We came up with an idea of visiting Argentina a few years ago, when our close friend moved to the homeland of her then-boyfriend-now-husband. Starting from December 2015 we kept on monitoring numerous sites selling air tickets to Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile. We bought the tickets as soon as we found an acceptable price. And there was no turning back!
Patagonia was more enchanting than we initially thought. We were fascinated by small villages separated from one another by hundreds of kilometers and by wilderness one cannot find in Europe. It is alluring to know that apart from the lake in front of you and the snowy mountain range behind this lake, there is nothing but more lakes, more glaciers, and more mountains. While we were there we felt probably exactly the same as the first explorers of these lands. It is a peopleless wide open space where nature is still pure and unlittered. In Patagonia some of the largest dinosaurs have been discovered, and it is there that one can easily imagine that they are still alive hiding somewhere near. The magnitude of stunning landscapes can only encourage to create such images.
The first impression was a bit of the Wild West type, as the main street and a few little cottages surrounding it were the only components of this village. It was a quiet place before the tourist season (we were in El Chaltén in the first half of December). Hostels were awaiting the first hikers, dogs were wandering the empty streets. Inside the pubs there were patagonian lamb being roasted on the cross, but outside there was nothing but silence and the wind. How wonderful!
El Chaltén is the youngest Argentinian city. It was founded on the 12th of October 1985 and since then the number of its inhabitants has been steadily growing. According to censuses, in 2010 the population of this village stood at about 1500. The village is located within the Los Glaciares National Park, near the north bank of the Viedma Lake, in the riverside of Rio de las Vueltas. Almost mesmeric Mount Fitz Roy towers above the village. The location of El Chaltén makes a vast number of mountain climbing lovers come there from all around the world. What does attract them? Everyone will answer differently. We were lured there mostly by the mountains, the glaciers, harsh climate and a controversial story. Every villager knows the story of Cesare Maestri and Toni Egger, who decided to reach the summit of Cerro Torre.
In 1958, Cesare Maestri was a part of an expedition aiming for reaching the summit of the unspoilt patagonian Cerro Torre – described by the great French mountaineer Lionel Terray as probably the most challenging mountain to climb on Earth. However, the expedition did not succeed. Maestri decided that they would return in a year. They did so, but only Maestri’s words could certify their success. Toni Egger did not come back from this expedition, and neither his body nor the camera which he had in his backpack have ever been found. No one believed Maestri, therefore, in order to overcome the barage of criticism, he organized another expedition. He went back to Patagonia once again in 1971, equipped with gas-powered compressor, which was to be used to drill holes for bolts. That expedition made Maestri face another barrage of criticism. When Cesare reached the end of the rocky part of the mountain, right below the ice mushroom, he said, “It’s just a block of ice, which is not really a part of the mountain, and will soon be blown down”. The compressor hangs on Cerro Torre to this day, and I strongly encourage you to read more not only about Cesare but also about the history of the ascents to Cerro Torre.
We decided to spend 4 days in El Chaltén and at the same time we hoped for at least one of them to be sunny, leastways neither rainy nor extremely windy. At that time we wouldn’t mind even light drizzle, as long as there would be no fog nor heavy clouds, so we could simply see the legendary Fitz Roy, which was our priority. The mountain was named so by the Argentinian discoverer Francisco Moreno, in honor to Robert FitzRoy, the captain of the HMS Beagle, who charted large parts of the Patagonian coast. The native Patagonian population, Tehuelche people, used to call Fitz Roy a smoking mountain – Cerro Chaltén. However, they used to call many other mountains likewise. Most of mountain peaks were usually covered with clouds, and so they are nowadays. Cerro Fitz Roy is 3,405 meters high and together with Cerro Torre (3,128 m) they are considered to be among the most technically challenging mountains for mountaineers on Earth. We were incredibly lucky. On arrival at El Chaltén, after checking in a hostel and getting little rest, we decided to walk to nearby Mirador de los Condores vantage point. Despite the fierce wind, we stayed there until the dusk. We were enchanted by Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. We couldn’t take our eyes of those beautiful peaks, covered with no clouds, towering above the area majestically.
The next day was like winning the lottery – the wind was light and the sky was blue, with only few fluffy clouds scudding across it. Our dreams did come true! We ate our breakfast, laced our shoes up, put the rucksacks on our backs, and run out of our Cabana No. 4 suite, happy like never before. As we left the village early in the morning, we reached the place where Laguna de los Tres Trail begins.
The 10-kilometre trail was beautiful. The first three kilometres led through the hillside, what made a large glacial valley situated along the Rio do las Vueltas river visible throughout most of this section of the trail. The scenery was constantly changing, each kilometre of the trail was completely different. Plants, soil types and landforms were changing as well. It was very quiet and peaceful. The valley which is crossed by lots of streams, smelled of honey and blueberries. The air was crystal clear and so was the water flowing in all the streams and rivers we passed by. The water was so clear that it was drinkable. Enchanted by the ubiquitous and pure beauty of the region, we didn’t realize when we reached the ninth kilometre of the trail. We had only one kilometre left, which was so steep that we started questioning the choice of the trail and ceased to admire the beauty of the region. Unfortunately, there was no other way. The very last section of the trail was no trekking anymore, it was more like climbing a vertical rock wall. However, the view awaiting us at Laguna de los Tres was worth all the effort.
During the next three days, we made another attempt to reach Laguna de Los Tres. However, this time we were accompanied by our friend who could not join us earlier. The day was not sunny, but it did not rain either. The sky was covered with threatening clouds, however, only a thin drizzle was getting our heads wet from time to time. Wind was blowing as always, but on that day it was stronger than the day before. Fitz Roy was coverd with clouds and until the end of our stay in El Chaltén, i.e. for the next two days, we couldn’t see it even once. Still, we stubbornly hoped that we would be able to see it at least for a moment. Our trekking was going smoothly, until the eighth kilometre where the weather changed unexpectedly. Completely without a warning, it started to pour with rain so heavy that we got pushed away from the trail. Fighting against the raging forces of Patagonian nature, we walked up to a small forest situated at the bottom of a low hill. The forest, full of stunted trees, was very dense which allowed us to hide from the blasts of wind and the rain.
The wind was so fierce that it made the rain fall almost horizontally over the tree crowns. We were looking at all of that in disbelief. After about 30 minutes everything cooled down a little. It was still raining, but vertically already, therefore we decided to leave our bolthole and retreat from the valley to the village. Our way back was calm, the rain was not this strong anymore, and after two kilometres it even stopped raining. We got to the village soaked, but satisfied, after all. We experienced the power of nature in Patagonia to our cost.
Before it was time to leave El Chaltén, we managed to get enchanted even more by Patagonian nature and also hit few shorter trails: to Chaltén Valley and Viedma Lake vantage points, one along Rio de Las Vueltas leading to a beautiful waterfall, and we also managed to cover a part of a trail leading to the foot of Cerro Torre, however, due to bad weather conditions and limited time we didn’t manage to reach its end. We will reach it, when we go back there. Despite the unstable weather, which did not allow us to implement the whole plan, we left this marvellous village happy as never before. Our next destination were El Calafate and Perito Moreno Glacier, situated only 3 hours away from the charming El Chaltén.
Patagonia/Argentina – December 2016