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Patagonia: Torres del Paine

Torres del Paine


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In November, 2018 we made a 20 day trip to Patagonia, primarily to do some hiking in the famous mountains of southern Chile and Argentina. We flew to Santiago, Chile which is about in the middle of the country and then to Punta Arenas, the largest town in Patagonia. Travel time from take-off to touch-down was about 28 hours. In Punta Arenas we rented a car to drive up to Torres del Paine National Park. We also visited El Calafate and El Chalten in Argentina.

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We explored various options for renting and returning the rental car. It was virtually impossible to rent a car in Chile and return it in Argentina, and prohibitively expensive to rent and drop off in different Chilean cities. So we had to return to Punta Arenas to drop off the car at the end of our hiking. Crossing the border into Argentina with a rental car is also a hassle. We rented from Avis in Punta Arenas, and I followed the advice of some on-line commentators to contact Avis 10 days before our pickup to initiate the paperwork to cross the border. When I went to pick up the car, they had record of this request, but apparently didn’t actually do anything because it took about 45 minutes for the clerk to fill out all of the necessary paperwork. This included having to sign a paper that we would not take a ‘shortcut’ on the way from Torres del Paine to El Calafate.
So after more than an hour in the Avis rental office, they finally drove the car out from the garage but it had a flat tire, not just low on air but dead flat. They called their mechanic, who arrived 20 minutes later and he promptly went to work taking a tire off of the car he drove in and exchanging it for the flat on mine. It was not possible to simply switch cars because all of the paperwork had the original car’s ID. Meanwhile Lil was back in the Airbnb waiting and wondering why it took over 2 hours to rent the car.

Torres del Paine National Park

The jewel of the Chilean hiking experience in southern Patagonia is Torres del Paine National Park. The hiking is not at altitude since you begin from about sea level but the jagged peaks are spectacular. For the first three nights in the park we camped at the Torres Central camping site which is close to the main entrance to the park at Laguna Amarga. Since we decided to come to Patagonia at the last minute, the camping sites were some of the last options. Getting reservations in TdP is notoriously difficult, especially if you want to take one of the two classical multi-day circuits, the W or O route. People plan these routes months in advance since spaces are very limited. There are several on-line blogs and websites devoted just on how best to reserve the necessary campsite.

In the dining hall at refugio Torres Central

In the dining hall at refugio Torres Central

Dinner time at Torres Central refugio

Dinner time at Torres Central refugio


The good news about the arrangement is that there are dining rooms available at most of the refugios so you don’t need to bring food if you sign up for the food option. The bad news is that the food is not very good. Breakfast and the box lunches were fine but the dinners were barely edible. Nevertheless there is a very nice vibe in the dining hall with all of the serious hikers at the refugio and since you are eating together, inevitably, you get to talk to many of them. We met one group of Chileans who we did not really converse with much because of our limited Spanish. Nonetheless, when we said good-bye, they gave us a kiss like good friends do. The other group we ate with were 5 young Americans who did the hike to the base of the Torres in 6 hours total (it took us about 10+ hours!).

Laguna Sarmiento and Torres

Laguna Sarmiento and Torres

Torres del Paine and a lenticular cloud from a distance

Torres del Paine and a lenticular cloud from a distance

Hike to the base of the Torres

The most famous hike in Torres del Paine is part of the W circuit from Torres Central to the base of the Torres (towers). This hike is classified as difficult and rated as 3-4 hours each way. It took us a total of about 11 hours with a break for lunch at refugio Chileno and about a half hour at the top. Unfortunately the weather did not cooperate. When we started out the skies were partly cloudy with some sunshine but the weather worsened steadily as we climbed. By the time we got to the top, the torres were totally socked in and it began to sleet and blow hard. And in Patagonia, it can blow very hard! The last 2 kms or so were particularly difficult since it is essentially scrambling over boulders. I timed our descent from the top to a sign that said it was 45 minutes to the top. This section, going downhill, took us 75 minutes! We knew we were slow since many people passed us, while we rarely passed anyone else. The hike is very popular so at least you are rarely alone. We had to get back to the refugio Central by dinner time, so there was some urgency to get back before dark. It was disappointing not to get a good view of the Torres after such a long struggle, but this is not an uncommon experience here. The good news is that this was the worst weather we experienced on this trip but of course we didn’t know that at the time.
On the hike to the base of the Torres

On the hike to the base of the Torres

Tent campsites at refugio Chileno where flat ground is at a premium

Tent campsites at refugio Chileno where flat ground is at a premium

One of many stream crossings

One of many stream crossings

Friendly Go-pro hiker

Friendly Go-pro hiker

Supply train for the refugio

Supply train for the refugio

Hike to the base of the Torres

Hike to the base of the Torres

Socked in at the top!

Socked in at the top!

Hike to Mirador Cuernos

After the exhausting first hike, we took it easy the next day with an easy hike to Mirador Cuernos. The hike has one of the best views of the Cuernos, which means ‘horns’ in Spanish and refers to the unusual shape of this mountain range, quite striking with the lovely Lake Nordenskjold below the mountains. The day was overcast but at least when we began the hike it was unusually calm with virtually no wind so the lakes on the way to the mirador were mirror-like.

Reflection

Reflection

Reflection

Reflection

Cuernos del Paine and Lago Nordenskjold

Cuernos del Paine and Lago Nordenskjold

Nice spot for lunch at Mirador Cuernos

Nice spot for lunch at Mirador Cuernos


Avalanche on Paine Grande

Avalanche on Paine Grande


Panorama of Cuernos del Paine and Lago Nordenskjold

Panorama of Cuernos del Paine and Lago Nordenskjold

Panorama of Cuernos del Paine and Lago Nordenskjold

Panorama of Cuernos del Paine and Lago Nordenskjold

Mirador Condor

After 3 nights camping at Torres Central, we moved to Hosteria Pehoe which is closer to the center of the park. We drove the section between Torres Central and Pehoe several times and saw many guanaco (see below) on most of these drives. We had originally planned to stay at Pehoe for 2 days but our flight from Punta Arenas to Santiago was canceled and we had to leave a day earlier than expected, which necessitated cutting one day off of our itinerary. The hike to the mirador is a bit confusing. Most of the maps show the hike starting from the camping Pehoe site. But our host at the hosteria said to take the hike from a small parking spot just past the hosteria entrance. But she wasn’t even clear if the hike went to Mirador Condor. Turns out that both of these hikes lead up to the mirador, just from different directions. There’s a great 360 deg panoramic view from the top of the Mirador and there were also condors to be seen.

Hosteria Pehoe

Hosteria Pehoe

Panorama from Mirador Condor

Panorama from Mirador Condor

View from Mirador Condor

View from Mirador Condor

Nice spot for lunch at Mirador Condor

Nice spot for lunch at Mirador Condor

After we left Torres del Paine, we crossed the border into Argentina at Cerro Castillo and drove to El Calafate and then to El Chalten. There are additional entries to the blog covering those visits as well as one with photos of the wildlife we encountered.

Posted by neurotraveler 17:43 Archived in Chile Tagged argentina photos condors guanacos Comments (0)

Patagonia: El Calafate

El Calafate and Perito Moreno Glacier


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Estancia Nibepo Aike

After leaving the Torres del Paine park we crossed the border into Argentina at Cerro Castillo and drove up to El Calafate. Most people go to El Calafate to visit the Perito Moreno glacier which is in the Las Glaciares National Park. Before going to see the glacier, we spent two nights at an estancia (ranch) Nibepo Aike which is physically located in the park but some 80 km from the Perito Moreno glacier. Nibepo Aike is a working sheep and cattle ranch but has also been remodeled to be a luxurious estancia for tourists, where all meals and activities are included. Some of our best meals were at the ranch. The ranch is located in a spectacular setting. In addition to hiking and horseback riding, the gauchos give demonstrations of sheep shearing, cow milking, and one can watch the sheep dogs taking the sheep out to pasture in the morning and bringing them back in the afternoon.

Nibepo Aike estancia and mountains

Nibepo Aike estancia and mountains

Nibepo Aike estancia

Nibepo Aike estancia

Nibepo Aike

Nibepo Aike

Nibepo Aike

Nibepo Aike

Sheep at sunset

Sheep at sunset

Sheep at sunset

Sheep at sunset

Sheep at sunset

Sheep at sunset

Grilled lamb

Grilled lamb

Barrel race

Barrel race

Horseback ride

Horseback ride

Horseback ride

Horseback ride

Perito Moreno glacier

The major reason people come to El Calafate is to see the Perito Moreno glacier, which is one of the only glaciers in the world that is advancing rather than retreating. The glacier is some 75 m thick at the point where you get the closest view from the mainland and over 700 m deep at it’s thickest. The excitement here is to witness (see and hear) the bits of the glacier as they fall into Argentino Lake. The pressure of the ice pushes, at glacial speed, the glacier into the lake and intermittently pieces of ice fall into the lake. The surprising thing is how loud of a crash the ice makes as it falls into the lake. Even tiny bits that look to be the size of a large snowball make a loud cracking sound as they hit the water and ice. Granted, they are probably actually the size of an automobile but simply look small compared to the size of the glacier. Of course, it is impossible to predict where or when these will happen, so one stands there prepared to look anywhere

Perito Moreno glacier

Perito Moreno glacier

Perito Moreno glacier pano

Perito Moreno glacier pano


Perito Moreno glacier

Perito Moreno glacier


We spent about 3 hours watching the glacier which seems like a long time to spend watching nothing happening but the time passed surprisingly fast. In the photo to the right you can see just to the right of center, a large crack and a piece of ice that appears to be about to calve off. Over the 2-3 hour span, I kept imagining that the crack was getting bigger so I was focused on watching it to catch the event on film. Well, or course, just as we decided enough was enough and turned to leave, we heard a tremendous crash, but I missed the main event (see video below)

Aftermath of calving iceberg

Aftermath of calving iceberg

Posted by neurotraveler 17:17 Comments (0)

Patagonia: El Chalten

El Chalten


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El Chalten and the FitzRoy massif

El Chalten is a small village located at the north end of the Los Glaciares national park in Argentina near the Chilean border at the base of a spectacular mountain range known as the FitzRoy massif. The town is only about 30 years old and basically exists to support the hikers and climbers who come to tackle the superb hikes in the area. You may recognize the profile of the mountain range as it served as the model for the logo of the Patagonia brand of camping gear which was founded by the famous mountaineer, Yvon Chouinard.

View of FitzRoy on the drive to El Chalten

View of FitzRoy on the drive to El Chalten

FitzRoy and El Chalten at dusk

FitzRoy and El Chalten at dusk

FitzRoy and El Chalten

FitzRoy and El Chalten

FitzRoy massif

FitzRoy massif

Hike to Mirador Piedras Blancas glacier

We took this easy hike as a way to ease into hiking after several comfortable days at the estancia. The hike starts at the El Pilar Inn which is about a 20 km drive up a rough gravel road that follows the Rio de las Vueltas. The hike begins with a great view of FitzRoy which was called Chalten (smoking mountain) by the native Indians because it usually had ‘smoke’ at the peak. The weather was clear and sunny when we began the hike, but by the time we got to the mirador, it was cloudy and began to blow hard. By the time we got back to the car, the wind had picked up considerably and was raining/sleeting. It is commonly said that one can experience all four seasons in one day in Patagonia and this was a good example.

El Chalten

El Chalten

FitzRoy, the smoking mountain

FitzRoy, the smoking mountain

Piedra Blancas glacier

Piedra Blancas glacier

Piedra Blancas glacier

Piedra Blancas glacier

Chorillo del Salto water fall

Chorillo del Salto water fall


Windstorm and lenticular cloud

Windstorm and lenticular cloud

Common road sign in Patagonia

Common road sign in Patagonia

Hike to Laguna Capri

The following day we took the hike to Laguna Capri. This is also a relatively easy hike with spectacular views of FitzRoy along the way. As you can see, we had fantastic weather for this hike.

FitzRoy: the smoking mountain

FitzRoy: the smoking mountain

On the hike to Laguna Capri

On the hike to Laguna Capri

FitzRoy massif on the hike to Laguna Capri

FitzRoy massif on the hike to Laguna Capri

Laguna Capri

Laguna Capri

Hike to Laguna Torre

The most famous and most difficult hike from El Chalten is the one to Laguna de los Tres. We did not attempt this hike but instead did the second-most famous hike, to Laguna Torre. The hike offers the best view of the Cerro Torre, a striking set of peaks with a glacier emptying into the laguna. This hike is rated moderate and is 10 km in length each way. The initial and final parts of the hike are fairly steep but there is long stretch in the middle which is essentially flat. Again we had great weather for this hike.
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On the hike to Laguna Capri

On the hike to Laguna Capri

On the hike to Laguna Torre

On the hike to Laguna Torre

Laguna Torre

Laguna Torre

Cerro Torre from Laguna Torre

Cerro Torre from Laguna Torre

Nice spot for lunch at Laguna Torre

Nice spot for lunch at Laguna Torre

Cerro Torre and Laguna Torre

Cerro Torre and Laguna Torre

Posted by neurotraveler 17:19 Archived in Argentina Tagged elchalten Comments (0)

Patagonia: fauna

Guanacos, condors, penguins and other fauna


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This entry shows photos of the wildlife that we encountered in Patagonia. We were fortunate to see many guanacos in their native environment as well as condors and penguins.

Guanaco

A highlight of our trip was the chance to watch and photograph the delightful guanaco which roams these mountainsides, sometimes in herds and oftentimes singly. Ironically we found these lovely creatures hard to find on hikes but numerous while driving around the parks. Since we were in a rental car, we could stop whenever we wanted to. The most unusual feature of the guanaco, at least in the parks, is that they are relatively immune to the presence of humans. So they did not immediately shy away as soon as you stopped the car or as soon as they saw you, which allowed relatively close encounters. Guanacos are closely related to camels, llamas, vicunas, and alpacas. Their natural predators are pumas, but we did not encounter any during our visit.

Guanaco against the mountains at sunset

Guanaco against the mountains at sunset

Grazing guanaco

Grazing guanaco

Herd of guanacos

Herd of guanacos

Guanaco against the Andes at sunset

Guanaco against the Andes at sunset

Guanaco against the Andes

Guanaco against the Andes

Grazing guanaco

Grazing guanaco


Guanaco against the Andes

Guanaco against the Andes

Guanaco against the Andes

Guanaco against the Andes

Condors

The other iconic Andean animal that we encountered on several occasions was the condor. Usually they are seen as they soar high in the sky. In Torres del Paine, the Mirador Condor is aptly named since there are indeed condors that make their nest in the rock just below the summit. The caves are visible from the bottom, but not from the top, of the hike. An unusual aspect of having the mirador higher than the nests is that one can get photos of the top of the condors, rather than the more usual view from below. Turns out condors are pretty much completely black on the bottom of their wings but have vivid white spots on top

Soaring condor

Soaring condor

Soaring condor

Soaring condor

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Condor soaring against the Andes

Condor soaring against the Andes


Andean stealth bombers

Andean stealth bombers

Soaring condor over the Andes

Soaring condor over the Andes

Condor nest in rock face

Condor nest in rock face

Condor surveying out his front door

Condor surveying out his front door

Magellanic woodpecker

Magellanic woodpecker

Magellanic woodpecker

Magellanic woodpecker

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Caracara eagle with Torres in the background

Caracara eagle with Torres in the background

Isla Magdalena

We drove back to Punta Arenas to return the rental car and catch our flight home to Santiago. We had one day in Punta Arenas to visit the penguin colony on Isla Magdalena. In all of the guidebooks, it mentions that there is a smaller penguin colony that can be seen on the mainland at the Seno Otway Penguin Colony. Since our drive back to Punta Arenas from El Chalten took us past the turnoff to the colony, we thought we’d go for a short visit. But this was a mistake since the facility has been closed for over 3 years, we were later told, because all the penguins were gone. However, we did not learn this until we had driven to the locked gate over 15-20 kms of a terrible dusty road. There is still a prominent sign advertising the place on the main highway despite the closure for 3 years.

Our boat to Isla Magdalena - it was a rough ride

Our boat to Isla Magdalena - it was a rough ride

Penguins wander freely

Penguins wander freely

Penguin on Isla Magdalena

Penguin on Isla Magdalena

Penguin on Isla Magdalena

Penguin on Isla Magdalena

Penguins on Isla Magdalena

Penguins on Isla Magdalena

Penguin burrows

Penguin burrows

Penguins on Isla Magdalena

Penguins on Isla Magdalena

Penguins

Penguins

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20181112_1340056

Penguin incubating eggs in the burrow

Penguin incubating eggs in the burrow

Posted by neurotraveler 17:21 Comments (0)

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