Flying to the edge of the world was easy, working my way back into civilization proved more challenging. My goal was to intercept the Carretera Austral, the only road through Chilean Patagonia, but limited onward travel options from Puerto Natales didn’t help much in getting me there. There is a ferry back to Puerto Montt but then working my way back south only to be stuck again seemed silly; as did returning to Punta Arenas and flying. By road in Chile it’s impossible as the Southern Patagonian Icefield, the largest non-polar glacial region in the world, stands in the way. Without a clue of what to do, I found my answer at the bus terminal in the form of a ticket across the border to Argentina.
I had no intention of visiting Argentina and thus, no idea what to expect. The large southern countryside is expansive and the golden prairie land of the steppe feels endless. Unlike Chile, which is so narrow the entire Patagonian region is mountainous, the action in Argentina all lies on the border. This is problematic for land travel since the major road systems are more central. 100km distances can become 5-8 hour hauls taking dirt roads out to the center of the country, driving north for a moment then burrowing back in towards the border. I did this out and back maneuver to El Calafate, home of delicious pastries, a decent brewery, and not too much else. A nice day was spent exploring the touristy streets but that’s about all it needs. The next stop was going to be El Chalten and it’s legendary Fitzroy towers which had me itching to hit the road. However, I was told the famed Perito Moreno Glacier was a must see before moving on. I blindly went along...
The glacier is impressive, and if you have never seen a large ice field before I would recommend visiting; but after hiking basically on top of a very similar but far less crowded version in Torres del Paine, Perito Moreno offered almost nothing new. It did however do some serious damage to my budget. Looking at guide books and blogs the trip doesn’t seem too expensive, but with inflation in Argentina hitting the 20%-40% range annually, prices can easily have tripled compared to information as recent as two years ago. Along with the order of magnitude difference in currency denominations between Argentina and Chile I simply miscalculated the total cost of this endeavor and in turn laid waste to my wallet. The only other ‘splurge’ like this before was to visit Machu Picchu and the RoI between the two are not comparable. On top of this, a slip on metal grating sent Abi tumbling, winding up with a temporary, but hiking-inhibiting knee injury. The whole endeavor left us feeling deflated and battered.
In an effort to redeem itself, and in fairness, a pretty good attempt, while heading out of the park two massive Andean Condors put on a show for those lucky enough to be around. I had only seen these gigantic and ubiquitously worshiped birds from a great distance prior, but up close their mighty wingspan was astonishing. Soaring close over head one can only stare as the majestic (yet ugly looking) giants gracefully glide through the air. Time soon came to hop on a bus back to town, and with tail between legs I staggered back to El Calafate and onward.
Diving into El Chalten the steppe gives way to a deep, steep walled valley, flanked by razor tipped peaks. The small town slowly comes into focus, the Fitzroy Torres rising proudly beyond the valley; guard towers for the village below. With Abi still down for the count hiking wise, we spent our first day in El Chalten how we always do on rest days ‘food tour’, and boy was it a good one! Perhaps my favorite empeñadas of the entire trip up to this point were discovered at a small shop, baked to perfection, and bursting from a hearty and deliciously spiced filling. These weighty meat pockets were just what was needed to ease our pain. The real kicker here though was a homemade ají (hot sauce) that was somewhere between pico de gallo and tabouli, phenomenal. Next came the ice cream; creative flavors ornately decorated with white chocolate chips, Meringue, and fresh raspberries, my mouth is watering just thinking about it. Our final stop of the day was to the grocery store and local butcher where I found true love in the form of a $10/kg, exceptionally marbled, cut it as thick as you want it, beef slab. With surgery like precision the butcher carved off a weighty steak for me to call my own. A long salt, slow roast, and quick sear later; topped with homemade chimichurri and paired with a local Malbec, I was suddenly living the true Argentinian dream.
Èl Chalten is considered the hiking capital of Argentina and for good reason. A series of very well maintained and intricate trails radiate from the town into a stunning natural playground. Striking peaks, glacial lakes, raging rivers, and at the pinnacle of it all, Fitzroy: the mighty Argentinian counter to Chile’s Torres del Paine. There is easily enough hiking here to occupy an outdoor enthusiast for close to a week, but with Abi’s knee still keeping her out of the game, I geared up to knock it all out, or as much as I could, in a day.
Before sunrise I was on the trail. A gentle mist wet my gear while the rising sun battled to wake the heavy fog sleeping soundly in the valleys. I passed a few brave souls who left hours before me, trying to see the sun climb over the famed towers only to be greeted by grey. I crossed tranquil planes and scurried over crystal streams, my early start paying off, I walked alone. Approaching the first of two big climbs on my route I lost the trail. An overflowing river wiped the path off the map like dry-erase. Eventually, I caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a footbridge completely submerged. The sun had only just began lifting the cloud cover as I dismounted my shoes to wade through the knee deep ice bath. Like daggers the water pierced my skin, and each barefoot step on the rocky ground below felt like it would be the last I could muster. Safely across, my lobster red toes cheered with a sharp sting as my cozy dry socks slipped back on. The daily sparring match well underway, the sun batted back the clouds as I climbed. Upon reaching Fitzroy some cover still lingered, but it was worth the trade off to take in the view alone.
My descent was met with heavy opposing traffic but the river had calmed it’s overflow to a more manageable rate. I wandered across a lightly used connecting trail between two of the more popular day hikes to link my circuit together. Onward I pressed into the early afternoon and up again as I made my second big ascent. With 500m left to the final vista, I scrambled up rocks on hands and knees, the wind easily strong enough to take you with it if it caught you broadsided. With 29 km (18 miles) clocked on the odometer, my knees were starting to ware. The remaining hike was all downhill, and that means they weren’t going to get a break anytime soon. With 3km left to go each step was becoming a true challenge. I had nothing left, and slowly I hobbled my way back to town. A final count of 39km (24 miles) logged over nine hours earned it, but a big steak and a bottle of Malbec ensured it: tomorrow would be a rest day.
Abi was on the up and up and Argentina had run its short course for me. I grabbed an overnight bus ticket north to Los Antiguos, the first border crossing beyond the ice. Back in Chilean Patagonia a quick ferry ride and bus combo dropped me at the edge of Puerto Ibáñez on Ruta 7 a.k.a The Carretera Austral. I was 8km from Villa Cerro Castillo, my first stop, and 933km away from the end of Patagonia.