Mother Nature is Fierce: El Chalten to El Calafate


The road out of Chile was rough and bumpy. For hours we drove on washboard roads, snaking up through the mountains and then back down to the pampas toward the border of Argentina. We didn't see another car the entire drive. A few hours in we stopped to air down the tires and I picked my way through the grass to pee. I looked up as the herd of cows grazing close by all picked up their heads and stopped to stare. I said Hi. It hit me then that this was my new normal - bathroom breaks on the side of the road, squatting in the middle of no where with animals staring. Oh, and the hundreds of gas station pit stops - those are less memorable.

We crossed into Argentina at the tiny border crossing of Paso Roballas. One small building that housed the customs, immigration, and police. The people who work here also live here, hundreds of miles from any town. Chickens and horses and a garden are across the road. The border agent chatted with us about where we were going and told us where we should go in his "muy lindo" country (lindo" is an Argentinian word for nice or beautiful or cute. It's used to describe anything from a breathtaking mountain view to a Chihuahua in a tutu). This was our 4th time crossing into Argentina and we knew exactly where we were going - to the iconic Fitz Roy mountain range.

Paso Roballas Argentina border building in the distance.

We see at least one of these guys a day run across the road in front us down here. So cool!

After the border we hit the infamous Ruta 40, Argentina’s north-south highway that runs down the western edge of the country, alongside the Andes. It is considered one of the world’s most epic drives. Once on it, the road was rough, gravely, and deserted for another couple of hours until we finally hit tarmac. Then it was a straight shot south. And by straight, I mean not a single turn for hours, the only thing to keep us awake were the violent gusts of wind blowing the truck sideways.

All through Patagonia we've been keeping track of our gas mileage in relation to the location of gas. The next gas station after the border was in Bajo Carcoles, which on the map looks like a small town. It is not. It is a former military post with about 50 people living there. It does have a gas station but when we arrived, they informed us they were almost out. The attendant told John he could only sell him 200 pesos worth of gas - about $5 worth. That wouldn't get us down the road let alone to the next town. So John had to go find the owner and convince him to give us more gas. We finally filled the tank but weren't sure what to do next. We planned to take a 100 km detour to visit some archeological caves, but since we filled up with most of what was left of the gas for hundreds of miles, our chances of getting out of there weren’t good. Not too thrilled with getting stranded out in the middle of no where waiting for a gas delivery, we decided to skip the caves and head for the next town – which was another 3 hours of driving. Ugh.

The only gas "station" within hundreds of miles. LoJo sucked them dry.

In the car for 6 hours and we're going another 3? Fabulous. This where I started suffering from CDF (cumulative driving fatigue). It's not pretty.

After a nondescript overnight in the town of Gobernador Gregores, we were only a few hours from our destination, the famous Fitz Roy mountain range in the Parque Nacional Los Glaciers. The drive took us past turquoise lakes and rivers. When the shark tooth shaped peaks of Mount Fitz Roy came into view we stopped the truck so many times to take photos the last few miles took an hour. The peaks soar into the sky and can be seen for miles. The usually cloud-enshrouded summit was clear when we drove in and it was a stunning sight.

Every summer thousands of trekkers come to explore the world-class trails here. The trails start right from the town of El Chalten, the base for exploring the park. El Chalten is kind of a frontier town, with construction going on in the hillsides, packs of roaming dogs, and artisanal beer pubs lining the main road. It was cold when we arrived, the wind was howling at 30+ mph and the one campground in town was still closed. We were told at the visitor’s center we could camp at the main trailhead parking lot, with no services and hoards of people coming and going all day long. We were low on cash and neither of the two ATMs in town had any money so we needed to use our credit card for most of our stay here. It didn't take long to make the decision - we got a hotel.

Town of El Chalten

That night while we were having a few beers in one of the cervecerias, an older couple walked in. They had clearly just come in off the trail, decked out in waterproof gear with small daypacks and trekking poles. The gentleman walked in first, and the woman headed for the restroom. Before he even reached for a chair he asked the server for a pint of beer and a glass of Malbec. John said, "Now that's a man I admire". Then his wife (we assumed) walked through the bar with a hitch in her step that was clearly inspired by the Bob Marley song playing. After they were both sitting and enjoying their well earned cocktail, we overheard the man say to the woman, "I'm so impressed with you on the trail. You surprise me every day." It was such an endearing moment. They caught our attention enough for us to go over and strike up a conversation. They lived in Africa - he in Kenya and she in Tanzania. They told us they hiked about the same distance we were planning to do the next day, around 20 km. Which I thought was kind of lot.

John snuck a photo of them from his phone.

We are in a town of young fit young people. This isn't a new phenomenon for us as we visit places with stunning scenery and many activities. We are used to being the older ones in the bar or on the trail. Before this couple walked through the door we were the oldest...by about twenty years. But we meet many older adventurures like this couple. This particular couple appeared to be perhaps in their 8th decade on the big blue ball. It inspires us so much to realize what's possible at any age. It also gives me hope I may never have to surrender my wanderlust.

We set out the next day on our 20 km hike on the Laguna Torres trail. Within a half hour we could see the peaks of the Cerro Torre (Torres Peak) and after 4 hours we made it to the Torres glacier. The last few miles of the hike we walked along the rushing Fitz Roy River, past the tree line, up and over rocky hills until we finally got a view of the lake. It really stopped us in our tracks. It was our first glacier of the trip. Milky green water floating with icebergs and the clearest, cloud free view of the peaks right in front of us. We picked our way around the lake, far from the other hikers, ate our lunch and just soaked in the view. The hike back was long and tiring, then we made a beeline to a beer & burger joint for replenishments.

The peaks come into view.

Cerro Torres in all its glory.

Love this sign..."your personal health is at the disposal of natural forces". If only we truly understood that...

One of the most amazing lunch spots of the trip.

The next day we did a shorter hike to another lake on the Fitz Roy trail. Also beautiful but on that day the clouds kept Fitz Roy peak hidden for most of our time on the trail. We stopped for lunch at Laguna Madre and the clouds cleared long enough for us to snap a few photos while we ate. Within a half hour they closed back in, making the whole mountain range disappear, so we headed down.

The majestic Fitz Roy peak closer up.

We got gas here on the way out of town. Want to know how bad the wind blows in this part of the world? The town's only gas station is in a shipping container. I am pretty sure it's so the gas station attendant doesn't blow away.

Pump is inside. It is knock-you-to-the-ground kind of wind. All day long. Not a camper's friend.

After El Chalten we headed for the town of El Calafate and the mother of all Argentinian glaciers, Perito Moreno. The Perito Moreno glacier is in the southern part of the Los Glaciers National Park and is far more famous. We camped in town at a hostel/campground called El Overerjo to stock up on food and water before heading out the next afternoon to see the glacier.

We arrived late afternoon on October 31st, the day before the park opens for high season. It was pretty quiet and by 6:00 pm we had the place virtually to ourselves, with relatively sunny skies. There are miles of catwalk built all along the face of the glacier that provide different vantage points. The glacier itself is amazing. Enormous and captivating, it is one of Earth's most dynamic and accessible ice fields - it's 30 km long, 5 km wide and 60 m high. It was beautiful.

Perito Moreno Glacier.

Throughout the ice formations are deep blue ribbons of color that make the glacier look illuminated from within. The blue in the ice is mesmerizing. Unlike every other glacier in the world, it is at steady state, meaning it is advancing at approximately the same rate as it is shrinking. And it is active. Every half hour or so we could hear huge chunks of ice breaking off, called calving, as we walked the catwalks. A couple of times we saw chunks as big as a bus break off and crash into the water. We could hear the crack, then a delay, and then the boom as the ice hit the water, creating huge waves as it sank deep into the water and then pop up as a new iceberg. We would walk, sit, listen, and then walk again. Just before closing we saw a huge piece break off. It looked as big as a 10-story building and John caught it on camera. It's hard to get a sense of the scale but it was huge.

I always knew it, but on this day, I really knew it. Mother Nature is fierce.

Too see the whole thing come down, here is the GIF:

We left the park after closing around 8:00 p.m. and decided to come back early the next day to see the glacier from the water on a tour boat. Not wanting to drive all the way out to the campground 20 Km away, we turned off the main road and found a spot just outside the park boundaries and hunkered down for the night. It was quiet - just us and the sheep...and the wind.

The next morning we headed back to the glacier and enjoyed the scenery by boat. It was freezing cold and overcast, but the boat and the weather gave us a different perspective of the glacier - more ominous and even more massive.

That night we drove out to the campground south of the park (but still in the park) called Lago Roca. The campground is primitive but huge, and we were the only ones camping. It was still very early in the season so we felt ok that we traded warmer weather for crowds. It was cold and kind of rainy but after dinner we took a walk (it doesn't get dark until after 10 pm this far south so we've been slowly getting to bed later and later). With snowy mountains and the glacier in the background, we chilled out with few locals for a while and then wandered back around the lake.

So this is Patagonia. We are soaking in all that it has to offer.

#Argentina #wildlife #hiking #CamperLife #Patagonia