Day 3: PERITO MORENO & CERRO FITZ ROY
It was 6:15am when we awoke, got packed, and ready to go. But not before having a breakfast of croissants, jam, caramel (seems to be very popular in Argentina), toast, milk (leche), and a jug of freshly-squeezed orange juice (jugo de naranja). Pretty good, but definitely has a tendency to pile on those calories (especially the Ilolay cheese spreads and caramel).
Anyways, instead of heading north to El Chaltén first thing in the morning as originally planned, we decided to head 80km west to El Calafate’s big neighboring attraction – the Perito Moreno Glacier. With the skies mostly devoid of clouds (at least this far east of the Andes Mountains), we figured we mind as well seize the moment and go for it even though we’d return to El Calafate twice more later in our trip.
And so after our brekkie, we checked out of the homey accommodation and proceeded to head west at 7:45am. I was getting adjusted to the Argentinean way of driving. They go pretty fast and tailgate even though 40km/h signs are throughout Av. del Libertador. Plus, I was also adjusting to driving stick shift in a big 4wd, but it wasn’t long before the rental truck felt like I owned it.
It was clear that this side the Andes was in the rainshadow of the mountain range as it was pretty much all desert here. However, the allure of snow-capped mountains up ahead beckoned us further. The winds already started to blow but it didn’t quite have the intensity of yesterday afternoon when we first arrived in El Calafate.
Eventually, vegetation started picking up as we drove into the park boundaries and paid our admission fees. It wasn’t much later (9am) when we arrived at a lookout (mirador) of the massive Perito Moreno Glacier in the distance near Los Notros, which seemed to be an upscale accommodation.
By this point, the road became unpaved, but with the 4wd’s high clearance, it didn’t pose much of a problem (not that a passenger car couldn’t handle it as the road was quite tame). The road then climbed around a few bends each providing dramatic views of the start of Lago Argentino (the aftermath of Perito Moreno’s glacial retreat and snowmelt from neighboring fields draining into the basin) as well as a few icebergs drifting about.
Finally at 9:45am, we arrived at the still somewhat half-full car park, which indicated that we managed to get here before the mob of shuttle buses.
And so we walked onto the boardwalks to each of the balconies offering incredible views of the glaicer. There was some trail construction going on so I guess we wouldn’t be able to get as close to the glacier as some of the signs and postcards we had seen had indicated. Nonetheless, you get pretty close to the glacier anyways. In fact, the viewing areas were close enough that you could both hear and see the glacier calve.
Hearing the loud crack, then thunderous roar echoing throughout the silent valley as the ice cascaded down the glacier face into Lago Argentino was both frightening and exhilirating. Each time we’d hear the glacier calve, we’d try to capture the event on camera or as a movie on Julie’s point-and-shoot camera, but unfortunately Nature doesn’t really care about our timing or schedule and we were out of luck. So we settled for the cool glacier pics along with the “I-was-there” photos to prove to the folks back home that we were indeed here and it wasn’t a postcard.
By 11am, the walks were considerably much more crowded. Must mean the tour bus crowd had arrived. We had enough photos and posings before the glacier so it was time to go. We still had the rest of the afternoon to make the over-three-hour drive to El Chaltén.
By 12:30pm, we were back at El Calafate. Julie insisted that we have a lunch in town before we left town. Given that the Argentinean Peso was around 3 times less than the US Dollar and their proportions were generous, we ended up ordering way too much food (thinking we were just getting a beef sandwich and tiny wheel of pizza). Not one to waste food, we forced it down before the long drive.
And off we went at 1:15pm. The road headed further east into the arid and blustery desert past the airport turnoff and then north on the famed Ruta 40, which stretched several thousand kilometers along the eastern spine of the Andes Mountains straddling the border between Chile and Argentina.
The scenery as we headed north to El Chaltén reminded me of something we might have seen along Hwy 395 along the Eastern Sierra in California. Except here, we could see bright blue-green lakes in the distance, snow-capped mountains with glaciers, and the odd wild guanaco crossing the road and jumping over fences like they weren’t even there.
The route was mostly paved, but then we got to a part where we had to make a detour (desvio) onto a long unpaved part. I had read that the government wanted to pave all of Ruta 40, and it looked like it this current road work was part of that effort. It was just a matter of time before Ruta 40 would be completely paved.
During the drive, we tried hard not to fall asleep from food coma all the while watching rabbits scurry out of the way before our truck and passing by a handful of estancias (ranches) hugging the dusty road. After a couple of hours, the road eventually went paved again and it wasn’t much longer before we had to head west on Ruta 23 towards El Chaltén.
We could already see the signature profile skyline of the Fitz Roy Massif, which only hastened us even more. The road followed the north side of Lago Viedma. When stealing a glance across the lake, we could see glaciers and more peaks way out in the distance.
With each passing minute, the Fitz Roy peaks were getting larger and more imposing. The road then went unpaved as it undulated towards the well-hidden town of El Chaltén right at the foothills of the Andes. The weather this afternoon was quite good as we could clearly see all the major peaks of the skyline though the Cerro Torre further back in the skyline was covered in clouds.
At 4:30pm, we made a brief stop at the visitor center, where we heard the ranger give a quick talk about the hiking trails and emphasize the wilderness ethics. You could tell they really try to keep the park in pristine condition and it further reinforced my sense that Argentineans just get it when it comes to taking care of their Nature and trying to maintain some semblance of sustainable tourism. I’m sure our government could learn a few things from Argentineans, which is kind of ironic considering the US invented the land management principles and policies of National Parks – perhaps our country’s greatest contribution to the modern world.
In any case, it appeared the town was quite well situated as all major trails seemed to start from town. That was good because we were a bit tired from our long drive from El Calafate and we had to find the Hostería El Paraiso, which was where we were staying for the next two nights. Again, the winds were howling as we arrived at the humble accommodation. Unfortunately, they didn’t take credit cards here so we had to muster up some spare US dollars to pay for accommodation as our Argentinean Pesos in hand were insufficient to cover the cost.
Just before 6pm with still plenty of daylight left in the day, we took the opportunity to see our first main waterfall of the trip – El Chorrillo del Salto. And so we drove through the dusty streets of town towards the trailhead. The town really reminded me of the old Wild West as all roads were unpaved with mostly backpackers and locals walking the streets. In fact, cars seemed to be the less common mode of transportation here.
As we drove past the Campamento Madsen, the road hugged the elevated banks of the Río de las Vueltas. We saw a signed trailhead for Chorrillo del Salto, but then another sign saying the car park (estacionamento) was another kilometer away.
Under the impression that the car park would make us backtrack and walk the extra kilometer, we parked our car at one of the many pullouts near the apparent trailhead.
After about 15 minutes of walking, I realized that the trail seemed to parallel the road. And not much longer, we walked right into a car park. It was yet another lesson learned that we ought to obey the signs!
Anyways, the real trail proceeded beyond the car park and within a few minutes, we were within the shady confines of Chorrillo del Salto. Given the low light of shadowy cove, I was glad I brought along a compact Giotto tripod for the obligatory long exposure photograph of the 15-20m waterfall.
By 7:30pm, we were back at the car and headed back to town. We decided to eat at Ruca Mahuida, which was allegedly the best restaurant the town had to offer. The food was quite good considering we were paying much less than what we expected to pay for something this upscale. I had venison while Julie had salmon. We made pleasant conversation with the waitress who came down here from Bariloche in the Lakes District of Argentinean Patagonia and knew enough english to expand the range of topics we could talk about as opposed to an all spanish conversation.
At 9pm, we returned to Hostería El Paraiso where we had a comfortable hot shower and slept for the night. The winds were howling all night long and I wondered whether that meant the clouds might obscure the Fitz Roy Peaks for tomorrow’s long hike (we intended to do the 8-hour plus Laguna de Los Tres trail). Weather definitely makes a difference when the scenery depends on high elevation attractions.