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NateKat · Patagonia

Patagonia

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2/19 Traveling from Argentina to Chile

It was a long travel day from El Calafate, Argentina back to Punta Arenas, Chile (via Puerto Natales).  Not only was the bus ride long, but getting through the border wasn’t very efficient.  It was quite disorganized and confusing, and a group of us got the wrong date stamped on our passports on the Argentina side, which had to be fixed before we went to Chilean officials.  Once we made it to the Chilean side, they did a full inspection of all the luggage looking for any fruits/veggies/meats that could contaminate the Chilean agriculture. Luckily we expected the border hassles and had scheduled a long layover in Puerto Natales. Turns out we would have missed the earlier bus by about 20 minutes. By the time we made it to Punta Arenas we only had time to grab dinner.  We also found this odd street sign that still remains a mystery.

Snow-women are to the right??

 

2/10 Last Day in Patagonia

On our last day we took a boat to Isla Magdalena, which is a small island inhabited by the Magellanic Penguins.  These penguins are pretty small, only standing a couple feet tall, but full of personality!

 

 

The boat ride to and from the island is pretty long without much to see and no entertainment, so we should have brought something to read.  The ferry fit a surprising number of people, but seemed like it was really designed for non-human cargo, so it was often hard to find a seat.

Once we arrived, everyone flooded the island after getting strict instructions not to approach, chase or touch the penguins.  You also are required to stay within a roped walkway that follows the coast from the boat to the light house on a hill. This is to protect the penguins since they have nests all over the hillside.

 

Although the people can’t leave the walkway the penguins continually cross as they return from the ocean to their burrows or nests.

 

This can cause some humorous reactions and photos as people (like Katharine) are focused on the nests and don’t even realize a penguin is sauntering across the path.

 

Pretty much everyone decided to walk up to the lighthouse, but we chose to hang back and spend some time just watching a few different penguin families.  We saw them digging and cleaning their burrow as well as others defending their nest with vicious bitting and squawking.

We saw these two love birds taking a walk on the beach.

There were a variety of different ages, some were too young and didn’t have their stereotypical tuxedos.

The hillside was just covered in penguins, quite a sight.

As we were warned, it was very cold and windy on the island! (kind of a theme in Patagonia…)

This was a great way to end our trip laughing and enjoying ourselves watching the cute birds waddle around their island.

All in all it was an amazing trip with so many memories and photos.  With all the hectic traveling in Patagonia, it took a little while for the entire trip to really sink in.  Now we enjoy reminiscing about backpacking along the mountain and lakes in Torres del Paine, the relentless winds of Fitz Roy, giant ice walls calving into the lake, and last but not least, the awkward waddle of a Magellanic penguin!

2/18 Perito Moreno Glacier

On our return to Punta Arenas we spent a day in El Calafate and took a tour of the Perito Moreno Glacier.  We booked a Mini-Trekking tour that included plenty of time at the viewing decks and a guided hike on the glacier.  It’s about 30 minutes to the Los Glaciares National Park by bus and an additional 30 minutes to the Glacier viewing decks.  Our tour was scheduled so that we could eat lunch on the viewing decks and watch the glacier calve.

We were fortunate to see the 200+ foot tall glacier wall calve several times in the first 15 minutes.  You could hear the ice cracking, then massive portions of the wall would separate, appearing to fall in slow motion.  It’s hard to put into perspective how big the pieces of ice are that are falling.

RvCYkI

 

It seemed like the lake water had a delayed reaction to the ice falling, waiting until the majority of the ice had been submerged before exploding with a spray of water.  The blast pushed any floating icebergs out into the open water leaving an eerie calm in the water.

The viewing deck is built so close to the ice wall that it is impossible to view the entire glacier at one time.  The glacier wall is 3 miles wide and extends about 240′ above the water, but over 300′ of ice lies beneath the water’s surface.

We watched a couple people jump the railing and try to get a closer look, but they were quickly chased by the park rangers.

After lunch we headed to a small boat that took us across the lake and to the edge of the glacier.  It gave us an interesting view point to see the glacier in profile from a lower view point.

The guides tied the rudimentary (but effective) crampons to our boots and then led us out onto the glacier in groups of 15. They gave us a few tips and little training, but overall the tour felt quite lax in terms of safety compared to what we’d expect in the US.

We made several stops looking down into the deep blue crevasses.  The hike climbed up and over small glacial ridges that had been exposed to the air and sun and had been melting for some time.  The melting had reduced its density causing the ice to lose its blue color and look and feel more like snow.

Guide Surveying the Crevasse

Katharine looking down a crevasse as the guide holds onto her backpack for ‘safety’

 

We spent a couple hours on the glacier traversing up and down small hills. It was amazing to see the bright blue revealed in the crevasses while the rest of it resembled whipped cream or meringues.

The hike ended at a small table in a valley where the guides scooped up glacial ice in tumblers and poured everyone a celebratory whiskey toast.

We’ve seen a number of glaciers in Alaska and Montana etc., but this was by far the most impressive and memorable.  The vast ice wall was stunning, and of course the hike was an unforgettable experience.

 

 

 

2/14-2/15 Traveling from Chile to Argentina

Before we could recover from our 4 day backpacking trip we were faced with trying to buy Argentinian bus tickets from Puerto Natales (Chile) to El Calafate (Argentina) and on to El Chalten (Argentina).  El Calafate was hosting a week long music concert driving up the cost of hotels and booking all the buses in and out of the city.  To us it was just a layover to get to the small remote hiking/climbing town of El Chalten.  We finally managed to get tickets to El Calafate arriving around midnight, but still couldn’t get tickets for the next leg of the trip in Argentina. After many failed attempts at trying to contact Argentinian companies from Chile we surrendered and decided to have dinner.  We were giving advice to an Australian couple and Irish traveler about the W-loop in Torres del Paine when we mentioned our bus predicament.  Luckily for us they mentioned a website where you can buy Argentinian bus tickets!

It still took us 2 days, a really short but expensive hotel stay, and many hours riding on a bus full of backpackers to reach El Chalten.  That afternoon we hiked to Las Aguilas and Los Condores view points.  The Fitz Roy and Torre ranges were socked in with clouds, but it was nice to stretch our legs.

Rock climbers walking through town – a common sight in El Chalten

2/16 Day Hike to Fitz Roy

We had decided not to backpack in El Chalten since nearly all the trails can be day-hiked and the weather and wind are unpredictable. So when we woke up in our hotel and saw it was rainy, we were glad for the comfy hotel, and were happy to take the chance that the storm would pass, which it did by mid morning.  Other photographers in our hotel decided to take the day to sort through photos and sadly missed out on a spectacular view of the mountain.  We got a shuttle to take us down the road so we could hike 14 miles back to our hotel.  The hike started in an open forest shading the intense sun, but we could catch glimpses of Fitz Roy through the trees.  Eventually after 3 miles we reached a view point of Piedras Blancas, a glacier fed lake on the back side of Fitz Roy.

 Piedras Blancas

Side of Fitz Roy

We continued hiking 3 miles across the open landscape with the iconic Fitz Roy range (used in the Patagonia clothing logo) on the horizon.  We made it to Poincenot, a popular backpacking campground, hidden in the trees and last bit of shade before the push to the top.

We’ve found on steep inclines it is better to take it slow but rarely stop.  We play the tortoise in the classic story, while other hare-like hikers storm past us.  On a long climb like this we often ultimately reach the top first as they continue to feel the pressure to stay ahead of us, it always satisfying when we overcome them as they are exhausted trying to rest in the hot sun.  We both know the game that is being played and we usually smile as we pass them for the last time, and they usually smile back knowing they’ve lost.

There is always someone more hardcore, like this couple who carried their baby up to the top!

The view point of Fitz Roy is incredible with the green Laguna de Los Tres at the base of the large granite spires. We were lucky the clouds cleared for us to take a few…162 photos of the peaks.

After we ate lunch we watched the clouds engulf the peaks so we turned around and headed back down almost 8 miles and 2,500 feet to El Chalten.

We stayed in the Poincenot hotel while in El Chalten and took advantage of the local restaurants and enjoyed a lot of lamb, steak, and wine!

2/17 Day Hike to Cerro Torre Range

The next morning it was cloudy, but it was our last day so we wanted to make the best of it.  We hiked 7 miles out to Laguna Torre and had lunch.  We watched pieces of ice from the Glacier Grande wash ashore.

After completing another 14 mile day of hiking we were glad it was the last of our hiking, but also sad that our trip was coming to an end.  It felt like we were just getting used to traveling in South America.

 

We had an incredible 2 week trip to Patagonia in mid-February.  It’s taken us the last month to get through the 2,241 photos! Here’s a look at the first part of our trip, backpacking in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile.

2/7-2/9 Arriving in Chile

We took 3 planes and about 24 hours to reach Punta Arenas, Chile near the southern tip of South America. The only Spanish we knew was what Nathan could remember from high school and what Katharine learned from an app in 2 weeks.  We then took a bus to a smaller city, Natales (Puerto Natales), which is the town closest to Torres del Paine.  It is common to see people walking the streets with their backpacking gear, and the restaurants are filled with young people trading stories about their latest adventures.

View of Natales from a Hilltop Near the Bus Station

We saw tons of guanaco in the pampas (plains), while riding on the buses throughout the trip.

Small Groups of Guanaco

We attended a free info seminar at the Erratic Rock hostel, which made us feel a lot more comfortable about what to expect on the backpack and provided a lot of good, detailed information (plus some that we found not so accurate) and it gave us a chance to ask some logistical questions which was a relief.  We spent the rest of the day buying dried fruit, nuts, and other backpacking food at the local markets and stores since Chile is really strict about bringing food into the country.

2/10 Refugio Paine Grande

We decided to do the W-Circuit from left to right, in 4 days and 3 nights.  First we took a bus from Natales to Torres del Paine, which takes about 4 hours. Then we took the ferry across Lago Pehoe to Refugio Paine Grande.  Normally this ferry only makes one trip across the lake, but the bus companies sold more tickets that people could fit on the one ferry.  We had to wait for the ferry to make a round trip and comeback and pick up about 50 more people.  This set us back a few hours.

This is all the backpacks piled up on the ferry.  Keep in mind this ferry was only half full and the pile is still 15 feet deep.

Torres del Paine has numerous refugios (transl: shelter or refuge) along the trail, which are essentially privately-run hotels/hostels in the wilderness.  They provide beds, showers, toilets, and a hot dinner, but reservations can be hard to come by in the high season.  We had decided not to stay in the Refugios and just camp, but we quickly realized backpacking in Torres del Paine does not really feel like the wilderness camping we are used to, more like pitching a tent on a hotel lawn.

Our first night was at Paine Grande, which was windy…really really windy, so everyone sets up their tents near the hillside and really close together.

Refugio Paine Grande

Once we finally got off the ferry, we quickly registered and set up our tent. We had been stuck on airplanes and buses for what seemed like forever and had no desire to hangout with the crowds of campers, so we quickly headed out on a day hike to Glacier Grey.  It is recommended to allow 7 hours round trip for this hike so we knew we wouldn’t be able to make it to the glacier with the ferry delay, but we thought we could get close enough to get a good view of it.  We quickly realized the “wind” symbol on the map is no joke.

Katharine Fighting the Wind

Despite the hundreds of people at the refugio, the trail was not crowded at all, so we finally felt like we were out in the wilderness and could enjoy the views. After an hour and a half we reached a great view point of Glacier Grey and Grey Lake.  We fought the incredible wind for a few minutes to take some photos, then realized a rainstorm was coming off the glacier and decided to head back.

Glacier Grey

During our hike we came across some brilliantly colored flowers in a glen.  The combination of the purple and white varieties was striking.

Foxglove, Digitalis Purpurea

As we headed back on the trail, a vibrant rainbow appeared in front of us, appearing to end right at our campsite!

 

Although we encountered some rain and extreme wind it was nice to be on the trail and away from all the crowds. We made it back to camp with plenty of daylight to cook dinner and relax a bit before bed, but the wind and rain kept us hiding in our tent for most of it.

2/11 Campamento Italiano

On our second day we planned to hike to Italiano, set-up camp, then day hike to Mirador Britanico (Viewpoint). We hiked 2 hours to Italiano mostly in the rain watching the wind whip up the water from the lake and pound the shore.

Map Displays Along the Trail (Not always to be trusted)

 

Italiano is just a campground and doesn’t have a refugio.  Luckily this campsite was amongst the trees, which helped shelter us from the wind and rain.  It was also really crowded (since it’s one of the few free campsites) so we quickly setup camp and left the crowds to hike to Mirador Britanico.

Sierra Finches

The trail wasn’t too muddy since it was mostly covered by short twisted forests that sheltered us from the rain and wind.

 

Some portions of the forest were wiped out by a rockslide creating a desolate scree wind tunnel.  You could watch other hikers make attempts to run across the rocks and become overcome by the wind and hide behind boulders.  When we sensed a lull in the gusts we made a run for it, passing the pinned down hikers, then diving into the trees as the roar of the next gust swept over the trees.  The trees were dense, so the scree gave us a first glimpse of the mountains that were surrounding us.

 

After 2.5 hours of hiking through rain, wind, and fog we reached the mirador.

Foggy Look Out

 

The mirador was exposed to hail and cold wind sweeping off the glaciers, so after 20 minutes waiting for the clouds to clear we decided to head back.

 

2/12 Campamento Chileno

The hike from Italiano to Chileno is about 14 miles and was the longest camp to camp stretch we had. Chileno has a restaurant, refugio, and offers mule rides from/to the Hosteria Las Torres (Hotel accessible via car/bus).  Campamento Torres is 3 miles beyond Chileno and provides a good base camp to then day hike to the Torres (Towers).

We finally got some good weather and we could see numerous mountain ranges towering over us and off in the distance.

 

 Cordillera del Paine

The first 10 miles of the day was relatively flat and took us along the Lago Nordenskjold.

 

 

 

One thing we really appreciated in Patagonia is that the water is safe to drink without filtering, which is pretty much no longer true anywhere in the US.  We quickly took to using the small waterfalls and streams as our new drinking fountains.

 

After a couple hours of hiking we stopped at Refugio y Campamento Los Cuernos and watched the condors circle the Cuerrno Este peak, which was about 6,000′ above us!  The Andean Condors can soar at altitudes of 18,000 feet!

 

Los Cuernos Restaurant

Los Cuernos Cabins

The southern tip of South America has a thinner ozone due to CFC usage.  Even though we were at the equivalent latitude as Calgary, Canada we could feel the intense sun during our hike around the lake that had little shade.

Nearing mid afternoon we made the turn towards Campamento Chileno, which climbs about 1,500 feet and then drops into the camp on the banks of the Rio Ascencio.

Nathan had injured his knee on the previous day hiking down from Britanico Mirador and it started to slow us down on the steep incline.  We opted to stay the night at Chileno instead of pushing on to Camp Torres.

2/13 Torres del Paine – The Torres Mirador

The hike to the famous view point (mirador) is about 2.5 hours along a river and then a steep climb up a rocky scree.  Many people recommend getting to the view point for sunrise, but since we opted to spend the night at Chileno instead of Camp Torres, we would have had to start hiking by 3:30 am, which felt too early. We still started hiking pretty early, doing the first mile by head lamp.  We made it to the top around 8:00 and the sun was high in the sky, but the sky was clear.  Even though we didn’t make it for sunrise, we considered ourselves lucky to have clear skies to see the Torres (towers).

 

The lake in front of the towers was like a mirror.  There wasn’t any wind or breeze, which felt very strange since we had been fighting it for the last 3 days.

 

 

 

After taking a ton of photos, we knew we had to leave and start the long hike down to catch the bus at the Hosteria Las Torres.  We hiked down the rocky mountain and back to Chileno Refugio and picked up our backpacks we had stashed under our tent platform.  We grabbed some water and started the 2 hour hike down to the hotel, which is completely exposed to the sun. Luckily we were hiking down hill – the day hikers coming up the valley from the hotel looked miserable in the hot sun.

We waited for the bus with the other 50+ backpackers that we had been hiking along side and camping with for the last 4 days.  Because almost everyone you see is hiking in the same direction and doing the same W-circuit, it often feels like you are hiking with a group of 50 backpackers from 10 different countries. We would even see some of the same people later on in our trip in Argentina hiking around Fitz Roy.

Waiting for the busses

 

Torres del Paine was a fun start to the trip, completing our first international backpacking trip!

 

Check out some of the other photos from our Torres del Paine adventure.