Hiking in Argentina, El Chalten and Mt. Fitz Roy
When we drove back to Lago Roca from visiting the Perito Moreno Glacier, we once again had our choice of campsites overlooking the glacier and the lake. Our young French hitchhikers that we met while visiting the glacier unloaded their bags and set-off to find the privacy of their own campsite.
Ol and I enjoyed some much needed rest. Our plan for that morning was to leave early, however I was more than a little surprised to find everyone already packed up and ready to go when I awoke! I’m such a country girl, I can sleep12 hours in a tent and only six hours in a four star hotel! I can blame the peace and quiet, o.k., maybe the wine at lunch. Ol brought me some hot chocolate to finally get me going.
We headed back into El Calafate to get gas for the car (there are only two gas stations within hundreds of miles). After our friends made a quick trip to the grocery store and the ATM, we headed to El Chalten and the northern part of Los Glaciers National Park. Famous Ruta 40, the main highway through this area, did not disappoint. At one point, as we were driving through the desert plains, I surprised myself by shouting out, “Iceberg!”. Only in Patagonia can you be driving through the desert and also see an iceberg floating down a Tiffany blue lake!
We had a beautiful drive and were more than a little disappointed to see the weather change as we pulled into the park’s visitor center. We picked up maps and were advised against hiking as the conditions in the mountains were terrible. High winds and snow were in the forecast. From town we had little visibility of the famous Cerro Fitz Roy, the Andes most prized peak for climbers. The mountain was also a sacred place for the indigenous peoples of Patagonia, the Tehuelches.
We drove through town and decided to make a new plan at Burgers and Beer, an American style restaurant. It was packed with hikers and climbers, but we found a spot for the four of us. After a delicious meal, Ol and I decided we wanted to wait to see what the weather would do. It was still early as it doesn’t get dark until around 11:00 p.m. Our French friends wanted to be dropped off at a free campsite in town, so we said our goodbyes.
Ol and I decided to drive to the trailhead that we were going to take if the weather cleared. We visited with a couple who had hiked up to Mt. Fitz Roy, but had to turn around as there was snow, fog, and no visibility.
We noticed a dirt road along the river and decided to test our four wheel drive. On our map the road was Ruta 41 and it took us out of the park and up to Lago del Dierserto (37 km). The drive turned out to be one of the prettiest mountain roads we have ever been on.
The road was in a valley between two large mountain ranges. The winds would occasionally clear the clouds and we could see the magnificent snow packed peaks. We took it as a good omen as we turned onto the road and saw two condors sitting out the bad weather on a small cliff.
We passed numerous waterfalls that we could usually hear long before we could see them. The weather quickly changed into a beautiful afternoon and we found ourselves stopping to hike up to the waterfalls.
A few hours passed before we made it to the end of the road. On the way back we picked up another couple hitchhiking. This couple was from the Mendoza region of Argentina and before we dropped them off at the trailhead to a large waterfall, Chorrillo del Salto, we were invited to his winery where he is the winemaker! His brother is a winemaker in Napa Valley, California and he caught us up on the condition of Napa after the horrendous fires they suffered this past year.
After a full day, we still had several hours of daylight. Ol and I could either hike the two and a half hours up to our first campsite, Poincenot, or check our apps for a good rate on a hotel or hostal. We decided to head back into town and found a packed bar and grill, ordered a glass of wine and settled on a nearby hostel. Hot showers and charging our electronics (or there wouldn’t be any photos of our hikes) won out as we knew that we had three days of hard hiking ahead of us.
Now that I was caught up on my sleep, the next morning we enjoyed a wonderful breakfast with fresh baked breads, eggs, juices, fruits, and granola. We parked our SUV at the trailhead, got our gear sorted, and headed out. The trail was wonderful and we couldn’t have asked for better weather. It was perfect.
These were without a doubt the best trails we had been on in South America. They were clearly marked and nicely groomed. We had amazing views of the famed Fitz Roy peaks and the surrounding mountains.
The trail was lined with beautiful mosses, grasses, and flowers. We learned that many of the plants that we have seen in Patagonia only grow in areas with no air pollution.
For some species, this is one of the few places in the world where they grow.
When we stopped for our first snack break, we ran into our French friends and also helped a 19 year old girl from England repair her boots. Her boots had completely fallen apart and she had months of hiking left ahead of her as she was taking a gap year before university. As a poor student she couldn’t afford new boots. We were very impressed with her as she seemed so much more mature than her age.
In three hours we were at our first campsite, Poincenot. We loved it! It was sheltered from the wind by the trees, required no reservations, and was free! We set-up our camp and crawled in our tent for a short siesta. We would use this as our base for several hikes without our backpacks.
Though it was late afternoon, we had to decide whether to hike to Laguna de los Tres, a beautiful mountain lake at the foot of Fitz Roy. It was starting to get cloudy and the wind was starting to pick up, but we still had a gorgeous view.
The view might be clearer in the morning, but it could also be snowing. We decided to go ahead and do the difficult three hour trek. The trail would also be clear of any day hikers or tourists as they would have to be returning back to town by this time.
The map had warnings about this section of trail; “Very steep trails!” “Dangerous when windy and rainy!” It had warnings with lots of exclamation marks on all of the signs. We both felt rested and had no problems for the first hour. We began to think that the warnings may have been exaggerated. That quickly changed as the trail became very rocky and steep. The switchbacks from earlier in the day were long gone and were replaced with big, steep steps and scrambling over boulders and smaller rocks.
Just when we thought we had reached the top, there was another climb up loose gravel. The winds were strong, but the view was our reward. It was stunning. Waterfalls poured off of the glacier and the sun was shining on the azure water of the small mountain lakes. We were surprised to find only a handful of other hikers at the top.
We put on our down jackets and sat on a rock and simply admired the view. A small hawk put on a nice show for us in the stiff cold wind. We decided to heed the advice and head back to camp before bad weather set in. If it started to rain, the trail would be a waterfall (I still have PTSD from our Colombia Andes hike when that happened).
It didn’t take us quite as long to get down. We had to laugh when we were lapped by two young men in excellent shape who appeared to be in their 20’s. They were up and down the entire trail in an hour. As they sprinted past us we commented that they were very fast hikers. “We’re Norwegian, what do you expect” they replied as they continued downhill.
The next morning we hiked up to the mirador of a stunning glacier, Piedras Blancas. We had brunch and then made the scenic trek to our next campsite. Campamento D’ Agostini. It was a beautiful hike and perfect weather.
We passed more glacier lakes, small streams, and rivers as we made our way to the other side of the park and the Cerro Torre. We only passed five or six hikers all day. I think that all of the day hikers stick to the two main trails of Fitz Roy and Torre.
When we came to a crossroad on our trail we decided to take the hike through the woods. We found a ranger station but no people. The woods were a beautiful change of scenery. We followed a small stream up to a little waterfall and I decided to use the privacy to heat some water for a quick sponge bath and a change into some clean clothes.
We then followed the trail over an old bridge crossing a small river, as we climbed out of the tree canopy. The trail reminded me of some of the mountain passes that we we hiked on the JMT, a rocky trail, with twisted trees all around. After a small and windy uphill climb we were at the rim of the Laguna Torre and a stunning view of the Cerro Torre mountain range and glacier.
We could see people huddled down on a beach below us. The wind was so strong that it took all of my effort to stay on the narrow trail. We slowly made our way around the rim and down the trail to the beach. We had a short walk into camp from there.
We set up our tent next to the roaring river, under a beautiful tree canopy. We were ready to stretch out, cook dinner, and call it a night. The sun was still out but it was after 9:00 p.m. Just another perfect day in Patagonia.
The hike out the next day was pleasant. We awoke to clouds moving in. Unfortunately, the hikers we met on the way up would not enjoy the views we had yesterday. The thought of another cheeseburger at the end of the trail made me hike a little faster than normal.
Our luck held out. Just as we exited the trailhead to walk into town, a light rain started to fall and the winds became fierce. It would not have been fun to be out in a tent in that kind of weather. We found our SUV, packed up, and headed back to the burger place. We had no luck on cell service or internet and Ol was dying to find out how his New Orleans Saints did in their playoff game. Somethings would just have to wait.