In December of 2014, I traveled to the southern part of South America with my friend Reuben. Our goal was to experience the Southern Hemisphere's summer solstice from the beacon of backpackers' delight that is Patagonia! What follows is a trip report of our time in various parts of Chile and Argentina, including two of the most popular Patagonian trails.
Santiago, Chile: Arriving in South America
Chile is widely considered the most stable country in South America. Santiago, capital to the country and its most populous city, can easily be overlooked when compared to the vibrant, outgoing metropolitan cities of South America. That would be a mistake.
Santiago deserves its place amongst the top cities in South America, with appealing cafe culture and nightlife in Lastarria and the urban appeal of the street art-laden Bella Vista neighborhood.
Location and accommodation
Santiago Backpackers provides a friendly home base from which to explore Santiago's top tourist districts. In less than 24 hours we visited Lastarria for evening festivities, Plaza de Armas for shopping and money transfer, the central market and garment district, as well as the Bohemian Bella Vista district. All of this was within walking distance, so we saved money on transportation and got some good exercise!
Santiago Backpackers is run by a professional, but accessible manager with a passion for travel. Dorms of six, female-only dorms, and private rooms (our choice) were all available at reasonable prices and the information we received from the manager was extremely helpful in making the most of our time in Santiago.
Pisco sours were easy to come by, as were some excellent Andean wines, although the infamous "Terremoto" drink, designed to commemorate and recreate the devastating 1985 Santiago earthquake, did elude us. In Lastarria, we visited a bar that featured dozens of piscos (which we had previously considered to be a strictly Peruvian liquor), served either in apertif glasses or mixed into artisanal cocktails. The piscos we tried were reminiscent of refined tequila, although we would learn in Buenos Aires the next evening that not all piscos are created equal. Even at South American prices you get what you pay for and a $2 200ml bottle of pisco will not treat you kindly.
A trip to Santiago would not be complete without a stop at Cafe Haiti or another "cafe con piernas." Coffee with legs is the phrase used to describe an attempt by a Santiago transplant to create a fine coffee culture within a society that has traditional been satisfied with instant coffee.
These stand-up coffee bars are staffed by women adorned in the sort of apparel that would be better suited to the club than the cafe, which has drawn local businessmen in for a coffee break since the 1980's. Cafe Haiti, being one of the original and more conservative establishments, was really no big deal, but apparently many newer places have increasingly pushed the limits of exposure and can be downright seedy. In the end, the experience yielded another cultural phenomenon explored and one of only two decent cups of coffee we encountered in more than two weeks on the road.
The ever-present money changing necessity
Exchanging money is always an early issue that must be dealt with when visiting a new country. Fortunately, in Santiago it was easy. Plaza de Armas, a commercial and banking center of the city provided a number of cambios offering reasonable rates. In December of 2014, we exchanged dollars for Chilean Pesos at 615-to-1 and Argentine Pesos at 11.8-to-1 (13-to-1 dolar blue).
Since we knew we would be arriving in Buenos Aires at night and leaving the next morning, exchanging currency there at the dolar blue rate on Florida Ave was not an option, but it was important to get some dollars changed to Argentine pesos to increase the value of our money by 50% (official exchange rates were approximately 8.5-to-1). I will spend more time explaining the dolar blue in later posts, as this is a part of traveling in Argentina that is essential unless you enjoy burning money.
Santiago's central market and the Bella Vista art scene
After exchanging money and experiencing a bit of Santiago "coffee culture," we headed east to Mercado Central. The central market is mainly a fish market and the inside of the large building features a number of tourist-oriented restaurants with aggressive touts attempting to lure you in be speaking to you in English.
Instead, spend a few moments walking through the outer corridors of the building, where merchants sell their fish and produce, and then head to one of the smaller cafes lining the outside of the building. You're unlikely to hear anything but Spanish in these places, but the prices are also much better, you can dine like a local, and you'll have avoided one of the biggest tourist traps in Santiago.
A piece of fish, some rice or beans, and a drink will set you back about $3 in one of these establishments, or $10-15 just inside the building. In one of these places, we were helped by a Chilean man who was back in Santiago with his family for a visit, after having relocated to Canada some years back. As is the general rule, if you make an effort to explore just a bit beyond the beaten path, you will be rewarded by rich experiences and the kindness of strangers.
After lunch, we headed towards the largest geographical marker nearby (Cerro San Cristobal) and as we got closer to this hill we found ourselves in the Bella Vista neighborhood. Bella Vista has numerous clothing stores and sunglass shops (Reuben picked up a $1 pair that served him well the rest of the trip), but the highlight in our minds was the impressive street-art.
The deeper we went into barrio Bella Vista, the more we took in walls covered with imaginative and thematically diverse graffiti art. We spent a good hour just strolling through the neighborhood, photographing the walls, passing hostels and cafes and a tiny bike shop along the way.
First thoughts on Chile's capital
The things you read about Santiago are true. Though it is apparently improving, you can still see the pollution in the sky and it is not as spell-binding as Rio or Buenos Aires. However, in just 24 hours we were able to understand that Santiago is not just a place you layover on the way to Patagonia. With a day trip or two (the Andes and the beach towns of Valparaiso and Vina del Mar are within reach) thrown in, I could see myself well-occupied as a visitor for at least five days more.
El Chalten: At the Foot of Mount FitzRoy
Getting to the town of El Chalten entails a three-hour bus from El Calafate, during which time the only evidence of human life is a half-dozen estancias, some sheep in the fields, and the road itself. This is actually true of being five minutes or more outside any town in Patagonia; the steppe is vast and incredibly open in the space between the mountains and glaciers.
Upon arriving in El Chalten, we discovered that almost none of the businesses (and no businesses where we could obtain gluten-free food for Reuben) were open. Walking back and forth in town, wasting our legs for the long hike into camp was sort of unpleasant, but it did allow us to survey the whole of the place. Finally, at noon things began to open up and we were encouraged by some grisly German fellows that La Morena Bar & Cafe was the place to go. Fortified by coffee from an actual espresso machine, eggs, and some empanadas, we strolled through the town once more and into the wild.
One of the attractive things about hiking at the foot of Mt. Fitz Roy (other than the obvious and stunning beauty of the mount itself) is that the trails begin directly through the back of the town. This makes day-hiking in the area an excellent alternative to backpacking, as well as making the start of a backpacking trip more simple than the shuttles and multiple-car stagings often necessitated to reach a truly outstanding trail. From the second you leave the edge of town, constant wonder is all around you, and on the first day of summer, the concept of time had rarely felt less important to me.
Mirador Cerro Torre is the first truly panoramic viewpoint on the trail to Lago Torre that includes the the snow-capped mountains and the namesake tower itself. This is a great spot to have a quick rest and a chat with other hikers. Alternatively, just past the mirador is an open meadow where you could lay down in the grass for a rest (we did both!).
We had planned on doing a counter-clockwise circuit of the major trails around Fitz Roy, but accidentally ended up going clockwise instead and the mirador was the first opportunity for us to truly gauge our location on the map. As it turns out, this was a perfectly acceptable way to do this park and I would probably go clockwise again. In the future and with more time available, I'd also be interested in camping at Lago Torre, which we didn't do in favor of camping under Fitz Roy.
Hiking the "torre trail" but camping at Campamento Poincenot (under Fitz Roy) means taking a connector trail over to the other major trail in this park, the one leading to Lago de los Tres. This connector trail begins with a steep uphill through densely forested hillsides. It's a real calf-buster, but also intensely calming. It is so easy to be overwhelmed by the views in Patagonia, so being fenced in by trees sort of allows for a recharging of the visual sense, though the mixed light of the forest has its own beauty.
Exiting the forest, Lago Hija appears and what a magnificent place it is. We spent a while at its shoreline and then with Mount Fitz Roy coming into view, we made a concerted effort to cover some ground in order to make camp with time to lounge at its feet.
Poincenot Camp is reached by traversing a marshy area, with streams of different colors. One of my biggest regrets (if there can be any at all in a place so beautiful) is a missed photo-op where the red stream met the blue, just before reaching camp. The camp itself is located in a dense woods and with good reason. The winds howled fiercely that night, but the trees offered us satisfactory protection against the elements.
On the other side of Poincenot the trail continues across Puente Bridge and then steeply uphill to Lago de los Tres and the most spectacular viewing spot of Mount Fitz Roy. Given the setting sun and our general state of fatigue (it was the first day on the trail, after all), we chose to hike the last mile to Lago de los Tres in the morning, but even the views from camp were mesmerizing.
Upon rising from a peaceful sleep in the shelter of the trees, we made our morning rounds before heading up the last mile of the trail. The sign pictured above is an example of one of my favorite elements of travel: imperfect translations. In Spanish, the sign is very sterile and appropriate, but when translated to my native tongue, it reads "if you prefer, use this shovel to bury your poop in the forest." Fortified by a few laughs and the fire of adventure stoked by the previous day's awesomeness, we left camp and headed for a better view of "Ole Fitzy."
The one-mile hike to the viewpoint beside Lago Sucia should not be underestimated: I consider it to be one of the hardest miles I have ever hiked. Known as the San Martin climb, it's actually an hour-long, calf-crushing 1.3 miles and 1,600 feet of elevation gain from base to top (avg. grade of 22%!!!), but well worth the effort. You can find my Strava data of this climb here.
Our next-door neighbor in camp (a grisly but friendly Swedish fellow) intended to bivvy at the top and mountaineer his way to the peaks. He left camp twenty minutes ahead of us and as we passed him on the trail, I felt sorry for him that he had chosen to carry the full weight of his pack to the top. Of course, he probably was sad for me that I'd be missing the "real adventure" of peak-bagging and waiting out the cold night alone on the mountain, so it's all a matter of context.
After some time spent at Lago Sucia, we reversed our steps, packed up camp and began the trail that would lead us back to El Chalten. The weather was beginning to turn and we felt fortunate to be heading back with a strong tailwind (in Patagonia, the wind is strong enough that it can increase a hiker's pace!). We decided to use the winds to make a strong push to the halfway-point at Laguna Capri, a lake and camp I wanted to scout for a return with Johanna at some later date.
After Laguna Capri, rain began to fall, although never enough to soak us, and the wind picked up even more. Nearing town, I noticed a promontory point across a grassy field just off-trail and we headed out to take in the valley once carved by the Rio de las Vueltas. This point, though windy enough that we were nearly blown off the mountain, stands out as one of my favorite places in nature. Perhaps the appeal is obvious in the two photos below.
As we re-entered the town of El Chalten, we praised our fortune at having started the day before. While we sat at Don Ruben's eating steak and then drinking beer outside another establishment an hour later, we watched hikers beginning their own adventure to Fitz Roy, leaning into the gusting wind. It's clear that this is among the most beautiful places on earth, but also one of the most unpredictable. Upon returning to the states and posting some photos, a friend recounted having spent three days waiting out an ungodly storm in Poincenot Camp.
As I've often considered, the key to successful travel (and maybe life) is attitude. We had great weather and so we saw Mount Fitz Roy at its very best, but had we been hunkered down somewhere on the trails in Patagonia, that would have been a story worth telling, too. Conversely, despite having near-perfect weather in such a picturesque location, we could have very easily soured the mood by letting blisters, plantar faschiitis, and trail-weariness take the foreground in our trek. There is no negative situation in a place this mythical, only a negative outlook.
Torres del Paine: The "W" Trek
Reaching Torres del Paine is no small feat. In order to enjoy the splendor that is Chile's top national park, one must fly to the edge of the continent, secure local transport from any number of gateway cities, most of which involve will involve border crossings and indirect routing to reach the park, negotiate the intricacies of a parallel currency, all while coming prepared for almost entirely unpredictable and highly variable weather.
Even upon arriving in the park, shuttles from the entrance at Amarga Station to the trailhead are scheduled oddly, leaving the dilemma of whether to wait in the dirt for a shuttle that is supposedly coming in an hour or so or hoof it along the road to the trail. Our hiking party, which had grown from two to five somewhere between El Chalten and this place, made the decision to press on. So down the dusty dirt road we went, carrying out 30-pound packs into a 30-mph direct headwind. An hour later and several miles down the road but still several from the trailhead, we flagged down a shuttle and ended up paying full price for the last bit of the journey.
In total, it cost the five of us $25 US to be driven two miles down a road the driver was clearly already going along with his empty shuttle. It was worth it, but it still felt like losing. What we'd won with all this juggling and scrambling and shelling out of USD, however, was the privilege of backpacking the fabled "W" Trek. That shuttle ride was the only true moment of disappointment we experienced in 96 hours in Torres del Paine (well, maybe also when I spilled my freeze-dried macaroni!).
Day 1: Lago Amarga Station to Torres Camp
GPS data here.
Heading west-to-east on the W is the best option for those who have a good weather window and want to make sure they see the torres for which the park is named. From the trailhead near Hotel Torres, it's about a half-day hike to Torres Camp and from there around an hour scramble to the alpine lake where viewing is best.
The route to Campamento Torres is steep in many places and exposed to the wind. As we approached Refugio Chileno there was more tree-cover, but the hike up definitely took its toll and we made camp at Torres late in the day. After eating dinner (I also managed to make a small rock-wall barrier around our tent), Reuben and I realized that the sun might set on us before we reached the mirador at the alpine lake, so we launched ourselves into a speedy assault on the steep mountainside.
After scrambling off-trail (it's easy to lose the trail here, and almost nowhere else on the W) on scree, sand, and boulders, we emerged at the lake to find it was just us and our friends who had left before dinner. We were immediately struck by the peacefulness of the place, standing in the growing shadows of the torres. Our three compatriots had all found sitting spots and looked spellbound. After visiting the edge of the lake, we too found our places amongst the boulders, staring in awe until the rising winds and ominous raindrops drove us back down the mountain.
Our second day in Torres del Paine National Park began with some wondering in the area upriver of Torres Camp towards a place called Campamento Japonese (Japanese Camp). The woods were beautiful, as were the little streams feeding the much larger Rio Ascencio, which we had followed up the mountain the day before, but after about an hour of solitude, we each wandered back around the same time to break camp.
We were waiting for our friends to return from viewing the Torres again (we chose to sleep instead!), but as it turns out they had returned to their tents and were catching up on sleep now, too. All of this sleeping and wandering and a missed connection or two led to an 11am departure from Torres Camp on a day where we expected to cover 15 miles; that we made our next camp before dark is tribute to the beauty of trekking in the full bloom of summer solstice.
An unusually warm day (if anything can be considered usual in Patagonia) also characterized the hike from Torres to Italiano Camp. At the time I recall considering that a more perfect day in nature had never been witnessed. The river guided us back down the valley and then we took the shortcut that cuts along the lower hillsides. Birds were chirping, the sky was brilliant blue and Lake Nordenskjold a different blue, for which their surely can be no name.
As we walked the grassy hillsides in shirts and shorts, basking in the sun, we came upon a patch of wildflowers so charming that we had to stop for a sit amongst them. Later in the day, our legs began to sink, but our spirits were bouyed by the most magnificent day. We stopped at a stream to wash our faces in glacial waters and to drink directly from the source. Refugio Los Cuernos provided an excellent opportunity for a late-day beer and we watched as a line grew outside the dining hall. It was Christmas dinner. Whatever you believe, surely God must have been involved in this day.
Though our trail companions later said it was worth the expense (they must have turned up just after we left), we opted to skip the $45 per person Christmas dinner and did not miss it. Instead, we continued another 3.5 miles from Los Cuernos to Campo Italiano, where we found an excellent campsite within earshot of Rio de Frances. As the evening wore on, we shared a table and some food and drink with an almost entirely Israeli gathering in the cooking shelter.
My macaroni and cheese mysteriously opened its seal as I was shaking the bag to mix the contents and much of it was lost; our tablemate decreed that his girlfriend was crying inside as a result, being obsessed with the cheesy goodness. The young Israeli's, having just ended their years of mandatory military service, were an enjoyable bunch to chat with, and we continued until well after midnight. I won't speak to the amount of boxed wine that was consumed by myself and my compatriot that night, but I will say that the Israelis were thoroughly impressed. Years of Reuben's leadership at the Redlands University Hillel chapter had prepared us well!
Day 3: Italiano Camp to Paine Grande Camp
Italiano Camp is at the base of the French Valley (Valle Frances), which made the hike up the valley our main objective for our third day in Torres del Paine. Unfortunately, it being the very first day of summer meant that weather conditions were not great further up the mountain and the majority of of the trail was closed to hikers. We were able to go about a third of the way up, which was stunning and gave us a good idea of what was up there, but this was one of the few times on our trip where the weather notably affected our route. I was not disappointed with the portion of the trail that we were able to do, as it yielded the opportunity to hike at a slow pace and work on different elements of photography.
Upon my return, a friend who had been to the top of the trail in the French Valley just a week after our attempt, told me that it was the most beautiful and brutal day he'd ever spent on a hike. They were buffeted by strong winds, sleet, and driving rain at times. Proof-positive that Patagonia offers what it wants to, and that can be very different from week-to-week.
After returning to camp, satisfied with our shortened jaunt of Valle Frances, we packed and head towards our home for the next two nights at Refugio Paine Grande. By camping there on the third day we could leave our tent in place and day-hike to Glacier Grey on the fourth day. The hike to Paine Grande was short by comparison to most of the trail-days we had completed on the trip, but not without interest. We saw more of fire's devastation and nature's rapid move to cover up the ground beneath the burnt trees. Skeletal forest gave way to rugged, wind-swept hills along the Lago Pehoe as we neared camp.
Paine Grande's campsite is an exposed grassy field next to the refugio with scenic views of both the Cuernos and Lago Pehoe. This being a shortened day, we arrived early and spent significant time lounging around in our tent with food and drink bought in the refuge's general store. It was a warm afternoon and the grassy campsite was the perfect place to soak it in.
At dinner, we decided to splurge on the prepared meal at the refugio. Don't waste your pesos! Despite spending the equivalent of more than $20 USD, we felt the snack food in the general store made for the better meal, by far. As night set in, the temperature dropped significantly, but the stars were out and the mountains still visible, somehow making amends for the terrible food.
We awoke just before twilight on the fourth day, with Reuben spotting a magical moment of brilliant light rising over Lake Pehoe. A sprinkle of rain fell again as we made our way to the cover of a refugio overhang near the edge of the water, and we sat there as Patagonia unfurled its full beauty to us, the only ones awake to see it. The rising sun painted the sky first and then rose against the side of the mighty Cuernos. It was one of those moments that was destined to linger in the mind long after the trip was ended.
After that powerful moment, we headed back to the tent for some more rest. The hike for the day was a fairly ambitious 14 miles roundtrip to the foot of Glacier Grey, a hulking mass of blue and white ice guarding the trail to Paso Gardner and the less traveled circuit route.
Well rested, and buoyed by another magnificent experience, we set out to reach the glacier, passing many a pack-hauling hiker as we walked free of the pack-weight to which we had become accustomed. After nearly a week of hiking with 30-pound packs, our bodies had adapted so well to the load that hiking without it almost seemed like cheating.
The hike led us along the edge of Lago Grey, occasionally meandering inland a bit and gradually uphill. At one point, we came upon a brilliant display of yellow wildflowers, and the urge to plop down amidst them was almost uncontrollable. Instead, we spent a while taking photographs and left them untouched for the rest to see.
Soon after, we reached the first mirador from which to glimpse the mighty glacier. The downside to these designated viewpoints is that everyone else is there, too. It's difficult enough to get a good photo with a bright, white mass and grey clouds as the backdrop without the challenge of avoiding others trying to do the same. Often-times there are equally good viewpoints just past the one that has a sign next to it, but one can never be sure they will be there, so stop we must!
When we reached Refugio Grey, we continued much farther than we had expected to in order to reach a spot at water-level, where we could admire an otherworldly, blue iceberg in close proximity to the shoreline. Had we brought our blenders this spot surely would have made for excellent margaritas, but we had to settle for gnawing on a bit of ice that had previously been floating in the cold, glacial waters. It was similar to that classic moment on the podium at sporting events where the winner playfully chomps down on his medal.
Heading back to Paine Grande, I decided to listen to a book on Audible, which did not go over well with my hiking companion, who apparently had not had enough of me after six days in a row of Patagonian trails. Reuben's pace quickened to as fierce a power-walk as can be accomplished. For nearly an hour-and-a-half we marched up and down the tricky trail at nearly four miles-per-hour. When my friend gets into the right rhythm on a hike, he devours the terrain and I wasn't about to let him drop me. We passed dozens of other hikers like they were standing still. By the time we ran into some of our first-day companions and slowed our roll, we had thoroughly crushed the trail in a moment I now think of as the most capable I have ever felt on a trail. We had hit our stride and struck it well (so well, in fact, that there are no photos to document it).
When we returned, it started to rain. After the adventures of the day, we were more than content to spend some time inside our humble abode, sipping boxed wine and reading, listening to the gentle pitter-patter of the raindrops against the tent's rainfly.