After deciding to pass on vagabonding down Chile’s Carretera Austral in the interest of time, I found my way to the Argentine border via bus, ferry, and a 9 mile (15km) road walk.
There are two buses per night from Los Antiguos, Argentina to the “national trekking capital” and tourist magnet of El Chaltén. One leaves after midnight for the ten hour ride, but I bought passage on the much more reasonable 8 o’clock departure.
After a few days waiting out storms and trying to figure out my plan in Coyhaique, where there are few foreigners, it was a bit of a (welcome) shock to be speaking English with other westerners. I’ve admittedly been tired of meeting endless parades of 19 year old university students, and enjoyed the opportunity to talk with people in their mid to late 20s. We just have a lot more in common.
While waiting for the bus at the minuscule terminal, we swapped travel stories. Many of us were departing the Carretera Austral because of a lack of transportation options. I heard stories of being trapped in villages for two or three days trying to hitch a ride out of town, which made me think I made a good choice with my limited time left in Patagonia. I did have over three weeks until I meet my father in El Calafate, but I wanted to hit up the Fitz Roy Range, Tierra del Fuego, and Torres del Paine National Park beforehand. The Argentine side of Patagonia is much drier than its Chilean counterpart, which is often verdant rainforest. Ruta 40, Argentina’s relatively famous Patagonian Highway, dips in and out of impressive views of the snowcapped Andes while traversing the flat, desert-like and deserted steppe. Many of the towns, spread far apart, have dozens of sheep per person.
Usually South American long distance buses are surprisingly comfortable, but this bus seemed to be the exception. Being short had the advantage that I was able to curl up on the seats on the mostly empty bus, with no locals onboard, but the bumpy gravel road wasn’t terribly conducive to sleep.
At 6am the lights came on. “El Chaltén!” the driver yelled, running out to dump all our bags on the sidewalk of the terminal. We groggily made our way out, and I collected my bag and then put in my contacts on the pavement. After half an hour, with the sun just starting to peak up above the horizon, the terminal was opened and the lovely restrooms were finally in reach. They even had toilet paper, a rare luxury in South America. I stocked up my supply and then approached the info desk to inquire about hiking maps.
“Just take a photo of it,” the attendant said without looking up from her phone. The map she pointed to seemed nice, and I wanted a physical copy, but I figured with how popular and developed this place was rumored to be that I’d be fine.
El Chaltén has a permanent population of only around 500 or so, and was founded in part as a claim against Chile during 20th century border disputes. Nowadays it’s a major tourist draw, with a labyrinth of trails remarkably well set up to facilitate both day hikes and longer multi-day treks.
I opted to connect all the day hikes plus a more remote area to form a four night trek at the base of the Fitz Roy Range, mostly in Los Glaciares National Park (further to the south in the same park is the Perito Moreno Glacier outside of El Calafate, another major attraction that I’ll be visiting with my father in late March). Park entrance is free, the trails are easy and well maintained, and camping inside the park is at no cost. The camping areas, often just a sheltered forested area with a well maintained pit toilet, were often noisy at night. Typical for Argentina, and much to the chagrin of the rest of us, Argentinians would lug stereos up the trails and blast music until late at night.
The wind was often fairly strong in the night and it usually rained at least a couple hours between dusk and dawn. But the sky cleared up each frigid morning, and I was lucky enough to see some of the most incredible alpine vistas. Large slabs of granite helped my tent stay up during the storms. While at Laguna de los Tres I became engrossed in a podcast about a woman who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, followed by the Continental Divide and Appalachian Trails. The same order I’ve been doing the trails. While listening and admiring the view a woman came up and told me I shouldn’t jump off the edge. Which I wasn’t planning on doing, but the sentiment was nice. While camped at a tranquil, private campground outside the park near Lago Eléctrico I took a couple hours to walk to the nearby Southern Patagonian Ice Field. Popular with climbers, it’s one of the windiest places in the world. I walked until I could see the edge of the massive glacier and can attest that it truly is quite windy, even off the ice.
Now, off the trail, I’m luxuriating in a tea parlor in Punta Arenas, on the Straits of Magellan. Tomorrow I’ve got a bus ticket to Ushuaia, in Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego: el fin del mundo (the end of the Earth).