Lonely Planet: Chile & Easter Island
In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin
Enduring Patagonia by Gregory Crouch
Maps: Zagier & Urruty - Patagonian South Icefield, 1:50000 and Torres del Paine 1:80000
Leaving Santiago on the two-hour flight south, we tracked the western side of the Andes, culminating in fine views of South America’s highest mountain, Aconcagua. A fine looking hill, and one that would be on my ‘list’ were it not for its reputation for bad weather, particularly high winds, which thwart many summit attempts.
|The Andes from the Santiago to Buenos Aires flight|
|Evita Peron's tomb...if you can reach it through the hordes|
Now the area is completely overwhelmed by tour buses (no orderly coach parks here) and is inevitably quite tacky. Our tour then took us westwards, past the docks and newly redeveloped Puerto Modero area. Very chic. My son Kevin and I had come here 12 years earlier and it was a run down dock area famous only for a naval training clipper…quite a difference!. The smarter areas to the west were set in some good parkland, some with some interesting contemporary sculptures.
A quick lunch in the smart Recoleta district, then a taxi and local train to Tigre to access the delta of the River Paraná to the north, some 30km outside the centre. We took a one-hour boat trip, pleasant enough, and some respite from the increasing heat of the day…about 33 degrees and 80% humidity…viewing the communities who live in stilted houses on the many islands of this area, set in amongst osier reeds and lush vegetation.
Another early start for an Aerolineas Argentina flight to El Calafate, three hours flying to the south. A word of warning though, for domestic flights taken from the international terminal, do take care to get through security in plenty of time…we only got on the plane with minutes to spare as they only had one security gate open.
|Southern Argentina en route from Buenos Aires to El Calafate|
An interesting flight over southern Argentina, with views to the coast over vast areas of dry desert, tablelands and finally the splendour of Patagonia all around us, the first signs being the emerald blue rivers exiting from the huge glacial lake of Lago Argentino, the colour the result of huge amounts of glacial sediment in the water which reflects the sky.
|The road to El Chalten|
From the tiny airport of El Calafate, now 20km east of the town, we drove along the southern shores of Lago Argentino, then northwards to La Leona, a beautifully situated stop off on route to El Chalten, our destination for the day (a total distance of 230km). Condors, llama and one lone rhea were sighted en route.
We then turned west towards our objective for the day, El Chalten, which nestles under the great bulk of Cerro Fitzroy, and the famous granite spike of Cerro Torre, both mountains famed in mountaineering circles for their verticality, ice bulges at the summit, and notorious wind conditions that scupper many attempts to climb them. They had been visible today from almost 100km away, on one of the best weather days the region had enjoyed for weeks. Apparently, this is the first time in weeks that it has not rained.
|Cerro Torre and Cerro Fitzroy on approach to El Chalten|
We took a walk for three hours through low beech woods populated by giant woodpeckers to gain a vantage point to see Cerro Torre up close, and binoculars gave clear views of the summit ice dome. Terrific stuff. Wind in the face much of the time, very much something you have to get used to in these parts.
|First glimpse of Cerro Torre|
|Walk from El Chalten with the Peregrine group|
|Lenticular clouds over the Cerro Fitzroy massif|
Today we ascended to the base camp of Cerro Fitzroy. Very windy to start, and it came back with a vengeance several times throughout the day, just to remind us we were in Patagonia!
For our first trekking day it was a 25km return route, so a bit hard on the feet, starting on a gently rising path to west of Valle Rio de las Vueltas, and rising steadily through the ubiquitous beech woods.
The first Fitzroy viewpoint gave a flavour of what to expect for the rest of the day, albeit with clouds progressively building up behind the range.
|Walk in to the Cerro Fitzroy Base camp|
The final pull up to the principal viewpoint involved 400m of steeper ground, with a little scree at the top, achieved in 55 minutes by yours truly.
Big views of Fitzroy and its sister peaks were enjoyed from the viewpoint at 1240m, towering above Lago de la Tres and Lago Sucia, and later we were to observe wonderful spiralling cloud-forms on the Fitzroy summit as the weather deteriorated slightly.
|Cerro Fitzroy base camp|
|Return route from Cerro Fitzroy|
Another dinner in town, then early to bed!
Today’s objective is Loma del Pliegue Tumbado 1500m, a small summit attained by a long valley plod and interminable pull up through attractive beech woods, with the taller beech (Lenga or Nothofagus pumilio) in some areas and the short beech Ňire in more open areas. This is original forest in unpolluted air, so we saw a lot of Old Man’s Beard (genus: Usnea sp), a lichen that grows on the tree bark, and a parasitic growth called ‘Indian Bread’ (Cytharia darwinii). Adorning the forest floor were occasional yellow orchid and small colonies of ‘Lady’s Slipper’ (locally known as Topa topa).
The small vulture cara cara (Carancho) was seen in more open areas.
|Old Man’s Beard (genus: Usnea sp)|
A long plod across open ground carpeted with some interesting mosses, eventually picking up yellow stakes, which guided us through an easy boulder field towards our goal.
|Views on the ascent of Loma del PliegueTumbado|
On the descent a group of ibis were seen just before the start of the forest trail and once again we were into the beech woods for the long walk back, in total a 23km day. A short stroll by Patagonian standards!
|Final descent through the beech woods|
Another full day.
|Cerro Fitzroy (3405m) in the changing early morning light|
|Cerro Torre, 3102m|
|Cerro Solo, 2121m, near El Chalten|
On landing we clambered up the rocks below the snout of the glacier, exhibiting marvellous striations and colourings after emergence from the base of the glacier.
|Striated rock close to Viedma Glacier|
|Clambering over the Viedma Glacier|
Crampons on, then easy walking on glacier in a small group with attentive guides, although we were occasionally on steep ground above gaping crevasses without rope…not something you would see on French glaciers, with tours there now bound by politically correct health & safety practices!
Over two hours we viewed the glacial depths and finally entered an ice cave directly under the snout of the glacier, a somewhat spooky experience…the roof dripping prodigiously, and an awesome blue light coming through the ceiling above a small lake. Given the rather relaxed state of Argentinean ‘risk assessment’ I didn’t hang about too long!
|Ice cave under the Viedma Glacier|
|Striated rock at base of the glacier|
A quick lunch overlooking the lake, then the ferry back and bus to get back to El Chalten, for a much-needed chill out afternoon. The final part of the day was then spent on a transfer bus back to El Calafate, a drive of over three hours in the bright evening light. The journey was enlivened somewhat by a decision made by the bus company to transfer some of our fuel into a bus heading for Bariloche in the north. This meant that we continued on our journey for another 400m before running out of diesel. Great move!
Thanks are due to our local guide Santiago Arias for the trekking in El Chalten and to our Peregrine guide Dennis for his swift resolution of transport issues!
It was a noisy night at the hotel, a combination of Valentines Night in the hotel and firework displays in the town. Ho hum.
It has a huge dependency on tourism, with an estimated 5,000 visitors to the giant Perito Moreno Glacier each day during the high season, and this rises to 10,000 per day when the glacier that sometimes blocks off a portion of this huge lake is expected to breach. Needless to say, the town is modern and very geared to tourism, with many hotels now producing significant over-capacity.
After breakfast we drove west for about 75km in brilliant sunshine under a clear blue sky, passing through the arid scrub so typical of the rain shadow area to the east of the Andes. In the distance the mountains were resplendent ahead of us, many with fresh snow down to quite low levels.
|Don Diego de la Noche|
Our objective for the day was the Perito Moreno Glacier, 5km wide at the point of entry into Lago Argentino at 200m above sea level, and 30km long, flowing down from the South Icefield of the Patagonian icecap, the third largest mass of ice after Antarctica and Greenland. It flows at about 1.7m per day at present and is stable, not retreating like some other glaciers in the region. As we approached the glacier we entered, once again, Magallenic Forest, with the now familiar woods of lenga and ńire. Eagles, carancho and condors were spotted at frequent intervals.
We drove along the southern spur of Lago Argentino to gain access to the glacier. About every two years this section of the lake is dammed off by the glacier and its level rises about 20m as other glacial rivers flood into it. Eventually, a dramatic breach of the narrow Canal de los Témpanos occurs, swelling visitor numbers as people throng to see this natural spectacle.
The Perito Moreno glacier is impressive on many counts. The sheer number of visitors for one thing, today with the addition of the Argentinean President who was flying in to open some new viewing platforms over the glacier. The scale and the whiteness of the glacier is truly impressive, quite unlike most other glaciers I have seen as it receives frequent fresh snow, so the usual grey/brown rubble that adorns most glaciers is not evident here. And the fact that it regularly ‘calves’ large masses of ice from its 60m front wall into the lake along the whole snout of the glacier, something we were to witness several times during the day.
We took a one hour boat excursion to the face of the glacier, although there was not much calving to be seen at this time. The glacier became much more active in the early afternoon in the heat of the day. We trekked along the north walkway (several kilometres long now with recent additions) and spent an hour or so watching the ice walls collapse, some events occurring under the water’s surface, so a large crack would be heard and a blue/green iceberg would appear like a re-surfacing submarine. Others collapsed in the more traditional fashion, causing a huge bow wave to flow along the face of the glacier. By mid afternoon, the lake in front of the glacier was littered with fresh icebergs.
|Chilean flamingo, Lago Argentino, near El Calafate|
At around 1600 we set off back to El Calafate, stopping en route to view Chilean flamingos in the bay just east of the town. A good parrilla (grilled meat) restaurant called Mick’s in the centre of town produced great value and sumptuous lamb and sausages, before another noisy night in the friendly Hosteria Posta Sur, the evening this time enlivened by a live concert at the far end of the town. In with the ear plugs again…
Today we transferred to our next area of adventure, the Torres de Paine region, several hundred kilometres south of El Calafate by road. We used the public transfer bus, an efficient service in comfortable coaches and with seat allocations. First we drove east again, along the south side of Lago Argentino, then south across the barren steppe of central Patagonia, land of isolated flocks of sheep, llama and rhea, an ostrich like bird. Condors were regularly sighted once again. Finally, turning west to the Chilean border, we were able to see the mighty mass of the Torres del Paine, a discrete range of mountains rising to over 3000m, some entirely covered in brilliant white snow whilst the famous granite towers of Paine stood naked in the bright sunlight.
Another incredible day for weather, not a cloud in the sky, and with no wind. This is very unusual for Patagonia, where it is said that you can experience four seasons in a minute, let alone a day!
The landscape became a little more undulating as we passed through Rio Turbio, a large soft coal mining area and the first settlement we had seen for over three hours. Then into Chile again, passing through the Dorotea border, the usual situation where one official is left to process a bus full of passengers and the rest sit around doing nothing.
We were quickly into Puerto Natales, situated on the coast, albeit some way away from the Pacific through a series of complex navigations. A late lunch was enjoyed here, ceviche of salmon (raw fish marinated in lemon, yum) and some fresh squid.
Then, on a smaller private bus, we drove the last hour or so northwards, admiring views of the Parc Nationale Bernardo O’Higgins and its peaks covered in brilliant white snow. The vegetation here is quite different to the Argentinean side. Not fully in a rain shadow, this is a transitional zone and can get up to 400mm of rain a year, and is usually cloudy and blasted by high winds. Not today. The sun beamed down on us, and we passed though estancias with dairy and beef cattle, through evergreen beech woods and the road sides were adorned with masses of white daisies and stands of lupin. Quite beautiful.
Further north, we passed Lago Porteño, its azure blue contrasting with Cerro Tenerife opposite. And then, the splendour of the huge Lago del Toro, distant views to the Glaciar Grey and the looming massif of the Torres del Paine. Torres means ‘towers’, and the eastern peaks are huge granite monoliths. It is thought that ‘Paine’ is a reference to ‘blue’, presumably the colour of the glacier fed lakes in this region.
|Hotel Cabañas Paine|
|First sight of the Torres del Paine|
Our last viewpoint overlooked our lodges for the night, the confluence of the rio Grey and the mighty Rio Serrano, and the glaciated peak of Cerro Balmaceda opposite the Torres del Paine massif. A splendid spot, our lodging for the night in Hotel Cabañas Paine, a few kilometres outside the national park boundary.
A good buffet followed by a modest sunset on the tops of the Torres del Paine. Should sleep well tonight!
|Sunset on the Torres del Paine|
A clear day dawned, with stunning light on the Torres del Paine in the early morning, with mist slowly rising from the Rio Serrano.
|Early morning light on the Torres del Paine|
|Cuernos del Paine|
We saw many guanaco (llama) grazing this area and on one of our longer walks in the morning, we were fortunate enough to see condor, upland geese, carancho, and a pair of grey fox and two rhea. The vegetation on this side of Patagonia is richer, with great banks of neneo interspersed with red sorrel.
After taking views over Lago Pehoe and Lago Nordenskjold we walked over to Lago Sarmiento, a lake with coral growing along the shoreline at one end of the lake, visiting a cave with some early rock paintings en route.
The views of the whole massif were impressive, made all the more so when our local Chilean guide Alexendra commented that the westerly side of the massif, Paine Grande (rising to 3050m) is rarely out of cloud.
|Torres del Paine|
Then a long drive west took us to the start point of the walk to view the Grey Glacier, albeit some way off in the distance, and the icebergs which had recently calved floating down the Lago Grey towards us.
Back to the hotel, quite a few kilometres today travelled on rougher gravel roads, many with corrugations, but with great vistas in all directions. A lovely part of the world when the wind isn’t blowing!
Oops, the weather just changed...
With unusual weather from the north, still no wind, but the clouds clamped down to valley level and light rain, we cancelled our walk along the first section of the ‘W’ and headed for the information centre instead. What wimps! But none of us really had any appetite for walking in the grey, damp gloom. We watched a British made film on local pumas before heading south out of the park towards Puerto Natales, a small Pacific fishing port originally used for wool exports to the UK, and now the southern entry point to the Torres del Paine national park, albeit mainly on gravel roads, and as an embarkation point for ferries and cruise ships travelling into the fjordlands to the north.
Near the town we stopped at a museum and huge cave where the remains of a giant sloth, the milodon (thought to have become extinct 10,000 years ago), was discovered by the explorer Hermann Eberhard in the 1890s. This, apparently, was the motivating factor behind Bruce Chatwin’s ‘In Patagonia’.
Then into town, passing one of the many fjords in this part of the world, the Chilean region of Ultima Esperanza, a name which translates to ‘last hope’, somewhat reflective of the vast barren landscapes which will now be a feature of the rest of our journey to the very tip of South America. The fjords sport rich birdlife, with black neck swans, upland geese, carancho, Chilean flamingos, and cormorant.
Overnight in the simple Hotel Glaciares. Hot chocolate and cakes par excellence at Patagonia Dulce on Barros Arana...yum.
A 250km drive to Punta Arenas today, taking the local transfer bus service again. Views were somewhat different to the previous few days, a rolling steppe, populated by herds of sheep on large estancias, and random rhea spotted every now and again. We passed numerous lakes, some with flamingo, but this was a journey to finish a book and just snooze.
Three hours later we arrived in the port of Punta Arenas, now a bustling town of 130,000 people, on the shores of the historic Straits of Magellan and with its economy in recent history buoyed by oil and gas finds.
It’s much colder down here, about 5 degrees but with strong sunshine. Our hotel for the night is the comfortable Hotel Jose Nogueira, right in the centre of town, and the mansion, built by a rich wool farming dynasty, is actually a National Monument. It also has a bar named after Shackleton, to celebrate the final rescue of his crew in 1916.
We visited the Museo Regional Salesiano, which gave a useful introduction to the indigenous peoples that populated this area and south into Tierra del Fuego, before they were wiped out by white man’s diseases at the turn of the 20th century.
Passing the huge Cementerio Municipal, we cabbed it to the duty free Zona Franco, before a rest and dinner, preceded by a short walk to see the central Plaza Munoz Gamero, a conifer lined square surrounded by large mansions and with the centrepiece monument commemorating the 400th anniversary of Magellan’s voyage (1520). A good buffet dinner at the hotel completed the day.
A long drive today, with a ferry over the Straits of Magellan from Punta Delgada, and a total of 11.5 hours on the road to reach Ushuaia across the ‘Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego.’ Back into Argentinean territory again, passing through the border at San Sebastian, the country here is generally a vast expanse of steppe, with little to break the gently undulating ground apart from the odd drumlin.
This is sheep country, with lonely estancias punctuating the topography on occasion, and rhea and flamingo spotted from time to time. South of the border, the country starts to get hillier and after the minor petropolis of Rio Grande, where we changed buses, the country starts to get much more interesting, with large areas of beech woodland, ñire and lenga again, much of it covered with the lichen ‘Old Man’s Beard’, testifying to the pure air in these parts and somewhat spectral in appearance.
A quick pit stop at the recently established village of Tolhuin, set up with government assistance to develop a local forestry industry, and then the country changes quite dramatically beyond here. We’re in the southern half of Tierra del Fuego now, skirting the southern shores of the 120km long Lago Fagnano, and the mountains start to build around us, as we are crossing the very southern extension of the Andes, albeit with much lower elevations than those found to the north. This is the only part of Argentina that is situated west of the Andes, and here the mountains rise with neat conical peaks to about 1500m, supporting a small ski resort (mainly cross-country) about 20km from Ushuaia.
Ushuaia is now a large bustling town and it has grown considerably since my last visit 12 years ago. Descending from the mountain pass of Paso Garibaldi at 430m, Ushuaia quickly comes into view with industrial and warehousing estates sprawling uphill from the dock area.
This is the key port for Antarctic crossings and there is an air of expectancy in the town as passengers await their ship to arrive in port. We had a late dinner of king crab in town before retiring for the night.
Up early to catch the sunrise on the Beagle Channel, splendidly set between the mountains of the Argentinean Tierra del Fuego, and the Chilean island of Navarino with its jagged mountains opposite.
Watched the M/S Orlova arrive in port, and then after a quick breakfast, a quick farewell to my travelling colleagues before heading off to the airport, situated on a peninsula a few kilometres out of town, with fine views of the mountains all around.
|Sunrise on the Beagle Channel|
|Antarctic cruiser returning to the port of Ushuaia|
Fly home from Buenos Aires, via Sao Paulo, a mere 15 hours in the air.
Patagonia is immense. From the Pacific Ocean, the Chilean fjords and the ice cap to the west, largely unseen on our journey, the land rises precipitously, producing some of the hardest mountaineering challenges in the world, and then the altitude quickly subsides into the windswept Argentinean steppe running all the way to the Atlantic coast.
Distances are enormous. The big sky and sweeping landscape give the illusion of close proximity, but walks, ascents, and drives always take far longer than you’d expect. There is abundant wildlife…from the twitchy guanaco to the soaring condor, and you are never disappointed.
But we were lucky. So lucky. We had benign weather throughout our journey. Without the rapacious wind and bad weather that Patagonia is famous for, we saw the sights that so many fail to see. On the one cloudy day we experienced in Torres del Paine, you could only feel sorrow for the bus loads of tourists heading expectantly to the numerous mirador.
So, if you want to experience Patagonia for yourself, do your research, read the literature, and manage your expectations. Gregory Crouch’s book teaches you the absolute need for patience when travelling through the mountains of Patagonia. Alone, the roaring forties and the furious fifties will decide whether to allow the secrets of this wonderful region to be revealed to you.