Wonderful hiking in Chalten, despite the congestion
23.02.2012 - 27.02.2012 8 °C
Patagonia -- the hiking mecca, the legend of bristly weather, pristine glaciers and rugged mountains. Think remote, wild and untouched. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but things have been changing over the last 2-5 years. Where there used to be a dirt road from Calafate to Chalten, there is now a paved highway. Where the village of Chalten used to be comprised of a couple of shacks, there is now a bustling town filled with homey restaurants, hotels for every price range and artesanal shops. There is even internet access and a bank machine (though no cell phone service). Despite warnings about never seeing a vegetable during my entire stay, the restaurants seem to be well stocked (even if the grocery store was a joke). Yesterday for dinner, I had a crepe stuffed with pumpkin, tomato and cheese accompanied by a green salad.
Thus far, Patagonia has been extremely kind. Even the legendary bad weather has taken a break. No howling winds (the trees grow stunted and crooked in these parts) or dust storms (despite the huge glacier-fed lakes, Patagonia is clearly a scrubby desert). I have even had a couple of clear days when I was able to snap decent photos of the jagged peaks of Fitzroy and Torre! This is very rare. Apparently people can sit in Chalten for weeks and never catch even a glimpse of these elusive mountain ranges. Sometimes even glaciers and turqoise lakes below the mountains are are obscured by cloud. Despite the uncharacteristically pleasant weather, it was not been exactly warm, maybe 5 to 10 degrees Celcius, with a light, crisp wind and occasional sun. I was constantly putting on (and taking off) different permutations and combinations of clothing. At one point, I was walking uphill and still had to put on every piece of clothing in my day pack (about 5 layers). I wondered if I would have finished any of the hikes if the weather had been normal.
The hikes were wonderful!! There are 2 main trails one that takes you towards the Fitzroy mountain range and the other to see Cerro Torre. These are mammoth day hikes -- Laguna de los Tres is 25km (with a big section straight up) and Laguna Torre is about 28km round trip (many people break it up by camping). I completed them both. Yeah me!! In my experience, a hike is uphill through trees with perhaps a stream and one look out point as a reward. Not Patagonia, on the Fitzroy trail, the journey was part of the fun. The scenery changed about 6 times - there was a beautiful river valley, then thick trees, a lookout point to see the glacier and maybe the mountain (if it was clear), followed by a plain with a swamp or bog, then there was a pebbly river bed with a clear stream and section that seemed to contain sand dunes (like the beach). I wasn`t even at the major lookout point/ highlight yet! After hiking straight up for an hour, then I got to see the incredible blue, blue lake at the foot of the glacier. Sadly, I didn`t get a mountain view that day, but it was still worth the climb.
I think Patagonia is becoming a victim of its own popularity. One complaint I have about the Chalten trails is (of all things) congestion. So much for remote and untouched!! There were only 2 major trails and everyone in town was on one or the other. The late afternoon was particularly bad, there was practically a line up to get back to town. You were either stepping on someone's heels or pulling over to let a faster hiker pass you. It was sometimes challenging to find a spot to tie your shoe or take off a layer! It was not like that all day, but it was annoying. As well, there seemed to be a lot of people on the trails not up to the physical demands of a 10km hike, or were not prepared to camp in the great outdoors. A couple that had been camping told me about meeting 20yr old girl one night who was eyeing their dinner. Apparently the only provisions that she and her friends had brought were bread and chocolate.
I arrived in Calafate today and will check out the famous Perito Moreno glacier tomorrow.