FEB 25, 2016 – My first day in Ushuaia was spent mostly on a boat. With Charlotte from the UK, whom I met at a hostel the previous evening, I went on a cruise to see the local birds and penguins. There weren’t as many as in Peru, but it was still impressive, and the boat was much more comfortable. And we saw some whales, too! The same evening I went to sleep in my tent on a public campground about 15km from Ushuaia, in preparation of a three-day trek.
Pictures taken with Charlotte’s waterproof Olympus TG-4.
FEB 24, 2016 – While Roman was flying back to Buenos Aires, I spent another day in El Calafate – the bus to Ushuaia only ran at night, and I had to wait for some clothes I had forgotten in El Chaltén. At La Tablita, I ate Patagonian roasted lamb for lunch – a real treat. I got ready for almost 24 hours of sitting in a bus, with a short break in Rio Gallegos, a ferry crossing, and two border crossings: While Ushuaia is on Argentinian soil, the Western half of Tierra del Fuego is Chilean. By now I knew that Chile is very picky about produce crossing its borders, but I was still a bit surprised when even dried fruit was confiscated at the entry point. After a long bus ride through spectacular landscapes, I arrived at the “End of the World”. Besides Ushuaia, two places in Chile also compete for the title of “world’s southernmost city”: Punta Arenas further north, which feels more urban (but at a population of 57’000, Ushuaia has every right to call itself a city), and Puerto Williams further south, which, at a population of 2’874, should probably go back to calling itself a village.
FEB 23, 2016 – The village of El Chaltén is unusual in many ways. Located in the middle of a National Park, it houses almost exclusively trekkers from all over the world and their hosts. All tourists wishing to enter El Chaltén receive a briefing at the park’s visitor center first. The rules are strict: Park rangers posted at the trailheads make sure nobody starts ascending too late in the day, and both trails and camp grounds can be closed in difficult weather conditions. Treks outside the trail network – which includes only one peak, the Loma del Pliegue Tumbado – require a wilderness permit and complete gear for trekking and/or rock climbing. Many hikers are fascinated by the views of Mt. Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, which can be observed from several viewpoints, weather permitting. Others, like me, don’t mind looking at some peaks but also want to reach the top eventually…
In the three days Roman and I spent at El Chaltén, we hiked most of the official trails and went on a mountain bike trip along Rio de las Vueltas. Due to bad weather conditions and limited time, we didn’t really consider doing a wilderness trek. Luckily we found a cozy hostel called La Comarca, where we played card games in the evenings with fellow backpackers. The hikes were nice, but I really thought that “hiking capital of Argentina” is not an appropriate title for this village – while there are many options for rock climbing and wilderness trekking here, the ones for hiking are very limited and the trails crowded. Bariloche, further north, is a better place to go.
FEB 18, 2016 – After another night at Hostel Rio Tindal in Puerto Natales – sleeping in a dorm this time – we made our way back to Argentina the next evening. The morning bus was already fully booked when we tried to buy a ticket, so we had a free day in Puerto Natales to relax, send postcards, eat crêpes, and drink coffee. We also checked out the excellent Café Kaiken, a small family-owned restaurant that impressed us with its Italian-influenced local cuisine.
Back in Calafate, we immediately booked a day trip to the Perito Moreno glacier. The edge of this glacier is a popular tourist attraction with a network of trails and ramps leading along it. For once we were really lucky with the weather and got a great view of this vast mass of ice, which, just like the Grey glacier, originates from the South Patagonian Ice Field (16’800 km²). We witnessed the calving of the glacier on several occasions. Some tour operators offer treks and cave visits on the ice, but we decided against them – having walked on glaciers before, we felt like the view from a distance would be the most impressive part of the experience. On the bus I met a German solo traveler who gave me ideas for the next solo leg of my trip: Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego. We got back to Calafate for yet another night at America del Sur Hostel before traveling on to El Chaltén.
FEB 16, 2016 – On the last day of our trek, we got up a little earlier – I think at 5:30 instead of 6am – to be back on time for the bus to Puerto Natales in the afternoon. The night before we had learned that there was no easy option to go straight back to El Calafate, so we’d have to spend another night in Natales. The weather was dry again after a rainy night, but not looking sunny. We ascended in high-speed mode, with only the most basic supplies, and passed a lot of other hikers. In the upper part after Torres camp, snow started to fall. At the viewpoint there really wasn’t much to see as the famous “Torres” were mostly in the fog – only the mountain on the opposite side was visible. We were glad that we didn’t get up early for the sunset, as we later learned that the view wasn’t any better at that time. We got back to the campground in time to have lunch before catching the bus out of the park. Overall, we were quite satisfied with our visit to Torres del Paine – the landscape is beautiful and the weather was not too bad. I just think it is a bit overrated and therefore overcrowded with tourists. The high entrance fees and camping prices do not seem to keep people away from what is by far the most famous trek in Patagonia. There are good alternatives that provide more solitude and freedom, such as the Dientes de Navarino trek on the island south of Ushuaia, and other hikes in Tierra del Fuego area.
FEB 15, 2016 – This day was marked by very random weather. We woke up with a dry tent and the weather didn’t look bad at all. However in places it was very windy, to the extent one had to be careful not to be blown off the trail. The rain was never far away either, as witnessed by several rainbows we saw. Repeatedly we were hit by some raindrops and tempted to put on our jackets, but it always subsided within a minute or two.
It was early afternoon when we arrived at the fork between Chileno camp and Hosteria Las Torres. We had the option of going directly up to Chileno, sleeping there and potentially ascending towards Las Torres viewpoint to see the sunset the next morning, as many hikers do. Alternatively we could take the more flat route to Hosteria Las Torres and do the ascent the next day, still having enough time to go up the valley and be back in the afternoon. Since we had failed to get a spot for Campamento Torres (the one above Chileno) and we had heard that Chileno was pretty crowded, we chose the second option.
Once we had set up camp, we had most of the afternoon left to relax. I used some of the time to build a wind shelter for the tent since the wind speeds were extreme on that campground – some of the cheaper tents had even been destroyed. After comparing the food options, we decided to have a fancy dinner at the Hosteria bar since the prices there seemed quite reasonable. It was a nice luxury to have after days of basic camping food.
FEB 14, 2016 – Our tent resisted the rain well, and by the morning it had stopped. Today’s hike was rather flat, except for a few hills that had to be passed. We first arrived at Paine Grande, the biggest camp of the “W” trek. This was where we hoped to make a reservation for Italiano camp, but it was already fully booked for the night. We therefore continued to Francés, a new commercial campground located in the forest just half an hour further. There we still got a spot on one of the wooden platforms. It was early afternoon when we set up our tent, so we had enough time for an excursion into Británico valley. Indeed everything is named after European countries in that area, only a “Suizo” camp was missing. We ascended to the first viewpoint, which wasn’t too spectacular compared to the Grey glacier. Further above it was supposedly very windy and we were tired, so we didn’t go all the way up the valley. After a good pasta dinner, we went to sleep on our flat platform. Late-arriving campers were less lucky and had to set up their tents along the hillside. At least the campground warden showed some mercy and gave them a discount.
FEB 13, 2016 – We left at 8:15 for the toughest hiking day. From Perros camp, just above 500m, we ascended to John Gardner Pass (1241m) and then descended again to Grey Camp, at only about 200m. The view from the pass onto the Glaciar Grey was breathtaking, but so was the strong wind, accompanied by some rain at times. We hurried to get to a lower altitude again, where forest provided some shelter against the wind. After passing Guardas, a tiny camp in the middle of a forest, we continued to Grey, the first camp of the popular “W” route, located along Lago Grey. It became evident quickly that there were a lot more people here. There were also more facilities available, such as a cottage with dorms, a restaurant/bar and a somewhat larger shop. The food prices were just as exaggerated as in the more remote camps though. I later learned that some of the camps have extra-high foreigner prices not only for camping, but even for food and beverages.
In the evening it started raining, so we were glad to have some shelter in the crowded cooking shack. We tried out Polenta for dinner, which was a bit difficult to prepare in the small campstove, but turned out good.
FEB 12, 2016 – On the second day, we were ready to leave Serrón within 90 minutes of getting up. We failed to repeat this fast morning routine on any of the following days. By noon we were in the Dickson camp, located along a lake. We had lunch and continued to Perros camp, inside a forest in more rocky terrain, where we arrived tired in the early evening. This was the most basic of the camps, with only two toilets available. Cooking was only allowed inside a hut, which ended up being very crowded at dinner time. Since we weren’t carrying food for the entire trip, we started looking at the options in the campsite store. They were very limited and overpriced, but we did find a risotto mix for “3-4 portions” which worked out as a dinner.
FEB 11, 2016 – After clearing the formalities at the park entrance, we started our first day of hiking towards Serrón camp. The trail was not too crowded since this was on the “O” part of the hike, whereas many visitors to the park only do the “W”. By mid-afternoon we arrived at the campsite and had some time to explore the facilities there. It turns out camping in TdP is quite expensive, with prices ranging from 6000 to 8500 Chilean pesos per person. Food availability is limited and prices are exorbitant (even at camps that have a boat connection), so it is a good idea to carry supplies for the entire trip.