We went to explore Patagonia, a vast expanse of sharp mountains, grassy steppe, and barren desert which encompasses southern Argentina and Chile. It is a remote place, that was home only to the nomadic tribes of Tehuelche before it became a profitable destination for settlers from Europe. Tehuelche means ‘brave people’, and our visit to Patagonia helped us see why- the land is unyielding, the temperatures extreme, and the wind brutal.
The gateway to Patagonia
Puerto Madryn is about half way down the eastern coast of Argentina, and is at the very start of Patagonia. We went there to see the thousands of wild whales that go there to breed and raise their young. There are also other incredible animals living around the peninsula, including penguins, elephant seals, sea lions, guanacos and armadillos.
Although by Argentine standards, all the places we visited were close, for us there was a lot of driving to get from place to place (over 400 miles in two days). We shared a rental car with a couple from Switzerland who luckily offered to drive. Neither of us were looking forward to driving ourselves as most of the roads were little more than a gravel track.
Our most memorable experience was also the closest though (and free). From a beach just along from the city centre, we were told we could see the whales and their calves. We took binoculars, but never took them out because we’d completely underestimated just how close we would be. Less than five meters away from where we stood, so we joined the Argentine families sat on their deck chairs, passing around cups of mate (a type of bitter tea), and watching the whales swim by.
El Calafate is a convenient hub for all Patagonia has to offer, including the nearby Perito Moreno glacier. Forgoing another epically long bus journey, we flew into the town from Bariloche and were struck with the beauty of the lakes and mountains as we came into land. The town itself was less impressive, looking like a frontier town. Nevertheless, it was a comfortable base for us and we later rented a cabin for a few days to mark our first month into our trip.
A trip to the glacier was our top priority and a day after arriving we set off to see our first ice giant. Aside from the sheer scale and blueness of the glacier, the greatest impression it left was the sounds it made. Kayaking by the wall of ice we would occasionally hear deep cracks and groans, followed by awesome sounds like thunder as pieces of ice calved off the ‘snout’ of the glacier and into the lake. The liveliness of the ice meant that we couldn’t take our kayaks right in, but we at least got close enough to scoop out chunks of glacier which we later used to cool our glasses of Calafate liqueur.
On our final day we went to one of the many museums in El Calafate, of the native people of Patagonia. The original inhabitants lived here despite the challenging conditions, leaving little impression on the landscape. Sadly, the impression of the Tehuelche on the history of Patagonia is also hard to see at first glance. Provinces, streets and coffee shops are named after the Europeans who ‘discovered’ Patagonia. We learnt that legacy of the natives lives on though, hidden in plain sight, as Patagonia was named for the ‘Patagons’- strong people.
Hipster hiking paradise
El Chalten is one of Patagonia’s true highlights and draws in thousands of hikers and adventurers every year, both professional and amateur. We fell squarely into the latter camp, but the pull of the majestic Fitz Roy range was the same. As we approached on our bus from El Calafate the winding road suddenly became arrow straight, pointing directly at the imposing silhouette of peaks that surrounded the little town of El Chalten. The day was crystal clear and the snow on the high summits glittered in the afternoon sun. It was easy to see why this has been considered a sacred place: first by the natives, and later by the scores of hiking pilgrims.
We headed straight for the trails after arriving, taking a short bus to a hotel a few miles from the town. This route meant that instead of a steep hill to slog up with our heavy packs, the going was pretty flat. We walked through quiet, wind-scoured forest and beside clear glacial streams to our campsite. Essentially a collection of wood-pile windbreaks and a long-drop, the camping ground was free and well situated for the surrounding mountains.
The temperature dropped dramatically after sunset and we hastily ate and sheltered down for what would be a freezing night. We dismissed the impulse to get up at 4am and climb to a viewpoint, instead getting up at a much more respectable time of 6am. We walked a little out of our camp and took in the first fiery rays of dawn hitting the top of Fitz Roy.
Feeling like we had already achieved quite enough for one day we started slowly, simply enjoying our quiet, beautiful surroundings. Later we motivated ourselves enough to climb to a viewpoint which allowed a closer look at Fitz Roy and the nearby valley.
The following day, after a blessedly warmer night, we headed back to El Chalten down a steep trail. All the way back we grew ever more thankful that we hadn’t walked this route in reverse, as most do. Once back in ‘civilisation’ we toasted El Chalten with local craft beer over a hearty stew. The easy welcome of the place and it’s natural surroundings led to both of us agreeing that El Chalten was our favourite stop of the trip so far.
After another short coach journey we arrived on the Chilean side of Patagonia, ready to visit Torres Del Paine, the UNESCO-protected national park. Unlike places like El Chalten, you stay in the nearby town and book all of your accommodation/camping before you leave for your hike.
Puerto Natales was weather beaten and looked a little like a shanty town at first sight. The low-lying houses covered in rusting metal panels and park benches pulled apart by the relentless Patagonian winds, made it feel more remote than anywhere else we’d been so far. Despite its appearance though, the town was actually a slick tourist machine.
For three hours we were sent all around the town’s different agencies to book our hiking and camping. It was a bit of a logistical nightmare because we didn’t know whether there’d be availability for all our dates, but we also didn’t want to miss the opportunity to book one of the limited spaces while we walked to each agency to check… basically you just had to pay first, and cross your fingers that your plan would work. We got lucky, but kept walking past other couples muttering about how they had to go back to try and change their bookings again. And, the agencies knew you’d just be relieved to have any booking at all, so could get away with higher prices. We paid $45USD to pitch our tent at some campsites (that’s more expensive than the family-sized cabin we stayed at in El Calafate)!
So, after a day of planning and with considerably lighter pockets, we travelled to the national park for the famous W trek. The weather was beautiful as we came into the park and caught our boat transfer to take us across the lake to our first campsite. We were just a couple-of-hours hike from glacier grey, so in the morning we left the tent and our equipment to have breakfast at the viewpoint. We were greeted by turquoise water, rocky outcrops and a seemingly endless expanse of ice.
After going back to the camp and collecting our bags, there was still more walking before we could finish for the day. Our route took us alongside a huge glacier-fed lake, with condors flying overhead. Finally, the day’s most impressive sight awaited us at our second campsite. A rope bridge led us across a fast and ferocious waterfall coming down through the mountain valley, and into our forest hideaway for the night.
In the morning, we again left our equipment behind for a three-hour uphill hike into the heart of the national park, went alongside the huge waterfall we’d crossed the day before. There were some steep ascents, lots of loose-rocky tracks and impressive views across the valley. We had another beautifully sunny day and the crown of mountains surrounding us at the end of our trek shone as the mountain glaciers thundered in the background.
We limped over the finish line to our next campsite that evening. The descent was nearly as hard as the walk up and we couldn’t bring ourselves to cook. So, we pitched the tent and treated ourselves to a pizza, overlooking the glacial lake.
The relaxed evening helped, because we were well ahead of the walk’s predicted times for the next part of the trek. Our steep uphill ascents were rewarded with more impressive waterfalls and pristine beaches.
We woke on our final day to heavy rainfall, sleet, and high-speed winds. It was only a matter of time until Patagonia‘s notoriously unpredictable weather reared it’s head. We decided to skip going up the mountain and instead enjoyed watching the weather from the safety of the Refugio. It was a great chance to catch up with some of the people we’d met along the route. The wet and bedraggled ones who’d attempted the final ascent also made us feel less guilty about skipping it.
For our final Patagonian adventure, we walked more than 60km in three days. Good practice for the Inca Trail!