On November 18, I arrived in the mountain town of El Chaltén, the gateway to the northern sector of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Having just cycled along the remote Carretera Austral in Chile, this town really forced me to adjust to a different world. Every summer, thousands of hikers come to explore the trails of the Fitzroy Range. With its close proximity to rugged wilderness and shark-tooth summits, El Chaltén is, without a doubt, the trekking capital of Argentina.
Despite only being founded in 1985, in a rush to beat Chile to the land claim, El Chaltén is no longer a frontier town. It doesn’t only feature accommodations of all comfort levels, but also dozens of cafes, micro-breweries, and restaurants offering anything from burgers and pizza to gourmet steaks. Every year in summer, more mainstream tourists come to see what the fuss is all about.
I probably hadn’t seen so many tourists from all over the world in one spot since I had left the salt flats in Uyuni, Bolivia. I did not only see passionate mountain enthusiasts. Basically, everybody was there: Hippies of all ages without much of a clue where to go next, elderly group package tourists armed with outdoor gear as if they were going to war, sophisticated and chic couples from the city who would have preferred to hire a helicopter rather than getting their soles dirty on the trails, some bikers and motorcyclists, and certainly the classic backpackers who travel all over South America. Out of the latter group, you could easily spot those who were travelling with a backpack for the first time in their life. They clearly suffered carrying shitloads of stuff, and will for sure pack less on their next trip. Well, just some observations since I do enjoy watching people.
We were all here for the same reason – to experience some of the most stunning mountains in South America. The two most popular hiking destinations are Laguna de los Tres, a glacier lake at the foot of the iconic Mt. Fitzroy, and Laguna Torre, another glacier lake from where you have superb views of Cerro Torre.
After a rest day in town, I embarked on a hike to get a closer look at Mt. Fitzroy. On this first attempt, I basically had no views of the peak at all. I had hoped it would clear up, but instead, I had to deal with icy winds and horizontal rain. I returned to El Chaltén, and soon Mt Fitzroy showed its full face again. Well, I had bad luck I guess.
On the following day, I saw only a few clouds clustered around the peak. It looked promising. I wanted to give it a second try and began my climb after lunch since the weather tended to be better in the evening. Again, I hiked 11 km up to Laguna de los Tres. Even though I never got to see Fitzroy at its full length, I had some very nice views. The laguna was still frozen, so I was not supposed to take those amazing pictures you find on Instagram anyway. 🙂
After two consecutive days of hiking, I gave myself another day of rest, before a whole day of blue sky came up. This time, I wanted to try the trek to Laguna Torre, from where you can perfectly view the spire of Cerro Torre. The trail was easy and gradually ascending through a long valley. Views were stunning almost the entire time. In the end, I was very happy with my three day hikes. It was a pleasant change after all the cycling.
One observation, however, kept me thinking. I noticed that mountain culture in El Chaltén is very different from what I was used to in Europe. Here, people don’t necessarily greet each other on the trail. Some were literally stunned when I said “Hola” while passing by. In the Alps or in Scandinavia, it is totally normal. You greet fellow hikers. On the trail, there are no strangers.
Another observation was that most hikers in El Chaltén never make room or let you pass them when you are faster or have been walking behind them for a while. To be honest, I was pretty annoyed by that. Every single time I had to say permiso (short version for “may I pass please”) to make them move and step aside. Well, in rather traditional hiking territories, be it New Zealand, Canada or again the Alps, people automatically give way out of courtesy. In famous national parks such as here in Los Glacieres, people come from all over the world, and many aren’t really hikers but just tourists who hike once in a blue moon, so I forgave them. 🙂
Even though El Chaltén lacks the character of a traditional mountain town, its location is absolutely spectacular. You can start your hike right from the town center. Yes, there are hoards of visitors during summer, but still, I would say that the two hikes I did, should be on your itinerary when traveling in Patagonia.
After six full days in El Chaltén, it was time to move on. 210 km of nothingness lay ahead of me before reaching the town of El Calafate, the access point to world-famous Perito Moreno Glacier. I call it nothingness since these two days offered me a deep insight into the Argentinian low-lands, also called the dry Pampa. These steppe-like plains are often bare of vegetation and perfect for strong winds to unfold freely. On the first day, my plan was to get as far as possible. From the iOverlander app, I knew about a couple of spots other travelers rated as fairly wind protected for camping. Due to favorable tailwinds, I managed to cover the first 90 km in just three hours. That, however, changed completely when I had to make a 90 degree turn to the south. It felt as if the wind was attacking me from all sides, and moving forward on the flat road required just as much energy as going uphill. I was sweating and freezing at the same time. Longer breaks became impossible as these winds really “sucked” the heat out of your body. So, I kept going and tried to distract myself with all sorts of daydreams. I don’t mind long physical efforts but in such circumstances, when they are combined with absolutely boring surroundings and a progress rate of 12 km/h, your mind gets challenged to its limits. I am still surprised that I was able to endure that feeling for another 70 km, until I finally got to a fairly decent spot that allowed me to pitch my tent under a bridge. I felt as if I had just been released from torture. I sat on a rock and happily ate whatever was in my bags.
After another 50 km of merciless Pampa on the next day, I eventually arrived in El Calafate on November 21. My mind needed a couple rest days and, certainly, I wanted to experience the famous Perito Moreno Glacier, the stunning centerpiece of the southern sector of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. It is about 30 km long, 5 km wide and 50 m high, but what makes it exceptional is its constant advance – it creeps forward up to 2 m per day, causing building-sized icebergs to calve from its face. While most of the world’s glaciers are receding, Perito Moreno is considered ‘stable’.
Just like El Chaltén, El Calafate is all about tourism. And honestly speaking, that was a bit too much for me. I was unable to find anything authentic in those towns. That impression was further underlined by the unpleasant atmosphere in the hostel I stayed at. It was not about the hostel itself, but a significant number of backpackers who radiated stress or never said hello. They wore grumpy faces and hardly engaged in conversations. That was a totally unknown way of traveling to me. Instead, these guys were occupied with tight bus schedules or suffered from “weather paranoia” fearing that they would not be able to shoot Instagram-worthy photos when visiting the national park. I was again reminded of the Patagonian proverb “The one who hurries through Patagonia, wastes time”. In other words: If you don’t have sufficient time, don’t choose Patagonia or reduce your itinerary. Less is more!
I certainly don’t want to give anybody the impression that these towns in Patagonia are not worth going. My thoughts basically represent my feelings and impressions at that particular time, and they were for sure unique. I think the transition from the remote Carretera Austral to hyper touristy spots was just too quick for me. Of course, I am aware that I am also a bloody tourist, who doesn’t smile all day either, who leaves footprints in nature, and who crowds cafes and restaurants. 🙂
Soon after leaving El Calafate, I had to endure another two days in Argentina’s notorious Pampa. This time, I dealt with extended sections of unpaved surfaces and even harsher winds. At times, it was so noisy in my ears that it was impossible to listen to the music in spite of using really tight in-ear-headsets. It took me nine hours to get to Tapi Aike, a road junction with a simple gas station, a ranch, and a police station. I was super exhausted but the latter made my day. The police officers were very friendly, offered me a wind-protected camp spot behind their station and allowed me to use their bathrooms. It’s amazing how simple things can make you so happy. 🙂
I was ready to leave at 8:00 am in the morning and wanted to thank the policemen once again, but the station seemed abandoned until one of them came out totally drowsy. Obviously, I had just woken them up. Well, why can’t they sleep in? Who needs police in the middle of nowhere anyway. 🙂
I continued through the Pampa for another day and entered Chile for the fourth time to finally bike through one of South America’s most popular national parks: Torres Del Paine. Close to the park entrance, the killer winds faded away. Finally! And pretty much at the same time, I was rewarded with fantastic views which became better with each kilometer into the park.
Before Torres Del Paine’s creation in 1959, the park was part of a large sheep estancia (ranch), and it’s still recovering from nearly a century of overexploitation of its pastures, forests and wildlife. Generating profits with logging and wool in the past were excessive, but in many parts of Patagonia, this still continues. Another threat is the growing number of tourists. Torres Del Paine National Park receives more than 250,000 visitors each summer. Many sensible Chileans I talked to had expressed serious concerns. It is not only about forest fires caused by reckless campers but also about the general question of how much tourism a national park can bear without losing sustainability.
After two great days in the national park, I biked to Puerto Natales, a formerly modest fishing village which is now the well-trodden gateway to Torres del Paine. Though tourism has transformed its rusted tin shop fronts into gleaming facades, Natales maintains its weathered charm.
This was where I realized how close I actually was to my final destination. It was a strange feeling. My plan was to finish this trip by end of the year, so there were less than 4 weeks left. On the entire trip, I had always thought in stages focusing only on the next milestone, either a city or a natural attraction. This time it was more than that. Various thoughts about what would be next poked my mind. On December 5, I continued pedalling, trying to defy the distraction of that obvious planning process. It didn’t always work but still, I really enjoyed the next 250 km to Punta Arenas.
Most of the way to Punta Arenas, I had favorable winds, though it was wet and cold on both days. Again, I was reminded that I would soon step off the bike and call it a trip. Certainly, that was a feeling of happiness which was even amplified when I ran into other cyclists who had just started their trip a few days or a week ago. I met three in a single day and we chatted for a while. I could clearly notice their frustration since they had been fighting headwinds for several days. Hopefully, my recommendations about the upcoming national parks and the fantastic scenery cheer them up a bit.
Punta Arenas, a sprawling metropolis on the edge of the Strait of Magellan, can’t be described easily. Set at the bottom of the Americas, it is downright stingy with good weather – normally the sun shines through sidelong rain.
Founded in 1848 as a penal settlement and military garrison, Punta Arenas was conveniently situated for ships headed to California during the gold rush. (The Panama Canal was only opened in 1914).
The economy took off in the late 19th century after the territorial governor authorized the purchase of 300 pure-bred sheep from the Falkland Islands. This experiment encouraged sheep farming and, by the turn of the century, nearly two million grazed the territory.
The city is remarkably relaxed and friendly. Recent prosperity, driven by the petrochemical industry boom and growing population, has mellowed down the city’s former roughneck reputation. It would be nice if it were all about restoration, but duty-free shopping and shopping malls on the city outskirts are the order of the future. A growing volume of cruise-ship passengers and trekkers has effectively replaced yesteryear’s explorers and sailors.
Since I stayed in Punta Arenas for two weeks, I obviously enjoyed my stay. It was a great time to explore an authentic, non-touristy city, to go on a few day trips into the nearby national reserves, and to reflect on the last 18 months of my journey. More on that and the finale of my journey in my next and final post.