Just Two [Guest] Bros do Autumn in Patagonia
#JustTwoBrosTravel wannabes Ali B and DougBee took a trip to Patagonia this spring (fall) and we are stoked to share it all. Read on for all the good, the bad, the views and the critters that this region has to offer!
Patagonian summers run from November through early March and are definitely the most popular time to visit the region. But, if you can brave the clouds and cold temps of autumn in Patagonia, you’ll be rewarded with the drop-dead views of the fiery trees against harsh snow-capped peaks.
We wound up in Patagonia in autumn by chance due to a hectic work schedule occupying all of the southern hemisphere summer, but we absolutely recommend it. You can get a pretty good taste of both Argentinean and Chilean Patagonia in two weeks, but the more time you have to spend, the better the opportunity you’ll have to catch some of the iconic views.
Getting There and Around
To get to Chilean Patagonia, you fly into Punta Arenas (PUQ) through Santiago. There are frequent buses that run from the airport into the city of Punta Arenas, ~25 min, which was by far the biggest city we encountered in Patagonia. We spent an afternoon and evening there before our flight out and that was more than enough time to see all there was to see. Alternatively, there are buses running straight from PUQ to Puerto Natales – the Gateway to Torres Del Paine – that take ~2 hours. We took Bus Sur because you could buy tickets in advance, but there are other options available at the airport.
For Argentinean Patagonia, it is better to fly into the El Calafate Airport (FTE) through Buenos Aires. Once there, make your way over to the bus station, and you will find booths for various bus companies that can get you to Torres Del Paine (only Always Glaciars), Perito Moreno Glacier, and El Chalten. We used Chalten Travel to get to El Chalten, but found ourselves wandering around El Calafate for four hours waiting out the lag between the 13:00 and 18:00 bus services.
Buses between the two major hiking destinations of Torres Del Paine National Park and Parque Nacional Los Glaciares are non-existent. Buses between Puerto Natales and El Calafate, however, are readily available, and from there you can reach TDP and El Chalten.
Notes about flights:
- If you’re planning to hit both Chile and Argentina in one trip, we recommend looking at multi city flights into one country and out of another. The bus trip from Punta Arenas to El Calafate takes an entire day that is better spent hiking in the mountains.
- Travelers flying to PUQ from the US have a good chance of flying through Lima, where the runways close at night – so beware of delays getting out. We spent a lovely night in the airport lounge there – courtesy of Chase Priority Pass. The good news – free booze and more comfortable chairs. The bad news – they wake you up every two hours to check back in even when there is no line to get in.
Notes about buses:
- For summer, we read in our research that it was recommended to book buses in advance. We did not find this to be necessary in April. Each bus we took had a few extra seats available. The problem with booking bus tickets in advance is that the schedules aren’t always perfect, and sometimes you wind up waiting more time for your scheduled bus than if you could just hop on a bus with another company.
- The buses between Puerto Natales and El Calafate took a couple of hours less than listed on the ticket. I suppose they build in some fat for border crossings, but we arrived at each bus station a couple of hours early and then were forced to wait for our pre-booked bus. If you get stranded in El Calafate, La Zorra was a nearby tap house with a good beer selection, strong WiFi, and tasty French fries.
- Bus companies take random days off of routes mid-week at certain times of year. We had to adjust our travel plans to accommodate the fact that buses from Puerto Natales to El Calafate don’t run on Thursdays in April.
Places to Stay
Punta Arenas – We stayed at Hostel Keoken before our flight home. It was clean and the old gentleman who ran it was friendly, but it was very quiet. We don’t recommend it for solo travelers looking to meet pals to go out with.
Puerto Natales – We tried out Refugio Hoshken and Hostel Melinda on the front and back ends of our time in Chile. Refugio Hoshken was friendly and young, and had amazing fresh bread at breakfast. It wasn’t ridiculously well-kept, and we had issues sleeping because our windows didn’t shut, but flapped all night in the roaring Patagonian winds. Hostel Melinda was advertised on booking.com as a hostel but was really a private room in a cluttered elderly couple’s home. Melinda and her husband were friendly enough, but the place was dirty and outdated enough that we would advise against it. While trying to escape our quarters at Hostel Melinda, we stopped in for a drink at Wild Hostel and were immediately disappointed we weren’t sleeping there. For around the same price, Wild offered amenities more inline with the HI hostels we were used to staying at.
El Calafate – We stayed at Del Glaciar Libertador Hostel and Suites in El Calafate. We booked day of, and it was empty in mid-April, but was clean, friendly, had good breakfast and was right by our favorite late night bar, La Zorra (was packed when we left at 1AM on a Wednesday). There are a few other places right near the bus station that looked clean and updated, but they put you a good walk away from any kind of food or nightlife.
El Chalten – Rancho Grande. Rancho Grande. Rancho Grande. Thou shalt stay here if traveling to El Chalten. Rancho (owned by HI) is amazing. It is cheap (like 5-star hotel quality bed and a clean private bath for $60). The staff is friendly. It’s packed year round with tons of solo and group travelers. They have a 24 hour bar and restaurant. The drawback is that it is on the opposite side of town from the bus station (granted you can walk the entire length of the town in 15 minutes) and that in busy season you definitely need an advanced reservation, especially for the private rooms. Being on the far side of town puts it right next to the Senda A Fitz Roy for the hike to Laguna de Los Tres. There are a couple of other hostels that we passed along the main drag between the bus station and Rancho Grande for spillover during busy season, but these were damn near abandoned in April.
Notes about hostels:
- We never felt unsafe at any of the places that we stayed, nor really anywhere in Patagonia.
- Many of the hostels, particularly in Chile, were cash only.
- The difference in cost between a dorm bed and a private room was minimal almost everywhere we went, so if you’re traveling with a SO or just want your own bathroom, splurge a little.
- Be careful with sites like Booking and Hostel World for this region. A lot of the listings were private rooms in people’s homes. We recommend booking places established enough to have their own web pages or hostels owned by the HI group.
- If you stay at the same hostel before and after a circuit hike, you can leave non-essentials locked up at the hostel to decrease your pack weight.
We completed the W-Trek in Torres Del Paine (would have liked to do the full O-Circuit, but it closes each year for winter on March 31), the Huemel Circuit in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, and shorter hikes to views of the Cuerno del Paine, Cerro Torre and Monte Fitz Roy. In general, we preferred the hiking in Argentina to Chile as the increased difficulty of terrain and campsite conditions deterred the hoards of people who flock to Torres Del Paine.
The W-Trek is one of the most famous and well-known hikes in the world. There are some amazing views, just know that you will be sharing them with some guided tour groups, glampers, and a thousand of your closest friends. Doing the circuit requires advance booking either a bunk in the refugios along the trek or reserving a campsite. If you’ve got the gear and are willing to haul it, you can save quite a bit of money here. The refugios run about 5-10X the cost of camping.
The W can be hiked in either direction, beginning at either the Torres or Glacier Grey. We recommend beginning at Grey, to give your self more time on the back-end of the hike to catch a glimpse of the Torres. To get to the Grey campsite, you can either take the Lago Grey Ferry, which leave from Hotel Lago Grey, or you can take the Pudeto Catamaran to Paine Grande and hike up to the Grey Campsite from there. To get to each of these departure points, you’ll need to take the bus or a private transfer from Puerto Natales to Torres Del Paine, which drops you at the Laguna Amarga stop. Then you hop on a separate shuttle from there. The buses from PN to TDP can usually be booked in advance, but the Amarga to Pudeto bus tickets cannot ahead of time. We were traveling to the park on Easter Sunday and weren’t able to find a bus scheduled that day before we got to town so we booked a private transfer that was overpriced, but took only about 1.5 hours to get to the park.
Our transfer picked us up around 6:30, which got us to the park right when they opened at 8AM. The positive side to this was that we didn’t have to wait in lines at the park entrance, which we heard could be horrible later in the day. The negative was that basically our entire drive to the park was in the dark, which took away from the views and also thrust a bunch of nocturnal South American rabbits into our driving path. So our W-Trek began with the grand omen of our driver nailing a giant rabbit with our van, on Easter Sunday. Clearly off to a good start.
Once into the park it was about a 15 minute drive to the Pudeto bus stop. We recommend getting to Pudeto a couple of hours before the catamaran leaves to hike to the Mirador Cuernos. The Cuerno often takes the back seat to the Torres as the most iconic mountain in Torres Del Paine, but it was one of our favorite parts views. Bonus, if you get there early, you’ll find yourself with a private beach along the lake at the base of the Cuerno. The moody weather the morning we were there made it even more breathtaking.
If you need to shave a day off of your time at Torres del Paine, we found day 1 was the best place to do it. We started at Pudeto and took the Catamaran to Paine Grande. This got us there around noon, and we were able to set up our camp for the night and head up to glacier grey carrying only our daypacks. This leg of the hike was very low difficulty (especially with just a day pack), and while the views were nice, they were the least impressive of the trip. There are a couple of viewpoints overlooking glacier grey that may be great on a clear day, but don’t offer much on a foggy day like we had. One of the downfalls of TDP and being required to reserve campsites in advance is that if you have bad weather and miss a view you won’t be able to see it until your next trip to Patagonia. There are a couple of hanging bridges a little past the Grey campsite that offer great photo-ops of the glacier in good weather.
Paine Grande was the windiest, most exposed campsite we experienced in Torres Del Paine. Almost every campsite that we came upon was strewn with large rocks that previous campers had used to weight down their tents. Use these. It would be a huge bummer to have your tent ripped to smithereens by the wind on day 1 of a trek. The Paine Grande campsite has a kitchen shared by the campers and refugio users that we used as a haven to cook and dry out clothes after a rainy day of hiking. Oriented facing the east, Paine Grande was also the best campsite for sunrise views in the morning.
We packed up and made breakfast around sunrise each morning to get out ahead of the guided trekking groups. I would strongly recommend this since there are some narrow points on the trail that make it hard to pass. From Paine Grande, you walk along Lago Pehoe for a little ways before getting back into the trees. Throughout the overcast morning that we fought on this day of the trek, we were rewarded views of single and double rainbows reaching over the lake.
The walk from Paine Grande to the next camp can range from 2.5-5 hours depending on which campsite you choose. You’ll encounter Italiano first, followed by Frances, and finally Cuernos. We had pre-booked at Frances, but recommend Italiano over either of the latter options as it prevents you from having to back track 1-4 hours to get into Valle Frances after dropping your bags at camp. Frances was ~30 minutes walk past the base of Valle Frances and Cuernos was 1.5-2 hours past. The hike through Valle Frances to Mirador Britanico was significantly steeper than the hike up to Grey, and was our first experience with the intense Patagonian winds. Mirador Britanico is the center tip of the W, and the highest point on the Trek, which also makes it a likely point to experience weather. We were torn between pressing on and turning back for the entirety of our hike up to Britanico, and eventually continued on to the top to find our selves socked in by storm clouds. This was a huge disappointment to us – photos of this valley on a clear day are perhaps the most impressive of the entire trek.
We trudged back down to camp amidst a rainstorm and finally found ourselves back at Frances to set-up around dusk to set up camp. Setting up here proved a little more difficult that Paine Grande since all of the tent camping spots were atop wooden platforms. We recommend bringing extra rope/stakes for this, as you’ll need to get creative with how you tie down your tent. Luckily, you’re on a side of the mountain sheltered from the wind, but it is still good to weight down your tent ropes and fly with any large rocks that you can find.
Frances did not have a sheltered kitchen for campers to use, but there is a covered area the size of a pop-up tent where they prefer that you cook. It did however, have some of the nicest restrooms we encountered along the W. There were quite a few showers (which we can’t comment on because who wastes time showering on a 4-day trek) and ample space to hang wet clothes to dry out. Overnight drying of our hiking boots and clothes became a common theme during our time in TDP. Frances was the first campsite where we saw mention of mice, so we avoided eating on our tent platform, and we didn’t have any issues with them.
The next morning, we kicked off around sunrise again to begin our longest full backpack hike of the trek, from Frances to Central. We finally got a sunny day, and enjoyed sweeping views of the turquoise Lago Nordenskjold for almost the entire day. Compared to the pack hiking of the previous day, this leg of the trek was generally longer and had more elevation gain/loss. We were still able to get to Central by about 2PM with a scenic lunch stop at a high point overlooking the lake.
The alternative to camping at Central is to either camp or stay at Refugio Chileno. Camping at Chileno will cost you a bonus 2-3 hours up a steep slope carrying your pack in addition to $96 per tent camper per night compared to $8 per night at Central. The reward, however, is being only about a 1.5-hour hike from your camp to the Torres, which buys you an extra couple of hours of sleep if you’re trying to catch the Torres at sunrise. With our normal 5AM workweek alarms, we decided two hours of our sleep wasn’t worth the extra $180 and set a 4AM alarm to catch the sunrise.
Getting to Central early gave us a couple of options for how we wanted to spend our afternoon. We discussed making an attempt at the Torres, but with the afternoon cloud cover rolling in, and our ambition to hit it early the next morning for sunrise, we decided to just hang around camp instead. We did some crossword puzzles, made some more progress on the $11 fifth of scotch we had carried with us from Puerto Natales and turned in early.
The next morning we woke up a little before 4AM and backtracked the end of our prior day’s hike to pick up the trail to the Torres. Despite our experience with the rabbits on our first morning, we hadn’t thought much about what types of wildlife we would encounter this early in the morning. First was a coyote, which we were able to avoid by going off path 50 feet or so in a big field. Our next encounter was with a more aggressive fox which we were finally able to scare from our path by throwing some big rocks. In these first couple of pre-daylight hours, we did not encounter any other humans. Apparently no one else staying at Central was ambitious enough to make the sunrise haul. After about two hours of climbing we got to Chileno, where we found a few other humans ready to tackle the sunrise hike. The trail to the Torres was roped off until after dawn, but we could see numerous headlamps bobbing up and down in the distance so we risked it and went under. The last 1.5-2 hours of hiking was decently steep, but was really only difficult because of the lack of visibility. When we got up to the base of the Torres we saw 8-10 other people who had beat us up there. We found a quiet spot and made coffee and oatmeal while we waited for the sunrise.
The sunrise at the Torres is famous for creating an intense amber glow on the granite towers, which unfortunately wasn’t the case on this day. The view was still well worth the wake-up, and we were thrilled with our decision to do the sunrise hike when the clouds began rolling in on our hike back down.
The hike back down felt like a totally different trek actually being able to see.
The Valle Torres had some of the most spectacular fall colors of our entire trip.
We got back to our camp at Central, broke down our tent and discovered that for the first time all trip, we had been “moused”. Throughout Torres del Paine, and any frequented campsites in the region, they warn of mice, but we had been lucky enough to this point not to encounter any. Luckily, we had slept with our packs outside of the tent, so they were not snuggling up to us. Our backpacker meals were not so fortunate. The little guys chewed a hole into every single Mountain House brand backpacker meal we had brought with us (they could not chew through Backpackers Pantry’s thicker bags, so go with those!). This meant also chewing holes in the pack that contained the Mountain House meals. And our water filter. And trekking pole handles. And bladder mouthpieces. From here we took every effort to keep them out of our food and our stuff, and despite this they became increasingly more present…
W-Trek –> Puerto Natales –> El Calafate –> El Chalten
Starting around lunch, buses run each hour from the Torres Hotel/Central campsite to the Laguna Amarga entrance to the park. From there you can hop on a bus back to Puerto Natales. We didn’t pre-book, but were able to hop on a fairly crowded Bus Sur bus. Be sure to have cash for paying for buses as you hop on.
We got back to Puerto Natales and celebrated the end of an overall successful trek with some Cerveza Austral and pizza at Mesita Grande. After a celebratory meal, we embarked on an adventure to purchase more backpacker meals to replace those that had been moused. This was a depressing venture. We had noticed things in Chile being pricey, especially when compared to other places in South America, but backpacker meals ran about $17 here. We had read that options in El Chalten would be limited so we sucked it up and re-stocked.
The next morning we caught a 7AM Bus Sur bus to El Calafate. The bus was scheduled to run from 7AM to 2PM, but ended up getting us to El Calafate around 12:30, even with the Chile to Argentina border crossing (which was very much no big deal). The buses from El Calafate to El Chalten run at 1PM and 6PM, and we had pre-booked tickets for the 6PM anticipating a 2PM arrival in El Calafate. Thinking it would be no big deal to change ticket times to the 1PM bus, we went to the counter and were quickly shot down. Annoyed, but knowing we now had a few hours to kill, we walked into town, grabbed a beer at La Zorra and indulged in some free WiFi. El Calafate was also a good place to stock up on Argentinian pesos and grocery supplies. We splurged on some Milka chocolate covered Oreos and Vat 69 ($12USD) scotch that served as pick me ups in the low points of the trek to come.
We got on our 6PM El Chalten Travel bus from El Calafate to El Chalten and got in around 9PM. On the drive in we caught our first glimpse of Fitz Roy looking out over his kingdom. We didn’t know at that time that it would be one of only two times we saw this shy mountain over the next 9 days.
Rancho Grande hostel is a 15 min walk from the bus station in El Chalten. The staff was amazing and the beer was cheap so we grabbed a drink at the 24-hr restaurant attached to the hostel and worked out our plan for the coming days before falling into the most comfortable sleeping arrangements of the trip.
We had a relaxing first morning in El Chalten after making the call that we wouldn’t begin the Huemel Circuit until the next day based on the weather. We opted instead for the light hike to Laguna Torre – which on a rare clear day offers the best up close view of Cerro Torre. Apparently this shy mountain doesn’t come out to play much in the fall because we made it the entire trip without seeing it. This hike was very easy and because of that is often packed with tourists. With no Cerro Torre, you’re basically just hiking to a mud-colored lagoon. You do get to see a lot of icebergs, which is a plus, but probably not worth the time on anything but a bluebird day. We were back from the 8-mile round trip hike before 11AM after starting around 8AM. Highlight of the morning was running into one of our favorite WA-state based Instagram photographers @moonmountainman who had just finished up the Huemel Circuit.
We spent the rest of the afternoon getting our ducks in a row to start the Huemel the next morning. This involved registering for our free permits with the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares Ranger Office – you should do this the day before you want to leave because the office doesn’t open until 9 or 10AM. The fact that you have to provide your health insurance information and whether or not you have “helicopter coverage” should probably deter the less than prepared from doing this trek. In order to receive your permit you also must bring a climbing harness, length of rope, and 1 steel + 1 aluminum carabiner with you to the ranger station. We rented them from an outdoors shop in town for ~$45USD each for four days. These are required for the trek since there are a couple of stream crossings in which a Tyrolean Traverse (zip-line type cable/pulley system) is necessary to get across. These were intimidating to read about in other travel blogs, but were some of the most fun and challenging portions of the trek.
Having done everything we could to prepare for beginning the trek in the morning, we did what #JustTwoBros do best, and found a bar. Actually quite a few bars. Because they all have a happy hour. El Chalten loves Happy Hour. Our favorite was La Vineria, which had cocktail and beer deals in addition to wine, as well as HUGE charcuterie platters for the equivalent of $10USD. We also frequented Bourbon Bar (so American it was basically America) for strong late night cocktails on the walk back to Rancho Grande. For dinners in El Chalten your options are limited in the spring/winter/fall. We spent a couple of meals at Ahonikenk which featured cheap pizza, schnitzel, crispy french fries and pinguinos of cheap red wine (that’s wine by the liter poured from the mouth of a penguin shaped carafe). Ali B loves schnitzel and DougBee loves cheap food in large quantities so everyone won. One thing to watch out for at these and any other establishments in El Chalten – many places are cash only, and if they aren’t cash only, their credit card machine is probably broken, so they are cash only.
The Huemel Circuit
Quick insight on this trek – it’s called the “Huemel Circuit” because it literally walks in a circle around Cerro Huemel, a large not-so-famous but still very pretty mountain in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Cerro Huemel is named after a small Andean deer (the huemel) that we, and many others before us, managed to go our whole trip without seeing.
We got up before daybreak (daylight hours in April are ~8AM-7PM) to make our way towards the trailhead for the Huemel Circuit, which happens to be at the visitor center where you receive your permit. From there you start climbing, giving an initial view overlooking El Chalten before heading into some woods. Day 1 of the trek takes you from El Chalten to Laguna Toro with an optional stop at Loma del Pligue Tumbado along the way. Loma roughly translates into “pretty hill” and on a clear day, this pretty hill offers some pretty unbeatable views of Fitz Roy.
The detour probably added 2-3 hours to our first day overall, but it was absolutely worth it. Side note for people not doing the Huemel, Loma del Pligue Tumbado can be done as a day hike in ~6 hours or faster without a pack. On our hike up to Loma the clouds started to clear, and we camped out for an hour or so at the top until the shy mountain finally revealed itself. After descending back to the Huemel Circuit trail, we had about three hours of minimal ascent before descending into a valley that housed Laguna Toro. Before the descent, you stumble upon the best view of Cerro Huemel of the entire circuit, just to remind you that you are indeed going to be walking around the hulking beast.
The descent to Laguna Toro passes quickly despite being able to see the camp in the distance for the last hour or so of the day’s trek. The campsites on the Huemel are a far cry from the boujee accommodations encountered on the W-Trek in Torres del Paine, but they get the job done. There are camping spots built-in to the side of the mountain, sheltered from the wind by piles of rock and branches created by campers over time. We didn’t have any issues with the wind in this portion of the trek. This was the beginning of the end however in DougBee’s tolerance for small rodents. There are mice EVERYWHERE at every campsite throughout the trek. Literally everywhere. And the little bastards don’t wait until you were blissfully unaware in your tent before coming out either. We spent the night constantly waking each other up from one person hearing, seeing, or subliminally feeling a mouse – the most terrifying being seeing a little body and tail crawling between the tent and the rain fly above our faces.
After an exhausting first day and minimal nights sleep (thanks again mice) we embarked on our second day of the trek. From the weather forecasts we checked on our last night at Rancho Grande, we knew we had two nice days ahead of us before temperatures dropped below freezing and snow settled in on the mountain passes. For that reason, we made the difficult and extremely ambitious decision to conquer days 2 and 3 (indisputably the hardest two days of the circuit) in one. While this was necessary in our circumstance, we definitely don’t recommend this course of action particularly in a time of year with less than 12 hours of daylight.
Despite the pressure of knowing we had a long day ahead, this was one of the most amazing days of hiking of our lives. About 30 minutes into the day’s hike, we encountered the first Tyrolean Traverse, crossing a raging canyon stream without touching a drop of water. After that, we were officially awake.
After the crossing, you hike along rock for a little while as some huge glaciers, including one that you’ve got to walk on, come into view. Walking on glaciars without proper gear is terrifying – you can hear the freezing water flowing below you and pieces break off every so often from random locations. We were only on the glacier for an hour or so, but we stayed as close to the edge as possible. We did take the opportunity to fill up all of our water supplies with the most refreshing water we’ve ever drank.
The trail kind of disappears while you’re on the glacier, but picks back up as you inch closer to the climb to Paso del Viento (windy pass – adequately named). The ascent to Paso del Viento is a moderate-to-difficult ascent, made more difficult by having the weight of a toddler on your back and knowing that you have to move quick or you may find yourself lost in the dark that evening. The trail is tough to follow at points in this spot, and there are a few false cairns that have been left by other hikers that got off trail. Take your time and follow the switch-backs and it isn’t too difficult. As you crest the top of the pass the wind hits you like a train at ~40 mph. It’s cold at the pass, but you barely feel it because you’re too enamored with the ice field that just popped into your view.
Say hello to a 180 degree view of the South Patagonian Ice Field, the third largest sheet of ice in the world. The hike to Paso del Viento via the Huemel is the only way to see more than a small chunk of this magnificent sheet of ice by foot (you can catch a small glimpse from the O-Circuit in Torres del Paine, but this is the best way to truly grasp it vastness). Spend as much time up here as your cold fingers can bear, then remind yourself that you’re going to spend the next 2-3 hours walking alongside this beauty.
In under an hour of hiking from the top of Paso del Viento, you come across what is intended to be the second campsite of the trek. Even if we weren’t planning to hike through to Lago Viedma in our second day, we reached this point around 1PM, so we would likely have continued on to the next camp we passed up, on the approach to Paso Huemel.
From the Paso del Viento campsite, the intensity of the hiking dies down for a couple of hours as you parallel the ice field. The trail is difficult to follow at points as you’re walking through a sort of alpine meadow, but with a mountain on your left and the ice field on your right, it’s hard to set off in the wrong direction.
As you start the slog up to Paso Huemel, soak up your final views of the South Patagonian Ice Field. You’ll pass another campsite, and then about an hour of pretty steep climbing separates you from damn near a 360 view of Lago Viedma and Glaciar Viedma. The start of the climb was the low point for morale on the circuit, as evidenced by the absence of DougBee’s camera for the remainder of the day. Knowing that we had about 3 hours until sundown to make it up more than 1500 feet followed immediately by dropping nearly 3000 feet in less than a mile wasn’t making us feel particularly warm and fuzzy.
The views of the lake were spectacular, but the skinny peninsula that promised our camp for the evening was even more beautiful. This descent is not for the weak-kneed, and our trekking poles quickly became our most valuable possessions for the couple of hours.
After a couple of hours of descent through steep rock and brush we stumbled into camp at dusk. As the only ones there, we had our pick of the ~10 campsites along the beach. There was an absence of small streams near the lake, so we filtered some water from Lago Viedma to cook with and drink the next day. With some backpacking meals (Backpacker’s Pantry you are a mouse-proof god-send) and some Vat 69 in our exhausted bellies, we were about ready to tuck ourselves into bed when another crew joined us at our camp. They were a ~30 year old and his parents of average to below average fitness. The son who spoke English told us of they were on their first night of the circuit, and planned to tackle the 50% grade descent in reverse the next day. We laughed to ourselves, warned of the mice, and went to bed, only to be awaken by some mouse-induced shrieks shortly after.
The final morning of the Huemel was a little disheartening, knowing all of the best views are behind you, but you’ve still got a roughly 15 mile haul back to town. We were dealt some spitting rain for the entirety of the day, but we counted our blessings when we looked back at the mountain and the torrential weather that was definitely happening up there. That poor, naive family hauling it to Paso Huemel.. There is one bout of excitement on the last day when you get to cross the second Tyrolean Traverse. This one is much longer and closer to the stream than the first, but also slightly less necessary, as the stream could have probably been traversed with water no higher than your waist.
The length of this traverse made it more difficult and after DougBee successfully traversed the stream, I battled with the rope getting caught on rocks halting my progress on four separate occasions before I finally made it to the promised side of the stream, broken down from the effort of the last couple of days. Moral of the story, keep your length of rope close up to you and out of the stream where the current will happily lodge it below a boulder and leave you + the 40 pound on your back dangling unable to advance your crossing.
From here, it is a couple of fairly flat, easy miles through fields along the water before you come across a parking lot for a Lago Viedma/Rio Tunel Glaciar boat tour. Right before you reach the lot you find yourself on the inside of a fenced in area, sharing your pasture with a herd of cattle. We walked/ran cautiously go off-trail to avoid walking into the middle of a crazy aggressive bull-fight. In other blog posts, we heard rumors about this parking lot being full of buses and cars to hitch the last few miles back to town in, but we found an empty lot – alas the hike continued. On the bright side, there was a bathroom here – which was something we hadn’t encountered since the ripe hole in the ground at the Laguna Toro campsite on day 1.
The bonus 5 miles through farm fields (fence hopping included!) and along the road had us wiped out by the time that we arrived back at the Rancho Grande by happy hour. Be advised that excessive drinking following a three-day calorie deficit will result in you getting shit faced, ending your night with a personal liter of beer and waking up with a wicked hangover. But hey, we had planned to be finishing the Huemel that morning, so we had a day of no obligations! We further explored everything there is to explore in El Chalten (which took about an hour), sent some post cards to mom and dad, and found some dank dulce de leche pastries at a panaderia on the main drag between the bus station and town.
Chorrillo del Salto day-hike
A 4-mile hike was about all we had in us after our days on the Huemel and the celebration that followed, so we evaluated hiking to Laguna Capri or Chorrillo del Salto. On an overcast day like we had, your odds of catching Fitz Roy at Laguna Capri are next to none, so we settled for the waterfall. It was less impressive than those we had seen in Costa Rica a few months back, but the fall colors enhanced the aesthetic.
Laguna de Los Tres day-hike
On our final day before we began the 3-bus journey back to Punta Arenas to fly back to the US, we were determined to get to Laguna de Los Tres. This is the lake immediately at the base of Fitz Roy that is the scene of countless gorgeous sunrise and reflection instagram posts. The view is an earned one, rewarded after about 8 miles of hiking including a steep climb for the last half mile or so.
The day we had slotted for this hike also happened to be the day of the first snow of the season in El Chalten. Sadly, the weather did not take away from the popularity of the trail, and the fresh snow mixed with hoards of humans made for a long, slippery adventure, particularly on the final ascent up to Laguna de Los Tres.
When we crested the final ridge up to Laguna de Los Tres, we were teased by the slight outline of where Fitz Roy should be looming, not 100 feet in front of us. We waited up top until we could wait no longer (or we would miss our 6PM Chalten Travel bus to El Calafate), but the clouds had moved in to stay. When we finally turned around, we saw blue skies reaching for miles away from our shy mountain friend.
On our last descent into El Chalten, we were a little bummed that we weren’t able to see as much of Fitz Roy or Cerro Torre as we had hoped, but we were still in awe of the harsh magic that was the contrast of the autumn colors against snow and granite. Our next trip to Argentinian Patagonia will be in the summer to catch Cerro Torre out to play, but there is a definitely case to be made for Patagonia’s autumnal beauty, availability/pricing of accommodations, and lack of crowds.