The grey skies we had endured of the Chilean side of Patagonia were traded for pure blue on arrival in Argentina. My dad and I took a bus across the border, passing the scattered villages and rundown houses and towards the modern town of El Calafate.
El Calafate has the look of an alpine ski town, with buildings along main streets brandished in brown polished wood. The Argentinian side of Patagonia is certainly more affluent, with El Calafate seen as the capital of the area. We stayed there for a night before moving north to El Chalten, where the surrounding mountains were easily accessible from the nearby village. Coming towards the end of tourist season, many businesses were closing, and most others would close on seemingly random days during the week. If it were a Sunday, you will generally struggle to find local businesses open anywhere in South America. However here, even a Thursday or Friday could be risky if you didn’t have a supply of emergency food on hand.
Around El Chalten is a cobweb of walks that extend through valleys, over mountain ranges and even onto glaciers for the adventurous. Free camping can be found in every corner of the park, although we kept El Chalten as our base and planned daily walks that would spear into the national park in different directions.
On our second day we headed towards Laguna de Los Torre, which included a steady incline through a valley with the view of the jagged peaks of Cerro Torre in the distance. Now in early autumn, the forests’ green leaves were fading to yellow and orange, nestled between the black slopes around us. Our prize at the end was a seat on the shores of Laguna Torre, with the wall of the knife-like Cerro Torre mountains range ahead. With no rain or grey clouds above, and only amazing views in every direction, we immediately warmed to El Chalten and the surrounding national park. The dripping tent and soggy socks of Torres Del Paine was quickly becoming a distant memory.
It was hard to imagine a better walk than the trek to Laguna Torre, although it was quickly surpassed by the journey two days later to Laguna de Los Tres. At the sound of our alarms early in the morning, we brushed away our sleepiness and slipped out of the hotel before sunrise.
From the north of the town, we started the path into a different valley, with a small meandering river flowing through the flat landscape below. After 30 minutes the sun had risen, although it was still hidden by the wall of rock. We skirted around a steep hill, and into the forest towards the famous Fitzroy mountain range. Once over a small ridge, we had our first glimpse Fitzroy. With its impressive granite face looking east, it glowed pink in the early sunrise light. Once we reached our first lookout with a clear view of the mountain, the brilliant pink had turned to a rich yellow, and much of the valley was now illuminated with the early sun’s light too.
We continued through the multi-coloured forests and alongside streams towards the rise of the mountain range ahead. Through the forests we passed parrots and woodpeckers who were busily tucking into their breakfasts. Clear streams offered us refreshment along the way, and it wasn’t long before we reached the final climb up to Laguna de Los Tres. Ahead of the crowds, we reached the rim of the Laguna and feasted on the view of the magnificent Fitzroy, reflected in the emerald waters below. A large Condor even momentarily joined us, gliding effortlessly around the outlook we were sitting on.
Once we had completed the walks in El Chalten, I felt that Patagonia had certainly lived up to its reputation as a truly magical part of the world. Unfortunately, it was time to return to Punta Arenas, for our flights back to Santiago were in a few days time. We followed our initial route through Patagonia in reverse towards Punta Arenas, stopping at El Calafate and Puerto Natales along the way. In El Calafate we visited the Perito Moreno glacier, which runs back as far as the eye can see before snaking behind the mountains, and the 5km ice wall at the front peaks at 70m high. It storms forward (in glacial terms) too, approaching at 2m per day, causing huge shards of ice to frequently tear off and thunder into the lake below.
Our final walk in Patagonia was nearby Lago Roca and up to the Cerro Cristal, a peak overlooking the glacial lakes fed from Perito Moreno. The panorama view of the peak gave a real sense of all Patagonia, with a gap in the nearby mountain range to the south revealing the unique silhouette of Torres El Paine, and beyond the mountains in the opposite direction sat Fitzroy. Suddenly Patagonia felt very small. I had recently passed 365 days of travel, through some of the most beautiful and strange places this world has to offer. Still, the striking views of southern Chile and Argentina seem hard to beat.
During our time together, my dad and I would frequently mutter “I’m never eating another ham and cheese sandwich”, before of course having to endure another for breakfast (where it seems to have gained national dish status as it is served almost without fail at every breakfast table). Although whereas many of the first meals we enjoyed were of the supermarket variety, towards the end of our time together we had moved towards the finer cuisines that Chile and Argentina had to offer. From Argentinian steak, to fresh fish dishes and even a taste of Afro-Patagonian fusion food in Puerto Natales, we extensively rewarded ourselves like a continuous pat on the back for our daily excursions.
Then before we new it, we were boarding our flight to Santiago. Returning to this hot bowl of smog was quite a shock to the system. As a treat, my dad booked a fancy hotel for our final night, which included all of the luxury I had only dreamed about over the past year. Soft bed sheets, cloud-like pillows, drinks in the fridge and even those tiny novelty bottles of shampoo.
The following morning, nursing our misty minds from a pisco fuelled evening the night before, we spent our last few hours together filling ourselves with food and tea ahead of our impending passages. My dad would be boarding a flight back to London, and I would be taking a 24 hour bus to the north of the country. It was strange to think that my dad would be home, 12,000km away, well before I had got close to my destination.
And then suddenly I was alone again. Perched on the corner of a bench in the station, I waited anxiously for my bus to arrive. It was already late which always unsettles me. The sensation of travelling solo in unfamiliar territory had returned; a heightened awareness of your surroundings and those gathered around you. With my kidneys getting tested by a young boy’s elbow, who was furiously digging into a tub of ice cream, I could only lend a thought to the fresh linen and soft pillows I had enjoyed just a few hours before. Ahead of me lay the journey up South America’s west coast. First stop, the driest place on the planet; The Atacama Desert.
I am delighted to contribute a paragraph to Mr. Beardy’s famous blog, to wit, memories and pictures of Patagonia. The most powerful impressions on the mind, apart from the inside of our hiking boots and socks, begin with taking gold in the Lobster Olympics which involved trying to get out of a warm sleeping bag without touching the sides of the wettest tent in Patagonia, whilst also lacking proper flexibility following a 24km trek in dire conditions the day before. Our tightrope style crossing of a fallen tree across a torrent will be long remembered. Views … where to start (and end) because all of Patagonia is striking … the hike up to the glacial lake of Laguna de Los Tres at the base of Mount Fitz Roy from El Chalten, to see the jagged peaks and ice on the one side and turning the other way looking down on woodland, streams and lakes to more mountains in the distance… the peak of Cerro Cristal above Lago Roca, near El Calafate, from which you could see about 70 miles in all directions and every type of Patagonian landscape including steppe, glacial lakes, across the mountains above the spectacular glacier at Perito Moreno, and right in the distance the peaks of Torres del Paine …. Treks (over 100km’s worth) … starting at first light, having the trails virtually to ourselves and watching the sun rise turning the mountain rock red whilst the moon was still high and bright above … walking on high paths and suddenly having the mist clear in 30 seconds to reveal a mountain towering above you as if it had just flown in and landed…. Beer… favourite haunts included Base Camp bar in Puerto Natales for its tacos, cheap beer, and generally being cool (and where we picked up our free tent)… Don Diego’s Irish Bar in El Calafate which will be eternally remembered for serving green coloured lager (specially made for St Patrick’s Day) at half price and whose many tv screens were on a loop of scantily clad women, um basically, rock climbing. Food. This is a tricky one but overall Mr. Breakfast in Punta Arenas for his scrambled eggs and tomato salsa wins the day over not much competition. And finally near the end of our trip we found by chance Pire Mapu Cottage B&B in Puerto Natales, which was the best place we stayed, during 3 weeks of travelling in Chile and Argentina, by a country mile (apart from the tent of course!) Finally, to return to the small matter of shoes and the many miles covered…..