El Chalten--Drama Central

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March 20th 2011
Published: November 12th 2011
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El Chalten from Esquel

El Chalten--Drama Central

The infamous Patagonian winds whipped around at a velocity I didn't know possible, shape-shifting the clouds into castles and dragons and preventing me from standing upright. Sun turned to wind turned to rain, and then to hail all in a few hours--the famous Patagonian four seasons in a day.

Here in late March in the southern Patagonia Andes, chilly autumn was already here even though the rest of Argentina was basking in late summer. It would be a long time before I'd wear anything less than three pairs of pants, two jackets and an absurd number of thermal layers.

Dramatically sited, the tiny town of El Chalten is ringed with snow- and glacier-capped mountains, located at the confluence of two turquoise, glacier-fed rivers and watched over by the granite sentinels of Fitz Roy, my new true love, and the Cerro Torre range. Known as Argentina's trekking capital, I'd come here to check out its claims--and it didn't disappoint. I had fabulous hikes through incredible beauty in expansive silence!

The town's weather and location were not the only sources of its drama; its birth was too. It came into being only in 1985, when Argentina established it to claim the area during yet another border dispute with Chile. The town grew slowly until three years ago, when some of the gravel and dirt roads were paved, and hotels, hostels and campsites sprang up like hikers on a sunny summer trail.

Tourism is the only business of the town, and I was happily surprised by the services--helpful, informative tourist and park services offices, a working ATM and somewhat functional cybercafes. The public wifi spot was in a cafe with a horrendous smell of cigarettes and fried food, so I decided to be unconnected for awhile.

The little market where I shopped was quite expensive, but it did have fruit and veggies and everything I needed. Best yet, it didn't give out plastic bags, encouraging customers to bring their own and raising consciousnesses in the process. Less thrilling was learning that the city's prominent recycling bin was a sham, there just for foreign tourists' peace of mind. However, it could be planting a seed in the minds of the Argentinians who visit.

The town and its services were growing rapidly and on the outskirts of town, construction is constant in the summer though fortunately, I arrived late with autumn's inclement weather and was spared the noise. They'd just built a school which boosted the permanent population from 500 to 800 as families no longer need to leave for the school year. Now, there will be workers to service the tourists here year-round.

Once Ruta 40 from northern Patagonia is paved and can be traveled in the winter and by those who need a smooth ride, this is sure to be a year-round adventure playground. Hopefully, it will be spared the glitz of the massive tourist destination of El Califate with its Perrito Moreno Glacier and upscale shops. For now, El Chalten is a sweet, sleepy town (at least in this cold low season) with the weather, mountains and trekking providing delicious drama.

Ruta 40

Actually, there was one more layer of drama--getting there and settled. I'd been in northern Patagonia, in Argentina's Lake District for a couple of months and wanted to get down to the hiking havens in the south before the snowy winter set in.

Tourists with money flew down; those wanting an easy ride followed paved roads out to the coast and down. But, hey, I was an intrepid traveler for whom surviving the infamous Patagonian Ruta 40 was a rite of passage. Besides, I didn't want to miss any of Patagonia.

On numerous occasions, I'd traveled the several hours along Ruta 40 between Bariloche, El Bolson and Esquel where travel was easy and the scenery spectacular--mountains, forests, lakes and rivers. However, beyond that were more than 700 kilometers of flat, relatively empty, relatively inhospitable dry Patagonian steppe to be traversed on dirt and gravel roads in an old bus for two days. That could be an adventure!

This journey has long been a mythical one, with T shirts proclaiming, "I Survived Ruta 40." However, years ago, it must have been more challenging, with the dirt road rougher and the transportation more unreliable (or maybe I'm just used to dirt roads and funky buses). I just had drama finding a place to buy my ticket and then catching the bus which stopped only at dawn on the road far outside Esquel.

Once on the bus, I enjoyed the ride though my six fellow passengers were less enamored and tended to sleep through it. I loved sitting there, listening to my IPOD and watching the landscape fly by, with no cares or responsibilities. Admittedly, the endless vistas of flat Patagonia steppe could be rather monotonous, but then there were always wild dancing clouds for entertainment.

And the trip was not without its occasional charms such as passing herds of wild guanacos (large, wild camelids like the llama) and nandus (like ostriches), isolated horses and estancias (ranches), tiny dirt-road towns, roads seemingly going nowhere, meandering rivers, the snow-capped Andes in the distance and undulating red and ocher hills the southwest American artist Georgia O'Keefe would have loved to paint.

All along the way, big trucks were transforming the rough road to asphalt. It won't be long until this epic journey is nothing more than a fast, smooth shot, and no one will be boasting about having survived it.

Since we got in later than promised, I stayed in the big, crowded, expensive Hostel International dorm where the bus deposited us. The next day, after visiting all the hostels, which charged more than my preferred $10, I found a dorm in a campground in a quiet glen by a stream--perfect.

The dorm in the Relinche Campground was a little, one-room log cabin; it might even have been taken for one of the upscale cabanas that dot the valley, except that the door didn't lock, there was no heat in the freezing weather, and the communal bathroom and kitchen were outside. And for the first time in my life, I got lice--yikes, that was beyond creepy (I itch just thinking about it).

Still, I had mountain views, the bunk beds were comfy and had enough blankets, the campers friendly, and I often had the dorm to myself in that fine, cold, low season.

Hiker's Paradise

Best of all in El Chalten, hikes here were wonderfully free--unlike those in other Patagonian destinations. You didn't need to hire a guide, have a taxi or an agency take you to a trailhead or pay steep park entrance fees since the town is located in the northern end of the UNESCO World Heritage Parque Nacianal los Glaciares.

As in my old canyon and mountain homes in Santa Barbara, I just headed up into the hills from my front door--this is what I consider a proper place to live. It was for this, that I stayed ten days in the campground's little dorm, hiking lots of gorgeous trails.

The park service's visitor center had great maps of the trails and the hours required to complete them, but these times held true only if you were a fit 22-year old on a mission and didn't stop to listen to water and wind or soak in the wonder of it all. So what if it took me eight hours instead of six, the journeys were soul filling, and I had all the time in the world (or at least until it got dark).

My first day's hike started out a dismal gray, but I was so excited about exploring, that it mattered little. I headed south, meandered up easy switchbacks to the Condor and Eagle Miradors (viewpoints) and enjoyed sweeping views of the little town charmingly nestled between its rivers and under tall cliffs.

Then, after a couple of hours, a Patagonian miracle--the gray clouds were swept away by howling winds, revealing the stunning, snow-capped mountain ranges all around. I could hardly wait to get there!

The next day I joined campers in the campground's rustic wooden hall, a restaurant in the high season, but fortunately, in this low season, a kitchen to prepare our own meals, a dining room to eat and meet other hikers, and a shelter from the storms on intense weather days. I enjoyed my coffee and oatmeal with Dutch, French and Argentine travelers.

Cerro Torre Range

Since it was sunny, I set off to see the often-shrouded spires of Cerro Torre, 3128 meters high. I headed east out of town on the Laguna Torre Trail, climbing a hill that provided views of the many hotels and houses under construction on the town's outskirts.

The trail let up through great boulders, rock outcroppings, bunch grasses of the Patagonian steppe as well as forests of deciduous, sweet-green lenga trees, part of the ubiquitous Patagonian nothogafus/southern beech family. Weaving around the trail was a little blue, singing stream and far below, the roaring Rio Fitz Roy with turquoise-gray water, fed by the glaciers on Cerro Torre. A mirador at the half-way point afforded fabulous views of the Torres, its expansive blanket of connecting glaciers and the sensuously curved, underrated Solo Mountain, which I loved.

Further on, the trail spread out into a seemingly-dwarf forest. It was the short, red-barked nire trees (also nothogafus), some of which were already turning autumn red, and a marshy meadow over which a log walkway had been built. Best of all, there were views of the Torres several times along the route.

However, nothing on this gorgeous hike had prepared me for the grand spectacle when I finally crested the last hill and saw rising before me, the spires of the Torres/Towers with their wall of interconnecting glaciers feeding the iceberg-filled lake below. Though the sky had turned steel gray by then, the landscape was still impressive.

I scrambled down to the lake to drink some of the glacier water. It wasn't too clean, but I brushed away the insects and drank a bit to be one with the mountain. I lingered long at the lakeside with the Torres towering above me, letting waves of peace wash through me and feeling the wonder of it all.

Finally, when the light started to fade, I descended. I was so happy and filled with gratitude to have had the strength, stamina and opportunity to be in such beauty and perfection.

Mt. Fitz Roy

Every day felt like a bit of perfection when the clouds parted, and I could see the huge, spiritual presence of Cerro Fitz Roy towering over the town. The mountain had been named after the captain of Charles Darwin's ship, Robert Fitz Roy, who had explored and mapped lots of Patagonia. The mountain was 3405m high, the highest in the area, and a favorite destination of summer mountain climbers.

The massive was first scaled only in 1952, and Cerro Torre, long considered unclimbable, even later. A small, alpine-style chapel in town commemorated the climbers who'd perished on on these mountains. It was a proper warning to us day-trippers to be mindful of the changeable weather.

One stormy day, I took refuge in the park's visitor center and saw a film that reinforced this respect that must be afforded the Patagonian weather. Mountain of Storms is a documentary of the third summiting of Fitz Roy in 1968. The climbers, Yvon Chouinard (founder of Patagonia sportswear, located a few minutes south of my hometown), Doug Thompson (of North Face) and two others had had to wait out storms for many days before they were able to reach the summit by their new route--the California Route.

Seeing this film was especially exciting for me because just before leaving Santa Barbara, I'd met and spoken to Yvon Chouinard at our annual S.B. International Film Festival at a screening of an exciting new film, 180 Degrees South, in which a group of young adventurers retraced the 1968 journey down from California to Patagonia. Now here I was, ready to hike up to the base camp of one of my heroes.

I followed the Laguna de los Tres Trail heading up to the base of Fitz Roy. As I climbed, the periwinkle, glacier-fed Rio de las Vueltas curved, meandered and circled below me. About a thousand, knee-killing granite steps led through a lenga forest, then past autumn-gold grasses and bizarre rock formations and the deep blue Lago Capri and its sweet campground. Finally, I got to my first stop--the mirador.

By the time I got to Fitz Roy's mirador, the sun was making only occasional appearances and clouds were swirling around the peaks. Often the clouds seemed to be blowing out of the summit, and for this reason, the indigenous Tehueleches named it "Chalten" or smoking mountain, from which the town gets its name.

A group of us stood watching the clouds dance around the peaks, frozen in awe, amazed and appreciative that the they were so visible. However, an hour later, when I was ready to continue my ascent, the wind had become fierce, bringing in ominous, dark clouds.

A voice inside told me not to try to challenge the situation, but to be mindful of the weather. I descended, reaching the valley and then my campground just as the heavens let forth in an impressive downpour--how great that I had listened to my inner voice!

Greater still was the chance to fulfill a long-time dream--trekking on a glacier. One sunny day, I took a fabulous boat ride across a nearby turquoise lake that brought me to Glacier Viedma, the largest in Argentina. The glacier was more beautiful and wondrous and the trekking more exciting than I had ever imagined (see my next blog). Once again, I'd found magic in El Chalten.

Extreme Weather in Southern Patagonia

There were lots of other great trails, some of which I followed for hours; others, I'd start up only to be beaten back by the winds and storms. Sometimes, I spent whole days bundled up like a bear and huddled in the campground's common room with the campers, knowing we were no match for the impressive Patagonian weather.

Other stormy days, I slogged soggily to the helpful, informative park visitor center and watched a climbing film or read (in Spanish) their great displays on nature and climbing in the area. While this was the price of out-of-season travel, I still preferred it to hiking on crowded trails and sleeping in crowded dorms.

Finally, the weather was predicted to be solid storms for several days--time to leave my beloved El Chalten. A three-hour bus journey would take me to El Califate in the southern part of the Glaciers National Park where I would see the famous Perrito Mereno Glacier and further indulge my glacier cravings. My ice and snow adventures had begun!

Additional photos below
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12th November 2011

Thank you for presenting the jewel that is El Chaltern...one of my favourite places...and Ruta 40...always an adventure.
12th November 2011

Stunnig pictures
12th November 2011

Stunnig pictures, well done, safe travels

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