When I was 14, reading Jules Verne’s In Search of the Castaways, Patagonia felt prohibitively far and unreachable. Little did I know that one day I would be hiking its rugged trails and drinking from its glacier lakes. Turns out, it’s relatively easy to get to Patagonia. It’s leaving that’s the hard part.
Patagonia spans a huge territory at the tail of South America and is shared between Argentina and Chile. We went closer to the tip of the continent and explored the three major towns – El Calafate, El Chalten and Puerto Natales. The last one is on the Chilean side.
El Calafate may be the smallest and least scenic of the three towns, but it acts as the region’s hub: it has an airport with daily flights to Buenos Aires and it is also the middle point of any bus travel in Patagonia. For example, you can’t just take a bus from one town to the other without a stopover in El Chalten. Because of that, we kept coming back and got to know the town quite well.
El Chalten is also home to the famous Perito Moreno glacier – and just for that it’s worth visiting.
Getting to the glacier was easy. Twice a day there is a shuttle bus that takes you from the town to Perito Moreno and makes a stop at the dock for those who want to take a boat ride.
Perito Moreno glacier, El Calafate, Patagonia, Argentina
My understanding is that the South side of the glacier is more stable and caves less – that’s why it’s safer for the boats to get relatively close. Walking tours – when you actually get to stroll on the ice – also start there.
Perito Moreno glacier, El Calafate, Patagonia, Argentina
Nothing I can say would do justice and truly describe the exhilaration one feels in a place like this. So here are some pictures to substitute a few thousand words…
In the next photo, the tiny boat in the bottom right corner helps to comprehend the real scale of the glacier.
After the boat ride we went to the main observation area facing the North side of the glacier. A set of walkways allows you to get really close so you can see pieces falling off and can hear the cracking of the ice.
And here’s the beauty you see! 5 km wide, 14 km long and 50-60 m high. Perito Moreno is famous because it’s 1) very accessible and 2) one of the few glaciers that are actually growing in size.
I am so glad we happened to visit Perito Moreno in the afternoon! After a very sad rainy morning, the sun came out and we had a wonderful rest of the day. Tourist crowds – if there were any – thinned out and we felt like we had the whole place to ourselves.
El Chalten is often called the “capital of hiking”. It is located within Los Glaciares National park and its streets – no matter what direction you go – very soon turn into wilderness trails. We spent only two days in El Chalten but each was an adventure in its own!
Because of such a limited amount of time, we didn’t want to just sit around and wait for the weather to get better. I wanted to take two of the most scenic routes in the area, each of which required a full day commitment. So without exaggeration, the next two days were spent hiking for 11-12 hours each day. For me it was more enjoyable than physically challenging, but you do need to have a certain amount of stamina to get back to your bed.
On the first day it was pouring. Something like 30 minutes into the hike it dawned on us that another four hours of this could become really miserable, so we turned around and walked all the way back to town to splurge on a couple of fashionable ponchos. Good decision!
The rain stopped and the sun came out only 5 hours later when we finally got to the viewpoint – this awesome glacier lake and a small glacier at the back.
I watched this scavenger grabbing lunch meat from fellow hikers. No fear whatsoever. It also wasn’t satisfied with just one piece and kept approaching for more while the first piece was still in its beak.
Hiking in the wilderness of Patagonia is surprisingly easy. There are trails to follow, so it’s hard to get lost. Also, you don’t need to carry a lot even on a long hike. Water in rivers and streams is perfectly drinkable because it comes straight from the glaciers.
The second day hike was supposed to be all about getting closer to the famous Fitz Roy. But again the weather was so moody, that the mountain never actually came out from behind the clouds and in 3 days, we never got to see it (except from behind the window of a departing bus). So yes, there is a reason to come back!
The last hour of this hike was just up-up-up along a slippery and very narrow trail. The weather was getting worse too – raining, then hailing, so the climb was becoming especially challenging. But I guess it just sweetened the pay off even more so. We got to the top to find this glacier lake. And even though Fitz Roy, a huge mountain at the back, was covered in fog, we sort of imagined it to be there. Yep, you need to do a lot of that when hiking in Patagonia in bad weather.
Sometimes breaking the rules rewards you with a view of an additional lake and a waterfall, not in sight to everyone else…
To get to Chile, we rented a car. Being very – let’s say – budget-mindful, I booked us the cheapest ride available – a simple Fiat with manual transmission and doors that had to be slammed shut. I didn’t tell it to Jonny at the time, but during the fist hour of that ride I was holding on to my seat in horror as the car was making roaring noises every time we switched gears. But thankfully, once we left the city, for the next 300 km the road was straight and boring with only few cars around. And by the time we reached Puerto Natales, Jonny figured out the clutch.
Crossing the border into Chile was unexpectedly easy. On the way there it took us less than an hour and on the way back – just a bit longer. That’s considering that we had to go through two border offices and stand in lines. It’s also free, except for the fact that the car had to have special papers arranged by a rental company (for a fee, of course).
The main reason to haul all the way to Chile was to visit Torres del Paine National Park – arguably the most beautiful national park in South America. I argue that it is!
The plan was to camp there for 2 nights and then drive back to El Calafate to catch a flight to Buenos Aires. Here we spent another two full days of hiking. Later on, after getting home and synchronizing my fitbit, I learned that we walked 120 km in just four days!!!
Driving through Argentina, we didn’t see a single animal or even a tree. There were just bare desert-like plains all around. But crossing into Chile, we were moving towards water and so the landscape was noticeably different: trees, bushes and beautiful flowers all along the road. Closer to the park, we found this ostrich and hordes of guanacos that look like a crossbreed between a camel and a llama. We also saw condors, hawks, eagles, a fearless fox, a bunch of hares and a dead armadillo (if that counts).
You could tell we were getting closer to the park when the paved road ended and the gravel began. I was a bit paranoid about getting a rock into the windshield because I wasn’t sure if the insurance that we purchased covers that type of thing. Luckily, no windows were harmed during this trip.
There aren’t too many lodging options in Torres del Paine. There are a couple of luxury hotels where a night starts at about $350. A cheaper way would be to stay at a refugio, which is something like a hostel. It costs about $150 and needs to be booked way in advance.
We didn’t really know what route we would be taking in the park, so we opted for the last option – camping. It’s also the most affordable at $15/person per night. We rented our tent, sleeping bags, mats and a gas stove at a hostel in Puerto Natales.
Both campsites we stayed at had bathrooms, showers and kitchens. Overall, the whole park is very well organized with signs along the trails and also buses and boats being on the same schedule: once you are dropped off by a boat, a mini-bus is already waiting to take you to the next destination. It all costs money, of course, but it’s a great alternative if you can’t drive.
I’m so glad we had a car with us! Even though during the first night it was parked on the other side of a lake and inaccessible, it still reduced the amount of stuff we had to carry in our backpacks. It also gave us more flexibility and freedom. Surprisingly, not too many visitors come by car – the majority travel with an outfitter.
I love this example of public art in the middle of a forest – anyone who passes leaves a rock…
This is the view from one of the campsites. Some pitched their tents right by the river – a very romantic way to spend the night!
The culmination of the entire Patagonia trip happened when it should have – at the very end. We were the last people lingering at this famous lookout in Torres del Paine. It was past 8 pm and we were about to leave when a fox entered the scene. It navigated very confidently among the rocks, moving small ones with its paws and picking up food scraps dropped by tourists during the day. I thought it was genius: instead of wasting energy and time hunting for mice, this fox had it all figured out. So I dubbed it a Life Hacker!
It was very relaxed and didn’t seem to be bothered by me following very closely. I must have taken a hundred shots from different angles but none of them could get the mountains in, which I knew would complete the scene. Luckily, about 10 minutes later the fox stepped into just the right spot for me to take a couple of shots before it moved on. You can see the best one below.
What later happened with this photo is unbelievable! National Geographic first picked it for the Daily Dozen, a selection of 12 best photos for the day. Site visitors were able to vote for their favourite that day and it won! Then, it was also selected for Daily Dozen: Best of January among one of only 10 other photos. And finally, on March 12 it became Photo of The Day and got published on the main page of Nat Geo’s website.
Bucket list #24 is now unexpectedly complete!