El Chalten - Mt Fitz Roy and Parque Nacional los Glaciers

Having left the southern ice fields and fjords behind in Chile we journeyed north through the pampas. With its wide open landscape, windmills and sheep it was easy to forget that we were not in Australia. Only the occasional herd of guanaco and odd gaucho astride a horse reminded us that we were now in Argentinian Patagonia. Our destination was El Chalten, a tiny town at the foot of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field and the self proclaimed hiking capital of Argentina.

Hiking through the trees on the first day. The Fagus are just starting to turn colour in some areas.

The landscape here seems to contradict itself, the dry dusty ground offers little nutrients to the low and thorny scrub that covers the plains yet is periodically interrupted by large rushing veins of milky blue glacial melt water seemingly in a hurry to escape the mountains. As we drew closer to our destination the light was fading and through the pink haze of sunset the unmistakable peaks of Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre appeared to glow. The town itself is nestled in a valley at the foot of the mountains and is at the mercy of the winds they create.

This region forms the northern most reaches of the Patagonian ice sheet and the Parque Nacional los Glaciares. We were delighted to learn that in a rare gesture of generosity there is no park entrance fee and all camping is free. Having surveyed the hiking options in the area we decided on the classic triangle hike, which over three days allows good views of the mountains and their accompanying glaciers. That is, if the clouds threatening to hang around all week miraculously cleared. Nevertheless, kitted up we begin the first day's hike bouncing with comparatively light packs (see Torres del Paine). The path leads us up a steady but steep slope for about 6km and as the day heats up so do we. Reaching the first mirador we are disappointed with the cloudy sky and do not linger. Tired and a little dejected we stop briefly for lunch only to find its is but a short way further to the second mirador. Here we are delighted with our first cloudless view of the mountains. A crystal clear creek cascading down the slope and a view of the path winding down to the valley bellow lifts our moods. We are treated with spectacular views for the remainder of the walk to the campsite, arriving in the early afternoon just as clouds once again close in on the mountains above. From the campsite there is the option of two side trails, one climbs steeply to a mirador, the other promises a more leisurely walk to a nearby glacier and it's resultant lake.

'A pleasant 45min walk to the mirador overlooking the glacier'... *cough*

Given the cloudy vista and slight fatigue we opt for the second option, reassured by the 45 minute one way time estimate. What the map neglected to properly explain was there are in fact two hike options for the glacier and if one is to follow the sign posts on the path pointing to the lake rather than the glacier then they are in for a 3.5 hour hike requiring one to scale massive boulders, make ill advised leaps over large crevices and fjord fast flowing rivers. Guess which one we took. There were tears. Often in situations like this I will look back and say it was worth it. Not this time, by the time we got there the clouds were obscuring much of the glacier and the wind was blowing over the lake. We heard many loud rumbles of falling ice but only managed to see one small cascade. It was pretty but I was exhausted. On the plus side we slept really well that night!

The next day promised to be easier. After a lazy morning and a fortifying breakfast of porridge we set off for the Laguna Torre, situated at the base of the Cerro Torre and glacier. It was a pleasant hike through meadows and Fagus forests and finally down to the floor of the valley carved by the glacier we were heading to. Glacier valleys are interesting things, littered with enormous boulders spat out by the retreating ice. As one approaches the remaining ice mass the vegetation gives way to rocky scree fields scattered with multi veined frigid rivers, like a Martian landscape too hostile to support significant levels of plant life. It was here that we camped for the night in a newly sprouted group of Fagus trees at the base of the glacier. Once again clouds thwarted our views of the mountains yet made for fascinating viewing as they swirled, shifted and disappeared only to regenerate over the peaks.    

Our final day lead us back to El Chalten. As condors soared over the valley we frequently looked behind in the hope of a clear view. Finally about half way back we got our first clear view of Cerro Torre, a little late but better than never. At the last mirador we had great views over the whole range with both towers in view and a couple of condors thrown in for good measure. We arrived back in town in time for lunch just as the wind really picked up. There was just enough time to pitch our tent in a protected nook of the campground before it started to rain (horizontally). Perhaps our recent trekking endeavours have encouraged the hiking gods to look upon us favourably.

A pleasant hike to a nearby waterfall the next day left us feeling like we had done El Chalten, the capital of hiking, justice. As it turns out this was our last stop in Patagonia. For now.

Ushuaia to Punta Arenas, Chile

We laughed.

We cried.

We finally got our booking sorted, on the day of departure. 'Welcome to the Via Australis'.

4 nights on a leisurely route from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas.

Our fashionable exit from Ushuaia was filled with bustle. We requested (and surprisingly got) a refund on the final day of our campsite we had paid for. We quickly ran through our checklist as we pounded the now all too familiar pavement of Av. San Martin, the main street of Ushuaia. We checked our luggage in 10 mins before the cutoff, our dusty backpacks amongst a sea of shiny suitcases. 

Finally relaxing as we boarded the Via Australis for our 4 night cruise to Punta Arenas neither of us could resist a cheeky smile that grew over our faces.

The lighthouse at Cape Horn

The lighthouse at Cape Horn

We were spoiled with a fantastic dinner of king crab and salmon as we met the 6 other guests who we would share our meals with. Soon we settled in to sleep, rocked gently by the swell and joy of joys... with a pillow for the first time in about 2 weeks! The first boat expedition was early in the morning to Cape Horn, we were all briefed on the way to get in and out of boats. The monkey grip, strict instructions to sit and slide and the huge life vest we were wearing suggested perhaps it is not always as serene at the Cape as the slideshow suggests. Fortunately we had calm seas for the whole journey and the expedition dinghies were a delight.

Cape horn is windy. All of the time. There is a lighthouse at the cape, with a small gift shop of course. Shannan wondered if the child inside the lighthouse is homeschooled or just back for the holidays. It would be a lonely place to grow up. His father was dressed in a very smart Chilean Navy uniform. Looking out to sea we could see a small yacht tossing in the swell, a sight that vindicated our choice of a somewhat larger vessel.

We visited four glaciers during the trip. There was great variety between them, some a vivid blue colour due to light filtering through the dissolved gas and compression over the centuries. Others holding dirt and stones and giant boulders inside the ice, waiting to deposit when they melt and form the moraines we were walking over. We found ourselves excitedly hoping for the fall of a large chunk of ice into the water below, which we were granted several time with the accompanying all mighty crack and grumble.

After each expedition, while waiting to return to the boat there was the option of a hot chocolate or a whisky on the rocks, the centuries old ice collected from bergs recently calved off the glacier. A favourite was a combination hot chocolate and whisky, it's always 5 o'clock somewhere right? Suddenly we understood the term 'Martini explorers'.

One morning there was the option to either stay on the boat and see a glacier from close range as the captain drew as near as safe or to do a landing and scramble up a mountain to a waterfall (this option seemed to be hilarious to most of the ship's older clientele). After some agonising over the need to choose we decided to go for the scramble. Following a bemused farewell from most of the ship's passengers about 30 of us were ferried ashore. Here, treacherously slippery logs lined the mud and sheer rock faces were made climbable with ropes and an icy waterfall welcomed us. We had a great time and returned slightly soggy but as the new heroes of the boat.

Wildlife and flowers were present on all the expeditions. Wild celery and calafate bushes provide a ready food source for the wildlife and passing tour guides. The highlight was Magdalena Island on the last day. The island is home to 120,000 Magellan Penguins. Many of the juveniles were starting to malt their fuzzy fur for feathers. Once waxed the feathers will enable them to swim in the sub-antarctic waters without instantly freezing. (it took all my strength not to pick one of the little butterballs up and slip it under my lifejacket as a souvenir - Shannan).

As the cruise came to an end, we knew we had entered dangerous territory. Having now had a taste of such luxury the return to hostels, camping and one pot cooking is just a little more difficult. It was a quick decent, breakfast at the hostel in Punta Arenas was either coffee or tea.

Ushuaia, Argentina

Ushuaia (oo-shweye-a) is the southernmost city in the world, located only 3,660 km from Antarctica (about the same as Perth to Sydney [1]). We fled here, escaping the heat of Buenos Aires and landed with a temperature of around 8C, a welcome relief. The city is a launch point for most of the cruise ships that head to Antarctica as well as for visiting the Patagonia region. We are here, this time, for the latter.

View of Ushuaia Harbour from the lunch spot we went to for Shannan's birthday.

View of Ushuaia Harbour from the lunch spot we went to for Shannan's birthday.

Our beautiful campsite at Camping La Pista del Andino.

Our beautiful campsite at Camping La Pista del Andino.

The town is very full during Jan-Feb however apparently not as many people are crazy enough to pitch a tent here. Ushuaia is also renowned for its wind. We capitalised on this and settled in to our cosy tent site at Camping La Pista del Andino. The lupins were out in full splendour, both in the city and in our campsite. 

There are a number of day trip adventures you can do from the city. We chose a 4WD adventure trip out to Lago Fagnano for an asado (barbecue). Here we saw our first Patagonian Fox and the first evidence of beavers which have flourished without natural predators in the region.

Another day was spent hiking up to Martial Glacier... in hindsight I would suggest this is a glacier in name only. More like mostly melted snowfield, though we did visit in the middle of summer.

We stayed about 10 days in the Ushuaia region, quite a bit considering most people are finished in under a day. I think we needed time to recharge a bit. And to find work out where we should go from here. Patagonia had been a 'must do' on our list. Ushuaia was the place to start from our research but after that it had always gotten fuzzy. I think you will enjoy our solution, we certainly did.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

A short bus trip from Ushuaia is the Tierra del Fuego national park. Bordering Chile this small park offers camping sites and some beautiful scenery for hiking along with yummy brownies at the cafe.

Peeking across to Chile from the Argentinean border.

Peeking across to Chile from the Argentinean border.

We camped here the full 2 days our entry fee purchased us. We paid to stay at the camp site with facilities but considering the hot water showers had been broken for over a month and we saw toilets at some of the free campsites I think we would pick somewhere else if we were to do it again. Our campsite came with a Caracara who would eye us off cautiously while we cooked our dinner. I don't think they allow campsites without spectacular views in this region of the world.

Beavers were introduced to the area by the Argentinean military. They were originally brought down to create a fur industry and lucrative side business for the military posted in the remote south of Argentina. It was discovered there are two types of fur the beaver grows and the money is in the winter coat. Unfortunately, for the Argentinean officers and for the Patagonian ecosystem, it doesn't get cold enough for the beavers to grow their winter coat, thus making the whole endeavour pointless. Once realised, 50 beavers were released into the wild. 60 years later there are estimated over 200,000 beavers, migrating up through Patagonia. They have crossed the Beagle channel and, more recently, Magellan's Straight leaving wide areas of destruction in their wake. A money-for-beaver-tails programme was shutdown in Chile after a couple were found to have captured a male and female beaver and started breeding them to collect the reward money leaving the beavers free to continue increasing in number.

The Pan-American Highway has its southernmost terminus inside the park. While we were there the sign saw, in quick succession, a bus load of National Geographic tourists, a continuing stream of well equipped camper vans, many with maps drawn on the side showing their progress from Alaska, and a group of Harley Davidsons, evidently completing the same journey from top to bottom. The idea has been placed in my mind now and I am well aware of it trying to germinate into the next great adventure. Time will tell.

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Neither of us enjoy the hustle of large urban centers and for the most part in this trip we have avoided big cities. However, by all accounts we were not to miss Buenos Aires and boy are we glad we didn't. The somewhat cliche observation of the city we heard many times before our visit is that it is 'just like Europe' and with its wide avenues, manicured parks and neoclassic architecture it is, in a way.  But I don't think that sums up the true majesty of the city. 

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BsAs is one of the world's great cities and it is it's Latina heart that makes it so. The relaxed South American attitudes forgo the high stress, fast pace usually afforded to cities this large. The chic restaurants in the Palermo region (where we stayed) happily share their cobbled streets with open air artists markets and quirky homeward stores. Finding a table before 9pm is easy enough but come 10 or 11pm every seat is full with nocturnal locals enjoying some of the best food we have ever eaten. The more touristy San Telmo area claims to be the birthplace of the Argentine Tango, a relic of its turbulent and less prosperous past. Here it is difficult not to gain appreciation of the city' s 400 years of history, the Argentine fight for independence and the continued assertion of the democratic rights enjoyed by her citizens.

We were fortunate to visit San Telmo on a Sunday morning when the very large market occurs. What began as a small affair in the Plaza Dorrego now runs more than 2 km to the heart of the city at the plaza de Mayo. Here second hand dealers sell an odd assortment of junk and curiosities. The rows of old silverware, jewellery and furs had me imagining romantic notions of hastily snatched possession from war torn Europe, as thousands of immigrants fled to Buenos Aires and beyond in the 1940s. As we moved down the market, evidence of the gaucho culture presented itself in tooled leather goods, mate cups, and even the odd whip or two. A little further we got a taste of Paris with beautiful vintage soda siphons in every colour lined-up for sale and elaborate hand painted signs in the style of old Montmartre and Toulouse Latrec. We spent hours wandering the stalls, examining the wares of the local artists and craftspeople. A little over half way we got tired and hungry so stopped at one of the courtyard Parillas . Here we managed to catch a cooling breeze and enjoyed delicious chorripans (a butterflied chorizo sausage grilled over charcoal so the fat drains out and served in a crusty roll with a vinegary spicy sauce known as chimmichurri) while being serenaded with romantic songs of lost loves and poverty in the capital. Despite the unrelenting heat during our visit it was easy to understand why some people come to BsAs and never leave.

Courtyard in the Eva Peron museum. It's also air-conditioned!

Courtyard in the Eva Peron museum. It's also air-conditioned!

Another highlight for me was visiting the Eva Peron museum. I have been curious about Evita since I first heard of her through the musical. Adored to the  point of saint hood by  many of the argentine people, however her legacy  has been clouded by political enemies and harsh biographers ( one faction even went so far as to steal her body and ship it off to Europe). The museum in her memory however is a glowing homage to her charity work and strength as a political idol for her beloved descomesados (shirtless ones). Though it was certainly bias, I left very impressed with her efforts and successes, it would have been a very interesting alternative history had she survived beyond her 33 years.

As I mentioned, we really enjoyed the food. As we approached our two month mark on the continent we could count on one hand the number of good meals we've had. The gastronomic wasteland of Bolivia and meatathon of northern Argentina and Uruguay had left us a little jaded. However here we enjoyed delicious Armenian food reminiscent of Rasha's much missed cooking, the best hamburgers we have ever eaten, ever (big call!) and amazingly tender steak perfectly cooked over coals served with a proper salad. We could have easily spent another week enjoying the town but the far south of Patagonia called us and changing seasons wait for no one. We left knowing we would return one day, but never again will we try to send a package home (that is another story in its own right).