Southern Patagonia

So it has been one month exactly since I have posted here, but when you hear what I have been up to you will understand. For the last 30 some days I have been hiking my face off and spending nearly all of my time in the wilderness or in places with limited to no internet. It has been amazing! Yes, Patagonia is all it’s cracked up to be and more. I haven’t been in this good of hiking shape since my Pacific Crest Trail attempt a few years ago, but sadly I think I am now totally spoiled for scenery. (I-90 hikes and Mount Si just won’t stack up against all that I have just seen.) So let’s begin at the beginning…where I last left off.

Punta Arenas (Chile)

Just little old me and 100,000 of my penguin friends

This was my first major stop after Ushuaia (save a very rainy and probably misguided night of camping in the tiny town of Tolhuin) and when I first arrived I thought, ‘Wow, the late spring, early summer weather here is exactly the same as Seattle most of the year…overcast, rainy, and between 40 and 50 degrees F…so much for escaping the gloom back home.’ There isn’t much to recommend this town. The sights mainly include an old cemetary with lavish crypsts for sheep baron families and a colonial plaza (you can see this sort of thing in tons of towns in South America), BUT it does have access to the Strait of Magellan and isolated Isla Magdalena, the summertime home of a colony of over 100,000 Magellanic penguins! And fortunately for me I had amazing, sunny weather the day I got to walk among them. It was amazing to be so close and watch them waddling around in their funny little way and doting on their brand new babies. I also got to observe the pecking order (quite literally) among the males. These little guys are constantly having pissing contests with their donkey like calls and can get pretty aggressive with each other. Punta Arenas is also where I met up with Jen, a friend of a friend at the time, but now a trusted and very close hiking buddy (which is fortunate because we shared a 6 ft x 4 ft space inside my tent for 10 of the nights we traveled together).

Torres del Paine (Chile)

After a day of planning, packing, and relaxing, Jen and I took off to complete the Torres del Paine full circuit. A trek of over 150 km (roughly 93 miles) encompassing old pasture lands that were once used as estancias (ranches), moss covered forests similar to home, numerous glaciers, spire like mountains, waterfalls, beautiful rivers, and many stunning lakes. This trail has it all.

Guanacos, baby and mama

We started out on a windless, but unauspiciously rainy day with low clouds that kept the mountains out of view and trotted along on a super easy section of trail following a wide, milky, glacier fed river. It felt pretty boring compared to what I had seen in Ushuaia and I was starting to wonder what all the hype was about. However, highlights of the day included seeing a large herd of guanacos (relatives of the camel) with their babies and realizing how truly tiny this world is by bumping into someone I went to high school with in Fife.

Dickson Glacier

The next day the weather improved around mid-day as we hiked along a rolling trail through a large open valley and I got my first glacier views! The colors of Glacier Dickson above its adjacent lake of the same name were amazing. The different colors of blue in the ice were so cool. Photographs just can’t do them justice. With reasonably good weather on our side we pushed forward to complete a 28 km day. We wanted to make the following day over the pass a little bit shorter and use the better visibility to see the mountains on the way to the Los Perros Glacier camp, which was smaller than Dickson, but equally amazing. After a long day we found shelter from a vicious wind in a small wooded camp and celebrated with spiked hot coco inside the camp’s yurt, which had a welcoming woodburning stove to warm us up.

Blizzard at the top of the pass

When we woke to cold, crisp weather and blue skies the next morning, our Gardner Pass day was looking promising. However, after breakfast it started snowing and didn’t stop. The famous Patagonian wind also picked up as we continued over the avalanche and steep snow fields leading up to the pass and we basically made the journey in a full fledged blizzard with sustained 35 mph winds. I had never experienced anything quite like it. My pack cover was like a sail as the wind tried to lift me off the ground. We really had to time our snow crossings to avoid getting blown over. When we made it to the top we were literally staggering across the pass against the wind and snow. It was brutal, but even in the cold and wind it was hard not be awestruck by the massive ice field of Glacier Grey, spreading out as far as the eye could see. When we finally made it to camp we were so cold we just made hot food and drinks and played cards in our sleeping bags a majority of the evening to try to warm up since it was still so cold it was snowing fairly constantly.

Glacier Grey

So far we had experienced spring and winter hiking conditions and the next day, ‘ta-dah,’ it was summer. And it was absolutely spectacular. Blue skies and sun with open views of the insane spire ridges that were all the more impressive with a light powdering of snow from the day before. We took our time enjoying the warmth and non-stop views of Glacier Grey as we hiked in and out of both old burn and green woodlands with sightings of condors, wood peckers, and large clusters of dove orchids. Even with our dawdling pace we arrived at camp early in the afternoon to do yoga on a sun drenched patch of grass below the mountains. We were so hot and happy that when we went down to view the wall of the glacier from the lake, we (somewhat hesitantly) stripped off our clothes and went skinny dipping amongst the icebergs. It was COLD, but a great way to ice our sore muscles from the previous days.

Ridges above Glacier Grey (this day was so nice it deserves two photos)

Sadly the next day we woke to light rain and low clouds. After seeing what lay behind those clouds the day before, were a bit depressed. The scenery was still nice with many waterfalls and lakes, but nothing compared to what we’d seen in the previous day’s clear weather and we were officially on the ‘W’ portion of the trail, which is completely packed with hikers. (I have never seen so many people in a backcountry camp. It is crazy!). So we glummy pushed on to Campimento Italiano , which sits just below the French Glacier and famous French Valley. We had hoped to hike it after setting camp and did get some views of the glacier, but the clouds never opened so we decided to wake early the next morning and hope for the best.

It looked promising when we got up, with patches of blue sky, the whole mountain holding the French Glacier visible, and a few spires peaking mystically out of the clouds. In the end though we only got a few glimpses before we had to continue down the trail. We had decided to make it a bit of an epic day (30+ km), in order to finish the trek 2 days early. If we came out on Christmas Day,  we just weren’t sure how easy it would be to get food and a bed in town.

Cuernos del Paine in slight clouds

The weather improved around 11am and we got amazing views of  stunning turquoise lakes against a mars like setting of red, dry steppe and snowcapped peaks as we pushed along at a fast pace in the hot sun. We were lucky that the Cuernos del Paine, spires with contrasting bands of granite and igneous rock, were mostly out of the clouds, which added a great view to our lunch spot. Around 4pm we entered the Valle Ascencio, the valley that holds the park’s namesake mountains. We were feeling strong and enjoying the continued sunshine as it opened up a few obstructed views of the Torres from below. A dry, desert like ridge similar to something you would see in Arizona dominated our eastern views with strange, constrasting patches of snow and waterfalls cascading down. We had high hopes for the next day when we would wake up before sunrise to hopefully see the morning colors on the Torres.

Christmas Day in Puerto Natales

Unfortunately, we just ended up shivering in the rain and wind of the early morning for two hours, looking hopefully but pointlessly out over the lake and the bottom half of the Torres. We had a 20 minute period where we thought it might clear and then finally gave up. It was sort of an anticlimatic end to our hike, but in Southern Patagonia everything depends on the weather, which is unpredictable and always changing. It is one of the things that makes it such an elusive place and makes you all the more grateful for the few clear, sunny days you are blessed with. After our hike, we spent Christmas Eve and Day in Puerto Natales largely running errands and eating lots of food to knock down our calorie deficit. We had some nice weather and tried to just relax and enjoy after all our hard work. It didn’t really feel like Christmas, though, which was okay with both of us. We finished off the day with a bottle of wine and a tasty seafood dinner.

El Calafate (Argentina)

El Calafate…or the Gorge during a festival?

The day after Christmas, Jen and I woke up early to catch a bus to the Perito Moreno glacier. In between naps I was surprised to look around and see the scenery utterly changed. There is a rainshadow here similar to Washington and just a few hours away from Puerto Natales we felt like we were driving into the Colombia River Gorge area around Vantage. It was a total trip. I keep telling people ‘Oh, this looks exactly like such and such from back home’ and they look at me with gaping eyes and wonder why I came all the way here. Yes, it is true that there are similarities (it only makes sense since I am basically at the same latitude only south instead of north), but it is so much more spectacular here. El Calafate, for example, with its ridges and houses dotting the scrublands looks a lot like the Gorge during a festival, but then you look to the north and see lagoon blue Lago Argentino (the largest in the country and that’s really saying something), walk by a flamingo reserve, or drive an hour away and see ice chunks the size of cars falling off one of the most famous glaciers in the world.

Ice Castle! or a very small portion of Perito Moreno Glacier

Perito Moreno was totally incredible with its amazing colors and ice formations. Parts of it literally look like an ice castle. However, and it feels strange to admit it, while I was there I felt a bit underwhelmed. Maybe it was the long, stuffy car ride,  sleep deprivation, the expensive tour and entrance fee, or the hoards of people everywhere. Yes, it was really, really cool! I can’t deny that, but after hiking along Glacier Grey for a day and a half and sharing it with maybe only 20 or 30 other people who had made a real effort to be there, being at Perito Moreno was a totally different and not quite as special experience.

El Chalten (Argentina)

After Perito, some rest, and a delicious parilla dinner (basically Argentine barbeque and a total meat fest), we finally balanced out our lingering calorie deficit and were ready for some more hiking, so what better place to go then El Chalten, Argentina’s national trekking capital (seriously, it says that on the town sign). Most of the trailheads start right from the town here, which makes it pretty convenient to rush up the trail when the weather suddenly clears, revealing the peaks of the area’s gorgeous mountain range. I may be a bit biased since I had really amazing weather (only 3 bad days out of 10), but I think the scenery and hiking in El Chalten are even better than Torres del Paine.

Our very own Torres

For our last trip together, Jen and I decided to take things at a more relaxed pace and just have a mellow trip with more and better food and even toted some extra whiskey into the mountains (we would be hiking over New Year’s so it only made sense). Each day we hiked no more than 5 hours and often were able to set camp and do the steeper stuff without a heavy pack.

We started our trip in a less busy area on private land that is popular with climbers due to its access to the western routes of the mountain range along the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. It was cool to hear what other people were doing. The climbing here is really rewarding but crazy hard. We had a nice mellow day hiking two hours to camp then made our way along a meandering and divided path to Lago Electrico and a lookout of a glacier lake with spire mountains above. We had it all to ourself and, for me, it was my own Torres del Paine.

The next day we had planned to challenge ourselves with a hike to Paso del Cuadrado, which follows a rocky, climbers’ trail high up into the mountains and according to the owner of our hostel is ‘the best day hike you will ever do.’ Unfortunately the weather didn’t cooperate and we woke to complete fog and rain that was so heavy that combined with a tent malfunction left a pool of water at my feet, completely soaking all of my clothes except what I had on. While I attempted to dry things out in the cold, we waited for the skies to clear. The sun broke through the clouds slightly for a few hours, but around 2pm we gave up and hiked a few short hours to Poincenot, the hikers’ camp just below the famous Fitz Roy peak, stopping at the Piedra Blanca glacier along the way.

Getting my yoga on at Laguna de Los Tres at the base of Fitz Roy

The next day was New Year’s Eve and the morning was glorious. The sun came out and the clouds lifted. I was happy for many reasons. We were going to get to hike to Laguna de Los Tres at the base of Fitz Roy with hardly a cloud in the sky and I was going to have dry clothes again! While I watched the steam rise off my cold, wet clothes, Jen and I saw so many day hikers pass by our camp we lost count. ‘It is going to be packed at the top,’ I thought. We put off the steep, 50 minute trek to the top until later in the afternoon to hopefully avoid some of the crowds. People in all sorts of shape and experience levels do the hikes here in Patagonia so it can be a bit frustrating to pass large guided groups or clueless and panting novices. However, once at the top it didn’t feel crowded because the basin it is so big and there are so many different places to climb around and get different vantage points. It is hard to describe how incredible it was that day: the reflections of the mountain in the lake, the ice fall on the glacier that looked so benign from far away, the Aegean blue of the water in the two iceberg filled lakes, and 360 degree views of mountains, mountains, and more mountains. It was so spectacular that Jen and I spent 5 hours up there, checking out different views, relaxing in the sun, and just staring. That night we stayed up until midnight to ring in the new year with our remaining whiskey supply. The sunset around 10:30 or 11, leaving us with gorgeous colors along the mountain tops and we made our last toast at midnight while we watched the stars come out.

Ringing in the New Year

The next morning for our hike to Cerro Torre, the other famous peak in this range, the weather was even nicer. We made our way along a lovely glacier fed river with milky, emerald waters and after lunch hiked over to Laguna Torre for views of the glacier and namesake mountain. It was a perfect day with not a cloud in the sky. Surprisingly there were way fewer people here than the day before at Fitz Roy. This was not a problem for us, especially since it was so hot we decided to repeat our iceberg skinny dipping escapades for a New Year’s Day polar bear swim (quite literally) and got pretty spectular photo ops. This time I swam all the way out to an iceberg and climbed on top. Not a bad way to start off the new year. This was our last night camping together, which felt a little strange since we had spent nearly all our time together since December 16th. I was happy we had gotten along so well and been strong hiking partners. We walked about the same pace and had similar fits of picture taking frenzy and humored each other by taking many photos of each other striking ridiculous poses in front of glaciers.

Polar bear swim at Cerro Torre

The following morning, it was still quite nice as we hiked back to town, but I sensed that the weather was changing. I had planned to do a very strenuous circuit on my own once Jen left and was hoping the weather would hold since it wouldn’t make sense to do it if the weather was bad. I don’t want to worry my already worried parents, but this circuit involved two high and cold river fords with water coming right off the glacier, an actual glacier crossing, numerous exposed steep sections that can be dangerous in super high wind (you can literally get blown away), and a decent amount of route finding.

Once in town I talked to a ranger at the park office and he confirmed my worries. The clear weather window was closing and if I wanted to do the Vuelta al Huemul circuit I needed to expect some wind, approaching bad weather on my last day, and I needed to leave as soon as possible. It felt kind of crazy, but I got off the trail at 11am and ran around town for a few hours getting my bus tickets in order, a shower, and provisions for 4 days before saying a hasty goodbye to Jen and scarfing down some empanadas on my way to the trailhead at 5:20pm.  I felt exhilarated as I hiked out on my own up a semi-steep path carrying everything I would need for the next few days. I had to walk at a rapid pace to make it to camp before the sunset. Fortunately for me I had at least 5 or 6 hours of light since El Chalten is at such a low latitude, but the ranger had told me it takes 7 hours. I hiked in and out of woods and across open marshy meadows with views of enormous Lago Viedma to the south, flocks of birds passing overhead, and for the first time in days…no other hikers. It was super windy when I got to the top of the ridge and could see Laguna Toro and its raging river below looking a decent distance away. I made it to camp pretty easily in 4 hours, though, and met 9 other people also doing the circuit.

The next morning I woke up early and got going. I had heard it was best to ford the river before 8am since there was less water coming off the glacier then. I met up with two Israeli guys a few minutes from camp and asked to ford the river with them since it seemed safer that way. Oh that ford was cold and, for me, up to my hips. When I saw the taller of the two guys getting water up to his thighs I knew I was going to have to make a full costume change afterwards. Fortunately, we made it across the fast water and found a sheltered place to have a hot breakfast and tea and warm up in the sun.

Me touching my glacier!

That day I got to do two things I had been wanting to do for a few weeks, touch a glacier and see the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. Traversing the glacier was much more mellow than I had expected, but so cool! The crevasses, colors, and little melted pools along the way were so crazy. After a steep and windy hike over scree I made it to the top of Paso del Viento (literally Windy Pass), which fortunately didn’t live up to its name and had nearly an hour here to look out over the ice field and Glacier Viedma. It was amazing, ice for miles and miles and imposing mountains where Argentina and Chile meet (that’s some good border control…very few would attempt to cross here and live to tell the tale). I did some exploring along the edge of the ice field before the crazy wind made me turn back and then ended up doing some unintentional exploring when the trail petered out and I had to find my way to the refugio. I overshot it by about 1km and 500m, but had wonderful views the whole time and eventually made it down to the cabin for an enormous dinner.

My feet with a small portion of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field

The next morning I got started around the same time as the two Israeli guys I had met earlier, and since we walked about the same pace, ended up hiking with them much of the rest of the time. We walked along tundra meadows and many small glacier lakes. Then up and over Huemal Pass before descending down just a stupid steep section of trail to the wall of Viedma Glacier. We ended up camped in a totally unprotected spot near the only good water source. I was a bit worried about it since the weather was supposed to change and at 2am the wind came whipping through just as I feared. It died down at times, but even with huge rock piles on my stakes a few got loose and by 5am the only thing keeping my tent in place was me and my backpack. We all got up then, hoping to escape the worst of it. We had to use the map to find the trail again since it disappeared about 30 minutes before we reached camp the day before. Once we picked it up we contoured along gorgeous Lago Viedma on exposed hillsides before making another tricky river crossing and getting to the port. From there we cut through pasture lands with lots of cute baby cows, but in tough winds and increasing rain. Fortunately, we arrived back in town just as the truly horrendous weather was starting.

Wall of Glacier Viedma

Anyhow, overall the trek was truly amazing and everything I had hoped for. The two guys I walked with were really sweet too. They were always offering help and keeping an eye out for me, which though I would have made it fine on my own, made me feel a lot safer. (Israelis really get a bad rap as tourists, I think. All of the ones I have met in Patagonia have been very friendly, fun, open, and quite considerate.)

Navimag Ferry

Daybreak on the Navimag

After I finished the circuit, I had a day in town to recover and hang out with a few people I had met there before returning to Puerto Natales to board the Navimag. After doing some research on buses north, I found out that the 30 hour bus from El Calafate to Bariloche costs nearly $200 US. Spending that much on a hellish bus ride sounded lame and earlier I had found out about a ferry that goes north through the Patagonian fjords over 4 days. It did cost more, but with 4 nights of accomodation and food included, plus an excursion to a glaciar, views of a ship wreck and remote Puerto Eden, and chances to see wildlife and beautiful scenery along the way, it sounded like a way better deal. Also, though I was somewhat worried I’d get bored on a boat for 4 days, my body was definitely ready for some relative laziness and happy to sleep in a bed, shower regularly, and get 3 square meals a day not cooked over a backcountry stove.

When I first checked in, I was wondering if I would meet anyone to hang out with, since it mostly seemed like Chilean families and Israelis. Randomly, though, I discovered a small contingent of people from the Pacific Northwest. There was an awesome couple from Eugene, OR and a solo woman traveler from Portland. I also met several other people and had a great time. I had imagined that I would have all this down time to write, read, and research, but ended up being my overly social self, playing many games of cards over wine and even getting an opportunity to sing a few karaoke songs one night.  The trip aboard was great even though the weather was pretty bad the first two days, but I did get to see a blue whale, dolphin, and many seabirds. I also took in my last glacier for a while and the last day onboard we had amazing, clear weather. It was so nice to sit out on deck, have a drink, play cards, and watch the amazing peaks and volcanoes go by. Everyone was happy and it had a sort of party boat atmosphere, especially since the day before we had complete fog and had gone through the open ocean (which meant it was rough water and many people were sick or trying to sleep through it).

Volcan Osorno with the Saltos del Petrohue

Now I am in Puerto Varas, Chile, a German influenced town with a Bavarian vibe and views of stunning Volcan Osorno, which looks very similar to Mount Fuji. So far I have had 3 days of clear, perfect, and very hot weather (it is such a change from down south). I have been killing some time here while waiting for a package from back home and have done some camping on the lake, a few day hikes, and eaten many yummy things at the town market.

Phew! Well, that’s all for now. Congratulations to those of you who made it all the way through. I realize this is a long post (probably my longest ever), but I have done so much over the last month, once I got going it was hard to stop!

2 thoughts on “Southern Patagonia

  1. Wonderful blog, Im heading down in January. One of my bucket list treks is the Huemuel Circuit. It appears you did it. Was it difficult to find the way? Any dangers on the glacier? How was the stream crossing? Any resources you can give me to show the route will be appreciated. Ive watched lots of videos and have detailed trekking maps. I hope to find someone to do it with but will go alone if necessary. Thx.

    • Hi Ivan,

      I did do this and it was amazing, but definitely more on the dangerous side. The stream crossing was one of the scariest of my life (fast flowing glacier water up to my waist even at first light before a lot of melt off — granted I’m pretty short, only 5′ 4″). There was definitely a moment where I thought I was going to be carried away and gone forever. I was really glad to do parts of it with other people even though there wasn’t much they could have done if I’d gone flying down the river. You actually have to cross the river twice (on the way back one of my co-hikers actually fell and went about 30′ before regaining his feet). The part descending from the pass and the final day hiking from the lake at the end of the patagonian ice field back to town were the hardest route finding parts. Walking on the glacier was cool and not challenging even without glacier gear. I would check with the info center to get the latest conditions and wait to go during a time when the winds are low (its pretty exposed and you can literally get blown off your feet, which could end very badly for you in a lot of places). It was still one of the coolest trips I’ve been on and I don’t regret doing it at all, but was happy to have a good map and some other people to walk with in the challenging sections. Best of luck, be safe, and have fun in this amazing area of the world! – Francesca

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