One of the highlights of my adventures in Patagonia was an ever-so-brief jaunt to Argentina. While the majority of my time in South America was spent in Chile, I couldn’t help but take a bit of a detour into Argentina, inspired by photos of epic, jagged peaks and turquoise lakes. Now I could have hopped a bus from Puerto Natales, Chile, to take me across the border, which certainly would’ve been logistically simpler, not to mention monetarily preferable, but I’m a sucker for a good road trip. It is a particularly expensive mode of transport in Patagonia, as I was paying a premium for an automatic car as well as not insubstantial fees for cross-border paperwork for the rental car. Nevertheless, there’s nothing quite like the freedom of the open road and the ability to pull over at a moment’s notice for any sight you deign to stop at.
One odd feature of the drive was that you have to go through two border crossings—first, crossing the Chilean border, driving a short ways, and then crossing the Argentinian border. Thankfully, I had done sufficient research to ensure I had all the appropriate documentation on myself and my rental to get across both borders without incident. I was bemused at the female Chilean border guard, who was amazed that I was driving and traveling alone. I’ve travelled solo so frequently over the years, that it hardly gives me pause anymore. But I will say, as I turned on to the Google-advised dirt and gravel road to El Calafate, I was distinctly aware of my aloneness. Thudding and bouncing along, dodging divots in the road, I became rather concerned that I might end up with a flat tire in the middle of nowhere Argentina (and there was really just miles and miles of grasslands) without cellular service and the inability to change a flat (which has now moved up on my list of things to learn). In an effort to avoid a potential flat, I’d slowed down considerably, but with the fading light and a desire to not be driving or, worse yet stuck, in the dark, I opted to take a slightly more circuitous route which critically took me along paved highways. A little of peace of mind made for a much more pleasant drive.
Perito Moreno Glacier
I broke my journey in El Calafate, a small town known for its proximity to Perito Moreno Glacier. The 75 km drive the next day to the glacier was a scenic one along well-kept roads. I gawked at golden grasslands and snow-tipped mountains off in the distance, and it wasn’t long before I was at the glacier—at 250 km2, it’s a sight that’s hard to miss. Perito Moreno Glacier is part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, which is the third largest reserve of fresh water in the world. Located in Los Glaciares National Park, it has the distinction of being one of the few glaciers that is actually not retreating, managing to maintain a state of equilibrium.
The glacier itself, rising from Lago Argentino, is definitely a breathtaking sight, and they have done an impressive job at providing a multitude of options for viewing the glacier, with an elaborate system of elevated walkways and viewing platforms (most of which are also wheelchair accessible!). As I had arrived in the morning, the crowds were manageable, and I managed to find quiet spots to soak in its pale blue immensity.
Mt. Fitz Roy
My real motivation for journeying into Argentina lay about 3.5 hours northwest of El Calafate. The drive up only served to stoke my anticipation, as I glimpsed larger, more rugged mountains through the descending cloud cover. My base for 2 nights would be El Chaltén, a village nestled between Cerro Torre and Cerro Fitz Roy. This little village of about 350 year-round inhabitants exists solely for tourism, supporting the hikers and trekkers that come from around the world to explore the mountains. I settled in to the charming Nothofagus B&B and wandered the village, befriending and photographing the multitude of dogs roaming the streets.
Despite the ominous clouds and rain showers the previous evening, I was fortunate to awake to beautiful sunny skies for what would be a long day ahead. I set out, along with many other hikers, on the Laguna De los Tres hike, a 24-km roundtrip journey to the lake at Mt. Fitz Roy’s base. It was a short walk through the village to reach the trailhead, before ascending, fairly steeply, to a natural and stunning viewpoint overlooking the valley of the De las Vueltas river. This hike is one of the most popular in the area, and the trail was accordingly well-trafficked. As a fairly slow-and-steady-wins-the-race kind of hiker, I was happy to pull over and let hikers pass.
The trailed flattened out, and it really wasn’t long before I came across the breathtaking viewpoint looking out at Mt. Fitz Roy. Usually one has to hike a fair ways to achieve that kind of view. And indeed, for hikers who might not want to spend 8 hours on the trail, this would be a perfectly acceptable terminus before heading back to El Chalten. The next four hours was spent hiking along a delightfully flat trail, with the jagged spires of Mt. Fitz Roy looming in front of me. The weather was perfect—deep blue skies and abundant sunshine.
I eventually arrived at the Poincenot Base Camp, where signage warned of the abrupt steepness that lay ahead (and to only start up the trail if you have an appropriate level of fitness). Buoyed by that ever so uplifting warning, I set out to clamber up another 400 m of trail. And it was certainly a literal climb in some spots, as I had to pull myself up the rocks. After about an hour of panting and scrambling, I finally reached an old frontal moraine, which was effectively a hill comprised of small rocks. All of my sweating and scrambling up the trail was rewarded by the picture-perfect sight of Mt. Fitz Roy with its turquoise lagoon at its base.
I descended down to the water’s edge and miraculously came across a piece of wood, that looked to be a discarded walking stick. This find would prove to be a godsend, making my descent down that precipitously steep trail I’d just climbed up significantly less painful and hard on my knees. I also managed to have a stroke of luck with the weather, as clouds started to move in around Mt. Fitz Roy’s peak just as I was leaving. It even started lightly snowing for a bit as I made way down the trail. I counted my lucky stars that I didn’t climb all the way up there only to have my efforts rewarded with a bundle of cloud cover.
My legs were definitely starting to feel the work I’d put in, but it was thankfully a leisurely hike down the trail back to El Chaltén. After about 8.5 hours out on the trail, I eventually found myself at the trailhead again—a long but epic day with some of the best vistas I’ve ever seen.
Before making my way back towards the Chilean border, I spent the next morning taking full advantage of having access to a car and drove the backroads around El Chaltén. I came across trickling waterfalls and glistening lakes, not to mention my fair share of rugged mountain views. No maps or any particular destination in mind, it was wonderful to just wind my way through the countryside. Though my time in Argentina was fleeting, it definitely whet my appetite for more. Until next time!