Chile and Argentina: Great Patagonian Traverse – Glaciers and More Glaciers, Muchas Gracias
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Patagonia, ooh la la. As 2016 was fast approaching on the horizon and a significant milestone for my partner’s birthday looming, we went researching around for another adventure – Great Patagonian Traverse.
The opening of a new route linking Chile and Argentina offered a traverse of untouched national parks, from the Southern Ice cap to the towers of Torres del Paine – and everything in between.
We have travelled the length and breadth of South America numerous times, and thoroughly enjoyed the people, culture and food. So, looking for something different, we picked out this relatively new 15 day trip to enjoy (Great Patagonian Traverse with World Expeditions) – with a mix of estancia homestay and refugios for accommodation.
We joined the trip in Balmaceda, Chile where it was a chilly 8 degrees celsius – and this was summer. By comparison, it was a balmy 26 degrees celsius in Santiago when we left earlier in the morning, but we were heading south after all – way south.
We had signed up for this supported hike with a small group of eight people – two Italians, one Kiwi and the rest Aussies. The opportunity provided us a traverse of Patagonia, travelling its length from Coyhaique in the North to Puerto Natales in the South, via Chile and Argentina. The majority was was on foot, some by bus, and other by boat via some of the most captivating and untouched national parks in the region.
Our journey took us via Villa O’Higgins, before joining a boat to cross Lago O’Higgins, with the Southern Patagonian ice field in our midst – the world’s second largest contiguous extrapolar ice field. At about 16,800 sq km, it is second only to southeastern Alaska’s approximately 25,000 sq km St. Elias-Kluane-Malaspina-Eastern Chugach Ice Field.
A recently opened pass between the shores of Lago O’Higgins in Chile and Laguna del Desierto in Argentina offered a unique way to continue the traverse and offered a side to Patagonia rarely seen by other trekkers.
Of course, no trip to Patagonia would be complete without trekking in the Paine National Park.
There we completed the ‘W’ trek and enjoyed forays to the Grey Glacier, up the French Valley and the Ascension Valley before finally ascending to the base of Torres del Paine for one of the most unforgettable mountain views in the world – it’s a long slog of around 1,000m (3,280ft) ascent and decent (7-8 hours return) but well worth it in the end.
Other highlights of the trip included spending New Year’s eve in the quaint hiking and climbing village of El Chalten, Argentina.
Like the locals, we partied hard into the early morning and during the ‘fog’ of alcohol and great company, forgot we had a 5-6 hour hike ahead of us the next day. After a not so early start, lots of water was consumed to rehydrate, suffice to say it was slow going.
A cruise on Lago O’Higgins was another highlight. After getting up close and personal to an iceberg or three that had broken away from the icefield, a couple of the boat crew went off in a Zodiac to chip away some ice which people duly had with a glass of whiskey – I’m sure that enhanced the age of the whiskey somewhat.
Onwards and upwards!
- Pack gaiters and hiking poles, especially for the muddy section hiking on foot across the border of Chile into Argentina (around 15km) – by the way, there is no sign that you’ve crossed into Argentina so you have to either guess for yourself or carry a GPS with the coordinates.
- Ensure you’ve had your Chile exit stamped in your passport at the small shed just outside Candelario Mancilla.
- Now, depending on the opening hours (Chile time remember), you may be anxious to proceed to cross the border. But without that stamp, you will be held up at the other end where the Argentinean border post is (Laguna del Desierto) and miss the ferry – as one poor unfortunate soul nearly did. But he was able to talk his way around – after much shouting and yelling he heard that wonderful sound only a stamp pad and stamp on your passport can make.
- It may assist to understand or speak some Spanish – don’t make the mistake of saying ‘si’ to everything the Spanish speaking border official says. One person did and was just about to receive an exit stamp instead of an entry one.
- Glaciers – too many to mention, but definitely take a camera. You can recharge your electronics in the refugios.
- At the conclusion of the trip, it’s definitely worthwhile spending an extra day or two in Punta Arenas (the gateway to the Antarctic and where from many Antarctic expeditions leave). From there, around 2-3 flights a day depart for Santiago or elsewhere depending on your next destination.
- Watch out for the local gauchos herding their flock of sheep and guanacos, especially during mating season – they can be very flighty.
- Best time to hike the Patagonia area is January – February, when the weather is more stable and you have clear sunny days, though the weather can change in an instant given the location so always go fully prepared.