El Chaltén, the outdoor ‘mecca’ of Patagonia
Stopping for two nights in the town of El Calafate, my objective alike nearly everyone else passing through the town was a visit to the famed Perito Moreno Glacier. At 5km in width where its calving edge meets the Peninsula de Magallanes and around 50–70m in height it’s sheer scale is breath taking. Unlike most of the glaciers in Patagonia, or indeed the world, Perito Moreno is advancing rather than retreating and is said to move up to 2m per day.
Catching the bus from El Calafate I was excited to see the glacier and the drama it creates as its calves (big / small chunks of ice) fall from the glacier and crash into the lake below. As you enter the park you drive along the Brazo Rico lake, sometimes damned by the glacier due to its advances, the lake like many in the area is a bright turquoise and we saw several small icebergs drifting away from the glacier as we approached. Arriving into the bus terminal at the national park there are several options and routes for exploring the Penisula Magallanes set up as a series of walkways, the offer views of the north side of the glacier from near and far, high and low. There is also the option to get closer to the glacier by boat or to book onto one of the tours that include ice trekking across a part of it. I chose for the basic option and stuck to the parks many walkways. Starting on the beach I too the blue route to start, walking along the peninsulas coast even from afar you get a sense of the scale of the glacier. Asyour draw nearer the rumbles and crashes seem to build anticipation. Between creaks and sounds I can only associate with ski patrol clearing avalanches after fresh snow; it felt as if my eyes were glued to the glacier, willing the area I was nearest to to shed some ice next.
With the glaciers calving being so unpredictable I often found myself rooted to a spot, trying to work out if the whiter or bluer parts of the ice were likely to go next. I reasoned that the white was likely the weaker / warmer parts as when it did calf it often revealed a glassy looking turquoise rather than snowy white. Alas, neither theory enabled me to capture in an image the glacier calving but when you see it go the action is breathtaking. As you get to the walkways nearer where the glacier meets the peninsula you really get the impression of it being a living thing. Every few moments the glacier seems to creak, straining under its own weight and scale. Crackling as though it’s made up of popping candy and it’s dissolving its own structure as it pops and creates plumes of ice as pillars of ice thunder away from the main wall, crashing into the icy waters below. The icy column is swallowed by the lake before resurfacing as an iceberg and beginning to drift slowly away from the glacier. Often the larger calves seemed to create a ripple effect I can only associate with a tidal wave and even in such a big lake the effects of the ripples seemed to spread from the glacier all the way to the shore.
Nothing prepared me for the scale of the glacier and I feel it’s something that cannot be put into perspective even through photographs. I imagine if you could get close enough to be at the bottom, of the glacier, where it meets the waters edge it would be a sight similar to the bottom of the wall in Game of Thrones. Whilst the walkways get you so close the boat trips get you a little closer and also lower, so I can imagine this only adds to the drama and scale of the glaciers walls. Not to mention how when observing the scene from afar, the boats look more like dinky toys than a reasonably sized tour boat.
El Chaltén certainly felt like paradise
El Chaltén, often referred to as the outdoors ‘mecca’ of Patagonia, was my final stop in southern Patagonia and without realising I feel that indeed, I saved the best till last. The town sits beneath the towering peak of Mount FitzRoy, within the Parque Nacional los Glaciares it is in fact the newest town in Argentina, founded in 1985 to help secure its location as Argentinan the town; is now famed for its many hiking and climbing trails all starting right from the Main Street. After weeks of paying overpriced Patagonian bus fares to get to the trails, El Chaltén certainly felt like paradise. Arriving to the town by bus it was interesting that prior to the bus station all buses stop at the national park building where all visitors are given a strong worded lecture on park rules. From obvious ones like no smoking and sticking on the trails, to only using the designated long drops when the need calls. I was struck by the passion of the park rangers and how fiercely they wish to protect and maintain El Chaltén as a natural and free town for all visitors. The town has a small ski town vibe to it with hostels and homes spanning off the Main Street and mountains / hills towering on all visible sides. Having already accepted the fact ‘I’m not a hiker’ I was unsure what I’d make of the town or if I’d enjoy my stay but arriving to clear blue skies and the iconic outline of Mount Fitzroy I couldn’t help but fill my days hiking. As mentioned above, one of the great things about El Chaltén is that all of the trails start from town and it’s all completely free, this in addition to the mixed lengths / combinations of the trails you can take; and multiple free campsites I found many people were stay for a month or more. Arriving mid afternoon after a walk in town I decided to hike one of the shorter trails, Mirador de las Condors on my first evening, hoping to catch the sunset, I set off with plenty of time for the short 45 minute trail to the lookout. Whilst that day the sun silently slipped beneath the mountains the views were still spectacular, both towards El Chaltén and FitzRoy and also looking back to Lago Viedma on the horizon.
Rising to sun the following morning I filled my bag with snacks and layers for all weather and set off through town to the start of the 10.2km trail to Fitzroy, Laguna de los Tres. The first hour was a steady climb before levelling out to a steady trail that meandered through the bush. Often walking the edge of a mountain the views down to Rio de las Vueltas and valley were breathtaking as I gradually climbed further above and away. 4 kilometres in I hit my first water refill stop, Laguna Capri. I’m still awed by the fact that the water in Patagonia is so fresh, you can simply dip your bottle in a lake or stream to refill. There’s nothing more refreshing than the icy coolness of fresh glacier water. Continuing on, the landscape seemed to open up from walking through trees to more of an elevated valley with planks crossing small ponds / marshes I meandered my way to Poincenot, the basecamp for those choosing to do a sunrise hike or planning to split the trek in half. From Poincenot, the final 1km is a killer, steep dusty switchbacks push you to near exhaustion. Having been quick to this point I decided to take my time. The bonus to my slower pace was stopping to look back over than landscape and distance I had covered. The final joy, reaching the top and seeing the deep turquoise waters of Laguna de los Tres and towering granite peak of Fitzroy above.
The second highest and probably well known peak in the area is Cerro Torre; it can also be viewed from another day hike, Laguna Torre. Setting off for this one on a cloudy day I was happy as much for the leg stretch as anything having spent the day before as a down day resting up after doing the FitzRoy trail. One of the key things I have learnt the last few weeks hiking is that pushing myself to my limits is not productive or healthy. Taking the Laguna Torre trail as more of a stroll I enjoyed its meandering path that wound through the valley leading up to Laguna Torre, Glacier Torre and the viewing points for Cerro Torre. Although the day I visited the peak of a Cerro Torre was hidden in the clouds it was still a great hike and I find myself still mind blown by the varied landscapes one area can contain. From towering granite peaks to striped mountains that look like they’ve been sculpted from mousse. Needless to say along with the varying landscapes, the weather too was equally unpredictable. Sun to rain, hot to cold and of course the crazy strong winds. I did however find a lovely rock at Laguna Torre to relax on before returning back to town. All in all I had a great time in El Chaltén and might even go as far as to say it restored part of my faith in hiking. I can see why the area is famed for the activity and only dream what it must be like for the visiting climber whom can actually scale the peaks that tower above the small town…