Immediately after our arrival, the mountain village of El Chaltén had captivated us. Marina already knew it inside out from her work as a tour guide, but for Christian, was a premiere. Even the approach on the road, which goes for several kilometers directly towards the impressive mountain silhouette, takes your breath away and gets longer and longer with numerous photo stops. Once you pass the village's entrance gates, the tourists in typical hiking outfits, local residents doing their daily shopping, and walkers all around are the first view. Since there's light here until almost 10pm and we were early, we checked into our guesthouse for the night, grabbed our hiking boots and immediately set off for the closest viewpoints above the village. The strong wind makes the climb more difficult than expected, and once you reach the top, you literally have to be careful not to get blown over. But the view is worth it, what a welcome! After we had seen our fill, we stopped at one of the many small cervecerías in the village and enjoyed the glorious evening sun. However, we had company very soon. Two of Marina's friends came by and the surprise was perfect: Fernanda was leading the first tour group after the Corona break and Flor was on vacation with the family. Small world! After sunset it gets cold quickly so we prepared our backpacks for the first big mountain tour the next day, enjoyed the hot shower and were finally looking forward to a real bed after four nights in the tent.
The next morning was the next premiere: an included breakfast! This turned out, typical Argentine, quite simple, but we enjoyed it anyway, for the first time on our trip we had breakfast served. After that, all the stuff was loaded into the Gaucha and we left it loaded but safe in the parking lot of our cabanas for the next four nights. For the second night we had deliberately not booked accommodation because we wanted to spend it in the last camp below the legendary Cerro Fitz Roy. The hiking luggage though, weighted a few kilos more; we dragged our spacious, comfortable but also super-heavy Canadian tent together with sleeping bag and sleeping mat up. We started fully loaded and highly motivated, accompanied by bright sunshine our tour. The first kilometers went leisurely uphill until we reached the plateau, from where we had the first super views into the valley and to our delight also to the summit. This is by no means normal, because the mountain, Chaltén in the language of the locals, mean smoky mountain. The vast majority of the time, due to its exposed position, it is covered by clouds. The constant wind drives the clouds along the mountain range and very often they get stuck at the summit. Therefore, the locals used to think that it must have been a volcano. In reality, however, the many-peaked mountain silhouette is made of granite stone and shows the remains of a mountain massif originally covered by a huge glacier. The glacier eroded the rock over thousands of years and has long since disappeared. Driven by the enchanting nature, we reached the camp after three hours of Patagonian ups and downs and set up our tent in record time. Besides us, some other campers were already there and after a short breathe we started the last part with much lighter backpacks. Again on the trail 1.5 hours steeply uphill in stony serpentines until we finally stood at the top. What a sight: the pompous 3400 m high Fitz Roy, named after the English captain who once came to Patagonia together with Charles Darwin in his legendary ship, the Beagle, towers high above a turquoise blue lagoon, the "Laguna de los tres". The cloudless blue sky and the bright sun made the spectacle perfect. After greeting the little fox, which roams around up here completely relaxed, we explored the lagoon and immediately discovered a second one from a hill, including a mini-glacier in the background. Fascinated by so many colors, nature and impressions we spent the whole afternoon up there and returned to our tent only in the dusk. Of course, there were no showers or food up there, but we had our empanadas ready. We watched the moon, brushed our teeth and went to sleep early. A mountain guide advised us to start the climb again already around 4 am the next morning to experience the sunrise at the top. And that was exactly the plan =)
At 3:30 a.m. the alarm clock rang and after a short overcoming, we pulled ourselves together and marched half an hour later with headlamps through the cold darkness. We were by far not the only ones. The way up was almost brightly lit by twinkling headlamps, as the group of French photographers had apparently set off well before us. So we formed the end of the chain of lights and started the ascent, familiar now from the previous day. This was much more difficult in the cold and at the early hour, but fortunately it became brighter by the minute and punctually at 5:30 we were again at the top. The French had already positioned their cameras and after another 10 minutes of waiting, the time had come: the first sunrays of the day flashed across the lagoon and painted the peaks in a morning pink. Sensational! We wrapped ourselves in the sleeping bag we had brought with us, warmed ourselves with hot tea and enjoyed the natural spectacle to the fullest. A short time later, the sun had risen and finally warmed us from above as well. After we had enjoyed enough a second time, we headed downhill again. After a short siesta in the tent we though what we were doing after. Since we were very early and the day seemed to be as spectacular as the previous day, we decided to skip the descent to town and instead we went directly to the next highlight: the Cerro and Laguna Torre. The big bummer of this new plan was the extra luggage that we carried with us, which became noticeable with every kilometer. A wonderful almost level hiking trail, passing two more lagoons, through green meadows, forests and along a river was worth it. When we turned on the way to Cerro Torre, we hid everything extra in the bushes and started the last six kilometers to the lagoon with much lighter luggage. A good hour later we stood in front of the second lagoon of the day and looked up happy the 3130 m high summit of Cerro Torre. We were mainly amazed by the large icebergs floating in the lagoon. Flashed, tired and exhausted, we lay down on the big stones on the beach and rested with feet in the water. Two hours later we woke up with a slight sunburn, enjoyed one last view of the summit and started the 9 km way back. We found our hidden things immediately and two and a half hours later we reached El Chaltén with the last energy. We stopped at the same bar and ordered beer, burgers and fried, and we toasted on the sun terrace to two outstanding days, 30 run kilometers and unforgettable glacier moments, before we, after a particularly extensive hot shower in our small but neat hut, fell into bed.
The next two days, unfortunately, the sun was no longer seen, instead we had some heavy rain, but in fact this was just what we needed. We used the break to rest, relax and plan our trip further. Something we liked in El Chaltén was the food. Even as a small town, there are excellent small, family-run restaurants that serve as the highlight sometimes, such as "La Tapera", where we had lamb stew on a table with a view of Fitz Roy. Here we met Neil, Marina's Canadian colleague, who was on tour with two travelers from Switzerland and Canada and arranged to go hiking with them in the coming days. We also met Marina's colleague Nacho, who had arrived in El Chaltén with the second tour group of the season and was very happy about our visit, as well as Gabo, another former colleague, who was on his honeymoon with his wife. The sun cam back again the next day and we got on two wheels for a change. With a van we went early in the morning over the gravel road up to Lago Desierto, where we first had breakfast in a small guesthouse. On foot we explored the trails to the glacier Huemul, with a turquoise hidden lagoon, and set off for a few kilometers on the trail that leads to the Chilean border and crosses it - in normal times - after 12 km. By boat and further on foot we reached Villa O'Higgins, the southernmost Chilean town of the legendary Carretera Austral. For us it went after few kilometers back again and then with the mountain bikes by the valley for less than 40 kilometers. On the spectacular route from the huge Lago del Desierto along the river "Rio de las vueltas", which washes the glacier water from the mountains back to the village of El Chaltén, we left plenty of time for many small stops and breaks. The bumpy gravel road and the increasing wind were demanding for us, but it was also great fun and partly had something of windsurfing. At the Refugio de Montana, at the beautiful Laguna Condor, we were ready for a siesta on the beach. It was too windy so it was a short one. The refugio was surprisingly cosy and even had an outdoor jacuzzy powered by coal. Since we had to return the bikes by 8 p.m., we set off again after our lunch break, always heading downhill. We also kept an our eyes ready to spot a huemul, the Patagonian deer, which like the puma, can only be seen very rarely and with lot of luck. Unfortunately, we did not have luck, but instead had delicious cake and hot coffee in the pension Bonanza, before we mastered the last piece and shortly before closing time in El Chaltén. We ended the super day trip in a Cervecería and felt on the way to our cabanas already the sore muscles in the butt on the next days come - but it was worth it to us all the time =)
Soon it was time to say goodbye to the mountain village of El Chaltén and continue for three and a half hours to El Calafate, 200 km away, the tourist hub in southern Patagonia with almost 30,000 inhabitants. El Calafate has a lot to offer: Restaurants, breweries, traditional estancias surrounded by wild nature on Lago Argentino and, of course, the famous Perito Moreno glacier as an absolute highlight. We booked ourselves in for three nights with Nestor and his brother and moved into one of his comfortable apartments on the outskirts of town. The two made a funny duo, were super friendly hosts and were visibly happy about our visit. Right on the first day, after an extensive and very entertaining breakfast with the two hosts, we were drawn out to the glacier, which was named after the Argentine Perito Moreno. After a good hour we reached the national park and half an hour later we were standing in front of the impressive white ice wall. Once again the weather was great and although we had both already visited the glacier, we were thrilled to be there. As one of the largest glaciers of the southern Patagonian ice field it impresses above all by its tongue ending in the Lago Argentino, from which parts of the gigantic ice masses constantly fall down into the water. The walk trails reach so close to the glacier in some places that you can hear, see and experience the spectacle of the ice breaking out live. In bright sunshine, this is an outstanding natural spectacle that you can easily watch all day long. Prepared with enough provisions, we walked along the many wooden paths and were allowed to witness some spectacular ice break-offs. At the end of the day, one of the paths led us down to the beach of the lake, where we had a siesta on the stones in front of the ice floes floating by - truly not the worst place. Back to the Gaucha, we drove at dusk along the winding road of the national park back to El Calafate. After a hot shower, we treated ourselves to a fabulous grilled lamb platter at the Don Pichon restaurant, with great views over the town, before heading back to the apartment to prepare for the planned hike with Neil and his two guests the next day.
Our last day in El Calafate was again very activd. At 9 a.m. we picked up our three hiking friends at the hotel and roared out with the Gaucha for an hour to the remote Cerro Cristal. Griffin, Neil's Canadian guest, was totally enthusiastic about the Gaucha the whole way, and Andrea, a Swiss, kept us in entertained on the back seat. In the middle of nowhere there was a parking lot where we left the Gaucha for a bit, and started the quite challenging hike up to Cerro Cristales, where a 360 degree view over the Andes was waiting for us. In serpentines we first went up through green meadows and pastures, before the vegetation became more and more sparse and the path stonier. Then we had already passed the tree line and found ourselves in a rocky landscape. In our backs there were already sensational views into the valley, to the Perito Moreno glacier and with increasing altitude we could guess more and more what would await us at the top. The last part was very challenging, the path meandered but very steeply up the rugged rock, with now strong wind. But after just under two and a half hours we reached the summit and we could enjoy: a fabulous view over the Andes Cordillera, up to the mountains of the Torres del Paine massif in Chile, the white Perito Moreno glacier and the blue shimmering Lago Rocca and Lago Argentino - sensational! Strengthened by a summit snack and changed with fresh clothes, we walked back down to the Gaucha, which was waiting for us at the bottom. Griffin's dream came true on the way back, when we offered him to take the wheel of the Gaucha and brought us safely back to El Calafate. After saying goodbye to our three travel guests, we took a break in the apartment before the next culinary highlight: dinner in a cave above Lago Argentino. With a slight delay we were picked up by Nacho in a Defender and of course he was amazed when he saw the Gaucha in front of our door. We took a seat in the back and let him drive us through the dusk to the legendary caves. Already on the ride we learned a lot of historical details about the region and the geography of Patagonia. At the back seat with us was an Argentine couple with whom we immediately made friends and had a great evening. The first stop was at a viewpoint from where we marveled at the sun setting over the lake. Then we went to the caves, where wrapped with warm ponchos, we saw ancient paintings and had their meaning explained in detail before arriving at the main cave decorated with tables, chairs and candles, where we were served a simple but delicious dinner in a unique atmosphere: Pumpkin soup, lamb stew and chocolate mousse, accompanied by a super red wine. Walking through the starry night, we went back to the cars with lanterns and then back to the apartments. What a great experience! But the day was not finished yet, we still had one more appointment. At almost midnight we met for a beer with Marina's friend Ceci, who is a guide in the glacier and was back in town today. Afterwards we fell into bed happy but dead tired and were excited about the upcoming onward journey to Ushuaia, the southern end of the world =)