Trip Report - Trekking in Patagonia

Isla Magdalena (Matt Pritchard) More photos below.

By Matt Pritchard

Despite our relocation, the weather hadn't budged. The majority of the Fitz Roy massif was still hiding deep in the clouds above. There is a certain feeling that comes from camping below such a massive mountain. It is a humble feeling. A feeling that you are truly in the shadow of a giant. We decided to stay put for a couple of days, hoping that we might catch a glimpse of Fitz Roy if the weather broke. That break came at 7 AM the next morning and lasted only an hour. We slept right through it and only heard about our misfortune from our neighbors that had been up early to do the hike to Laguna de los Tres. We decided to spend the day kicking around camp and waiting for another break in the weather. By 3 PM, the sky was still dark gray and we decided that it was now or never. We threw together our day packs and headed out across the Rio Blanco to Laguna de los Tres. At least the difficultly of the trail didn't come as a surprise. We could see it from our camp, carving a scar straight up the hillside below Fitz Roy. The hike was tough and snow was beginning to fall, but our packs were light and we made pretty good time. Laguna de los Tres was more like Ice Cube de los Tres. It was totally frozen over and we still had no view of Fitz Roy. We decided to descend the moraine to the edge of the lake and hike around the side. What we found was quite a treat. We had an amazing view of Glaciar Sucia and Lago Sucia directly below us. These two had been hidden to us until now. The color of Lago Sucia was hard to believe. We took several pictures before deciding it was time to descend. During the hike back down, the snow started to fall even harder and we got back to camp just in time.

One More Sunrise

We planned to hike out to El Chalten the next day, so our last chance for a view and pictures of Fitz Roy was the next morning. Up at 4:30, I left Jody in the tent and made my way in the bitter cold to a clearing where I was able to frame the morning light against the clouds lifting from Fitz Roy. Finally - it's about damn time! Four days of waiting to take these pictures and after shooting my first roll, what do I do? I have the mother of all brain-farts and open the back of my camera before rewinding the film. Doh! Through some act of Divine intervention, I only ruined three frames.

The hike back to El Chalten was pleasant, with a nice side trip to Laguna Capri. This area would make a great campsite for a future trip. We descended into town and setup camp at the free Madsen campground. After ditching our packs, we made the walk into town for some food and some beers. At one point, we were looking to burn some time and the weather turned on us. We found ourselves in a little bakery where we were able to buy a bag full of delicious pastries and a couple of Cokes for about $2. The gastronomical safari continues! After a big pizza dinner, we crawled into our tent and got some much needed rest.

Our Last Night in the Tent

At some point during the night, it began to rain—hard. Sheets of rain, driving wind, all of that good stuff. Our bus was rolling out of town at 6:30 AM, so when our alarm went off at 5:30, we knew we had our work cut out for us. I have to say that I was pretty damn impressed with our skills. We were able to get dressed, pack our packs and then take down the tent from the inside out, all in about 30 minutes. Taking down the tent from the inside out allowed us to keep the fly up while we packed the rest of the tent. At the last minute, we took down the fly and hit the road. It worked like a charm and we stayed relatively dry considering the torrent outside. Another dusty ride back to El Calafate passed and we checked back into Hospedaje Sir Thomas. All of the Christmas gifts we had bought for family and friends on the first swing through town were waiting for us. We were able to enjoy another day of shopping and the incredible dinner at Sancho that I mentioned above. Of course we also had a few more ice cream cones and some random chocolate treats to get our fill before heading back to Chile the next day.

The day we left San Francisco, we had a general idea of where we wanted to go, but no set itinerary. As the trip went on, our plan became more well defined and we had laid out the rest of our days in a very clear order. From El Calafate, we did a marathon bus trip back to Punta Arenas, with a 1 hour stop in Puerto Natales. It was a boring day, with few highlights, but it got us back into Punta Arenas with enough time to schedule a trip to the penguin colony the next day. Arriving in town without a hotel reservation made our first hour kind of interesting. The first place we tried had only a mediocre room with two beds and the price changed depending on who we talked to - it seemed a bit shifty to us. We kept looking and before long found ourselves at the Hotel Mercurio - the same place we had spent our first night. They only had a room for one night and we would need two, so we kept looking and soon realized that we might be camping with the dogs in the town square if we didn't find something soon. Eventually we realized that we would have to move hotels after the first night.

Penguins, Penguins, Everywhere

Our trip to Isla Magdalena didn't leave until 4 PM the next day, so we had most of the day to wander about in Punta Arenas and continue our Christmas shopping spree. That afternoon, we made our way over to the dock where our boat picked us up for the trip. It was exciting to be taking a trip on the Straights of Magellan - as far as famous waterways goes, this one is up there. To one side, we could see the South American mainland and to the other was Tierra del Fuego, the island that represents the terminus of the continent, with Cape Horn at its end. The massive ship we were on eased its way toward Isla Magdalena at glacial speed. With giant sea birds circling overhead in the overcast sky, the midnight black water had an ominous look to it.

Before we got to the island, I wasn't really sure what we were in for. When you have a chance to see penguins in their natural environment, you go see penguins. It beats the hell out of the zoo. Several options for touring penguin colonies existed and the boat trip to Isla Magdellena seemed like the best option, not to mention quite a bit more interesting than another bus ride. Isla Magdellena is actually a national preserve and is managed by park rangers. All of that being said, I didn't know if we were going to spend our hour on the island searching high and low for the 3 or 4 penguins that decided to show up this year. Our first view of the beach put any such concerns to an end. There were hundreds of penguins on the beach alone. As we began to hike along the trail, we soon realized that there were probably tens of thousands of penguins on this one island. These Magellenic Penguins are on the smaller side, at 16 - 18" tall. Their visit to Isla Magdellena is part of their natural migration pattern. It is primarily a breeding ground for them. The entire island was covered with thousands of "nests" that were essentially holes burrowed into the hillside. Every nest had a curious penguin or two that would poke its head out to see what all the fuss was about. It was an interesting time to be there because we really saw the entire spectrum of their mating process. From the loud, honking mating calls, to mating pairs that already had one or two chicks in their nest, we really saw a bit of everything.

Goodbye Patagona, Hello Santiago

The next day, we sadly brought the Patagonian portion of our trip to a close and boarded a plane bound for Santiago. We had one night and all of the following day to explore Santiago, before our red-eye flight back to Miami. The friendly, but drunk, gentleman on the plane from Punta Arenas gave us some tips on where to eat and what to do while we were in Santiago. We stayed at a nice hotel (Hotel Eurotel) in the Providencia area of town. It wasn't long before we found ourselves in the thoroughly "gringofied" section of town where the dining and partying options looked like something you might find in Orlando. Much too hungry to care, we settled on a place for dinner and washed down our food with about 5 Pisco Sours each. We stumbled back to the hotel that night and found that 10 AM came way too fast. After checking out and leaving our bags with the bell hop, we set out to do more shopping of course. When we finally decided that we really couldn't haul any more loot home, we stopped by the tourist information office and asked what we should do for our last 4 hours in Santiago. We were directed to the large municipal park in the city center (think Central Park or Golden Gate Park). The park was a great way to spend a warm, sunny day. We bought a ticket for the Funicular and took a ride up the mountain where we gained a great view of the entire city. From the Funicular, we continued our tour of odd transportation systems and jumped aboard the sky tram that whizzed us across the park, 80 feet above the ground. We got off halfway to have some ice cream before proceeding to the end of the line. By now, we were only a few blocks from our hotel and we grabbed dinner on our walk back.

Going Back to Cali

The flights back home were pretty uneventful, but they sure were comfortable. We had empty flights the whole way and scored an exit row for the Santiago to Miami leg of the trip. Back on US soil - almost. There was a bit of a hangup coming through customs when they tried to figure out why a shoe box covered in duct tape with a rope handle strapped to it weighed about 15 pounds. Because we had 13 jars of El Calafate berry jam inside, of course. That box full of jam had traveled halfway around the world to serve as stocking stuffers for our family and we weren't going to leave it behind. The agricultural inspector eventually gave it a thumbs up and taped the box closed with some "USDA INSPECTED" tape. We thought it was a nice touch.

One last flight and we were back in San Francisco. It brought to a close an incredible trip - one that was far beyond any expectations we had. We both had an amazing time and think that a return trip is inevitable. Few places in the world have such a raw, but beautiful setting. The trip was also full of firsts and personal records for us. Among other things, it was the longest backpacking trip we've done, the first international backpacking trip we've done, the first South American trip we've done, the first ice bergs we've seen, the first Condors we've seen, the longest distance we've ever hiked at once, the best steak we've ever had, the first wild penguins we've ever seen, and far and away the craziest weather we have ever experienced. Patagonia is a place that burns its image in your memory, and we know our trip will not soon be forgotten.

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