It only took one glance at the photographs of the In Patagonia in the catalogue to add this tour to my “must do” list of Rambler’s holidays. That wish was achieved in November 2012 and my high expectations were not only met, but also exceeded. (So much so, that this tour has just about edged the equally great Kaçkar Adventure in North East Turkey from top spot!)
We arrived in Buenos Aires in the morning, ablaze with jacaranda trees in full bloom. We were met by our Rambler’s leader and our local guide, and transferred to our comfortable, central hotel. Although still only 10:00 a.m, our rooms were ready so after dropping off our luggage and freshening-up, we set off on an afternoon guided tour of the key areas of the city: this would prove a useful introduction for the full free day back in Buenos Aires at the end of the holiday. After an excellent dinner in a nearby restaurant, an early night was needed, to catch up on sleep after the overnight flight, and for an early flight south the next day, to El Calafate.
The weather throughout the 3-hour flight to El Calafate was clear, giving us views of the changing landscape as we left Buenos Aires and headed towards Patagonian pampas. We were thrilled to see the turquoise waters of Largo Argentino, and the first sight of snow-capped mountains.
Upon landing, we collected our bags, loaded up the van and set off for the drive around Largo Argentina towards our first walking centre, El Chalten. Lunch was taken at the historic La Leona (The Lioness) roadhouse, reputedly where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hid out for a month in 1905.
With the weather remaining bright and clear, we enjoyed extensive views of the huge and mostly empty landscape, with Mount Fitzroy ever present on the horizon.On the drive we had our first sightings of Guanaco, Rhea, Chilean Flamingo and the Patagonian Grey Fox.
El Chalten, the newest town in Argentina, established in 1985 to mark Argentina’s claim to the area in a border dispute with Chilé, is a “buzzing” little settlement in the Parque Naçional Los Glaciares. It is overlooked by the Cerro Torres and Cerro Fitzroy mountains and is ideal for mountaineers, trekkers and walkers. It has a micro-brewery, an ice cream parlour, two small supermarkets, at least one excellent cake shop, and a café-bar with a huge range of excellent bottles Argentinian beers, so all tastes are catered to!
Although all the walks on this tour are at Grade D, and excellent in their own right, having one (and sometimes two) local guides plus the Rambler’s leader gave the opportunity to extend some of the walks, up to Grade C level, for those who enjoy a harder walk. One extension, from the Mount Fitzroy Base Camp on the first day, took us above the snow line to a Mirador overlooking the still frozen Largo Sucia, with stunning views of Mount Fitzroy. Our picnic lunch was taken in shirtsleeves, in glorious sunshine, watching Andean Condors overhead and avalanches crashing and booming from the distant rock faces.
Another walk with the opportunity for an extension, also at El Chanten, was on the D Grade “out and back” walk up to the meadows and the tree line above the town, with traces of winter’s snow still amongst the trees. Again with views of the surrounding mountains we saw Black-faces Ibis, Lapwings (larger than the UK variety but with a similar tumbling flight) and heard the Chingolo (Rufuos-collared Sparrow) and Red-breasted Meadowlarks singing from the bushes and trees.
The Grade C extension took us up and over a snow field, onto a clear path across what had once been the floor of the Pacific Ocean (hard to believe but seashell fossil evidence was there if you looked hard enough!) to Mirador Loma del Plieque Tombado, with views down to the previous day’s walk, up the Rio Fitzroy glacial valley to Largo Torre, with views of the Torre and Grand Glaciers, Mount Solo and the surrounding mountain ranges.
A morning’s walk through woods to Largo Huehul (Deer) with its glacier, followed by a riverside picnic lunch, all in glorious sunshine, completed our walk programme in El Chanten, as we transferred to El Calafate in the afternoon. Here the comforts of the Hotel Patagonia Queen and the magnificent Perito Moreno Glacier awaited us.
The Perito Moreno Glacier is one of the few glaciers in the world growing in volume, due to the huge annual snow fall (80 metres per annum apparently!) on the Central Patagonian Icefield. The face of the glacier is 5 kilometres wide, with a height of 60 metres above the surface of the water of Largo Argentino, a total ice depth of 170 metres, and advancing at its centre by up to 2 metres a day.
After an interesting drive from El Calafate through the National Park, we were dropped off for a pleasant hour-long walk along the shore of Largo Argentino, with views towards the great glacier, before driving on to the extensive complex of “boardwalk” viewing points in front of the ice wall, with the glacier grumbling, booming and occasionally dropping huge lumps of ice into the water.
After lunch, we embarked on a catamaran for a cruise across the lake for a close up view of the glacier. Although the weather was cloudy with little sunshine in the afternoon, the ice still shone with an astonishing, ever changing deep blue light.
Terry’s adventure is far from over. Make sure not to miss on out on part II of his journey and follow him as he travels through Chilé.
And so to Chilé the next day! At the border we bade farewell to our Argentinian guide and coach, transferring to our Chilean transport and crew. After lunch at a café-cum-tourist shop on the Chilean side of the border, we drove for about 2-hours through a more lush landscape to that one the drier Argentinian side of the Andes, to our hotel at Tyndall.
The hotel sits in open pasture on the banks of the meandering Rio Serrano, just outside of the Parque Naçional del Torres Paine, with uninterrupted views towards the Horns and Towers of Paine.The view from the first floor dining room at sunset is simply stunning!
Bird watchers won’t be disappointed here, as there are Upland Geese, Lapwings, Black-faced Ibis, Austral Thrush, Southern Crested Caracara, Rufuos-collared Sparrow and Kingfishers right on the doorstep, to name but a few!
Our first walk in Parque Naçional del Torres del Paine was a full day to the Torres Base Camp, via the Chileno Refugio, where we all took lunch. A handful opted for the 2-hour Grade C extension with our local guide, to a Mirador enjoying views of the East faces of the Torres del Paine. After resting to enjoy the fruits of our extra labour, we set off back down to the Base Camp and from there to the pick-up point, arriving just 15-minutes behind the main group. A fulfilling day for one and all!
Day two we drove back into the National Park and took a catamaran ferry across Largo Pehoe, then walked through mostly open terrain with views of the Torres del Paine, to Campo Italiano at the mouth of French Valley. Sadly parts of the National Park suffered a forest fire in December 2011, caused by a careless camper, and the first part of the walk is through a charred landscape. However, there were many signs of re-growth already, and a reforestation programme has been started, to speed nature’s recovery.
We soon cleared the burned area and walked through lightly wooded terrain, above the shore of Largo Skottsberg, full of the Chilean Fire-bush to the lunch stop at Campo Italiano. From there, another Grade C extension for an hour further into French Valley was available, with the main group making their way back to the Paine Grand Refugio for a welcome beer, coffee or tea, to await the harder walkers and the 6:30 pm catamaran across Largo Pehoe to our coach, for the drive back to the hotel and our evening meal.
Sendero Al Pingo, and walk across the Peninsula to see the Grey Glacier icebergs on Largo Grey was the programme for our final day in Chilé. The weather had turned colder and windy overnight, so wrapped up warm clothes for a change, we headed across the windy 2-kilometre sand spit, towards the amazing blue icebergs and the peninsula. The eastern arm of Grey Glacier was clearly visible at the head of the lake.
Returning to our start point, we had our packed lunch at Campo Pingo after a pleasant, level half-hour walk, with a ramshackle but nonetheless very welcome hiker’s hut, as a snow squall hit as we arrived! This soon passed and the sun came out again for our walk back to the nearby Hotel Grey for a warming coffee, tea or beer. Then back to the hotel to pack for the next day’s transfer back to Argentina, and Calafate airport for an evening flight to Buenos Aires.
So a long day in the coach, with another two stamps in the passport, coffee and some last minute Chilean souvenir shopping at the border crossing, a sit-down lunch part-way to El Calafate and finally the flight back to Buenos Aires.
And so to our final full day, spent at our leisure exploring Buenos Aires, whether sight-seeing, shopping or as a handful of us did, taking the commuter train out to Tigre for a leisurely lunch and hour-long boat trip around the river and canals. The evening entertainment was dinner and a show featuring both tango and Gaucho music and dancing, which was an excellent finale to the tour.
The above is just a flavour of this holiday, which has something to offer to everyone. The walking is excellent, with or without extending some to a higher grade, whilst walkers interested in botany or bird watching have the added bonus of the flora, fauna and birdlife, whilst photographers have almost limitless scope for landscapes and other subjects!