The glacier-fed waters of Lago Argentino, the country’s largest freshwater lake, shimmer in the late afternoon sun. Marking the northern limits of Comandante Armando Tola International Airport, its striking turquoise color is a sight to behold. On the road to El Calafate, windswept plains, so characteristic of this part of the country, stretch far into the horizon. Over us, an incredible, otherworldly Patagonia sky…
The second largest town in the province of Santa Cruz, El Calafate lies just east of the mighty Patagonian ice fields. It boasts a lively main drag, lined with tour operators, curio stores, hostels and lodges; and a row of ATMs, which are invariably out of cash! But other than organizing logistics for your onward exploration of Patagonia, there’s precious little to do here.
In fact, the town’s biggest attraction, Glaciarium Museo del Hielo Patagónico, lies a few miles away. Free shuttle buses run between the town center and the Glaciarium, a museum or interpretive center, well-supplied with detailed multimedia exhibits, documenting everything from ice flows in the Southern Andes to Bergschrunds, Cirques and Nunataks, those hard-to-pronounce geological terms you most likely forgot after geography class.
Built less than two decades ago, the impressive little airport at El Calafate put the town on the map, making it a gateway to this region of Patagonia. But practically everyone descends on it for one reason alone – a visit to the storied Perito Moreno Glacier.
The entrance to Parque Nacional Los Glaciares lies an hour west of El Calafate, along the very picturesque Ruta Provincial 11. Once there, you have two options: head towards the scenic overlooks, where you’ll be treated to a panoramic view of the ginormous mass of ice; or right to the thick of it, an ice trek! Regardless of what you choose, a first sighting of the glacier will leave you completely transfixed.
Hielo y Aventura, the exclusive operator of glacial treks, offer two kinds of excursions here, each of which ends up being a day’s outing from El Calafate. They take care of end-to-end logistics; provide crampons for traction, and highly skilled guides for company. Between all of that, the trek is yours to savor. And savor it you should, for rest assured, this is quite unlike anything you’ve attempted before…
From the surreal surface textures all around to the ethereal hues of blue, the two hours we’ve spent on this glacier, haven’t for a moment been in short supply of truly mesmerizing beauty. And trekking here isn’t just a visual treat. We’ve drunk chilled water from glacial crevasses, tested the limits of our loaned equipment, and found our feet on ice – it’s been a day of firsts, and many lasting memories.
To round it all off perfectly, we’re treated to a chilled beverage – a reward, if you will, for having completed this truly arduous task (!). Sure, the Whiskey may not be to everyone’s liking, but if you’re really going for flavor here, it’s all in that centuries-old glacial ice!
You’ve paid to enter the national park, so don’t leave it in a hurry! Straddling several levels, and providing distinct vantage points, the parks many walkways and overlooks are not to be missed, for it is here that you will truly appreciate the scale and might of this most impressive glacier.
Over 3-miles wide at its head, 19-miles in length, and rising more than 240-feet above the surface of the water, Perito Moreno, one of the last glaciers in the world still growing, is a sight to cherish…
If there’s one thing you should do during your stay in El Calafate, it is to savor some Patagonian Lamb. Thankfully, there are a handful of good restaurants to choose from, amongst them, La Posta, the restaurant at the very charming Posada Los Alamos. If you’re willing to walk a bit, try Don Pichón, which sits atop a hill, offering expansive views of the lake. At either venue, the meat is typically slow-cooked over an open fire, and the results are exceptional. Be sure to order a bottle of red, for the two complement each other ridiculously well.
Three hours and some 200-kilometres (124-miles) separate the town of El Calafate from the village of El Chaltén. The route initially heads north along Ruta Nacional 40, tracing the eastern edge of Lago Argentino, followed shortly by Lago Viedma, then turns west along Ruta Provincial 23, running along the latter’s northern shore. Given the stunning topography in this part of the country, it’s almost impossible to keep your eyes on the road. At times, you just have to pull over. And there’s reason enough to do so when we spot the distinct contours of Mt. Fitz Roy, for the very first time…
Sitting at the base of Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy, the little hamlet of El Chaltén is little more than a staging area for treks into the Patagonian Andes. Replete with backpackers, adventure companies and budget accommodation, it’s often referred to as the trekking capital of Argentina.
Gear can be rented from a handful of agencies in town, and we’ve chosen Patagonia Hikes, which is easy to locate and rather inexpensive. Less than a mile from it, at the northern edge of town, where asphalt gives way to trail, begins Sendero al Fitz Roy, the area’s most popular climbing route.
The first few kilometers of the picturesque trail appear deceptively flat, but are in fact pretty steep. Eventually though, it plateaus out, revealing gorgeous vistas of the Rio del Salto Valley…
A thick forest of Lenga Beech follows, with the late afternoon sun making a desperate attempt to filter through. A Magellanic Woodpecker hammers away. Respite comes by way of Laguna Capri, where we refill our bottles, take in some sun and soak in the view.
By km marker 6, we’re in open country once again, where windswept marshes, punctuated by the occasional alpine stream, extend as far as the eye can see. Snow-capped mountains make up the rest of the scene, their gaps revealing the distinct blue of a distant glacier.
Three hours and some 8-km (5-miles) out of El Chaltén, we finally pitch our tent at Camp Poincenot. Named after French alpinist, Jacques Poincenot, the camp is a bit of a melting pot, with hikers from practically all corners of the globe represented. Some are using it as a base for hiking around the area, whereas others, like ourselves, are just passing through.
Being this far south in the Southern Cone also means that we have at least a couple of hours more daylight than BA. So by the time we turn in, it’s still bright out and the camp’s still got some life…
When we awake, at the unearthly hour of 3 AM, it’s dark as only the night can be. Dawning our flashlights, an extra layer, and little else, we set off into the darkness. On the off chance that we run into a Patagonian Puma, we hope we have what it takes!
To put it very mildly, the trail leading up to Laguna de los Tres can only be described as hostile. Often times, even treacherous. It’s only 2-km long but possibly one of the toughest unassisted ascents you will ever make. From time to time, it will beg the question, why am I doing this?
Up on top, you’ll be greeted by howling winds, battering you from every side and chilling you to the bone. Cowering behind a rock, with the few others who’ve braved the odds that morning, you’ll wait it out patiently. And then, the first rays of dawn will strike the mountainside. All the suffering, all that pain you’ve endured, will be forgotten in a mere instant…
So breathtaking is the sight of Fitz Roy at sunrise, you won’t hesitate for a moment if someone asked, would you do it again? For most of us here today, it’s also the closest we’re ever going to get to this most famous of massifs, and we are truly blessed for how the morning has turned out – the clearest it’s been in fact, on our entire trip.
Topping off at just over 11,000 ft., Monte Fitz Roy isn’t particularly tall. But the mountain, named after the captain of the HMS Beagle, remains to this day one of the toughest peaks in the world to climb. And certainly, one of its most iconic.
Once you’ve laid eyes on Fitz Roy, those classic ridge lines – the same ones that inspired clothing company Patagonia’s logo – are guaranteed to remain etched in your memory for a very very long time…
A full set of photos from the trip can be seen here.
One thought on “Patagonia, parte dos”
On the one hand there is ‘living vicariously’ through these amazing visuals and words you keep putting out, Brat, but it’s more than just that – it’s gets me looking for a bigger bucket for my to-go list and juggling of places around in terms of which one(s) to get to before others 🙂