El Chalten

 

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In which we spend a full week in El Chalten.

We’ve been looking forward to this week since arriving in Patagonia. Everyone we meet keeps telling us about Chalten and raving and now having been there, we completely agree. Apologies for the delay – we’ve had limited wifi lately.

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El Chalten is a tiny mountain town located within Los Glaciares National Park nestled at the foot of the massive mountains of Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre and positively surrounded by awesome rock climbing cliffs. It was founded in 1985 to settle the area when it changed hands from Chile to Argentina and is primarily full of outdoor tourists and trekkers using it as a base before taking off for major climbing expeditions.

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Cerro Fitz Roy, shrouded in cloud.

 

We’ve come straight from the W track, so naturally we skillfully turn a rest day into a 25 km hike up Loma del Pliegue Tumbado – a viewpoint overlooking town and into the surrounding peaks and glaciers. The weather is spectacular, with clouds flying over our heads in multiple different directions at once.

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J glacier stomping.

At the entry, we found a sign warning us not to take home the fossils. Fossils, you say? On the descent, we start searching and almost immediately find entire seascapes, shell patterns, and trogdolyte-esque pieces galore. Including this fine specimen – anyone have any ideas what it could be?

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That evening, the rain begins. We are camping on the outskirts of town and spend most of the next two days in the camp kitchen reading, playing Set, and hanging out with other travelers. Our beloved tent, the Turtle, which was top of the line back in 2004, is proving to be less than waterproof. We’re wet, our stuff is wet, the rock is wet, and the clouds are so low we can’t even see the mountains.

Benya finally convinces us that if we’re camping in town, we might as well be camping in the mountains, so during a brief lull at 6:00 pm on the second day of rain, we take off with our packs to a nearby campsite which is the first day of our previously planned 2-3 day backpacking loop. By the time we get to camp, 8 km later (less than 2 hours, at the ridiculous pace we’ve adopted over the last couple of weeks), its pouring again and we set up pre-dampened tents, furiously dig some trenches, huddle together to scarf down a quick dinner and go straight to bed.

We wake up wet, grumpy, and underslept. But as we’re having brekkie, the sky clears and then this happens:

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We set up a yard sale in a dry riverbed with Fitz Roy looming overhead. The sun and breeze have us dry in no time and happier than we’ve been in days. We do a quick (steep) hike up to Mirador Fitz Roy and then rush back to town amidst spectacular views we missed entirely on the hike in to shower, change, pack, and catch our 9 pm, overnight bus north.

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Alas, Friday evening finds us sitting at the bus station dead tired, snarfing empanadas, only to be told that all that rain has flooded the roads and our bus has been cancelled. Be back same time tomorrow. We stare silently at the messenger and resolutely finish our empanadas, then lug our things back across town to set up camp again.

The next day is stunningly beautiful and we congratulate ourselves on having a bonus day in El Chalten, to replace the rain days we missed. We spend the day lounging in the sun, picking local cherries, and bouldering near town.

 

More photos from El Chalten:

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Insect-like flowers.

 

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Majestic as shit.

 

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Benya completed the traverse!

 

Saturday evening looks a lot like Friday evening did, and we find ourselves once again sitting at the bus station snarfing empanadas. The bus, already a 20-hour ordeal, arrives 2 hours late and we fall asleep almost immediately. In the morning, we wake up to find that we’re only about an hour and a half north of Chalten. What? Turns out that the road is still impassable and we’ve taken a 7-hour detour all that way to the Atlantic coast and back. We don’t arrive in Bariloche until past midnight, early Monday morning.

After so much time in the remote South, Bariloche, although still in the South and technically Patagonia, feels downright European. We are greeted by warm, humid weather, Swiss-style architecture, and a bustling downtown. We have two nights and a single day here due to our travel delays, and we get our bearings with a slow morning and a delightful picnic on the beach, then walk up to Cerro Otto for a view over town.

 

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We scramble up some rocks to the top of a small spire and find a delightful band of Argentine hippies playing banjos and reed flutes, drinking maté, and cheering on their buddy who is slacklining the 50 meter gap between two rocky protrusions. We join them for a while, fully enjoying the scene we’ve happened upon, and ooh and ahh whenever the wind picks up or a hawk gets curious.

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Later, we wander off to try to find a path up to a nearby ridge for a better view. A steep trail quickly devolves into an animal track, but we persevere until the density of large, fresh, cat-like footprints makes us fairly certain we’re in the immediate vicinity of a puma den. We decide that we don’t really need a better view after all and we’d rather change plans and go get a beer instead. We hitch a ride back to town with some nice Chilean guys, find a craft beer bar, and treat ourselves to a delightful dinner. Overall, a short but surprisingly great stay in Bariloche.

 

We now find ourselves back in Chile in the famed Lake District. Til next time!

Lots of love,

C & J & B

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The W Track

 

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In which we are joined by friend Benya from Seattle and hike the spectacular 80 km, 4-day W Track through Torres Del Paine National Park.

 

 

Day 1: Mirador Los Torres, 20 km.

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The nice thing about hiking a track shaped like a W is that the three spurs north are all there-and-back, meaning we can leave our heavy packs behind. Day 1, we set up camp almost immediately and then take off up the first spur to Mirador Los Torres. J and B set an impressive (slightly competitive) pace, and we are passing people left and right.

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The Mirador is spectacular. We hang out for an hour just taking in the sights and even spot a silver fox among the rocks.

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Day 2: Campamento Frances, 13.5 km.

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We pick up our packs and trek over some rolling hills and along two different lakes to Campamento Frances.

Apparently, the national park has been experiencing a huge influx of visitors and implemented a reservation system for campsites just this year. The system is a hot mess and told us all campsites were reserved, so we booked into the domos. Which turned out to be posh little domes with bunk beds and hot showers. Even the campsites on this trek have little canteen areas that sell beer and wine. We are at first appalled, then delighted when we are tucked neatly into our domo beds instead of outside in tents when the windstorm hits that night.

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Day 3: Britannico Lookout, 21.6 km.

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Today, we hike for about an hour before dropping our packs and taking off up the middle spur of the W to Britannico lookout. We are surrounded by stunning rocky cliffs, crashing glaciers, and some super intense wind.

Wind so intense that the waterfalls are caught and travel sideways or even up and dissipate, so that no water ever hits the ground.

Returning from the lookout, we pick up our packs and slog another (stunningly beautiful) leg to Paine Grande, our final camp.

 

Day 4: Gray Glacier, 25 km.

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J and I have done this section of the trail already, but we enjoy taking B up to Gray Glacier Lookout and seeing the changes in the last week. The wind is intense and we are struggling against it the whole way there so that we are slow, even without our big packs on. Miracles do happen, and the wind has not changed direction for our return trip, so we float back to Paine Grande just in time to have a beer in the lodge and hop the ferry back.

On our last day, the clouds were rolling in and out and we had intermittent peltings of rain, but it wasn’t until we were safely on the ferry and then the bus that thick view-blocking clouds descended and heavy rain started. What luck!

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The next morning, we catch an early bus back to Argentina and now find ourselves in El Chalten, on the other side of the South Patagonian Ice Field, for some more hiking and climbing.

 

More photos:

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C bouldering on an awesome layback.

 

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We do our parillas (barbecue meat plates) two at a time.

 

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Til next time! Lots of love,

C & J (& B!)

Oh, this is what we’re here for. . .

In which we adapt to the travelling way of life and begin exploring Patagonia properly. And by properly, we mean with our hiking boots on.

Part I: Lago Sofia.

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First, we go in search of rock climbing and hear tell of a locals lake. We hitch a series of three rides out of town to Lago Sofia and take off for a single night of backpacking and rock climbing.

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Above Lago Sofia. The rock here is composite and looks like an intentionally designed outdoor climbing wall of cement inlaid with river stones.

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Condors have a wingspan of up to 3 meters and can live up to 70 years. There are several roosting in the cliffs above the lake and they spend all afternoon majestically circling above us.

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Our first summit in South America, a day-hike to the top of the cliffs. Sweeping Patagonian winds not pictured.

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The turtle enjoys a protected cave with a view for the evening.

We spend a day off resting in Puerto Natales eating lamb and doing laundry. Next up:

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Part II: Gray Glacier, Torres del Paine National Park

This park is the reason Patagonia attracts so many hikers from around the world. We’ve planned two trips into the park – this week we entered on the west side for a three-day hike past Gray Glacier. Next week we’ll tackle the famed W Track from the east.

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It’s a very popular park. Exhibit A: The backpacks piled into the bow of the catamaran ferry.

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The view of Paine Grande from the ferry landing. Patagoniaaaa!!

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We sprint past the day-hikers and emerge over Lago Gray. Gray Glacier in the distance behind us.

The weather in Patagonia is variable. The sun is scorching and hot. In the shade, it’s chilly. The wind is incredibly strong and bitterly cold and blows rain clouds in and out at whims. On any given day, we find ourselves cycling through SPF 100, tank tops, jackets, rain gear, and knit beanies multiple times.

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Gray Glacier.

We spot a crack in the closest ice berg and sure enough, a large chunk soon crashed into the water while we lay watching it.

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The glacier itself is fed by the Southern Patagonian Ice Field (Campo de Hielo Sur), which covers a total of about 6,500 square miles across the Andes between Chile and Argentina. It is also rapidly receding.

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The second day, we trek 27 km, alternating between pleasant forest glens, sweeping glacial views, and rocky slopes.

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The mountains above us are stark and striking. The wildflowers are out. The sun hits the distant snow fields and they glow like cool whip waiting to be licked. We’ve hit the weather jackpot and we’re giddy with excitement.

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The day peaks with a crippling slog up 700 meters of elevation in roughly 2 km up to el paso. We glimpse the rocky peaks on the other side before hightailing it back down, punishing our knees to complete a 9.5 hour day.

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Glacier stomping. A gentleman along the trail prepped us for the view from the pass by stating that while he may or may not have cried, he definitely “felt muchos emotions”.

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2 km from camp, we encounter a family we’d crossed about 7 hours earlier. They’d only moved about 8 km – the older lady is seriously struggling. J offers to take her pack: “Pero it’s heavy. . .” her daughter tells us. J shrugs. “Soy fuerte.”

J takes the pack, informs the woman that she’ll leave it at the entrance to the campsite, and takes off down the trail at a trot.

Fuerte J, at el paso:

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img_0720We complete the hike out the third day, throw in an extra waterfall jaunt for good measure, and catch the ferry, then the bus back to Puerto Natales. It’s starting to feel a lot like Patagonia.

Lots of love,

C & J

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