Expedition into Patagonia
I departed Buenos Aires heading to the fin del mundo. My first stop would be the Southern most city in the world, Ushuaia, from where I would then make my way North through parts of Patagonia in Argentina and Chile! Uncertain of when and where I would go things kicked off in excellent fashion as I had unknowingly booked a business class ticket for fear that I would be over the bag weight limit with the lower fare. It was comical as I walked onto the plane and turned right only to have the flight attendant check my ticket and say sorry sir but you are up front. I took this as a good sign of things to come during my adventures in Patagonia. To get into the spirit of my trip I enjoyed watching the Motorcycle Diaries on the flight, analyzing what portion of Che Guevara’s trip I might be mimicking through America del Sur.
Taking my first steps off the plane into Tierra del Fuego I knew I was at the end of the world. The weather that greeted me was harsh, crisp and cold! I made my way to the hostel to get settled and see what the town had to offer in terms of activities. Ushuaia is the jumping off point for expeditions to Antarctica and all over town advertisements promote great deals on last minute trips. I figured if the price was right maybe I would head further South! That dream was quickly squashed, after asking around I came to realize that trips still run several thousand dollars and that was a lot higher than the few hundred-dollar price tag I had envisioned.
Exploring around I got a quick sense of the town, it’s very tiny and doesn’t offer a whole lot of entertainment. Main activities in the area are a cruise on the Beagle channel, a few hikes in the area and to pose in front of the fin del mundo sign.
After taking my pictures I poked my head into a wine shop and while perusing around recognized a familiar face I noticed from the hostel so I introduced myself. The two ladies ended up being from England, Tara (who I recognized) and Hannah. We all bought some wine and headed back to the hostel to discuss travel ideas and also compare bottles selected. Fortunately for me they had a bit of a plan, it was settled that we would go on a hike and catch a evening boat cruise on the Beagle channel as a group over the coming days. After enjoying our wine, mine was my favorite (Escorihuela Gascon) we headed out to find lamb, for which Patagonia is famous. It was a success as we found a good place that had a fun atmosphere and an extremely friendly staff. So much so that we went out with our waiter after the restaurant closed to the Irish pub in town.
Our next big adventure together was the hike to laguna Esmerelda. This again had been found out and coordinated by the ladies from England. I was just riding their coattails on this next journey. It was a fairly easy hike with nice scenery leading through a valley, which brought us up to a nice little lake. It was a fun activity since the weather was cooperating and I had good company.
The three amigos (Hannah, Tara, myself) next boarded a boat to see the area surrounding Ushuaia from the water.
We spent a few hours cruising the Beagle channel with the first destination being the famous lighthouse.
Later we made our way towards an island as sunset approached to do a little trek across the land. While on board we also had the privilege of meeting a cool brother and sister from Australia. They were extremely nice and sported smiles the entire time, clearly enjoying life! I spotted an Australia sailing jacket and inquired if they do any sailing for fun. Simply thinking it was a brand from back home, similar to Nautica. How naive of me, turns out they are awesome sailors! So much so that I will be rooting for them when they compete in the upcoming Rio Olympics!
Leaving Ushuaia I headed to Punta Arenas via bus, 13 hours later I arrived in Chile. A port town my parents had passed by several times but never set foot in during their days sailing around South America, thinking about that it seems like they really had a rough life back then… Punta Arenas was a good place to break up the trip as I met some cool people in my hostel Juan, Billie, Camila, Lukas and Simone. Juan and Billie were heading towards Puerto Natales, which is the jumping off point for excursions into Torres del Paine National Park and invited me to join them should I desire to do trekking in the park as they were planning on doing the 8–10 day circuit on the O route. I figured I would have a few days to think it over and would make up my mind once we got closer to our next town.
Super Bowl Sunday is when we arrived in Puerto Natales. It was not a popular event being shown around town but we were able to find one place that was streaming it. It was a lack luster game but kept us busy as we chit chatted with other hikers and got a sense of the trail and what routes were recommended. I was still on the fence if I would do a hike or instead settle on a day trek into the park. The following day I made up my mind, my Swiss and Chilean friends were gearing up and I decided I would go with the one day hike up to the Torres del Paine and avoid camping. Scouting out gear around town I decided a full day hike up would be sufficient for me. I was intrigued by the idea but with poor weather on the horizon suggesting a couple days of rain in the mix I decided to play it safe and ensure I had a solid roof over my head at night. The next morning I got up early along with my friends to catch our bus into the park. I would do the day trek and they would begin their conquest of the O.
As soon as I was in the park I was on the clock as I only so many hours before the bus returns to town. Because of this I had to keep an aggressive pace moving up the mountain since it was listed as a 9 hour hike round trip. I started with a blistering pace out of the gate and passed around 100 people up the mountain, with only one hiker getting the better of me of the first half of the hike in terms of pace. I used the other hikers as my competitive motivation moving up the hill so when I got passed it fueled me to keep going harder!
Eventually I met the guy that passed me and after chatting a bit we decided to tackle the back half of the hike together. We moved up the mountain and continued to pass everyone in our way. After 3 hours and 20 minutes we had made it up to the Torres del Paine and were able to enjoy lunch as our reward for conquering the mountain!
We enjoyed our break for about an hour but then started making our way back towards the bus pickup station as we still had to ensure we were back in time to catch our rides. The return was a bit easier and also we knew it would not take us a full 4.5 hours to cover the ground so we did not need to go non-stop like we did on the way up.
At the bottom post hike since we had time to kill we grabbed a beer, which was well deserved after the hike. We sat down in the shade, another necessity, and chatted with an English couple who had finished hiking for the day. They were very friendly and we all had a good time reflecting on the hike and all happy we chose not to lug tents and supplies up the mountain to spend multiple days trekking. Also gauchos kept driving horses by our table while we were relaxing which was quite fun to watch and a nice free show.
I left Chile to return back to Argentina the following morning post hike via bus. It was a good way to allow my legs to recover a bit after what they had endured the day prior. I arrived in El Calafate in the early afternoon and walked around the town which is nicely located in the mountains near a lake. The out door activities are plentiful in all these Patagonian towns however most are quite expensive! I enjoyed an evening walk along the water front and then went out to hang out with a combination of new and old friends from the trek over a beer at a waterfront restaurant suggested from our hostel. In the group was my friend Simone (met in Punta Arenas) and Paul (met day prior post hike) and a couple from Los Angeles.
The following afternoon I ran into my English friends Hannah and Tara. We ended up grabbing dinner and then exploring the town a bit more along with Simone in the evening. I had tried to join the BIG ICE tour Hannah was doing on Friday morning however it was sold out. I had to settle on the mini trekking experience. It would be a day of glacier viewing and exploring! The activity was a great experience and was so much fun. Throwing on crampons and hiking around on a glacier was a first for me, and was a true thrill!!
Turns out she studied photography and has an awesome camera so I think I came out ahead on that negotiation! Still waiting for my photos to be sent over as all of the below are from my iphone.
In the evening I met up with Hannah and Tara for a farewell meal as the next morning I would part ways with my English friends and most likely not cross paths with them again as they head to Mendoza. I was once again lucky enough that they sent me off with some recommendations for el Chalten.
I arrived into the tiny town of el Chalten which is situated in a little valley, it is great because it has several trails which shoot off directly from the downtown area. Perfect for day hikes and finally something which will allow multiple explorations during my days here should the weather cooperate. When I got to el Chalten the conditions were not ideal, the valley was overcast and rain was in the air. I took off on a short hike which could be accomplished in a few hours since I had bussed from Calafate earlier and did not have a full day. It was an enjoyable stroll which took me to a nice little waterfall. An enjoyable afternoon, surprising given the rainy conditions but my rain gear did the job and I stayed dry.
When I got back to the hostel I noticed someone in my room napping with a fedora over their eyes. I had a hunch of who it might be but wasn’t certain. It turned out I was right, low and behold fate had it that my Italian buddy and I ended up in the same hostel yet again! I joined Simone for dinner and vino with another Italian lady he had met on his bus ride into town. We had a good time socializing and comparing travels. She is excited to visit Colombia and was asking for my input, of course I only had good things to say. After dinner Simone taught me an Italian card game, I have no clue the name of it but it was entertaining.
Dia número dos en el Chalten was bright and sunny! Given this excellent weather and with the likely chance that conditions would not be as ideal the day following I decided to do the Tres Lagos trek to see Fitz Roy up close. I had breakfast with my buddy and then took off on the trail as he was heading out of town towards Chile as his trip is approaching its end.
The trail was well marked and easy to follow, along the way I was treated to spectacular views of the valley I had walked in the day prior. During the overcast conditions the day prior I was not able to appreciate the landscape I had been walking in, this clear weather allowed me to do so.
After hiking for hour and a half I got to the first view place and could make out the three peaks. It was a clear view for the next hour as I cut across the valley floor across rivers and made my way to the base of the final 1km vertical assent.
I have to say the final 1km was tough! I think in distance and elevation it was less then Torres del Paine however I had to make the climb without water (I had lost my bottle cap in the surging current of the river by accident) and that made it more difficult and the sun was beating down and it was very rocky, dry and dusty!
However I made it! The hike up was worth it and I enjoyed my packed lunch, salami sandwich, in a speck of shade found by leaning against a large rock.
The first pictures I had taken of myself by some other hikers were some of the worst I have encountered on the trip. They did a good job of getting me in the frame but they cut the mountains in half in the back!
I asked another group of hikers if they would be so kind as to snap a photo of me and they did a much better job of getting a combination of me and the mountain peaks in the background all in the shot!
I soaked up the view and gentle breeze at the top for another hour and a half before making my way down!
At the very base of the tricky part of the hill I took a tumble… For my prides sake it was a good thing nobody saw me fall, luckily I was behind some trees.
Back to the tumble, this was number 3 of the day but the first one going down hill. It was not great as I felt my ankle lightly tweak! I got up, dusted myself off and took inventory. Knee was slightly cut up and right ankle was throbbing! I leaned over and noticed the sign letting me know I was at the 9km mark, meaning that’s what I had left to make it back to town. Not ideal but I am used to tweaking ankles, especially that right one! I leaned over and looked to tighten up my shoe lace as tight as I could get it. During the process as I was putting weight on the foot my entire right leg was shaking uncontrollably! I figured I had to fight through the pain and continue on, no other way around it. The first few minutes I could only imagine were a pathetic sight of me hobbling down some makeshift steps carved into the hill and jumping down mostly on the left leg. I was fortunate that I was able to walk it off for the most part and by the 8km mark I was back to flat ground and able to keep a normal pace. Stopping every so often to give my ankle a rest and to look back at the mountain peaks.
My ankle was fine for the majority of the return hike up until the end when I had to go downhill at a steeper angle and that aggravated it a bit. All told I was lucky to have only had the small injury and make it back to town as it could have been a lot worse!!
As a reward for doing the 20+km trek and not having to be airlifted out of there with a bum ankle I headed to dinner at restaurant Fuegia (after having a shower and some Motrin) to scarf down some Cordero (lamb) which had been recommended. It was delicious and a solid dinner spot I endorse if visiting Chalten!
Rain, fog, and hurricane force winds waited for me when I awoke my final day in Chalten, along with a sore ankle. I headed out for some coffee and was at times almost at a standstill trying to walk against the strong winds. After thinking it over given low visibility and cold rain I decided I would rather stick in doors and not fight the elements. It was a relaxing indoor day where I was able to stay dry and warm while compiling the majority of my Patagonia blog post!
Next stop post Patagonia will be a short return visit to Buenos Aires and then most likely on to Iguazu falls in the North!