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Hoping to escape the predicted one week of mostly rain on the Chilean side that would mean a very wet Torres del Paine Circuit, I was encouraged by the very positive weather forecast for Fitz Roy – an eight-hour bus ride away on the Argentinian side. I left Puerto Natales at about 5:00 p.m. and by 9:30 the next morning, after overnighting in El Calafate, was approaching El Chaltén, the village that sits at the foot of Monte Fitz Roy at the north end of Los Glaciares National Park (Argentina’s single-biggest wilderness preserve).
As the second image below indicates, the sky was showing lots of blue as I arrived in El Chalten! Unfortunately, the Fitz Roy whose weather I had checked out was that of a town near the Altantic coast about 500 km. ENE from El Chaltén. In the end, of the four days I would spend there, it rained off and on for two of them. Expect grey skies in what follows! (Click here if you want to read the first post of this series on Patagonia before proceeding!)
One of the benefits of taking the 7:00 a.m. bus to El Chaltén from El Calafate is that you are one of the first to arrive in the village that day; finding a room was very easy. I ended up at a place called Guanaca which had two or three rooms on the second floor of the building you see below. There was a restaurant on the first floor but it was not open during the time I was there.
The village has a number of restaurants and grocery stores where you can find stuff for your hikes. Given the nature of the trails, you can quite easily use the village as your base and return to it at the end of each day’s hiking. I dumped my things in my $50. a night room and by 11:00 a.m. was on my way for my first hike- 60 hours after having left Toronto. I decided that a walk up to Laguna Torre would make an excellent first walk. The map below sets out the trails of the little hiking world of Monte Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre.
The walk up took about 2 1/2 hours; “overcast” was the operative word for the weather.
Walking back down to the left of the Rio Fitz Roy to the village took a couple of hours. Along the way I met a retired postman from Toronto and we chatted most of the way. We’d later share a table at the local pizzeria, where I was able to find vegetarian fuel after a busy day.
The next day- rain almost without stop. I was happy to have the room and not being stuck in my very small ultralight tent at the de Agostini campsite by Laguna Torre- which had been the original plan. I came up with Plan B to deal with the rain; I would book a room at the Hosteria El Pilar about seventeen kilometers north of El Chaltén and use it as my base camp for a day’s exploration of the Rio Electrico area. Then the next morning I would leave El Pilar, walk up to Laguna de Los Tres, and then back to El Chaltén to pick up the stuff I had left behind at Guanaca- and then catch the bus back to El Calafate.
In the meanwhle I had a day to spend in El Chaltén. To no great surprise, there is really not much to do. Do not go there for the party vibe! I did get to walk around a rather ramshackle village that could use some by-law enforcement when it comes to buildings and building placement.
Free wifi was available at one of the restaurants so I went there to make a reservation for a room at Hosteria El Pilar. Yes, they did have a room. Yes, they could offer a special price! $100. U.S. Ouch! But what are you going to do? Morning came and the weather looked promising-
The road to Hosteria El Pilar is the one that goes up to Lago del Desierto; it follows the west side of the Rio de Las Vueltas. Just before we reached the bridge to cross the Rio Blanco we turned off onto a side road which took us to the hosteria parking lot. It’s 17 km. from El Chalten to the cozy and isolated former estancia . While a room there is not cheap, in the grand scheme of things it was worth it. I dropped my bag off in my room and set off on my walk of the day up the Piedra del Fraile/Rio Electrico trail almost all the way to the west end of the Lago Electrico.
The hike is definitely worthwhile, especially after you pass through the gate at Piedra del Fraile. There is a campground (Refugio Los Troncos) there with a small restaurant that would have been a much cheaper alternative to staying at El Pilar. It is here that you can start a rather steep climb to the top of Cerro Electrico for some great views of the NF of Fitz Roy on a clear day.
I opted to go beyond the hut and down onto the moraine of el Glaciar Marconi. (I should mention that you have to pay a small fee- it may have been $5.- to go beyond the hut. You are entering the private property of Estancia Ricanor now.) At this point the views from the north side of Monte Fitz Roy as you walk along the south side of the Rio Electrico are superb. Walking up the side of the river I reached almost the end of the Lago and saw a tent on the western shore at a site known as La Playita; whoever was there had gone hiking a bit further for the day. Perhaps they had walked up to the toe of el Glaciar Marconi. (One additional point- I am not sure if camping at the site is allowed- but a tent was there!)
Had the weather been better (or had I been a bit more adventurous!) I would have been walking up with full pack too and setting up a two-day base camp. What a fabulous location! It is here I felt most in the mountains and there was no one else here. It is the biggest regret of my visit that I did not camp- but the weather had gotten to me!
Back at El Pilar after a great day of walking, it was time for a nice hot shower and then an excellent meal in the dining room. The free wifi was an unexpected bonus and allowed me to do some on-line research and send out some emails- including one to a hotel in El Calafate, where I would be stopping on the way back from El Chaltén late the next day.
It was raining the next morning as I slipped my fairly light pack onto my shoulders. (I had left most of my stuff down in El Chalten to be picked up on the way to the bus station.) The plan for the day was to walk to Laguna de Los Tres from El Pilar and then return to the village in time for the bus for El Calafate at 8:00 p.m. I’d be walking about 20 km. or so.
I knew the views would not be that great if I continued to Laguna de los Tres but having walked this far, it seemed silly to turn back so over the bridge in the above picture I went. Past the Rio Blanco mountaineers’ shelter the trail continues for another hour or so to the small glacial lake at the foot of Monte Fitz Roy.
In the shelter (basically a wooden shed with benches and a table) was the French couple from El Pilar; they were with the guide they had hired for the walk. I exchanged “bon jours” with them and noticed the guide had the same Mountain Equipment Co-op pack I had. “Nice pack!” I said and we laughed. It turns out he had been in Calgary (there’s a MEC store there) and had done some mountain climbing with Yamnuska and Barry Blanchard. “I’ve climbed with Barry!” I said. We both had to laugh again at the unlikehood of it all.
It was great to be up there- overcast or not!
Then came the easy walk back to the village to catch the bus. I could have stayed another day but having already spent a rain day in the village, there was really nothing more to see. As you come to the end of the trail to El Chaltén you pass this sign meant for folks going the other way. My day’s walk south along the Rio Blanco from El Pilar and then up to Fitz Roy is easy to see on the map.
Once in El Calafate at around 10:30 I found my way to my hotel, thinking my stay would be a very short one, as I hoped to catch the bus at 8:00 the next morning back to Puerto Natales. However, I was told that all the seats on the one bus going that day were sold and I waited until the bus left, hopeful that someone would not show up to claim their seat. No such luck!
So- and this was actually not a bad thing- a day to look around El Calafate, which sits on the southern shores of Lago Argentina and serves as a tourist hub for people going to see the Moreno Glacier (80 km. west) and Monte Fitz Roy. Near town is the region’s only airport that handles flights from Buenos Aires and elsewhere. The main street makes for a nice stroll and I did visit a regional museum with interesting recreations of Argentine history as it relates to Patagonia- as the following pix show.
There is really not a lot to do in El Calafate; one thing I would recommend is walking over to the Laguna Nimez Nature Reserve on the edge of town. It is a wetland area with abundant bird life and walking its trails at dusk was a nice way to spend an hour or so. On the walk back to main street I passed this flash from Patagonia’s past, before it became the weekend retreat of wealthy politicos from Buenos Aires.
Just an observation- nowhere in El Chalten (founded in 1985) or El Calafate (founded in 1926) did I see dominant church architecture. Instead, the main buildings in these towns, built as they were after the great age of religion, tended to be civic structures. This contrasted with the two towns I visited on the Chilean side, Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales, with their impressive churches right on the central squares.
I caught a bus back to Chile and Puerto Natales the next morning. The on-and-off-again rain during my five days in Argentina meant that things did not unfold quite the way I had wanted. I did no camping at all, reluctant to put up my very small tent in the rain. Instead I had used a room in El Chalten and then at El Pilar from which to start and end my walks.
To be honest, I came back somewhat soured on Fitz Roy as a destination and would initially scoff whenever someone used the words “spectacular” or “jaw-dropping” to describe what Fitz Roy has to offer. I have mellowed in time and looking at these images reminds me of some of the stunning scenery I got to experience, even if it was overcast and a bit foggy. In the end, I would still not put Fitz Roy on the same level as anything the area around Huaraz in Peru has to offer. (I am thinking of the treks and climbs in the Cordillera Blanca and the Cordillera Huayhuash.) Next to the two-trick pony that is Fitz Roy, these places are epic and require, not two or three days, but weeks to fully experience. One way of adding to the Fitz Roy experience for me might have been this option- a trek over the Marconi Pass onto the glaciers. Maybe you can check it out if you’re looking for something more than the basic hiking trails to Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy. I’ll add that something that never even entered my mind was climbing Fitz Roy or Cerro Torre or one of the other granite spires! In that sense these towers represent stupendous climbing objectives for anyone.
The next post in this series is on Chile’s Torres del Paine Circuit. Check it out here. The weather was better! 😊