Since the Carretera Austral deadends at Villa O’Higgins, we backtracked north for a day in order to go further south, which required crossing back to Argentina. But there was one more stop before leaving chile – Parque Patagonia. I had very little idea about the conservation projects of Americans Doug and Kris Tompkins before this trip. As I have learned more about them, I am in awe of what they have accomplished.
They have basically given away hundreds of millions of their own money to buy old ranch and abandoned land, restore them by removing invasive species and taking down fence lines and then they simply give the land back to native flora and fauna. That’s not it either, they then build beautiful facilities for the human visitors and plan to donate it all to become Chilean and Argentinian national parks.
Doug as an individual was inspiring all around – from pioneer rock climber to creator of The North Face and Esprit to ultimate renegade conservationist – everything he touched turned to gold. He died from a kayaking accident in December 2015 on Lake General Carrera, not far from Parque Patagonia. He was buried in the park, inside the historic cemetery shared by past residents of Estancia Valle Chacabuco, fittingly adorned by an elegant stone plague the shape of a mountain.
We loved this park for its natural beauty as well as the story behind it. Many parts of the park are still being built. The style, as with the other Tompkins projects we have seen, is minimally intrusive to the natural surroundings. Most of the park acreages have no foot or vehicle access and are simply left alone – to be wild. Most campgrounds are not set up for car camping either which was honestly not ideal for us. But after a while we came to agree how disruptive car camping can be and appreciate the large uninterrupted meadows. Hiking trails are narrow foot paths that sometimes go over and under fallen trees and boulders. No horses, no vehicles. One get the sense that we are truly just guests, and for once the natural world is not being bent backwards for human convenience.
Where there are constructions, whether at the fancy lodge restaurant or the campers bathroom blocks, they are done with quality and style reminiscent of the Ahwahnee Lodge in Yosemite. While we were initially confused by the aura of luxury, we left appreciating the attention to detail and the harmony of beauty manmade and natural. The fancy lodge rooms are over $300 a night, but you can enjoy the same park camping for $7! They did an amazing job here and beyond. Their organization was a key member of Patagonia Sin Represas, the coalition that defeated proposed dams that would have destroyed Patagonia rivers and land. After being in Patagonia for three months, we cannot imagine the world losing this slice of raw earth. Come see it for yourselves!
From Parque Patagonia, we headed for southern Patagonia. This is the part of Patagonia that everyone knows about – the popular tourist circuit of Fitz Roy (El Chalten), Glacier Perito Moreno (El Calafate) and Torres del Paine (Puerto Natales).
The Perito Moreno glacier might the most famous glacier in the Americas. The centerpiece of Los Glaciars National Park, it cost US$20 per person to enter and for that you get to be up close and personal to a magnificent glacier, one of the few in the world still advancing and not receding from global warming. The park created what seemed like miles of elevated walkways that showcase the impressive glacier from many angles, creating somewhat of a Disney World feel but it does allow you to get close to see and hear. Yes, to hear, because of the constant roar from calving of icebergs. It is a unique experience, there is nothing like it.
A glacier is constantly moving by gravity. Perito Moreno at this time has actually reached all the way to the shore. It created essentially an ice dam completely blocking an arm of Lago Argentino. It is amazing to think these enormous ice mountains are moving six feet a day! As it has occurred in the past, the force and weight of the moving glacier will eventually crush the ice dam freeing the water passage in a giant collapse. This is forecasted to happen soon and that, will be a spectacular sight to catch. (Edit: it happened on March 10th!!!)
Before Perito Moreno we visited the lesser known Viedma Glacier. It is located nearer to Fitz Roy in the north end of Los Glaciars national park. It is, in fact, the biggest glacier in Argentina, bigger than Perito Moreno and extends all the way to touch the back side of Cerro Torre. Unlike Perito Moreno, this glacier is receding and not advancing, and it can be accessed only via boat.
Viedma Glacier is full of colors. Not just white and blue from the ice, but red, tan and yellow from the underlying rhyolite rock and silver from granite blocks floated down from Cerro Torre. All this in the middle of the minty green Lago Viedma. It is a spectacular landscape that I don’t think anyone can ever get tired of.
I splurged on a glacier trek tour. It was a bit over $100 but it included a short boat tour and a two hour walk most of which was in crampons, and a shot of baileys on crushed glacial ice at the end. I remember it being much cheaper than the Perito Moreno ice trek too. Regardless, we have discovered that every glacier is so unique and it is totally worth it to visit any or every one. The boat part of the tour was nice but it didn’t get very close to the glacier. If you have a chance to walk on it, it is positively absolutely incredible! We were able to do things on this trek that I didn’t know was okay for crampon newbies…going up and down pretty steep areas where you had to really use the toe picks. We had to step across some deep crevasses and could stand as close to the edges as we dared, a guide would just silently sneak up a couple feet away, to act as a spot in case we slipped. The guides were all rock and ice climbers from all over the world – there is a reason they work out of El Chalten – they have great energy and love for their surroundings. I highly recommend the Viedma glacier tour. Plus the setting is really spectacular. Beauty in its purest sense.
The Fitz Roy massif needs no introduction. We loved this portion of our trip. El Chalten, the gateway town, is so chill and full of crazy mountain people. It sits literally at the foot of Fitz Roy. But the town is not all about Fitz Roy either. There are other famous peaks like Cerro Torre, Eiger, and glaciers, lakes and rivers galore. All the hiking trails are incredibly easy to access straight from town. You can roll out of bed and start hiking right away or easily hitchhike from friendly locals on the single dirt road that leads north to more trailheads. The town is touristy but has a happy positive vibe without the jostling manic energy usually found in a tourist hub. It is awesomely laid back with magnificent views all the time.
To avoid the crowds on the trails I started early on the hikes and I had hours on my own before I saw the first person. I never thought the trails were busy at all and it was a memorable time waiting for the mountains to reveal in the morning. The mountains and rivers around El Chalten are so vast yet so close that even in high season one could find solitude. El Chalten is one place I could easily spend an entire season in, no doubt about it! Without further ado, the photos…lots of homage to the Fitz Roy massif, as well as the glacier Piedras Blancas…these extraordinary views just do not get old.
Torres del Paine is a mecca for multi day trekking. Although I dreamed and planned for weeks leading up to it, I ended up spending only one day driving through the park with the family, being one of those tourists who stuck to the viewpoints. I am sure the park is magnificent but I got very tired of the fuss of planning. Hundreds of hikers hit the popular W or o or q or….trail everyday so some camp spots must be reserved in high season or you will get sent away, unless you want to wander in past 8-9pm in which case they must accept you for safety reasons and you get to set up on a slope with mice chewing through your tent, but who wants to multi day trek like that? That is not the reason we skipped it though. We had a few obstacles. The entire park prohibits pets, which made an impossible camping situation for simon and kids if i trekked. And the closest town puerto Natales has zero car camping options, zero pet hotels, fully booked hostels, expensive hotels, and is a good hour and a half drive from the park. I admit my situation was unique as I had to deal with a dog and non-trekkers in my group. But after loving el chalten and not being able to work out logistics we moved on after a couple days. Luckily we got good enough weather that one day in the park to get peeks at the Cuernos de Paine and the Torres themselves.
I was reading an interview of drive nacho drive, a young couple who drove around the world in their VW. I am not sure how much of their archives you can access since they published two books, but their blog is still my favorite overland blog of all time. One piece of their travel advice was “focus on the people not the places.” With our trip coming to an end soon, I cannot agree with this advice more. One of the biggest gifts of our southern Patagonia travel is meeting the Smiths, a traveling family from New Mexico – Lori, Nate, Luke (13) and Nelah (10) and canine Daisy (2). We met them on our last day in El Chalten and again in El Calafate but didn’t start traveling together until Puerto Natales. And since then we stuck together for one full month. That’s an incredibly long time to share everything – camps, cabanas, meals, decision making, route planning, ferry rides, talking, playing, incredible scenery and unforgettable experiences. They are an interesting bunch with great life, travel and parenting stories and really amazing children. We learned a lot about New Mexico too. Did you know that New Mexicans cannot live without their chillies? October is harvest season and the streets supposedly are filled with the smell of roasted green chillies. Families freeze pounds of them, can sauces with them, and use chilies for everything throughout the year. Simon and I are big chili lovers so that alone made New Mexico worth visiting.
We reached our southern most point in Tierra del Fuego with the Smiths. Both parties not quite feeling the big whoop about Ushuaia and instead went to almost the end of the road in Chilean Tierra del Fuego in the middle of nowhere At our southern most destination on this journey, we celebrated Jamie’s 2nd second birthday amidst chocolate cake and guanacos. After a few days of campfire, and good fishing on picture perfect rivers, we headed back north together. We have parted ways for now. They will have a blast traveling the rest of South America all the way to Colombia. We are going to miss these guys.
So the best things about Tierra del Fuego besides new friends and Jamie’s 2nd birthday – king penguins and the beautiful brown trouts.