El Calafate & El Chalten – Argentina 2010

I have always wanted to return to Argentina after staying in Ushuaia on my return from Antarctica, and not just for the fine Red wine! The opportunity came in December 2009 when I met my cousin, also William Burton, in Miami and we travelled to Calafate via Buenos Aries. With both of us having the same name it caused some confusion to the airlines when we checked in.

Calafate is a small town that is the gateway to the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares and derives most of its income from tourism. We stayed 4 days at Robel Sur guesthouse. Most visitors spend a few days in transit to one of the many hiking trails or mountain peaks that surround it. It is the best place to stock up on supplies for a hiking or mountain climbing expedition.

Glacier Moreno is a massive glacier that flows into the Lake Argentino. A boat trip across the lake to the snout is highly recommended. While we were there an iceberg that looked stable suddenly turned over and broke up. This caused the many tour boats in the area to make a hasty retreat.

On Old Years Night the hotel put on a special dinner for the guests and friends complete with good Argentinean wine. Robe Sur is on a hill that overlooks the town so at midnight we had a grandstand view of the firework display. Next morning we left by bus on a 5-hour bus trip to El Chalten.

In El Chalten we stayed at Inland Sis guesthouse and after the formalities went to explore the town. A strong cold wind blows off the ice cap. This would be a good location for wind turbines except that there is little use for the electricity as the surrounding countryside is sparsely populated.

El Chalten is the staging point for those wanting to climb Mount Fitz Roy or hike into the National Glaciers Park. The town has hotels, Guesthouses, bunkhouses and a campsite to suit all pockets. A wide range of restaurants and bars cater to hungry and thirsty hikers. For any last minute things you need the outdoor stores will make your backpack heavier.

Our first hike was to Laguna Torre which was a 3 hour walk to the lake and glacier. This trail is the one favored by tourists on a short trip from El Calafate and have only time for a short walk. What a waste!

Our main hike was for 4 days, mostly along Rio Blanca. The trails are clean and well managed with no litter or garbage. Day 1 was a long day. We climbed up to Camp Poincenot, stopping along the way to admire the view of Fitz Roy. Today was one of the few clear days and we could see the Fitz Roy against a blue sky. This first part took about 3.5 hours including many “Kodak Moments”.

After lunch we continued along the left bank of Rio Blanca for a further 3.5 hours to reach our camp at Piedra Del Fraile. There were a few tricky river crossings due to the melt water coming off the Ice Cap and it was  naturally very cold. We followed the left bank of the Rio Blanca. Sections crossed a boulder field left by the river when it was in flood but there were small cairns that marked the route. As we neared the refuge we left the river and went through a forest along a good trail. The last few Kilometers seemed to take a long time. It was a long day and we were getting tired. However the trail was good and there was no danger of getting lost.

Safety Note added in October 2016 following my latest trip to Argentina
“This trail is now closed to backpackers after Lago Piedras Blancas. Beyond here  is very dangerous as the river has shifted.  Several hikers have got in trouble and one lost his life trying to negotiate the path.  To get to Piedra Del Fraile, and beyond, take the right bank of Rio Blanco to Hosteria El Pilar.”

I showed the Park Rangers this post and they were impressed. But asked me to add this correction and to add that in this area there are no rescue services.

Piedra Del Friaile is a small bunkhouse that is open in the summer months as a refuge for hikers and climbers of the surrounding mountains. You have the option to camp or sleep in the bunkhouse. We choose the later which was probably not the best option. The cabin has a room that serves as a restaurant, bar and general meeting area. The beer was cold and the Pizza was good. We spent the evening talking with other hikers and kept the barman busy.

The next day we walked along the river until a moraine blocked us. We then climbed a very steep hill to Piedr Negra. This took a few hours each way but the views were worth it.

We hiked back to Poincenoit via the right bank of Rio Blanco. This trail was well marked and mostly in forest. It is high above the river and afforded great views of the surrounding mountains. Along the way we passed a small hydroelectric generator.

At Poincenoit we set up camp and had some food. We then walked across a rustic wooden bridge and hiked up to Laguna de Los Tres. The view of the lake and surrounding glaciers was magnificent.

The following morning we packed up early and walked to El Chalten. This time we took the scenic route via Laguna Madre and Laguna Hija and it was worth the extra effort. We arrived back at the hotel thirsty and hungry but happy for a great time.

The next day was rest day and we did a short walk to Cherrillo del Salot Waterfalls. It was time to travel back to Calafate and take the flight to Buenos Aires, where we made the connection to Miami and on to Baltimore and Barbados.

The Hiking in the National Glacier Park is strenuous but very rewarding for those willing to put in the extra effort. The trails are well marked and clean. Camping is only allowed in designated areas and this allows the natural vegetation to flourish and keep its natural beauty. Open fires are not permitted.

It is not normal for hikers in this area to employ the services of guides and porters. This reduces the number of people who trek it and limits the damage to the environment. I highly recommend this trip for anyone who wants to experience unspoiled land.

I want to return to this area before my legs grow old!

You can click on the thumbnail image to see a larger image with captions.

ElCalafateMap
Map of El Calafate & El Chalten – Argentina

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