On Tuesday of this past week, two of my friends and I made the incredibly impromptu decision to fly to El Calafate this weekend and do some actual, real life trekking in Patagonia. After two hours of frenzied planning, frantic booking of flights, and an egregious number of internet tabs open shamelessly searching for the most instagrammable locations, we were ready to go. Or so we thought. The next morning Katie received a cryptic email from the plane company that ended up meaning that the flights were not, in fact, booked. Sans internet connection, I found out about this hours after the crisis began, but thankfully by the time I was brought up to speed, the situation had been resolved, and we were still on schedule for our Patagonia adventure.
Our trip began at five in the morning on Thursday with an aggressive taxi driver who quite possibly ripped us off and who definitely was less than pleased to be doing his job. With fjallraven backpack filled to the brim with the most athletic clothes I brought to Argentina (think leggings, flannels, and nikes that haven’t seen the light of day for months) and stomach full of cafe con leche and croissants, we boarded our plane and jetted three hours south to El Calafate. Another three hours later, this time in a bus, we stumbled onto the streets of El Chalten, our final destination for the first two days of our trip. On the walk to our hostel, which turned out to be much further away from the bus station than advertised, we saw an insane amount of dogs roaming the streets, which turned out to be a theme for our entire time in Patagonia. I may complain about other aspects of this trip, but I will never complain about the amount of dogs I got to pet these past couple days. Our first night in El Chalten included a pot of the most horrifying spaghetti I have ever ingested and a very early bed time, because we had decided that the next day we were to take on the 20 kilometer trek up to the top of Mont Fitz Roy.
Now keep in mind throughout what is to follow that the three of us are by no means avid hikers. I’ve hiked about half of a mountain in Canada once but that’s the extent of my experience, unless we’re counting Devil’s Lake as hardcore trekking these days. After a humble breakfast of plain, very sticky oatmeal and instant coffee, we hit the trail with directions from the owner of the hostel theoretically pointing us towards the beginning of the Monte Fitz Roy trail. There weren’t any signs, but we thought we knew how to read the map we had taken from the hostel and were more sure than not that the trail we decided to take in the end was correct. After about an hour without seeing any signs or any other people, we started questioning our sense of direction a bit, with the questioning validated by the trail wavering between a beaten path and a small opening in the brush that may or may not have been made by animals rather than people. We pushed on though, and after a while we started seeing snow-capped mountains in the distance. So if nothing else we were headed in the right general direction: towards the mountains.
Finally we hit a path that was a real path, signs and all. Except the signs are telling us we’re eight kilometers from Laguna Torre, the hike we were planning on doing the next day. Our suspicions confirmed that we took a wrong turn at some point (probably before our hike even started), we decided to take the easier hike to prime ourselves for Monte Fitz Roy, which would be pushed back a day. No big deal. A couple relatively flat kilometers later, we reach a fork in the path, with signs pointing to the right for the trail to Tres Lagos, the path to Monte Fitz Roy. After a quick lunch that depleted our entire food supply for the day, we decided that it was Monte Fitz Roy or bust. We had come all this way to hike to the top of a mountain so gosh darn it we were going to hike it.
Because of our morning detour, we were about eight kilometers from the real Monte Fitz Roy trail, but there was a trail connecting Laguna Torre and Tres Lagos, so naturally we set out to conquer the eight additional kilometers, thinking it was going to be relatively painless. We were wildly mistaken. Two hours of almost entirely uphill climbing left my legs feeling more like noodles than limbs and my will to live entirely gone. Our water bottles were dangerously low, food supply depleted, and there was no end in sight to my personal hell on earth. But onward we pushed. After what seemed like an eternity or two, the path evened out and we emerged into a clearing with possibly the most gorgeous scenery I’ve ever witnessed.
A lake lined with pine trees and backed by snow-topped mountains immediately erased all of the fatigue in our minds and bodies, and the next twenty minutes were spent blissfully ignorant of what the next four hours would bring. After our cameras captured as much of the natural beauty as possible, which sadly didn’t do the landscape nearly enough justice, we continued onward, catching the first glimpse of Monte Fitz Roy’s famous facade. Our paths crossed with a Dutch man who jokingly pointed to a ridge on a mountain, telling us that was where our hike’s final destination was located. We’re young and relatively in shape, we thought. It’s only a kilometer up to the top, piece of cake, right?
I feel obligated now to paint a pretty picture and say that the last leg of the hike up to Tres Lagos was worth it, but I don’t know if I can say that with a clear conscience. I honestly have never been more miserable than I was that last kilometer. After reaching the campsite where markedly more experienced hikers choose to station themselves as a sort of base camp for the hike we were about to attempt, the trail was almost vertical for 1000 meters up to the famous landmark. The first 20 minutes of climbing up loose rocks with a stream of water constantly trickling down, and my legs were pretty tired. Keep in mind that this was after already walking approximately 15 kilometers there, thanks to our directional mishap. After about an hour of climbing, the rocks were getting bigger, the trail steeper, the fall down to the bottom of the mountain more and more precarious, and muscles in my legs I didn’t even know existed were on fire. It was cold, snow was swirling, and hikers around us cheerily informed us that we were “about half way” up to the top. When we finally reached a ridge, all three of us were positive that we had done it, that right around the bend we would see the lake and the mountain peaks and finally be able to rest our barely-functional legs. Wrong again. The final 100 meters or so of the hike was what appeared to be a straight wall of loose gravel and sand that we could see much more experienced hikers struggling to scale. We had come this far though, and all of our pain needed to be validated, so with what little of our strength we had reserved in the deepest parts of our soul, we made it to the top. Clouds were covering the peaks of Monte Fitz Roy, which was disappointing after what we had put our bodies through to get there, and it was about 20 degrees colder than any of us were dressed to handle. Nevertheless, the view was fantastic and the very act of climbing a literal mountain is something that I will continue to casually brag about for years to come.
On the way back down the mountain we managed to take the right path, and got out of the park after only 10 more kilometers. There was very little talking, a lot of sighing, and by the time we made it back to the hostel about three hours later our bodies were incapable of more physical activity. We had planned on doing Laguna Torre the next day, but another day of 20 kilometers of hiking was not something that sounded particularly appealing to any of us, so we decided to play it safe and do a quick six kilometer jaunt to a waterfall, which turned out to be well worth the walk. Saturday night we said adios to El Chalten and took the bus back to El Calafate. The three hours on the bus were some of the most picturesque hours of my life, with rolling hills on one side of the bus and the other side dotted with mountains and lakes, looking like something out of a Bob Ross painting. Armed with a mountain song playlist, I let my weary legs stretch out and settled in for the ride.
The hostel we stayed at in El Calafate was something out of a horror movie if I’m being quite honest. We checked in and were taken by the lady at reception to this rickety little cabin a block away from the main building and told that this was our room, we didn’t have to share it, we had a private bathroom and kitchen. Sounds pretty alright. Unfortunately we found out very quickly that we once again were wrong. The shower head was unattached and borderline broken, leaving the bathroom flooded after showers with tepid water. The heaters were from the 1970s at best and didn’t work without a literal stick of fire being shoved into them, which is not something that any of us felt confident enough to attempt. The door didn’t stay shut while locked unless we put a chair in front of it to ward off potential intruders. And, to top it all off, there was no wifi except for in reception, which led to a lot of sitting on the floor in front of the help desk trying to plan our two days in town. In hindsight, with the promise of a clean, warm apartment in the very near future, the problems encountered in the hostel are minuscule. But in the moment, a 50 degree room in the middle of the night with a door that may or may not open of its own accord was about as bad as it gets.
Other than the hostel, El Calafate was alright. We took a bus to Perito Moreno, one of the biggest glaciers in the world, and the fastest moving. Turns out we got super lucky because the glacier was super active when we were in town, so we got to see something that people rarely get to witness. I never thought that I would be so entertained watching ice chunks fall off of a larger chunk of ice, but it was pretty surreal. Five hours is a long time to watch ice fall though, so we ended up in the very expensive restaurant at the park that, while boasting wild views, had subpar coffee and even worse wifi. All three of us agreed that we wished there were more real hiking trails to see the glacier, versus the manmade metal stairs that offered the throngs of tourists the best vantage points to snap quick pictures of the glacier. Whether or not our legs could’ve taken more hiking is another story.
Monday was our last day of the the trip, and we decided we deserved a day to sleep in and maybe give our legs a break from all of the hiking and wandering around town in search of grocery stores we’d been doing. We checked out of our hostel after the breakfast of champions: white bread and dulce de leche, which is the insanely popular caramel spread people eat like it’s going out of style in Argentina but is really just caramel apple dip, and headed to a cafe Claudia had found on google maps. With our flight departing at five, we had hours to kill, but somehow we still managed to almost miss our flight. That would’ve been the cherry on top of the great and not so great experiences we’ve had these past four days, but thankfully we made it in time and I’m currently cruising the 2700 kilometers back to a nice bed and my first home cooked meal in days.
Patagonia is definitely an experience, probably one that is a bit more enjoyable for people who enjoy scaling vertical walls of rock and who’ve done a bit more research than the three of us did before arriving. However exhausting the past four days have been, I don’t know if I’ve ever felt prouder of myself than I did when I reached the top of that mountain, or prouder of the three of us for not biting each other’s heads off at any point from pure physical agony and mental fatigue. Patagonia did a number on my body and my wallet, but the memories I now have made the trip more than worth it.