Week 18 – El Chaltén and El Calafate, Argentina
Hi everybody! We’ve had a week that has been divided between lazy days and very energetic days. Prepare yourselves for some absolutely gorgeous views – Argentina is one of the most beautiful countries we’ve ever been to.
We arrived in El Chaltén yesterday afternoon, and after briefly exploring we discovered that the town is mostly comprised of hostels and restaurants. It’s safe to say that people come here for the hiking and the beautiful surroundings, not for the town itself! Fortunately hiking was just what we were planning on doing.
The morning was very rainy, and by the time it cleared up it was around lunchtime. We decided that we’d just go for a short walk in the afternoon and then do a longer walk another day. We read about a short 8km round trip to a lake called Laguna Capri, and thought it sounded perfect.
The first 30 minutes of the hike were all uphill before the trail began to level out. The benefit of gaining the altitude was that we were rewarded with some gorgeous views. We were looking down onto a river (Rio de las Vueltas) running through a wide valley. We could see mountains in the distance – it was great.
We followed the trail for another hour and a half, continuing a gentle ascent through the woodland. At one point we met some other hikers who stopped us and pointed out a giant woodpecker. It had a brilliantly red head and seemed unfazed by us as we stopped to watch it. Unfortunately it was too fast moving for my camera but it was really cool to see.
At the top of the trail we finally reached Laguna Capri. It was beautiful! Behind the lake we could see Mount Fitz Roy, which is one of the most famous and iconic mountains in this area. When we arrived at the lake it was partially obscured by clouds, but we stayed for around half an hour and the clouds slowly cleared to reveal it. It was so amazing.
Despite having only planned to do a short walk, it was only 2:30pm by the time we’d finished at the lake, and we didn’t feel ready to go back home. We hadn’t realised that Laguna Capri was a stopping point on part of a longer trail, to a lake called ‘Laguna de los Tres’ (lake of the three – named for the three peaks around it). We decided to carry on along the trail for another half hour or so to take in some more of the area.
I’m so glad that we did. Just 15 minutes further on from Laguna Capri, the view opened out and we were treated to some absolutely gorgeous views of Mount Fitz Roy. We also got to see a glacier called ‘Glaciar Piedras Blancas’ (white stones glacier). I got really excited by this as I think that glaciers are absolutely incredible! We stopped to have our lunch down by the river, looking upstream to Mount Fitz Roy. It was pretty amazing.
We ended up hiking 9km of the 10km Los Tres hike. The final kilometre is a pretty steep ascent to the lake and apparently takes around an hour. Because we hadn’t even planned on starting this hike, we’d dawdled along the way and left later than usual. We arrived at the 9km marker at 5:30pm, and were worried about how much daylight there was left. We already had a 2-3 hour walk back, and we figured that adding an additional 2 hours to that wasn’t very sensible. It was a shame though – the views at the top are supposed to be gorgeous.
We made it back home at around 8pm just as the sun was setting, so it’s probably a good idea that we didn’t insist on finishing the trek. We counted ourselves lucky for having got to see those extra views, which were unplanned but had overtaken Bariloche to become our favourite holiday view so far. Argentina is so beautiful!
Today we went hiking again, this time to another lake called Laguna Torre. We actually knew in advance that this would be an 18km walk so we left with plenty of time to spare. Similar to our hike the previous day, the first 2km were uphill, before reaching a gorgeous viewpoint and levelling out. We had an amazing view down the valley to the mountains in the distance.
We descended down into the valley and then for the next 7km followed a flat trail through pretty woodland, open stony ground with lots of shrubs and short trees, and then finally alongside a shallow but fast river. The lake was hidden from view until the very end. We climbed a stony ridge and there it was! It was a multi-layered view, with the lake in front, a glacier behind and then the mountains rising up behind it through the clouds. It was beautiful.
We hiked part way around the rim of the lake to get a better view of the glacier, and stopped to have lunch behind a handy rock that sheltered us from the wind. Patagonia is definitely a very windy place. After we finished we began the hike back. We really enjoyed this walk although I think if we had to choose, we both preferred yesterday’s, where the views were more expansive and the trail more varied.
The winds really picked up just as we got back to the town. We went to a restaurant for dinner where we both tried some really hearty Argentinian stews. They were just what we needed after a day of walking!
After two days of hiking, we decided to take it easy today and spent the day relaxing and researching holiday plans. It was a really blustery day so I was glad we’d chosen this day to spend indoors as the wind howled outside. There is a lot to be said for sitting in a hoodie drinking a cup of tea while you watch determined people in their hiking gear brave the elements outside!
Today we left El Chaltén and caught the bus to El Calafate. This time I slept through the wild landscapes, waking up only when we stopped for a break at the same hotel by a river as we had on the way there.
El Calafate is a town that is on the tourist map due to its proximity to Los Glaciares National Park. In particular, this is the closest town to the famous and easily accessible Perito Moreno glacier. We are staying in a large hostel with a beautiful view over the nearby ‘Lago Argentino’, a lake whose waters are an incredible shade of blue. We booked ourselves onto a glacier tour for Thursday – I can’t wait!
Today we had a relaxed morning. In the afternoon we went for a walk to the lake. We had been hoping to visit a bird reserve but it was all flooded and closed. I think the water level in the lake must be quite high at the moment – we saw the tops of a few bushes and fences that were otherwise submerged.
We walked until we reached a small beach, where we perched on a rock and sat enjoying the sun and the views over the lake. The weather was a perfect combination of hot sun and cool wind, so we ended up at Goldilocks temperature!
I’ve literally been looking forward to this day since I started researching South America two years ago. Today we went to see the Perito Moreno glacier!
The Perito Moreno glacier is one of 48 glaciers arising from the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. It is one of the few glaciers in the world that isn’t retreating – it’s in a stable state where its rate of growth is roughly equal to the rate at which ice is melting or breaking off at the end. It is an absolutely massive 250 square kilometres (97 square miles), which is larger than the size of Buenos Aires (203 square kilometres, or 78.4 square miles). I found it amazing that this isn’t even the biggest glacier in Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park – that is Upsala glacier at 870 square kilometres (336 square miles). Perito Moreno is in fact the third largest glacier on the Argentinian side of the ice field (there are some larger ones in Chile).
It’s been a long time since I’ve studied Geography, but glaciers were one of my favourite topics when I did. I really enjoyed the refresher course on glaciers that the tour guides gave us today. In brief, glaciers are slow moving bodies of ice, formed from years of accumulated snow compacting until the snow crystals turn to ice crystals. Most glaciers come from huge ice fields that are remnants of the last Ice Age. The Southern Patagonian Ice Field is 2,363 km2 (4,773 square miles), and is the third largest store of fresh water in the world. It snows here on average 300 days per year.
Glaciers move downhill due to gravity. Like a river they move faster in the middle than they do at the sides and the bottom, where friction slows them down. They carve out huge valleys as they go, with steep sides. There are some of these U-shaped valleys in England in the Lake District, created by the glaciers of the last Ice Age.
The Perito Moreno glacier is advancing around 2 metres per day, although as I said before the ice is melting or breaking off at the end at roughly the same rate. The end wall of the glacier is ridiculously huge. The visible portion is up to 60m high, but it extends at least a further 100m below the level of the lake. The glacier doesn’t float on the lake and instead goes right down to the bottom of the valley. In fact, the valley continues much further than the end of the glacier, carved out by the massive glaciers of the Ice Age that have since disappeared.
Ok, sorry for the geography lesson! I find it all super interesting. Maybe I am supposed to be a glaciologist after all.
We were picked up by the tour company and driven to the National Park. Our first stop were the balconies which overlook the glacier. There are a number of walkways which give you beautiful vantage points over the north and south walls of the glacier. The views were absolutely amazing; we could see the glacier curving away into the distance between the mountains. We were a couple of hundred metres away from it, so even though we knew that the wall was around 60m tall it was really hard to appreciate this scale. The thing that most helped me to get a sense of its scale was when a boat trip went up to the glacier. It didn’t get too close (it would have been dangerous), but it provided a helpful size comparison.
Along the walls, huge chunks of ice are frequently breaking off. Every 10-15 minutes you’d hear a large crack as a piece broke away, or a crash as it landed in the lake and made a huge splash. By the time you heard the splash it was too late to see it, but we were lucky enough to catch some. As Ben said, it was the sound that really gave away just how large the chunks falling off the glacier were – it was so loud.
We spent around two hours at the balconies, just admiring the glacier and watching the ice breaking off. It was amazing. I finally needed the winter coat that I’ve been lugging around through countries with 30 degree heat – the wind was blowing down off the glacier and was pretty chilly! We had a hot chocolate before getting back onto the bus to warm us up.
We were driven down to the lakeside, where we boarded a boat. We crossed the lake past the south wall of the glacier. It gave us an opportunity to see it from another angle which was really cool. At the far shore we disembarked and met the guides who would be taking us onto the ice. Our tour guide was called Diego and he was really friendly. We all had crampons attached to the bottom of our shoes. The last time we wore these was on the glacier in Iceland. It was funny trying to remember how to walk in them. You have to keep your feet quite wide apart in case you catch your leg with the sharp spikes on the bottom, and when you’re walking uphill you have to stamp your feet into the ground to get a good grip.
Being on the glacier was amazing. It was also interesting how different it was from our last glacier experience on the Sólheimajökull glacier in Iceland. For one thing, Sólheimajökull had been covered in layers of volcanic ash whereas this glacier was a lot cleaner. It was a much more vivid blue colour. The surface also seemed to be a lot more undulating. We didn’t climb right to the top (I’m not sure if it would have even been possible), so we couldn’t get a feel for how large the glacier was. Instead it felt like a surreal otherworldly landscape. We followed the guide on a path across the glacier. Apparently they have to adjust the trail slightly every week, and they have to re-map it completely every month because the surface changes so much. Liquid water runs across the surface of the glacier and very quickly will create deep crevasses. We passed one crevasse and the guide told us that it hadn’t been there the week before. The power of water is amazing!
At one point the guide stopped to point out a deep hole that went deep into the glacier. One at a time he helped us lean over and look inside. It wasn’t possible to see the bottom. The thing that was most incredible was the colour – it was the most vivid blue! I asked him about this and he said that it was due to the density of ice crystals; the more dense the crystals, the deeper blue they appear.
Towards the end of our trek on the glacier, we came up to a flat part of the ice which had a table set up on it. The guides pulled out some whiskey and chocolate! Diego took his ice pick and went to shave some ice off the glacier so that we could have ‘whiskey on the rocks’ with glacier ice. What an experience!
There was one final treat in store for us. Once we got off the glacier and took our crampons off, Diego took us to see an ice cave that had opened up the week before under the glacier. The floor was the rocky floor of the valley, but the walls and ceilings were made up of the ice of the glacier. Water droplets kept dripping down off the ceiling and onto our faces. The light was all blue and we could look up and see air pockets in the ice. The ice was like frosted glass and had a wavy texture. It was completely amazing – probably one of the most incredible places I’ve been to, because it’s like nowhere else I’ve ever seen.
We caught the boat back across the lake, and then the bus took us back to our hostel. It had been such an amazing day. It definitely lived up to my two years of hopes and expectations.
Today was our final day in El Calafate. When planning our trip, we’d envisaged needing a good few days to visit the Perito Moreno glacier; one to visit the balconies, one to hike on top of it, and one to do a boat trip. Our trip yesterday was much more comprehensive than we had expected, and had included all three. There isn’t a whole lot more to do in this area unless you want to take expensive tours to other glaciers a couple of hours away, so we decided to spend the way relaxing and catching up on admin instead. I spent it writing this blog post! This is much more organised and on time than I usually am, but it’s for a good reason. Next Tuesday/Wednesday when I usually publish my blog posts we’ll be embarking on a five day camping and hiking adventure, and leaving my computer safely stowed away in our hostel. (UPDATE: I actually did write this in advance, but the internet in Puerto Natales is so slow that it has taken me days to upload my photos. So being organised didn’t help much!)
Tomorrow we take a bus across the border to Chile, country number nine on our itinerary!