This year we took advantage of P’s massive collection of frequent flyer miles to take a trip south of the border, way south, to Argentina and the magical land of Patagonia. We both speak Spanish fluently, so this isn’t as daring an escape as it might seem. P had done some research, and found that while the trails to Torres del Paine are quite congested, and the campsites jam-packed, the small town of El Chalten has great hiking trails, and seemed to be less crowded. We would see. The peaks of Fitzroy and Cerro Torre compete in every way with Torres del Paine, so we thought it was worth a shot.
On the way to Patagonia, we stopped for a few days in Buenos Aires, one of the world’s more interesting cities. It’s larger than you can imagine, and even with friends and family there, we still find it too large to really understand. But we enjoy it. Our first day we spent walking from our cute hotel near the wonderful Ateneo Bookstore (inside a renovated theater, complete with café inside) all the way down Avenida Santa Fe to the Plaza San Martin, honoring that revolutionary hero, then across to the Casa Rosada (presidential palace) and back to the hotel past the largest boulevard in the world. And we caught the sunset just right behind the classic obelisk of Buenos Aires.
The next day was devoted to art: the Modern Art Museum (MAMBA) in San Telmo and the Fortabat collection in the trendy new Puerto Madero barrio. Both were well worth a visit. In between, we stopped in at the Museum of the City of Buenos Aires, which is a wonderfully fun and irreverent look at life in the city, but it was under construction and had very limited exhibits. The rest of the day was dedicated to visits with friends and family.
The third day we spent exploring the area near our hotel—the Calle Arenal and the Recoleta district, which is every bit as lovely as parts of Paris. A few art galleries, a few plazas, a lunch in a local hangout, and we were delighted. Dinner with friends that night, and we were off to the domestic airport (BA has two, and it is not a good idea to confuse them!) the next morning for our flight to El Calafate on Aerolineas Argentinas.
As always when we travel in Latin America, we gave ourselves plenty of time at the airport, and the flight was a piece of cake. Although it was cloudy for much of the flight down, P had cleverly selected windows on the west side of the plane for the trip down. And as we got into Patagonia, the skies cleared and we had stunning views of the desert steppes leading off to the snow-capped Andes extending for miles, hundreds of miles, out the window.
When we landed in El Calafate we were facing a three-hour drive north to El Chalten. (Torres del Paine is a bit longer, and to the south). At the airport we took the first available shuttle to El Chalten, which was with Las Lengas minivans. We’d read some negative reviews (and some positive ones) but the next full-sized bus wouldn’t leave for three hours. As it turned out, it was the smartest thing we did all trip.
Our driver, Raul, was the owner of the company, and we were the only passengers. He gave us a guided tour of the road to El Chalten, complete with wildlife sightings, restaurant recommendations, and suggestions for all the best trails. The views of the mountains on the way into town are absolutely breathtaking. And he drove us door to door to our hostel. (Some of the complaints of this company seem to come from the fact that the first people they pick up have to sit in the van while they run around town collecting everyone else.)
It was a sparkling day in El Chalten, and we immediately took advantage of that to climb up the few miles to Mirador de los Condores and Mirador de las Aguilas—two high points east of town served by a trail that leaves the office of the national park. And while we didn’t see either condors or eagles, we did meet some fun groups of other hikers, and caught views of Mt. Fitzroy, Cerro Torre, Lago Viedma, and the local rivers (de las Vueltas and Fitzroy). A great way to find our way around town—followed by a quick dinner at Ahonikenk, an inexpensive local restaurant Raul had suggested. It was fun, cheap, and tasty.
Raul warned us that the skies are not always so clear, and so we took his advice the next morning, and headed up the trail to Laguna Cerro Torre. First we had to find a sandwich shop that was open on Sunday morning…and the little bakery next to Ahonikenk fit the bill. But that was a bit of a hike from our hostel, and then the trailhead was back where we started, so we didn’t really hit the trail until about 9 a.m. And there were lots of other people on the trail. Before we had hiked the first of ten kilometers, we met a ranger who encouraged us to visit the national park offices and exhibits in town. We assured him we would—and that we were sorry they closed at 5 p.m., or we would have dropped in the night before.
The first three kilometers out of town on this trail are a steady climb up over a ridge on across an old moraine. We seemed to be hiking at the same pace as a guided group, and unfortunately the guide spoke in a very piercing voice so that all of his group could hear him. Grrr. We eventually put enough space between us and him that the voice slowly faded into the distance. After that first climb the trail is very easy, along the Fitzroy river valley, until you get quite close to the lake, when you have to climb the last moraine to see the glory. And my, it was glorious!
A part of the trail led off to the right, above the lake, along the very crest of the last moraine to a point named for the Italian climber Maestri. We took it partway along, and then decided to call a halt. We sat in awe and ate our sandwiches, occasionally hearing the roar of an ice fall on one of the glaciers in front of us. A lovely young woman from Slovakia saw us, took our picture, and sent it to us later. Thank you, Stefi!
This was a world class hike, and a great introduction to Patagonia. And the Torre was clear, standing like a monument to the power of rock and ice. While El Chalten was desert-like, getting only about 6-8 inches of rain a year, we had now hiked up into the lusher Andes. Just over the crest, the continental ice fields get snow 300 days per year, and the lower elevations of Chile are rainforests. The hike back out was perfect, and P had noticed a spur trail on the map that not only allowed us to see new sights, but left us about 50 yards from our hostel. We loved this warning to hikers on that section of the trail:
After hiking about 13 miles, we ended up back at our hostel (Nunataks—clean, inexpensive, and very functional—and very close to the trailheads into the park). We napped for a bit and then went to eat at the Rancho Grande next door, with empanadas, a salad, and a big steak. Steaks are a sure bet in Argentina, and this was no different. We found food and wine in El Chalten reasonable, but with limited choices. Wines in the restaurants were uniformly good and cheap—particularly if you chose the Malbec.
Day three in El Chalten was going to be a rest day. We knew that the following day would be a tough one, climbing up to Lago de los Tres, and so we decided to take it easy. We went back to the ranger station, pestered them with all sorts of questions about the flora and fauna that we’d seen, and then took a trail up towards the Lomo del Pliegue Tumbado—the hill of the fallen wrinkle. This was a lovely hike up a small canyon, then up the side of a ridge with frequent views around to the mountains of El Chalten. We took snacks, and eventually broke off trail to eat them in solitude overlooking Lake Viedma. And as we sat there, M noticed a condor sailing overhead, to our complete delight.
We made it as far as the junction with the trail to Laguna Toro, and then decided that we would keep a little in our tank for the hike on the following day. There are some fossils further up the trail, once you get above the tree line, but we left those for another visit. We saw another condor on the way back down, as well as a few groups of heavily-laden climbers on their way to Laguna Toro. (The route there requires a single rope crossing of a crevasse, and a local guide plus extensive experience is recommended before you tackle that one. You need a permit from the rangers as well.)
We were back in town in time for lunch, and then decided that we had time to run up the 6 k to the little waterfall Chorillo del Salto. The first part of this hike is confusing. The road signs indicate to take the road, but we learned later that the trail leaves from just inside the park gate, right where the trail to Laguna de los Tres starts.) Instead, we walked along the gravel road for a mile, until the trail crossed it and we could follow the trail through forests and along the river. We saw an amazing Giant Patagonian Woodpecker who just about landed on our head, but by the time P could get out his camera, the bird had cleverly hidden itself on the other side of some branches. The size of a crow, this bird has a completely red head. It is unmistakable!
The waterfall is lovely, and as always on this trip, there were plenty of other people around. But we also enjoyed the signage that indicated this was a contemplative area—no rough-housing! In true Argentine fashion, one older couple calmly sat down and drank their mate tea while they gazed at the water.
On the hike back we spotted more birds, and by the time all was said and done, we’d hiked another 12 miles or so on our “off” day. Dinner that night was at the Cerveceria (the brewery) where we drank local brews and enjoyed a typical Locro stew of hominy, meat, and potatoes. Yummy.
We had made arrangements for Las Lengas to pick us up early the next morning for a drive up to the Hosteleria del Pilar. This hostel also marks the beginning of an alternate route to Laguna de los Tres, and we were looking forward to some stunning scenery, as well as fewer people on this part of the trail.
Yes and no. Of course, everyone who hikes this trail catches the same group of shuttles, on the same schedule, so we leapfrogged with a couple of large guided groups in the early stages of the hike. But the scenery was spectacular, include the vista of Piedras Blancas, where you could see an enormous hanging glacier emptying out into the river. For ten kilometers we hiked along, enjoying the view and working out way slowly up the valley and through the woods to the climb up to Laguna de los Tres.
The last stop was the Poincenot campground (named after a French climber who died on one of the early attempts at Fitzroy) and it convinced us that day-hiking was the way to go. Densely packed with young campers from around the world, it had only one toilet for about 200 people, and it was…unspeakable. Yeah, we know. But we’ve traveled a lot of places. This was not a good one.
And from there the trail goes straight up. Almost literally. It climbs 700 meters in just about one kilometer. That equals a rate of about 3,700 feet per mile, and I don’t know of another trail anywhere that is that steep. And while it starts out steep, it then gets a lot steeper. And then in the second half of the trail, steeper still. At the top of the ridge there is a brief respite of 50 years, and then the last 150 years seems to go straight up. The only saving grace is that the elevation is still manageable—about 4,500 feet at the top—so you are not sucking for air. You just wish you were twice as strong. The maps all say that it takes an hour to hike this last kilometer, and we found it took slightly more than that. Amazing.
(All the maps we saw list the distances in hours, not miles or kilometers. At first we found this really frustrating, but after hiking only a couple of sections of trail, we found it very easy to adapt their times to our hiking speed. And at 2.5 miles per hour, you are hiking almost exactly a kilometer every 15 minutes. How convenient! And our speeds were pretty close to what they predicted.)
What an amazing place this is, with huge glaciers hanging over the lake, and another lake just below behind a low ridge. The wind here was howling (in fact, it howled the whole time we were climbing, and all the way back to El Chalten) and so everyone was bundling up to avoid hypothermia. But everyone was also grinning. This hike is the Half Dome of the park, and there were tons of people. But the atmosphere and camaraderie were quite nice. We ate lunch, enjoyed the view, sat until we were just too cold, and then started back down.
From Poincenot Camp, we took the normal trail back to El Chalten, which led us to a lovely view of Lake Capri. The campground here looked to be in better shape, and maybe less crowded. The toilet, at least, was newly built and quite nice. And from here we were chased by the wind back to town, with a nice overlook of the Rio de las Vueltas, to our hostel. Another 12+ mile day, when all was said and done.
Did we mention the wind? It blew P’s hat off his head twice (never before had that happened!) and once we were in town, people were bent over as they struggled to make headway against it.
Dinner was at a newer restaurant, Pangea. More expensive, but really nice, and used more than the usual three or four ingredients of most of the dishes in El Chalten. We loved it.
On our last day in El Chalten we wanted to revisit the ranger station and ask more questions. And we spent some time in shops and wandering about the backstreets of town. When we entered the tourist information office, we commented on the wind to the young woman there. She looked a bit surprised and informed us that this was not a windy day. Not in El Chalten!
It’s a funny town. It’s full of young backpackers (some with obviously limited funds…and maybe limited soap/razors as well) and other more hard-core older hikers from around the world. Lots of people trying to find cheap eats and cheaper places to stay, as well as a few much more expensive hotels. We were warned that there was only one ATM, and it frequently ran out of cash. But there are two, and we never had a problem getting cash—important, because almost everyone in El Chalten refuses credit cards. And we were warned that there was only one grocery story, with limited merchandise. We counted at least eight in town, but the selection was almost always the same, very limited, and for three of the days we were there, the only fruit you could buy was oranges. Seriously.
Except our last adventure in El Chalten. We’d been told that we could get a personal tour of the old Estancia Cerro Andres Madsen if we wanted one. At the end of the only bridge over the Rio de las Vueltas, at three in the afternoon, the great-grandson of Madsen himself would meet people and give them a tour of his family’s original pioneer homestead.
We couldn’t resist.
And we loved it. Roy was the perfect host. He gave us both a thorough and personal history of the region, told us many of the local tales, showed us his family home (built room by room, as the family grew), toured us through the family cemetery and told the story of each member there, and then invited us into his home to page through books full of photos and have a nice cup of tea and cookies with him. It was totally cool.
Dinner that night was at Fuegia, another more upscale restaurant that we enjoyed very much, and included a serenade by a couple of itinerant musicians who were really pretty good. And P’s a sceptic. He was convinced.
Las Lengas picked us up the next morning to take us back to El Calafate, where we stayed at the La Cantera hotel. My goodness, this was a step up! First class all the way, with a nice location just above downtown and view over Lago Argentino. We spent the afternoon exploring El Calafate, and discovered a very different vibe here. Nobody was carrying a backpack. Everybody was clean and shaved. Restaurants had hjgh mark-ups on wine…the whole thing reminded us more of Carmel or Jackson Hole, while El Chalten was a bit more like Yosemite’s Camp 4.
But M had heard there were flamingoes along the shore, and so we set out to find them. Easy as pie, they were right where they were supposed to be! We watched for a while, then set out for the little museum in town, which was a wonderful combination of paleontology, anthropology, and history, all boiled in to one. Really nice, and every visitor is invited to enjoy a mate tea afterwards, on the house! We loved this one. And then we went back and looked at the birds again…and ate at Mako, a wood-burning brick oven restaurant downtown. Yummy.
The next day, our hotel managed to find us a quick tour of the Perito Moreno Glacier. Simply amazing. We had a great guide in the minivan, who encouraged us to get out and hike all the trails at the glacier. We did. Simply amazing. A vast sheet of ice that is obviously in motion and stress, creaking and groaning, cracking off huge sections into the lake. We could have watched for hours. But we had a flight to catch.
The minivan got us back to the hotel at 4:20 and our taxi was there at 4:30 to take us to the airport and catch the flight back to Buenos Aires. It all went off without a hitch.
Two more days in Buenos Aires, including visits to the flea market in Palermo, and the Bellas Artes Museum. We caught a car out to the airport the next afternoon, and were on our way home again.
The whole photo log is here: https://goo.gl/photos/2YNSZErXp7nSfrne8
The recent snowpack survey puts snow levels at between 175% and 195% of normal. That's a lot of snow. There are still areas of Southern California that are in drought conditions, but in general things are looking pretty damn good on the water front.
On the backpacking front, not so fast. Literally. The big snowpack means that the high country is going to open a lot later than it has the last few years. Highways and trailheads may not be open, and passes may be snowed in. Stream crossing will be a challenge well into July and even August.
This year is a good one to plan for a later season trip.
We've seen in on our hikes, on our drives, and even on our walks around our cabin near Twain Harte: Pine trees dying in huge numbers. Here's a pretty good article on what's going on by the LA Times:
This story from the Guardian tells of a team of National Park employees or alumni who are trying to focus the debate on facts, rather than fairy tales:
Yosemite Valley will reopen for day-use visitors tomorrow morning, January 10, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.
There is no access to Yosemite Valley via the El Portal Road (Highway 140) due to a rockfall that occurred early this morning. There is no estimated day or time for the road to reopen. The Hetch Hetchy Road is also closed due to a rockfall. Visitors should be aware that there will be limited visitor services and plan accordingly. Overnight accommodations and commercial services operated by the park concessioner are slated to reopen on Wednesday, January 11, 2017. Campgrounds in Yosemite Valley are slated to be open for tomorrow evening.
The Merced River in Yosemite Valley reached flood stage at Pohono Bridge (above 10 feet) last evening. The river peaked at 12.7 feet at 4:00 a.m. and park roads facilities have been impacted. The park is currently assessing the impacts and will address any repair needs in the coming days and weeks. Although there was no major flooding in Yosemite Valley, both roads and infrastructure (water systems, sewer systems, etc.) were impacted.
Park visitors are asked to be aware of hazards, including potential wet and icy road conditions, rockfall, and debris in roadways. The park has experienced significant rainfall over the past month and ground saturation could lead to hazardous conditions along park roadways.
"Most people like to look at mountain rivers, and bear them in mind; but few care to look at the winds, though far more beautiful and sublime, and though they become at times about as visible as flowing water. When the north winds in winter are making upward sweeps over the curving summits of the High Sierra, the fact is sometimes published with flying snow-banners a mile long. Those portions of the winds thus embodied can scarce be wholly invisible, even to the darkest imagination. And when we look around over an agitated forest, we may see something of the wind that stirs it, by its effects upon the trees. Yonder it descends in a rush of water-like ripples, and sweeps over the bending pines from hill to hill. Nearer, we see detached plumes and leaves, now speeding by on level currents, now whirling in eddies, or, escaping over the edges of the whirls, soaring aloft on grand, upswelling domes of air, or tossing on flame-like crests. Smooth, deep currents, cascades, falls, and swirling eddies, sing around every tree and leaf, and over all the varied topography of the region with telling changes of form, like mountain rivers conforming to the features of their channels.
"After tracing the Sierra streams from their fountains to the plains, marking where they bloom white in falls, glide in crystal plumes, surge gray and foam-filled in boulder-choked gorges, and slip through the woods in long, tranquil reaches--after thus learning their language and forms in detail, we may at length hear them chanting all together in one grand anthem, and comprehend them all in clear inner vision, covering the range like lace. But even this spectacle is far less sublime and not a whit more substantial than what we may behold of these storm-streams of air in the mountain woods.
"We all travel the milky way together, trees and men; but it never occurred to me until this storm-day, while swinging in the wind, that trees are travelers, in the ordinary sense. They make many journeys, not extensive ones, it is true; but our own little journeys, away and back again, are only little more than tree-wavings--many of them not so much.
"When the storm began to abate, I dismounted and sauntered down through the calming woods. The storm-tones died away, and, turning toward the east, I beheld the countless hosts of the forests hushed and tranquil, towering above one another on the slopes of the hills like a devout audience. The setting sun filled them with amber light, and seemed to say, while they listened, "My peace I give unto you."
"As I gazed on the impressive scene, all the so called ruin of the storm was forgotten, and never before did these noble woods appear so fresh, so joyous, so immortal. "