After 5 days of hiking in the wilderness and “roughing it”, Carrie and I were ready for a little change of pace. This change came with a few days in the mountain town of El Calafate and 3 days in the backpacker and trekking mecca of El Chalten. As much as the W was amazing, we were psyched to be able to do some hiking and excursions during the day and then at night enjoy some cordero (Patagonian lamb) and a soft bed.
El Calafate is a cute little tourist town – think a slightly-less-fancy Breckenridge filled with a funny old-young mix of French and American retirees and backpackers. There's one main strip with lots of restaurants and bars as well as roughly 50 different storefronts hawking a variety of activities from the calm (horseback riding) to the more extreme (ziplining). As we walked past all these different storefronts we were overwhelmed by the variety of activities we could do in the three days we were here. Should we go see more glaciers? 4X4 trip through the mountains? Kayak around icebergs? Visit an estancia (ranch)? The options really were limitless. We sat down with a pint of local beer and discussed our preferences. We both agreed that although something like horseback riding in Patagonia sounded pretty amazing, you can find horses in lots of places. What can't we find lots of places – glaciers. So we decided to maximize our glacier time by doing two excursions over the next two days – the first called “Big Ice” where you hike on a glacier all day, and the second called the Upsala Glacier Tour which is a day-long boat ride to three additional glaciers. A little mix of adventure and leisure!
Our first excursion, Big Ice, was a doozy. Big Ice is a guided hike on an actual glacier, using crampons (metal spiked shoes used to grip ice). It was the first time Carrie had ever been on a glacier (or wore crampons), so she was extra excited and a little bit nervous. It started with a sleepy 7am pick-up at our hotel so we could be transferred to the Perito Moreno glacier, which is the most famous glacier in the area, though not the largest. The Perito Moreno is a 19 mile long, 97 square mile glacier sticking out from the end of the southern Patagonian ice cap. It's also one of the only glaciers in the world that's still growing, which is hard to believe given how many icebergs we saw while we were there, and how many times we saw the glacier “calve” which is where a huge house-sized portion breaks off and smashes into the lake. Although when departed our hotel, the sun was shining and it was very warm, by the time we got to the glacier it had started to rain, those pesky Patagonian winds had kicked up, and the sun was gone. Even though the day turned wet and cold we were dressed appropriately for this type of weather, which is something we couldn't say about most of the rest of our trekking group...
The first part of the tour was fairly benign – we were dropped off at a tourist center at the beginning of Los Glaciares National Park. From here we were able to do a self-guided walking tour of the glacier "viewing balconies", allowing us to appreciate the glacial structure from afar. It was cool to see a few different angles of the immense glacier. You're able to get REALLY close to it too! Carrie and I spent a while just admiring the intricacies of the glacier – tall spires that look like castle ramparts, house-sized snowballs teetering on the edge of the glacier cliff, and black glacial moraine (rock debris) sprinkled all throughout the deep blue ice. As we've said about most things in Patagonia, it's visually stunning. We were mesmerized by the detail in the ice, and stared at the glacier, hoping for a calving event. Every so often we heard a loud CRACK and then saw an explosion of water as the glacier smashed into the water with a loud boom. Nature is cool.
After about an hour of hiking here, we headed off to the really fun part – glacier trekking! We took a short boat ride to the start of the hike, walked for about an hour to the edge of the ice, donned our crampons, and followed our tour guide into the wind and ice. As soon as we cleared the trees and ventured onto the ice, we were confronted by that notorious Patagonian weather – sideways rain, heavy winds, and frigid air coming off the glacier. But we ventured on, clumsily walking with spiky shoes and viewing all the crazy features of a glacier: deep water filled crevasses, drain holes, and waterfalls winding through the glacier. Since the glacier is constantly moving (though VERY slowly) our guide said that every time he comes to the glacier, the features are different. The landscape of this glacier was totally different than other glaciers I've been to. This one was much icier, harder, and had less snow cover. Carrie said it felt like walking on the moon to her.
Although we were fairly comfortable in the clothing we had on, the rest of our group really wasn't. First, the number of people hiking in jeans was unbelievable. I'd venture a guess and say out of the 15 people in our little tour group, 8 were wearing jeans. Maybe they forgot they were going hiking on a glacier today? Maybe they don't own anything other than jeans? I pictured the contents of their suitcases back at their hotel – one side full of cotton t-shirts and the other side filled with 6 pairs of Levis. We met a couple from NYC who were dressed so inappropriately, it was almost comical – she was in a fur lined fashion jacket (not waterproof) and he was in a pair of boat shoes. Boat shoes.....to hike a glacier. They bought ponchos at the park gift shop too, since, you know, it's raining. Those ponchos got shredded by the wind in about 2.7 seconds.
After about 2.5 hours hiking around the glacier, our guide decided enough was enough, which was totally fine with me and Carrie. We saw some really interesting glacial features, checked off “hike a glacier” on Carrie's bucket list, and were ready for food and the dry woods. We headed back to the boat launch for our ride back to the bus and were surprised by one of our favorite things in the whole world – booze! The guides served whiskey on the rocks to everyone who completed the hike. And the "rocks" weren't regular ice cubes, it was a big, solid chunk of glacial ice! A great end to a wet but fun day.
Our second excursion was much more tame. We enjoyed a calm boat ride to view three additional glaciers on the southern Patagonian ice cap – Upsala, Oneill, and Spegazzini. All three glaciers are actually completely different than Perito Moreno and gave us a new appreciation for how glaciers can form in completely new ways based on the terrain. Plus, the boat ride was a nice respite from the physical activity, rain, and cold we experienced the day before. Sure, the boat was filled with tons of old people, but who cares – we bought two coffees, snagged a prime spot on the second floor observation deck and let the boat take us to the glaciers. As we wound through icebergs bigger than the boat itself, we were able to see the massive breadth of Upsala (the widest glacier in Patagonia) as well as the Oneill and Spegazzini glaciers making their way down from high peaks above us. The weather cooperated for us too, and we were able to warm up in the sun as we selfishly willed each glacier to calve.
Sadly, this trip capped our time in El Calafate. The next morning we hopped on a bus to El Chalten, the “Trekking Capital of Argentina”. El Chalten is actually the youngest city in Argentina, founded in 1985 in an effort to better control a border dispute with Chile. It just happens to also be the home of one of the most iconic mountains in the world, Fitz Roy. The city of El Chalten is right in our wheelhouse - a little mountain town with authentic restaurants, hotels, and few shops alongside hiking trails close by. And when I say close by, I mean it – we only had to walk about 5 minutes from our hotel to get to the trailhead of any trail in the system. We were very excited to spend the next three days here.
We arrived around lunchtime, dropped our bags off at the hotel, and headed out for our first trek. Even though we left for a 6 hour hike at 3pm we knew we'd be fine since the sun doesn't go down until around 9:30. We ended up doing the Cerro Torre hike rather than Fitz Roy since it's a little shorter and we would be still able to see Fitz Roy from this trail. We'd do the Fitz Roy trail the next day. We hiked into another amazing Patagonian valley, with mountains rising up on all sides. We also kept our eyes peeled for the elusive puma. The park ranger at the entry to El Chalten told us that only 5 people out of 60,000 hikers reported seeing a puma this year, but we were convinced we'd see one on this hike. As we hiked, the weather turned from sorta cloudy to completely blue-bird. The peaks rose out from the clouds that almost permanently shroud them, exposing their spires. It ended up being an absolutely perfect day, and Carrie and I basked in the quietness our late start afforded us while we looked for pumas, stopped to take pictures, ate our picnic dinner, and just enjoyed a rare perfect Patagonia weather day.
Unfortunately for us, this was the only good weather day we got. The next two days were overcast and rainy, with zero views of any of the surrounding peaks. We gave the Fitz Roy trail the good college try on Day 2, but were turned around at the first viewpoint due to the cloud cover and rain. We held out hope that our third and final day would allow us a little sliver of good weather, and so we retreated back to town for a relaxing afternoon. We stopped into a local cerveceria and sampled their house made pilsner while listening to the ever-present Jack Johnson, Coldplay, and Amy Winehouse mix. For some reason those three artists are on regular repeat everywhere in Patagonia. We finished the day with a tasty dinner of cordero and pink trout at a great restaurant called Estepa. We woke up the next morning at 5am to get an early start on our last attempt at the Fitz Roy trail but again were thwarted by the weather, and (again) turned around at the first viewpoint. Good thing we got to see Fitz Roy on our first day! As we boarded our afternoon train back to El Calafate we were ready to go, all hiked-out and looking forward to the cosmopolitan comfort of Buenos Aires. Laundry was on the top of our task list for BA, and we both were looking forward to wearing normal shoes again and being clean on a regular basis. Bring on the big city!