Patagonia – the Mecca for outdoor adventure enthusiasts. Its geographic extremeness beckons explorers, its endless wilderness calls to backpackers, and its iconic jagged peaks are legendary to mountaineers. When I figured out that I had three weeks of vacation time banked in the middle of winter, we turned to the southern hemisphere where it is in fact summer. Patagonia was what we settled on.
Our trip was spent in a few different remote, mountainous corners of southern Patagonia – Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, El Chalten and Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, and Tierra del Fuego. In between these destinations lie vast stretches of empty, flat deserts and grasslands with little to see or do. We crossed them with a combination of busses and hitchhiking. We were joined on various parts by friends from Florida that were on their own Patagonian adventures.
Immediately after arriving in Punta Arenas, we took a bus to Puerto Natales and met up with Jeff. This unamazing city is mostly a collection of hostels that act as a home base for exploring Torres del Paine National Park. The next day we hitchhiked into the park (we intended to go to El Chalten, but sometimes hitchhiking takes you to unintended places). This park is the most popular spot in southern Patagonia. The entrance fee is $33 per person (ouch!) It’s defined by the Cordillera Paine mountain range and its popular ‘W’ hike. We had planned to hike the W, but due to our hitchhiking mishap, were without food or supplies. Additionally, a brand new rule that we were unaware of was enacted in October requiring hikers to make camping reservations ahead of time. Instead we did a couple of short hikes (Salto Chico, Condor trail) and camped in the park. We tried to party it up on New Years eve in their glitzy hotel, but were thrown out for not being guests minutes before midnight. Instead we found ourselves sitting in darkness and quiet at the onset of 2017. After a couple days of exploring the area we decided to cut our losses and hitch a ride out. Jeff got a ride first and we lost him for a couple days. Eventually our thumbs were answered by a Swiss couple that was heading back to Puerto Natales and wanted to stop at every scenic pull-off or wildlife sighting along the way. That seemed reasonable, we took the ride.
After many hours on busses, we arrived in El Chalten, the gateway to Parque Nacional Los Glaciores. The city is smaller and more scenic than Puerto Natales. Rock walls surround the town and epic peaks loom in the distance. Like Natales, the streets are lined with hostels and restaurants. The park can be entered by foot at the edge of town – no bus required and no entrance fee. The cheapest hostel in town was $9 per person per day. Free camping was also plentiful within the national park and in random patches of woods on the edge of town. Staying here for a week cut down on our costs and gave us the chance to explore the park and hang out with other friends – Mike, Chelsea, and Tara.
The most popular activities there are the Fitzroy and Serro Torre hikes. They are crowded – we often had to wait on line to walk across bridges. But the views are spectacular. Both ended at bright blue glacial lakes (Lago de Las Tres and Lago Torre).
But after that we wanted to find some more remote parts of the park so we hiked out to Laguna Toro. We had intended to go from there on a circuit that would take us to the Patagonian ice field. But a raging river crossing thwarted us. We were pretty underprepared anyways. Instead we went off-trail and climbed up Cerro Nato from which we had an awesome view of Rio Tunel Inferior Glacier. We camped out at the Laguna Toro two nights and on the way back to town summited Lomo del Pliegue Tumado.
As pleasant and cheap as El Chalten was, after one week we decided we wanted a change of scenery and moved on. The journey to Tierra del Fuego was long. There was a 3.5 hour hitchhike ride to El Califate, a 4 hour bus ride to Rio Gallegos, and finally a grueling 12 hour bus ride that included two border crossings and a ferry. Most of this could have been avoided with a moderately priced flight from El Califate to Ushuaia, had we booked it a bit earlier. But then we would have missed out on all the fun.
Ushuaia is often called the ‘end of the world’ or the most southern city on Earth. It’s a port city situated on the Beagle channel. There’s a touristy district with cruise ships destined for Antarctica in port. There’s also a less touristy neighborhood with local culture that sprawls out from there. There were many hiking opportunities straight from our hostel into the surrounding mountains. Few days passed without rain showers, but luckily they are generally short and not torrential.
We hiked to Marital Glacier.
And then to Cerro del Medio.
We attempted the more advanced, three day Sierra Valdivesio Circuit with very limited success. It turns out the circuit is less of a marked trail and more of a grueling off-trail march through muddy bogs, thick vegetation, and climbing over dense mats of downed trees created by invasive beavers. We met a guy coming from the other direction that spent 4 days hiking it. He told us that it didn’t get any better from there and if we continued we would surely regret it and freeze on the mountain pass. We camped where we were and spent the night getting rained on. The next day we hiked back out and went back to Ushuaia, failing on yet another long hike. But I still had fun.
And as was promised to Kerry, we went on a tour to Gable Island to see penguins. A small sailboat took us within 25 feet of the giant magallenic penguin population as well as a single emperor penguin.
Before leaving Ushuaia, we spent a day hiking at Tierra del Fuego National Park.
The final leg of the trip was a long bus ride to Punta Arenas and a long series of flights back to the states. Patagonia is a place full of adventure. It has far more tourism and less culture than what I’ve found in other parts of Latin America, which was a bit of a disappointment. While it was expensive, we were able to cut costs by cooking our own meals, camping, and hitchhiking. On average, we spent $41 per person per day. While we had a great time, if you’re looking for South American mountain trekking I would probably recommend Peru over Patagonia.
Our trip looked something like this:
Manhattan -> Kansas City -> Boca Raton -> -> Lima -> Satiago -> Punta Arenas -> Puerto Natales -> Torres del Paines -> Puerto Natales -> El Califate -> El Chalten -> El Califate -> Rio Gallegos -> Ushuaia -> Punta Arenas -> Santiago -> Lima -> Miami -> Boca Raton -> Kansas City -> Manhattan