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Patagonia

by Louie Escober, 2004


This is a report of a recent trip to the Patagonian Andes. I visited Parque Nacional los Glaciares, Perito Moreno Glaciar, Torres del Paine, Seno Otway, and Isla Magdalena over three weeks in Chile and Argentina. It was a tough trip, but quite rewarding. This trip has been on my life list for a while now, and I am very happy to have gone.

What follows is a trip report on the major parks and locations I visited. I'll try to group some of my tips and observations at the end.

Since this report is quite long, it's broken into several section:

My plan was to visit Los Glaciares in Argentina first, followed by a trip to Torres del Paine. The intent here was to get myself in shape for Torres by trying Los Glaciares first. I also had planned some time to visit Perito Moreno Glaciar near El Calafate in Argentina, as well as, the penguin colonies near Punta Arenas. I only had 3 weeks of vacation, so instead of doing the full circuit of Torres del Paine, I only did the route known as the W. My route through Los Glaciares basically followed the route recommended by Lonely Planet in their trekking guide.

My first day was a rough one as I traveled from San Francisco to Punta Arenas via LanChile and then by bus to Puerto Natales. That was about 32 hours door to door. After a day to supply in Puerto Natales, I then caught another bus to El Calafate, a tourist town 5 hours away in Argentina. The border crossing went fairly easily. El Calafate is strictly a tourist town - with the requisite lodgings, tourist shops, internet cafes, banks with ATMs, and restaurants. You can get supply here for trekking as there were adequate grocery stores and trekking supplies stops. I also noted a few camera stores with film, 1-hour processing, and equipment. I didn't see any refrigerators full of velvia or provia, but they did have the basic consumer Kodak and Fuji films, as well as, a selection of memory cards in various formats. There are a few bookstores with a selection of books and maps on the region. After securing lodgings at the HI hostel, I made arrangements for a tour to Perito Moreno Glaciar.

Perito Moreno

Lying within the vast Parque Nacional los Glaciares, Ventisquero Perito Moreno, or Perito Moreno Glaciar in ingles, is one of the few glaciars in the world that isn't retreating. Around 1920, the glaciar reached the Pen’nsula Magallanes. The advance of the glaciar would dam up a section of Lago Argentino, and every 3-4 years, the resulting pressure would cause a spectaclar explosion of ice and water that would clear a channel. This hasn't happened in a very long time, and for a while it appeared that the glaciar had ceased its advance. Reports are that the advance has resumed, and when I was there, I noticed that it looked like the Glaciar had once again blocked the lake. The glaciar reaches a height of 197 feet and measures 14,750 feet across.

On the Peninsula Magallanes, there are a series of boardwalks that allow visitors a close up view of the glaciar. Apparently, you used to be able to stand on the lake shore right next to the glaciar for a closer look, but shrapnel from calving ice was causing injuries to tourists. There's a parking lot to accomodate tour buses, a snack bar, toilets, and a small ranger shack.

The best way to shoot the glaciar would be to drive in yourself and use morning or evening light from the boardwalks. There are a few campgrounds within the park that are near the glaciar itself.

As it was, I did not have a car, and so I took one of the many tours that go out to the glaciar. I took the "Alternative Tour" offered by the hostel I was staying at, Albergue Glaciar. This tour takes you along a dirt backroad to the glaciar, followed by hiking along the lakeshore to the boardwalks, and ending with a boat ride and the long bus ride back down the main road. There are other tours that are more sedate, and tours that offer hiking on the glaciar itself.

The bus picked me up from the hostel around 8 am, and we left in a 14-passenger mini bus. It was full, and fairly crowded. Most of us on the tour were english speakers, and the tour leader gave out her commentary in both english and spanish. The first part of the tour was o.k. as we passed through plains and ranch land. The tour guide pointed out various birds and we stopped for pictures at a number of view points. There was a bathroom break half way to the glaciar at a small restaurant. Not long after the bathroom break, we spotted about a dozen condors circling far above, and we stopped to get out and take pictures. The condors were pretty high up, and my 70-200/f4 didn't have enough reach for good pictures.

We continued along the winding, gravel road (almost the entire trip was on gravel roads) and finally reached the park itself. Each person had to pay an entrance fee with students getting a discount. Not too long afterwards, we had another stop at a viewpoint giving us a good look at the glaciar. Some of the people on the tour could actually make out hikers on the glaciar with their binoculars.

At the boat ramp for Lago Argentino, we got off the bus and began our hike to the boardwalks. The walk followed along the lakeshore and the trail was well marked. We had excellent views of the glaciar the entire way. Unfortunately, it was getting on to mid-day, and the light wasn't that great. What was pleasant was the lack of wind. The tour guide kept marveling at the excellent weather we were experiencing - it was sunny, warm, and not a breeze to be found.

As we neared the glaciar itself, the trail began to ascend - steeply at points, until we reached the parking lot. There, we broke for lunch, and were left to explore the boardwalks on our own. There are several viewing platforms which can be reached by descending on boardwalks. You can get fairly close, but as the signs kept warning, there's a lot of stairs to climb to get back.

I shot from all of the platforms, except for the lowest one as I didn't think it offered much of a change of perspective. I tried my hand at some panoramics with my point and shoot, but the camera kept switching the exposure and the seams are very obvious. By this time, clouds had started to form, and it was getting overcast. The play of light on the glaciar was nice. Every so often a loud thundering sound or sharp crack would be heard, and the glaciar would calve.

We gathered later in the afternoon, and boarded the bus to return to the boat ramp. There, we boarded a boat for a tour of the glaciar. We didn't get too close, but we did travel along the face of the glaciar for quite a bit. It wasn't a very long tour.

By the time we boarded the bus for the ride back, most of us were tired and slept on the way back. The return trip was uneventful.

Upon my return to the hostel, I made arrangements for a morning bus to El Chalten, the gateway village to Los Glaciares.

Parque Nacional los Glaciares

The gateway village for Los Glaciares is El Chalten. El Calafate is 5 hours away, and too far to serve as a base for a serious visit to the park. The bus ride circles around Lago Viedma to reach El Chalten on gravel roads. Most guidebooks put this ride at 4 hours, but due to road construction, it'll take about 5 hours. It looks like they're paving the road, so in a few years, this ride may become a lot easier and faster. The scenery along the road consists largely of wide open patagonian plains. I did not see much in the way of wildlife, but I expect this was because of the road construction. The bus stopped mid-way for a bathroom break at a small restaurant. I got my first view of Fitz Roy about an hour outside of El Chalten. Wow. The cordillera rises pretty abruptly out of the plains and is pretty spectacular. Just about every bus stops at some point to allow you to take some pictures.

Upon arrival in El Chalten, the bus makes an obligatory stop at the ranger station for a talk from the rangers. They give this talk in English and in Spanish. In general, it is a talk about Minimum Impact ethics and current trail conditions. They also hand out a park map, that is marginally useful. We didn't have much time to ask questions as the bus drivers hustled us back on board to make their final stop.

El Chalten isn't much of a town, and quite frankly there isn't any reason to hang out there. The wind was blowing pretty strongly, but nothing too bad. I was one of the few from the buses who actually went to hit the trail directly. From what I can tell, most went off to their lodgings in town. The town is a basic collection of lodgings, souvenir shops, restaurants, and tour offices. I had arrived around 2 p.m., and thus most places were closed for the afternoon siesta. At the end of my trip, I wandered about one of supermarkets, and it did have a fair selection of food for trekking, as well as, maps, fuel, and other trekking necessities.

My intended route was to head for Laguna Torre, then to Campamento Poincenot, onward to Piedras del Fraile, back to Campamento Poincenot, and then out back to El Chalten. I had an extra day in the schedule in the event of rain or any other unforseen occurence. I think I covered around 35-40 miles during the six days I was there.

My first stop was at Campamento Bridwell - also known as Campamento D' Agostini - near the shores of Laguna Torre. Much of the elevation gain for the trail to Laguna Torre was front loaded, so the trail climbed pretty steeply for a bit until I hit the Mirador Torre (viewpoint) for my first view down the glacial valley. It was a good day for it as it was fairly clear, and I got good views. Cerro Torre was still shrouded in clouds, but the surrounding mountains were cleary visible. The trail then dropped down to follow the Rio Fitz Roy along a level path to the campsite. It took me about 3.5 hours, which isn't bad considering this was my first day, and the first day of a backpacking trip is always the toughest.

By the time I reached the campsite, the clouds had obscured the view and there was a bunch of wind-driven mist - which can pass for a light rain. The campsite is large, and protected by the trees. It's right next to the Rio Fitz Roy. The only facilities are a squat toilet, and a hut constructed by climbers. This hut is reserved for their use. Despite it's protected location, make sure to pick a good spot, and orient your tent properly for the prevailing winds. The winds can be very fierce.

According to the rangers, the water within Los Glaciares is potable, and does not require filtration or treatment. Indeed, I never saw anyone but Americans and Brits bother to treat or filter the water. My own strategy was to drink directly only when the water was coming straight off of the glaciar, and I made sure to get my water upstream of camps or trails. There are quite a number of horse packers along the trails, and not every camper keeps a clean camp.

One thing to be very careful with the water is that it contains quite a bit of silt. Filters will become quickly clogged. Also, this silt tends to collect as fine dust everywhere, so be very careful with your lenses. With all of the wind, my equipment quickly became coated with a fine layer of dust.

The weather continued to deteriorate during my first evening, and the wind picked up. I had dinner and went to bed early. Given that this is the austral summer, it doesn't get dark until around 9:30.

I woke up early the next day to more clouds and rain. I pretty much just hunkered down in my tent, and decided to spend my rain day here. I went up later in the afternoon to check out the lake when the clouds had lifted a bit, but it still wasn't very good. The campsite is situated such that one can see how the view is stacking up on the way to the toilet.

The next day dawned a bit cloudy, but by mid morning, it had cleared considerably. I grabbed my camera gear and immediately headed for the lake to shoot. The lake is only 100 meters from the campsite, and is reached via various social trails over a short moraine. It was fantastic. I had clear views of Cerro Torre, as well as, the surrounding peaks. The winds weren't bad either, but still enough to put ripples in the lake. The Mirador Maestri is farther out along the lateral moraine that follows the north shore of the lake. It's about a mile walk along the ridge. I walked out towards the mirador for better views down the glaciar, but didn't bother going the whole way, as the day was getting on. One can also follow a trail along the south shore of the lake, but it requires crossing the river, which can be a technical venture. There's a tyrolean traverse set up for those with a harness. There were a number of dayhiking groups out here, as well as, some who were equipped with crampons and ice axes for some hiking on the glaciar.

I left for the next campsite around noon. It was an easy hour-long walk back down the trail to the junction with the Sendero Madre y Hija. Contrary to some guidebooks, this trail is not closed, and is open to the public. It's clearly marked on the maps and there are signs. This shortcut trail climbs steeply for about 400 feet of elevation gain before becoming ... less steep. I guess Argentinian trail builders don't believe in switchbacks. It just goes straight up the ridge. In fact, I never saw any switchbacks on any trails. In general, the trails follow the waterline - straight up and down. Consequently, the trails tend to be deep and rocky as erosion turns them into streambeds. However, aside from the steepness of the trail, it was a very pleasant hike. It goes through a lovely forest of lenga trees. At around 500-600 feet, the trail opens up onto a nice view of a high country meadow. The trail becomes much more gentle and I passed a number of nice meadows with wildflowers here and there. After a while, I came upon the Madre y Hija lakes and followed along the eastern shore of both. I found an excellent tree right at the shore of Laguna Hija, and spent some time using it as foreground. Of course, once I emerged from the edge of the forest and reached the lake, the winds were back in force. As I moved on to Laguna Madre, the trail become very spotty, and I had to follow plastic streamers that had been tied to trees. When those become few and far between, I simply followed the horse manure. Eventually, the trail drops down to join up with the trail to Campmento Poincenot. At this point, the views of the Fitz Roy are spectacular. I stopped several times to shoot along the trail, and the views were best at the trail junction to Campamento Poincenot.

The trail to Campmento Poincenot was only 10 minutes further and is well situated in a lenga forest. The winds were becoming quite strong and very loud. I pitched my tent quickly and got inside as the winds and wind-driven mist started to hit with some ferocity. I didn't bother leaving my tent the rest of the day. I cooked my dinner in the vestibule, and just listened to the wind roar through the trees. It was like living next to an airport runway. The winds are absolutely incredible. At various intervals, it was like somebody would come by and give my tent a good shake.

Campamento Poincenot is a fair sized campground that can get a bit crowded. It's got a squat toilet, and the river is nearby. Unlike Campamento Bridwell, there are various streams that flowed clean and clear without much silt. Quite a number of dayhikers pass through on the way to the Mirador at Laguna de Los Tres. The lake is named for the three climbers to have first climbed Fitz Roy. Across the river is the climbers campsite, Campamento Rio Blanco. It's fairly easy to walk down to the streams or out to a clearing to have a good view of Monte Fitz Roy O Chalten. Also clearly visible is the trail to Laguna de Los Tres, a lake at the base of the Glaciar De Los Tres. From what I can tell, the mirador must be fairly incredible, as it looks like it has a clear view of the entire Fitz Roy range.

When I got up the next day, the winds had moderated a bit. I packed up for my trip out to Refugio Los Troncos on the eastern shore of Piedra del Fraile, and headed out. The Bradt trekking guide calls this a trail of "variable quality". I would have to say that it mostly sucked. It was very rocky and not well maintained. To add to the difficulty, I had the wind driven mist and a headwind the entire way. To be fair, the conditions probably colored my opinion of the trail. The return trip was much more pleasant, and things didn't seem nearly as bad. The trail follows the Rio Blanco for about 3-4 miles before turning left (west) to follow the Rio Electrico for another 4 miles before reaching the Refugio Los Troncos, a private estancia with a campground. Along the way, the trail passes Laguna Piedras Blancas, a glaciar-fed lake, and you must cross the outlet river. After that, the trail drops down along the rocky river plain, and you are left to follow various cairn-lets (small piles of rocks) to find the path. After an hour or so, the trail actually leaves the national park. You reach a fence you have to hop over to continue on. The trail was very poorly marked, and I lost the track a number of times. That's not a big deal if you can read a topo map as the route was fairly obvious. I did miss the turn off for Piedras del Fraile, and when the trail started veering the wrong way, I quickly backtracked and the found the trail again. The trail to the estancia would have been very pleasant,if not for the wind. The trail rolls through a pleasant, open lenga forest that is clearly used for cattle grazing. The private campground at Refugio Los Troncos was nice, but it was right in the middle of glacial valley where the winds were even worse than the previous evening. I was knocked around several times.

The private campground is tucked in behind a small hill and well sheltered. There's a refugio where I got dinner, and they also had hot showers, which was very welcome after all this time in the backcountry. I couldn't do much here as the winds were simply too much. If anything, they were worse than any I had experienced so far. There are hikes to Lago Electrico and to the Cerro Electrico Summit. The former is a 30 minute hike, but is supposedly very windy. Cerro Electrico Summit is a 1700 Meter climb, so not something to be done casually. Many climbers use this as a base camp for attempts on the surrounding peaks.

I got out of there the next morning when the winds seemed to calm down. Even so, I found it hard to do much photography as the wind kept knocking me around. It was a struggle to juggle my camera, lenses, and the tripod - I dared not let go of the tripod lest it should fly away. The hike out was much better than the hike in. The weather was spectacular. I did note evidence of the strong winds the night before in the number of trees and branches that now lay across the trail. By the time I hit the Rio Blanco, it was bright, sunny and with little wind - absolutely spectacular. When I hit the river crossing for the Laguna Piedras Blancas, the weather was just about perfect. I boulder hopped all the way up to Laguna Piedras Blancas to shoot the lake and the peaks and glaciar above before heading back down to Campamento Poincenot. I considered going up to the mirador at Laguna de Los Tres but I was quite tired. I took a nap before dinner beside a stream instead. I remember thinking as I turned in that night, that we were going to pay for such a nice day. Sure enough, the winds returned as ferociously as the night before. Several people were caught off guard, judging by their yells of surprise as their gear went everywhere. Everything in the vestibule of my tent was covered in wind-blown dirt.

The next morning, I woke up early and went to check on the weather. The mountains were only partly cloudy, and it was my intent to climb up to the mirador, but I was simply too tired. The mirador is a 1200 ft climb over 1.5 miles, and the winds were still pretty fierce, but really I was kinda beat. I fear I shall regret not going up there, but there it is. I did shoot quite a bit on my way out of the park, taking my time in reaching El Chalten as my bus did not leave until 6.00 pm. The last bit of the hike out was a bit tough as it steeply dropped 1000 feet to the valley floor. I hung out in El Chalten for a few hours as I waited for my bus. Walking about confirmed my suspicion that there isn't anything to do in this little town.

If I were to return, I think I would base camp more and not move as much. I would do a couple of days at Laguna Torre, then move over to Campamento Poincenot. From there, I would build in days to do dayhikes to Laguna Piedras Blancas and Laguna de Los Tros, as well as, a build in a rain day or two. Having the time to wait for suitable weather is key to doing good photography, I think. One place I did not bother to visit is Laguna Capri, a lake half way between El Chalten and Campamento Poincenot. I could have stopped by on the way out, but I was too tired to bother.

The bus back to El Calafate leaves late in the afternoon, and you don't arrive until the evening - thus necessitating an overnight in El Calafate before moving on. I made arrangements for a bus to Puerto Natales, and left the next day.

I spent one full day in Puerto Natales to do laundry, rest, and re-supply. Puerto Natales sees a lot of backpackers, and thus has the shops and services necessary to serve them. You can re-supply at the grocery stores, and easily find trekking equipment and stove fuel at various places. It has the basic bookstores, tourist shops, internet cafes, banks, tour agencies, and restaurants that you expect in a tourist town. Puerto Natales is also a port for the ferry that travels through the fjords of of Chile between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales.

Next: Part II - Torres del Paine


Article and Photographs © Copyright 2004 Louie Escober  : You can contact the author via e-mail at escog@hotmail.com

Article created 2004

Readers' Comments


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jonathan cherry , October 05, 2010; 02:11 P.M.

Nice post.

I recently hiked the "W" in Torres del Paine.

Check you my trip report here: https://sites.google.com/site/leedsdigitalmarketing/course-pages/patagonia-south-america-trip-report 


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