Our route South started in normal fashion for Patagonia, on a bum numbing drive with incredible scenery. We were taking the famous Ruta 40 South, destination El Chalten – the tiny trekking capital of Argentina. The town lies at the foothills of one of the region’s most famous mountains, Mt. Fitzroy, which Grace and I had planned to hike the next day (or at least to a lookout point). However, first on the agenda was a much needed shower.
Being the tight arses we are, we refused to pay for camping (or showers) and decided the better option was to utilise nature. We pulled off Ruta 40 (the country’s main highway) only by a few meters to grab a quick scrub in the nearby river. It was freezing cold, so we didn’t hang around – giddy with brain freeze we hoped back in Toady and skidded off.
The rest of our drive to El Chalten was pretty uneventful apart from our extremely close call. Approaching what looked like another mashed bit of road kill I made sure to line up the tires so we didn’t further squish the unidentifiable animal. However as we drew closer it soon became apparent that there was actually two furry critters in the road, one dead the other definitely alive and moving. Just before it was too late we managed to swerve missing the suicidal fluff ball, all we caught was a flashing glimpse of black and white. Five seconds later the fluff ball could easily be identified buy its stench – it was a skunk! Seeing us as an extremely fast moving predator the skunk utilised its only defence and let rip on the car…The pong hit us in the face through the air vents like a brick wall, it was only worse when we got out and investigated the damage. Poor old Toady!
We rose early the next morning to make sarnies in preparation for our hike up to Tres Lagunas (Mt. Fitzroy Mirador). It was a 4 hour hike and scramble through dense forest and over boulders to reach the top. It started off pretty easy but as soon as we left the forest we were hit by the infamous Patagonian winds and progress soon slowed.
We cracked on and were soon at the base of the lookout, with only a short one hour scramble to the top ahead of us. It was definitely worth it though, at the top it was easy to see why this was one of the most popular treks in Patagonia. Huge glaciers carved their way down the jagged peaks of Fitzroy towards vast emerald green lakes. Ice bergs the size of houses floated across the lowest of the three lakes towards the river that drained it. We took lunch at the top and agreed this was without doubt one of the greatest places to eat a sweaty sandwich and share a bag of crisps.
We made our way down the steep mountain side and had been walking for at least 40 minutes before I nearly pooped himself…Not through needing the toilet but that instant gut wrench that only comes by a few times a year, it’s the ‘Oh Shit’ feeling the exact moment you realise you’ve left your iPhone at the top of a mountain…After a lot of cursing I sprinted back up, with no real idea where the phone had fallen out of my pocket it was a guessing game. Trying to recall the exact steps one takes when descending a mountain is pretty tough, but through sheer luck and determinedness I stumbled upon it near the top, sat on a rock as if I had just placed it there, without a single scratch. A minor miracle and a victory for sure.
After a long hard day we decided to treat ourselves, we went out for dinner (another incredible steak) and waffles. I will let the pictures do the talking here…
We parked up by the river in hope of a peaceful night sleep, a good plan we thought. It was, until hurricane style gusts of wind decided to roar through the valley nearly knocking Toady over. We were literally rolling around in the back of the van until midnight before we decided to move on.
Next stop El Calafate – another hot spot on the Gringo Trail due to its proximity to one of the gems of Patagonia, Perito Moreno Glacier. We parked up on the outskirts of town near a large lagoon and had dinner and drinks looking out at the resident flamingos.
Whilst waiting to get on a Glacier tour we spent a couple of days sorting our lives out. We did move up the property ladder during this time though- from a windy populated lagoon to a secluded river spot sheltered by an overpass. This wasn’t your average inner city, hobo filled dingy overpass…Oh no! This was prime real estate, with uninterrupted East-West views we had jaw drooping sunrises over the Andes and sunsets to match lighting up our river in a fiery red.
Our first glimpse of Perito Moreno was somewhat cloudy but nonetheless extremely impressive. This beast of a glacier is fed by the third largest icefield in the world and is one of only two advancing glaciers in the whole of South America. Standing at 60m high and over 2km wide, the imposing wall of ice slowly but relentlessly creeps forwards at 2 meters per day. This leads to huge blocks of ice being calved off the face which plummet into the azul lake below. The thunderous cracks and resulting tidal waves is awe inspiring – we were lucky enough to witness this a few times, something we won’t forget in a hurry.
We slept in the National park on the other side of the lake, it rained non-stop throughout the night leaving us dreading the glacier tour in the morning. We were starting to wonder if the tour would be cancelled but decided to turn up in case. We lucked out, the clouds started to part just as we were boarding the boat that would take us closer to the glacier (the start point of our hike) and the weather only got better from there. After a quick safety briefing we started walking, first through lush forest and then along a lateral moraine. We reached the edge of the ice where we were handed a pair of crampons and were led onto the glacier.
We zigzagged our way across the surface towards the centre of the glacier, sure to miss any crevasses or sink holes. On the way we saw small trickles of melt water turn into raging rivers, bright blue cryo holes (made by……), ice caves and deep crevasses. We filled our water bottles with fresh glacial water and carried on, crunching our way across the ice. With the sun shining down and clear skies we were able to see the top of the icefield and the peaks of the Andes, which defined the border between Argentina and Chile (only 20km away). We stopped for lunch at a beautiful spot, sheltered from the biting wind by an ice ridge and a bright blue cryo hole – it was another glorious place to eat our sarnies.
We started our walk back to ‘dry land’ detouring to visit a large lagoon – probably one of the most stunning spots on the entire glacier. The bright blue’s we saw were so striking we were stopped in our tracks, or not as the case may be. I tripped over my laces like a little school boy, if it wasn’t for Grace catching me l would have fell head first into the chilly lagoon. The melt water that filled the lagoon drained into a huge sinkhole which plummeted almost vertically over 1km towards the base of the glacier. Our guides held our harnesses whilst we leant over the edge to gain a peak down – quite an experience.
Back at the ice edge we took our crampons off and headed to the boat, with a nice cup of warming coffee we boarded and were also handed a little treat of whisky on the rocks, fresh glacial ice of course. We drank and soaked up the views as the boat headed close to the glacier for one last time before dodging the floating bergs and setting us down on the other side of the river.
With the sun still shining we headed to the lookout point and set up for the rest of the afternoon, we saw house sized ice blocks break off and fall into the lake below, a great end to a great day.
Loving the trekking we decided to head for Puerto Natales, the stop off point for Torres del Paine- the best National Park in South America. However like all our journeys this one was not short of adventure. We were cruising along towards the Chilean border until, an hour away, we stopped for gas. The problem being, we didn’t start again! Toady simply wouldn’t wake up; he didn’t even make a sound when we turned the key. This was somewhat problematic given that we were in the middle of nowhere with only a petrol station and police office for miles. We couldn’t even phone the rental company as the petrol station did not have a working phone. Luckily the police were extremely helpful (we think they must have had a lot of time on their hands) and, after a tow, a number of perplexed faces and a bump start we were on our way again. That’s not to say toady was fully recovered, we now had to bump start him every time we turned him off leading to a rather interesting border crossing. When we arrived in Puerto Natales we weren’t bowled over (it’s a grey, rainy and rather lifeless industrial town) so we stayed as long as necessary to stock up for Torres and then headed out. We didn’t even spend long enough there to get Toady back to tip top shape deciding bump starts only added to the fun of life in a camper.
After another lush drive we arrived at Torres and decided to treat ourselves to a night in their five star hotel. Well we stayed in their car park actually but it felt posh enough. Sleeping has become more interesting since Toady got sick, in the past we would opt for the flattest area possible but now with Toady’s need for a bump start we like to leave him on a hill so it’s not too much work when we push him awake. This often means a more upright sleeping position than is ideal but thanks to all the trekking does not seem to affect our sleep too much.
The ‘W’ trek with a camper
The ‘W’ trek is a world famous trek named after its route through the Torres National Park (see map below). The popularity of this trek comes both from the amazing sights and the ease in which the trek can be completed (self-guided and without carrying your backpack along the whole route). However we were still a bit apprehensive; we didn’t want to leave Toady for four days as that felt like throwing money away and Grace’s knee had been proving problematic on a number of previous treks so we thought 4 days in a row maybe too much. Luckily we managed to find a compromise.
We started with the highlight of the park and the most easterly prong of the W; the Torres Granite Peaks. This was a beautiful walk that was fairly easy except for a scramble at the end. We walked along a glacial river most of the way, passing through lush forest and finishing with a climb over huge boulders to reach our destination.
However when we got there, there was nothing to see. The iconic peaks of the park were hiding under a blanket of cloud and the supposedly green lake below was more of a dingy grey as no sun was shining on it. We were not too happy, but what can you do, the weather had been looking fairly ominous all day! We layered up and settled down for our packed lunch at the top anyway. Thankfully as we tucked in to our salami sandwiches our luck turned, as if to provide us with entertainment during our picnic the clouds parted to reveal three granite peaks looming over a very green lake. Although the clouds did not completely disappear, it was just enough to get a glimpse and take a few snaps- we were delighted, it made our climb worthwhile.
On the way down we stopped off at one of the Refugios for a nose around- it was really cute with a fire, a shoes of policy and music playing- you can see why some people opt to stay in these instead of camping. Not us though (at $85 a night it did not quite fit into our budget) we made a beeline for Toady who was still in the hotel car park.
The next day was very leisurely and is the only day we cheated on the W. Instead of walking to the base of the middle prong we drove to the catamaran dock and spent the day exploring the park from there. The weather was great meaning we had brilliant views of some unusual granite spires named the ‘Cuernos Horns’ and the French Valley from the road.
We also visited a rather impressive waterfall called Salto Grande and a startling green lake called Lake Pehoe. Here we experienced true Patagonian wind; it must have been 45mph at least and almost blew us over. We spent the rest of the day in a café next to the wood burning fire- lush!
Back on the W trek! We got the earliest catamaran over to our campsite for the evening where we picked up our rental gear (tent and all), and dumped our supplies. Our first destination was the Westerly prong of the W- Glacier Grey. On route we were treated to moody skies over Lago Grey, huge floating icebergs and the now standard issue snow-capped mountains.
The glacier itself was very impressive, the blue of the ice stood out strikingly against the grey background of the day making for some great photo ops. To warm ourselves up we had a hot chocolate at another cute, but similarly overpriced refugio before heading back to camp.
Feeling lazy and more cold than ever we made our dinner in the porch of our tent (don’t try this at home) and passed out before 10pm.
We woke stupidly early ready for the middle and final prong of the W. This is the longest of all the walks and can only realistically be completed if you stay overnight (the ferry times do not allow enough time to complete it). The sky over Pehoe Lake and the peaceful feeling of walking at this time in morning made it worthwhile- we didn’t see another person for an hour and a half at least. The first part of this walk was very easy meaning we could really take in the scenery. We passed yet more beautiful lakes, hares hoping around and an interesting area of forest. Around 3 years ago a tourist in the park had decided it was a good idea to light a camp stove in a prohibited area; his idiocy lead to a quarter of the national parks forest being destroyed and with it numerous animals homes. Although no saving Grace, this area is now beautiful and mystical in its own sort of way- with black leafless trees as far as the eye can see.
From Campamento Italiano the journey was slightly more challenging and involved more boulder clambering. Sadly the weather was also not playing ball today, the clouds had descended and the rain began. Within an hour we had reached one of the main look outs in the French Valley; it was amazing. Huge chunks of ice calved off glaciers high up in the mountains above, and with nothing below, the crash on the valley floor was thunderous. Unfortunately we should have been able to see a lot more than this- the image was missing the Cuernos Horns, white snow-capped mountains and the head of the glaciers. With the clouds rolling in thick and fast we began to wonder if our final destination (Mirador Britanico) was worth the three hour round trip given that all we could see was white. We asked someone who was on their way back from the mirador and disappointingly he confirmed our worries. Instead of carrying on for no reason we settled down for some lunch watching the tremendous show the glacier offered and then headed back.
With time to kill we waited for the next ferry back with yet another hot chocolate at the campsite we had stayed at. When we got back to Toady we were pooped and decided to have a quick bite in the lush fire warmed café before cozying up for the night. We decided that despite our bad luck the French Valley walk had still been one of the most impressive and we can only imagine the views from Mirador Britanico on a clear day.
The next day was spent in a hotel café at the base of Lago Grey watching the rain and wind come down thick and fast occasionally showing glimpses of the distant glacier. We spent our last night in Torres del Paine in Hotel Grey car park polishing off our bottle of rum. A fab end to a great week.
Back in Puerto Natales we spent the next two days in an amazing chocolate coffee shop sorting our lives out. We also had possibly the most amazing shower of our lives.
Sadly our next drive was to be our final ride in Toady and we were grumpy because of it. To make matters worse our final destination was Punta Arenas, which, can only be described as a genital wart on the otherwise pristine southern tip of the continent. Maybe it was just because we were so gutted to be dropping the camper off, but PA definitely had a different feel to the rest of the Patagonian towns we had been to. With no free camping or camp sites nearby we parked up on a main street and crashed for the night. It was a rather sleepless night; constant beeping and banging on the van ensued leaving a rather tired Grace and Mike in the morning. We gave Toady a wash and a spring clean before saying our final goodbyes, it had been an epic 29 day long road trip covering over 7000km (4350 miles), without doubt a major highlight – we will miss him very much!
Next stop – The End of the World!!!