Trip Start Nov 04, 2010
83Trip End Aug 10, 2011
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Where I stayed
"Smoking mountain" or "Peak of Fire" in English, El Chalten in native indian Tehuelche. The little Patagonian village of El Chalten is a cluster of cute and colourful, alpine chalet styled cabins (cosy retreats for tourists not too keen on camping in the unpredictable Patagonian weather). Look skywards though, and you realise you're within the bowl of a magnificent mountain range....with the elusive peaks of the Fitzroy Range, often shrouded in a veil of cloud....smoking mountain therefore, is a very apt name indeed!
El Chalten is a short 3 hour bus ride away from El Calafate. It is a frontier town founded in 1985 by the Argentine government, slapped together rapidly to beat Chile to the land claim - the Chileans already have the Torres del Paine! World class climbers consider the jagged dagger-like summits of Cerro Torre (3128m) and Cerro Fitzroy (3405m) the ultimate climbing challenge, especially considering the gale force winds that are characteristic around the peaks.
El Chalten is home to a large number of stray dogs and one temperamental ATM! Not only does the ATM seldom work, but the majority of businesses in this town operate on a cash-only basis! Many travellers have had to leave El Chalten early due to lack of cash! The guide books tell you to stock up on Argentine pesos in El Calafate but beware - The ATMs of El Calafate are regularly emptied by El Chalten bound travellers. We managed to get "just" enough money across 3 ATMs in Calafate to last us our 5 days in El Chalten. We reluctantly rationed our meals on our final day there!
Just outside town, the bus stopped off at the park rangers office where we were given a breakdown of the various trekking routes, mountain ranges and climbing zones in the area. He also informed us of what to look out for in terms of flora and fauna and what to do if we encoutered a puma! These graceful mountain lions roam wild in this area and whilst not an immediate threat to humans, they have been known to attack! The ranger instructed us to never turn our back to the animal and to never run. Instead we were advised to make loud noises and wave our arms around to make ourselves look big and if it continued to advance towards us, we were to shout at it and throw a rock............Ofcourse! He also mentioned we should count ourselves very lucky if we encountered one (yea right!) and to keep a note of the approximate location and time we spotted the animal for the rangers records.......Ofcourse....he clearly had too much faith in us maintaining a working state-of-mind in the face of danger! We were also warned not to allow any dogs to follow us into the mountains. We were to deter them by shouting or throwing stones in their direction, the reason being that the dogs are a threat to the rapidly dwindling resident deer population.
We arrived into El Chalten at around 11:30am to the sound of howling wind and near horizontal rain. Thankfully our hostel, Albergue Patagonia was a cosy little place modelled on a french ski
Thankfully the next day was clear, so we decided to go to Laguna Torre, the lake at the base of the Cerro Torre peak. Although Cerro Torre is lower in elevation than Cerro Fitz Roy, it is the most difficult peak to see and one must take advantage of clear skies to view the elusive summit. At three hours one way, this was a fairly easy trek across a valley, through beautiful forest that protected us from the winds, followed by some open grassland dotted with dandelions to the edge of Laguna Torre from which you have views of the Cerro Torre peaks. The lake was a smooth milky blue, with some remnants of the Torre glacier being dragged along it's surface by the gale force winds. The mountain alas was covered by cloud. We both knuckled down against the wind and gobbled our lunch in the shelter of some big rocks by the laguna as we waited for the grand moment when the smoking mountain would unveil itself. After an hour of waiting by the laguna, we decided to head back to the hostel, not having seen the peaks but content in the knowledge that we'd done our bit by making it to the laguna.
Rain clouds and gusting winds enveloped town on the next day affording us a well deserved lie in and some great banter with fellow hostel mates all holed in for the day. We dined at the very conveniently located Fuegia Bistro next door, and then moved on for some warming tipples and gratis popcorn at the Microbrewery. It wasn't until the following day that the weather brightened! We set off nice and early to Laguna los Tres for a view of the world famous Fitzroy peaks. These were slightly further away, a four hour trek one way with the final hour being an almost vertical rock scramble taking us to 1105m above sea level. Unfortunately about 3 hours into the trek, we took a wrong turning and found ourselves scrambling over massive boulders on an old river bed which we later found out was the route to Laguna Sucia. We tried to cross the gushing River Sucia a number of times to what we thought was the route to Laguna Los Tres (the lake at the base of the Fitzroy peaks) but the river was too strong to allow a safe passage.
On our way back we saw the sign to Laguna Los Tres that we think may have been blown away by the wind when we passed it earlier! After an hour scrambling up rocks and loose sand on a very steep rockface, we set foot on one of the most spectacular sights in Patagonia. Imagine turquoise waters sparkling in the sunlight, overlooked by an expansive snowcap, further overlooked by the Fitzroy peaks in their glorious reddish pink stone. 200m away, ascending a further hill revealed the aquamarine stillness of Laguna Sucia....it had seemed so out of reach only a couple of hours ago on the detour that was the lonely dry riverbed.
We completed the 25 km roundtrip in high spirits and ended the night on a high, wining and dining with some dear friends we'd met in Antarctica at the only drinking hole in town, the faithful old Microbrewery....