The magic of Torres del Paine

Greetings from Patagonia…wish you were here!

Photo taken in November 2003 during a trek in the famous Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia Chile.

Hidden at the far southern tip of Chile is home to Torres del Paine National Park, one of the most insanely beautiful parks in the world.  In this remote, windswept region of nowhereland, you can experience four seasons in a day and winds so powerful that they knock you down.  It is one of the most spectacular settings possible for trekking yet extremely difficult to reach.

As you drive through the barren pampa land without seeing much of any sign of civilization, the park magically appears out of the sky.  When you drive along the long, gravel round entering the park this is the view you see:  Unforgetable.

Stay tuned….my next series will be on Torres del Paine National Park starting with a day visit to Lima, followed by a trip south to Puenta Arenas an unusual town that is extremely windy, followed by a visit and trek through the world-famous park. 

Adventure Travel Chile TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking

Scotch on the 400-year-old Rocks

After leaving El Chalten, we boarded the sole bus headed back down Ruta 40 to El Calafate.  This time, I wasn’t shocked by the barrenness of the land, the no man’s land of guachos, guancos, condors and pumas.  I was just plain old tired.  Tired from all the hiking, and tired of all the travel.  It is amazing how truly long it takes to reach this part of the world.  Four flights, long, bumpy bus rides and then there you are in the middle of nowhere.

We arrived at the bus depot in El Calafate late at night, met our driver who swiftly escorted us to our hotel and were just in time for the ten o’clock dinner seating.  Eating so late is not my favorite.  First of all, I’m always starving by 5 or 6 pm, which is my usual dinner time (blame it on the kids!), and second of all, I find it hard to sleep on a full belly.   Yet sometimes you have no choice in the matter, especially when you are traveling in countries where eating late is the norm (such as Spain where I could hardly stay awake for the eleven o’clock dining).  Regardless, we were famished and all that remained open was our lovely hotel bar where we wondrously gobbled up an entire meal (appetizer, salad, entrée, dessert, and of course a bottle of vino tiento).

We were up at the crack of dawn again but this time it wasn’t an anticipated hike that woke us up but the crazy, noisy strange birds that screeched outside our hotel window.  Extremely curious what on earth could make such a horrendous sound, I pulled back the curtain to find these large, annoying, unusual looking birds who sounded somewhat like Canadian geese, having some kind of party outside my hotel window.  Oh well, at least it was a built in alarm clock.

Today was yet another big day.  We were off on a grand, full day excursion to see the world famous Perito Moreno Glacier, and I could hardly wait!

A visit to the Perito Moreno Glacier, located about 78 km/48 miles from El Calafate in the Los Glaciares National Park (declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981) is one of the most spectacular and unforgettable experiences in all of Patagonia.  Known as one of the few still advancing glaciers on Earth, Perito Moreno is also one of the most unique tourist destinations in all of Argentina.  The magnificent, massive glacier measuring approximately 250 km2/97 square miles and 30 km/19 miles in length is one of 48 glaciers fed by the Southern Patagonian Ice Field  (the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water).   It’s massive size (a true beast of a glacier) is so incredibly amazing that many people are completely awe-struck and taken aback by its magnificence.    It is truly a wonder of this magnificent, unbelievable Earth.

The Perito Moreno glacier was named after the renowned Argentine explorer Francisco Moreno, a trailblazing pioneer who studied the region in the 19th century and played a major role in defending the territory of Argentina in the conflict surrounding the international border dispute with Chile. Ironically, Moreno, never even saw the incredible ice-formation that bears his name today.  What a pity!

Here are some photos of the trip to this unforgettable place (Please note:  unfortunately the photo quality is not the best and the pictures are a little grainy.  My computer was attacked by a mean virus so I had to download my pictures off my saved Shutterfly making them not as clear.  Oh well….at least this will give you an idea of its beauty.  Enjoy!)

Driving to the glacier, a two hour bus ride through nowhere land:

Approaching the Perito Moreno Glacier…world famous and one of only glaciers in world that is not receding:

First sight:

The only way to reach the glacier is via boat.  After disembarqueing the boat, the tourists walk over to a small pier where they await the arrival of the boat that will ferry them across Lago Argentino to the banks of the glacier.  Here is a picture of the pier:

Here we come…look out WIND!

First sight….wow!  Hard to capture on film how massive it is:

Perito Moreno Glacier advances into Lago Argentino separating it into two halves.  As you take the boat ride out to the terminus of the glacier, you can see this bizarre division and it appears as if there are two separate lakes, one on each side of the gigantic face of the glacier.  The pressure and movement of the glacier creates an incredible show for the spectators.  As the glacier is pushed forward into the lake by the massive Southern Patagonian Ice Field, every few minutes one can hear the thunderous roar and crash of enormous pieces of heavy ice breaking off of the glacier and smashing into the lake (this phenomenon is called “calving”) then floating away as majestic, glistening icebergs.  It is an amazing site to see, that is for sure.  The sheer mass and power of the ever-changing glacier, breaking apart into “baby” icebergs makes is somehow seem like its alive.

As you approach the glacier, you are startled at the sheer size and mass of this enormous piece of ice.  It is truly from out of this world.

The Perito Moreno Glacier is one of only three Patagonian glaciers that is growing. The reason remains debated by glaciologists.  The terminus of the Perito Moreno Glacier is 5 km/3 miles wide, with an average height of 74 m/240 ft high (above the lake) and an ice depth 170 m/558 ft.

Picture of boat docking shows magnitude of this giant mass of ice:

We were dropped off boat at the foot of the glacier for our next adventure, an ice trek:

Our guide giving us some history of glacier:

Another beautiful picture:

Glacier trekking is the most first-hand way to experience the Perito Moreno Glacier.  By trekking across the icy surface, you’ll feel the wind and cold of the grand Southern Patagonian Ice Field, hear the roar of falling ice blocks, and see beautiful vistas of Lake Argentina.  It was something I was really looking forward to doing as I’d never hiked on ice before (except on the sidewalks outside my door in Minnesota—-but that doesn’t hold a candle to this!)

Off we go headed to our hike (note the contrast in size between the people and the glacier towering above our heads):

More shots of the glacier…sorry I couldn’t stop taking photos!

Its freezing out here!  I have two jackets and two pairs of pants on and the wind off the glacier is still cutting through to my bones! (here is a photo of me and my father):

The amazing 400 year old (front part of the glacier is this age, back is much older) up close.  Note the brilliant deep blue colors in the ice.:

Going overboard on photos but I couldn’t stop taking them because it was so amazing.

Entering the glacier.  Not sure if you can see the tiny dotes of people on the left side.  That is where we start our climb after we get fitted with our crampons.

Grabbing our crampons:

Getting them on.  Burr…it is blowing like mad but better in here. Good thing the hut to put on the cramptons had some shelter from the wind:

Our ice guides, showing off:

The gorgeous ice:

View of the green forest to the left of the massive glacier.  Strange juxtaposition:

Not so close…a 100 foot deep ice crevasse.  There is actually a strange type of insect that lives in the ice and eats microscopic organisms inside the glacier!  Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction!

Scotch on the rocks await with a piece of 400 year old ice inside:

Two of my favorite pictures. View of the glacier through the forest:

My father and I, traveling sidekicks:

An attempt to show how massive this glacier is.  It comes off the enormous Patagonian Ice Field which runs down Patagonia through Argentina and Chile.

Patagonian Condor….they are enormous and have a 10 foot wingspan:

View from above on the observation platform:

Glacial calving…the glacier booms, bangs like an explosion as a new calf is born into the water.  The glacier is truly alive:

Thirdeyemom in her element.  True Bliss indeed!

One last shoot before I leave….Goodbye Argentina…until we meet again!

We left Argentina the next day for our long journey back.  It was an amazing trip, one that fulfills the imagination and keeps me dreaming for the day I can come back!

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Hike to Cerro Torre

The small alarm clock beeped incessantly for at least a minute until I turned it off, groggy and cold.  It was already past seven o’clock and I was surprised that I slept “in” so long.  To my dismay, there was no beam of light shining through the thick woolen curtains.  Just darkness.  There were no birds singing their beautiful songs, only the sound of the nearby llama grunting and the thunderous footsteps of other trekkers clomping past our room.

Despite my heavy meal and multiple glasses of cherry red wine, I slept poorly which was surprising given the extreme fatigue and exhaustion my body felt from the successfully completed eight hour hike.  Then I remembered the reason:  That late night thumping, crashing and booming of techno music from down the street.  I thought being in an extremely small town, in the middle of nowhere guaranteed peace and quiet throughout the night.  Obviously I was dead wrong!  Apparently there is a disco several blocks down the street that is open until 4 am and it is usually wall to wall people every weekend night.   I had to remember that I wasn’t twenty anymore; in fact perhaps this was a sign that I was getting old!  Yet I was still cranky that morning, not having enough sleep and not seeing the sun shine through the window.  I desperately needed a hot cup of strong, rich java.

Today’s hike was to another famous landmark, Cerro Torre.  Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy are two of the most formidable mountaineering feats in the world due to their steep, upwards granite spikes that seem to swirl up into the air like a giant tornado.  I learned that mountain climbers from all over the world come to El Chalten, where they base themselves for weeks and even sometimes months waiting for the one or two days possible to summit the peaks.  The weather there is that unpredictable.  The summits are that dangerous as well.

I’ll never forget the story Fabricio, our Argentine guide, told us about that perilous climb.  He said that two young men in their twenties, at the height of life and oblivious to the fact that they were not invincible (which we all believe we are in those prime years of youth and discovery) had set out to summit Mount Fitz Roy.  The weather was excellent when they started out but somehow it turned from bad to worse and the two young men were trapped on top of the mountain in insanely strong winds and whiteout conditions.  They tried their best to get down but unfortunately there was a tragic accident and the rope to one of the climbers was clipped on a jagged, razor-sharp rock.  He stumbled hundreds and hundreds of feet to his untimely death, devastating his climbing companion and the entire climbing community.  It brought a cold chill to my bones thinking about how fragile our lives can be and how quickly things can change in Patagonia.

The hike to Cerro Torre is not as long or difficult as the haul up to Fitz Roy however, it is supposedly equally as beautiful and pristine.  We were obviously not as fortunate weather-wise as the day before.

Photo of Day Three hike, much colder.  The weather had changed.  A storm passed through over the night and the strong, gusty winds brought in cooler air and snow a fresh memory of the winter to come for me at home in Minnesota:

The sky was misty, a typical day in Patagonia.  We realized how much we had lucked out the day before with the crystal blue sky and cloudless day.  A rare treat in Patagonia, that is for sure.

A new couple joined our group, Ricardo and Illaria, newly-weds from Milan, Italy.  Rici was a true gem, a rare find of humor, self-deprecation and intelligence.  Exactly the kind of person I love to meet on a hike!  The four of us talked for hours, sharing stories about our lives and cultures.

One of the best things about hiking in another country is the people you meet.  Usually they are just as wild and crazy as you are and there is always a place they’ve discovered that you’ve never been to….yet.  I could talk about traveling for hours and truly loved to meet others as passionate as me!  My mind was racing as I secretly plotted out my next adventures, hoping my husband wouldn’t find it as an excuse to tie me to a chair.   It was obvious to me that a true wanderlust will never be satisfied with their desire to see the world.  It is a passion that is never-ending and one I hope to someday instill on my young children’s hearts.

As the hike progressed, the visibility worsened and it got really, really bone-chilling cold.  Again, it was nothing at all like the twenty below zero tundra of late January in Minnesota.  Yet still it was very damp and cold which made hiking rather unpleasant.

We reached the end of our hike, freezing and slightly disappointed that the weather had not improved.  The end of the hike was supposed to offer a fabulous view of Cerro Torres but it was hidden in the clouds.  We could barely see the glacier at end of lake, too bad!

Needless to say, it was a very cold place for a picnic lunch.  We sat on the cold, hard glacial stones in silence while we devoured our avocado, chicken and tomato sandwich.  A few handfuls of mixed nuts and morsels of French chocolates helped warm me up:

Despite the fog, the view was incredibly lovely of the glacier and icebergs and once again it was a phenomenal place to refill our water bottles.  The water was so pure, it was outrageous and tasted delicious.

We proceeded directly back to our hotel to warm up and rest (of course over a warming glass of red wine).

That evening, we had one of our best meals ever in Argentina at the little inn next door.  The owner had built the first building in this town 25 years ago and the place was full of black and white photos of his inn, the mountains and nothing else.

It was our last night in the tiny town of El Chalten.  I was feeling rather nostalgic about it.  It was a place that you only can experience in a dream; it is like nowhere else I’d ever been.  What amazed me the most about it was how it had managed to survive, all these years, so far away and in such an extreme environment.

As we left on the one bus out of town, passing through the old, tin buildings on the long, rustic street that lead to Ruta 40 and back to El Calafate, I thought of an old proverb I had heard about Patagonia.  Once you’ve been there, you’ll always come back.  I trusted those words to be true.

Adventure Travel Argentina TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking
Hike to Mount Fitz Roy, Argentina

Hike to Mount Fitz Roy

One of the most blissful things about trekking is the amazing amount of energy you expand throughout the day.  For someone who loves to eat and drink, being able to eat and drink whatever I wanted and not gain a pound was something truly incredible.  Sweets, breads, nuts, cheese were on my mind and eaten with pleasure throughout the day while delightful, homemade Argentine treasures were rapidly consumed at night over a bottle of dry, smooth, aged Malbec.  Needless to say, after a long day of trekking out in the elements and an extremely satisfying and filling meal and bottle or two of wine, I instantly dozed off in a deep slumber and slept peacefully (a rare treat for me these days) throughout the night.

The next morning I awoke earlier.  Something was different.  I couldn’t figure out immediately what it was until I finally got my achy, sore body out of bed and gently pulled open the dark, thick curtains.  And there it was…the big, wonderful, glorious sunshine!  I was overjoyed to see the sun because I knew only too well what it meant.  Excellent, unobstructed views of one of the best hikes in Southern Patagonia!  If we got up, inhaled our breakfast and got on our way soon, there would be a good chance we would make it to the crème de la crème, Mount Fitz Roy and see the craggy, jagged ice-capped peak in all its glory.  Given the ever changing weather in Patagonia, seeing it or anything is not always possible.  In fact, Fabricio said that typically it is only a one in ten shot that the day will be clear when you reach the top, meaning 9 out of 10 unlucky trekkers see absolutely nothing but gray, massive clouds and fog.  That would be an enormous disappointment given how many hours it took to reach this remote place and the unlikely chance that I would ever get to see it again.  Thus, I was up and ready in a heartbeat and impatiently awaiting our guide’s arrival so we can begin our hike.

The trek to Mount Fitz Roy is not technically difficult.  It is just grueling and long, taking eight hours with a short break or two for lunch and rest.  I had done long hikes before and found that I really enjoy them.  There is something about being in it for the long haul, and challenging your body that gets you in some kind of mysterious bodily rhythm and mindset.  Trekking is kind of like running a slow marathon yet better.  Not as intense.  Not as extreme.  Yet, that same kind of exhausting, mind over matter feeling where you somehow enter a zone of deep contemplation and relaxation.  For me, hiking is the only sport that does this to me.  It brings me far, far away, into areas of my mind and body that have been long sealed up and hidden.  It represents some kind of crazy, deep release that makes me feel refreshed and whole once again.  There is something about using only your body and being in nature that brings me peace. And the longer the hike, the better.

We reached the start of the trail at half past eight and saw no one.  The air was fresh and crisp and there was not a single cloud in the brilliant deep blue sky.  I felt an energy and excitement for the day that made me feel truly alive.  I couldn’t wait to see the top and be rewarded with a supposedly gorgeous view of a postcard perfect Patagonia.   My brain was running wild with thoughts and conversation flowed freely and effortlessly.

The start of the trail:

Day 2 Hike:  8 hour exhausting hike to Mount Fitzroy:

Start of hike, beautiful weather.  We lucked out.  Not always certain you will see the peaks.  In fact, only a one in ten chance:

One of the surprising things about Patagonia is its purity.  When I was in New Zealand several years ago, I remember the big advertisement at the time was for “100% Pure New Zealand”.  I of course fell head over heels in love with the raw beauty and nature of New Zealand’s South Island yet it never felt as remote and pure to me as Patagonia.  Perhaps it was the utter ruggedness and harshness of the landscape and environment that made Patagonia seem so utterly pure.  I’m not sure if I can point a finger to exactly why I felt this why but I did.  In Patagonia, anything seemed possible.  The first time I dipped my empty water bottle into a flowing, glacial river I was extremely hesitant about its safety.  Yet my local guide encouraged me to give it a try, stating that it was the purest, freshest, most delicious water in the world.  And, it was.  I’ll never forget the incredible taste of Patagonian water directly from the source.  It was amazing and I could drink it forever.  Water in park is so pure, we used it to refill our water bottles getting drinking water directly from the streams and glacial lakes (burr…cold sticking your hand in but hugely rewarding for the effort).  Here is a picture of the rock landscape protecting the rapidly flowing glacial river with delicious drinking water abound:

As we climbed further along the empty trail, we suddenly saw a glimpse of our destination.  Here is a view of Mount Fitz Roy through the thick beech forest:

Small glacier pouring out of the mountains:

We were indeed truly lucky as the weather remained picture perfect clear.  Not a single cloud had arrived into the sky to mess things up.  What a miracle!  We knew that they last eight consecutive days on the trail had been misty and full of fog.  To hike eight hours and not see a thing would be a huge disappointment!

On the approach to the top and our much deserved picnic lunch:

Heading up through the snow:

The breathtaking approach of Mt. Fitz Roy:

View of where we started below:

At the top—wow, did we luck out on the clear sky.  Only 1 out of 10 days like this in Patagonia!  And no wind!!!! (there is a lot of wind, and there is mucho mucho mucho viento as they say here):

Wow….what a place for a picnic:

Strange patagonian clouds:

Almost home…one last look:

One of our great drinking holes:

Argentina TRAVEL BY REGION

The Tiny Outpost in the Middle of Nowhere

El Chalten is a different kind of place, an outpost in Patagonia, in the middle of nowhere.  It was established in 1985 as a trekking base for mountaineers who wished to summit the nearby, towering and difficult Cerro Torro and Mount Fitzroy.  It began slowly with only tents and today, twenty-five years later has a handful of small restaurants, hotels and shops.  The local population is about 2,000-3,000 residents depending upon the time of year.  Some people stay only during the main tourist season from October to late April, when the mountains and trails are accessible and tourists flock in.  Others remain for the whole year, living through the intense Patagonian winter and are nearly cut off from the rest of civilization until the Spring arrives in October.  It is a wild place, like no place on earth, and is a fitting location to explore the spectacular, divine Los Glaciares National park.

Here are some photos of El Chalten to stir up your imagination:

The town of El Chalten:

Our little humble hotel in Chalten.  El Puma.  It was actually quite lovely with a wood burning fireplace in the reception area and nice rooms:

The llama outside the hotel…watch out!  They spit!

Entrance to the town:

El Chalten from the mountains, in the valley below:

The one and only main drag in town:

The only grocery store:

The lone convenience store:

The road leading up to our hotel.  I couldn’t get enough of this old, crazy car:

For such a small town, I found lots of interesting photo opps:

Symbol of living in a small, remote town:  A classic!  My impatient Dad, waiting at the ONLY Atm in town, with the bank car there, yet you couldn’t get any money.  The wire connection was down.  No cash for the entire town until tomorrow.

Argentina TRAVEL BY REGION