December in Patagonia

A recurring theme on my travels has been things not going as I first planned. Patagonia has been no exception. It would be cheaper and cooler, I thought to travel around Patagonia for a couple of months than to spend the hottest part of the summer in Buenos Aires. Uh uh, wrong and wrong again.

After my Antarctic cruise I stayed a couple more days in Ushuaia, one to go to the Tierra del Fuego national park for a day hike, the other to do laundry and admin stuff. The national park was quite pretty, the hike along the Beagle Channel coastal path from Zaratiegul Bay to Confiteria Lago Roca alternating between pebbly beaches and something like an enchanted forest. It was rather too windy on the shores of Lago Roca to want to continue the hike along it to the border with Chile. The cloud was too low to bother climbing Cerro Guanaco. On a clear day this 3000 foot peak offers allegedly spectacular views of the Beagle Channel and Fuegian mountain ranges.

Leaving Ushuaia for El Calafate I was up at silly o’clock for the twenty hour bus ride. While waiting for the bus there was a pretty spectacular sunrise over the Beagle Channel which provided the header photo for this post. This journey involves two border crossings, that’s four lots of customs and immigrations to contend with and a whole page of stamps in my passport, a ferry across the Magellan Straits and a bus change in Rio Gallegos. Despite it being after 1am when the bus reached El Calafate the increase in temperature was unmistakable. By now I had worked out that it was going to cost me considerably more to travel around Patagonia than to stay in Buenos Aires. Accommodation is roughly 70% more expensive, bus travel is ridiculously expensive and food costs a whole lot more. The cheapest option would have been to fly straight back to Buenos Aires from Ushuaia.

El Calafate is a pretty little place, it reminded me of Jasper, Banff or Whistler out of season. There are several excursions on offer from the multitude of travel agents jostling for space on the high street with chocolate shops, craft shops and cafes. I visited the Perito Moreno glacier, about an hour and a half from town. It was a scorchingly hot day and the glacier was busy creaking and groaning as the leading edge bore the brunt of the sun’s rays. It did a much better job of calving new icebergs than any of the glaciers I saw in Antarctica. There are a few photos in my Perito Moreno glacier set at Flickr. I spent much of the day trying to dodge a very noisy group of Israelis. For some reason there are thousands of them in Patagonia right now. They’ve all just finished two or three years of National Service and are busy letting their hair down and enjoying themselves. Noisily. They might even be more shouty than the Chinese.

The high cost of accommodation, food and travel in Patagonia means the only way for me to stay on budget is travel slowly and not do much in each town. So the two days I needed to do what I wanted to in El Calafate stretched into a six day stay with lots of lounging around in the hostel. Most of the excursions and attractions around El Calafate require an entrance ticket for Los Glaciars national park which is AR$85 each time. Chilean Patagonia is every bit as expensive as the Argentinean bit so I decided not to flit back and forwards between the two countries while heading north.

A good way to reduce the costs is to camp. There are many free camp sites and free or cheap cabins to stay in on multi-day hikes throughout Patagonia. But camping is quite equipment intensive for a solo traveller requiring a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, cookware etc.. It’s possible to hire equipment but you still have to carry it all. It’s a much more practical proposition for two or more people travelling together.

Three hours north from El Calafate is El Chalten. It’s more remote and this is reflected in the cost of food and accommodation but at least there are no national park admission fees for the treks here. Located in a funnel shaped glacial valley the wind whips through here in a most ferocious manner. I did a couple of day treks, the first to Lago de los Tres for a view of Cerro Fitzroy. The peak was party obscured by cloud on the way up the valley, by the time I reached the lake it was well and truly hidden. But it was a nice trek with good views along the valley and over El Chalten. My trek next day was to Lago Torre. It was a shorter, easier trek than Lago de los Tres and very boring in comparison. The view from the first lookout point, about an hour in was nice, but the next two hours along the valley to the lake and glacier, against a strong headwind were just plain boring. The top of the glacier and the surrounding peaks were mostly hidden in cloud so the view was disappointing. I met a local guide there leading a French couple. He had a book of photos he had taken himself of the valleys, peaks and glaciers around El Chalten. On a clear day the view would have been spectacular.

There are two main bus routes for heading north from El Calafate/El Chalten. The most famous is Ruta 40. Google it and you’ll read all sorts of nonsense comparing it to such iconic roads as US Route 66 or the Australian Stuart highway and painting it as a great adventure tourism attraction, a rite of passage for hardcore South American travellers. Take my advice, go the other route along the Atlantic coast. Route 40 is too far from the Andes for much of it’s length to watch the mountains out of the window. The road is largely unpaved. Despite this it is quite well graded and wasn’t the bone jarring, insides-pureeing experience I was expecting. But it was boring.

After a twelve hour day on a bus, an overnight stay in Perito Moreno (nowhere near the glacier of the same name) and fourteen more hours on a bus I reached Bariloche. The area around Bariloche is described as the Argentinean Lake District. In the winter it is a ski resort, in the summer there are outdoor activities like trekking, kayaking, sailing and horse riding. This year it has been badly affected by the eruption of the Chilean volcano Puyehue and the volcanic ash that blows in whenever the wind is from that direction. Like El Calafate it is a pretty town with countless chocolate shops and ice cream places. For the last week it has been 30+ degrees every day so it’s a bit warm for chocolate but perfect for sampling the wares from the ice cream parlours. Down the road in El Bolson it has been 37 degrees for the last couple of days.

Today is New Year’s Eve. I’ll be starting 2012 in Bariloche, here for another week probably and then on a bus back to Buenos Aires. I’ve decided to skip Puerto Madryn and Peninsula Valdes. I don’t need any more penguins or national park admission fees for a while, the whales have already passed through and the water is rather cool for diving.

Two to three months in Patagonia have shrunk to about six weeks. I’m enjoying having the flexibility to make things up as I go along and change the plan whenever it suits me. I have an idea of where I’ll be in 2012 and when and in what order but if 2011 is anything to go by there will be more than a few changes along the way. How did your plans change this year and what’s on your to-do list for next year?


Happy New Year and best wishes for 2012.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

4 Responses to “December in Patagonia”

  1. Christine says:

    Happy New Year.

    This blog has brought back so many memories of my travels around South America. I to did the 4 border crossings on the way to Ushuaia from Rio Gallegos and then travelled back via El Calagate. Still haven’t made it to Bariloche and Mendosa, though.

    New Year , for me, started at El Corte (Nijmegen) with 28hrs of Tango. Now we’re on the count down to our trip to BsAs.

    I think the plan for 2012 is to try and find something positive about everything around me, keep making more Tango friends and take up opportunities as they occur. Last year it was hard to make plans as 20% of my colleagues were being made redundant. Having got through that, I’m hoping to have security until 2015. I have a few ideas about what might happen but I’ll keep those to myself.

    Hope to catch up with you in a few weeks. Hopefully BsAs will have cooled down a bit by then.


    • Mark says:

      Happy New Year to you too, Christine.

      I’m glad to have triggered some nice memories. Your plan for 2012 sounds good. Waiting for BsAs to cool down a bit is definitely a good idea. I got back on Monday. It was HOT and it was about 38C yesterday.

      See you in a few weeks.

  2. tanguera says:

    What an adventure!!!!

Leave a Reply