For hours and hours all I see is flat tussock fields stretching out to the horizon. Our journey through empty and deserted Patagonia has started about 26 hours ago in Argentina’s Lake District. By bus.
That Lake District is home to one of South America’s most scenic drives: Routa de los Siete Lagos (yes indeed, seven lakes) between San Martin de los Andes and Villa Agostura. A little further down South is Bariloche, one of Argentina’s top holiday destinations.
Taking on the advice of travellers that were following our route in the other direction, we chose San Martin de los Andes over Bariloche for a couple of days of relaxation before starting our Patagionian hiking days. Just like Bariloche, San Martin is a lakeside town that doubles as a winter sports destination. It is smaller and cozier than its better known brother situated at a 3,5 hour drive South although I have to admit most of the town is geared to tourism. San Martin also houses an incredible amount of boutique shops where chocolatiers tempering chocolate right behind the shop window had my mouth watering right away and lured me inside in seconds – I even succumbed to chocolate cake for dinner.
The town is located in a valley, wedged between lush green forested mountains at the mount of Lago Lácar. A boat trip to Quila Quina bay provided us with magnificent views of the glistening water and mountain forest surrounding us, and had us refueled for the longest bus trip we would probably ever make in our lives. First a short ride to Bariloche, then 24 hours in one stretch.
Faith, or perhaps just our lack of information, decided it was better for us to also explore Bariloche for a couple of days – the bus to Patagonia would only be leaving in three days’ time. Bariloche – San Carlos de Bariloche in full – turned out to be indeed more of a city than San Martin and is a bit of a potpourri of faux chalets, tourist shops and high-rise buildings. But to be honest, one of those high-rise buildings housed a hostel with incredible views over town and the lake, specifically enjoyable at night with a bunch of chocolates from one of the chocolate shops also abundant here. Although I preferred the atmosphere of the more picturesque San Martin de los Andes, I would definitely recommend to stay over in Bariloche and at least take in the magnificent view over the Nahuel Napi national park from Otto Hill (also accessible with a cable car).
So here we are – what was supposed to be a 24 hour bus ride has already arrived at its 26th hour. Our necks are sore of all the positions we’ve tried out to get a bit of sleep and although we are all set up with a small cushion and sleeping bag, the thought of the driver following a long straight and otherwise deserted road in the dark, is not very soothing.
That long stretch of tarmac is the famous Routa 40 (fondly referred to by Argentines as La Cuarenta), with its 5,000 kilometres (3,100 mi) one of the longest routes in the world. Although we are ‘only’ covering 1,400 km (870 mi), the road seems endless as it disappears on the horizon. That same horizon is what has separated endless tussock covered steppe from clouded skies for hours. But now a gigantic mountain formation comes into view: majestic Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy.
27 Hours after departure we finally set foot in Argentina’s hiking capital: El Chaltén. The small town is located within the boundaries of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares and is nothing more than the starting point of spectacular hikes. Mountaineers from all over the world travel all the way to Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre for some real challenging technical climbing, but we have been told by the books that the ‘regular’ hiking trails will also provide us with stunning views. We decide to start off the next morning with a trail that Rough Guides describe as “a strenuous hike which ascends sharply to a glacial lake with in-your-face views of Fitz Roy.” That sounds promising.
What a way to start the day! The town is quiet in the late morning and it feels special to leave the hostel and arrive at the start of the trail some minutes later. As soon as we walk up the hiking path we feel like we have entered another world. It is just us, and nature. Only fifteen minutes of walking brings us to a stunning viewpoint of the winding glacier river Rio de las Vueltas. As we continue the hike, clouded skies give way for a pastel blue colour, and by the time we reach Rio Blanco we are treated to our first in-your-face view of Fitz Roy.
We fill up our water bottles with glacier water from the river and continue our way through flat tussock fields like the ones we have seen from the bus for hours.
It is now, when all clouds have disappeared and the sun is shining down on us with intense midday heat, that we arrive at the steepest part of the hike – a sharp ascent over loose scree. It’s only 400 metres, but still – where is that fresh cold glacier water when you want to dip your overheated head in it?
The views from the ridge are breath taking. First of all, because I seriously am out of breath, but even more so because of the scenery I am looking at. It is so much more impressive than I could have imagined. Right in front of me are the massive granite peaks of Fitz Roy, white and grey glaciers and two milky glacier lakes. Surrounding me is silence, and just a handful of other hikers. This is it: in-your-face incredible.
We could sit here all day, but since it took us 5 hours to get here we need to turn our backs to this natural work of art, and return to El Chaltén. We feel sorry now that we have taken in all this beauty in one day, while we could have stretched this as a multi-day hike.
A thought like that never has to last long in Patagonia though since impressive nature is abundant here – especially in Los Glaciares National Park – so you can always explore more.
The next day our sore legs set foot in completely different scenery, where a forest of dead trees leads us to an entire valley of their species. It is an other-worldly sight. The stems of the trees have a white shroud over them, not a single last leave clinging on to their branches. The granite mountains forming the end of the valley are covered with glaciers that are steeply hanging from the mountain tops.
The path winding around the valley floor brings us to the glacier lake, where some small chunks of ice that have come off from the glacier float in the water. Outside of the summer season the lake apparently is abundant with more and bigger chunks that have the size of small icebergs. Nothing like that floating in the water now, but the cold here definitely resonates with the image of icebergs. We quiver as we take in the serenity of the place before we turn around and head back to town where we will take off for our last adventure on the Argentinian side of Patagonia.
We greet our old friend, the Routa 40 bus, and hop back on board. Luckily this time it will only be a short drive of three hours to El Calafate. We will be travelling from the granite peaks in the North of Los Glaciares National Park to its Southern border, where the Perito Moreno glacier displays its grandeur.
The skies turn pink as we again find ourselves surrounded by tussock fields. A beautiful sunset blends into my daydreaming when the skies turn dark. I am incredibly excited to feast my eyes on the Perito Mereno glacier – high expectations!
As it turns out, my eyes are not big enough to take in the size of this imposing glacier. The terminus of the glacier is 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) wide and its total surface counts 250 (!) square metres (96.5 square miles). The ice field is huge, the third largest fresh water ice field in the world. What also makes it so exceptional is that it constantly advances, even up to 2 metres per day.
From the first viewpoint of the glacier on the side of the road, the boats in the water look like toys. Teeny tiny toys in a huge bath tub that is Argentino Lake. After some panoramic shots captured on camera, and stored in our never to be forgotten travel memory folder in our brains, we head to the dock for an up-close encounter on the water.
From the moment we step on the boat we are surrounded by shades of blue. The milky blue colour of the lake below us, the bright blue skies above us and in between a million hues of icy blue. From our position on the water, the glacier is our new horizon. The part of the glacier raising from the water surface forms a gigantic wall of ice, the size of a skyscraper. The average height above water is 74 metres (240 ft) and the ice depth is even 170 m (558 ft).
The only thing I seem to be able to do is gazing in awe. This is unlike anything I have ever seen before and makes me feel humble and overthrown with nature’s beauty. The cravasses in the ice reveal deep blue colours in the midday sun and as we sail past the base of the glacier we take in the sound of crackling ice.
Switching from up-close views from the boat, to up-close views of the other side of the glacier from the boardwalks, we try to capture the scrunching sounds of the ice by using the video mode on our camera. Then, we hear a reverberating roar. A massive chunk of ice has just come down and crashed into the lake. We hold our breaths and hope we get to witness how another piece of ice mass would slough off. Yes we do! What a way to end our Argentinian Patagonia adventure.
In with a bus – out with a bang!
Say yes to your Argentinian Patagonia adventure yourself!
How to travel to El Chalten?
This is really up to your preference, budget and time (restrictions). Obviously, a flight will get you there quickest. Flights to El Calafate are available from Bariloche in the Lake District, but a flight from Buenos Aires is also possible.
The bus will be your cheapest option, but as becomes clear from this travel story – it takes time. There are two bus companies – Chalten and Tasqa – and two routes: either the Routa 40 we traveled on or the coast route via Comodoro and Rio Gallegos. The easiest thing to do once you decide which route you want to take, is just to arrange your ticket when you arrive at the bus station in Bariloche.
Renting a car must be an incredible way to explore Patagonia, but it is not for anyone on a limited budget – nor time. Keep in mind the travelling distances and the one-way fee you will have to pay the rental company.
Where to stay in Bariloche?
New ho(s)tels keep sprouting up as Patagonia becomes a more popular tourist destination, so my best advice is to look around yourself.
For Bariloche, I will make an exception. It’s nothing fancy, but the views are just spectacular at Penthouse 1004.
The best hikes in Patagonia
Los Glaciares National Park offers a wealth of hikes, so check them out and choose wisely. You definitely do not want to have the feeling of having missed out on anything after travelling all the way down here!
My personal recommendations would definitely be Laguna de los Tres and Laguna Torre starting from El Chaltén. We hiked Laguna de los Tres as a day-hike but if I would have the opportunity to go back again, I would go for a multi-day hike to have even more time to take in the stunning scenery.
You can either rent a car or book a tour to visit the Perito Moreno Glacier. Once you have paid the entrance fee of (ARS 500), you can access the boardwalk and walk around freely. Definitely do not miss out on a close encounter from off the lake, and for the more adventurous travelers: you might want to consider a spectacular ice hike on the glacier!
Can I see ‘the big rupture’ of the Perito Moreno glacier?
Lago Argentina is L- shaped and the glacier forms a natural dam separating the lake in two halves. As the glacier constantly advances, the water level on one side rises above the water level on the other side. The pressure of this water mass ultimately results in a huge rupture of the ice dam. When this happens is completely unsure – will you be the lucky one to witness this spectacle of nature?
Just to manage expectations, the last time this happened was in March 2016.