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Published: April 6th 2012
I left Buenos Aires in the middle of the night to fly south to El Calafate, a small tourist town that was to be my first stop in Patagonia. I barely remember the flight – I crashed out instantly and awoke as we were landing with my untouched food placed kindly next to me.
El Calafate airport is in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the vast and empty Patagonian steppe, with only a few mountains visible in the distance. I soon realised that the town itself was pretty much the same, a tiny place containing only the airport, some hostels, a few travel agents and lots of hiking equipment shops.
I spent the first day exploring the town (didn’t take long) and a nearby Laguna (containing some Flamingos) and then headed back to my hostel for an early night. My first thought was that the weather was actually quite mild: very windy but actually reasonably warm and sunny. What was with all this fuss about the Patagonian weather? This was no worse than back home.
The next day I visited the Puerto Moreno Glacier, the one main reason people come to small El Calafate. This huge glacier
is unusual in that it is actually growing, one of only a handful in Patagonia (and the world) that are in a stable condition. Because of this, large chunks regularly break off into the water below, creating huge waves and a deafening noise. I took a boat alongside the glacier and then spent a few hours watching the ice break on the viewing platforms above.
The weather had got a lot colder, and the wind had started to get a little ridiculous. Patagonia is infamous for its strong winds, and when they pick up they are like nothing I’ve ever experienced. They will literally throw you over (or off a mountain) so you tend to keep your distance from high ledges.
In El Calafate I bumped into Anton, a South African I had previously met in Ihla Grande. We decided that we would head south into Chile to visit the Torres del Paine national park, meant to be one of the most stunning in the world, and do the five day W Trek, the best way to see the park´s highlights. We took a bus over the border to Puerto Natales, the nearest town to the Torres, and
spent a day renting gear, buying food and stocking up on warm clothes. Before going we attended an information talk which gave some general information and told us to prepare for bad weather.
They weren´t wrong. Although the distances on the trek were easily manageable, the unpredictable Patagonian Autumn made for a fairly tough few days out in the open. I finally got my share of the famous Patagonian weather: we had 95kmph winds, torrential rain, snow, hail and burning sun, often all in the space of a day. You can literally go from deep snow to t-shirt weather and back again within a few hours of trekking – I’ll never complain about the British winter again. The scenery was incredible however: huge glaciers, stunning mountains and emerald lakes, all surrounded by the vast Patagonia steppe. Unfortunately the park is currently in a state of recovery from a large forest fire that swept through it in December. A huge amount of the forest was destroyed after some idiot thought it would be a good idea to light a campfire on a trail. With the winds as strong as they are here, it's amazing that there wasn't even more destruction.
However, despite the scenery, a few days in and we were starting to get miserable, the apparently stunning views in the Valle del Frances had been entirely obscured by a snowstorm and we arrived at the park’s centerpiece, the Torres themselves, on Monday evening to find them entirely covered in cloud. We decided it would be futile to try and catch the sunset and instead set out alarms for early the next morning. Miraculously the weather cleared overnight and our hard work was rewarded with the most spectacular sunrise possible.
After five days of trekking we finished in the park hotel, had a beer and then took the bus back to Puerto Natales for a big steak and a warm bed. Puerto Natales is actually a very nice town, full of trekkers, fisherman and a large population of stray dogs. Chileans like their barbequed lamb and beef, and the beer in the Puerto Natales microbreweries was by far the best I’ve tasted in Latin America. Special mention should also go to the Erratic Rock hostel, probably the best I’ve stayed in during my three months away.
Today I travelled back into Argentina to a place called El
Chalten, known as the hiking capital of Argentina. It was a long day of travelling through... absolutely nothing. The vastness and emptiness of the steppe around the iconic Route 40 makes it feel as if you're driving on the face of the moon. Today, after three months of travel, I started travelling north for the first time. The plan is to spend the next month drifting between Chile and Argentina before reaching Bolivia in early May. Here's hoping it gets a little warmer.
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