Patagonia would be my last adventure before returning to my home country of Colombia. I found a well priced flight for only US$673 to cross practically the longest stretch of South America from Barranquilla all the way to Punta Arenas. It took me a full two days to make it to Puerto Natales where I began my travels in the Patagonia region.
Unfortunately whenever I arrive late in the night to a new place something usually goes wrong. Arriving into Bogota to spend the first night was not easy. The hotel manager could not find my reservation and tried turning me away at 1:00am. I was upset of course and did not leave his lobby until he found me other accommodations. Come on! It is 1:00am and I am in a big unknown city! He finally helped me and sent me to a friend’s hotel nearby and paid for the taxi ride there.
Something similar happened when I arrived into Puerto Natales from Punta Arenas by bus on the second day. The lady that ran the guesthouse that I had booked did not want to open the door for me at 2:00am. She just looked through the window every time I rang the bell (and I rang it three times) but would not open the door. This is even after having emailed her to tell her that I would be arriving at that time and to let me know if there would be any issues. In this case the driver stayed with me until I found other accommodations in town. Punta Arenas, my first stop was nice but I did not stay there very long since I was on a mission to get to Natales as fast as I could.
I had to begin my trek in Torres del Paine as soon as possible, my time in Chile was limited. Puerto Natales is a great little town with lots of good restaurants, trekking gear shops, and lots of hostels. I highly recommend Lili Patagonico’s where the service is very good, the beds comfy and clean, the breakfast is included and very complete, and they do laundry as well. This is also a good base town to head into Ushuaia or Tierra del Fuego.
My trip in Patagonia begins with a visit to the Torres del Paine National Park. This is a beautiful park inside the protected area of Magallanes in the Chilean Patagonia. I had dreamt about doing the well-known “W” trek for a few years; which consists of 76 km (45mi) of hiking up and down well-marked and beaten paths around spectacular scenery. In a matter of a few hours you are in the middle of green steppe, gigantic rocks, ice fields, glaciers, tall snow-capped mountains, lakes, and sheer walls of gray granite. There are also many animals around including the guanacos, the Andean Condor, Pumas, and deer amongst others. Unfortunately I was not lucky enough to see a Puma but I heard from two girls that arrived at my campsite the second night that they had seen two Pumas walking on a mountain near the Catamaran dock.
You can take as much time as you want to do the W trek, however, you have to reserve all of your campsites or refuge stays in advance. You can always pay a tour company to arrange everything for you, from your permit, to your night accomodations, all meals and snacks, and even porters to carry your bags. I decided to do the entire trek on my own, not only because I was on a tight budget but because I wanted to show myself that I could do it. One of those times in life when I wanted to see what I was made of. I was also craving for some alone time in nature. I wanted to experience this beautiful trek enjoying every sound and sight. The difference in prices between the two ways is big. If you join a tour group you may pay around US$3,000 for 5 days. I did the entire trek for only US$200, including permits, camping gear, food, and even one night at one of the refuge dormitories.
If you would like a very detailed explanation of how you can plan this trek, please visit my friend Rebecca’s blog: https://28tolifeblog.wordpress.com. The most complete post that I have seen on the subject so far. I followed every piece of advise she gives and it all worked really well for me.
I took a bus from Puerto Natales to the National Park and after paying the entry permit, I got back on the bus to continue on to the last stop where everyone has to get off, at the Pudeto Guarderia on the East side of the park. This is the place from where you take the Catamaran across the Pehoe Lake to the Paine Grande. This is if you want to do the trek from West to East. I had reserved all of my campsites about two months in advance and I was able to find camping at all of my chosen sites except for Grey Glacier where I stayed in a dorm room in the refuge. I rented all of the camping gear and bought all the food that I would eat in the next 5 days in Puerto Natales.
Check out my other blog post in the “Argentina” category to read about my detailed itinerary and experiences on the W trek.
When I found out that the most beautiful places in the Argentinean Patagonia were so close to Puerto Natales, I decided to plan a trip to Calafate. This is a small city near the Lago Argentino (lake) and the hub for trekkers that want to visit Los Glaciares National Park. I went to Calafate by bus; which takes 3 hours to reach from Natales. The border crossing was super fast and easy, we just had to unload the bus a couple of times to cross both check points. The town is very touristic and there are many “parrillada” restaurants, all types of outdoor stores, and outfitters to take you to many beautiful places in the park. Soon after arriving I headed to Hielo y Aventura to book the trek that I had dreamt about for a while, the “big ice”. This is a trek that takes 4 to 5 hours, where you use crampons and put on a harness for safety measures. They usually form groups of up to 10 people and a guide takes you deep into the glacier. Before trekking on the glacier the tour included a stop at the balconies where you can get amazing views of the entire glacier and even see ice coming off the glacier and crashing into the water. Another beautiful spectacle of nature!
It was a fantastic experience where we got to see small lakes, ice caves, and tall ice peaks. We learned that unlike other glaciers that are retreating, this one is actually advancing everyday. There is snow that accumulates about 2 meters each day at the top of the southern icefield and makes the glacier move forward. This is why pieces of ice are constantly falling off everyday. The entire southern ice field is moving like water down onto the lake. The center of the glacier always moves faster and can be more unstable, this is why the sides are safer for doing the long treks. There are crevasses inside the glacier that are 30 meters deep. The guide tells us that this glacier usually advances fast but that the movement has also been affected by global warming. We walked for about 4.5 hours up and down the glacier making a loop. the guides dug little steps for us to avoid falling or breaking our ankles. We had lunch by a beautiful blue lake inside the glacier. We also learned that this was the first National Park in Argentina and the second in the world after Yellowstone. The glacier was named after Francisco Moreno a “perito” or an expert on the region that negotiated a lot of territory for Argentina at the time when Chile and Argentina had a big conflict over their borders.
This trek cost 4000 pesos or US$300; which was a lot for a budget traveler like me, specially at the end of my world trip, but it was well worth it. There was a cheaper option of US$160 but of only 1 hour on the ice, I thought it was not enough for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I ran into Alexis, a friend that I had met in Beijing, China about 5 months earlier on my trip. He was traveling with his cousin Orlando and their parents through Patagonia. They invited me to a nice parrillada in town; which was delicious! I couldn’t have asked for better company on this awesome day.
EL CHALTEN, ARGENTINA
I also took advantage of visiting El Chalten, a beautiful small town surrounded by tall peaks further up north, also on the southern ice field. This is the starting point for many famous hikes in the region, with the most important one being the iconic Fitz Roy Glacier. The bus trip was very scenic with views of snow capped mountains, tons of sheep, and vicunas everywhere. We arrived at the visitor center where all buses have to stop for a talk from the rangers. Surprisingly I ran into Mark and Carrie, I was happy to see they had made it through the storm and were doing well.
Chalten is a true wind tunnel. It is very hard to walk through town without being pushed over by the big gusts of wind. I rested in the Rancho Grande hostel and treated myself to one of the many great restaurants in town since there was nothing else to do in the crazy wind. The second day was sunny, the wind was very light and it was perfect for a good hike. I did a 12-mile round trip to Laguna de los tres; which is right at the base of Fitz Roy. The last kilometer of the hike is the hardest one. It is very steep and rocky but the views at the end more than make up for any difficulties.
Other almost equally amazing hikes in the park are “Mirador de Condores”, where I saw five condors flying over. The “Mirador de Aguilas” on the same trail offers incredible views of the gigantic Lago Viedma.
Patagonia was amazing; truly one of the most spectacular regions of the world. It was a very special part of the trip for me. It was the fulfillment of another one of my dreams… to see a glacier on water. And even better, to trek inside a glacier.