“Be ready to grip your trekking poles tightly. They may fly away. And you with them.”
Los Cuernos in Torres del Paine National Park. All photos: Karin Schwartz
That was the first piece of advice that I received from a friend when I told him I was off to Patagonia for two weeks. Patagonia is famous for many things among trekkers, including the jagged blue glaciers that spill from the third largest ice cap in the world; dramatic granite massifs and spires towering over brilliant green glacier-fed lakes; and wildly unpredictable weather, including ferocious winds that can move people and objects. There is a tree in Torres del Paine National Forest labeled the “hugging tree” because of how tightly trekkers sometimes grip it to avoid being blown off the trail.
Lago Pehoe sunrise, Torres del Paine National Park.
So I mentally prepared for Armageddon. And got, instead, a land of enchantment, with nary a breeze to be felt until the very moment it was time for me to leave. I was trekking in early-to-mid April, Patagonia’s fall, when the temperatures start to drop and the foliage starts to turn, with deep reds predominating.
I flew into Santiago, Chile, and two weeks later, out of Buenos Aires, Argentina, so that I could visit two national parks: Torres del Paine (Chile) and Los Glaciares (Argentina).
Grey Glacier, Torres del Paine National Park.
To see Torres Del Paine, I joined a small group tour on the the “W,” a 5 day trek that hits many of the park’s highlights, including Los Cuernos, French Valley, Gray Glacier, and the iconic massif, Torres Del Paine. Wildlife was abundant, including Andean condors, black-necked swans, guanacos, magellanic woodpeckers, and grey foxes.
Torres del Paine National Park.
Although it is possible to camp, we stayed in a combination of refugios (like a hostel) and ecodomes as we worked our way around the milky blue-grey-green lakes, granite spires, and glaciers that comprise this park. Strenuous days made for guilt-free high-calorie dinners (meat is King in Patagonia) accompanied by Pisco sours and deep red Chilean wines.
Hiking on the Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park.
A long bus ride, plus proof that you have paid a $160 “reciprocity fee” to the Argentinian government, will get you across the border, to El Calafate. This is home base for a one-day guided “big ice” hike on the Perito Moreno glacier. After donning crampons, you follow guides into the grey/blue. A sip of pure, cold glacier water scooped from the indigo blue of a crevasse is an indulgence not to be missed.
A scenic 3-bus bus ride from El Calafate takes you to El Chalten. This is home to some the most-traveled trailheads into the most famous areas of Los Glaciares National Park, including Mt. Fitzroy and Cerro Torres.
Enchanting beech tree forest, Los Glaciares National Park.
The scenery is so enchanting that even the locals refer to the area as “Middle Earth,” a nod to “The Lord of the Rings,” and to New Zealand where the trilogy was filmed. This is not so far-fetched: New Zealand and Patagonia share some of the same flora and fauna because they were once part of the same supercontinent (Google: Gondwana).
Empanadas and tea at Laguna de los Tres, with a view of Mt. Fitzroy, Los Glaciares National Park.
This portion of my trip was self-guided, and navigation was made easy by the abundant park signage, supplemented with a good topo map. A few empanadas and alfajores from a local bakery make the perfect trail lunch, ideally accompanied with a canteen of tea. You can also dip and sip here … the glacier melt remains pure enough to drink without treatment.
Lenticular clouds form over Los Glaciares National Park.
Over two weeks, me and my Oboz Sawtooth Mids trekked in all sorts of conditions, including, in addition to some well-maintained dirt trails, 6” stinky, sticky, black mud; ice/glacier; snow; boulders; and stream beds. The Sawtooths met every challenge well, and even supported crampons on the Perito Moreno glacier.
As I got on the bus in El Chalten to start the multi-day journey home, I received a hint of the weather that had prompted the dire pre-trip warnings. Within moments, the skies, which had held blue and clear for several days, filled with lenticular clouds in all directions, ensuring this trekker’s appreciation of the full Patagonian experience.