Leaving the boxed chocolates of Bariloche behind us, Rosie and I spent most of Valentine’s Day 2017 on a 30-hour bus ride to the northern end of Los Glaciares National Park in El Chalten, Argentina. The little town of El Chalten bills itself as the “National Trekking Capital” of Argentina and as such is host to all manner of backpacking-related sculptures, gear shops and breweries in addition to its several trailheads.
A gigantic wooden backpack in the National Trekking Capital?! It's like they were expecting us!
Arriving in town, one immediately notices the towering peaks of Cerro Fitz Roy beyond the rustic welcome sign if the weather is clear, and a severe lack of wifi indoors if the weather is not. In the Trekking Capital of Argentina, good weather means brilliant views and hikes, and bad weather means that you’re about to stress-test all of your gear. We experienced both of these extremes while in Los Glaciares National Park.
The National Park office in town was absolutely the most helpful of our entire South American experience- bilingual rangers, free maps, free camping spots and informational displays helped us to make a plan to hike into the park to the Laguna Capri campsite and pursue day hikes from there. There are longer circuit hikes in this part of the park, but we have learned that if we can base out of a centrally located spot we can see more of the park while carrying less weight. If you read our Nahual Huapi post, you know that this was a hard-fought lesson!
In a fabulous bit of luck, we discovered the El Super market in town right next to the café with free wifi and cheap empanadas (Café LoDayHee) where all manner of cooking and camping products are available in single serving sizes- single serving instant milk, olive oil, coffee, polenta… You know that you’ve been on the road for a while when you get excited for tiny packets of olive oil! We loaded up with the essentials, plus a few candy bars and headed off towards the Laguna Capri Campsite in the park.
Walking the final stretch of the street to the trailhead is a bit like exiting through the gift shop- cheap burger bars, camping goods stores and emapanada stands all beckon to the travelers heading out into the hills and we were nearly taken in several times… It’s a good thing our bags were already packed. Upon reaching the trailhead we picked up some hiking sticks that had been abandoned by returning hikers and began climbing. The wet and windy trail was surprisingly well maintained for being so heavily trafficked- the whole way up we were stepping to the side or passing other hikers, even though the weather was foul! There are many tour outfits that base out of the hotels in town and do a brisk business hiking folks into the park with a guide, 20 at a time. This makes for some interesting trail dynamics as one is trying to make it to a campsite before the rain gets too bad while having to wait for a train of day trekkers.
The first few miles out of town wound up through the forest and past several vistas of the foggy valley below us, ascending gradually for several hours until it finally came to Laguna Capri, a muddy crowded site overlooking the stunning lake Capri with Mt Fitz Roy towering overhead. Pitching our tent at the edge of the camp we almost had a view over the lake, which coupled with the fact that we only had one neighbor made the spot pretty prime.
Not posing for a gear ad, just hiking up a valley to our campsite!
Pasta by Laguna Capri- we might cook the same thing every night, but at least the scenery is always different!
To say that it rained that night and the next day is a bit of an understatement… We had hiked up and made camp in a drizzle, but it poured that night and into the next day, only slacking off a bit in the afternoon before it roared up in earnest the second night. But we were there and not ready to spend an entire day in the tent, so in the morning we put on our rain suits and went out to see whatever was visible! It was interesting seeing who else was out on the drowned trails- a mix of prepared and goretex-bedecked trekkers out for an adventure, and soaked jeans-wearing people hiking back into town to dry out.
Walkway over the flooded valley; Fitz Roy was supposedly somewhere in the background...
We stomped through mud, across bridges over raging glacial rivers and finally to our favorite spot of the day, a wooden log walkway over a flooded grass field. The grass was bent under the heavy rains and clear streams ran all through it, but around us the valley was mostly empty and silent except for the falling rain. Heavy clouds obscured all of the surrounding peaks, but every now and then a bright white glacier would glare through the fog bank, giving a sort of depth to the grey walls all around us.
No crowds in this rainy valley!
The other half of our super-cool matching rain ensemble! (And some unbelievably clear water!)
Back at camp that night we cooked under our rain fly and entertained ourselves with car games in the tent, even though we had to shout over the noise of water pounding against the fly. Our shoes had been soaked and our rain jackets were nearly wet all the way through so it was a real challenge finding covered space to lay everything out so it could (sort of) dry. The camp itself had no covered area and only a couple pit toilets, so everyone was confined to their tent, making it a much quieter than it had been the night before. Rather than watching the sun set over Fitz Roy, we ate a substantial amount of our chocolate while huddled down in our sleeping quilt and listened to podcasts until we fell asleep. It was a rich day for seeing a quieter side of the park, but still challenging and a task to remain in good spirits despite the fact that it felt as if much of our essential gear was wet.
Cheesy pasta (again) and twinkle lighting can go a long way towards raising one's spirits
The next morning dawned clear and windy and the small beach area in front of the lake filled with campers spreading out their soaked rain flies, sleeping bags and other waterlogged items. With just an hour or so of sun and breeze, our gear was dried out and our spirits lifted, so we set off on the same hike as the previous day to see the same views, but perhaps a little more clearly. This time, the clouds lifted up out of the valley and in addition to the valley of clear streams and flooded grass we saw the jagged peaks of Fitz Roy and the ominous hanging glaciers that growled all around it. We made it out to the Piedras Blanca view of one of the glaciers and marveled at the ferocious wind while enjoying some lunchtime empanadas (we packed these up from the café in town- heavy on the way up, but worth it with every bite!).
Same valley, completely different view
Fueled by Empanadas
Important wind-monitoring work on the trail
Our last night at Laguna Capri was by far the most social- with everyone tired of looking at the inside of their tents, we made friends with a large group of American and Italian backpackers and spent the evening swapping stories and travel tips until the stars came out.
We rose early on our final morning to see the sun break over Fitz Roy and despite the freezing winds and bitter cold, were amazed to see the massif turn gold, then pink and finally back to grey as the sun rose over the opposite horizon. We then hiked back into town and boarded our bus to the southern section of the park for an entirely different experience- the tourist town of El Calafate and the Perito Moreno glacier.
The early bird gets the shot (and frozen toes!)
The other town that many tourists use to access Los Glaciares National Park is the tourist destination of El Calafate, an opportunistic hub
of set-meal restaurants, exorbitant tour agencies and numerous well-kept hostels- if only we had booked one before we arrived.
In a bit of truly unfortunate luck, we arrived in El Calafate at 9 o clock at night in the middle of a 3-day national music festival. Every
hotel room was booked, every hostel bunk filled and every Airbnb listing full. With our backpacks on, we incredulously walked from hostel to hostel only to find every single one full. Hours passed and midnight rolled around as we desperately searched the town for a
single safe place to pitch the tent or even an expensive room to be revealed. We walked from one end of town and back again on a tip that
perhaps there was a gymnasium to camp.
At one point, we spotted another backpacker stealing wifi outside of a café and asked him where he was sleeping. “The bus station,” he told us, “there were about 6 of us there last night.” We eventually walked to the music festival itself, a thumping blitz of lights on the edge of town, hoping to camp in their overflow area. There, around 1am, we learned of a municipal lot where we could camp. Backtracking across town we eventually stumbled in around 2am and were allowed to set up our tent. The other campers played guitar and sang deep into the night, but we were so delirious and exhausted that as soon as our travel pillows were inflated we passed right out.
But why, you ask, would you go to all this trouble for a tacky tourist town? The answer is that an hour and a half outside El Calafate is the Perito Moreno Glacier (in the park), a massive and dramatic monolith of ice that seems to monopolize superlatives (longest in South America, most famous in Patagonia, part of the 3rd largest reserve of fresh water in the world, etc). There are tour companies in El Calafate that offer set trips complete with guides and crampons for walking on the ice, but what we were there for was to watch the glacier shed ice into the bay that surrounds it. The glacier itself is in a steady state (neither advancing nor retreating) making it a rarity in the world, and make watching the huge walls shed ice feel a little bit less morbid.
Perito Moreno Glacier (or at least a bit of it)
We booked round-trip tickets to Perito Moreno through Cal-Tour in the bus station (where we did NOT have to sleep- high five!) and rose early the next morning for the excursion. The bus takes you through the park entrance station where we paid an entry fee (strange because we didn’t have to pay one in El Chalten) and to the viewing station, a network of metal walkways opposite the glacier that afford numerous places to watch the ice fall.
At first, you just hear it. A thunderous, growling, crashing noise comes booming off the wall of ice, and as you turn to see where it is coming from, chunks of ice the size of tractor trailers detach from the glacier, and as if in slow motion, tumble and turn and disappear into the milky water below, leaving only an echo behind.
The view never stayed the same for long because pieces of ice kept falling off!
Of course it was raining
Standing on the walkways opposite the glacier, the effect is exhilarating and terrifying all at once, huge in sound and arresting in sight, creating suspense with every creak and grind as the ice shifts. We stood for hours in the drizzle, watching the massive blue wall change by the hour. Icebergs bobbed in the water at the wall’s base and waves rose and fell with the wind. Even as we boarded the bus back towards town, we could hear the ice falling: unpredictable, exciting and full of drama, much like our time in Los Glaciares National Park.
Glacier Further! (Ever Glacier?)
Los Glaciares National Park, By the Numbers
Entrance Fee in El Calafate: $5,000 Chilean Pesos per person
Entrance Fee in El Chalten: Free if you just walk in!
Glaciers Actually Seen in Los Glaciares: 4 total, but one of them should count like, 3 times
Wake Up for Sunrise on Cerro Fitz Roy At: 6:45 AM
Time the Sun Actually Hit Fitz Roy: 7:30 AM (by which time we were frozen)
Average Space Between Tents at Laguna Capri Campground: 2 feet
Do Those Guys Loudly Playing Guitar at 2am Actually Know All the Words to 'La Bamba': Sadly, No.