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Published: December 21st 2007
A rare car on Ruta 40La Cuarenta
Ruta 40 runs almost the whole length of Argentina. The section in Southern Patagonia between Esquel and El Chalten is one of the quietest stretches.
Before we began our trip, I remember reading Charles Darwin's famous description of Patagonia, a description which made me want to see this intriguing area:
In calling up images of the past, I find that the plains of Patagonia frequently cross before my eyes; yet these plains are pronounced by all wretched and useless. They can be described only by negative characters; without habitations, without water, without mountains, they support merely a few dwarf plants. Why then, and the case is not peculiar to myself, have these arid wastes taken so firm a hold on my memory? I can scarcely analyze these feelings: but it must be partly owing to the free scope given to the imagination
Visiting Welsh Patagonia and the Lake District had given us a view of modern Patagonia, but it wasn't until we travelled way down south on Ruta 40 that I began to understand what Darwin meant. We travelled from Bariloche to El Chaltén, a journey of well over 1500 kilometres, on a small section of Argentina's longest road. South of Esquel, the scene changes dramatically. The mountains disappear and the landscape becomes one vast canvas, an empty desert, where the trees grow horizontal thanks to the ever present winds, and the almost limitless plain stretches far beyond the horizon.
It took 30 hours of travelling to reach our destination, and while it involved two very long days of travel along a mostly unpaved road with unchanging scenery, I'm very glad we went this way. It's strange how travelling for so long in such a bleak and remote place affects you. Passing a road sign is an important event, and towns, no-matter how small or windswept are like oases in a
Guanacos in Patagonia
We saw many guanacos in southern Patagonia.
desert. We had no movies for the long hours on the bus, so it was all about enjoying the landscape and catching up on sleeping and reading. The Cave of the Hands
We had an overnight stop at Perito Moreno, a small town in the middle of nowhere. The following morning we awoke early to do a side-trip to "Las Cuveas de los Manos" (Cave of the Hands), one of Argentina's most remote attractions, where you can see hand imprints from as long as 8000 years ago. The caves are in the side of mountains located in a beautiful canyon, and we had an informative hour long tour with a local guide from Perito Moreno. Had we travelled independently we probably would have tried to hike along the canyon as well. I guess that's the problem with going in a tour group, though the hand paintings were still well worth seeing.
We saw a good selection of wildlife on this Ruta 40 trip, including condors, flamingos, armadillos, guanacos (possibly the cutest animal in Argentina), and ñandú. The one hiccup in the journey was when our bus broke down about two hours south of Bajo Caracoles, again in
Cave of the Hands
The mysterious hand negatives in the Cave of the Hands date from approximately 8000 years ago.
the middle of nowhere. At first everyone treated it as a welcome break, hopping of the bus to to get some fresh air or taking pictures of the driver trying to fix the bus. After half an hour we became a little more anxious, and after an hour I started preparing to sleep on the bus. My apprehension increased when I saw the driver bang his head against the back of the bus in frustration! I'm not sure what exactly the problem was but I think we were missing an important spare part. Not many vehicles pass along Ruta 40, but luckily for us another bus came along, and helped us fix the problem. We gave the driver a big cheer when he started the engine. This delay did add a few hours to our journey, and it wasn't until after 11 pm that we rolled into El Chaltén. Having been in a bus for 15 hours that day, all we wanted to do was fall asleep. Hiking in El Chaltén
El Chaltén is younger than me, having being founded as recently in 1985. For the next few years there was little more than a guardaparque office, a few
Hiking to Cerro Fitz Roy
A fantastic hike, beautiful scenery. The view of Fitz Roy and the other peaks surrounded by glaciers and snow fields is unforgettable. The finest sight I've seen in Argentina.
buildings and the odd bus in summer. Now there are tens of streets, a four-star hotel, many camping and outdoor shops, and Internet cafes. There is no bank here yet, but I'm sure it won't be long. Parts of the town resemble a building site as new constructions are going up all the time, mostly hotels and restaurants. What will it be like in 10 years time? It's also an expensive place: there isn't a hotel here for less than 120 pesos while in most other Argentinian towns you can usually find something for 60. It's growth is due to its proximity to the Fitz Roy sector of Glaciers National Park. Here, some of the world's most beautiful mountains and probably Argentina's best hikes are found. These mountains are amongst the world's most difficult to climb, owing to their shape and the very difficult weather conditions in the area, and hence attract the workd's top mountain climbers.
Amidst all the development there is one simple building in El Chaltén that offers a poignant reminder of the history of climbing in this area. Capella Egger was built in memory of Toni Egger, who died during an attempted climb of Cerro
Capilla Toni Egger
Built in memory of an Austrian climber who died on Cerro Torre.
Torre. Egger and his climbing partner Cesare Maestri were attempting to become the first to summit the "impossible" Cerro Torre, when Egger was suddenly swept to his death after an avalanche. Accoding to Maestri, Egger had taken pictures of Maestri on the summit but his camera fell with him and Maestri had no other evidence to support his claim. Many climbers doubted Maestri's version of events, and the controversy increased when Maestri returned years later and did make the summit, aided by a compressor machine, which many felt invalidated his claim. Getting back to Egger, his body was found in 1975 on one of the glaciers...but there was no sign of his camera. Friends of Egger from Austria built this church (from materials carried over from his home country). In the porch there is a memorial board with a list of those who have died whilst climbing Torre or Fitz Roy.
Well, that's enough of the history, now to the mountains. Still feeling tired after the bus trip, we took it very easy the next morning, though still ended up hiking 14km. We went to see the Chorrillo del Salto waterfalls, located north of the town, and later backtracked
The glacier below Cerro Torre feeds into Laguna Torre.
to town to climb to Mirador de los Condores. On the way up we spoke with two very excited German tourists, who had had the good fortune to see a condor close up at the summit. They showed us their pictures and video. We hurried up but at the top there was no sign of the condor. No sign of the famous Cerros Fitz Roy and Torre either as both were covered in clouds. Over the next few days we would wait many hours and hike many kilometres, hoping for this cloud to break. Cerro Torre: A granite needle
A fantastic 8hr (or 25km) round trip took us from El Chaltén to Laguna Torre, at the base of Cerro Torre, and back. Having based ourselves in a hospedaje in town, we had to return to town after all our hikes. The disadvantage of this obviously is you miss things like Torre and Fitz Roy at sunset, and you can't do all the trails. The big advantage is you don't freeze at night!
The Torre hike was great. It's along a well marked trail, worn down by the steps of the thousands of trekkers who have trodden this path.
Torre was first climbed in the 1970s, more than a decade after Lionel Terray made it to the summit of Fitz Roy. There's some debate about who made the first ascent, but no debate about how challenging a climb it is.
The first main stop is at a mirador over the hill, where Cerro Torre and Cerro Solo suddenly come into view. Well, Solo was there, but in Torre's place was a blanket of thick cloud. We continued on to the Laguna, where once again, Torre was enveloped. It's notorious for its cloud cover and many people don't see it at all. Nevertheless, I saw my first glacier, and what a sight it was. I remember struggling to understand all this in Geography lessons in school. But having now stood on a terminal moraine, crossed a lateral moraine, and observed U-shaped valleys and erratics it's much clearer now. Ruth having a geography degree and being able to explain this to me is also a big help. From the Laguna we hiked onto Mirador Maestri, named after the controversial Italian climber, where there is a spectacular view over the laguna and the glacier. And presumably a great view of Torre too when the weather is clear. The only thing better than Cerro Torre...is Cerro Fitz Roy
Undeterred by our failure to see Torre, we returned to the national park the following day hoping to see Fitz Roy. Parts of the
Poincenot & Fitz Roy
What you see when the clouds part
mountain had appeared at sunset the previous evening and it looked beautiful from afar. Fitz Roy is often enveloped in cloud, but usually to a lesser extent than Torre. The Fitz Roy hike was a similar distance to our first one, a 25km round trip. Again, there was a mirador after about an hour's hike, followed by a long hike to the campsite below the mountain. Then begins a steep final section to Laguna de los Tres right under Fitz Roy. It's a tough end to the hike but well worth it for the views at the top. Fitz Roy was partly covered in cloud but even with this cloud cover the view was stunning. I remember thinking how stunning the snow covered peaks were, and I tried to imagine how anyone could possibly climb them. Poincenot and Sainte-Exupery are the other peaks around Fitz Roy, and we had a clear view at least of these. The clouds finally part
Our last day of hiking in El Chaltén and our plan was to hike to Loma del Pliegue Tombado, one of the lesser known hikes, from where there are good views of both cordons. I happened to wake very
All the stars on view
Torre is the pointy one on the left. Poincenot and Fitz Roy are the two main ones on the right. This was the clearest day we had in the area; it was also our departure day, unfortunately.
early at 7am and looking out the window, couldn't believe my eyes when we saw Torre! Finally it had come into view. So we changed our plans and hiked back to Laguna Torre, via a different initial route. Torre stayed clear all day though clouds did appear over and behind it, making it less than picture perfect. Whatever about the debate about who was first to the top, I can't even imagine how someone could climb it. Instead of returning the same way we walked the Mother and Daughter Route, which connects the Torre and Fitz Roy hikes. More amazing views rounded off our last walk in what is one of the finest hiking areas I've been to.
Well all good things come to an end and after fantastic days here in El Chaltén we had to push on. We've hiked 75km in 3 days, so our legs need a long rest. I've seen many fine sights in Argentina over the last few months but I think the view of Cerros Fitz Roy, Poincenot and Sainte-Exupery from Laguna de los Tres is the most memorable. El Calafate: Gateway to the glaciers
El Calafate is a very touristy town.
Everything here is more expensive than elsewhere in Argentina and to be honest it doesn't feel one bit Argentinian. The restaurants are busy at 7pm, there's a casino, and a depressing amount of souvenir shops. All living off the crowds who come to see the spectacular Glaciers. After arriving we walked out to Shackleton Lounge, a few kilometres out of town, overlooking Lago Argentina. I don't think El Calafate even existed during Ernest Shackleton's lifetime, but the bar was supposed to have some old pictures of the great man. As he was born in Kildare, only up the road from my hometown, Kilkenny, I figured the least I could do was walk out to see the pub. Unfortunately the pub seemed to be closed down 😞
The big attraction of El Calafate is its proximity to Glaciers National Park, and in particular Perito Moreno glacier. Though there are a couple of other sights in the town, were it not for the glacier, I think no one would come here. We booked our bus with Cal Tur and left early the next morning for the park. The bus is very expensive for such a short ride, but all the companies
The calving of Perito Moreno Glacier
charge the same so there is little you can do. Our first view of the glacier took the breath away. It's stunning. We spent the next 3 hours on the walkways, simply staring at it. It was just so beautiful. The highlight was when a large piece calved off in front of us. What a sight. And an incredible noise too, sounding a lot like thunder. Boat trips to the glacier were also on offer but we figured we'd have plenty of opportunities for getting close up to the glaciers in our next destination...the coldest, driest, windiest - and I'm expecting most beautiful - continent: Antarctica.
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