It was full summer in the Patagonian Andes. Chilean and Argentinian vacationers were up and about, many of them like us in campers, even more backpacking, and others enjoying hotel luxury. In addition, there were the international travelers. In other words, the Patagonian Andes were packed with tourists. The best way to visit these parks while avoiding the crowds, is to start as early as possible. Under blue skies and low winds, we entered Torres del Paine at opening time, after having spent the night at a pretty spot overlooking the river valley and Paine mountain range just outside the park. We decided to start by hiking the most popular trails first. The first one led us through lush woods, over a long isthmus of moraine gravel, to a rocky island covered with flowering shrubs and plants. The island was surrounded by a grey glacier lake (hence the name: Lago Grey) where the distant glacier left a few bright blue icebergs floating around. The crisp Patagonian summer air felt like spring. Patagonian barberries already showed off their blue fruit. A shrub, covered with bright pink flowers took part in the palette of greens, yellows, reds, purples and blues. Along the mountainside, the smaller beech trees had grown pointing eastwards, resigned to bend with the westerly winds.
On our return, we crossed paths with a multitude of people. To enjoy a sense of solitude, we had to strategize our route a bit. We admired the blue waterfall but waited till next morning to continue the hike. Again, we walked undisturbed through a burst of colors with mountain views over blue lakes. I have a habit of gently touching mosses and grasses, in order to feel their textures. The patches of big yellow-green cushions that looked like soft moss from a distance, turned out to be tough and sharp, with yellow flowers. Bees busily buzzed from flower to flower. An occasional tiny black butterfly fluttered by in front of us. At the end of the trail, we enjoyed a breathtaking view over snowcapped Cuernos del Paine mountains.
Torres del Paine – the tower-like monoliths that brough fame to this area, had to be reached by driving around the range, through dry grassy hills over dusty, washboard roads. We reached the crowded basecamp by noon, had lunch there, and decided against taking the four-hours track up. Instead, we continued to Lago Azul, where, in my opinion, the view over the Torres is better, albeit not as overpowering as from up close…
Having traveled the park south to north, we left the next day, and crossed the nearby border from Chile back to Argentina, to reach Calafate; the jumping-off town for Glacier National Park. Since the weather had turned windy again, we decided to stick around, wait for another sunny day, and explore the town a bit – and found a bakery with great sourdough bread!
The biggest attraction of Glacier National Park near Calafate is the very accessible Perito Moreno Glacier. Knowing how many people were there to visit that same site, we started driving the 70 kilometers on the day before, and found an unbelievably beautiful spot in the fields, about 2 kilometers before the entrance of the park. Here we enjoyed stillness of nature, a babbling creek, blooming wildflowers, a tentative visit from a rhea – the South American ostrich, and a warm sun on a windless afternoon. At quarter to eight the next morning, we drove to the park entrance, where we were the first in line. By the time the gate opened at eight, we were already part of a long line of visitors, all eager to beat the crowds. In hindsight, the anxiety was not necessary, since the access to the glacier had a multitude of (steps and) walkways to get there, so most of the time we found ourselves alone with a glacier that loudly protested the warmer than usual weather with cracks that broke off large pieces of ice, which loudly thundered into the water below…even relatively small pieces sounded like explosions when they hit the water.
After our glacier visit, we returned to last night’s campsite for another stay, where once more we enjoyed the serenity of the blooming desert. I found and tasted some calafate berries- the blue Patagonian berries that grow on a particular barberry bush- and decided they are not really tasty off the bush: tart and full of small seeds, but once you’ve tasted the calafate jam, you’re an addict. So delicious! There were not enough berries around for me to make a jam, so we settled for a store-bought version, to go with a great sourdough bread we bought, to take along on our drive through the dry Patagonian country side to the northern mountains of Glacier National park, and the peaks of El Chalten. (= Mt Fitzroy and Cerro Torre).
The village of El Chalten is really too small to accommodate the numbers of people that come to walk the trails of the mountain range in the northern end of Glacier National Park. Since free range camping in one’s vehicle is not allowed anywhere around the National Park, including El Chalten, over forty-five camping cars had to be packed on the one small, designated riverside parking lot at the entrance of town (and two small, fully booked commercial campgrounds) Just one pit toilet had to serve around ninety people: imagine the impact on the environment, when most people want to avoid that stinky hole in the ground and rather go in the bushes – on a daily basis….this place really grew too fast, and I wonder what it will look like in a couple of years.
Hiking is what you do here, and the trail to the base of Mt. Fitzroy, and the one to the base of Cerro Torre are the most popular, so again it made sense for us to start early. We walked up to Laguna Capri, where we arrived in time to see the majestic peaks mirrored in the lake water. An hour later all was shrouded in clouds. I know I huffed and puffed to reach our goal, but going back down, I felt so sorry for those people in questionable condition struggling to catch their breath working their way up, only to get to a viewpoint and see clouds… At least the winds were gentle that day. When two days later the winds picked back up, we let ourselves be blown away – north over Ruta #40, until the next pass over the Andes mountains, back to Chile.