Other photos of Patagonia




 ARGENTINA: Bariloche, Villa la Angostura

CHILE: (from Argentina) Puerto Montt, Chiloe, Chilean Fjords, Puerto Natales, Torres del Paine

ARGENTINA: El Calafate, El Chalten, Ushuaia

November-December 2004


After years of trying, we finally reached the end of the world.

Patagonia is the vast area sprawling through parts of two countries (Argentina and Chile) at the bottom of South America. We began in Chile, taking a four-day Navimag ferry cruise from Puerto Montt through the Chilean fjords to Puerto Natales, then took a two-hour bus ride from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine.


Nature doesn't get any better than Torres del Paine. Yosemite, Nepal and New Zealand come close.

But this is it.  

Glaciers, mountains, condors, forests, lakes, streams, wildflowers, trails, trekking huts.

All great. The greatest. 

(O.K. We haven't seen every natural wonder on the planet. But of those we have seen, Torres del Paine is the best!)

The "W Circuit" in Torres del Paine National Park (Chile) is one of the world's great hikes. Four mountain refugios are scattered at 4-6 hour intervals along the trail, named because it looks like the letter W on a map. We traversed the W from east to west, beginning with Refugio Chileno - a rustic cabin with bunk rooms that hold 6 to 8 trekkers each, shared bathrooms with hot showers, a dining room that faces the jagged peaks of Las Torres and a kitchen that dispenses such trekking necessities as salmon, pasta and beer.

It's a two-hour hike up the trail from Refugio Chileno to the Torres peaks lookout. As we hiked, a lone condor traced lazy circles in the sky overhead. When we finally scrambled over the last boulders to see the spires of granite, we thought: We're so fortunate to be here.


From Refugio Chileno we hiked along the foot of the mountains to Refugio Los Cuerpos - "The Horns" - named after the weirdly-shaped peaks behind the cabin. From Los Cuerpos we hiked part-way up steep Valle Frances, but turned back when blowing rain reduced visibility to about 30 feet, obscuring the peaks. We continued on to Refugio Pehoe - the best lodge on the "W" according to some, but our least favorite. Yes, it was new and comfortable, but it seemed like a huge yellow and green motel; it lacked the rustic atmosphere of the other lodges.


The last trekking hut, Refugio Grey (below), was a charming old mountain cabin where we bunked with four young Australians with whom we'd traveled off and on for several days. We taught them to play a card game ("Oh, Hell! ), and one night sat around on our bunks comparing the relative lengths of our toes. Travel teaches one a lot about the world, but long-term travel makes one weird.

As we hiked to and from Refugio Grey on the last leg of the "W", strong winds off the glacier nearly blew us into the iceberg-dotted lake and rain pelted our bent-over, Gortex-wrapped bodies. Soon after, we were dazzled by a summery sun as we walked past meadows of spring wildflowers. They say that in Patagonia you can experience all four seasons in a single day, and we did. 



On the bus to El Calafate, Argentina the sign over the windshield was in Spanish and English: Por favor - no quitarse los zapatos. PLEASE DO NOT TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES. This is a much-needed rule, because most people riding mountain buses in Patagonia are sweaty hikers - with appallingly odiferous socks. Anyone seated near the bus driver who dares to break this rule draws his irate reprimand.


One of the most famous glaciers in the world is in the mountains near El Calafate. The vast Perito Moreno Glacier is one of the most active and one of the few still advancing. Global warming is causing most glaciers to recede - some at alarming rates. Just across a narrow channel from the 200-foot high face of the glacier are boardwalks and platforms for up-close viewing. We sat in the sun for several hours one day - to eat lunch and watch the glacier "calve" (drop off hunks of ice) every few minutes. The small chunks sounded like rifle shots; the larger slabs crashed down like the crack and roll of lightning and thunder.


The next day we took a boat tour to other glaciers with hundreds of other tourists, herded like cattle and squawked at over the public address system. (It's probably good to go on a large-group tour once in a while, if only to remind ourselves how fortunate we are to be able to travel independently most of the time.) The boat tour was worth it though, as we cruised through fleets of fantastic ice sculptures - giant luminescent icebergs calved by Spegazzini and Upsala glaciers. 


We cruised close to the faces of these glaciers, then got off the boat for a controlled march through a gnarly forest to surreal Lago Onelli, dotted with hundreds of floating bergs doubled by reflection in the mirror-like lake.

Four hours north of El Calafate near the mountain town of El Chalten, we each had our own glacier trekking experience. Joan took a boat to the edge of Viedma Glacier, climbed over the moraine, donned her crampons and for two hours clambered around on the glacier. She says it was like shrinking to ant size and wandering through whitecaps of blue meringue! At the end of the trek, the guide used his ice axe to clean off an ice wall, crumbled some 25,000-year-old ice into small glasses and filled them with Tia Maria. Yum! Then the group crawled UNDERNEATH the glacier for about 100 yards. It was like being under a low-hanging, luminous blue sheet of corrugated roofing plastic. Usually claustrophobic, Joan (below, right) actually enjoyed going under the glacier, despite 36-foot thick ice weighing who-knows-how-many-tons directly overhead. Exciting!


Meanwhile, Lou took a different ice trekking tour - the one for loco types. It involved a rapid 32 km. (20-mile) round-trip into the mountains with three 20-something fellow hikers. During the trek they took a zip-line across a river (Lou - below left), crunched over a glacier with crampons, then got harnessed up and used crampons and ice axes to climb a vertical ice cliff. Lou came back totally stoked. And went face down on the bed for a long nap.



Ushuaia, Argentina is the southernmost city on the planet - the end of the world, "el fin del mundo." It perches at the tip of South America on the large island of Tierra del Fuego (separated from the continent by the strait that Magellan discovered in 1520) and faces the Beagle Channel - named after the ship that carried Charles Darwin to the Galapagos.

The town reminds us a lot of Juneau, Alaska - both are squeezed between sea and mountains and a long way from anywhere. And both towns are like huge tide pools. A cruise ship washes a flood of tourists ashore every few days, drowning the streets in a tide of Goretex and digitalia. (if that isn't a word, it should be), then toots the flood back aboard and pulls out - leaving the town semi-deserted once again. This was a good place to relax for a few days and contemplate our eight-month journey through South America - the times we shared with locals and fellow travelers along the way, the unexpected pleasures and inevitable disappointments.


While we were in Ushuaia our ship came in - and the next day we watched it sail away without us.


It was the cruise ship we'd planned to take to Antarctica. We'd brought cold weather gear to go on the cruise, but finally decided we were being a bit too greedy. Even with last-minute discount fares, it would have cost $5,000 for the two of us for five days of rough seas to get there and six days of zodiac trips to see glaciers and penguins and feel we'd truly reached the end of everything. Yes, we'd recently trekked on glaciers and seen lots of penguins, but we still felt a bit uneasy to see our ship come in - as if we'd missed a truly special place just beyond the horizon. Well, we can't see it all....


...or do it all, either. We unrealistically had hoped to be fluent in Spanish by the end of our eight-month trip. Seven weeks of lessons helped, and we do know a lot of vocabulary and grammar - including the dratted subjunctive conjugations. But we're still struggling to bring what we know out of our mental computers quickly enough, and straining to understand a rapidly spoken sentence as something other than a very long, run-together single word. We definitely can communicate whatever we need to in Spanish - we had a rousing argument in Spanish with a shady taxi driver our last night in South America - but it ain't pretty!


Some of our experiences were uncomfortable. Lou got food poisoning in Peru, Joan was affected by high altitudes in the Andes and we both wilted in the sticky heat of Brazil. Other times were downright scary. We narrowly avoided street thieves in Ecuador and ran the Amazon with drug smugglers.


Ah, but the highlights of these eight months!



JOAN:  Hiking the "W" Circuit of Torres del Paine in Chile; taking Spanish lessons with Enrique in Ecuador; rescuing a baby marine iguana in the Galapagos Islands; visiting a Quechua family in a Bolivian village; hiking to the Inca ruins of Moray at dusk.


LOU: Descending into "hell" in a silver mine in Potosi, Bolivia; trekking four days on the Inca Trail and reaching the Sun Gate above Machu Picchu at sunrise; snorkeling with giant green sea turtles in the Galapagos; visiting an indigenous family in a Bolivian village; trekking the "W" Circuit at Torres del Paine.


As always, two people traveling together = two different trips!



Other photos of Patagonia

Our South America journey concluded in Ushuaia, and we flew home via Buenos Aires, Lima, Atlanta and San Francisco to plan our 2005 trip: AFRICA




GUIDEBOOKS: Trekking in the Patagonian Andes (Lonely Planet)

BACKGROUND READINGIn Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin; Travels in a Thin Country by Sara Wheeler

FILM:  Missing (Chile)

(2004 Prices)

NAVIMAG FERRY: To reach Patagonia, we took a three-night cruise through the Chilean fjords on a Navimag ferry carrying containers full of cargo and cabins full of travelers. We had the cheapest (and almost the best) berths on the ship. We went "steerage" class in the C cabin, but 1) they gave us a 15% discount for being over 60, so the trip cost only $233 pp., and 2) we were assigned the two most private berths in C cabin - Number 105, berths 9 & 10. These two berths are off by themselves and have a window. Because the four-person cabins are cramped and airless, only the folks paying $820 apiece in AAA cabins had better berths than we did!

The trip from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales was enjoyable but uneventful, except for a brief stop at Puerto Eden, a quaint island of picturesque beached fishing boats that reminded us of our time in Alaska. Back aboard ship, Lou was beaten at chess four times out of five by a succession of guys from Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands (Lou hasn't played in years), while Joan exhausted the ship's small library. 


TREKKING: It's easy to trek in Torres on your own, using Lonely Planet's guidebook "Trekking in the Patagonian Andes." Most hikers do the "W" but the hardiest trekkers will want to do the entire Circuit - which takes 6-8 days and goes around the backside of the peaks. If you'd rather trek with a guided group, Mountain Travel Sobek leads good but expensive tours, or you'll find other trekking companies listed under Torres del Paine treks on www.google.com  Also check:  www.gochile.cl/html/Paine/TorresDelPaine.asp 

REFUGIOS: For making an independent trek (not taking a guided trekking tour) the Torres del Paine refugios must be booked well in advance for high season (November through March) and are relatively expensive by South American standards. A bunk, hot shower and three meals costs about $50 per person per day, but camping is available at a much lower rate. We needn't have bothered to carry our sleeping bags for eight months all over South America - we could have rented them at the refugios for $4/night. We booked the refugios through Andescape - Eberhard 599, Puerto Natales, Chile  Ph: 061/412877  Fax: 061/412592, andescape@terra.cl  (This took a lot of e-mails, a lot of patience and a basic grasp of Spanish.)

SUGGESTED FOUR-WEEK ITINERARY:  (The four weeks include travel days, which aren't shown)

ARGENTINA: Buenos Aires (7 days) including a day trip to Colonia, Uruguay - a short ferry ride away; Iguazu Falls (2 days); Bariloche (3 days)

CHILE: Torres del Paine (2-6 days, depending on how much of the "W Circuit" you trek)

ARGENTINA again:  El Calafate to see Moreno glacier and take a glacier cruise (2-3 days)


ARGENTINA:  Villa la Angostura (2 days), Ushuaia (2 days)

CHILE:  El Chalten to see Mount Fitz Roy, go ice trekking (2-3 days)

ANTARCTICA: $2500 per person and up....way up. (12 days) Get travel insurance, so you don't lose a chunk of money if the trip is cancelled because of bad weather. We didn't go to Antarctica, but have heard good things about these tours:





Joan and Lou Rose     joanandlou@ramblingroses.net