Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
After a very enjoyable stay in Puerto Varas, Chile, we set off for the much-anticipated next leg of our trip. This would be the single biggest jump we had made to date and involved taking the first flight we had utilized since returning to the mainland from the Galapagos way back in late July. Truth be told I actually felt a twinge of guiltiness. I had really learned to love our bus rides and the intimate views of landscape that you just can’t get from 30,000 feet, and getting on a plane somehow struck me as cheating. On the other hand we were headed to an extremely remote part of the world, and the prospect of spending either three days on a ferry or swallowing two back-to-back twenty-hour bus rides was a little more than even this gipsy was prepared to handle. So, off we went, flying from Puerto Montt down to Punta Arenas and following the beautiful spine of the Andes the whole way. The views out the window provided a real taste of what was to come.From high above I could see incredibly imposing mountains, black and brooding and still covered in plenty of snow. In between the high peaks were great flowing rivers of ice that twisted and turned through the valleys, eventually ending in huge lakes filled with their own debris. We were flying over the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, home to the third biggest extension of continental ice after Antarctica and Greenland and therefore also the world’s third largest fresh water reserve. This was some seriously rugged territory, and I couldn’t wait to get a closer look at it.
We touched down in a barren, wind-swept landscape and caught a bus to Puerto Natales. Before I go on though a quick note about the wind is required since it is the most prominent feature of the land that can’t actually be seen. In short, it is powerful beyond imagination and absolutely relentless. One second you’re literally leaning into it struggling to walk forward as if some giant unseen cart were attached to your body. The next second you’re walking in the same direction it’s screaming, careful to step fast enough before it doubles your forward momentum with a powerful shove in the back. At night we would lie in bed listening to it howl, just waiting for what felt like the inevitable moment when the roof above us would fly away. It caused the few trees there are to grow in great twisted shapes and made even the smallest of lakes froth like the angriest sea. It was both terrifying and fascinating at the same time, and I now need not witness a hurricane in my lifetime, for I’m completely aware of how one operates.
Once in Puerto Natales we took up residence in Hostal Amerindia and hit the streets exploring the town. To be honest there’s not really much to the town itself besides a plethora of tour agencies and outdoor gear shops. It’s in the middle of nowhere and survives these days primarily as a base from which to explore the nearby Torres del Paine National Park. The park is pretty much what brings anyone to this far away part of South America, ourselves included, so we didn’t waste any time setting up an excursion to see it. Many people head there for the incredible array of hiking opportunities the park offers, particularly the famous “W” trek. We had neither the gear, stamina, nor time for 5-7 days in the backcountry though, so instead we settled for a full-day trip to catch the highlights.
As we approached the park we saw a few interesting creatures including some giant birds that look just like a smaller version of an ostrich and a species of camelid called the guanaco that resembled the llamas we had seen months before in Peru. Eventually we made our way deeper into the park and caught a glimpse of its most famous and prominent features which are the giant rock horns and towers of the Cordillera del Paine. These are enormous rock features carved by eons of action of the wind and ice. They dominate nearly every view from within the park and are surrounded by a series of lakes that seem to display every shade ranging between blue and green. Later we went a lake that stood at foot of a distant glaciers. The glacier itself was too far way to see fully, but the waters of the lake were filled with a couple of giant blue icebergs floating not far from the shore.
The other excursion we took from Puerto Natales was a boat ride through the narrow fjords that surround the town. The boat took us close to a number of hanging glaciers along the way, giving us a tantalizing taste of what we would experience the following week in the Argentinian part of Patagonia. We also got a chance to see some beautiful waterfalls and even a couple of sea lions resting lazily on some narrow cliffs carved into the rocky walls of the fjord. Midway through the ride the boat stopped at an estancia for lunch. An estancia is basically a large estate or farm. Most of them were once used primarily for raising vast flocks of sheep which provided not only a good chunk of the world’s wool supply, but also some downright delicious Patagonian grilled lamb. You know you’re in for a treat when you get off the boat and see this waiting for you:
The estancia put on a huge spread and kept bringing out the grilled lamb until we begged them to stop. During lunch we chatted up a nice couple from Spain while the husband of the pair made sure the staff wasn’t stingy with the unlimited Malbec. It proved to one of the finer feasts of our entire trip, and needless to say I may have napped a little on the boat ride back.
El Calafate and El Chalten, Argentina
We still had a lot of Patagonia left to see, so a couple of days later we caught a bus heading into Argentina. Our excitement level was running high not only because we knew the best part of the region was right around the corner, but also because we were about to gain some gringo reinforcements. That day our good friends Joe and Sara flew all the way down from Denver, giving up precious vacation time and the Thanksgiving holiday to share in our South American adventure. We were really honored that anyone would bother to come so far to hang out with us and couldn’t wait to see them. They showed up in El Calafate like two magi with a sack full of snacks that would last us for weeks after they left and a bottle of duty-free tequila with a somewhat shorter lifespan. We made our base at Posada Karut Josh and got right down to business.
Our first outing together was a trip to the nearby Perito Moreno glacier, a wall of blue ice three miles wide and the most stunning natural phenomenon I have ever witnessed. A million words could be typed in a vain attempt to fully convey the experience of seeing it, so instead I’ll just present you with a few pictures.
Our tour began with a boat ride across the lake passing in front of the glacier and reaching the opposite shore near its base. There we received a brief lecture on glaciology in general and the Perito Moreno specifically before being fitting with crampons. Then we hiked up onto the glacier itself, exploring a few of its cracks and crevices, drinking the pure melt water straight from its many flowing streams, and peering into a couple of the sinkholes where water drained and disappeared into oblivion. The hike ended at a spot where they had set up a little table on the ice and served snacks and poured glasses of scotch over ice that was probably thousands of years old. After returning to the shore of the lake the boat took us back across the other side to a series of balconies where we had about an hour to watch the slow but unending advance of ice. Occasionally a massive chunck of the wall would calve off preceded by what sounded like a canon exploding and splashing down into the water below.
The next day we rented a car to do a some independent exploring. We drove through the countryside dodging unusually large hares that darted across the road until we reached the scenic shore of Lago Roca. From there we went back to town via a different road so we could stop to examine the Glaciarium or museum of Patagonian ice. Inside were several interesting exhibits and films on the formation, geography, and history of the exploration of the Patagonian ice fields. Perhaps the most memorable part of the Glaciarium though was the Glacier Bar located in its basement. It’s a bar that’s literally comprised entirely of ice…the walls, the floors, the furniture, even the cups. They had you put on these funky thermal capes and mittens before you enter for what is supposed to be just a twenty-minute visit. On the day we were there they certainly weren’t checking the clock, and we had our fun for about half an hour at the all-inclusive bar before the cold got the the best of us.
We did one last organized tour in El Calafate that consisted of a 4×4 trip in the hill above the town. The weather wasn’t the greatest that day, but our driver was a hilarious local who drove us around for a few hours showing us lots of interesting sights. We saw a bunch of fossils and crazy rock formations along the way, and he even whipped up some tasty steak sandwiches for us when we stopped for lunch.
There was still another town in the area was wanted to see, and the next day we pack up our rental car and made the two-hour drive north to El Chalten to complete the remainder of our week with Joe and Sara. El Chalten is a tiny little town in a very remote setting, but its position as the gateway to the northern sector of Glacier National Park means the place fairly buzzes with loads of tourists eager to tackle its superb hiking trails. In fact, it bills itself as the trekking capital of Argentina, and folks come from all four corners of the globe just to get a peak at the incredible Mt. Fitz Roy looming above the town. Before we hit the trails we decided to check out another big glacier. We hooked up with a boat tour taking us across Lake Viedma to the base of a glacier by the same name. We weren’t able to walk upon this particular glacier, but the cruise itself was longer and took us through a series of enormous ice bergs that days before had calved off the glacier. The next day we were ready to hit the trails, so we packed up some snacks and some lunch and set out. The great thing about the hiking around El Chalten is that trails all start right from the town itself. All you had to do was walk down to the end of the street, find your trailhead, and start hiking up. We chose one of the easier hikes since none of us had done much serious hiking for some time. Still though, the trail was fun and the scenery was great as it wound its way up through the forest. After about an hour we came to an alpine lake set amongst the trees and peaks. The patagonian wind was definitely stirring that day, but we pressed on a little further hoping to catch a peek of the Fitz Roy through the low-hanging clouds. We still hadn’t seen the mountain yet after being in town for a few days and we were determined to catch it before we left. The trail continued on through a flat valley between a series of high rock walls. Eventually we decided to turn around and head back down but not before sighting another hanging glacier off in the distance. The Fitz Roy had eluded us so far that day, so we went into town to grab some grub. Back in El Chalten we sat enjoying a post-hike pizza. Suddenly there was a flurry of activity as people practically leapt from their tables and dashed outside, cameras in hand. The clouds were finally parting, and the Fitz Roy was slowly beginning to emerge as the sun went down. You would have thought a UFO was landing as both diners and pedestrians on the sidewalk alike stopped dead in their tracks to gaze at gray rock spires coming into view.
And, with that final lucky sighting, our time in Patagonia with our dear friends came to an end. The next morning we made an early dash back to the airport in El Calafate (careful to conserve our remaining fuel as there was no gasoline available in El Chalten for the entire four days we were there) and parted ways. Joe and Sara were bound for Buenos Aires and an unplanned two-day layover there thanks to an erupting volcano, and Kelly and I were bound for the city of Ushuaia at the extreme southern tip of the continent, where you’ll find us in the next chapter. See you then.