Visiting Patagonia with an Argentinean
Adventure Travel Company
When A Budget Tour Can Make Sense
Article and Photos by Lies
|A guanaco strolling
in the hills of Patagonia.
Having watched breathtaking photographs
and documentaries of Patagonia numerous times, these were
the images that stayed with me and brought this “uttermost
part of the earth” to the top of my must-see list
this winter: the pink granite walls of Argentina’s
Fitz Roy Massif basking in the early morning sun, the spectacular
ice-blue wall of the Perito Moreno glacier and the roar
of ice blocks falling in the lake beneath, and the impressive,
nearly invincible towers of Chile’s Torres del Paine
National Park. I simply had to see it for myself!
I had been tossing several ideas before
finally making it happen. Traveling solo could be the cheapest
solution, but I would need ample time to travel around and
take care of rather complicated connections between the
various towns and parks. I could also fly directly to El
Calafate and El Chaltén, and limit myself to the
most interesting treks and excursions offered by local agencies,
which happen to be there in abundance, but I would have
to miss out on many other worthwhile sights. Wanting to
see as much as possible in a relatively short period of
time, and taking into account that for a solo traveler trekking
could be hazardous, I ended up choosing a third option:
I booked an all-inclusive budget tour with a reliable agency
in Buenos Aires, leaving logistics and fees in the hands
of local entrepreneurs, and assuring myself of guides and
Starting in Argentina
I was welcomed at Calafate Airport by
a representative of CAMINO ABIERTO and
escorted to a shuttle that dropped me off at Hostal del
Glacier Pioneros, our first night’s accommodation.
There I was met by our tour leader Facundo, as well as by
my eight trekking companions, hailing from England, Scotland,
USA, and Brazil, and varying in age from 25 to 65. To break
the ice, CAMINO ABIERTO had organized a welcome dinner in
one of the better restaurants in El Calafate, where we were
invited to dig into generous platters of lamb and sip from
an Argentinean wine, while Facundo unfolded the plans for
the two upcoming weeks. Our first destination would be El
Chaltén, in the northern part of Argentina’s
Glaciers National Park, gateway to the impressive Fitz Roy
Massif and Cerro Torre. From there, we would slowly make
our way southwards.
| The Fitz Roy spires
finally are visible.
We started hiking under perfect weather
conditions along the gentle slopes of the Fitz Roy trail,
passing various excellent viewpoints for watching the intriguing
spires and vertical granite walls of these imposing mountains.
This was Patagonia at its best! So confident had we already
become about our good weather fortune, that the sudden rain
on day 3 and 4 hit us like a ton of bricks. Of course, we
were all forewarned about the possibility of cold and windy
days in Patagonia, and we knew how to dress in layers, from
thermal underwear to gloves and woolen hat. But nothing
had prepared us for a steady downpour that went straight
through our backpacks and clothes, and totally blocked the
view of what we had hoped to see: the Fitz Roy massif spires,
Cerro Torre, and the Adela range.
Ups and Downs
Due to the extreme weather conditions,
we had to cancel the planned “Holiday on Ice”,
an excursion we all had been very much looking forward to:
crossing Fitz Roy river by means of a Tyrolean traverse
(a horizontal fixed rope attached to both sides of the river),
visiting the crevices and ice caves of Glacier Grande, and
practicing ice climbing with an experienced mountain guide.
But humor fortunately got the upper hand when we arrived,
dripping and soaked, at Cerro Torre base camp and discovered
that a hearty meat stew and dry sleeping bags in already
set up igloo tents were awaiting us. In fact, the rain also
washed away all possible barriers and differences between
participants and made us there and then a very cohesive
and supportive hiking group for the remainder of the trip.
Staying a good sport in the face of
adversity clearly paid off, as the clouds started to open
up early next morning, and the white-powdered Fitz Roy spires
suddenly became visible through the lifting fog, peacefully
reflected in all their glory in the water of Laguna Torre
during our return trek to El Chaltén. Once back in
this small mountain town, the comfort of Pudu Lodge and
the excellent cordero asado in one of El Chaltén’s
many eateries felt like well-deserved rewards.
| One of the 4 orchid
varieties around El Chalten.
Perito Moreno Glacier
Standing eye in eye with the giant Perito
Moreno Glacier, set in Lake Argentino in the southern part
of the Glaciers National Park at a 78 km distance from El
Calafate, was an absolutely unforgettable experience, in
spite of the crowds that such a wonder of Mother Nature
inevitably attracts. There is a walking circuit with balconies
to view this spectacular UNESCO World Heritage Site, 4 km
in width and towering more than 60 m. above the surface
of the water. We took a short boat ride in front of the
south wall where we watched and heard massive ice blocks
calving off and crashing down into the water below. We also
partook in a “mini-ice trek” with an experienced
guide, hiking on the icy surface of the glacier with crampons
attached to our boots, and enjoying incredible close-ups
of the many spectacular formations of the blue-hued Perito
| Perito Moreno
After crossing the border into Southern
Chile, we headed for yet another UNESCO (Biosphere Reserve)
del Paine National Park with its world-famous mountains
such as Paine Grande, the Horns, and the Towers, as well
as lakes, rivers, glaciers, waterfalls, and a rich wild
life including guanacos, caracaras, condors, and buzzards.
For another three nights we lodged in
full camps, this time with better toilet facilities than
the basic latrine types of Argentinean camps, and with dinners
in comfortable lodges rather than in tents. Standing out
was undoubtedly the trek from Estancia Cerro Paine via the
Ascensio Valley to the Towers viewpoint. There we found
a glacier-originated lagoon of a milky-green color as backdrop
for the iconic Paine towers rising 1 km vertically from
| The Towers viewpoint
in Paine National Park.
Patagonia’s Other Face
Patagonia is not only about mountains
and trekking, however. Once we had boarded the ferry, crossing
the legendary Magellan Strait toward Tierra del Fuego (literally: “land
of fire,” due to the fires of the local Indians for
cooking and heating, noticed by early seafarers), a totally
different landscape unfolded before our eyes: wide blue
skies, sub-polar forests, and endless steppes with herds
and herds of sheep. We stayed at one of the typical sheep
ranches, took a boat ride through the Beagle Channel to
watch colonies of walruses and cormorants, and enjoyed a
memorable ‘King crab by the kilo’ meal in Argentine
Tierra del Fuego’s capital Ushuaia—the southernmost
city of the world and port for cruise and expedition ships
to Antarctica—before heading back to Buenos Aires,
Santiago de Chile, and beyond.
|A sea lion relaxing
on a rocky ledge in Beagle Channel.
- The total cost for this
15-day tour with CAMINO ABIERTO, perfectly executed
by knowledgeable, English speaking guides, came
to $1950 US, including shared accommodations
(about 1/3 tent, and 2/3 hostel), transport
between all bases from El Calafate to Ushuaia,
additional local guides on all treks and excursions,
and practically all meals.
- For more info: SAY HUEQUE (where
trips with CAMINO ABIERTO and flights can be
booked). For lodgings and excursions only visit Del Glaciar.
- The best time for the outdoors
in Patagonia is from late October until early
March, when it is spring and summer in the southern
hemisphere. Be prepared for four-seasons weather
anyhow, as weather conditions vary and change
fast in Patagonia!
- Hikes averaged 6-8 hours
a day and were all of moderate level—fitness
and good health being the most important requirements.
Ouwerkerk is originally from Amsterdam,
The Netherlands, and currently lives in Montreal,
Canada. Previously a columnist for The Sherbrooke
Record, she is presently a freelance writer and
photographer for various travel magazines.