Chile and Argentina part 3 - Argentinian Patagonia

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South America » Argentina
April 5th 2018
Published: April 5th 2018
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Part of the logistics when planning this trip was choosing the easiest (and cheapest) way to get around the two countries - it was pretty expensive to fly between countries but relatively cheap to fly the longer distances domestically. So all our cross border travel would be by bus.

March 22 we headed off to Argentina on the 7:30am bus from Puerto Natales bound for El Calafate. About 30 minutes into the trip, we turned right off the main highway onto a stretch of bumpy gravel road. First stop was Chilean border control and then a few further kilometres through no mans land before we stopped at the Argentina border. It was all a pretty painless process although it took a while as there were three large buses there at the same time. We had thought ahead and taken some food with us although Kelly was sure that we would stop somewhere so the driver could eat. But...... there was absolutely nothing between the border and El Calafate except rolling plains (steppes) with tussocky grass and large herds of Guanaco.

Arriving in El Calafate we had three hours before our next bus to El Chaltén. First priority was to get some Argentina pesos so we headed off along the dusty gravel road from the bus station into the town - what a surprise- the first attractive town we have seen for a while, almost a mini Whistler. We had purchased enough Chilean pesos in Canada to get us through much of the travel through Chile but it was not possible to buy Argentina pesos outside the country. It was a bit of a shock to only be able to get out 3000 ARP ($200 CAD) per transaction PLUS a hefty $8 CAD transaction fee. At least I can understand Spanish money a bit better now as the ARP exchange is about 15 to the dollar (versus 500 CLP to the dollar) and so counting is only in units of hundreds and tens. After visiting the bank and eating, it was back to the bus station to wait and now, another piece of trivia that I had learnt while researching this trip, came in handy. In public toilets, the toilet paper is often in a big roll by the hand basins. So you have to think ahead!

And now it is time for the final bus ride of the day - 3 hours to El Chaltén - and what a huge difference between buses in Chile and Argentina. The former had a strict speed limit with a digital display so the passengers could keep an eye on it, as well as lots of signage about wearing seatbelts and what to do in an emergency (even if it was in Spanish and we couldn’t understand it). In Argentina, you were lucky if you had a seat belt and on this first bus, there was not even a working speedo (we were in the front seat so could see it all) but we figured the driver knew the road so well, it was not an issue. Again, we travelled through a landscape of nothing but saw a lot of cyclists and wondered where they were going.

El Chaltén was all about hiking. After a great breakfast at our Hotel Los Nires and after buying some empanadas for lunch we headed out for our first hike to the Fitz Roy Mirador ( the lookout to Cerro Fitz Roy. The 4km trail (plus another 1km from our hotel) took about 1.5hours and was easy to moderate hiking. The weather was not the greatest and we only got tantalizing views of the mountains as the clouds came in and out - the peak is 3450m. We continued on the loop trail to Laguna Capri for a total of 11km. Back at the entrance to the trail we were entertained by a flock of Austral Parakeets (yet another bird I was surprised to see in this climate). These parakeets are 35cm in length and the most southern living parakeet.

It seems like every restaurant has some kind of happy hour deal and we took advantage of it with beer and a great bbq pork sandwich. We grabbed some delicious fracturas (pastries and cheap) on the way back to the hotel. Maybe if I eat enough of them I will quit complaining that my travel/hiking pants are too big.

The trail to Mirador Fitz Roy was civilized enough we were quite happy to repeat it in the dark the following morning in order to see the sunrise. We had been complaining a bit that our hotel was too far from the town but when we walked by the bars at 5:30am and realized that loud music was still playing, we were happy we were sleeping where we were. The hike took us less than the expected 2 hours - our headlamps were more than adequate for the task and we felt infinitely superior to the Asian girls who were using their iPhone flash lights. It was a long cold wait for the sunrise - it was a brilliantly clear sky and first the mountain peaks were light grey then over a period of about 5 minutes they got rosier and rosier until suddenly the show was over and grey reigned again.

We had missed breakfast at the hotel so we ate at a local restaurant - eggs, bacon and toast - and when they say toast, they mean just that - no butter, no jam. Kelly relaxed for a bit and I went out for a 5km hike to Mirador de Condores and Aguilar. A steep uphill walk to flat terrain with a spectacular view of Cerro Torre. A predominate vegetation here is round bushes that look so soft but are in fact a mass of thorns - these are the Calafate plant (Berberis microphylla). In the afternoon, we decided to make the most of the great weather (apparently this was the nicest day for a while) so we headed out on a 7 km return hike to Mirador Cerro Torre. All the hikes so far have been easy to moderate and thoroughly enjoyable. On the return we heard some crazy wood knocking and spent some time watching a pair of Magallenic Woodpeckers. I was taking continuous photos and finally the male stopped his maniacal pecking for a split second so I got a reasonable photo. Otherwise his red crested head was just a blur. These woodpeckers are 36 to 45 cm in length, which is large for a wood pecker. Apparently their skulls contain spongelike material to prevent concussion from pecking!

It was time for a real meat dinner - so we went to a Parrilla (grill) where Kelly had a few large pieces of lamb and I had ribs (I have no idea what type of meat - but all very delicious). The following morning we were up early - again - to catch the sunrise from Mirador de Condores, but unfortunately the clouds didn’t leave til mid morning. But I did see a fox! The afternoon hike was out to the waterfall - Salto el Chorillo which was 8 km return from the hotel. A female Upland Goose was added to the “seen” list.

As spectacular as Torres del Paine was, this is my favourite area for hiking - probably because the mountains are all right there in your face and are so accessible. There are also many overnight hikes possible as well as longer day hikes (18 to 20km return) which we did not do.

Cerro FitzRoy was named after Vice Admiral Robert Fitzroy who was a sailor and scientist. He captained HMS Beagle during Charles Darwins five year exploration as well as pioneering meteorology and being the second governor of New Zealand.

March 26 and back on the road again. We were able to have an extra early breakfast prior to catching the bus for the return trip to El Calafate. After grabbing a couple of empanadas near the bus station, we walked into town and dropped our packs at Hostal Schilling. As we had just an hour or so before picked up for our trip to Perito Moreno glacier, we hurried into town for a coffee, empanadas and pastries to go from Dom Luis Pasteleria. Empanadas are definitely the South American version of the kiwi pie.

It was a beautiful day in El Calafate but got windier and cloudier the closer we got to the entrance to Los Glaciares National Park. It appeared that the wind was howling down the valley from Upsala Glacier. This national park covers an area of 726,927 hectares and was established to preserve a significant portion of southern Andes glaciers, forests and steppe. The Southern Patagonia ice field is the third largest in the world (after Antarctica and Greenland) with an area of 4826 sq. m, a length of 370km and and average width of 35km. There are 48 major glaciers of which Perito Moreno is probably the most well known and easily accessible.

After paying an entrance fee of 500 ARP each, it was just a short drive further to the main drop off area in front of the 67.5m high glacier snout. A creative series of walkways allowed close access to the glacier - and we gazed in wonder at the sheer white ice with vivid turquoise crevasses. We heard lots of cracking but unfortunately did not see any ice bergs calving. This glacier is actually advancing but constant calving off the snout
means it is in a steady state - which probably explains why it is so fresh and clean looking! After about 1.5 hours of viewing, the rain started and it was not long before everyone was hiding out in the restaurant area. The rain eased a short time before our bus was due to leave so we got a bit more viewing.

The trip back to town was a lot shorter and we got dropped off on the shopping street near our hostel. A delicious mozzarella pizza and a generous copa de vino blanco (glass of white wine) ended another great day. And now we finally get to check into our room at the Schilling - a great hotel with large common areas and a comfy room.

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