course you can camp. It’s the way to do it I think. The Refugios charge per person to camp (it’s not so pricey and they take credit card, so you can avoid some of the I-need-to-get-cash-en-efectivo-out-of-the-ATM-with-ridiculously-high-withdrawal-fees-anxiety in town), but there are a couple free campsites too (apparently every year they convert another free campsite into a paid one, but that seems like a bit of a hyperbolic assertion). If you camp at the Refugios, you can still hit up the nice indoor areas for beer or vino (el Gato, the most dangerous animal in the park, according to a reliable source), so no need to pack that in. And they’ll take your trash/empty fuel canisters for you. Easy! You don’t need to prove you are tough. Cut that dead weight.
The first hike to Refugio Grey was tough only because it was cold and windy (like lean into the wind at a 45 degree angle to make any forward progress windy) and we got a light drizzle. Luckily we got sun and heat for the rest of our time in the park (we were told that is insanely lucky). Refugio Grey is cushy but the bathroom situation was dicey. Two toilets for an entire, packed campsite and hostel. But any more activity would have flooded the septic field apparently. Yikes.
Day 2: Morning glacier hike and hanging out at Refugio Grey/kicking our colds
We got peer pressured (thankfully) by one of our group members into doing a glacier hike (a hike on a glacier with crampons and an unnecessary but fun ice ax) with a tour group. This was after we had to convince him that kayaking on a frigid glacial lake with gale force winds after the North Face founder had died of hypothermia after a kayaking accident in Patagonia not so long ago was a bad idea. But the glacier hike was incredible. Super fun. We got to do a little bit of repelling and jumped into a glacial lake for some swimming at the end. When we wrapped up the tour we did a little bouldering with our tour guide and agreed to meet up again later for drinks. Two of us went off on other hikes. The rest of us, a little sick and more tired than we should have been this early into the trek, decided to hang out at camp and read and talk and play some cards and charge our electronic devices so we’d be able to keep taking way too many pictures. We moved one of the tents closer to the other two to get it away from the wind that had kept those two tent dwellers up the night before and we went to sleep fairly early.
Day 3: Campamento Italiano
We set out early on what was supposed to be a long hike to Campamento Italiano, a free campsite at the bottom of the Valle Frances. The alternative if you aren’t lucky enough to book a spot at the free campsite, which fills up quickly (so you’re limited to just one consecutive night at the free sites), is Refugio Frances which is about another 30–45 minutes hike east of Italiano. We hung out at camp, cooked, talked (we put the tents next to each other so we had a big shared pillow talk session), and went to sleep.
Day 4: Refugio Cuernos
This was supposed to be another long hike that wasn’t. We were getting pretty smelly and filthy at this point so when we passed another glacial lake near camp we went for a swim. The camp itself was near the lake too so after we arrived, and set up tents, we hung out by the water. We stayed up past midnight to watch the sunset and to start celebrating another birthday.
Day 5: Campo Torres
The hike to Torres was a ton of uphill and pretty long. But we stopped for lunch at Refugio Chileno, which wasn’t so far from Torres. We did a little birthday lunch and had some special birthday snacks. Chileno’s a pretty solid Refugio. We hiked on up towards the Torres themselves. Campo Torres, the other free campsite where we stayed, was a tiny little campsite almost hidden in the woods with some good vibes and some horse flies. It was the favorite campsite of at least one group member.
We had learned at Chileno that the weather forecast for the next day was all rain with no chance to see sunrise on the towers (our planned capstone to the Torres del Paine “W” trek), so after setting up camp at Torres, we hiked the rest of the way up the mountain that evening to see the towers when we knew for sure the weather would still hold. The hike up the last leg was tough (lots of scrambling straight upwards over boulders and dusty rocks) and it had been a long day already, but the payoff was great. [See above photo.] The towers are one of the coolest natural formations I’ve ever seen in my life. We hung out up there for quite some time and then made our way back down to camp and agreed to try again in the morning if the weather wasn’t trash.
Day 6: Sunrise at los torres and exit
We woke up the next morning at 3:45pm, and lo and behold there was no rain (you can’t predict the weather in Patagonia (I guess the meteorologists down here just sit around, drink a lot of yerba mate, and throw up their hands)), so we packed up our warm clothes in day packs, grabbed some trail mix and some bars, and strapped on our headlamps and set off into the dark and cold. Within a couple minutes of hiking we were steaming hot and practically drenched in sweat. Two of the group were among the first to get to the top and secured us a spot on a rock in the middle of the lake in front of the towers (this is the best spot, according to yours truly, and worth leaving a little early to get if you can). We waited a couple hours until the sun had fully come up and the rays hit the towers directly turning the tips a bright orange color (the promised payoff). It was cold and windy at the top but now that the sun was up it was starting to get warm again. We took off our jackets and set off down the mountain.
Then we broke camp and started hiking downhill. We stopped briefly at Chileno and decided to just push on to the bottom to hang out by the hotel, so we could finally take off our shoes and drop our bags. After a much shorter hike down than up, we arrived at the parking lot in front the fancy hotel where the minibus would take us to the place to wait for the big bus to get back to Natales.
We were done. We chatted with a group of Israelis we had met at Cuernos. We waited for the bus and then, exhausted, slept on the way back to Puerto Natales where we walked over to our hostel, threw down our stuff, showered, got some sushi and pizza and settled down to watch The Princess Bride on Netflix in the hostel common area. Then we slept, got up early, and took another bus back to El Calafate in Argentina. And here I am now.
Select conversations (real, slightly fictionalized, and/or imagined):
* “Wow” “Wow” “Wow”
* “You’re talking out of your ass!” “Hey what are you guys talking about?” “Zoos.” “Zoos?” “Yeah, he’s trying to say that zoos are a good thing, but he’s just making stuff up.” “No. She’s not listening to me. I’m trying to say that zoos are a net positive because they get more people interested in careers where they are helping animals and stuff than just like movies or books alone.” “Yeah but it’s animal cruelty. And there are so many smart animals that are wildly depressed in captivity. They definitely have consciousness. Have you seen Blackfish?” …
* “Eh Mambo. Mambo Italiano.” “Eh Campa-mento Italiano”
* “Dude. I need to take a break.” “Sure. Let’s pull off in the shade.” “Oh”-gasp-mumble-gasp-“this.” “What?” “Mmm. Let me get some water… I was not mentally prepared for this.” “Yeah. Seriously. I thought this was supposed to be flat.” “Gotta get those gains.”
* “Ooh look a beach! Do you wanna swim.” “Yeah! Let’s do it!.” [running/splashing/swimming/splashing/stumbling/shivering sounds] “Oh my god that was so cold.” “And those rocks really hurt your feet.” “Right?”
* “Do you want to play a game or something? I’ve got cards. Or we could do that game where I tell you all the stuff that I’m bringing on the trip and you have to guess what everything has in common.” “Nah that’s ok. I don’t really like games. Our family never played games growing up.” * “Yeah. I guess we could just talk…”
In one of the ranger huts in Torres del Paine there was an old-timey-themed tourism poster that said: “Que Torres del Paine no te queda en paine.” Paine apparently is an old indigenous word for the color blue. The Blue Towers. Fitting. And the blue turned orange in the sunrise light, since the weather was kind enough to cooperate. Que lindo! How pretty! So the phrase on the poster means: We hope that the Blue Towers don’t leave you feeling blue. And they certainly didn’t… In fact, I’m feeling a strong sense of accomplishment, and I am eagerly anticipating whatever’s next!