Destination: Patagonia (Los Glaciares, El Chaltén, Argentina)

“They chose Patagonia for its absolute remoteness and foul climate.” -Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia (1977)

I chose Patagonia for its mountains and left with appreciation of Patagonian vastness, a vastness occupied not only by mountains but also by the pampas, thorny shrub and grassland.

After our Torres del Paine experience we left Chile for Argentina, trading Cerveza Austral for Quilmes, Carménère for Malbec. It was a 5-hr bus ride to El Calafate, then 3 hrs into El Chaltén.

El Chaltén is the self-declared trekking capital of the world, home to those mountains we’ve heard so much about: Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. The weather was less than cooperative in accommodating our mountaineering plans, so we ended up in a roundabout way doing some of the more well-known hikes in the area as we attempted to work around the weather with our guide Diego.

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Fitz Roy area overview. Town of El Chaltén at bottom right. The official Parks brochure is free and can be picked up at the bus station.

There are three main valleys from which to access the mountain viewpoints. Most people trek these self-guided but venturing further may require a guide.

  • North
    • Rio Electrico/ Electrico Valley
    • Marconi Glacier and the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap
  • Middle
    • Classic views of Fitz Roy from the viewpoint at Laguna de los Tres; if you do just one hike during your time in Chaltén, this is it.
  • South
    • Cerro Torre and its glacier and lake.
  • El Chaltén townsite trails
    • North: Castillo del Salto
    • South: Mirador los Cóndores, Mirador las Águilas

 

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Cheeky signpost about the weather, which is notoriously volatile.

 

The first night was forecast to be windy so we pitched tent in the middle valley at Camp Poincenot to take advantage of the shelter. It started to rain.

Parks rents space to guiding outfitters in a separate area from the public campgrounds. Here semi-permanent structures are set up to provide cooking and eating space for guided guests like us. We passed by the public campground the next morning; Diego had said we’d see how busy it was. Yep. It is busy.

Heading up to Laguna de los Tres.
Heading up to Laguna de los Tres.
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Fitz Roy skyline, represented in the Patagonia brand logo.
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Bert’s photo.
Peaks of Fitz Roy, the skyline replicated on the Patagonia brand logo.
We intended to summit Cerro Madsen (right), camp at the lake and then head up the Glacier de los Tres to Paso Superior and exit via the Electrico valley, but the wind was so crazy strong we headed down. I got a large deep bruise on my thigh when the wind pushed me into a rock. It is still purple two weeks later.
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Piedras Blancas, which we’d previously only seen in fog and rain, on the way to the north valley Piedra del Fraile camp.
Piedra del Fraile is actually outside the park, so you will exit the gate to get to this camp. As you can see, it's not what I'd consider a backcountry experience, but a warm fireplace and flush toilets are sometimes a welcome thing.
Piedra del Fraile is sometimes used as Camp 1 for those going to the Marconi Glacier if the weather is poor further up. As you can see it’s not what I’d consider a backcountry experience, but a warm fireplace, water tap, and flush toilets do sometimes make the days easier.
Looking towards Marconi Pass from Piedra del Fraile lookout.
Looking towards Marconi Pass from Piedra del Fraile lookout

The next morning we tried a 6am start to Paso del Cuadrado, Cuadrado Pass, intending a day trip to view the Fitz Roy north glacier. It started raining lightly, then harder. Diego performed the LATS weather prediction technique (Look At The Sky) and said to the sky:

– Give us a break!

We stood there in the rain looking at the valley below and the braids of the Electrico River, white in a black-and-white landscape.

– Mordor.

Meaning, this place looked like the end of the earth, the shadow land of Tolkein invention. Diego didn’t think the rain was going to let up. I repeated what he said, robotically, processed the info and told him I was okay to head back to camp. Bert had already turned around a couple hours earlier.

As I came back down to camp I saw that most other backpackers had packed up their tents and were huddled under the “roof” of a damp camp structure, preparing to head out. I walked past them in an antisocial manner, towards my and Bert’s tent, as they watched me. I shivered off my wet clothes and draped them as best I could in the wet clumpy dirt of the vestibule, lay on my back, still damp, looking up at the beetles and mosquitoes and other bugs crawling around between the tent and the fly, and lay there for 6 hours straight. I wondered if we should just pack up and get the heck out of here, now.

At last I made my way into the warm refugio/cabin shelter, where Diego greeted me with a hearty:

– Good Morning!

A wood stove was going and Bert had thoughtfully hung my wet rain jacket, pants, socks, and shoes to dry, next to the sign asking us to please not do just that. Well, Diego had said it was OK. In fact, Diego’s clothes and shoes were drying there, too. At the cabin all sorts of rainy day activity was underway: the refugio attendant baking bread, card games, singing to ukelele and accordion, hot tea, chatty mountain talk, and quiet introspection.

The refugio is quite a nice space, complete with vintage photographs of mountaineering feats in the area. In the refugio courtyard there’s a ladder that once aided climbers up Fitz Roy. It was taken down and used for training here at Piedra del Fraile for some time, and the bottom rungs are now broken beyond use.

While the refugio is very comfortable, considering, I felt a bit impatient with the situation; I’m not really one for these types of camps. Give me a tent in the middle of nowhere, or a hotel. Right about now I was choosing the latter. I felt ‘soft’, like this was some sort of indication that I’d never be able to cut it as a truly hardy and credible outdoors woman. Which is crazy of course; I’ve done some pretty neat things in what people wouldn’t hesitate to call adverse conditions. This who-I-used-to-be line of thinking made me feel all the more pampered and privileged. I’m pretty sure Diego, who is an incredibly skilled mountain guide who has summitted Cerro Torre, and works every day in these mountains, wondered how he got stuck with us.

I declined an offer to learn how to tango, denying my inner dancer. I made supper with Diego, and went to sleep listening to the rain, thinking that I could have paid far less for a more ‘normal’ type of vacation… One with a dry bed and hot shower, like how most people do things. But I suppose that’s just not me. Why do I always have to try to do so much? Bert and I made a jokey pact that next time we holiday, it’ll involve sun and a beach. And maybe one mountain, max.

Heading back to town via Electrico valley
Electrico valley
We are unspeakably happy to see the finish line, the Rio Electrio bridge. See how high the water levels are...
Rio Electrio bridge finish line. It continued to rain well into the next day.
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Cerro Torre hidden in cloud.
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Laguna Torre trail
There's a lookout of Margarita falls (not shown) on the way to Laguna Torre.
Laguna Torre trail
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El Chaltén from Laguna Torre trailhead

Less committing are trails that a short walk from town. Mirador los Cóndores, Condor Viewpoint and Mirador las Águilas, Viedma Lake Viewpoint can both be visited in the same trip; the first is on the way to the second.

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Mirador las Águilas trail. I won’t post a photo of Viedma Lake here because I really do think you should see it for yourself in person.
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El Chaltén from Mirador los Cóndores

And a short walk from the north end of town is Castillo del Salto, Salto Waterfall.

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There’s a charming sign indicating “Área de contemplación” at the bottom of the Salto waterfall. Continuing upward here.
Magellan orchid
Magellan orchids, Orquidea porcelana/ Porcelain orchid, on the waterfall trail

From here we made our way back to El Calafate, quite happy to be done with camping in the rain, and eager to partake in high reward-low effort day trips!

Thank you so much for those who assisted in making our Argentina travel a reality, particularly:

 

 

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8 thoughts on “Destination: Patagonia (Los Glaciares, El Chaltén, Argentina)

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      1. I hear you! Mine was a once in a lifetime but I’m constantly dreaming of it and stalking people’s blogs! Lol. With a 5 year old daughter at home though my return visit won’t be at least for another 10 years! Lol

  1. What beautiful photos! My husband and I are heading this way in February. We had a daughter on exchange in Chile and are taking the opportunity! Can I ask what precautions you took with your camera? I want to make sure I’m prepared for the elelments! Thank you!!

    1. Thanks! I’m pleased you like what I shared. I generally transport my camera with the strap across one shoulder and hold the camera under the opposite elbow squished against my side, with the lens facing backwards to protect it. A cheap plastic shower cap makes for a great cover in windy/ dusty/ light precipitation conditions. A polarizer can help protect the lens from UV if you’re doing a lot of water or glacier stuff (mine broke after being dropped on rocks; I don’t really worry about polarizers but others might disagree). I didn’t do anything special with respect to camera care on this trip. Most of the photos in my Patagonia posts were taken with a Motorola G4 Play phone, which has a fantastic camera for the price 🙂 Enjoy the sightseeing and family visit!!

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