Back to Patagonia

When Tim and I flew to Argentina’s Patagonia region a few weeks ago, I saw on my Facebook memories that exactly 5 years prior, we had arrived in Chilean Patagonia to embark on an epic multiday hike through Torres del Paine National Park.

We didn’t know at the time how much we’d fall in love with traveling. We were only a few weeks in to our first year long trip around the world. Who could have guessed all the life we have lived in the five years since then? New jobs, many weddings (including our own), some amazing trips, a few major losses and the grief that comes with them, and embarking on our second round-the-world trip.

Yet through all that chaos and change, somehow, without any direct intention on our part, we were back in Patagonia 5 years to the day, this time on the Argentina side.

Dates: February 14-23, 2019

Itinerary:

• Day 1: Fly to Buenos Aires, Argentina
• Days 2-4: El Calafate
• Days 5-10: El Chaltén

Our Odyssey:

El Calafate

After a quick overnight stay at a wonderful boutique hotel near the Buenos Aires Airport, we finally arrived in El Calafate, Argentina. It had taken us two days to get there from Antigua, Guatemala and we had flown from Guatemala, to Atlanta, to Sao Paulo in Brazil, to Buenos Aires, and finally to El Calafate.

When we arrived, our Airbnb host greeted is at the airport and brought us to the little guest home in their backyard where we’d be staying. Two small kittens played in the yard, while a chicken clucked by, unperturbed by the feline presence. In the distance, I could see the bright teal hints of Lake Argentina just a few hundred meters away.

Two kittens in a window in El Calafate, Argentina Patagonia

Our wonderful Airbnb kittens

Our host showed us a map of the town and explained in Spanish where we were and how to get to the city center. Thanks to a few weeks of Spanish classes in Guatemala, we understood for the most part, and I even was able to express my affinity for cats. Our host laughed at our clumsy attempts to speak Spanish, and then left us on our own to explore this remote city almost at the edge of the world.

We walked into town to get dinner and to arrange the tours we wanted to do while in El Calafate. The first would be a glacier boat tour, that would allow us to see several of the glaciers in the aptly named Los Glaciares National Park. The second was a tour of the mysterious La Leona petrified forest, where you can see the remains of dinosaurs and other fossils. Conveniently, we’d be able to tack that tour onto our transfer to El Chaltén 3 hours north.

After making our bookings, we stopped for a few beers at a nearby pub. We were so excited to be back in South America generally and Patagonia specifically, that celebrating with some delicious porters seemed the only reasonable thing to do!

For dinner we indulged in a meaty affair at a steakhouse called Mi Viejo.

Glacier Cruise

The next morning, we went to the hotel where the tour company told us to wait for our bus to pick us up for our glacier boat tour with MarPatag. The hotel owner wasn’t pleased, but there wasn’t really anything we could do about it, so we patiently waited until the bus arrived.

Once on the bus, our guide, Laura, explained the itinerary for the day. Less than an hour later, we arrived at the spot on the lake where we’d embark on our ship, greeted by a stunning rainbow over the water (a benefit of the rainy day).

Rainbow at Lago Argentino El Calafate, Argentina, Patagonia

If you look closely, you can see two rainbows!

Our first stop was a visit to Spegazzini Glacier. Only accessible by boat, Spegazzini Glacier has one of the tallest walls in the area, which stands as high as 440 feet (135 meters).

Spegazzini Glacier El Calafate, Argentina Patagonia

Spegazzini Glacier

From there, we cruised part dozens of massive icebergs until we arrived at a shrouded view of Upsala Glacier, one of the largest in the national park. And when I say shrouded, I mean we couldn’t see it at all through the thick and low clouds. It’s forbidden for boats to get close to it, though, so any view we would have had would have been small and distant anyway.

After this, we had the opportunity to explore a little bit by land and observe the foliage of the area. In the world’s polar regions, it’s incredibly hard for plants to grow. Summers are short, and therefore so is the growing season. This means plants only grow a tiny amount every season. This creates a terrain of grasses and mosses that have evolved to withstand the harsh weather, but very few trees.

Polar forest in Los Glaciares National Park, El Calafate Argentina Patagonia

Stepping on land

If you look closely at the ground in places like this, you’ll see hundreds of small but hearty plants in a variety of colors. They look like miniature trees for ants, creating the biggest tiny forest you can imagine.

Back on the boat, we enjoyed lunch and the most delicious alfajores (a dulce de leche-filled cookie cake dessert), while the sky began to clear up. On the deck, we were able to enjoy views of the cliffs and waterfalls surrounding the milky teal of the glacial lake.

The timing for the weather was great, because it allowed us to enjoy views of the region’s crowning glory – Perito Moreno Glacier. We were able to approach closely to the face of the glacier, and even cruised back and forth in front of it a few times. From the water, I really felt how tall and wide this glacier is. Perito Moreno Glacier covers a total of 100 square miles. The glacier is 3 miles wide and rises 78 meters above the lake Lago Argentino, with its deepest point stretching to 700 meters. Scientists calculate that the glacier is 18,000 years old, and it’s one of the only glaciers in the world currently GROWING.

Perito Moreno Glacier by boat

The full length of Perito Moreno Glacier

Big Ice Trek on Perito Moreno Glacier

The next day called for constant rain, which was not ideal since we were heading on to the Perito Moreno Glacier itself for a 3 hour hike. According to Hielo y Aventura, the company who runs the glacier hikes, all tours go rain or shine. Tim and I prepared for the worst and wore all of clothes and rain gear.

The trip started with a visit to the main boardwalk and viewpoint of the glacier itself. This is the spot where most visitors come to see Perito Moreno.

One perk of the rainy weather (and early times of day) is that there were hardly another tourists there. We had the boardwalks to our group of 20 or so people, which was really lucky! After walking around the boardwalks for nearly an hour, we got back on the bus.

Perito Moreno Glacier as seen from the boardwalks

Perito Moreno Glacier as seen from the boardwalks

The next segment of our trip was a boat ride to the glacier hike base camp. From here, we followed a boardwalk to a set of tents where we got out harnesses and crampons. This was slay the point from which the “Mini Trekking” tour option starts their glacier hike.

Hielo y Aventura glacier hike el calafate Argentina Patagonia

Views of the glacier as we begin our hike

For our group on the “Big Ice” tour, however, we first hiked another hour through the forest alongside the glacier. We even had to cross through a waterfall! For me, this hike itself made the longer and more expensive tour worthwhile – the views were incredible!

Glacier hike trail el calafate Argentina Patagonia

We had to cross under this waterfall to get to the ice

When we arrived to the ice, the surface was so blue I genuinely thought the company had laid down a plastic tarp under the wooden benches we were using to fasten on our crampons – you know, one of those bright blue ones used to cover cars or truck beds. Of course, it wasn’t plastic at all, but rather a lack of oxygen in dense ice that creates the intensely saturated color.

The feeling of being on the ice is a surreal one. The ground is constantly crunching under your crampons, and everywhere you look, you see strange ice formations, arches, caves, and waterfalls. Perito Moreno actually moves as much as two meters each day, which is why its features are so dramatic, and why, after our glacier hike, we were able to witness an entire chunk of the glacial face calve off into the lake.

Couple on the ice perito Moreno Glacier Argentina Patagonia

Me and Tim on the ice

Thoroughly soaked and very cold, we ended our hike a few hours later back at the base camp. We had coffee to warm us up before getting back on the boat, where they surprised us with whiskey with a glacial ice cube and a bit of chocolate! That was a pretty good way to warm everyone up before the bus ride back to El Calafate!

In El Calafate, we were shocked to see that many of the streets were completely flooded. For a city that “never” gets rain, it sure was wet.

When we got back to our apartment, we saw multiple messages from the tour company with whom we’d booked our transfer and visit to La Leona petrified forest. Because of the heavy rains, the road to La Leona was washed out. While I was disappointed, it’s just one of those things you can’t do anything about. So we switched our bus to a later one for the next day and enjoyed a morning sleeping in.

El Chaltén

The next day was, of course, sunny and beautiful. When we got to the bus station, we saw Sean from our glacier trekking tour. He was apparently on the same bus as us to El Chaltén! While Tim and I have no problem hanging out with just us, it’s always nice to make friends on the road. Sean ended up being a fantastic hiking and eating buddy over the next few days!

Three hours after leaving El Calafate, we arrived in El Chaltén. The skies were nearly cloudless, and the iconic peaks of Fitz Roy and Torre mountains were visible on the horizon.

While it was too late in the day to do a big hike, we still had about 4 hours of daylight left. This was more than enough time for a quick hike up a hill behind the visitor center to Los Condores and Las Aguilas viewpoints!

From Los Condores, we had a great view of the city itself, and just 15 minutes more on the other side of the hill brought us to Las Aguilas viewpoint where we could see the vast steppe and glacial lake extending into the distance.

View from Los Condores viewpoint El Chaltén Argentina Patagonia

View from Los Condores viewpoint

After our hike, we decided to hit up happy hour. This turned into a few drinks and a fairly late night out! Thankfully, the weather forecast for the next day was completely rainy, so there was no need to get up early and hit the trails.

For me and Tim, the next day was relaxing and productive. We caught up on some projects, prepared our lunches for our hike the next day to Laguna de los Tres at the foot of Mount Fitz Roy, and even found a delicious southern style BBQ joint!

Laguna de los Tres

The next morning, we met up with Sean bright and early. Actually it was still dark outside, so scratch that “bright” bit. We were among the first on the trail, and it ended up being a fantastic experience.

We had the trail completely to ourselves most of the way. A beautiful soft snow was falling in the woods all around us, and the only other sound was the knocking of the many wood peckers we were lucky enough to spot!

The trail itself was relatively flat and easy, with a few fun bridges to cross over gentle streams. Within 4 hours, we arrived at the base for the steep ascent to our destination – Laguna de los Tres. As we began the climb, it was still snowing and there was ice in every rock. The sky was looking clearer in the distance, however, so we were optimistic that we just might have a decent view of the mountain when we arrived.

We arrived to our reward – a perfectly still teal lake in front of a foggy Fitz Roy. We sat down and dove into our lunches. Gradually, the clouds began to clear one peak at a time, and Fitz Roy began to reveal itself. Sean went off to explore while Tim built a snowman.

Snowman at Laguna de los Tres El Chaltén Argentina Patagonia

Tim and his snowman with a cloudy Fitz Roy at Laguna de los Tres

When Sean returned, he told us about the view from the other hill beside us. We decided to go check it out. The short climb was a tad windy, but when we got to the top we saw something truly incredible. To our right was Fitz Roy and the lake we’d eaten lunch at. To our left was another lake, with a slightly different color and sitting at a lower level. A thin waterfall spilled from the glacier above it into the pool below. It was easily one of the most surprising scenes I’ve ever discovered.

Two lakes at Laguna de los Tres El Chaltén Argentina Patagonia

The BEST view at Laguna de los Tres

After two hours at Laguna de los Tres, we all agreed it was time to leave this spectacular spot behind and continue our hike. After the immediate descent from the lake (where now all the ice and snow were melted!), we opted to take a connector trail past the lakes of Madre and Hija to the trail that goes to Laguna Torre. Rather than heading up to that lake, we’d cut down back to El Chaltén town.

Madre and Hija lakes El Chaltén Argentina Patagonia

Tim between the Madre and Hija lakes

This 8km hike was flat and easy past the lakes. We saw hundreds of furry (and possibly poisonous) caterpillar along the way, and since some parts of the trail were very narrow between bushes full of them, we kept having to stop and check each other for unwelcome passengers!

The last few kilometers of the trail descended steeply until it connected with the Laguna Torre trail. We were all glad to be hiking this trail in the direction we were – to hike up the other way would be a painful climb!

We got back to town with plenty of time to grab one last dinner together before saying goodbye to Sean. He was leaving the next morning to head to Ushuaia – the southernmost city in the world and the port from which Tim and I journeyed to Antarctica in 2014.

Laguna Torre

The next morning, Tim and I set out on the Laguna Torre trail, this time destined for the lake itself and hopefully a view of Mount Torre. The hike itself was fun and pretty easy, but when we arrived to the lake, the mountain was completely hidden in clouds. We did get to see the glacier behind it, though, and it was still a great day!

Laguna Torre on a cloudy day el chalten Argentina Patagonia

Laguna Torre on a cloudy day

The next day we flew out of El Calafate, this time bound for Brazil! While the weather didn’t cooperate completely with our trip to Argentinian Patagonia, we had a great time hiking the trails and admiring glacier views. I got to hike through the woods with my best friend/soul mate, getting exercise in my favorite way, breathing in the cleanest air, and drinking the coldest water from a glacial stream. Yeah, I’d say it was still a pretty lucky trip.

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