Photo packs have come a long way in the past decade, especially those that are targeted toward outdoor and adventure photographers. Alaska-based adventure photographer Dan Bailey takes a closer look...
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:
Perito Moreno and Parque Nacional los Glaciares (this 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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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