Crossing to Argentine Patagonia – Los Glaciares National Park
Most travellers we spoke to had either come from or were going to El Calafate and El Chalten in Argentina, so naturally we decided we should add that to our (relatively flexible) itinerary.
After about a month in Chile, we crossed the border to its neighbour Argentina.
El Calafate is situated at the southern part of the Los Glaciares National Park, and its main attraction is the Perito Moreno Glacier.
When we were there, an arch was forming. Soon (if it hadn’t already) the entire arch will collapse, resulting in a spectacle for all.
It was mesmerising to see and hear this glacier as it carved off periodically. Unsurprisingly there were hundreds of tourists perched at the edge of the viewing platforms, armed with their devices and braving the cold to see and hear this natural phenomenon. The fascinating fact about the Perito Moreno glacier is that it is one of the three glaciers in the world which are growing as opposed to receding.
As a town, El Calafate felt a little too touristy for us. You could do day trips out to hike on glaciers, but we decided not to do it.
El Calafate got too extreme for these three doggies.
El Chalten is a little town in the middle of the northern entry point of the Los Glaciares National Park, with Cerro Fitzroy and Cerro Torre as its highlight peaks.
Imagine living in a town surrounded by these amazing peaks! Due to the weather this town only comes alive during summer (between November – March) with residents and business owners leaving the town for warmer weather during the off-season because the town gets snowed over and the trails aren’t conducive for hiking. The residents depend on the income they receive in summer to sustain them for the rest of the year.
Although initially planning a 5-night camping trip around the two mountain peaks hiking the main paths, we decided to hike a lesser known (but now blowing up) trek called the Huemul Circuit. We hiked for four days but stayed an extra night due to bad weather on one of the days, making it a 5-day trip for us. We knew that there was going to be bad weather on Day 3 so we brought an extra day’s worth of food.
We had read up some technical trip reports of it (links here and here) to be informed of the risks and challenges of the hike, including the lack of an obvious trail for at least half the hike, the ascent up Paso del Viento (aka Windy Pass – which thankfully wasn’t windy for us), and the steep descent (descending 1,000m in a 1km distance – yes a 45 degree decline) after Paso Huemul which requires one to rappel down a rope for about 15-20m.
If you are intending to hike the Huemul Circuit, I cannot stress enough how important it is to be informed of the risks and challenges of this hike. I’m all for people going off the beaten track but not at the cost of your own safety.
If you like hiking and intend to hike trails in more solitude, I would recommend you investing in either a Personal Locating Beacon (we have this one) or a GPS type device (we use the Garmin InReach which you can pay for weather updates and send preset or custom messages on an annual or contract-free basis). You probably only need one or the other, so we left the PLB in Australia and brought the Garmin with us.
The Huemul Circuit didn’t hike close to the main peaks or “main attractions” of El Chalten, but it offered us comparatively more solitude and panoramic views of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field and Glacier Viedma.
The hike requires one to cross a river (Rio Tunel) using a zipline both at the start and at the end of the hike. We decided to ford the river on foot instead because we had some experience fording a river but zero experience in setting up and using a zipline.
Crossing a river on foot on the first day in the constant rain. It snowed at about 5pm.
Key tips on fording a river:
- Unbuckle your hip belt: if you lose your balance you do not want your 10-20kg backpack to carry you away along the river.
- Take off your hiking boots/shoes: or you will have wet shoes for the rest of the hike. You definitely do not want that when you have Gore-Tex boots which do not dry on the inside.
- Wear water shoes with grip. If you go barefoot (like we did, because we didn’t bring our water shoes) your feet will feel incredibly numb and painful but you really do not want to have your Gore-Tex boots wet on the inside. It really sucks.
Another helpful tip: if your boots do get wet on the inside, you can stuff it with a towel and it should dry up overnight. We love our ultralight PackTowl for that reason!
Walking on Glacier Rio Tunel – it felt so cool! Crossing back to the path was a challenge though. Nathan, me and a British hiker we met slipped on the glacier; thankfully without injuries!
Made it to the top of Paso del Viento on Day 2!
Views of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the largest ice mass outside of Antartica. You cannot help but feel so small amidst God’s creation.
On our zero day in the cabin after Paso Del Viento we decided to stay an extra night due to bad weather and wet gear (again!). A British hiker (our only other company who continued on from Laguna Toro over Paso del Viento) stayed in the hut when we chose to stay outside which was a bad choice, because the tent soaked through, wetting our sleeping bag…. Again. See the previous post about our tent soaking through when we did the O circuit. This tent has proven itself to not be capable of handling Patagonian rain. Thankfully our sleeping bag didn’t soak through this time!
Drying our tent and sleeping bag, and me journalling to pass the time.
Seeking refuge in Refugio Paso del Viento – basic but it provided shelter and allowed our belongings to dry.
After having the day to ourselves, pottering around in and out of the hut and observing the ducks from the comfort of the hut (PS. It was a very basic but functional hut), just as we had decided to call it a night (at 7pm, as you do in the wilderness), two hikers who had just braved the Paso del Viento in snow came in to the hut seeking refuge. More hikers streamed in and soon there were 11 people in the hut. [Note: this was the day we decided to stay at the hut due to inclement weather.. so yes they braved the snowstorm over the pass! However some of the hikers only streamed in way after it was dark – ie. about 9pm, which isn’t ideal when you’re hiking.]
Duck-watching from inside.
It was an interesting night because Nathan and I were huddled in our extremely luxurious 800 down two-person sleeping bag (the Feathered Friends Spoonbill) whilst listening to conversations in the night and hearing stories from the different hikers from all over the world who had come all this way to experience Patagonia. I felt a bit ashamed to tell them that whilst they had braved the snowstorm to cross the Paso, we huddled in the hut watching ducks from indoors because of bad weather. The weather was bad, but because we didn’t have an issue with food because we had allocated to stay an extra day in case of bad weather. If you know that the weather isn’t going to be great for hiking, especially on this trail, you are much better off bringing extra food and waiting out the bad weather.
On the next day when we descended that steep path, we were very thankful we made the right choice to stay and not risk our safety (especially accident-prone me). We had awesome weather and more spectacular views of the glacier by waiting out a day.
Almost like a scene out of Middle Earth.
The path from Refugio Paso del Viento up towards Paso Huemul (the second pass, on what would normally be day 3 of the hike) was a gradual uphill and was a pleasure to hike in good weather.
The photograph doesn’t really show how steep the path was. It was one of the steepest paths we had descended. Even in good weather and with hiking poles we cautiously made our way down the hill to avoid any injury. Ankle rolling would be a game over for any hike. The path would certainly be a slip and slide on a rainy day!
Some people camped on the peninsula as you can see in the photo, but we camped nearby an abandoned campsite. The camping area itself (around the bay to the left of the peninsula) did not have much wind shelter, but where we set up for the night was more sheltered. There is another established campsite closer to where Glacier Viedma carves off into the lake (not surprisingly, called Lago Viedma).
The short rappel downhill. I gave Nathan my backpack first so I could focus on rappelling..
The O Circuit in TdP was great fun and had its challenges, but it didn’t feel like it was too much in the wilderness, especially when we hit the W section. The Huemul Circuit was still relatively unknown, but as Nathan said, will soon “blow up” as more people (including ourselves) write about it.
The Huemul circuit isn’t for the faint-hearted, but completing it made us feel like we had truly experienced a wilder and more remote part of Patagonia, which is what inevitably most people who undertook the circuit had sought to experience.
To the people who want to experience Patagonia – do it. When the winds are raging and snow is hitting you in the face you will question your life choice; but the experience is worth it (especially when you know that you will return to a warm shower and a hot meal in El Chalten; or if you are glamping in the refugios or domes in TdP, those places).
Yep. We had to try glacial ice! It was already melting on the lake..
A lot of things are expensive in these places because it is remote, resources are scarce and because you have no other choice but to pay the exorbitant amounts if you wanted to be there. El Chalten is much more accessible and easier to organise because you do not need to pre-book campsites months in advance (we didn’t have much difficulty getting accommodation in El Chalten, although Lonely Planet says that the town fills up in January and February ie. the main hiking season) but both Torres del Paine and the peaks at Los Glaciares were beautiful in their own ways.
In El Chalten we ate burgers from B&B for three nights out of the four we were in town – which must mean something. We didn’t have a desire to try anything else; the burgers were superb. The patty was cooked similar to an In-N-Out American burger (also so delicious) and we could justify the grease with the daily 20km hikes. (The distances on the Huemul Circuit were less, but more challenging with inclines and descents; and when you’re hiking you never eat as much as you are burning). I had the brilliant idea of adding avocado to my bacon burger, which I think was the best choice. Burgers costed under 200 Argentine pesos (AUD$12.80) with the classic burger costing about 140 pesos (AUD$8.90). However after the third night of eating burgers (two nights in a row), I was awake from the grease and vowed to not eat burgers for some time.
A fun story: getting a ride back to El Chalten was going to be a gamble – you could either take a tourist bus who would pick up tourists who had visited the Viedma Glacier on a boat, or hitch a ride with anyone heading back to Chalten from the boat terminal. We heard that there were boats at 10am and 3pm, but were unsure whether the boats returned at 3pm or departed at 3pm (to return at 5pm).
On the last day we had perfect weather, and even after watching the sun rise and starting to hike at 9am, we could see the boat terminal from a distance at about 2pm. At 2.30pm we saw a boat returning to the terminal, and then we thought that might have been our last chance at getting a ride back to El Chalten.
And so we ran with our packs, crossing through a barbed wire fence to get to the car park; with a dozen people staring at these two dishevelled hikers and wondering where they had come from.
The man closest to the fence had the bad fortune of being the closest to us and being the recipient of our request for a ride back to El Chalten. We were taken aback by his generosity and quick responses. The conversation went something like this:
“Are you going back to El Chalten?”
“Do you have space for the two of us to get a ride back with you please?”
“When are you going back?”
My wild gesticulation in broken Spanish, and clear views of the Fitz Roy peaks
We couldn’t believe the blessing (after much prayer to get a ride back to El Chalten) of getting a ride back. The man had just dropped off his friends who were visiting at the boat terminal because they were taking the boat to the glacier at 3pm (ie. probably 4.30 or 5pm is the last chance of getting a ride back to town, in case you were wondering) and was going to return later in the evening to pick his friends up.
As we chatted in broken Spanish (him in better English than my Spanish) we ascertained that he was the owner of one of the most successful businesses in town, the La Tapera restaurant, which I had coincidentally considered to go for that night for a celebration.
The lomo steak was delicious. At 430 pesos (AUD$27.50) it certainly wasn’t cheap (that would have been two B&B burgers for one lomo), certainly not enough to share between two (I misread a Tripadvisor review. The reviewer said they shared the lomo steak AND also the ocean trout) BUT it was a celebratory meal washed down with some artisanal red ale.
It would have been better to have broken up both the hiking trips with a city adventure, but it didn’t make sense to go to Buenos Aires, more than 30 hours away by bus, only to return to the region again.
It was hard to say farewell to Patagonia, but after an exciting month we felt that it was about time to return to a city, and so we ventured on to Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina.