Spring Breakers: Patagonia Edition

Jessica Duska
October 19, 2017

As we were nearing October things started getting crazy. Not only was it midterms week but spring break was upon us and six of us were about to embark on our 10-day journey to the south of Argentina. Sounds fun right? Besides the lingering worries that we were going to die on our trek in snowy Patagonia we were all very excited. The plans were slightly unorganized and the journey was a bit more involved then we expected but this is the tale of the greatest and hardest 10 days I’ve spent in Argentina thus far.

Day 1: Buenos Aires to El Calafate

While the W-trek in Torres del Paine, Chile is supposedly a tourist destination it was pretty dang hard to get to (like 9 buses total hard to get to). The weather report called for heavy snow and cold temperatures every day we were there. As they wished us farewell, the other students in the program said “Good luck, be safe,” which was less than encouraging especially considering we were already terrified about what the next ten days would hold. (My host mom even gave me the name of her travel agent before I left so she could plan our trip instead)…

Meet the crew, fresh off the plane in El Calafate: Maddie, Liz, Gus, Benjamin, and Owen

Thursday we only made it as far as El Calafate, a three hour plane ride from BA. The cab drive from the small Calafate airport to our hostel, El Cambalache Bed + Beer, was already full of majestic lakes and watercolor skies. El Calafate was small and definitely touristy, the stores were full of expensive tchotchkes and winter gear for the cold we were about to endure but it also felt like a tiny ski town, full of friendly faces and short buildings.

Cambalache Bed + Beer was even better than advertised. Martin, the host, fell in love with Owen and we had full access to everything we could've dreamed! Amateur tip: make friends with the hostel owner. We spent the night drinking bad beer and making asado alongside the hostel workers and a couple pups :) It was September 28, a couple days before the beginning of the high season so we were the only people in the hostel and the whole town was relatively sparse.

Day 2: El Calafate to Puerto Natales, Chile!

We woke up super early to scrambled eggs (Thanks Martin!) and headed out to catch our 8am bus to Puerto Natales… another leg in our “touristy” yet difficult journey. 

The bus driver woke us up to go through “customs” in both Chile and Argentina (the countries don’t really get along, especially regarding the border of the Patagonia territory so we had to stop twice to accommodate both countries). 

Puerto Natales was even smaller than El Calafate. As we walked along this beach-like strip, it was really just the six of us against the world. The town was dead (as it was the beginning of the season) and the hostel we stayed in, La Bitácora, was hilarious. From the point we left until we came back four days later (spoiler alert, we lived), no one that was working there had moved from where we left them. They were all drinking, talking, and playing cards in the exact position… I really would not be surprised if they never left the premises.

When we got to Puerto Natales we downed three large pizzas, rented a million dollars worth of equipment (I set up my first tent!), and faced the harsh reality that was reorganizing our entire plan. After attempting to book our campsites the way we intended, we realized that our 5-day adventure would now be a 4-day marathon. I guarantee I looked super worried at this point but there was really no turning back. Side note: If you or someone you know is planning on doing this journey, I highly recommend the down jacket. I felt like I was inside a warm marshmellow!

We went back to La Bitácora to shove as much as we could into our bags for our early departure the next morning.

Day 3: Puerto Natales to Pudeto to Paine Grande to Glacer Grey and back! (The real journey begins)

We left La Bitácora before the sun was even up and caught our 7am bus from Natales to Pudeto. There were three other people on the bus besides us which is partially because we thought the 7am bus was the only one that day (turns out it wasn't ;) )

So pumped for our early departure!

The park this day was free -literally our sign from God that we should continue- and we all celebrated this small feat.

From Pudeto we hopped on the catamaran (fancy word for a boat) over to the beginning of the trek. This was the real beginning... after a plane, two buses, and a boat we had finally made it. Not only were we already freezing and wearing all of our layers (Maddie had 9) but it was also raining. We covered our stuffed backpacks in trash bags (yes we were those trashy people) and hopped on the boat. 

This is caterpillar Maddie drinking her mate on the catamaran. We all still had lots of energy and hope at this point ;) 

Holy moly, the water in Patagonia was the bluest I’ve ever seen. We drank mate and entered the magical land of Patagonia; glacier blue water and untouched hills on every side. We were all floored and it hadn’t even begun.

We arrived at Paine Grande, set up camp and downed PB&J on a tortilla (staple meal for this trip) before heading out on what would be the hardest four days of spring break "vacations."

The view from our campsite at Paine Grande

The trek to Glacier Grey was four hours at a slight incline or heavy decline for most of the way. The 1PM start wasn't ideal, but there was no way we weren’t gonna make it to the actual glacier.

Look how happy everyone looks to be hiking finally! :)

The end of the day was the real quilombo (slang for disaster in Argentina). Not only did we not pack enough snacks and let our blood sugar get dangerously low but all our stuff was soaked, it got dark quickly, and we were far from back.

When we finally arrived back at Paine Grande the tiny refuge for campers was going to close soon. While it felt like the end of the world in that moment, it was one of the funniest parts of the trip looking back. We were all grumpy, wet, starving, and wondering how the heck we let this happen. We were easily the most pathetic looking people in the refuge and definitely worried that we weren’t going to make it out of this trek alive. Owen and Liz sweet talked the workers into letting us stay a couple extra minutes to salvage all the warmth we could before heading back into our tents for the night. Pro tip: bring some Spanish with you!

The view of Glacier Grey from our resting point :) (Looks tiny but the interwebs say it is over 30m high!)

Day 4: Paine Grande to Italiano to Valle Frances and back

I woke up Sunday morning in a two-person tent stuffed with three-people. While we thought it would be a good idea in the moment, the tent was definitely steamy. We were all still damp from the day before and still worried about whether or not we’d make it, but we headed out with naive hope anyways :)

Happy and exhausted on the way to Italiano :)

Paine Grande to Italiano was a 2.5-3 hour trek through relatively flatish terrain (and by flat I mean not as hilly as the day before), and the trek was alongside the most incredible mountain we had seen thus far! By the last 30 minutes we were all dying, but when we crossed this rickety bridge, Italiano was the pleasant surprise on the other side!

Italiano was a relatively empty campground and the rangers weren’t even there. We set up our tents in the protection of the tiny forest (and by we I mean everyone else set up the tents while I chatted up a nutritionist from San Francisco and made PB&J on tortillas again). She ended up leaving us a couple candy bars when she left because I told her about our pathetic attempts from the day before and our lack of snacks and she took pity on us :P

The rest of the day, we headed 2.5 hours up (straight up) Valle Frances to the Británico mirador. The whole beginning was a 90-degree rock scramble and we lost two passengers along the way. While we didn’t make it to the tippy-top, four of us caught these insane views and ended up in a massive field of rocks just eating granola and laughing at how tired we were.

Insane view from halfway up Valle Frances! Peep: bird

Totally worth it was the theme of this trip. The way down was much easier so we made many a stop to pee and sit :) The other two passengers we lost initially were the real MVPs: they started dinner before we got back so we didn’t have a repeat of the first night.

We ate lentils, rice, and uncooked sausage (which when you’re starving is actually incredibly appetizing) and sat beside a man gluing his shoes together because they had fallen apart on his first day. How crazy, you might think. How can you hike without good boots? Owen borrowed some glue for his own shoes which at this point were in a similar, pathetic state. 

The highlight of this night was almost losing two fellow trekkers we had met on the trail: the Germans. One of the Germans had forgotten her camera all the way at the top and had made her companion go all the way back up to retrieve it even though they would have to return down the 90-degree rock slides in the dark... she was a constant character on our adventures for sure.

Day 5: Italiano to Torres Central

This day was relatively straight-forward but not painless by any means. The walk from Italiano to Torres was a straight shot for 7.5-8 hours. After the day before, we took constant stops at "beautiful views" (half because they were incredible and half because we were so tired).

The happy crew + incredibly blue water (this photo was taken by our friend that had glued his shoes back together)

One of the coolest things about the W was the variety of terrain. While the first day was relatively wet and grassy, the second was a 90-degree rock scramble and waterfalls, and the third had this rocky beach and unexpected paths through grassy hills. Every couple hours made you feel like you were in a new land, on a new adventure!

This was one of our many stops at the surprise beach we found. The rocks were super soft! The kiddos spent a good chunk of time trying to skip rocks

Owen's shoes at this stage in the journey... eventually he switched to Chacos...


Coming up on Las Torres, Maddie and I lingering as per usual

When we finally saw Las Torres in the distance we thought we were close... it was another 45 minutes to the campsite. We doddled along slowly.

Cooking dinner outside at Las Torres. We ended up sneaking into the refugio for beer, mate, and warmth!! 

At this point in the journey I was starting to give up hope but there was only one day left. Originally we wanted to do our last hike before the sunrise so we could watch the orange come up behind the towers (Las Torres), however with our trip reorganization this wasn't going to be possible unless we woke up at 2am to hike the 4 hours in the dark. Our tired selves decided against that plan, but our German friends were more ambitious and made it up. (When we ran into them later we found out one of them almost lost her glasses and they went up the trail the wrong way, but they did make it for the sunrise)!

Day 6: Las Torres and back to Puerto Natales

We woke up to begin hiking and accidentally got to see the sunrise anyways :)

Las Torres was easily the hardest hike of the four days, probably because we were so dead but also because it was a heavy incline for the entire 3.5 hours until the last kilometer that was even steeper. I swear I was barely moving by the last 30 minutes and I could feel myself shaking the whole way. I was carrying the team backpack and used that as an excuse but in reality I was just dying. 

And then we came across the most beautiful alien planet... Las Torres! After four days of sweat, dirty clothes, no showers, un-cooked sausage, PB tortillas, and tent-sleeping, this view had captured us all. We made another PB&J tortilla as a reward and sat in this magical wonderland for an unknown amount of time. Las Torres was definitely the highlight of the W-trek for me at least. As I walked away from Las Torres when we finally decided to head back, I couldn't help but keep peeking over my shoulder at the incredible sight. This was our prize. And the way down was a breeze after what we had endured on the way up :)

When we finally made it back to the refugio the first thing we all did was take our boots off. The entire dining room smelled like feet but no one said anything... we either looked too pathetic or too intimidating to bother but either way we ate the best pizza ever with our shoes off and I had never been happier. WE HAD DONE IT!!

Almost everyone fell asleep on the bus ride back to Puerto Natales as the sun set along the long cordillera (mountain range) that we had just conquered

Day 7: back to El Calafate 

Day 8: Perito Moreno! 

Now is a good time to explain the trifecta of Patagonia. We had checked off the W-trek in Torres del Paine, Chile but we had yet to explore Argentina's Patagonia. The two major highlights of the area we were in were Perito Moreno, the giant glacier in El Calafate and Mount Fitz Roy in El Chalten. After finishing our hike a day earlier we were primed to finish all three spots! We took our first showers in 6 days (yes our rooms smelled super funky) and got ready for round two.

Glacier Perito Moreno! The tiny thing next to it in the middle of the water is a boat... that is how huge this glacier was. 

Los Glaciares National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was by my standards also really dang cool. The second we got there it started snowing which only made it that much ~cooler~. We walked almost the full loop to see the glacier from all of its glorious sides and found out that people used to sneak down close to the glacier and got impaled by flying ice that had fallen! The area is now restricted obviously, but we still got to see the ice break off the side and crash into the water! It was like watching a ball fall in slow motion and the crash looked tiny but was so loud!

On the way out of the park the craziest thing happened... we ran into the Germans from the W-trek! We hadn't seen them since we left Chile and yet there they were. We found out in the middle of our trip that these Germans, that we thought were a couple, had actually met a couple weeks before on a mountain and one had dragged the other on this random adventure through Patagonia "for fun." If you ever need inspiration to do something wild and crazy, this girl has got you; she was full of surprises.

Maddie and I left the group in the little refuge and went for a walk along the glacier water. It was beautiful and the snow started up again. We really were in paradise.

Day 9: El Chalten

El Chalten was the third and final stop on our trifecta tour. It resembled a tiny ski town, full of tourists with only one small grocery store. Even by the end of our week in Patagonia, there were a montón (a ton in Spanish) more travelers than when we had arrived. The hostels was full of Canadians and even our German friends made a guest appearance!

We spent the day making friends in the hostel and planning our final ascent up Mount Fitz Roy for the next day. Half of the crew braved the wind up to a beautiful waterfall, one of the many day hikes El Chalten has to offer as the capital of trekking in Patagonia. Maddie and I enjoyed an "Oktoberfest" celebration which consisted of happy hour at a local bar with one of the friends we made at the hostel.

Day 10: Mount Fitz Roy ~finishing the trifecta~

The coolest thing about Mount Fitz Roy is not only is it the cover of Lonely Planet's guide to Patagonia but it is the mountain featured on the Patagonia brand symbol! We woke up early for the last time and redressed in our stinky clothes from the W... 

The last hurrah

The day was windy and cold but after the first 2km the Sendero al Fitz Roy (trail to Fitz Roy) was super easy. After the ascent to Las Torres, the first 9km of Fitz Roy were chocolate cake, and like super soft chocolate cake. It was a steady flat all until the last kilometer and much more densely populated.

Nearing on 8km, we still didn't know what lay ahead

Similar to the last and most brutal kilometer of Las Torres, the last kilometer of this hike also resembled a 90-degree incline. However, the girls took the lead and after a couple days of rest and our last PB on tortillas, we were ready for the challenge. The path of rocks turned into a stairway and we made it up to the top even faster than we expected. What was awaiting us there you may wonder...

Owen spreading our PB with a very ~innovative~ application system :P Desparate times call for desparate needs and we forgot the knife this time around

We made it to Laguna de los Tres and there was absolutely nothing! The rain was hitting us in the face so hard it felt like the right side of my cheek was going to fall off and the clouds obscured the entirety of Fitz Roy in all its glory. But hey, WE MADE IT! The trifecta was complete.

View from Laguna de los Tres of "Fitz Roy" - we are clearly confused and looking for the mountain

View on the easy trip down :) The snow decided to stop and the clouds decided to move as soon as we left the top

By the time we got down we were starving, wet, and yet so content. The best part about our over 100km in the beautiful and diverse Patagonia was that at the end of the day we came home, took our boots off, and ate so many raviolis :)

Three weeks later I'm finally getting around to writing all of this down. You may be thinking it is way too long and way too detailed, but this is the bare bones of our trip. Talking or writing about this trip is like trying to explain an entire semester abroad to someone at home - you either say it was fabulous and call it quits or sit down for 7+ hours to explain every important detail of every amazing minute. I saved you guys the spark notes version :)

The coolest part for me about this trip was that end of trip feeling: sheer accomplishment. Despite all of our friends, our parents in the States, and even my host parents here being worried for our safety, we planned the heck out of this trip. When we got thrown a curve ball, we spoke poor Spanish and tried to rectify it. When we got sunny weather for three days in a row against all odds, we praised the sky gods for throwing us a bone. Sitting in the El Calafate airport we were all ready for a real meal, a real shower, and our real beds... but none of us were ready to leave Patagonia behind.