The Fierce Peaks, Moving Glaciers and Dry Desert of Argentine Patagonia

With 8 days of trail grime pasted to our skin, between our toes and matted in our hair, even our mediocre shower facilities seemed luxurious.  After scrubbing down, it was time to meet back up with our crew for dinner.  Those 8 days straight of rice and oatmeal gave fame to the pizza and beer we indulged in at our celebration meal  at Mesita Grande.  Full to the brim, we flopped into a bed for the first time in a week and fell into a blissful sleep of the dead for the next ten hours.

We took another day to relax and recover in Puerto Natales before yet again crossing another border between Chile and Argentina;  That crossing made the number of Argentine stamps equal the Thais with 7, in my current passport.  Calafate is a nice town, built on the sloped southern shore of Argentina’s largest lake (Lago Argentino), with a back drop of snow capped Andes.   The main attraction being the famous Pertio Moreno Glacier, one of the world’s most active.  Standing at the edge of the ice field, it’s possible to watch and listen as chunks of all sizes calf and crack away from the massive meringue blanket, crashing into the azul waters of Lago Argentino below.   Our rainy day visit to Perito Moreno did have an upside – the hoards of tour group buses that venture here every morning were thin due to the weather, pretty much leaving us the place to ourselves.  After viewing the glacier, and seeing it shed a bit of itself, we were stuck in the rainy park for another 5 hours due to bus schedules.  It was a good thing we took a deck of cards with us.  We bought a $5 coffee and sat in the café playing Gin until one of the cleaning staff told us “you can’t do that here.”  WTF?  Yeah, apparently the park has a regulation against card playing.  We laughed, knowing that it was the “you can’t play cards inside out of the crappy weather if you only buy one coffee” line.   By then, the weather had cleared a bit so we took another gander at the ice and jumped back on the bus.

Perito Moreno glacier

The next day, our bus travel took us 3 hours northeast to El Chalten, the gateway to the north end of Bernardo O’Higgins National Park, the same park that hosts Moreno glacier at its south end.  As we approached El Chalten, the ferocious peaks of the Fitz Roy Range stared at us and with a condescending voice said  “F-Off.” “I dare you.”  Of course, we intended to get as close to the summits as possible by following the trails from town.  First, we hiked the Laguna Torre trail which took us to a small lake at the base of Cerro Torre.  The path was more long that difficult, and the scenery was spectacular.  Only climbers could continue further than the trail, and at their own risk.  Every year, climbers from all over the world travel to El Chalten in hopes of summiting Cerro Torre.  Some even wait weeks for the weather to co-operate as clouds and snow can limit visibility at any time of year, which can make the climb fatal.  We were lucky, it was all sun.

Cerro Torre from the trail

Since all the buses north were booked solid for the next few days, we got stuck a little longer than expected.  There are definitely worse places to be stuck.  Our extended time gave us the luxury of resting a day between hikes.  The day before our bus, we took the trail at the north end of town to Fitz Roy.  Again, the trail was easy.  Well, at least most of it was easy.  The final 40 minute section was a bit of an ass kicking with consistent steep grade, large steps and slippery spots.  As our view of the valley behind us continued to expand, the peaks of the Fitz Roy Range poked over the ridge.  Our reward was lunch on the lake at the base of the peaks, which was the end of the trekking trail.

At the end of the Fitz Roy trail with Fitz Roy in the background

We’d had our fill of trekking over the last two weeks by the time we could get on a bus heading north.  Our destination was Bariloche.   The bus took two days.  Route 40 (Ruta 40) runs the entire north-south length of Argentine Patagonia.  It was not at all what we expected.  Although we could have taken a bit faster route back east before cutting back west, we opted for the “scenic route 40.”  The plan was to be on board from 11am-9pm when we would stop for the night at a pre-arranged hotel, then board the bus again the following day at 7am until our 9pm arrival in Bariloche.  After just an hour on the bus, the beautiful peaks of the Andes fell out of sight and we hit the desert.  Nothing broke up the boring uniformity of the road except for the odd 20 meter strip of construction, which no one was working on, that forced a road closure and the bus to veer into the dusty shoulder.   It was flat, dry and dusty and other than a pretty cool sunset, the only other scenery was the back of the head of the person in front of us on the bus and tiny thistle bushes on the side of the road.   Did I mention that there was no toilet on the bus?  Yeah, special.  We did stop twice for food, but that wasn’t enough.   By 3pm most of the bus was in agony needing a toilet…. Until finally at 3:30 our driver pulled over on the side of the road and said, “Bano natural”, (natural toilet break). “Men on this side (as he pointed to the driver side of the road), women on that side”, (as he pointed to the thistle bushes that lined the highway).  Myself, and twenty other women took cover behind whatever bushes we could as the guys went to the other side of the road.   A flat tire about an hour later added some excitement, but only slowed us down for 30 minutes as our two drivers were stellar at jacking up the rig and changing the burst rubber in the middle of the road.  This held us entertained until we finally made it to the shittiest, most overpriced hotel in the middle of the Patagonian desert.  We slept there for the night.

The next day, though the trip was much longer, we had a better bus (with a toilet) and after eight hours, the landscape began to take the shape of mountains as we again approached the Andes.  Tired, and just done with the bus, we arrived at Bariloche and grabbed a taxi to our pre-booked splurge resort.

Bariloche is a beautiful lake town surrounded by mountains and ski resorts.  Despite it being an outdoor mecca, we were basically hermits for the week.  We took time to enjoy the luxury of our four star accommodation and get some work done (like our taxes).  The week flew by, then we continued our journey north via the Seven Lakes Road to San Martin de Los Andes.  The road is named after the number of lakes it skirts before reaching San Martin from Bariloche.  These lakes also give the region its name “The Lakes District.”  The lakes, all visible from the road are different sizes and colours, all surrounded by ancient forest.  Although it was pretty, it’s not a trip we’d suggest by bus.  It would have been nicer in our own car, so we could have stopped at viewpoints along the way.

one of the 7 lakes from the bus

San Martin is an easy place to get stuck for a week or more.  Its two main streets are lined with cute cafes,  upscale grills serving famous Argentine beef, and shops selling everything from souvenirs to designer jeans to outdoor sporting gear (and the best mountain bikes we’d seen so far in South America).  We spent a couple of days enjoying the scenery of the green mountains and large lake before again spending a night in a bus towards one of our much anticipated destinations in Argentina – Mendoza.  Aka, wine country.



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