Patagonia. It’s a place of dreams for many a hiker around the world and captured my imagination when I visited for a one month holiday in 2019. The soaring granite towers of Torres del Paine and the Mt Fitzroy range, the immensity of the glaciers of the Southern Patagonian ice field, the extreme vastness of miles of empty landscape and the opportunity for adventure at every turn not only captured my imagination, but filled my soul with wonder. It was a place that I simply had to return to in order to explore this incredible wilderness a little deeper.
It is said that one of the local berries of Patagonia, the Calafate berry, is the source of many people’s return to this region. I remember vividly on a hike in 2019 when a local pointed out one of these berries to me and said, ‘Be careful eating these, because if you do, there is no doubt you will return’. I’m not a superstitious person, but I threw a few in my mouth hoping that he might be right. And sure enough, here I am again…
On my previous trip to Patagonia, I pretty much stuck to the main trails that most hikers come for. Trails like the ‘W Trek’ in Torres del Paine National Park and Laguna de los Tres at Mt Fitzroy which sees many thousands of visitors in peak season (Dec – March). And for good reason, they are incredibly spectacular and would be considered world class by even the most well travelled hiker. But for me, this time around was more about exploring the lesser visited trails, to get a broader picture of what the region has to offer.
So after the long flight from Australia to Buenos Aires, and a few days of adjusting to the time difference, I jumped on the first flight I could back to Patagonia. First stop El Chalten.
El Chalten is a small town that sits at the foot of some of the most impressive mountain scenery in the world. The Mt Fitzroy Ridge is an icon for many hikers and climbers around the world and has become even more recognisable as the symbol for the popular outdoor clothing brand Patagonia. I came to El Chalten last year, but was cursed with bad weather for the majority of my time here so it was always a matter of when, not if, I would return to this hiker’s paradise.
The town is actually the youngest in Argentina, only settled in 1985 as a geopolitical decision when Argentina was facing a sovereignty conflict with neighbouring Chile over the Lake Del Desierto and the Southern Continental Patagonian Ice Field. Originally inhabited by pioneering sheep farmers, the town has grown to become primarily a tourist town, with outdoor enthusiasts converging from around the world to tackle the adventures that the nearby Los Glaciares National Park has to offer. In fact in 2015, it was officially declared that El Chalten was Argentina’s ‘National Capital for Trekking!’
Its name is due to the mythical mountain that stands out from the rest of the peaks. Chaltén (Mt Fitzroy) is a term of the Aonikenk language by which the ancient Tehuelches named this mountain they considered sacred. Its meaning is “Smoky Mountain”, because that is the impression it gives when the clouds are columned by the wind at its top.
Wandering down the familiar streets of the town after the flight from Buenos Aires and bus from El Calafate, felt like returning home. It’s population during peak season is an eclectic mix of people from around the world who all share a common love for the mountains. From world class alpinists preparing to tackle the summits of some of the most challenging mountaineering routes in the world, to wide eyed backpackers that gaze in amazement at the scenery around them. It’s got an infectious vibe and energy that consumes all but the most jaded traveller.
After checking in and settling into my new temporary home, the first thing to do when in Patagonia was check the weather. Being at pretty much the bottom of the world, Patagonia is notorious for it’s extremely volatile weather and it is not uncommon to be blasted by howling winds and snow, even during the summer months. With a relatively stable forecast for the next couple of days, it was time to start plotting my first adventure.
Laguna De Los Tres – Laguna Torre Circuit (3 Days, 2 nights)
The 2 most popular hikes from El Chalten are to Laguna de los Tres which sits at the foot of Mt Fitzroy, and to Laguna Torre which sits at the base of the region’s other famous peak, Cerro Torre. Whilst the majority of people do both of these trips as day hikes from El Chalten, it is possible to combine them as a circuit and camp at 2 great campgrounds along the way. This was the perfect way for me to ease back into the Patagonian trails.
Day 1: El Chalten to Poincenot Campground – side trip to Laguna Sucia (12km)
This trail is the most popular in the area, and can get quite crowded during the day. However with an early start, it is quite easy to beat the crowds and get the beautiful morning light on the mountains.
The first 4km ascends quite steeply from El Chalten to the first mirador (lookout) of Mt Fitzroy and the surrounding peaks. It took me a bit of time to adjust to carrying a full pack again on steepish terrain, but once in the groove, the rhythm started to come back. I can’t stress enough how much using 2 hiking poles helped me! I have never really been into using 2 hiking poles, especially when only carrying a day pack, but whilst carrying a heavy pack on uneven, steep terrain, they were a life saver! I am now officially a 2 pole convert.
After the first sighting of the glorious Fitzroy ridge, the trail flattened out and ambled along side the Chorillo del Salto (it’s a river) with awe inspiring views the whole way. It’s hard to describe the scale of the towering granite peaks rising from the foothills that precede them. It’s kind of like the scenery on the Southern Alps of New Zealand, but then having huge pointy mountains soaring above that! It’s truly a sight to behold.
As the peaks grew nearer, eventually the trail headed into a forest where Poincenot campground awaits. The campgrounds in the national park are free, well sheltered from the wind and have a long drop toilet. Poincenot campground (named for one of the peaks of the Fitzroy Ridge) sits right next to the crystal clear stream of Rio Blanco, so access to water is never an issue. In fact that is one of the joys of hiking in Patagonia, you are constantly near pure rivers or streams that flow straight from the glaciers so you never have to carry much water. One water bottle is fine, and can be refilled frequently without the need of purification.
After a quick bite to eat, and setting up of my tent for the evening, I decided to do a side trail that I was told about by one of the locals to a lake called Laguna Sucia. This trail is visited by few and involves crossing a raging glacial river, some serious rock hopping and a slightly sketchy scramble up and over a cliff. It took about 1.5 hours, and when I reached the lake, I was rewarded with the most remarkable vista I could imagine. Picture a backdrop of enormous granite peaks, preceded by a crumbling glacier that transformed into waterfalls cascading into a brilliant turquoise lake. It was nature at it’s grandest.
I sat there by the lake in amazement for around 2 hours with only a handful of other intrepid explorers. Sometimes it’s worth getting a little off the beaten path to have moments like these. As the sun started to drop and the wind picked up, it was time to head back to camp before it got too cold. I whipped up a quick fire pasta and a cup of tea in my Jetboil before snuggling up in my down sleeping bag, totally content.
Day 2: Sunrise at Laguna de los Tres + hike to Laguna Torre (17km)
When you’re at Mt Fitzroy, it’s a must to see it at sunrise. When the first rays of the sun light up the tips of the mountains to bring in the new day, it’s a cathartic experience.
From the campground to the view point above Laguna de los Tres, it’s a steep 2km section over quite rocky terrain. I set my alarm for 4.45am but was awoken earlier by the many zippers of tents opening and closing as the other campers on site set off up the hill a little earlier. It’s a busy trail at that time of the morning, with many hikers of varying abilities, but luckily it was wide enough that I could weave in and out of the crowds and make my way to the top quite quickly.
Reaching the viewpoint at 6am, I decided to abandon the 200 or so other people that were waiting eagerly for the sun to rise, and head a few hundred meters further along the ridge which was completely empty. There were some wispy clouds on the horizon to the east, and they started to morph into vibrant shades of red and orange as the sun threatened to ascend into sight. And when it did, the mountains that face east, began to glow in a shade of pink which intensified into to brilliant orange as the rays gained in strength.
It was a perfectly clear morning but the wind picked up a notch to send a chill through the bones. Luckily I had my trusty camp stove with me so I knocked up a quick coffee and some porridge as I continued to marvel at the light show.
From the main viewpoint, I could see another elevated spot that looked like it would give a different perspective of the mountains so I wandered over for a look. Sure enough it gave a totally different aspect of the surroundings and actually towered over Laguna Sucia, the lake which I had been the previous day. After gazing in awe at the neighboring lakes of Sucia and De Los Tres plus the peaks of Fitzroy for a couple of hours, it was time to head back down to camp, pack up my tent and head for my next destination, Laguna Torre.
From Poincenot campground, there is a 7km trail that connects to the Laguna Torre trail. This section was mostly flat and passed by two lovely mountain lakes. Eventually I reached my campground for the evening which sits close by Laguna Torre. Having setup my tent, I headed for the viewpoint at the lake that peers up the valley to the imposing spire of Cerro Torre. Unfortunately, by this time the clouds had rolled in and the elusive Cerro Torre was hiding from view.
I did however continue on a trail around the lake to the wonderful Maestri lookout which provided a spectacular view of the Glacier Grande, which is another majestic cascade of icy peril. The name Maestri comes from the controversial Italian climber who claimed the first ascent of Cerro Torre in 1959. Doubts were raised as to the authenticity of his claims so he returned a decade later, armed with a 135kg air compressor to drill around 400 bolts into the head wall which was seen by the climbing community as desecrating the mythical mountain. The compressor still sits hanging from the face of Cerro Torre about 100m from the summit.
Day 3: Laguna Torre to El Chalten (9km)
After another blissful night camping in the mountains, I returned to Laguna Torre in the morning to see if Cerro Torre had revealed itself but alas, it was still engulfed in cloud. I consoled myself with a leisurely breakfast before packing up camp and heading back to El Chalten on an easy 9km trail. First stop when I arrived back in town was the local cerveceria (pub) for a well earned beer and a burger!
It was a wonderful 3 days hiking around the main trails of the Fitzroy area, but it was time to reset and plan my next hike on one of the lesser visited trails….
Loma de las Pizarras (22km approx)
After a quiet evening relaxing back in town, I checked the weather for the following day and it was looking perfect. I set my alarm for 6am to peek out the window to confirm the forecast and sure enough, I was greeted by clear blue skies. Without hesitation, I hopped out of bed and quickly threw my day pack together to set off for the challenging day hike to Loma de las Pizarras. One thing I have learnt in Patagonia is that when the weather is good, it must be taken advantage of!
The hike to Loma del las Pizarras (loma means knoll or hump in Spanish) is up a steep ridge that separates the valleys of Cerro Torre and Mt Fitzroy. To get to the start of the trail, I had to retrace my steps along the Laguna Torre trail which turned out to be a blessing as the mountains that were covered in cloud the previous day, were now suddenly clear in view. It was my first uninterrupted sighting of Cerro Torre and I could finally see why this mountain is a source of folklore in the mountaineering community. The lower half is a mass of granite that rises precipitously from the glacier below, but as it gains in elevation, the mountain turns into a narrow spire that pierces the sky. It’s not hard to see why the name translates to ‘Tower Mountain’.
Having set off from El Chalten at 6.30am, I basically had the trail to myself and eventually reached the point where I had to divert to start the climb up Loma de las Pizarras. It was tricky to find as this wasn’t one of the main trails but with the help of the app maps.me, soon enough I was on the right path. The next 2 hours consisted of very steep terrain, firstly through the lower forest but then once above the tree line, a mix of loose scree and boulders. There was no defined path but with the aid of the odd rock cairn and the general contour of the ridge, I reached a high point with uninterrupted views of the Fitzroy ridge, and the Cerro Torre valley as well. The wind stayed light, the sun was shining and the ridge was all to myself. It was one of those pinch yourself moments to confirm that it was actually happening and not some lucid dream.
It was hard to leave the high point that I reached, but I knew the descent would take some time and care so after a couple of hours of contemplation and snapping the odd selfie, I began the long hike down. I’ll say this right now, I hate going down hill, especially on uneven terrain. I could hike uphill all day long but when it comes to the jarring of knees on every step of a steep descent, my threshold of enjoyment is tested. My newfound love of hiking with 2 poles did aid in the long haul back down the ridge, but by the time I made it to the bottom, I was pretty spent. One error I had made in my decision to start the hike early was that the local bakery was still closed so I didn’t have a chance to buy any lunch before setting off. All I had with me was half a pack of dry crackers and 3 oreos left over from the previous days of hiking, not a lot of sustenance for a 22km hike, with 1200m of elevation gain and descent!
After much grimacing and the odd curse, I eventually made it back to El Chalten, battered but certainly not beaten. It was an incredible day which I would do again in a heartbeat, maybe with a more hearty lunch next time!
Paso del Cuadrado
After a solid 4 days of hiking, I needed a little rest. I filled a few days in El Chalten with some sport climbing and bouldering before getting itchy feet to hit the trails again.
I met a group of 3 English travelers who were planning to do a 4 day hike that I also had in mind called the Huemul Circuit. It’s a very remote and exposed trail so when we saw that the weather in a few days time wasn’t looking great, we decided on a shorter trail instead. It would involve taking a bus transfer 17km down the road to a river called Rio Electrico, then a 6km hike into a refugio called Piedra del Fraile. From there we could base ourselves for a couple of nights and tackle some shorter hikes, one of which was up a mountain pass called Paso del Cuadrado.
The bus dropped us at the trail head on the Rio Electrico, and the 6km hike along the river to the refugio was pleasant and easy. We setup camp and decided to head further down the valley for the afternoon to a viewpoint of Glacier Pollone. Once again the views defied belief, as the grandeur of this lesser visited valley started to reveal itself. In the distance were views of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, a mass of ice that stretches for approximately 350km and covers an area of around 12,000 square kilometres. It’s the world’s second largest ice field outside of the polar regions.
When we returned back to camp, we were greeted by the refugio’s resident kitten. Only 50 days old, this little cutie totally stole my heart as she barely filled the palm of my hand. With kitten in hand, my fellow trekkers and I drank some wine, played some cards and started thinking about tomorrow’s big adventure up to the pass.
We awoke early to clear skies and cold hands before fuelling up with some porridge and coffee to help us get up the steep ascent. And steep it was! Firstly through some forested area but then once again over boulders and loose scree. Eventually we made it to the bivouac site of Piedra Negra, which many aspiring alpinists use as their base to launch attempts at the high peaks. The view here was another typically stunning lake fed by an imposing glacier, but this time at around 1500m we really felt like we were ‘in the mountains’.
We had a quick snack and peered up towards Paso del Cuadrado which was an intimidating sight. We had been warned that the last few hundred metres of the climb was on a glacier that could potentially have snow up to our waists. We didn’t have crampons, but we did have a sense of adventure so we continued our way up towards the pass to see what the snow conditions were like. Luckily, there had been several climbers heading up to the pass before us which left an obvious path of footprints through the snow across the glacier. Having come that far and with conditions on our side, we took the punt and plowed through the snow to eventually scramble to the top of the pass.
The view that unfolded started to reveal the true scale of our surroundings. Mt Fitzroy felt like it was within touching distance and beneath us was a precipitous valley that had been carved out by the immense North Fitzroy Glacier. The valley floor from which we ascended seemed an eternity away, as was the rest of the outside world. We couldn’t help but feel very, very small and incredibly humbled by what we were witnessing.
On the way up to the pass, we had been alerted that a change in weather was coming and that we shouldn’t hang around up there too long. The clouds started to thicken and some precipitation was upon so we started the long descent back down to the valley. With a quick lunch stop back at Piedra Negra, we eventually stumbled our way into the refugio after enduring some consistent rain, freshening winds, and a 1300m elevation descent. We were wet, tired and hungry, but you couldn’t take the smile off our faces.
The rain continued long into the next day, as we packed up camp and hiked back out to the road to meet our bus transfer to El Chalten. Once clean and dry, we celebrated into the evening with another local craft beer or 3, and a burger that was twice the size of my beloved refugio kitten. Another successful adventure!
Since then I have remained in El Chalten, nursing a sprained ankle which I gained by coming off a 4 metre boulder I tried to climb. Whilst it’s one of the most frustrating places in the world to be hindered by injury, there’s also worse places I could think of to sit back, relax and reflect on my first few weeks in this outdoor wonderland.
Until next time, once another chapter of this great Patagonian adventure has been written….