National Trekking Capital ~ El Chalten, Argentina

17 March – 22 March, 2018

Although we enjoyed our time in El Calafate and hiking in Torres del Paine National Park, we were looking forward to experiencing the trails of El Chalten, in the northern sector of Los Glaciares National Park, and the best news of all, there was sun in our forecast. Another early morning bus ride, this one only three hours, and we were there!

Los Glaciares National Park peaks, seen from the park service office.

There have been a few places where we carved out some extra time, as we knew Patagonia was moody, the weather changing often during the day. El Chalten was one of those places and we spent six days enjoying her laid-back atmosphere.

We had read on several forums that if you only had one place to hike in Patagonia, El Chalten should be the place. Trailheads are at the edge of town and the national park is free. Contrast this to our time in El Calafate, where we had a 2-hour commute to the park and the entrance fee was $38 per person. What’s not to like?

As we made our approach into El Chalten, the granite needles of Fitz Roy rose from the surrounding landscape, a watchful sentinel over this quaint little town. This mountain has become a symbol for Argentine Patagonia and became even more so thanks to Yvon Chouinard. After his successful summit of Fitz Roy in 1968, with a USA team, he used its shape to inspire the logo for his clothing brand, Patagonia. At roughly 11,200 feet above sea level, Fitz Roy may not be the highest peak in Argentine, but it is considered one of the most technically challenging climbs on the planet, due to its vertical granite cliffs and how quickly the weather can change. To give an idea of this challenge, Everest averages 50 successful climbers per year, Fitz Roy only one.

El Chalten is an eclectic little town, easily walkable, with a permanent population of 1,100. But with the recent paving of a highway leading into town, it’s growing so rapidly that some feel it will become the next Calafate, with spiraling real estate prices. It reminded me a bit of Gardiner, Montana, some roads paved, some still gravel with their fair share of potholes, a very interesting place.

We had three glorious days of mostly sun and little wind, giving us many opportunities to hike, to see Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre up-close. Our hostel, Pudu Lodge, was situated on the edge of town, with access to many of the hiking trails just a block away…perfect!

Scouting out interesting, local restaurants is part of the travel experience, and El Chalten has a fair number of cafes, given its size. We had heard about the German owned La Cerveceria from Backpacker Steve, whose website we researched often during our trip planning.

They brew their own beer, which is the reason he encourages travelers to go. Yes, their beer was tasty, but their menu, although limited, was so enticing, we found ourselves going back time and again, four to be exact.  What we discovered was a quirky little eatery that featured all things homemade, beer to breadsticks and everything in-between.  We loved the local stew, locro, the salmon ravioli, the vegetarian empanadas, and the butternut squash stuffed with sautéed vegetables. For a country that relies heavily on meat, bread, and cheese, this was a delicious diversion. And the staff made us feel like family each time we walked through the door.

El Chalten was everything we hoped it would be, and I finally found a couple of Patagonia’s more lovely residents.

Next Up: Long Night’s Bus Ride










Blue Ice & Depth Charges ~ Perito Moreno Glacier

14 March, 2018

I could barely contain my excitement as we boarded the Always Glaciers tour bus, anticipating our third national park, Los Glaciares National Park, and one of Argentina’s most visited destinations, the Perito Moreno Glacier. Rain clouds teased overhead but I was remaining cautiously optimistic that the Argentina rain gods would be kinder to us. Weather is so fickle here in Patagonia, so no use expending negative energy worrying about that which I couldn’t control.

El Calafate is famous as the base for visiting this glacier and the southern sector of Los Glaciares National Park, the largest national park in Argentina. The park has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has 47 large glaciers being fed by a giant ice cap in the Andes, and 30% of its mass is covered by ice. This is the world’s 4th-largest ice cap, excluding Antarctica, Iceland, and Greenland.

The sky cleared as we paid our entrance fee to the park. I was encouraged as I had read that Perito Moreno tends to be more active in sunny weather. We were hoping to experience calvings off the face of this massive beauty.

There are several ways to see this gal – from her many boardwalks, taking a one-hour boat ride along part of her stunningly blue face, or trekking across. Try as I might before our arrival, I could not convince any of the tour companies to allow Terry to trek on the ice, their age limit being 65, and no exceptions due to the insurance they carried. 😦 We opted to stay on the boardwalks as we felt our chances of seeing calvings might be greater.

Not the largest glacier in the park but the one with star quality, Perito Moreno upstages twice-as-long Glacier Upsala, who has picked up much more debris during her advance and is not the brilliant blue that characterizes Perito Moreno.

Unsullied Perito Moreno, a jagged mass of crevasses and knife-edged seracs, is one of only two advancing glaciers in all of South America, crawling forward at a rate of ~ 2 meters per day. Most of the massive glaciers cloaking the spine of the Patagonian Andes are retreating in response to global warming, according to Andrés Rivera, a Chilean glaciologist, all except for Perito Moreno and Pio XI in Chile.  Perito Moreno, at  30 kilometers long and 5 kilometers wide, overshadows all else, sitting in the largest of Argentina’s lakes, Lago Argentino. Over 50% of her bulk sits below the sea, for a total combined height of ~ 170 meters.

Over millennia, untold numbers of storms have deposited countless meters of snow, compressing this glacier into what we see today. As the ice pushes across the channel of Lago Argentino, a massive dyke of ice cuts off the Brazo Rico arm of the lake from the main body. The water pressure builds until the natural dam can no longer bear the weight, resulting in an explosion of ice and frigid water that rushes into the lake’s main glacial trough, flooding everything in its path, including El Calafate. This phenomenon has occurred fifteen times during the 20th century, then from 1988 until March 2004, silence.

There was an arch over this section until two days before our visit.

On March 14, 2004, the dam gave way, releasing an avalanche of water and ice, a fitting metaphor for the flood of tourists who invaded El Calafate in hopes of seeing this event. It is said that those lucky enough to witness such a spectacle have found it to be one of nature’s most awesome sights. The last event of this type occurred just two days before our visit. Although this would have been the ultimate, the 14-meter wall of water that descended upon El Calafate is the reason the Laguna Nimez Bird Sanctuary was closed due to flooding. 😦

As if acknowledging our sadness at the loss of seeing all those feathered charmers, Perito Moreno stepped up and performed mightily the day of our visit. From our boardwalk perch, we listened for the sound of the glacier calving. Once you hear a sound that resembles a small cannon, get prepared for the show. Camera should be on-the-ready or you’ll miss blocks of ice, weighing hundreds of tons, detonating off the glacier’s 74-meter face, crashing into what has been dubbed “Iceberg Channel” below. These frozen depth-charges trumpet the forming of a new iceberg.

And the walls came tumbling down! Terry captured this on video. 🙂

These massive calvings occur several times daily and we were fortunate to see several during our few hours on the viewing platforms. Imagine pieces of a 24-story building being blasted away by a small cannon and this is the sound you hear. Terry got some great video footage, but internet will not allow me to upload it at this time. I see another Perito Moreno post in my future. 🙂