Wandering in America del Sur

Argentina-Travelogue  |  Travel time: July 2005 - March 2006  |  by Allison Webb

In the Land of Giants

Fresh from Torres del Paine, we were only just warmed up for more hiking, so after a farewell dinner with Ina and Gunnar, promising to meet in Buenos Aires, we hopped the bus to El Calafate, Argentina to prep for our next trek in the famous Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Everyone was headed to Argentina and in the hostel we met up with Mike, Eddie, Lisa, Bessie and Greg to trade stories, but for us it was a mere pitstop, Cerro Fitzroy and Cerro Torre beckoned.

The next day we were on the road again, feeling a little ambivalent because the weather was not promised to be very good. The vision of spending New Year´s soaking wet in our ultralightweight, but also ultra small tent was not all that appealing. The drive up was not all that encouraging either because instead of being tempted by the giant towers of Cerro Torre and Chalten, we saw only grey.

But had a little faith and arrived in the village of El Chalten as the sun decided to come out in full and found ourselves stripping down to shorts and tank tops to start our hike in the legendary park. For Kurt it was like a mecca because these summits, much higher than those in Torres del Paine at 3128m (Cerro Torre) and 3405m (Cerro Fitzroy) are undisputedly the grandfathers of climbing with a long and torrid history, much of it controversial. Many have tried to reach these summits and many have failed, resulting in death, but also a fame and status among climbers as an area of majesty and challenge.

The whole area is often referred to as Fitzroy, named after the ship, the Beagle´s Captain, Fitzroy who helmed the ship with Charles Darwin who charted much of the South American coast and this area as well. But the native Tehuelche name, El Chalten meaning "peak of fire" or "smoking mountain" seems more apropos given the persistent clouds that hang around the summit, obscuring the view for many a disappointed climber or traveller.

Just as interesting is the little village of El Chalten, Argentina´s newest town, established in 1985 in the middle of a national park, the only town of its kind in the country. The reason that it was established in this location was to claim this land which was in a border dispute with Chile! The result is a rapid growth, an explosion of sorts. While the streets for now are dirt and the fierce Patagonian winds stir up mini dust storms, every other building is a fine gourmet restaurants or upscale place to stay. And with the road now being paved from El Calafate to Chalten, full scale development can not be far off.

Even more amazing was the fact that we did not have to pay to enter the park, unlike in Chile where the entry fee and camping fees were fairly hefty. For now all was free, but we were told that would be changing as of next year.

Started off on our trek through the country of the tabanos (blackflies), relentless in their pursuit of our skin, buzzing around our heads in circles while we hiked to Laguna Torre to spend New Year´s Eve underneath the summit of Cerro Torre. And as we hiked, the wind blew away the clouds and we were rewarded with stunning views of Cerro Torre and its glacier. In our eyesight, the summit kept us moving forward to our camp.

Arrived as the clouds were moving again. In this country, weather is unpredictable and changeable so set up under the cover of trees by a rushing river, huge rocks on the landscape mixed with fine sand and the ever present Cerro Torre and the Glacier Grande in sight. The campsite was quiet, most people having chosen to spend New Year´s Eve in El Chalten or El Calafate partying the night away so we ate our New Year´s Eve dinner of MEC dehydrated food (tastes better than it sounds!) and cooled our mini bottle of champagne in the river.

Later, though not a lot later, pulled out our champagne and mugs to toast the New Year 2006. Kurt got ready in the open area to pop the cork, but instead of the loud pop, a very disappointed "oh" was heard as he realized that it was a screw top! Only in Argentina! Regardless it went down well and we started our New Years 2006 right, lulled to sleep by the Rio Fitzroy (river) and rain of Patagonia!

After a night of sleeping under the giant granite spires of Cerro Torre, the weather managed to cooperate to dry out our tent and we decamped and headed to our next site. Most of the park is filled with daytrippers because the hiking is quite short especially compared to Torres del Paine so we had the place to ourselves for several hours. And with our hiking legs fully under us and lighter packs with food only for 3 days, I was finding the hike a cake walk and really enjoying it, smiling all the time. The days of hiking were 3-4.5 hours instead of epic days like in Torres.

After a stiff uphill section to two small lakes known as Mother Lake and Daugher Lake, we were being teased by the clouds baring little sections of Cerro El Chalten, but as we got closer, the weather cleared fully and its giant summit was revealed in all its splendor and glory and never left us for the next 2 days. We hiked under its presence, feeling its enormity and grandeur always. The vistas were stunning, with the huge granite spires, glaciers and crystal clear lakes. Only the swarming tabanos added an edge of discomfort to an otherwise perfect start to New Years.

Took Ina and Gunnar´s advice and set up camp at Laguna Capri, a lake with a brilliant view of the spires and whiled away the afternoon reading in the sun, alternating page turning with the swatting and usually killing of tabanos while other hikers stopped by to swim in the cold waters of the lake, dirty and sweaty from the intense heat of the day. After dinner, read in the tent for hours while the sun kept us company until almost 11pm.

The only shocking thing about this area particularly and the park in general was the lack of respect for the environment. Despite a talk for all tourists in the Park Office, there was garbage everywhere, people being too lazy to pack it out. The campsites were full of it as well as the outhouses. At Laguna Capri, huge tent cities with full on cooking tents, solar panels and private facilities obscured the landscape, being permanently set up for tour groups spending big bucks for a wilderness experience. It was so strange to see this in a national park. It didn´t seem to fit with the history of climbing and the stunning beauty of the park. At that moment we appreciated our environment in Canada even moreso than before.

Hiked out the next day and camp down for over an hour on the famous Fitzroy Trail. Were glad, that in the full on heat, we were not walking up! Kept looking back as long as we could to catch the last glimpses of Fitzroy/Chalten and its giant spires reaching towards the heavens.

Back on the flat dusty road of El Chalten, headed straight to a restaurant for a steak sandwich and real coffee! Yea! After that met up with Eddie and Lisa to share a pint in the microbrewery, contribute to the local economy by shopping in the very nice artisan stores and bequeath our stove and some camping gear to them hoping that it would similarly bring them good karma.

Said hasta luego, caught the evening bus, sadness in our hearts at leaving such a magical place. Felt incredible lucky to have seen such splendor and richness of natural scenery in an area where people the world over, dream of going and even those who manage to make it here often never see the giant granite spires because the weather hides them. But our 2006 started off with a little Patagonian magic, in the land of Los Glaciares National Park. Drove away on the infamous route 40, and for hours the spires were our guide. Looked back with awe and wonder the whole way as the seemingly forever light days of Patagonia turned the sky crimson and El Calafate came into view.

Cerro Torre in all its splendor

Cerro Torre in all its splendor

Opening the New Year´s champagne - twist top - who knew???

Opening the New Year´s champagne - twist top - who knew???

The very cutesy trail maps

The very cutesy trail maps

Yes, I actually did get myself up out of my warm sleeping bag for sunrise and it was well worth it. The majesty of Cerro El Chalten (Fitzroy) at 5:45am

Yes, I actually did get myself up out of my warm sleeping bag for sunrise and it was well worth it. The majesty of Cerro El Chalten (Fitzroy) at 5:45am

In my happy little home for the night

In my happy little home for the night

Another picture perfect Patagonian sunrise - Laguna Capri

Another picture perfect Patagonian sunrise - Laguna Capri

El Chalten/Fitzroy in the full daylight

El Chalten/Fitzroy in the full daylight

Coming down, way down for an hour to the village of El Chalten (much better than going up!)

Coming down, way down for an hour to the village of El Chalten (much better than going up!)

Dirty, but happy - finishing the trail at Fitzroy. A shower and steak would be good about now! Note garbage bag on back. Yes, we did pack in and pack out!

Dirty, but happy - finishing the trail at Fitzroy. A shower and steak would be good about now! Note garbage bag on back. Yes, we did pack in and pack out!

© Allison Webb, 2005
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The trip
 
Description:
My trip through Peru before heading to Chile to work for 6 months and then travels afterward in South America
Details:
Start of journey: Jul 05, 2005
Duration: 8 months
End of journey: Mar 02, 2006
Travelled countries: Peru
Chile
Argentina
Uruguay
Ecuador
The Author
 
Allison Webb is an active author on break-fresh-ground. since 14 years.