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Who it is for: people who enjoy hiking and being in the world of nature (without it being out-and-out wilderness)
When to go: October to April are the spring and summer months and the weather is usually at its most agreeable then (no guarantees though!). January and February might be the best months of all.
Where to go: While the northern section of Patagonia around Bariloche seems to be popular, the best hiking trails are in southern Patagonia in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine (pronounced pie-nay) in Chile and Parque Nacional Los Glaciares across the border in Argentina.
How to get there: If money is not an issue then a flight from Santiago de Chile to Punta Arenas or if you are in Argentina, from Buenos Aires to El Calafate; if you have a lot of time, then an 1800-km bus ride to the park from Santiago or 2100 km from Buenos Aires! You could always combine a bus ride to Puerto Montt followed by the four-day Navimag ferry ride to Puerto Natales. Or you could visit Ushuaia (the southernmost town in the world) and then make your way back north by boat and/or bus to the two national parks.
What To Bring Along: the essentials- a goretex hardshell, rain pants, backpacking boots, trekking poles, a lightweight tent (mine was the 2 lb Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1) , Thermarest pad (the NeoAir weighs 13 oz), a down sleeping bag (2 1/2 lbs), Butane camp stove (canisters are available in Puerto Natales); a few days worth of food.
It is possible to do Fitz Roy using a room in the village of El Chaltén as your starting point each morning; there are beds available in refugios all around Torres del Paine Park so with reservations you would not need to tent at all. Fantastico Sur owns and runs a number of the refugios. See here for some info.
A good book to get is the 4th edition (2009) of Lonely Planet’s Trekking in the Patagonian Andes with details on 32 hikes from Araucanía and the Bariloche area down to Tierra del Fuego. The chapter on Southern Patagonia (pp.160-200) still provides useful information. Unfortunately it is no longer listed on the LP website. Perhaps an update is in the works?
Your public libary may have a copy. [The Toronto public library system has four of the 2009 edition plus a few copies of the earlier editions.]
Read on if you’d like more detail about what you’ll see and other useful information.
Patagonia– the very word conjures up remoteness and untouched wilderness. Often the word is followed by the dramatic phrase “the end of the world”. Like the Yukon at the other end of the Americas, it has attracted its share of people keen to make new lives for themselves and adventurers open to the unknown. With the advent of cheap air travel, backpackers and Gap-year travellers have also added Patagonia to their to-do lists. What used to be “the trip of a lifetime” has become a great way to spend this year’s three-week vacation!
Patagonia makes up the southern part of two South American countries- Argentina and Chile- and stretches over a thousand miles from Valdivia and the Rio Negro area to Cape Horn. Click here for a map to refresh your elementary school geography!
Running down the length of Patagonia is the southern end of the Andes, with cordilleras no longer as imposing as those in Ecuador or Peru or northern Chile and Argentina (where you find Acancogua, the highest point in South America at 6800+ m)…but still an impressive scene as rock reaches up into sky in the form of iconic towers.
The area of Patagonia that I chose to focus on for my three-week adventure was the southernmost section. My reason was simple- this area contains the two most dramatic hiking trails in the entire region. In particular, I wanted to hike the circuit around the Cordillera Paine in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine (TDP) on the Chilean side and then go over to Argentina and spend a week hiking in the shadows of Fitz Roy in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares . The following map lays it out nicely-
The first decision had to do with how to get there. In my case, it was pretty easy. Since the point of my trip was hiking, I wanted to bypass the big cities of Santiago de Chile or Buenos Aires. The most straight-forward way was this- a direct flight from Toronto (the YYZ of that Rush song!) to Santiago de Chile and then, after a three-hour wait, a flight to Punta Arenas. From there I would bus up to Puerto Natales, the real gateway town to Parque Torres del Paine and eventually cross the border by bus into Argentina and on to the north end of Parque Los Glaciares and the tourist village named El Chaltén after passing through El Calafate. Here are the four villages/towns/cities of the region-
Population founding year useful link
El Chalten 500 1985 click here
El Calafate 6,500 1927 click here
Puerto Natales 19,000 1911 click here
Punta Arenas 120,000 1848 click here
Many of the travellers I met had included southern Patagonian in their itinerary but hiking was clearly not a primary reason for their travels; rather, they were on their way to Ushuaia from Buenos Aires and were stopping on the way. Their plans included a day or two in TDP and then a couple of days in El Chaltén walking a trail or two to Fitz Roy. Without tents or more rugged boots or trekking poles or rain pants, they wanted to see what they could. TDP’s refugios help make that possible, as do the hostals of El Chaltén. I will also admit to not understanding why some were there at all- they were looking in the wrong place for a party vibe you associate with beaches and cities! Check out this recent thread in Lonely Planet’s Thorntree Forum for a sample of this.
GETTING TO THE TRAILHEAD:
I landed in Punta Arenas at 7 p.m., having left Toronto just before midnight the day before. With my castellano (a term often used in South America to refer to the Spanish language) definitely a work in progress, I was able to find out about and get a seat on the bus heading to Puerto Natales from downtown Punta Arenas and stoppiing at the airport. (Click here for a map of the route.)
The bus pulled into the airport’s bus platform at about 7:30 and a few of us got on. Left behind was this dog, who would be the first of many stray dogs I would see in the four towns of southern Patagonia that I would visit. (Spoiler alert- I am a 100% softie when it comes to dogs and am typically North American in my reaction to the way that they are treated in other societies. Perhaps in a separate post I’ll share a few of the many dog and cat pix I took!).
I would be spending four days in Punta Arenas at the end of my trip (click here for my post on what to do in South America’s southernmost city) but for now I contented myself with gazing at the Straits of Magellan and taking bad pix like this one as our bus headed up to Puerto Natales!
In retrospect, I was pretty lucky to be able to catch the bus on such short notice! If they are arriving late, it is more likely that travellers will have to go into Punta Arenas for the night and continue the journey in the morning. My destination at the end of the four-hour drive to Puerto Natales was a room at the Erratic Rock which I had pre-arranged via internet a couple of weeks previously. It proved to be a great place to stay and to get information on all aspects of hiking TDP. I’d highly recommend it if you are a budget traveller. So do these people whose reviews you can read at trip advisor.ca.
Amazingly enough, I sat on that bench outside the hostal and facetimed (the Apple version of Skyping) with my wife 11,000 kilometers away and the connection was perfectly clear- definitely a sign of how the world has gotten even smaller with the advent of the internet. During the next three weeks I would find free wifi in all the places I stayed at- no matter what the price of the room. Wifi was also available in a number of the restaurants. A half-day into the trip and what was already clear was that the “Patagonia- the end of the world” stuff was a great line for travel brochures (or the titles of blog posts!) to promote an exotic destination- but was essentially a metaphor that comes from the world of the 1850’s and not of today.
The first part of my day in Puerto Natales, a town of some 20,000 on the Channel of Last Hope, was spent exploring the small downtown area. After a lunch at a very good vegetarian restaurant- El Living- I returned to the Erratic Rock having made up my mind to move on that very afternoon. The weather in Puerto Natales was overcast with occasional showers and the forecast for Torres del Paine Park for the next week was more of the same. Checking the weather forecast for Fitz Roy I noticed six days in a row of sun icons on the weather app. That decided it right there- do Fitz Roy first and then come back and do the TDP Cirucit when it had stopped raining. Little did I know….
We left Puerto Natales around 4:30 and headed for the border. It took about 45 minutes for everyone on the bus to get cleared by the various officials and baggage checkers.
We eventually got to El Calafate at about 11:15 p.m. I had booked a room in a nearby hostel while at the Erratic Rock so all I had to do was get there to put this day of rain and bus travel to rest. The cost- $40. for a clean and quiet room with breakfast and free wifi included.
I had arrived at 11:30; by 6:30 a.m. I was leaving, headed back to the bus station and the first bus of the day to the sunshine of Fitz Roy and El Chaltén. Here is the scene that greeted me at the bus station-
The 210 km. bus ride took about two and a half hours I sat in the front seat of the almost empty bus and had a great view of the passing scenery, mostly desolate and tree-less scrubland. But then around 8:45 I was finally reminded of the actual purpose of my visit. We were moving west towards this at 100 km an hour!
By the way – about that Fitz Roy weather forecast with a solid week of sunshine icons? It turns out that I had made a rather silly mistake. Click here to see the confusion! Pretty dumb, eh! It would turn out that the rain I had tried to escape in Puerto Natales by hiking Monte Fitz Roy first would be up there too. The next post will show you the best of what El Chaltén and Monte Fitz Roy have to offer during four overcast and often rainy days.
The second post dealing with my Patagonia visit can be found here– read all about El Chalten and Monte Fitz Roy and the hiking possibilities in what the Argentines bill as their trekking capital.