Trip Report - Trekking in Patagonia

Perito Moreno Glacier (Jody Pritchard) More photos below.

By Matt Pritchard

Back to Natales

As our bus pulled into Puerto Natales, we made the easy decision to spend a couple of bucks on a nicer hotel. Nothing against Hospedaje Laury, but when you've only had one shower in eight days, a private bathroom is a nice touch. We found Aqua Terra Lodge. It might not be the most authentic place in Puerto Natales, but we can both attest to the fact that it is one of the most comfortable. We only had one evening in town, so we had our work cut out for us. After acquiring bus tickets to El Calafate for the next morning, we dropped our laundry off at Servilaundry, got some cash, did our grocery shopping, and looked for a place to eat dinner.

After wandering around aimlessly for a half hour, we finally settled on a tiny restaurant on a side street - Mom and Pop kinda place. We were the only people in there and the husband and wife that ran the place didn't speak a lick of English. No problem, Jody ordered the spaghetti, I ordered the steak, and we also asked for an appetizer that we thought was going to be some type of sausage. Five minutes later, we see a plate full of odd-looking shellfish arrive at our table. Neither Jody nor I are big fans of seafood, especially shellfish, especially very weird looking shellfish. Ummm, we can do this. Afraid that we would deeply offend this nice couple if we didn't eat our food, we both choked down one of the little suckers, trying our best to repress our gag reflexes. This just wasn't going to happen. I'm ashamed to admit that it was my idea, but it seemed genius at the time. "Hey Jody, spoon a bunch of these things into that bag they gave us at the drugstore." Jody stared at me liked I was high, but eventually when the coast was clear, she shoveled half of the plate of what we had concluded were "clams" into the bag, and stuffed it in her pocket. We suffered through the rest of dinner, anxious to know whether they were on to us. We couldn't get out of there soon enough - Jody with a bag full of juicy shellfish sitting in her warm jacket. We left as soon as we could and decided that from now on, the litmus test for any bad meal is whether it is just "bad" or "clams in the pocket bad".

Argentina, Ho

Reveling in our cultural ignorance, we settled down for the night and rested well in our comfy bed at Aqua Terra. Early to rise, we jumped on the bus for El Calafate and made our way to a new town, and a new country for that matter. The trip was uneventful, save for Jody misplacing her Chilean tourist visa. El Calafate was a bit unexpected. It's a relatively small town in the middle of nowhere. With easy access to Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, it has become some type of nouveau-swank mountain town. There is a bit of Bodie, CA mixed with a bit of Whistler/Aspen/insert mountain resort town here. We had a tough time finding a place to stay, but eventually we stumbled onto Hospedaje Sir Thomas. Only a couple of blocks from the main drag in town, Sir Thomas is a very clean and comfortable hospedaje that is run by a charming, young couple.

...from now on, the litmus test for any bad meal is whether it is just ‘bad’ or ‘clams in the pocket bad.’

Over the next two days, we did enough eating and shopping to last an entire trip. I like to call our time in El Calafate the "Gastronomical Safari." We ate at three fantastic restaurants for dinner and each night we felt like the bar had been raised a little bit higher. On our first night we tried Mi Viejo. This is a classic steakhouse, featuring excellent beef and lamb, along with seafood and pasta dishes. They also have a decent selection of Argentine wines and a good dessert menu. The following night, we upped the ante and ate down the street at Casimiro. A bit more refined than Mi Viejo, Casimiro is another excellent steakhouse with a very impressive wine list and impeccable service. The starters we had would have made an ample meal, and the grilled vegetables were excellent as well. The only bad thing we can say about Casimiro was that our Chocolate Soufflé was a bit overdone. But if you're at the end of the earth and you've just enjoyed one of the best meals of your life, and you even consider complaining about the preparation of your chocolate soufflé, you deserve a good ass-kicking. After Casimiro, we really thought it would be tough to find a better meal in a town of this size. But low and behold, on our way back through El Calafate to Puerto Natales, we enjoyed probably the best meal that either of us can remember. We stopped in at Sancho. Again, beef is the specialty in this area and we didn't want to offend. The steak I ate was a no-B.S. 2.5" thick, butterflied down the center, stuffed with bacon, and covered with a gruyere cheese sauce. It was cooked to perfection. Jody ordered the Filet Mignon with peppercorn sauce and they brought out a plate with 2 filets. It really did border on the obscene. The starters, the wine, the dessert - it was all unbelievable. All three of these dinners were about the same price and included wine, steaks, sides, and dessert and each of them barely went over $50 US, including a very generous tip.

While in El Calafate, we signed up for a one-day bus tour out to the Perito Moreno glacier, in the southern portion of PN Los Glaciares. The Perito Moreno glacier is thought to be the only advancing glacier in the world - 30 km long by 4 km wide and 60-80 meters tall at its face on Lago Argentino. When a snowflake falls on this glacier, it takes 300 years before it is churned out on the other side. It is truly a magnificent sight. The tour included every single view of the glacier that you can imagine. We also decided to pay the extra few bucks to take a boat ride past the face of the glacier. I don't know that the boat ride really gets you a much better view, but cruising past a 240 foot wall of ice, and watching chunks calve off into Lago Argentino while sipping on bad Scotch poured over glacial ice, is a pleasantly surreal experience.

BFE, Argentina

The next day we headed to El Chalten. We were both ready to get back onto the trail and El Chalten is the launching point for treks into the Fitz Roy area of PN Los Glaciares. The ride to this dusty outpost is quite an experience. It's dirt roads the whole way - dusty, bumpy, dirt roads. I swear our driver was on a mission to set some sort of record as he launched over berms and fishtailed the bus around corners. Five hours later we pulled into El Chalten. We couldn't decide if this was a very small town or a very large trailhead. We had an informative and stern talking to by a friendly ranger named Alejandro at the entrance to town. He advised us about the layout of the park and the need to stay on trail and pack out every bit of waste. It was a good talk - something I wish they did here at US National Parks. After our talk, the bus dropped us off at the far northern end of town - near the trailheads to Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy. We were surprised to see that only one other couple hit the trail right away. Everyone else checked into a hotel or hostel.

Our first destination in the park was the D'Agostini campsite, near the base of Cerro Torre. Torre is one of the most famous mountains in the world, especially within mountaineering circles. Infamous may be a better way to describe this daunting giant. Imagine a granite spire with routes as difficult as El Capitan, dropped in the middle of one of the harshest climates on earth. It wasn't climbed until 1970, and only then amid divisive controversy over the means used to do so. The hike to D'Agostini was pleasant. The climbing was front-loaded and the weather was nice. At our first stop along the way, we ran into two guys doing a little day hiking to break up their bike tour. One of them had ridden his bike from Santiago (about 1200 miles away) - quite a distance, no? Actually, compared to his partner, this guy was a lightweight. The Japanese man he was riding with had started his trip in Alaska! He had been riding for 2 straight years! Holy shit, indeed! We were humbled. After chatting for a bit, we got moving, and watched as the clouds closed in over Cerro Torre and our soon-to-be camp. We spent almost 24 hours camped below Cerro Torre and never got a glimpse of its famous profile - it was shrouded in thick clouds the entire time. We weren't surprised. Climbers ambitious enough to attempt Torre show up with months of provisions, ready to wait out the storms; hoping for just a few days of stable weather.

Five hours later we pulled into El Chalten. We couldn't decide if this was a very small town or a very large trailhead.

The next day we kept moving on to Campamento Poincenot. Before entering the park, we had planned to hike back to El Chalten before moving over to Poincenot. Most of our guidebooks and maps indicated that the trail linking D'Agostini to Poincenot was closed. During our orientation by Ranger Alejandro, he assured us that the trail (officially called Sendero Laguna Madre e Hija) was open - and had been open for 7 years. This was great news but once again called into question the accuracy of our guidebooks. Along the trail we ran into a group that spoke English and were advised for the second time to do the hike up to Laguna de los Tres from Poincenot. We continued along the steep trail and crested at a lush area near beautiful meadows and countless butterflies. Before long, we were hiking along the southern edge of Lagunas Madre and Hija. These picturesque lakes really begged for some exploration. But the winds made us feel like we were hiking in the jet stream, so we continued on to Poincenot.

Campamento Poincenot lies at the foot of another giant - the namesake of this sector of the park: Cerro Fitz Roy. Fitz Roy is the tallest mountain in the park, topping out at 3405 meters. Like Cerro Torre, Fitz Roy is a distinguished mountain with a summit that is among the most coveted in the world by serious mountaineers. Originally named Chalten (Telhueche for "smoking mountain"), it was renamed Fitz Roy by Charles Darwin. Darwin is thought to be among the first Europeans to ever see the mountain and Fitz Roy was the captain of Darwin's ship - the Beagle. Fitz Roy was first climbed in 1952 by a French expedition led by Lionell Terray, of Annapurna fame. Terray had this to say about Fitz Roy and its surrounding peaks - "When in the peace and warmth of my home I let my spirit wander, recalling so many images and adventures, the peaks of Patagonia seem to my mind so unreal, so fabulously slender, that they seem to belong to some crazy dream."

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