Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Patagonia

This past February Anna and I spent about 3 weeks traveling through Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia. It was really a dream come true for me, as I've been wanting to go there ever since I first thought of coming to Chile. And for any serious hiker or outdoor sports fan, it's like paradise.

Hiking in the Torres del Paine National Park, in Chilean Patagonia
We flew from Santiago to Punta Arenas and the very next day caught a bus to the little town of Puerto Natales, a bit farther north and next to the border with Argentina. It's a small, sleepy town, but with good food, nice people and gorgeous views across the lake towards the peaks in the Torres del Paine park. After a day in Puerto Natales, we caught the bus to the park and started our 6 day hike on the "W" circuit (more about that in the next post).

Looking out towards the Torres del Paine park from Puerto Natales
After finishing the "W", we spent a few days in Puerto Natales relaxing, hanging around coffee shops and breweries and enjoying being clean, dry and warm. The weather in Patagonia was cold with off and on rain/sunshine the entire time we were there, despite it being the middle of summer. This is pretty typical so if you go be sure to bring warm clothes and rain gear.

While we were in Puerto Natales, we caught a local summer festival. We tried some of the food, which was tasty but incredibly fried and heavy - we had three different kinds of fried bread, one of which was stuffed with meat, and we got a big chunk of lamb, all for about $10. The music was nice and there were some Cueca dancers. Cueca is the traditional form of dancing in Chile and can be seen at most national festivals throughout the country.

A tasty, fried heart-attack in a paper bag.
Cueca dancers at a local festival in Puerto Natales
Next we took the bus across the border into Argentina to the town El Calafate. It's a very pretty, touristic town located near a big lake and not far from the Argentinian side of the Cordillera (Andes mountain range). Be sure to change your Chilean pesos to U.S. dollars to get the best exchange rate, or change Chilean pesos to Argentinian ones in Santiago before going to Patagonia; rates are very bad down there, especially once you cross the border.

Our trip to El Calafate happened to be at the same time as a free local music festival, which was fun, but unfortunately it also meant that all the hostels and campgrounds in town were sold out. We teamed up with a fellow traveler from New Zealand and were lucky enough to find a place that would rent us a room without a reservation. The next day the three of us went to see the Perito Moreno Glacier. You can find bus tours to the park at the main terminal in Calafate. The prices are about $40 USD - a lot more than my 2012 copy of Lonely Planet claimed they would be, thanks to the inflation in Argentina these days. Check prices online before you go! There's also an option to take a boat tour once you arrive, but in my opinion it isn't necessary thanks to the amazing system of boardwalks that take you right up next to the glacier. The views were amazing!



We left Calafate the next day and caught a bus to El Chalten, a very small town located at the base of the Fitz Roy mountain range. If you're a fan of hiking or rock climbing, you've probably heard of these mountains, and their reputation is well deserved. The hiking was spectacular, easily some of the most beautiful trails I've ever been on and just as nice as the Torres del Paine in Chile. I'll write more about the specific trails in a following post.

Arriving in El Chalten, with the Fitz Roy range in the background

The fun, hippie campground we stayed at in El Chalten
After El Chalten we returned to El Calafate and enjoyed some of the music festival. The bands were mostly Argentinian pop groups and local talent, but it was entertaining and free, so I can' complain. There is also a wildlife refuge in town that I've heard is nice, but it's expensive and you'll need a car/taxi to get to it, so we didn't visit it. We made our back to Punta Arenas via some long bus rides and then spent our last few days of the vacation there.

Punta Arenas is a nice, quiet city with some good food, friendly people and some interesting local history. I recommend checking out the local cemetery, which has the graves of some historical figures and is very pretty. There are also some nice arts and crafts markets and you can walk along the beach and do a little bird watching. It was a good place to relax for a couple of days after all the hiking, and I really enjoyed all the cool weather- it was no fun returning to the Santiago heat!


So sad to say goodbye to Patagonia!

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