El Chalten

Gratefully I strapped on my pack and left the hole which was Hotel Punta Norte. I didn’t bother saying goodbye to the receptionist due to her exceptionally grumpy morning ‘greeting’, even by Hotel Punta Norte AND South American standards.

Up to the bus station by 0630, and once more meeting some of the friendly bus station dog pack. It’s nice when strays are looked after and part of the furniture: All of the bus drivers, a section of the population not normally renowned for its sunny disposition, greeted and stroked them as they passed. Bless. 

And so, extricating myself from the enormous crossbreed which had fallen asleep on me, I climbed on the bus to El Chalten. It’s a surprisingly long way, despite the great road, and takes about three hours. Being an entirely tourist destination the tickets are somewhat pricey. Especially if you were ripped off by Turismo Zaahj… Avoid. Again. [My TripAdvisor review of them has had a few thousand views already, so I’d wager that the company may well have lost a little more business than the £10 they scammed from me!]

El Chalten is a surprising place. By its location within the Glaciares NP at the foot of the imposing Fitz Roy range, you’d expect a typical spit’n’sawdust type mountain town. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The town was built in 1985 specifically to cater to the needs of the tourists who wanted to visit the park. So, it’s pretty new and shiny on the whole, and the highway there is paper-smooth.

First stop is the park headquarters on the outskirts of the town. This isn’t optional. You file in, choose ‘English’ or ‘Spanish’ at the front door and then have a stern lecture from a park ranger. Undoubtedly a nice chap with a passion for his job, but amusingly stern at some junctures, such as the dire warnings about allowing stray dogs to follow you onto the trails (This is actually for good reason, as they can chase the protected local deer!). The comedy aspect came when every infraction he detailed would lead, and I quote, to you being ‘put outside the park’. IE on the windy highway. And in the case of taking a stray dog out on the trail “You and the dog will be put outside the park!”. He also mentioned our Israeli friend who had managed to torch 40% of Torres Del Paine NP.

Littlest hobo

This brought to mind the amusing mental image of the awkward ride to the highway in the back of the ranger truck, looking sheepishly at your new stray friend… And indeed the incredibly sad hitchhiking dog above. To be fair, she was with her owners, but the way she shuffled behind my legs to get out of the wind when I stopped to say hello was a bit heartbreaking!

So then, El Chalten… I’d pre-booked a hostel as I had heard that it was sometimes tricky to get a bed. This isn’t true, even in the height of the season as we were. Luckily though, my hostel was right opposite the bus station and turned out to be ace, so all was not lost. Seriously pricey though at ARS300 a night (£15 ish for a dorm). There are plenty of places charging ARS150 if you don’t mind walking a bit.

Walking, in fact, is the main activity here. Well, that and apres-walk in one of the extremely numerous bars and restaurants. Not a party town by any means, but not somewhere you’d go hungry or thirsty.

Rainbow over the mountains coming in to Chalten town.. A good sign, one would hope…

…or not. Whilst I’ve been, on the whole, spectacularly successful at avoiding any vestige of the British winter (Admittedly facilitated by massive expenditure and cross-continental travel), my luck had well and truly run out in Patagonia. From the intense wind and biting cold of the Tierra Del Fuego to here, via the bus-bothering winds and rain of Torres Del Paine, to here, where the weather didn’t really improve for my entire stay. Ah well, can’t have it all.

I did manage a few moments of sunshine on my first day, a leisurely wander up to the Chorillo Salta waterfall. A little dusty on the eyes with the gusts of wind, but hey, can’t have it all!

Sadly the weather didn’t follow suit the next day. It really wasn’t inviting at all, however despite this, I found hardy souls willing to give it a go…

A triumph for the sunny British disposition

Along with Cami and Hugh, an Irish couple I’d met in the hostel, we headed out for a walk the next afternoon. It feels a waste to be somewhere like this and NOT take advantage, despite the impressively biting winds and occasional monsoons. So, we headed up the second easiest walk in the pack, the short yomp up to the nearby cerro to view, er, very little due to the low cloud… Nice view of the town anyway!

Over the next few days the weather seriously hampered everyone’s walking efforts. The wind was insane, even by Patagonian standards, and rangers were turning everyone back from the more exposed walks. Cami and Hugh bravely decided to take an 0800 bus the next morning to try the trail to the base of Fitz Roy, but got turned back at the trailhead. My lie-in turned out to be a canny option. 

After a day of hanging around town and getting stir crazy, we decided to give the Laguna Torre trail a try the next morning. I mean, the weather wasn’t that bad any more. Ish. 

The weather was in fact pretty promising on the early stages of the walk…

Actual mountain view… Rare sight!

Laguna Torre, and the glacier behind

Sadly though, once we reached Laguna Torre it suddenly changed for the worse. Much worse. We were planning to hike the final hour up to the terminal face of the glacier at Mirador Maestri, but having seen people already on the trail- The knife-edge ridge trail- We decided to give it a swerve. Particularly since the wind had suddenly gone from near-zero to gale force. Back down for tea and medals… Discretion the greater part of valour and all.

Dangerous-looking little frog on the path

Finally, after a couple of days of being holed up, the weather was finally on the turn, taking on an almost legendary quality as hushed whispers circulated of how it would be ‘amazing’ on Tuesday. The day I had to leave. Carajos. Hugh and Cami left, taking a very circuitous bus from El Calafate up to their next stop in Bariloche. As a tip, you CAN get a direct bus from El Chalten, and it goes straight up Ruta 40. You just won’t find it on the Internet, need to ask at the bus station here. plataforma10 is an excellent online resource, and you can even buy tickets from it now, but it doesn’t list these services and instead you need to take a very roundabout 20+hr bus from El Calafate rather than going direct from here.

In their place came Alana and Annie, my new American hiking buddies. 

Alana (In tree), Annie (nearly in tree) and French lady (Near tree)

Very good eggs. It’s always refreshing when hearing about the latest outburst of fuckwittedness from Trump to remind oneself that most Americans are ace. These two being no exception! So, having heard about improving conditions in the morning we’d decided to hike the Fitz Roy trail, one of the longest waymarked walks from El Chalten which ends at the amusingly-named Dirty Lake (Laguna Sucia).

Boardwalk through the marshes

Deep joy… Blue sky!

Beautiful clear glacial melt

Miraculously, it seemed like the weather really had cleared, and it stayed that way for the first 4hrs up to the scramble towards the high lakes. For the first time in weeks sunburn seemed a real possibility again. Dizzy times!

Looking back down the valley towards Chalten

The last part was undoubtedly hard going, and as we got further up the snow started in earnest. All was worth it though as we reached the Laguna de los Tres. An incredible sight, if a little inhospitable. And bloody freezing, I wasn’t about to hazard a dip in this one!

Undeterred by the apparent lack of a path, we pressed on. Laguna Sucia is another half an hour or so upwards… It also meant that we had a little more time to cross our fingers and hope that the cloud cleared, to finally get a view of the peaks above. Finally, after days of largely impenetrable cloud our patience was rewarded.

 

The peaks are pe(a)king out…

The badly-named Dirty Lake, and Mount Fitz Roy behind

 

Suitably awed by the sight of the mountain range un encumbered by clouds, we made our way back down, for the 4hr walk back to El Chalten. Whilst all of the trails are doable in a day, more or less, there are also plenty of free campsites that you can take advantage of. And indeed shelters like this one for dining purposes. It’s a well managed park.

Some fantastic views on the way down, I hadn’t even realised there was much of a valley on the slightly cloud-obscured climb! Back into Chalten, and a much-discussed giant pizza and beer. Ideal. A long day but a good day- Nigh on 10 hours of walking and a good scramble towards the top.

The Fitz Roy range at sunset

Great hostel window view…

So, sooner or later it’s time to move on. I’d have loved to stay another day as, judging by Alana and Annie’s photos from the next few days the weather really did change on Tuesday, when I had to leave in the morning. Such is life. I’d managed to find an extremely cheap Aerolineas Argentinas ticket back to BA, saving myself about £150 and two solid days on a coach, so you have to make hay while the sun shines. Even if it’s shining on the amazing walking centre you’ve just left.

Getting to the airport is a piece of cake- Most of the El Calafate buses stop there en route, saving a lot of time and expense going all the way to El Calafate only to get a taxi back to the airport. I did get the feeling however that El Chalten just didn’t want to let me go…

Annoyingly blue skies, as seen from the bus station…

I’d said hello to one of the semi-stray bus station dogs as I came in, and then sat on my rucksack to wait for the bus to be ready. Said dog ambled over and without any sort of introduction, just came and fell asleep on me. Much to the disgust of the Germans also waiting for the bus, for reasons unknown virtually every German tourist I’ve met is terrified of stray dogs. Some, I can understand, but these ones? Nah! Sadly though, the bus was due to depart and I had to extricate myself both from my new friend and also the brilliant town of El Chalten.

El Chalten’s tiny but surprisingly plush airport

 

Aerolineas Argentinas, take me back to the big smoke… Buenos Aires, my home for the next month.

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