The Patagonia Travel Enigma

Be warned: this post is less about eye candy and more about suggestions for someone thinking about traveling here. It’s wordy! There are photos though, and all of them are ones we didn’t use in other posts – so you’ll have to check those out to see the best.

Patagonia is one of the most unique regions in the world in so many ways. Traveling here has brought wondrous sights and dispiriting challenges like nowhere else. For those with time, goals, and determination it is immensely rewarding; comfort seekers expecting a clear check-list itinerary will be frustrated and unfulfilled. Over the span of a month we found ourselves in one of these camps or the other at different times and places. A year of travel abroad did not fully prepare us for this place!

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Lago General Carrera at Puerto Rio Tranquilo, Chile

Patagonia is beautiful, busy, lonely, and vexing; it’s blustery, glowing, dusty, damp, and crisp; it’s vibrant, gray, dismal, and striking; it’s tedious and it’s enthralling. It can easily be all of these things in a single day.

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moraine at the fringes of Glaciar Exploradores, Chile

Patagonia is paradoxical. It begs for thorough planning in advance – for the likes of camping/refugio reservations (especially Torres del Paine), bus schedules, car rentals, etc. But then it will throw wrenches in the works with wild weather, a vehicle breakdown, or things simply not being what you expect. We like to travel with open plans and adjust as we go, which has worked well for much of the world; here that approach forced some concessions.

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The Torres, Chile

Patagonia is expensive. We paid more here for less than pretty much anywhere in the world. Getting a bed in a one-horse town is the same as a European city, and the food is equally overpriced. ATM fees are very high and you can’t always find them in smaller towns, so plan ahead and also bring some dollars as backup. If they aren’t damaged many places will take them.

A modest level of self-sufficiency would go a long way here – we found ourselves really wishing for a camper-van on many occasions. Being able to bring your own bed, food, and set your own itineraries would be liberating. We did fine getting around by buses but we could have done a lot more with our own wheels. It’s a bit of an all-or-nothing thing: rental car prices in the middle of Patagonia are absurdly high if they’re even available at all. You have to rent from either the top or the bottom before you start.

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Cerro Catedral, Argentina

Another thing we wished for – and this will sound obvious – was our camping gear. On extended travel as we were, we didn’t have it with us nor did we bother trying to ship it down, thinking if we really needed it we could rent it or buy used stuff. You can indeed rent but it’s not cheap, and having your bedding with you the whole way would definitely save on lodging when the weather is good. We surprisingly found no sign of used gear trading or sales so don’t count on that!

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Catedral Mármol, Chile

If you want to see the length of Patagonia and can make a camper-van work – including the extra insurance needed so you can cross between Chile and Argentina – then we’d recommend it. Friends of ours did this at the same time we were bussing around and they saw some amazing things we missed out on. If you can’t, then bring your camping stuff and enough gear to be comfortable if (when) adverse weather appears. If that doesn’t sound fun… then just do what we did, it’s still awesome! Or go to a warm beach somewhere.

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Glaciar Grande and Laguna Torre, Argentina

I get annoyed by people who speak with authority about traveling to X when they’ve only been there once. So many travel experiences are affected by luck and circumstance and that’s especially true in Patagonia. Plus everyone’s thresholds and interests are different, and I think Patagonia really amplifies these factors as well. It’s only us and we’ve only been here a short time, so that’s my caveat – take all of this with a grain of salt!

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Glaciar Exploradores, Chile

Our Route

From Puerto Montt – easily reached by bus from Santiago – we zig-zagged south through Patagonia, crossing into Argentina and back twice. We finished up at Punta Arenas which has daily flights to Santiago.

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link to map from tripline.com

This took us about a month, though of course it would depend on how much time you spend in each area and what activities you do.

We covered this journey over 5 posts:

  1. From Puerto Montt to San Carlos de Bariloche (1-9 on the map).
  2. Covers Futaleufú and Coyhaique (11 and 12),
  3. Wonderful Puerto Rio Tranquilo (13-15),
  4. Back into Argentina at El Chaltén and El Calafate (16-19 on the map),
  5. Finishing with Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas (20-23).

Argentina’s Ruta 40, which we crossed for part of our trip, is the fastest way to get to connect some of the big destinations like El Chaltén, El Calafate, and Torres del Paine. But don’t miss Chile’s small towns along the Carretera Austral – when it comes to just traveling around, the Chilean side of the Andes is often more beautiful!

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Lago General Carrera, Chile

Transportation

We did everything by bus. Like the weather, transportation options become less predictable and comfortable the further south you go. If you’re taking Ruta 40 all the way down on the Argentina side then no problem, there are plenty of buses every day. You just might need to buy your ticket a day in advance. But if part of your route goes through small towns in Chile (it should) then it might be a little more work. Tourist information offices are in most towns and will have bus schedules and other helpful info.

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Glaciar Piedras Blancas, Argentina

Prices for flights in the high season start to climb at least a month in advance. That said, being flexible with your schedule might be worth paying for a more expensive flight – even a last minute ticket from Punta Arenas to Santiago is a small expense compared to the total cost of a trip here.

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pingüinos on Isla Magdalena, Punta Arenas, Chile

If you want to rent a car for part of the trip, reserve it ahead. This way it will actually be available – there’s a very limited supply – and you’ll know what you’re going to be paying. Don’t count on grabbing a car along the way on a whim! Roads are windy, winding, and often gravel so be ready.

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Carretera Austral along Reserva Nacional Cerro Castillo, Chile

If you possess an indomitable desire to bicycle Chile’s Carretera Austral, good on you! Prepare to ingest a lot of dust and flying rocks. It looked pretty awful to us but we saw many people doing it, and the views along the road are indeed wonderful.

Guided tours are sometimes necessary but often exist only because you are too uninformed or too lazy. There are some things you can’t do without a guide, like trekking on a glacier, but most sights don’t require one. Local buses can be pretty extensive especially in the northern end of Patagonia, so it’s easy to get to trailheads on your own. Worst case you can take a taxi or hitchhike (our own hitchhiking experience was pretty limited, consisting once of being ferried across the border by a 90-year old lady, and second of failing to attract a ride because everyone thought the local dog tagging along with us was ours. But plenty of people hitchhike extensively here and it’s totally chill, another special thing about Patagonia).

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Glaciar Exploradores, Chile

Weather

Northern Patagonian summer is gorgeous. The air is clean and clear, the temperature is very comfortable, the weather is consistent and the long days let you stay outside forever. The only thing we found that might deter you from the outdoors were the occasional swarms of prehistorically giant marauding flies.

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Volcan Osorno from Puerto Varas, Chile

As you go south, the winds get stronger and gustier. It’s cloudy or rainy more often and conditions change more rapidly. By the time you get to places like Parque Nacional Los Glaciares or Torres del Paine, the weather is wholly unpredictable – it’s anybody’s guess what will happen that afternoon, and your temperature varies wildly from one moment as the sun, clouds, wind and rain do their thing. I usually bring too many extra layers but not so here – cap, knit hat, vest, jacket, and shell were all used regularly on hikes.

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a gray day in Torres del Paine – but you can still see the peaks!

Of the 14 days where we wished for perfect weather (a big hike, etc), 10 of them were great; it’s worth mentioning, however, that on several occasions we had free time to plan around the weather. Three were overcast enough to block views but otherwise fine, one turned into a drenching downpour and one was too sketchy to even start our hike.

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Rio Futaleufú, Chile

Food

By and large don’t expect to be eating cheap gourmet meals – it seems to cost more than it should to get food here. Wherever we could we stayed somewhere with a kitchen so we could prepare at least some of our meals, but even then you’re limited by what you can find in the local grocery. If you like white bread, you’re in luck: it’s a staple in most meals. It’s locally made and pretty tasty so that’s good, but it does get tiresome after a while.

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cooking at our hostel in Puerto Natales. (This meal of frozen hake happened to be the worst we made for ourselves all year!)

That said, we did find some delicious food here and there. A churrasco steak sandwich piled high with palta (avocado) is pretty awesome. A similar post-hike delicacy is the super-pancho aka completo – hot dog with the works. There’s a lot of trout and salmon, both fresh and flavorful. Wine from both Chile and Argentina can be quite good and inexpensive (hooray!) – just aim at or above ~$4 USD for a bottle and you’re all set. Beer is mostly your typical Latin American lager though there are a fair number of microbreweries in the larger towns.

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churrasco con palta sandwich from Masay in Puerto Natales, Chile
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Austral in Punta Arenas makes Chile’s best widely-distributed lager

Mate is the perk-you-up beverage of choice for the locals here. Everywhere you will see people lugging around their kit of hot water, dried yerba mate, mug, and straw. We joined in by getting our own mate straw and thermos – it’s good!

In the north section of Chilean Patagonia you’ll find bakeries that make kuchen, a German-influenced cake with fruit which is really good. On the other side of the border Argentina makes alfajores which are a sort of shortbread-cookie sandwich containing dulche de leche and sometimes coated in chocolate. These are now probably my favorite type of cookie and it is imperative that you try them!

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mate (though not in the traditional gourd-shaped mug) and an alfajor

One great and inexpensive thing about Patagonia: drinking water! The stuff that comes from the taps is clean and refreshing.

Lodging

Expect to get less for more. We used a mix of booking.com, agoda, airbnb, and just wandering around on arrival (the small towns have a lot of options that aren’t online). Read reviews or check it out yourself before you commit because you can easily pay a lot for a tiny, noisy, grubby place. Having your own transportation can help here – you won’t end up paying less, but you’ll get a better place for the same price. Having even a modest kitchen is great. Or just skip the whole mess and get a camper van!

Everywhere we stayed was a last-minute find. Having an advance itinerary and reservations would help you find better deals or at least more quality options. We often found that our first and second choice was full by the time we arrived. Of course, to make that work you actually have to create – and stick to – a schedule.

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Puerto Natales, Chile

Language

Unless you want to spend all your time with tour groups, some basic Spanish is really necessary. We’ve found fewer English speakers here than pretty much anywhere in the world including Southeast Asia (where many students learn some English in grade school). Of course you’ll survive without Spanish but I think you would frequently find it impenetrable and frustrating. Learn a little, make a friend, or marry someone (like I did) who speaks the language!

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The Andes of El Chaltén, Argentina

Sights

Patagonia is a hiking paradise. The scenery is ever-changing: dusty volcanic scree, lush temperate rainforest, dry steppe and snowcapped granite crags. One of the best parts is getting world-class mountain, glacier, lake and river views without having to huff and puff your way up to high altitude – the peaks here top out at a mere 2000m (6500ft)! Plus the water that you find everywhere is potable, a boast matched by few other regions of the world.

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Rio Petrohué, Chile

Our favorite spot overall would have to be El Chaltén and it neighboring Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. For us the combination of accessible, spectacular, and fulfilling was perfect. For many Chile’s Torres del Paine is the highlight, but as you can read in that post the circumstances didn’t work in our favor and we found it difficult to work around the challenges of the busy and inaccessible park. If you plan ahead or go in the off-season I bet it would be great! For us, I would take some of the time we burned in Puerto Natales and spent it doing a longer trek out of El Chaltén such as the Huemul Circuit.

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Glaciar Perito Moreno, Argentina

Places we saw and loved:

  • Volcan Osorno and Saltos Del Petrohué
  • Laguna Tonchek at Refugio Frey
  • Glaciar Castaño Overo at Tronador
  • Glaciar Exploradores
  • Capilla, Catedral, and Cavernas Mármol
  • Laguna Torre
  • Laguna de los Tres
  • Glaciar Perito Moreno
  • Las Torres (del Paine)

We’re sorry that we missed:

  • Laguna Cerro Castillo
  • The French Valley in Torres del Paine
  • The Huemul Circuit
  • And a lot more to see, if you have the time…

Favorite towns:

  • Puerto Varas, Chile
  • Futaleufú, Chile
  • Puerto Rio Tranquilo, Chile
  • El Chaltén, Argentina

A lot of Patagonia is one amazing panorama after another, to the point where we shamefully started getting snobbish about what actually made a worthwhile view. You can get spoiled by the main sights, the heavy hitters, because they really are that majestic. But you don’t even have to go into the parks or hike at all to see dramatic stretches of glacier-capped mountains, bright blue lakes and rivers, rippling kaleidoscopic fields, and high-contrast 10pm sunsets.

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back road near Puerto Rio Tranquilo, Chile

Some interesting fauna are easy to spot as you’re traveling around. Andean condors are common, though it can take a bit of luck to get an up-close view. There are a variety of other raptors and interesting birds as well. Guanaco are llama relatives common in southern Patagonia, and ñandu – mini ostrich – live in the same area. Our friends who had a camper van even got an up close view of a puma!

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imperial cormorants at Punta Arenas, Chile

I have to mention a blog post by Kristin Addis titled “18 of the Best Spots in Patagonia”. We were inspired by her photos and writing to visit (or attempt to visit) many of these places on our trip. Thanks Kristin!

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Glaciar Exploradores

The End of the World

Okay, not really. I’m writing in Punta Arenas with a latitude of 53°S, the same distance from the equator as Dublin. But on our lopsided planet one can’t go a whole lot further south by land unless you’re in Antarctica (which would be awesome). And on the personal level, closing out Patagonia really does represent a conclusion of sorts: we’ve now hit all of the hard-to-reach areas we laid out as goals when we began our year of global wandering. Our travels aren’t over – we make our way to Mexico next – but they are perhaps winding down should we find an appealing entry back into the alternate reality of modern society. So yes, in some ways I write from the End of the World. For now.

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Punta Arenas, Chile

Okay, enough of that! What transpired since we left Argentina and crossed back into Chile to Puerto Natales? Well the point of coming here is to visit Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, the most lauded of Patagonian destinations. This chunk of concentrated scenery rises like a huge island from the surrounding steppe and lakes and was visible to us from over 100km away as we approached from flat Argentina. It might be the most distinctly demarcated park I’ve seen other than, say, the Grand Canyon.

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this cool polygonal map in the visitor’s center shows the abrupt boundaries of Torres del Paine

To call Torres del Paine a popular destination is an understatement. Everyone and their mother – literally, we talked to them – comes here to hike the “W”, a 4-day trek that covers the main sights of the park: Glaciar Grey, the French Valley, and the Torres themselves. To do this one bunks overnight in a series lodges (refugios) or camps nearby; and in order to accomplish this, one needs reservations of the appropriate sequence and timing. Obtaining these is challenging not only due to popularity but also because the campsite management is split between two 3rd party companies. There is no single place physical or online where one can check availability or make bookings.

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Puerto Natales’ windy waterfront

Earlier as we traversed northern Patagonia I had taken a stab at making reservations online, but things already seemed chock full. Plus the process was obnoxious and we didn’t know when we’d reach the park anyway. So we figured we’d give ourselves plenty of time in the area once we arrived – surely with some flexibility we’d be able to make things work! If we couldn’t find bunks everywhere we’d just rent some camping gear, no problem.

Well, not really. Our first 36 hours in Puerto Natales – gateway to Torres del Paine – was one cold dose of reality after another. Not only were the refugios booked solid for the rest of February, the campsites on the W were too. So much for the 9 days of flex time we had saved! Furthermore it’s a lot harder than we envisioned to do day hikes out of town: P-Nat is 2 hours away from the park by bus with the earliest not reaching the south end of the park – starting point for Glaciar Grey and the French Valley – until 11am. From there you still have to take a boat to the trailhead and each hike is at least 7 hours, so you’re really stressed for time if you want to make the last boat/bus back. There were some camping options further outside of the park but this almost seemed like the worst of both worlds, and the high cost of rental gear plus windy, wet weather were dispiriting.

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Hike to Base De Las Torres

Unsure how to proceed, we decided to at least make the doable day trip to the base of the Torres and then re-evaluate. We caught a 7:45 bus to the park entrance and passed herds of guanaco (llama-things) and ñandu (ostrich-things) on the scenic ride in. At the park entrance we joined the busy line to pay the hefty $35 USD entry fee each (compare this to hiking at El Chaltén – free!), and after another short shuttle we were finally off and hiking.

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our morning view from the trailhead, eastward away from the park
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and looking into the park at the Torres

The trail to Mirador Base De Las Torres starts with a rather steep uphill through scrub, then abruptly turns a corner from the sheltered leeward face to an open valley ledge where – if it’s windy – a wall of air rips west to east and nearly knocks you off your feet. It was windy.

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Fortunately it’s not far before you drop down into tree cover for much of the rest of the way up. We passed a couple busy campsites and then reached the steep uphill finale where again we were exposed to very strong gusts along with occasional bursts of rain.

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tents at busy Refugio Chileno
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trailside crowdsourced artwork
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climbing up the last leg to the viewpoint

3.5 hours after starting we reached our destination and an incredible view. The low clouds lifted just enough for us to see the entirety of Las Torres reaching high over the aqua glacier-melt laguna at our feet. Photos truly do not do this view justice. I had seen plenty of pictures before getting here and honestly didn’t expect the granite monoliths to be that impressive compared to other sights we’ve seen. Wrong! It’s mindblowing.

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While we drank in the view we were buffeted by at least 50kph gusts that shot through the boulder-walled depression in all directions and tore waves of spray off the water. Above us the overcast layer that was flying eastward at a hurricane pace of 150kph lowered just enough that the peaks of the Torres began to carve chaotic wakes in the sky. Wild! Phenomenal!

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your full-scale turbulent wake visualization of Las Torres in 150kph winds!

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one last shot…

The gusty conditions continued to get more intense. As we were picking our way down the rocks we weren’t quite blown off our feet, but we definitely had to catch and brace ourselves several times, guarding our faces against flying grit and gravel. We were happy to reach the cover of trees! The weather wasn’t done with us yet, however. The rain that had largely held off became steadier and heavier for our return leg. The last couple hours of hiking became a slippery slog through heavy precipitation and we were well and truly soaked through by the time we reached the shelter of the welcome center.

As we thawed out and waited for the bus, we pondered the alternate universes in which we may have succeeded in securing a campsite and where we would now be trying to make the best of a very wet and windy situation. Oof. I doubt we would have been fully prepared for this!

Puerto Natales

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So that was our first – and as it would turn out, only – visit to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. We tried to find ways to get going early enough that we could at least see the French Valley too, but anything other than the regular buses was stupidly expensive ($180 for a taxi!?). We tried to find people to share an early ride, but no luck. We decided it wasn’t worth going to excessive lengths to make something happen – we’d already seen so much! So we just did some sightseeing around Puerto Natales.

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last photo of this pier, I promise

For a nice picnic we hiked up to nearby Mirador Dorotea where we got a lot of views of big Andean condors playing in the gusts.

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a local sheepdog took a break from herding to go hiking with us… the flock wasn’t sure what to think about it and they watched us until we were out of sight
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Puerto Natales from Mirador Dorotea
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our companion stuck with us the whole way

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We also went to a local showing of outdoorsy documentaries at a warehouse-turned-gallery: Chile’s top entrants for the BANFF Mountain Film Festival, and climbing-focused Reel Rock 12. It was a lot of fun watching this stuff while surrounded by some pretty serious outdoor enthusiasts!

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P-Nat sunset before the film event
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outside the art space

Punta Arenas

The final stop of our tour de Patagonia was Punta Arenas, where we would catch a flight back up to Santiago. This port on the Strait of Magellan is the first actual city (barely) that we’ve stayed in since Lima!

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mutton is really common in Patagonia

Punta Arenas has seen a lot of ups and downs with a lot of history and industries – prisons, wool, gold, oil, fish, border spats, tourism and Antarctic exploration. Cuisine here whether it’s high end or streetside is centered on seafood; centolla – king crab – takes the premier spot. It’s really fresh and really good. Plain, in empenadas, in lasagna… yup.

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mmmmm king crab

A popular day trip here is to hop on a small boat and putter out into the strait to Monumento Natural Los Pingüinos on Magdalena Island to see a colony of Magellanic penguins. It was pretty fun! On the boat ride out we were escorted by Commerson’s aka panda dolphins, which are all things adorable – small (labrador-sized), black and white, and playful.

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the best shot I could get of the dolphins between poor timing and our short lens

Magdalena Island is not very big, and the entire surface (except for the lighthouse) is riddled with penguin burrows. 60,000 pairs – who mate for life – bunk here. It’s the end of the breeding season and the now-juvenile young have struck off on their own, with the parents are sticking around to fatten up, molt, and regain their sanity.

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Isla Magdalena

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ciao, chicos!

On the trip back the boat swings out to nearby Marta Island which hosts 100,000 elegant imperial cormorants as well as a thousand or so somewhat less elegant sea lions.

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So that’s it for Patagonia – tomorrow we fly back over all the ground we’ve covered in the past month. This region is so unique that I’ve felt compelled to write a separate summary of all that we’ve learned, so that will be upcoming! Next destination: a short stop in Valparaiso, Chile.

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A couple pingüinos we picked up as souvenirs. Ciao, Patagonia!

The ‘El’s of Argentina

El Chaltén and El Calafate are two of Argentina’s most popular Patagonian tourist towns, respectively marking the northern and southern extents of the huge Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. On the broad plateau above and east of this park lies the ancient and massive Southern Patagonian Ice Field, mother to many local glaciers. These plus the dramatic mountain and steppe scenery are the draw here.

It was with a bit of hesitation that we headed east from Puerto Rio Tranquilo to the Argentinian border: the last time we were in Argentina at Bariloche we weren’t thrilled with the vibe (despite good hiking) and Chile had been so beautiful. It turns out this worry was unwarranted… but first we had to get there. We started with one of the most scenic bus rides we’ve ever taken, winding around the impossibly blue Lago General Carrera beneath snowy mountain peaks. It was dusty, bumpy, and breathtaking!

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looking east at Argentina, nearing Chile Chico

The bus dropped us at the border town of Chile Chico. Though the Argentinan town of Los Antiguos is only a few kilometers due east, the road itself hooks south for a river crossing to make a total of 20km or so without public transportation. We weren’t sure if we would cross that evening or just stay in Chile Chico for the night, but we met up with a French couple – also jobless for a year of travel – who were itching to go so we fed off their energy and joined in.

We split a cab to the Chile side of the border to shave off the first 6km, crossed through, and started walking. It may have been late afternoon but there’s plenty of summer daylight left down here! We hoped we would be lucky and catch a ride – and before long a pickup truck pulled over to haul us the rest of the way. Driving this truck was a ninety-something Belgian emigrant to Argentina, who left her home at the age of ten with her family after WWII… wow! She happily chatted away in French with our fellow travelers. A lot of Europeans ended up here in Chile and Argentina after the war and really ended up shaping the culture a lot, but I never thought I’d meet someone from that first generation. She was incredibly nice, driving us the rest of the way to the bus station at Los Antiguos and even waiting to make sure we could get onward bus tickets.

So it went that, instead of crashing in Chile Chico, we caught the last overnight bus from Los Antiguos south to El Chaltén. Wahoo! Such efficiency. Of course we were a little woozy upon arrival to the overcast town but we managed to wander around, find breakfast, and wind up in a nice hostel/hotel to clean up.

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caffeinating after our overnight bus
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the big guys are hidden, but these are the mountains near El Chaltén

Later in the day we did an easy hike up to Mirador de los Cóndores and Las Águilas. We hoped for some clear views of the famous local mountain range (which as you can read in pretty much everyone’s travel blog about El Chaltén is the silhouette on Patagonia, Inc.’s logo). Monte Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre didn’t quite make an appearance for us but it was beautiful nonetheless.

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a view east into dry Argentina
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waiting for Fitz Roy to appear

El Chaltén is dubbed Argentina’s ” capital of trekking” with awesome trails accessible right from town. We did two of the biggest day hikes here and have to agree it’s pretty fantastic!

Hike to Laguna Torre and Mirador Maestri

On paper this one is 22km and 8 hours round trip, though we did closer to 25km in 7 hours. The point of this one is to get an up close look at Cerro Torre which in my opinion might be the most otherworldly peak on the planet. To really see what I mean you’ll have to look at other people’s photos, though! As is common in Patagonia the clouds obscured a perfect vista.

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our clearest view of Cerro Torre

And yet, this is still one of the best hikes I’ve ever done. the valley leading up to Laguna Torre is beautiful, the trail clean and interesting, the terrain varying but not tough. The only challenging bit was at the end scrambling up glacial moraine from the laguna to the viewpoint while being punched by with hefty gusts of wind. We were rewarded with one of the finest picnic views of our journey, overlooking the lake and Glaciar Grande (oddly, one of the smaller glaciers in the area).

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starting out on the trail we actually got our clearest view of Fitz Roy

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even a partial view of these peaks is insane
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Laguna Torre – complete with little icebergs!

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We were chased out by increasing winds and scattered rain but left the weather behind as we got closer to El Chaltén. We rewarded ourselves with truly world-class burgers at B&B Burger Joint. This town is awesome – Argentina, you are redeemed!

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Glacier Grande snaking down to the laguna

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Hike to Laguna de los Tres

Out-and-back from town is 21km, 9 hours round trip; we did an alternative route by catching a shuttle to “El Pilar” to make a loop of 24km in 7 hours (easier than the out-and-back, there’s less climbing). Another amazing hike… and another chance for the Patagonia gods to hide a sought-after view, this time of Monte Fitz Roy.

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Glaciar Piedras Blancas: one of the best glacier vistas of Patagonia!

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We started out in gray drizzle which held off from worsening as we hiked the first half past gorgeous Glaciar de Piedras Blancas. Midway we joined up with many other hikers coming from town for the short but steep leg up to Laguna de los Tres.

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The climb to the viewpoint was the most crowded section of trail we found in Patagonia – not only visitors from El Chaltén but also folks on day trips from El Calafate. There were some… er, slow people on the narrow rocky climb. It took a bit of patience, especially with darker clouds moving in!

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almost to the top…
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Laguna de los Tres. Imagine icy winds and blowing snow and it’s like you’re there!

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Our arrival at the top coincided with increasing precipitation – partially snow – and strong winds. We admired the view, still beautiful despite the low clouds, for just a few minutes before the numbing wet wind drove us back down. Our trek finished with an easy 10km mosey through a scenic river valley. On a clear day, we agreed, even the views from down here would be absolutely stunning.

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The Other El

After trekking around El Chaltén we rode south a few hours to the bigger and busier town of El Calafate. Sporting a real airport with flights from Buenos Aires, this town is busy with tourists taking day trips as far as Torres Del Paine in Chile (5 hours each way and border crossings? Yuk!). Despite all this it’s still a pretty decent town to stay in with good food and lodging.

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travel research with our host’s dog Uma
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El Calafate is named for this berry, a little bitter plus thorny. Blueberries win this one
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along the shore of Lago Argentino, near El Calafate

The main attraction here is the Glaciar Perito Moreno. There are a lot of glaciers here in Patagonia (at least for now… many are rapidly receding) but this one is special because it’s pretty active and easy to visit. It’s constantly dropping off chunks from its 5km-long, 60m-high front; and every few years it advances far enough to run into the opposite peninsula, blocking the outflow of a lake until it builds up enough to dramatically breach through.

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our first view of Perito Moreno (and a Chilean firetree flower)
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on the boardwalks
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we started our visit with an hour long boat ride up near the south face of the glacier
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view of the south face from the boat. The water on this side of the glacier is dull gray while the water on the north side is bright blue
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The front has reached the rocky peninsula, so perhaps this year there will be a “rupture” event. This side of the lake has already risen 12m higher than the other!

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With easy access to a close-up view it’s not surprising that this is a pretty touristy site. It might be, however, the most awesome touristy scenic overlook ever. We’re talking Grand Canyon level of majesty here (in our opinion). The glacier – still a small one if you can believe it! – is a boggling blue complex of spires and crevasses straddling opaque gray- and cyan-hued lakes in the fore while stretching away behind up to crisp mountain peaks. An extensive set of platforms and walkways means that it never feels crowded.

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the entirety of the view, with the south face on the left and the north face on the right

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further along to the right gives you a better view down the extent of the north face

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The best part of this glacier is how lively it is. Blocks of ice of all sizes – often as large as a car or house – constantly tumble off the high cliffs with echoing rumbles and thunderclaps. It’s mesmerizing to sit and wait for the next piece to go. We had a few hours of sightseeing here and we wished for several more by the time we had to leave! In hindsight we probably would have planned another day here so we could trek on the ice or kayak nearby – not the cheapest activities but I’m sure it would be worth it.

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a deep blue scar where a building-sized slab just crashed off into the water

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We wrapped up the “El”s – and Argentina entirely, in fact – with a great Patagonian dinner back in town. Lamb, trout, and a delicious southern Argentine pinot noir. This portion of our trip was just great, but it was time to head back into Chile and close out the trip at famous Torres Del Paine.

You Say Glaciar, I Say Glacier

We are off the beaten path now for sure! After a few days in Coyhaique we once again settled into our bus seats (far from comfy first class) for 4 hours to our next destination, Puerto Rio Tranquilo. This town is not even in the guide book. There is no ATM, no internet and most things are cash-only. We did read that they had one ATM in the town, but this is not true. There is some sort of mysterious yellow-signed shop that promises in various languages to be able to get you cash, deposit cash somewhere, maybe pay someone via some strange system. We were not that desperate, well, actually we were, but instead I put my hands in prayer position and pleaded with our landlady to give us a $5 discount on our three night stay so we could afford to take the bus out of there. I digress… so now you know – bring cash.

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en route to Puerto Rio Tranquilo

There are two things to do in this town and we happily did both of them. First is the Glaciar Exploradores and second are the Mármol (Marble) Caves.

 

Exploradores just started being explora…dor-ed? no, explored! about 6 years ago so there is not a ton of information on it. We thought it would be best to check it out for ourselves.  After an hour ride from town we stopped to see a waterfall (not even listed on the itinerary) and then drove just a few minutes more to the trail head.

 

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We hiked about 1.5 hours scrambling over rocks through the woods until we reached the beginning of this spanning glacier. A lot of it is covered with rocks and sand which protect it from melting during the summer. “Summer” down here is kind of a stretch as we have felt quite comfortable in our down jackets, but in the sun we found ourselves changing layers frequently as various combinations of warmth, clouds and wind came along.

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The only glacier we had been close to before was in Nepal, and even though it wasn’t especially pretty we found it fascinating with its expanse and dirty ice that you could hear cracking and breaking continuously. This was really the second one we had seen and definitely the closest.

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The weather was a bit overcast when we got there so there were parts in the distance we couldn’t see, but it seemed to be clearing up. Strapping on our crampons we practiced walking heel-first downhill on sheer ice while taking in every shade of blue there is.

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I’m kind of photobombing this girl. Don’t worry, I checked with our guide to make sure the ice could hold me before going up!

This is pretty stupid to admit in a public forum, but I didn’t really realize that glaciers are actually solid ice. I thought they would be a bit like that really awful New England snow you get when rain freezes on top of snow as a crusty layer of ice that moves your pant leg up as you break through the top and cuts your already chapped legs and then threatens you with frostbite when all you’re trying to do is fill the darn bird feeder. Anyway, it’s not like that. It’s like a frozen pond with the clearest drinkable water running through nooks and crannies making really picturesque caves and arches that are pretty much the most beautiful things ever.

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A couple of interesting things- First, these caves that you can walk through are created (and vanish) in the span of weeks! One of our guides showed us a picture of this one  (below) from about 2 weeks before and someone could barely fit inside.

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Secondly, Gregor noticed that you could barely see your shadow when on the ice because it’s so thick and the light reflects up through it as if it’s glowing. Not really photo friendly, but cool to witness.

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The purest water ever, impossible to not drop down for a drink! 

We spent about 3 hours on the ice and while we were there it became a beautiful afternoon and we were able to see the glacier in its entirety as well as the highest point in Patagonia, Monte San Valentin, which obviously is quite dangerous to summit but of course people do it anyway.

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Monte San Valentin on the right side of the photo

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Activity #2 from this throwback town is to explore the marble formations: capilla, catedral, and cavernas (chapel, cathedral, and caves). To do this you can hop in a boat with other tourists, but the better way is to kayak. We booked both excursions with the same tour company (99% Aventura) and they were really excellent. For the kayaking we drove down the lake about 6k and after the safety instruction walked over to get paddling. Gregor and I opted for a two-person kayak mostly because I have the attention span of a goldfish and can’t really be expected to paddle in a straight line and also this would free one of us up to take pictures while in the caves.

 

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A beautiful day for a paddle on Lago Gral Carrera

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Proof I did paddle at least a little bit. Also, the water bottle is unnecessary as you can drink straight from the lake.

Gregor and I launched with little fanfare and paddled off to get a look at the weird boat moored in the harbor. The next in our group was not quite as deft and dumped it soon after entering the water. Haha! Although the lake (Lago Gral Carrera, the second-largest in South America) looks like a tropical paradise it’s actually really cold. Our companion seemed to recover quickly and hopped in a fresh kayak and we all paddled off. This is the exact reason kayaks were invented I’m pretty sure. Paddle out about 30 minutes, go in every cave you can find, enjoy the awesome angles and take your time. We felt really sorry for the people in the big boats that had to keep their distance.

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These caves have three different types of marble, kind of challenging to distinguish the different kinds, but they all looked like they were hand chiseled, little pockmarks creating vast caverns. Apparently this was caused by acid rain on the lake eroding the marble with help from some big waves over a very long time.

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There are three different larger formations that you can kayak into, the middle one called the “Catedral”. You can see the striations from when the rock was bent under extreme pressure.

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A closer look at the left hand corner of the Catedral from the picture above

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The Marble Caves were our second breathtaking excursion in as many days. We’re not sure how this little town could have escaped Patagonia’s must-do list but we’re sure glad we went!

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Puerto Rio Tranquilo’s stunning waterfront

Deeper into Patagonia

Futaleufú, Chile definitely makes the list of Adorable Towns of the World. This is the kind of place where you park your horse along the road without even hitching it up. Here checking out at the grocery is an endearing 20 minutes of a local kid running around adding up prices on a hand calculator. Delicious clear water flows from the taps, friendly dogs snooze in the streets, massive cows wander around contentedly, mustachioed locals in ponchos and wide-brimmed hats grill up mutton for dinner and the sun sets at 10pm over the surrounding granite spires and turquoise rivers.

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the countryside around Futaleufú

Our four-night stay in Futaleufú was totally unplanned but wholly welcome. We had happily bid farewell to Bariloche at 6:30am and rode south by bus along Argentina’s Ruta 40 until we reached the border town of Esquel. Along the way we passed expanses of dry Argentinian ranch land and dusty roadways. It’s remarkable how dramatic the difference is between Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia is: the mountains, though not exceptionally high at 2000m, hog all the rainfall and leave the eastern side pretty parched.

After napping in Esquel’s park we caught the bus up to the border, walked the few hundred meters between Argentina and Chile, and took a short shuttle down into the town of Futaleufú. The plan at this point was to spend the night and continue the following day to points further south; Futaleufú is a popular whitewater destination, but otherwise didn’t sound like much from what we read. We realized this wouldn’t work once we eyed a bus schedule at the Chilean border post. So, no bus for four days? Okay, guess we’re really getting into Patagonia now!

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these fields are so purple!

Futaleufú is not very big: walking across town takes five minutes. I expected a different atmosphere after reading about package tourists coming for rafting, but this was way off from reality. The town is relaxed, welcoming, and just the right level of touristy that we could manage to find places to eat and sleep. Our first night was in Hostal Las Natalias – a cozy, friendly place a short walk out of town.

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We would have stayed longer but they were full so Elaine found us a sweet airbnb cabin to call home for three more nights. In the meantime, the owner of Las Natalias happens to be a pro whitewater kayaker who offers classes every day – just the sort of thing I was thinking I should do with my time here. It doesn’t look that hard, right? So I suited up with Nathaniel and we went to the riverside equivalent of the kiddie pool to practice basic survival skills.

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our digs in Futaleufú
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the water is super clear and glassy

Turns out this is not, in fact, as easy as it looks. As soon as you’re in the water it’s very different from a regular kayak – very maneuverable yet prone to skidding if you don’t know what you’re doing (like me). Proper technique heavily involves your core and your hips, parts of me which tend to suffer neglect. Still I sort of was able to stay on a straight line and turn on command, so we progressed to flipping upside-down many times while Nathaniel worked me through increasing levels of bailout and roll. I wasn’t able to totally get the solo roll recovery but got close.

After a couple hours of basics we hit the river. Not the Rio Futaleufú, which has world-class rapids that would quickly destroy me, but its tame neighbor the Espolon. I got to try catching and peeling out of eddies, ferrying across the current, and in general riding along baby rapids and really gaining an appreciation for how precise and engaging whitewater kayaking can be. It was a great half-day and I think it’s something I would try out further if I have the opportunity!

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So our life for the few days in Futaleufú was pretty relaxed. Visit a couple of the local grocery stores to see who has produce, collect enough to feed ourselves for the day, cook some meals, hike around. We visited some viewpoints along the real river – “the Fu” – and saw some gorgeous countryside and farmland.

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lots of beautiful healthy horses around here

I decided to do some rafting on the big river while we were here. It was explained that the river was running quite high due to rainfall – until recently it was fully closed – and the open section we would raft would only last an hour, maybe less, but it would be the best and most nonstop portion. So I showed up the next morning and a mixed group of Chileans, Europeans, and myself packed into a dusty van to get to our start point. We donned wetsuits, got the standard safety briefing, and hit the water.

I’ve been whitewater rafting ~five times between the States and Ecuador. I think every time I’ve ended up in the water against my best intentions. Perhaps, I thought, I’d manage to stay in the raft this time? Well it was all great until our guide decided that our boat was good enough to tackle the big class V rapid on the far side of the river halfway through – I knew we were in for it when he whistled to the safety kayaks, gesturing that we were taking the hard way. It was several massive waves in a row and out we all went!

From Futaleufú we finally caught our minibus south for 12 hours over a bumpy blend of gravel, bricks, occasional pavement, and one ferry around a washed-out section. We survived the long day and reached Coyhaique, a hub of sorts in the area. As far as these towns go it’s so-so and pretty expensive, especially for lodging. After one night in an overpriced hostel room (only one toilet+shower for everyone – really?) we wanted something better for a few days while we did some hiking in the area. So Elaine found us an airbnb shipping container – awesome! We’d need a car to get there, but we were actually thinking of renting a car anyway so we could get to some trails. Perfect.

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looking west from outside of Coyhaique

Turns out that renting a car in Patagonia is really expensive. The best we could find was a junky little Suzuki Jimny for over $100 a day – yikes! Oh well, it would be worth it: we had our eyes set on this one hike at Cerro Castillo that was a couple hours outside of town and reportedly amazing by all accounts. But first we took our rattly ride east and after a few wrong turns (we ended up at a military zone gate) we found our new digs.

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home sweet home!

Super-friendly Manuel has set up a few of these container apartments, decorating them with local artwork, and they’re just fantastic. It’s one of the coziest places we’ve found to stay, and the view of the local fields and hills was great! There were also several friendly neighborhood dogs to say hi to.

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The next day it was time for the hike we were really excited about: visiting the blue mountain lake of Cerro Castillo. This is often part of a multi-day trek but we are lazy, and besides, the weather wasn’t the best for camping. We looked at the forcast and it didn’t look any better the following day so we decided to drive out to the trailhead and give it a go.

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looking up at the cloudy peaks in Cerro Castillo on the way over…

Well, after 2.5 hours along the Carretera Austral we were ready to get started. Or not… “The trail is closed today,” the friendly locals told us. “Well, if you want to die, you can go up there.” Apparently an imminent storm was bringing 100kph winds and snow with freezing temperatures. So we had to settle with some views from along the highway and we returned, tails tucked, to Coyhaique. So much for paying to rent this car!

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no hike today.

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We attempted to make the most of our day by hiking up into the hills near our container-home later that afternoon. Based on Manuel’s description I figured we could hit a nearby summit, but it wasn’t long before we were thwarted by fences and really tenacious burrs. Well… not everyone has the same idea of what makes for a good long hike, I guess. Still really beautiful, though.

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the wind was cranking through these fields, making them ripple

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Our challenging day ended with losing power from the high winds moving in. Turns out that being in a shipping container with all six sides exposed to the wind (they’re raised up on concrete blocks) gets cold quickly! After a cold chicken and pasta dinner we cozied up, jackets on, to reach a better day.

With one more day in Coyhaique and the weather still gusty and gray, we opted for an easy local hike in the nearby national park. While it didn’t have any epic Patagonian views, it was still a nice few hours through the hillside up to a series of clear ponds with fat trout swimming around.

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From Coyhaique we were headed next to the small town of Puerto Rio Tranquilo and a destination we were really excited for: the Glaciar Exploradores!