Patagonia and Buenos Aires November 2017
This was a group trip to South America organized by the Explore Travel Company in England. There were 12 total travelers, all from Great Britain with the exception of the two Colonists (us!). We flew in and out of Buenos Aires internationally, with internal flights back and forth to Patagonia. This holiday had everything: sightseeing in Buenos Aires, lots of trekking in Patagonia, wildlife, everything!
Our friends from London, John and Brenda Cowen, were on the trip. We met on an earlier Exodus tour to South Africa and got to visit them in London a couple of years ago. We were shown some of the "other" side of London! Their friends, Nigel and Hannah Green, were also on the trip. We had great fun with all the UK folks and could not pass up a bar or pub without sampling the beer and wine.
We added a two day extension after the main trip to visit the Valdez Peninsula area. The main goal? Penguins! That was a requirement of Stef's for a trip to Patagonia. The Cowens and Greens also accompanied us.
Our first two nights were in Buenos Aires, including a city tour. Our modest hotel, The Waldorf, was in a great downtown location! Easy walking distance to most of the major sights. The Recoleta Cemetery was amazing and we finally found Eva Peron's location after much searching. The big squares downtown had impressive government building, parks were in full bloom, and a huge street market was in full swing. The La Boca neighborhood was very colorful and we wished we had more time there.
Buenos Aires is where we discovered how to order Argentinian food! We of course wanted to try a "meat" restaurant the first night for that famous beef. Everybody ordered WAY too much! Huge steaks, huge pork chops, huge kebabs, you name it, it was HUGE! After that night, we split meals, which is customary in Argentina. Live and learn!
The ecological Reserve on the River Plate was just a 20 minute walk from the hotel. We went there 4 times (before and after Patagonia)! Lots of water birds, nutria (rodents) and even a big monitor lizard. Our favorite bird was the Rufous Tiger Heron. It was great having such a nice park area so close to downtown.
We flew from the Buenos Aires domestic airport to El Calafate, Argentina. From El Calafate, it was a 3 hour minibus drive north through the pampas with mountain and lake views towards the west to the town of El Chalten. El Chalten had a real wild west feel! Like a town with one main street and dirt side streets. This was our first night at the Kalenshen El Chalten hotel. Dinner this evening was at the Maffia Italian restaurant! The pastas and sauces were separately priced, so you could mix and match as desired.
The goal from El Chalten was a two day trek in Los Glaciares National Park to get close to Cerro Fitzroy and Cerro Torre peaks. The weather and views were magnificent! We camped the one night at Poincenot Camp, a permanent tent camp with dining tent and beer (!), On the map below, we drove to point 5 for the hike start and went South to Poincenot Camp. Then west up the valley to Lago de Los Tres and Cerro Fitzroy. Then back down the valley to the camp for the night (orange line). The next day we went south and west up the next valley to Lago Torre and views of Cerro Torre. Then back down and all the way back to El Chalten (pink line). We hiked just over 23 miles for the two days.
Los Glaries National Park
As I said previously, the weather was fantastic! Views were nonstop all day. Cerro Fitzroy is the obvious huge tower in the following photos. The last part of the hike up to Lago de Los Tres was steep! Very steep. Did I say it was steep?? But whole heartedly worth it! The lake was still frozen over. The up close and personal view of Cerro Fitzroy in the snow was the very best sight of the whole trip. We could have stayed all day basking in the mountain sunshine. You will see some photos of the many hiker bridges we crossed, some good, some not so good. And a few that had signs saying "One person at a time". We obeyed.
Cerro Fitzroy Panorama
After a nice sleeping bag night, it was on to Lago Torre and Cerro Torre. Today's hike did not have a steep section like yesterdays. The lake was beautiful and not frozen over. Again, the mountain views, weather, and Cerro Torre were outstanding. What a place to have lunch! We also saw several cara cara's, a Patagonian bird of prey. It was a longish hike back to El Chalten and directly to the Kalenshen Hotel for our second night there.
The next two days were basically travel days, but we did get in a 5+ mile hike to the "Chorillo del Salto" waterfall outside of El Chalten on the first morning. Lots of great wildflowers and views of the many-branched river channel. Later in the day, there was the 3 hour minibus transfer back to El Calafate just for the night. The second day was a 6 hour public bus ride to Puerto Natales, crossing into Chile. This was as far south as we got on the trip (way below Australia). We were a bit worried about the "public bus" transportation, but as you can see from the photo below, no problem! A very nice comfortable doubledecker bus with viewing windows and reserved seats.
You will see a photo of Guanacos below, a relative of the llama. Everybody was very excited to see Guanacos early in the trip, but we saw so many it almost got ho hum! (but not really!)
Now on to the big trekking part of the trip: Torres Del Paine National Park and the Famous "W" trek! A four night, four day hike using mountain "huts" for meals and accommodations, so you did not need to carry much (and we had porters to carry a very small amount for each of us). The food at the huts was ok, not gourmet by any means. All the huts had beer and wine for purchase, though they tended to run out if you waited too late!
The "W": Starting at Refugio Glacier Grey, we went southeast to Paine Grande, then north east to the Italiano Camp, up and back down the Frances Valley (the middle part of the W), then east and north up to the Mirador de las Torres and back down to the Hotel Las Torres for pickup. A really big "W"! We hiked over 44 miles over the 4 days.
Torres del Paine "W" Trek
We will call this "Day 0" of the "W" trek, somewhat of a travel day. We minibus'd from Puerto Natales to the Park with a couple of stops along the way for lake views and flowers. There was a warm-up 4 mile hike up to the Ferrier Viewpoint. It was cold and windy on top but the views of mountains and glacial lakes were fantastic! It was a VERY STEEP warm up hike. Did I say it was STEEP??
Then the fun began! We had to cross a pedestrian bridge with a 6-person at a time limit. And there was a big crowd trying to get across from our side (mostly to catch the boat). A few groups tried to cut in line, but our UK group was bent on holding the line! After finally crossing the bridge, it was a "death march" across a long sandy/gravelly stretch to get to the boat, lugging our day packs AND duffle with our few pounds of personal gear for the porters (whom we would not see until in the morning).
The boat was the standard Grey Glacier sight seeing tour. It was very crowded, but we managed to find enough cramped seating (with all our gear!). We thought we were being dropped off first at the Refugio Grey, but instead got the full Grey Glacier tour! Very cool! Lot's of time outside on deck in the cold for the glacier views.
The Refugio Grey was the biggest and "swankiest" of the huts we stayed in. They tried to make the dinner look gourmet! Thanks to Hanna for the photo of the gourmet "pink stuff" below!
The first day of the trek was south along Lago Grey to the Refugio Paine Grande, where we stopped to eat our packed lunches, Then on towards the middle part of the "W" passing by the Campo Italiano to our huts at Frances Domes (the accommodations were actually 8-person domes). Most of the views today were of the mountains to our left and glacial lakes to our right.
There was a reservation mix-up and they did not have us down for meals! It was eventually ironed out and we got fed. Yea! On the down side, they ran out of beer and wine too early... The Domes were pretty neat, though the only heat was in the entry way.
The second day hike was up and down the Frances Valley to the Britanico Mirador (lookout). We were serenaded with cracking/booming sounds all day from avalanches, very cool. Be sure to watch the video below of a few of the avalanches. It was hard to catch their starts since the sounds would echo in the mountains. The view from the Lookout was stellar, a 360 degree panorama of mountains and snow.
We spent a second night at the Frances Domes. In the evening twilight, we were treated to a beautiful rainbow over the lake. The huts advertised that small amounts of supplies were available for purchase if needed. The photo below shows the extent of the "store".
French Valley Avalanches
French Valley Panorama
Day 3 of the trek was along the bottom right side of the "W" and up the last leg a bit to Refugio Chileno. Of course, mountains on our left and lakes on our right most of the day. Lots of beautiful fire bush, a great suspension bridge and the muddiest patch of the whole trip! You need some variety to keep things interesting.
We had a great cocktail hour at the hut. Good thing we started early as this hut also ran out of the beer and wine eventually. Are we noticing a theme here??
Day 4 of the trek was up and down the valley to the namesake Torres del Paine, then back down to the Hotel Las Torres to await our bus. The morning was a steep hike up the valley and boulder field in probably the worst weather we encountered, windy with some rain/sleet. But it pretty much ended by 10:30am, giving us stunning views of the Towers over the gray glacial lake. Fabulous.
The hike back down the valley past the Refugio Chileno was fairly anti-climatic. Our last trekking! As we entered the plains below Torres del Paine, there was a beautiful black gorge with layers in varying directions. At the hotel, we sat around a bar/snack area awaiting our bus, enjoying libations and feeling like we had really accomplished something!
Today was the Perito Moreno Glacier day, then the long bus ride back to El Calafate. Only three of us went on the optional Glacier Trek. It was a hoot traipsing across the glacier with big crampons and the other worldly blue colors were mesmerizing. And it did not hurt that we were served whiskey over 10,000 year old ice at the end either!
The Perito Moreno Glacier was very scenic. There were Andean Condors soaring about and we got one acceptable photo. Be sure to watch the glacier calving video below. Thanks to Dawn Cairns from England for being in the right place at the right time and actually videoing!
The food was excellent at our final Patagonian dinner in El Calafate at Isabel's. "Ploughman's" dishes, served in big iron pans, were shared by everybody. Of course, the beer and wine was excellent too! The next morning we flew back to Buenos Aires.
Perito Moreno Glacier Calving
Back to the Waldorf Hotel for the final night in Buenos Aires for Explore Patagonia tour. Half the crew would be departing for the UK tomorrow and our half going on to Trelew. We had time to visit the Grand Splendid in the afternoon. It is a gorgeous bookstore set in an old theater! They have kept the look of the theater and even have a cafe on the old stage. We also had time to visit the Ecological Reserve, again!
We flew from the domestic airport down to Trelew for two nights, on the South Atlantic coast. Trelew was settled by Welsh immigrants in the late 1800's! Gaiman, a nearby smaller town, is almost the quintessential Welsh Town (we had a Welsh tea there).
The first full day tour was to the Valdez Peninsula, a Patagonian nature reserve. Wildlife was the draw. The tour was a LOT of driving on gravel roads, making for a long day. Plus we had to "lounge" around the tiny town of Puerto Piramides while part of the tour group waited for a whale watching cruise (which wound up not going due to wind/waves). Not the best tour experience!
The elephant seal colony was a bit of a disappointment since the big bulls were not present. On the other hand, we saw some large sea lion bulls, very nice. The highlight was a mother rhea with six goose-sized chicks!
The second day tour to the Punta Tombo penguin rookery was MUCH better! A shorter drive and you got to see the penguins up close and personal, with walkways right through the rookery. The penguins were not phased by all the people. Stef is ga-ga over penguins!
Watching them waddle around was great. There were higher viewpoints to watch them enter and exit the water, very amusing. Penguins look so graceful in the water and goofy on land! This was the start of hatching season, so many eggs and some chicks were in evidence.
On the way back to Trelew, we detoured to the Welsh settlement town of Gaiman for a Welsh tea. Stef and I ordered the full tea (a mistake!), taking fully half to go. Sweets and cakes for the next day... We would have loved to have more time to wander about the town.
We flew back to Buenos Aires for a final night at the Waldorf and then flights back to the US and UK the next day. Sad to say goodbye to our friends at the airport!
This Patagonia trip was one of our best ever! Great sights, great trekking, great friends, great weather, great food (well, with the exception of the huts!). Now we have to get to work finding our next big adventure!