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Hiking in Patagonia – The Easy Way Out

February 5, 2012

After a busy year of work I had the chance to take the whole month of November off of work to go wherever I pleased. The two places on the top of my travel list were Patagonia and Siberia. Given that it was winter in Siberia and summer in Patagonia I did the sane thing and began planning a hiking-centric trip to Patagonia. I even managed to get a friend to come along. However, I was faced with two issues. I didn’t have a lot of time or resources to plan the trip and my friend and I had different levels of hiking skills. So we took the easy way out and decided to join a hiking tour.

We picked a tour that spent considerable time in the two places I wanted to see most, Torres Del Paine National Park in Chile and Tierra Del Fuego in Argentina. This tour also included a few days in Los Glaciares National Park, which I had never heard of, but ended up loving.

Overall, my experience was positive. The most difficult thing I found was hiking with a group of people whose fitness level was varied. The tour recommended an “elevated level of fitness”, and everyone on the tour was reasonably fit, but the group ranged from a guy who cross country skied across glaciers to a few people who were older and shorter legged. That’s the thing about tour groups; you’re stuck with a random group of people you’ve never met. So there will be people you click with, and people who drive you nuts. In the end, I did less hiking than I would have if I had designed the trip myself, but I got to go places I would never have gone on my own, and I didn’t have to worry about logistics.

Though I didn’t have to worry about the logistics of this trip beyond getting to and from Buenos Aires, I did work out some plans for a future trip to Torres Del Paine which I will share. Taking a bus to the park from Buenos Aires (Argentina) or Santiago (Chile) is generally not recommended. The distances may not seem great, but it is a very, very long ride. On my tour we flew into El Calafate, Argentina and took a bus to Puerto Natales in Chile. The bus ride was very nice and not super long, though I can’t remember which bus company we took. When I go back, I think I will fly from Santiago to Punta Arenas, Chile. Flights to both cities are frequent and not insanely expensive. From Punta Arenas you can take a bus to Puerto Natales, and arrange a shuttle bus to the park. Puerto Natales is the gateway city to the park, and you can rent or buy gear there at not unreasonable prices. From here you can take an all day bus ride to Ushuaia (Tierra Del Fuego). There are also cruises, but they are pricey.

Los Glaciares National Park

The base town of Los Glaciares is El Chalten. It is a small resort town with many hotels, restaurants, and outfitters. Most hikes in the park begin just outside of town, no vehicle is needed.

We arrived later in the day to the park, and spent our first afternoon hiking to Cascada Del Salto (waterfall). It was quite nice, fairly easy, and gave me a chance to get to know my new tour mates.

On day two we hiked to one of the jewels of the park, the Laguna De Los Tres trail to a spectacular view of Cerro Fitzroy. This hike was a bit more taxing, as there was significant elevation gain to view point, but we all made it. We lucked out with sunny weather and had a relaxing lunch (ham and cheese sandwiches) near the frozen lake before heading back down. This hike can be combined with others to make an overnight hike.

Laguna De Los Tres - Cerro Fitzroy

Our third day in the park was a free day with optional activities. I chose an all day glacier walk and ice climbing expedition at nearby Viedma Glacier and could not have made a better choice. I had never ice climbed before, and must admit it wasn’t at the top of my to-do list, but it was so much fun. We lucked out with a small group of only six people, so we each got a lot of climbs in on three different set ups. After lunch (ham and cheese sandwiches of course) we went for a short trek over the glacier, and at a particularly scenic spot were treated to Baileys with glacial ice.

Viedma Glacier Climbing

The main activity of our final day in our park was a guided tour of the Perito Moreno Glacier, which is particularly impressive as it is one of the few glaciers in the world that is not receding. We took a boat ride to one face of the glacier, then were bussed to the other face to view the glacier from a series of walkways. It was beautiful, though after a while I was a bit glaciered out.

Perito Moreno Glacier

Torres Del Paine
**Note: there was a fire in Torres Del Paine in December 2011 (after I was in the park) and I’m not sure on the condition of the trails.

Torres Del Paine is one of the main reasons I wanted to go to Patagonia. It is home to the infamous “W” and full circuit hikes. Alas, it was not my fate to do the full hikes on this trip, but we did a few arms of the W as day hikes based out of camp sites. I intend to come back and do the full circuit, hopefully next year. Logistically, you can hike the trails staying in campgrounds or refugios, some of which have dorm beds. The campgrounds we stayed in had cafeterias, though I don’t imagine that’s true of all of them.

We started off our first day with a short hike to Salto (waterfall) Grande and a boat ride across Lago Pehoe to our campground at Mountain Lodge Paine Grande. We quickly changed into our hiking boots and headed off on our first hike to, surprise surprise, another glacier. This time Grey Glacier. The hike was moderate and the glacier was very nice. We arrived back our camp to find our tents had been magically set up for us and dinner was ready at the cafeteria. A good first day and I woke up in the middle of the night to some of the most amazing stars I have ever seen in my life.

Grey Glacier

Day two began out of the same campground and the visual theme switched from glaciers to mountains. We hiked through the beautiful French Valley to a viewpoint of stunning Paine Grande. The hike was moderate and consistently beautiful. We ate lunch (ham and cheese sandwiches of course) within view of the mountain and hiked back down to Lago Pehoe.

Hiking to Paine Grande

We took a boat ride back across Lago Pehoe and were shuttled to campground number two. This one was a private campground reserved just for our group with a pisco sour reception in a geodesic dome and private chefs. And of course with tents set up for us before we arrived.

Campground #2

We saved the best for last in Torres Del Paine, as day three took us to a look out to THE Torres Del Paine, granite spires surrounded by glaciers. This was also the most difficult hike of the trip, which honestly isn’t overly difficult as a day hike. There is moderate elevation gain at the beginning of the trail; it levels off for a while; then there is a steep ascent over boulders to the viewpoint. We arrived at the Torres to find it with clouds at the very top of the spires. As the weather in Patagonia is fickle at best, we decided to eat our sandwiches (salami and avocado!) and hoped the skies would clear. Alas, it was not to be, the clouds never cleared, but it was still gorgeous. We hiked back down the mountain to our shuttle bus and left the park for Puerto Natales.

Mirador Los Torres

Tierra Del Fuego (Ushuaia)

Our final destination of the trip was the Southernmost City of the World, Ushuaia, which is on the island of Tierra Del Fuego. To get there, we overnighted in Punta Arenas (with a side trip to a Magellanic Penguin Colony) and took a day long, cross border bus ride. I believe this bus only runs a couple of days a week. We arrived in Ushuaia late, but just in time for supper. Here we came across another group who was doing the same tour we did, but it was their last night in town. It was nice to meet another group of people, and I will spare you the pictures of the night out at the Irish pub, as I don’t even remember the arm wrestling, but I have photos of it on my camera.

The only planned activity for us in Tierra Del Fuego was a morning boat ride along the Beagle Channel. It was a pleasant ride where we got to get close to islands of sea lions, terns, and nesting cormorants and we got a complimentary shot of coffee liquor. We had the rest of the day free to explore the city of Ushuaia. Tourism is prevalent is Ushuaia, as it is the gateway to Tierra Del Fuego National Park and is also the base point of Antarctic cruises, but it shipping is also a major industry. The seafood there is amazing, crab restaurants are abound. Night two took us back to the Irish pub and again the photos are terrible, but I remember taking them all.

Beagle Channel

Our last day in Tierra Del Fuego was a free day, so the majority of our group joined a canoe and hiking excursion. The canoeing turned out to be rafting down a calm river to the ocean, but most of the people in my boat were hung over so it was for the best (even though I made us crash into a rock and we kept getting beached). They gave us wine at lunch, so luckily the hiking was pretty easy. We had an animated guide and I got to eat a “Pan del Indio”, which is a weird orange globule that grows on trees and tastes like nothing, absolutely nothing (I still get weird cravings for it). Night three took us to the Irish pub for the last time, and again the photos are unreasonable and I will not share them.
The next morning was a fairly early (and painful for some) flight back to Buenos Aires, where I parted with my new friends.

The Parque Nacional Sign

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. joel permalink
    July 13, 2012 2:22 pm

    bored at work.. always, read the whole post.. just lied, too many unpronouncable names though it looked like an awesome trip you remind me of someone great, george mallory maybe?

    • July 13, 2012 3:43 pm

      Hi Joel! Thanks though the comparison is a bit lofty…

      • joel permalink
        September 21, 2012 10:53 am

        Ha anyways you know you rock.. just sayin. How do you feel about Ben Nevis?

  2. April 12, 2013 4:58 pm

    Hi there,

    Enjoyed your Patagonia blog and we are also planning a trip there in Nov/Dec.We are in our 50s and reasonably fit but don’t do lots of hiking (though we are in training with a weekly 2-4 hour hilly walk). We live in a flat place (Adelaide, South Australia) so getting to the hills takes a bit of effort!

    Can you divulge who you did your tour with? We have been to South America independently in the past but Patagonia is a place where we would like a bit of logistical help. On the tour did you only need to carry day packs? We are not keen to carry a full load.

    Thanks.
    Mary Lou
    PS my husband is very impressed with your photos!

    • April 12, 2013 6:47 pm

      I went with G Adventures on the “End of the Earth” tour. We only needed day packs on the tour, but some of the hiking days were pretty long (up to 6 hours I think). They have a bunch of different tours for different activity levels, but I’d say if you’re reasonably fit you could probably do it. Friends of mine have traveled with Intrepid Travel as well and would recommend them. Good luck!

      • April 12, 2013 6:54 pm

        Well thanks for the prompt reply. Will look into G adventures. Have friends who did Tucan tour and thought it great. Just in the exciting research phase. The day job gets on the way though…cheers. MLT

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