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El Chaltén (Fitz Roy)

Yesterday we left El Calafate for El Chaltén, about a two hour drive to the north. As we approached El Chaltén we were mezmerized by this view of the mountains (the photo is a little blurry since I took it from the passenger seat while the car was going almost 80 mph). El Chaltén is the indians' name for the mountain later renamed Fitz Roy, arguably one of the most spectacular peaks in the world. The town (300-400 permanent residents) is located right at the base of Fitz Roy, and is a mecca for hikers and mountain climbers from all over the world. If I hadn't taken this picture myself, I would think it's a fake. On the left side of the photo is a group of spires called Cerro Torres. My first thought was that all great cathedrals try to look like this. The tallest peak on the right is Fitz Roy.

After checking into our hotel (Los Cerros) we hiked up to a lookout point to see Cerro Torres better, but the sun and overcast sky conspired against us and the pictures weren't very good. Today our luck was running strong, and by the time we got to the lookout point for Fitz Roy, conditions were nearly perfect, as you can see in this photo. I can say flatly that this is the most impressive, sublime, and beautiful view I have ever had the pleasure to see in my lifetime.

This last picture is a closeup of Fitz Roy. Note how the colors change according to the clouds and the sun. I could have spent the entire day admiring the view. The hike to get to this point took us about 1 and a half hours from the hotel (an elevation gain of about 1000 feet and about 4.5 miles), and it was not extremely difficult. This is definitely something to add to your bucket list. I've seen some gorgeous places (Yosemite, Iguazu Falls and the Matterhorn come to mind), but this one is tops. Oh, and there is a glacier that comes down off of Fitz Roy into a lake (which you can't see from this vantage point).

Tomorrow morning we travel back down south to Chile's Torres del Paine National Park (just south of El Calafate, but about a 4-5 hour drive), and we are told that it is just as beautiful as all the other wonders we have seen so far. There are no phones or internet at the place we are staying, however, so I'll be out of touch for the next several days.

Upsala Glacier and Estancia Cristina

It was a very overcast day this morning as we set out by boat to go to the northern end of Lago Argentino. After two hours we arrived at an area just south of the Upsala Glacier, which is about three times the size of the Perito Moreno Glacier! Problem is, the icebergs that calve from this glacier are so huge and so numerous that you can't get very close to the glacier itself. So the boat spent about 20 minutes cruising back and forth among the gigantic and gorgeous blocks of ice, and we were treated to a display of size, luminosity, and vivid blues.

From the icebergs we headed back south a bit to the Estancia Cristina, which should be an absolute must-see for any visitor to the area. This place offers something for everyone, and we chose "trekking" option. This ended up being a rather challenging but memorable 16 km hike that took us a little over 5 hours. Fortunately, the Argentines offer a very clever twist on the rigorous hike option: they take you to the high point of the hike in a 4x4 Dodge Ram pickup, via a journey which takes about 45 minutes over seemingly impossible terrain. At the end you get out and walk up a short hill, and are presented with this magnificent view of the Upsala Glacier from above and from about 2-3 miles' distance. One part of the glacier is barely visible at the upper left of this photo, while the body of the glacier is at the upper right. Below the glaciers is a lake. I think we must have been at an altitude of about 5,000 feet. It was extremely windy and cold, almost cold enough to snow. (Snow fell on the higher elevations last night.)

This next shot is a closeup of a branch of the Upsala Glacier which empties into a lake (which is on the right side of the previous photo). Note that in the upper portion of this photo the glacier extends back literally as far as the eye can see—some 20 or 30 miles. The size of this sea of ice was simply breathtaking. I had no idea you could find a vantage point so far above such a massive ice field. In the far distance is Chile's portion of the ice fields. If I remember correctly, the Patagonian ice/glacier fields rank #3 in the world for size, after Antarctica and Greenland. Glaciers and mountains and peaks and lakes everywhere.

After marveling at the size and scope of these glaciers, we headed east and were greeted by what at first sight struck me as a miniature Matterhorn. As you can see from the picture, we were very close to the same altitude as these impressive and fearsome peaks, which must be 6-8,000 feet high (I think).

We then turned back south and started down, and shortly entered the Valle de los Fosiles (Valley of the Fossils). From jutting alpine peaks to rounded brown rock formations in a matter of minutes! Apparently this part of the Andes is a mish-mash of all sorts of things. I have spent a lot of time hiking in the Sierra Nevadas of California and skiing in Colorado, but I have never seen such a variety of shapes, colors, and rock formations in so small an area. The jumble of colors in this photo was something you would expect to see in Disneyland. Squashed between massive granite formations, we found shale rock with an abundance of primitive fossil creatures, and small alpine lakes filled with brilliant blue waters that contrasted to the milky-white waters of the glacier lakes.

After an hour or so of descent, we came back to the long valley that constitutes the majority of the land administered by the Estancia Cristina. By that time the weather had cleared up and we were treated to a magnificent view of blue sky, peaks, glacier lakes, and canyon walls that are only rivaled by those of Yosemite (in my experience). All of the above in the span of just 9 hours. Unbelievable.

Perito Moreno Glacier

Today was spent getting to know the Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina's Glacier National Park (accessed via El Calafate in the southern part of Argentina). It was really quite an experience! Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe this is the only glacier in the world that you can climb on and view from almost 360º. It's not the biggest in the world, but it's massive and gorgeous, and there's nothing like getting up close to it from all sides. We started by taking a boat across the lake so that we could go glacier-climbing on the left edge of the glacier in this photo. We weren't very lucky with the weather, since it was mostly overcast and we were rained on for about the first hour. Nevertheless, it was thrilling.

This is the view of the glacier as we were passing by in the boat. It must be several hundred feet high and is more than a mile wide. Note the deep blue colors in the fissures. The glacier advances about a foot a day or more, so it is continually calving into the water. They say it takes the ice about 500 years to wind its way down the mountain (the glacier's origins are 25 miles or from this point). Note the color of the water (a muddy white, typical of glacier lakes), which is part of Lago Argentino, Argentina's largest lake. It it only about 800-900 feet above sea level.

Walking up the glacier was a kick. We made it almost to the top of the glacier and spent a few hours wandering around and peering into chasms and fissures.

At the end of the tour, our guides served us some Argentine scotch using ice and water taken directly from the glacier. 8-year old scotch on 500-yr old ice!

Later we went back to the other side of the lake and walked along some incredible walkways that the government recently finished. They stretch for well over a mile and allow you to get some magnificent views of the glacier from head-on and from all sorts of angles. The dark spot on the glacier in this photo is at the point where, when the glacier advances enough, it reaches the other side of the lake and forms a dam. That can raise the level of one part of the lake by as much as 60 feet, but then the water pressure starts undermining the dam and the whole thing collapses in a gigantic rush of water and tons of falling ice. That happens at random (multi-year) intervals and to see it is supposedly breathtaking. There is a video of the dam rupturing here (not sure it's the best, but it can get you started if you're interested). If you are ever going to go to great lengths to see a glacier, this is the one. Argentina has two attractions that we've seen that rate as world-class natural wonders in my book: Iguazu Falls (in the north, on the border of Argentina and Brazil), and Perito Moreno glacier. Both should rank high on your bucket list, and both are very well run and organized for the international tourist. I only wish the Argentine government could do everything this well. 

Time to get dressed for dinner, which is going to be barbecued Patagonian lamb!

Near the end of the world

Here we are just outside of the Eolo Lodge, which in turn is west of the town of El Calafate. The mountains in the background are the "Cordilleras," or spine of the Andes; the Chilean/Argentine border runs right along the top edge of these beauties, and that also marks the Continental Divide. On the left side of the bottom photo you can see three peaks—these are the Torres del Paine spires that we will be getting closer to (on the Chilean side) early next week. Tomorrow we will be to the right of and behind the dark hill you can see on the right side of the top photo shot, traipsing across the famous Perito Moreno Glacier. There are about a dozen glaciers that come down from these mountains, tumbling eventually into huge lakes that are only a couple of hundred feet above sea level. More pics of this tomorrow when we get back.

Although this area is widely considered to be "el fin del mundo," (the end of the world) because it is so much further south than any of the other major continents (with the exception of course of Antarctica), we are still some 900 kilometers north of Tierra del Fuego, which is the southern tip of So. America. Argentina is about as long north to south as the U.S. is wide.

Today we hiked down to the bottom of the valley you can see here, and found a lagoon that was filled with huge geese, eagles, and—believe it or not—pink flamingoes!