From the wines of the Mendoza region to the penguins and sea lions that live off the coast of the southern-most city of Ushuaia, Argentina explodes with diverse geography. While flashy Buenos Aires beckoned, it couldn’t overcome the siren call of the stark, brooding, majestic Andes mountains.
Patagonia is a region in southern South America comprising parts of both Argentina and Chile. The country boasts one coast on the eastern part of southern Argentina and the other on the western edge of Chile. There are lakes, grasslands, the fertile lowlands known as the pampas and the exotic, exquisite, harsh and breathtaking glaciers and granite mountain spires. Come along as we explore this varied land.
Nestled on the coast of the stunningly bright greenish-blue of Lago Argentino, El Calafate is no longer the sleepy, middle-of-nowhere village of the late 1930s. The large town now bustles with tourists of all ages and nationalities, tour buses and a multitude of people carrying heavy backpacks — most heading toward the Andes.
Densely packed with restaurants, jewelry, clothing and souvenir shops crammed next to outdoor activity suppliers, all jostling for their share of the tourist dollars, the main thoroughfare is only a block wide. In the compact space, tourists arrange trekking tours, loading up on backpacking supplies, enjoying freshly made, mouth-wateringly delicious ice cream, purchasing souvenirs and eating gourmet meals.
The Laguna Nimez Reserve, a tranquil bird and wildlife sanctuary located about a kilometer from downtown, runs along the glacier blue Lago Argentino. Signs throughout the reserve instructed us on the plants and the diverse birds that live there. We spotted upland geese, coots, ibis, grebes and sparrow hawks. As a chilly wind picked up and the sun barely peeked from behind the clouds, we stumbled upon a duck blind from which we watched blue ducks cavort and black necked swans elegantly swim, and pale pink flamingos precariously standing on one leg along the lake were a highlight of the afternoon.
Leaving the reserve, a stroll back through town to led us to the hotel bar, where a cool, crisp Chardonnay and a bird’s eye view of the surrounding ranch awaited. To experience the much-heralded, fire-roasted Patagonia lamb, we headed to La Tablita restaurant for dinner. The scent of lamb twisting on a rotating spit over the open fire oven tantalizes diners as they enter the small, loud and crowded restaurant. Sturdy tables covered in white tablecloths dressed an otherwise stark and utilitarian environment. But we were there for the food, not the decor, and in that we were not disappointed. The crispy, hot, fresh-off-the-spit lamb was so tender it fell apart as we dug our forks into the meat. Sipping a delicious red Argentine Malbec, we sucked the last flavor of lamb off our fingers with a satisfied sigh.
Rising in the chilly, early morning darkness, we were anxious for a day’s adventure of ice trekking on the famous Perito Moreno Glacier located in the Los Glaciares National Park about 80 kilometers from El Calafate. A mere remnant of the ancient glaciation of the Andes Mountains, the glacier is attractive to hikers and sightseers alike.
After a winding, motion sickness-inducing bus ride, we arrived at the small boat that would take us across Lago Argentino and onto the glacier. The stench of black diesel smoke filled the tightly packed boat as we chugged across the churning water to the massive ice field. The solid wall of white morphed into massive, asymmetrical ice columns of divergent shapes and sizes jutting skyward.
Following a wooden boardwalk from the boat to a small building adjacent to the ice, we tightly strapped rusty, metal crampons to our shoes, pulled on gloves to protect our hands and had a quick lesson in how to properly walk in this unfamiliar footwear.
In spite of the instruction, I immediately tangled my crampons and pitched forward to my hands and knees, face down, on the cold, wet, rock-like ice. Embarrassed, I laughed, brushed myself off and, more carefully, followed our guide up and down hand-cut ice steps into massive, narrow, sparklingly radiant crystal ice canyons.
Slithering past deep ice fissures, cautiously stepping into puddles on the melting ice, I admired the dark, bottomless crevasses dropping into an unseen abyss. I ran my hands over the sharp, glass-like edges feeling the surface rock and grit embedded in the ice. At the end we emerged onto the surface where we sipped a celebratory glass of scotch cooled with a piece of glacier ice. The harsh, bitter liquid burned my throat as we toasted the glacier.
The Glaciarium, Centro de Interpretacion
Entranced by walking on the glacier, we took a trip to the Glaciarium located only 6 kilometers outside of El Calafate. The free bus leaves every hour and drops you at the Centro, where you can purchase your tickets. Inside the asymmetrical white peaks of the building you can learn everything you ever wanted to know — and more — about glaciers … their formation, their history and their impending destruction from climate change.
An ice bridge periodically forms connecting Perito Moreno to the mainland, which dams a portion of Lago Argentina. The bridge then breaks apart and collapses from the pressure of the lake water. You can watch this bizarre and spectacular phenomena at the Glaciarium. The ice breaks off slowly at first and then faster and faster until, with a loud crash, the entire structure drops into the lake sending up huge sprays of water.
If all of that excitement isn’t enough, you can pay an additional fee to descend into the ice bar, where everything — chairs, walls and even the glasses — is made of ice.
We left El Calafate for the tiny village of El Chaltén located at the foot of the famous Cerro Torre and Mt. Fitz Roy along the Rio de Las Vueltas. Officially founded in 1985, El Chaltén began as an outpost to prevent Chilean excursions across the Argentine border. The mountains, including Mt. Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, have been a mecca for climbers since the 1950s. Awash in a history of alpine daring, climbing scandals and tragic deaths, these mountains can now be enjoyed through a variety of day treks and most of the comforts of home.
Visitor accommodations range from hostels to a spa hotel. We chose the Hosteria El Puma for its location at the foot of several of the tails we planned to trek. Charmingly small and cozy, glowing with a warm fire, it was much more comfortable than the two-person tents we typically called home while trekking.
Our first stop was at a hole-in-the-wall café, El Parado, where we split a dark Argentine beer. The sheer number and variety of restaurants that litter the narrow streets of El Chaltén was overwhelming. From waffles at a Wafflería to artesian beer at a Cervezaría, there is food and drink to fit every budget and taste.
Trekking El Chaltén
The morning alarm sounded early. After a quick, hearty breakfast, we met our guide. Paolo, a delightful young English tutor from Buenos Aires, has been guiding in El Chaltén since he was 18 years old. He described the challenges of trekking in the snow-covered spires, casting sideways glances at us as he attempted to assess our fitness, age and motivation level. Dressed warmly in hiking pants, our well-used hiking boots, various shirts and pullovers, and rain jackets packed in our water- and snack-filled backpacks, we reassured Paolo that we were more than capable of managing the scheduled hikes.
Our destination on that particular day was the Laguna de Los Tres, a 13-mile round-trip trek to the most famous lake in the Argentine Patagonia. We headed northward to the Hacienda El Pilar through the woodlands, into vistas of frozen lakes, glaciers and granite spires reaching heavenward. The initial gentle incline of the forested trail was a chance to pepper Paolo with questions.
It was a cloud-free, sunny day as we hiked the ever-increasingly rugged terrain, winding our way toward Mt. Fitz Roy. We quickly shed our heavy outerwear. The chirping and warbling of birds followed us out of the trees and onto the grey mountain. The vistas expanded as we drew closer to the laguna, with Mt. Fitz Roy seeming ever more massive. The lake, the terminus of our inward hike, nestled in below the mountain peaks — it was a photographer’s dream, with the jutting snow-covered granite spires, blue sky and the turquoise-green lake below.
After a light lunch, we began the trek back, choosing a trail less traveled that veered southward toward El Chaltén. Passing by Lago Capri we stopped to watch brave (or foolish) young people playing in the frigid glacial waters. Traipsing through the changing light with the mountains to our backs, streams, trees and plants caught my eye, which would have otherwise gone unnoticed in the face of the mountains.
Satisfyingly exhausted after eight hours of hiking, we were ready for a night of restorative sleep. But before sleep, dinner.
If you eat out only one time in El Chaltén, I recommend La Tapera, where we sat at a minuscule table for two with a perfect view of the restaurant and bar. The stone bar and wood beams, dark wood tables and chair legs made of logs reflected the rough-hewn atmosphere. After days of gorging on Argentine beef and lamb, we were ready to try some meat-free options. The trout with vegetable pie — a large piece of trout with a puff pastry, mushrooms and greens in a gentle sauce — was tender and deliciously satisfying. Of course it required another Argentine Malbec to fully appreciate the flavors. Now, restorative sleep.
The next day’s chilly, grey and rainy weather required gaiters for our boots, rain jackets and pack covers. A rainbow hanging over the mountain appeared through the ghostly mist. Cerro Torre, beloved and feared by alpine climbers, hid in the distance as we cautiously made our way over wet, slippery scree.
The day remained cold and wet, and it pelted rain so hard that we sheltered under the trees as we headed out of the mountains. The forced solitude, our rain hoods making conversation almost impossible, allowed me to fully appreciate each step. My boots squished and squelched through the mud as I noticed the texture of the rocks, the bark on the trees and the twittering of unseen birds in the dark, dripping trees. The rain stopped as we came out of the woodlands and onto the now-muddy path in the tall grasses. Upon our return to the Hosteria, we dropped onto the lobby sofa to enjoy the crackling fire, where another guest regaled us with mountain climbing, glacier skiing and friendship with well-known alpine climbers.
Our final hike to Pliegue Tumbado began at the southern end of El Chaltén. Winding our way through the national park and upward into a dense, shade-filled wood of beech trees, we reached the grasslands. Moving ever upward, the final push was a steep, narrow, winding stair of boulders. I huffed and puffed as my lungs and legs burned with exertion. The last steps brought us into spectacular views of both Mt. Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. The straight-line upward gain of 900 feet of altitude in the beating sun had me sweating and gulping water as we approached the end of the trail.
Sitting on the rocks overlooking the mountain vista, we were quickly chilled as the glacial winds whipped around us. After making quick work of lunch, we followed Paolo to a stream running through the rocky landscape, where he found ancient fossils just lying near the water. Paolo’s eagle eyes located numerous fossils. Squatting on my haunches, I found only rocks. Sitting by the stream, Paolo gave us a brief but inspired history of the glaciation of the area that created the rugged and moonlike landscape.
As the shadows began to lengthen, it was time to attack the boulder steps again. Heading down the slope, my knees jarred as gravity pulled my legs from step to step. The open grasslands appeared below us, but it was a long, unbalanced hike down to them, as frequently we stepped aside to allow others to pass.
As the eighth hour of our trek arrived, we reached the national park, where we said our goodbyes to Paolo with hugs, thank you’s and a generous tip.
That evening at Restaurante Ahonikenk Chaltén Fonda Patagonia, we treated ourselves to bowls of traditional mountain cuisine, speaking only Spanish to our waiter, who patiently listened to our valiant attempts to not butcher his language.
Sharing one last Argentine beer, we said a reluctant farewell to Patagonia.
11 Tips For a Great Trip
If you’re planning a trip to Patagonia, take these helpful hints to heart.
- According to U.S. News & World Report, the best time to visit Argentine Patagonia is October and November, which is springtime in the southern hemisphere, and December through February, which is summertime. And advanced planning is a must as it’s a popular tourist destination.
- Carry Argentine pesos. In El Calafate, and especially El Chaltén, many restaurants do not accept credit cards. The ATMs in El Calafate are temperamental, and the one in El Chaltén is often empty, so it is wise to change your money before arriving.
- Bring a good, small Spanish dictionary (Latin American version). It is a necessity as many of the residents in El Chaltén do not speak English.
- Most of the hikes do not require trekking experience, but it is important to plan your experience around your ability, health and fitness levels.
- Take the best camera and telephoto lens you can. iPhones cannot do justice to the spectacular beauty of the area.
- You are not required to have a guide on hiking trips, but I strongly recommend hiring one for the best possible experience — and tips, while not mandatory, are customary. At the very least, pick up a hiking map.
- Buy snacks and food for hiking in El Calafate. Grocery shopping in El Chaltén is limited and expensive.
- Be prepared for unpredictable weather. It can be warm and sunny in the morning and cold and wet by the afternoon.
- Read about the area before you go. I loved The Tower by Kelly Cordes, which chronicles the climbing history Cerro Torre.
- Pack light. The less you have, the easier it is to get around. And there is no need for fancy clothes or jewelry.
- We felt eminently safe our entire trip, but it pays to be smart. Know where you are going, stay out of dark, unlit places, and always be aware of your surroundings.
Enjoy your travels, wherever they take you!
Find more spectacular travel destinations. Click here to start planning your next escape!