Our week in Patagonia can be split into three segments:
- Our time in El Calafate and specifically the big ice hike we did on the Perito Moreno glacier,
- the 30h stint we did in Chile at Puerto Natales and hiking in the Torres del Paine national park, and
- the three days spent hiking in El Chalten.
A Glacier Up Close and Personal
We landed in El Calafate and went straight to our hostel, I Keu Ken, where Patricio at the front desk introduced us to the town and helped us get our act together. As El Calafate was the point we kept coming back to between each part of our trip and we loved everything about the hostel, I Keu Ken became our home away from home.
El Calafate is the place everyone goes to in Patagonia, especially if they have means but no time or no desire for extensive hiking. As a result, it has everything you need but tends to be a bit pricey.
We only stayed for long enough to discover the Perito Moreno glacier.
The Perito Moreno is the only glacier in the world that is somehow ignoring climate change and rising temperatures to continue advancing at a rate of 2m per day (that’s in the middle – on the sides it moves forward at a rate closer to 20cm a day). Experts are still trying to figure out why. As the glacier ends in the narrow part of a lake, the mass it loses to the water and the mass it gains from the snowfall at its source makes it “stable” in size. It also means that if you are standing on the boardwalk across the water from the front face of the glacier, you will witness chunks of ice falling off the glacier – a process which looks almost insignificant yet makes you feel tiny, and sounds like thunder.
Taking it to the next level, we went on the Big Ice tour. Run by Hielo y Aventura, it entails a boardwalk visit followed by a boat trip across the water, an hour hike up to the side of the glacier, 3.5h hiking on the glacier, and a hike back down before the boat brings you back to the bus.
We were in a group of about 10 people, got fitted with harnesses and crampons, and went off with our two great guides. We saw crevasses, glacier rivulets and waterfalls, and the Perlandina (the only animal to live on the glacier, a 2cm long black insect). Views were breathtaking, the sun was relentless, and the water from the glacier tasted like the envy of every single bottled water company.
It was all over too soon, and before we knew it we were on the boat again, heading back at the end of an incredible day. As the final touch, we were offered whiskey on ice – ice from the glacier. It was the best whiskey I have ever had.
Puerto Natales & Torres del Paine in Chile
It’s a 7h bus ride from El Calafate to Puerto Natales, including all the queuing and waiting at the border to get your passport stamped (and your fruits and cold cuts confiscated, whoopsies!). Puerto Natales came across as a sleepy, sprawled out, small town. We stayed at Domo’s House and rented a car (for an extortionist rate of USD70 which is what we used to pay in NYC!) to go explore the “Cuevas del Milodon” caves on our first afternoon and drive out to Torres del Paine the next day.
The drive was amazing… from the “Road to the End of the World” road signs to all the wildlife we came across: the ostrich’s cousin ñandu, the llama’s cousin guanaco, various birds of prey, and even a wild skunk!
Torres del Paine National Park is where the “W-Circuit” is, the classic five-day hike most outdoorsy travelers do. This requires time, planning (you have to reserve your spot at the various campsites along the way), and carrying all the food you will need with you.
With our timing, we just did the last leg of the W-Circuit, in reverse to Campamento Torres, as a stand-alone hike. The park fee (USD 60 per person) was rather steep for such a short visit, but all in all still worth it.
El Chalten: A hiker’s paradise
El Chalten was described to us as a village started by ski-bums who enjoy hiking during the off-season. That is probably why we loved it! The small village sits at the bottom of the magnificent mountain range among which sits Mount Fitzroy, and there are a seemingly endless number of hiking trails just waiting to be explored.
We stayed for three days and did a hike (or two) every day. Glorious! Spending that much time outside, seeing the Fitzroy from every which angle but always towering over us and reminding us of how incredible – and powerful – nature is (the wind near Laguna Torre almost blew us off our feet!)… it was a close second to the Perito Moreno glacier experience.
As a bonus, the rumors about it not being possible to pay for anything with credit cards, or that there was no fresh produce to be found, were both inaccurate.