We had been debating the pros and cons visiting the famous Torres del Paine National Park in SW Chile and in the end decided not to go. It was a 300km round trip, much of it on dirt, from Puerto Natales and we would only have a day or so there so we decided to push north towards the Carretera Austral, dipping into Argentina yet again. We got talking to a lovely guy from Barcelona in the Ovejero campground in El Calafate and he said we must head to El Chalten in the Los Glaciares National Park, the centre for trekking in Argentina. A couple of others said the same so off we went back into Argentina – for the fourth time!
Los Glaciares NP sits at the end of the road about 80km west of Argentina’s Ruta 40 and as we flew down the long straight towards the town the mountains loomed large. Glaciers crept down the mountains and a huge iceberg bobbed in Lago Viedma to our south. Despite the constant buffeting by the freezing wind our excitement rose with every passing kilometre. The Park HQ is super organised and despite the ranger briefing us in rapid Spanish we sort of got the gist of the do’s and don’ts in the 7,300km sq park. And unlike the uber touristy El Calafate NP there is no entry fee – amazing!
The town of El Chalten is a compact place nestled around the Rio de las Vueltas at the foot of the mountains. It consists of two wide streets dotted with shops catering for the tourist trade: bars, cafes, outdoor equipment outfitters and guides for the mountains. It has a laid back and cool feel, like El Calafate probably did once, but given the number of new hostelarias, bars and apartments springing up everywhere, it’s not going to stay this way for long. Everyone wears hiking gear (scuffed walking boots are essential) and young trekkers wander around lugging bulging packs ready to head into the free campsites and multiple trails snaking off into the surrounding mountains.
We pitched our tent in a great campground (El Refugio) on the edge of town next to the river with superb views of the Mt Fitzroy to the west. The camp’s mascots were a large mare and her foal which wandered around like a stray dog. I don’t like horses at the best of times but I was determined to try to overcome this irrational fear. The foal invaded our camp site during dinner and whilst patting it (‘nice horsey’ etc etc) and much to Sonja’s amusement, the little bugger gave me a nip on the arm! I recollected the time this same thing happened to my father when he was courting my mother in the late 40’s except then the little predator drew blood. Clearly males in my family are predisposed to being horse food…
There are over 300km of trails in the National Park, ranging from day walks through to multi day hikes over the Patagonian ice sheet. The western part of the park is in Chile and the eastern part is in Argentina (the exact location of the border has been a flashpoint between the two nations in the past, almost to the point of war) so some longer walks require you to clear customs and migration at the police station in El Chalten. The 3405 metre high Mt Fitzroy (named after Robert Fitzroy captain of Darwin’s HMS Beagle) which forms the basis of the Patagonia outdoor gear company logo, towers over the surrounding area. A sheer wall over 1900m high slices down one side of the mountain, a simply awe-inspiring sight as are the four glaciers dominating the eastern aspect of the range. Trails are well marked and there are dozens to choose from.
We decided to walk the most popular, the 22km round trip to the base of Mt Fitzroy and its accompanying glacial lakes. We slowly climbed thorough low laying littoral forest and it was only really steep for the last 1.5km. There are ample opportunities to stop and take pictures at miradors (viewing points) on the way. We encountered every type of person on the trail, from tanned hard core trekkers to organised tour groups in immaculate walking gear jabbering excitedly in languages from every continent. A couple of not so fit people sounded like they were about to keel over any second! Small rivers fuelled by the snow and glaciers flow across many points of the trail. Sonja shot up the last 1.5km like the mountain goat she is and we were rewarded with the most amazing spectacle at the top.
They say pictures say a thousand words and I will leave it at that.