2020 Patagonia. ARGENTINA: Bariloche & Los Glaciares. CHILE: Torres del Paine.

The beautiful parks of Patagonia attracted me for a second visit (January 28–March 7, 2020), escaping from dark Seattle winter to sunny South American summer. Meticulous planning created an active outdoor self-guided trip for 40 days with my brother Dave and sister-in-law Rebecca.

Phase 1 began in Argentina with a flight from Buenos Aires to the resort town of Bariloche. For 11 flexible days in a rental car, we looped south on Argentina’s Ruta 40 then returned north via Chile’s Carretera Austral. The trip started strongly with a fun overnight trek to Meiling Refuge, perched high on a flank of glacier-capped Tronador volcano. Seven tall waterfalls plunged from a hanging glacier. Further south we explored Butch Cassidy’s Ranch, Los Alerces National Park, and colorfully prehistoric Cave of Hands. Crossing into Chile towards Andes icecaps encountered twistier gravel roads along Lake General Carrera, to reach dusty Carretera Austral, Ruta CH-7. A 2-hour boat tour revealed the marvels of Marble Chapel Nature Sanctuary. On foot we admired the High Lakes loop in Chile’s new Patagonia National Park; Laguna Cerro Castillo; and Queulat National Park‘s spectacular Hanging Glacier.

In Phase 2, we flew south to El Calafate to rent another car for 14 days. Moreno Glacier’s calving and crashing ice fascinated us for hours from intimate boardwalks. An extra day in town allowed time for cruising remote parts of beautiful turquoise Lake Argentino to see impressive Spegazzini Glacier and more. Further north in Los Glaciares National Park, I re-experienced my favorite piece of Patagonia, based for 10 days in the hikers’ paradise of El Chalten under magnificent Mount Fitz Roy.

In Phase 3, we bused round trip from Argentina’s El Calafate into Chile to trek for 9 days on the wonderful W Route in Torres del Paine National Park. (Dave & Rebecca went on to cruise Antarctica, which unexpectedly added 7 days extra cruising from Ushuaia to Montevideo, Uruguay due to COVID-19 border closures!)

Favorite Patagonia photos from 2020


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WHAT’S NEW in 2020 since my last visits to Patagonia in 2005 and 1993?

Fulfilled by our 2005 trip to Patagonia and Antarctica, my wife Carol stayed in the USA to do an Asilomar quilt workshop in February 2020.

Still my favorite Patagonian destination, Argentina’s El Chalten resort has expanded since 15 years ago, yet retains a vibrant young pioneer vibe. Founded in 1985 as a stake in a boundary dispute with Chile, El Chalten is the youngest town in Argentina. Its easy-going residents are now here for the love of these majestic mountains. On a flexible schedule optimized with the weather forecast, we hiked many wonderful trails from comfortable lodging. Both traditional Argentine asado (ritual barbecue) and excellent yuppie restaurants have sprouted from the desert steppe. I highly recommend Resto El Muro which serves delicious perfectly-barbecued trout, lamb, beef, and vegetables. Paving the highway RP23 to El Chalten by 2009 has reduced travel time from El Calafate, from 4.5 hours down to 2.5 hours by car (3 hours by bus).

From El Calafate, a short drive into Los Glaciares National Park revisited magnificent Moreno Glacier, which calved and crashed icebergs into Lago Argentino, captured in the following video:

During my 1993 visit with four family members in a new South Korean rental van, we drove and ferried for 25 days round trip from Santiago to Chiloé Island via Chile’s scenic Lake District. On the remote gravel Carretera Austral, reaching 25 km south of Chaiten allowed us to admire yet another Andean volcano, Michinmahuida. South of us lay 730 kilometers of little-known highway reaching as far as Cochrane. We pondered, “what wonders might lie on that rough, remote road?” Some answers came 27 years later on our 2020 trip. In 2017, Michinmahuida became part of Pumalín Douglas Tompkins National Park, which bisects Chile and is South America’s largest national park. After successfully co-founding The North Face and Esprit with his first wife Susie Tompkins Buell, Douglas Tompkins and his second wife Kris Tompkins made the largest ever private gifts of land to a country, leading to the creation of Patagonia National Park (see my photos below), Pumalín, Corcovado, and other parks.

In 2000, pushing Chile’s Carretera Austral to Villa O’Higgins unleashed a new distance-bicycling and pedestrian adventure route connecting into Argentina, via a series of ferries and buses to Lago del Desierto and El Chalten mountain resort. Potholed gravel surface and choking dust haven’t discouraged the many bicycling, busing, and hitchhiking tourists who we encountered emerging from this remote route in 2020!

Today, the Carretera Austral (“Southern Way”, Ruta CH-7) has been completed for 1,240 kilometers (770 miles) from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins, opening previously-isolated rural Patagonia. Only ~100,000 people live along this lifeline, with the largest city being Coyhaique (population 57,000), a thriving hub that bustled with activity during our visit in 2020, as we looped back to Bariloche.

In the remoter parts of Patagonian, finding lodging in high season can be a gamble. Tents, pads, and sleeping bags reassured us as backup and let us stay in Patagonia National Park without paying expensive lodge rates. In cities with cell or Wi-Fi signal, Booking.com (sponsored) served us well to compare and find the next night’s lodging, setting clear expectations at a good discount. Pre-booking with AirBnb.com also proved valuable.

Back in 2005, right as we tried to enter Torres del Paine National Park, a careless camper in an unauthorized area caused a fire which closed the park for 3 days, shortening our planned W Route from 8 days to 5. Sadly in early summer of 2012, another careless camper caused a huge fire which burnt 10% of the Park, creating damage which is still prominently visible from most park roads and along the W Route from Refugio Grey to Skottsberg lake. Majestic forests that I remember from 2005 were decimated, leaving vast areas of eerie twisted tree snags rising from shrubby regrowth. With the help of careful replanting, the slow-growing lenga beech trees will take 200 years to recover. Crowding now impacts some areas such as the Mirador Base Las Torres Trail at midday. At the trail junction entrance to spectacular French Valley, the overused Campamento Italiano reeked of human waste; so “O Route” hikers should instead pay the price premium for Camping Francés or more-scenic Camping Los Cuernos. Thankfully, to prevent the Park from being loved to death, the total overnight capacity is now tightly controlled for both camping and lodging; although consequently, overnight visitors must book 6 months in advance. Despite fire damage, under-staffing, and some overcrowded hot spots, the park remains a magnificent treasure to behold, listed by UNESCO as a World Biosphere Reserve.

In my following video from Torres del Paine National Park, calving icefalls crash in avalanches from Cerro Paine Grande; powerful wind throws Dave off balance on a swing bridge, whips the surface of Skottsberg lake, and whirls mist on Lake Nordenskjöld; and the world’s southernmost parrot species flirts and chirps (the austral parakeet):

Money: US$ cash is king in Argentina

As of February 2020, all Argentine ATMs charge exorbitant fees (8% minimum) and by law restrict the amount withdrawn. I could get at most AR$8000 per transaction with a fixed fee of AR$630 per withdrawal yielding a dismal 56 pesos per US dollar (at Banelco ATM, whereas other ATMs were costlier). To avoid exorbitant ATM fees in Argentina, bring from home enough United States dollars cash as crisp NEW paper $20 and $10 bills. Or if uncomfortable carrying cash on the airplane, then wire US dollars from your home bank to a Western Union office in Argentina (only available in Buenos Aires and a few other major cities) to convert into pesos.

Credit cards are conveniently accepted at almost all groceries and gas stations in Patagonia, but many other businesses may not accept them. Credit cards followed the daily official bank rate (~61 pesos per US dollar), which in Argentina can be 10-25% less than you get for US$ cash at street rates. Make sure your card charges zero international fees, like Costco Visa. Many accommodations accept a credit card to hold the booking but usually give a better rate if paid in cash, especially US$ currency.

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Phase 1: Bariloche 11 days car rental: loop Argentina’s Ruta 40 to Chile’s Carretera Austral

Car versus RV or camper

To best explore Patagonia by RV, fly to Puerto Montt or Punta Arenas in Chile. Check out Wicked Campers in Puerto Varas or Punta Arenas. Or try Rolling Patagonia in Coyhaique, in central Patagonia. See “Patagonia flight tips” at bottom for planning logistics.

In Argentina, Bariloche doesn’t yet rent RVs or campers. So several months in advance, we pre-booked a compact car. We found lodging for 9 nights of 12 in Phase 1. The remaining 3 nights used tents, pads, and sleeping bags brought from home (plus sleeping bags were later used once in Phase 2).

Sadly, miscommunication with a third-party booking site (ArgusCarHire) disallowed our initial Argentine rental car to enter Chile, which had been our main goal, starting from Bariloche. If you plan to enter Chile from Argentina, contact your rental car supplier directly (such as Modena in Bariloche) a week in advance to double-check their progress in obtaining a Chile-approved car and required paperwork (about US$60 extra). Luckily, we negotiated a replacement car to come three days later (giving us a superior clutch in a newer vehicle that didn’t require jump-starting).

ARGENTINA: Bariloche and Tronador Section of Nahuel Huapi National Park


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Throughout our flexible 11 days with a car rented from Bariloche, we were able to find lodging or tent-camping either spontaneously or booked a day in advance. Although we had booked both the first and last nights’ accommodations in Bariloche, I regretted that the last night was nonrefundable, because on night 3 we found lakeside Villa Huapi outside of town to be superior in value to our booking at the aging Apart Costa Azul.

An open schedule plus a good weather window realized a spontaneous Friday plan with pinpoint timing: driving from Bariloche to Los Rapidos cutoff point on the road to Pampa Linda Trailhead, before the daily 2:00 pm one-way-road reversal. A sunny mid-afternoon start allowed time to hike 12 kilometers with 1046 meters gain (7.5 miles, 3400 ft up) through a lovely forest with soaring trees, to popular Refugio Otto Meiling, arriving at sunset in time for second dinner! Gardeners like me recognize the bright red drooping flowers of native hardy fuchsia (Fuchsia magellanica) growing in the understory.

Conveniently, Refugio Otto Meiling (external link) welcomes all, doesn’t take reservations, and serves good, hearty meals. I loved the crepe dessert with fresh raspberry jam! The down side was a dormitory floor tightly-packed with dozens of snoring bodies. Reaching the downstairs bathroom for midnight pee required balancing a tightrope between faces and feet on bouncy mats! The trail gives spectacular views of 7+ waterfalls plunging from Castaño Overo Glacier, best seen from the easy side trip to Mirador Castaño Overo (great for day hikers), done during our descent the next day.

With an altitude of 3470 m, the extinct stratovolcano of Tronador stands more than 1000 meters above nearby mountains in the Andean massif, making it a popular climb. The sound of falling seracs helped name the volcano Tronador, Spanish for “Thunderer.” Located inside two National Parks, Nahuel Huapi in Argentina and Vicente Pérez Rosales in Chile, Tronador hosts eight glaciers, which are retreating due to warming of the upper troposphere.

ARGENTINA: Los Alerces National Park; Butch Cassidy’s Ranch


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We drove south on Ruta 40 through popular hippie town El Bolsón and turned southwest on RP71.

Near the end of their career, Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and Etta Place tried settling down to make an honest living from 1901–05 near the quiet farming community of Cholila, outside the northeast entrance of what is now Parque Nacional Los Alerces. Visiting their restored ranch enlivens history, off the radar.

Paving turned to dirt as we entered Los Alerces National Park (honored on UNESCO’s World Heritage List). An hour paid for parking allowed time to stroll across Pasarela Rio Arrayanes pedestrian bridge to a pleasant overlook on Lago Verde. We learned that seeing the ancient Alerces trees (Fitzroya cupressoides, the largest tree species in South America) would have required a boat tour consuming most of a day, for which we sadly lacked the time. Near sunset, we ate the dust of a dozen other cars exiting the park’s windy roads, to eventually reach our nice two-bedroom cabin with kitchen booked in Esquel (Cabañas Lorien, US$63).

ARGENTINA: Cave of Hands


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We departed Esquel to rejoin Ruta 40, driving 6 hours south to an apartment Sol y Luna booked in the sleepy town of Perito Moreno, in Santa Cruz Province. The next day we drove south to Cave of Hands on remote paved and steep gravel roads, 169 km (105 miles) south of town. Along the roadside flocked exotic creatures including Darwin’s rhea or ñandu, and countless wild guanacos (parent species of the domesticated llama).

Located in a scenic canyon of the Pinturas River, the Cave of Hands (Cueva de las Manos) displays some of the earliest known human art in the Americas, protected for millennia under the rim of a dry canyon. This striking artwork is honored on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Dating to around 5000 BCE, the silhouette paintings of mostly left hands were sprayed using a bone pipe held in the right hand. The age of the paintings was calculated from pigments found in layers of charcoal from human fires and bone remains of the spraying pipes. The hunting scenes (mostly guanaco) and representations of animals and human life all date older than the stenciled hands, to around 7300 BCE. Visiting these exquisite artworks requires a low-cost tour led by one of the park caretakers/interpreters who live on site. The Visitor Center provides exhibits and restrooms.

After being inspired by this vibrant prehistoric art, we returned to Perito Moreno and turned west. Following Lake Buenos Aires, we crossed into Chile at Chile Chico, where the water’s name changes to Lago General Carrera.

CHILEAN CUSTOMS WARNING

Fresh or dried food cannot be brought into Chile (via car, bicycle, or airplane) such as: fresh meat, fish, groceries, milk, fresh fruits, dried fruits, fresh vegetables, even food bars (such as containing honey). Declare all food, so that disallowed food will be simply confiscated instead of incurring fines. Due to this inspection, be prepared for border delays.

CHILE: Patagonia National Park and Rio Baker


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The pavement from Argentina ends in gravel immediately west of Chile Chico, where Saturday’s delivery of vegetables and fresh foods, sourced from distant Chilean suppliers, were now empty shelves on Tuesday. Prolonged Patagonian border disputes between Chile and Argentina have historically chilled relations and discouraged trade, isolating this remote town. Cabañas Cueva del Indio provided a comfortable new 2-bedroom apartment with kitchen for US$71.

The next day, we drove towards the ice-capped Andes on panoramic Ruta 265 along glacially-carved General Carrera Lake, which surprisingly drains westwards to the Pacific Ocean, via Bertrand Lake and the voluminous Baker River. The coast of the lake was first inhabited by criollos and European immigrants 1900–1925. In 1971 and 1991, eruptions of Hudson Volcano severely affected the local economy, especially sheep farming.

We turned south on Carretera Austral (CH-7) for 30 km to reach Salto Rio Baker, an impressive cascade which boils just above the colorful confluence of rivers Baker and Neff, just north of Cochrane in Capitán Prat Province. As Chile’s largest river by volume, Rio Baker dazzles your eyes with bright turquoise-blue color, caused by glacial sediments. Rio Baker was the proposed site of a controversial major hydro-electric project called HidroAysén, involving five dams, to be the biggest in the history of Chile. After the project was opposed by Chilean and international environmental activist groups, Chile’s Committee of Ministers denied its permit in 2014. Due to growing human demands, few rivers this large in the world remain undammed and free flowing.

Just north of Cochrane, camping in Chile’s new Patagonia National Park for two nights in Los West Winds Campground (external link) (CLP$8000 Chilean pesos or US$11 per person per night) avoided high Lodge rates ($600 triple, $500 double). From our tent doorsteps, we enjoyed hiking the Lagunas Altas Loop Trail (21 km round trip with 1100 m cumulative gain). Intensive ranching on this former estancia caused overgrazing, but through restoration and rewilding, native grasslands have recovered, wildlife has returned, and more people are employed now than when it was a ranch. Top-notch park infrastructure includes a classy Museum and Visitor Center, Lodge, Restaurant, campgrounds, and trails. The park’s inspirational story is a shining bellwether for the recovery of abused land in Patagonia and elsewhere.

Patagonia National Park (external link) consists of the Tompkins Conservation donation in addition to the former national reserves of Jeinimeni and Tamango, plus fiscal land. Parque Patagonia was created by Conservacion Patagonica, a nonprofit incorporated in California and founded in 2000 by Kris Tompkins, former CEO of Patagonia, Inc. In January 2018, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and Kris Tompkins signed a decree creating 5 national parks, including Parque Patagonia, which now attract ever more Chileans and others to appreciate this remote corner of the world.

CHILE: Marble Chapel Nature Sanctuary (Capillas de Mármol), on General Carrera Lake


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A surprising number of motorboats plied the beautiful “Marble Caves”, officially called the Marble Chapel Nature Sanctuary (Capillas de Mármol), starting from Bahía Manso on General Carrera Lake. Services in the little town of Puerto Rio Tranquilo were clearly overwhelmed by the summer onslaught of bus package tours, bike packers, rental cars, and desperate hitchhikers. You can join a Marble Caves tour in Puerto Río Tranquilo; or save money and time like we did, by driving directly 8 km south to Bahía Manso, where we spontaneously joined a 2-hour tour boat on short notice. The best time is a sunny summer morning in calmer waters. The precipitous side road down to Bahía Manso was nervously passable with our 2-wheel-drive compact Volkswagen Suran (Highline), but if the road is wet, 4WD might be required to untrap your car.

CHILE: Cerro Castillo; Carretera Austral


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Continuing north, our long days rattling over dusty gravel roads were suddenly relieved by smooth new concrete paving on Carretera Austral just south of Villa Cerro Castillo, a growing pioneer town in Coyhaique Province. Urbanization is marching southwards. As more-famous Patagonian treks become overcrowded, international adventurers increasingly seek alternatives, such as multi-night backpacking routes in Cerro Castillo National Reserve. Along with more than a hundred like-minded travelers, we day-hiked the Reserve’s main gem at Mirador Laguna Cerro Castillo, 14 km round trip with 1082 m gain (8.5 miles with 3550 feet). Steep basalt walls of the mountain Cerro Castillo resemble a castle (or Castillo in Spanish). Hostel & Camping Sendero Patagonia supplied a cheap tent site with great view, but the shared kitchen and shower house were aging and messy, plus Wi-Fi was broken. After the hike, driving north 75 km to Coyhaique, cellphone service allowed finding a beautiful apartment at Cabañas Río Claro, on short notice.

CHILE: Queulat National Park; Futaleufu


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Waterfalls plunge spectacularly from Queulat Hanging Glacier, in Queulat National Park, in Aysen Province. The Glacier extends from the Queulat ice cap, which borders Ventisquero Sound (actually a fjord, carved by glaciers) in northern Puyuhuapi Channel.

Sendero Ventisquero Colgante, the best of the park’s few trails, reaches Mirador Ventisquero Colgante (Viewpoint of Queulat Hanging Glacier). Ventisquero (or “snowdrift”) is an archaic word for “glacier” used by early South American explorers. In summer, go early in the morning to avoid crowds. Entering the park’s rutted dirt road around noon required a 45-minute wait to park, pay entrance fees, then park again. We joined the friendly international hordes walking through dense forest (4 miles or 6.6 km round trip with 1150 ft or 350 m cumulative gain). The trail is wildly popular despite some steep steps, slippery rocks, roots, and mud. Waiting in line to cross the suspension bridge, limited to 4 people at once, took 30 minutes in late afternoon to return to the car. In contrast to drier areas east of the Andes crest (such as Lake Carrera, Chacabuco Valley, and Coyhaique), windward-side Queulat National Park is one of the rainiest places (3500 – 4000 mm) in Chilean Patagonia.

Phase 2: Fly from Bariloche to El Calafate

Argentina & Chile Patagonia trip map: three Dempseys travelled from 11 February - 05 March 2020: El Calafate, Los Glaciares National Park, El Chalten, Monte Fitz Roy, Lago del Desierto, & Torres del Paine NP. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Argentina & Chile Patagonia trip map: three Dempseys travelled from 11 February – 05 March 2020: El Calafate, Los Glaciares National Park, El Chalten, Monte Fitz Roy, Lago del Desierto, & Torres del Paine NP. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

ARGENTINA: El Calafate: Perito Moreno Glacier & Spegazzini Glacier on Lake Argentino, Los Glaciares National Park

Perito Moreno Glacier‘s loud cracks, groans, and calvings captivated us for hours from intimate viewing platforms on Lake Argentino (see video near top), on a bright sunny morning in Santa Cruz Province. The magnificent Moreno Glacier is one of 48 glaciers fed by the Southern Patagonian Ice Field (the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water). Surrounded by Los Glaciares National Park, Lago Argentino is the biggest freshwater lake in Argentina and reaches as deep as 500 meters (1640 feet). Its outlet, the Santa Cruz River, flows into the Atlantic Ocean. Using 2009 data, scientists report that nearly 90 percent of the glaciers in Antarctica and Patagonia are melting quickly, as are most glaciers worldwide due to global warming. Curiously, Moreno Glacier has been a relatively stable exception for the past hundred years. Located 78 kilometers (48 mi) from El Calafate, the glacier was named after explorer Francisco Moreno, a pioneer who studied the region in the 1800s and defended the territory of Argentina in the conflict surrounding the international border dispute with Chile. Los Glaciares National Park and Reserve are honored on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.


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Three nights in El Calafate allowed time to explore remoter reaches of Los Glaciares National Park. On Lake Argentino, we boarded the ‘Maria Turquesa’ Cruiser for their enjoyable Glaciers Gourmet Full Day Sightseeing Cruise (booked two days in advance for US$120 per person, plus add their shuttle service if you don’t have a rental car). Save money by driving yourself to their La Soledad private port. The highlight for us was sailing to the striking Spegazzini Glacier. The Old Settlers’ Las Vacas Station on Spegazzini Canal Bay intrigued us with stories of historic ranchland now transitioning to National Park management, grappling with feral cows and restoration of native forest. Back on board, the provided lamb sandwich lunchbox tasted great, as we swapped stories with fellow international travelers at our table. Cloud buildup dulled photography and quieted the glaciers’ calving, so cruising to revisit Moreno Glacier paled in comparison to yesterday’s loud excitement experienced from boardwalks.

ARGENTINA: El Chalten and Mount Fitz Roy, Los Glaciares National Park

The awesome knife of Mount Fitz Roy looms ever higher as you approach El Chalten mountain resort, in Los Glaciares National Park. Don’t miss the astounding sunrise view from Mirador al Chaltén, a pullout on Ruta 23 just 2 km southeast of town.


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Prebooking a nice flat in Patagonia Hikes Aparts served as a comfy home base in El Chalten. In this hikers’ paradise we dedicated 10 days to explore the following:

  • Chorrillo del Salto waterfall is 7 km round trip from El Chalten by vehicle or on foot. Walkers can start at the end of Avenida San Martín, on the same trailhead as Laguna De los Tres, but soon taking the path to the right which parallels the road to Lago del Desierto.
  • For a homespun taste of Patagonian history, don’t miss Andreas Madsen House Museum, seen exclusively via private tour led by Walk Patagonia, starting from their office at Avenida Antonio Rojo 62 in El Chalten. Danish pioneer Andreas Madsen arrived in 1905 and built the first house in El Chaltén, on his farm named Estancia Cerro Fitz Roy. Walk an easy 6 km round trip to visit his family home along Rio de las Vueltas, within Los Glaciares National Park, with a commanding view of Cerro Fitz Roy.
  • Laguna Torre: starting at sunrise to avoid crowds, we hiked 21 km (13 miles) round trip with 730 m (2400 ft) cumulative gain to Laguna Torre (634 m or 2080 ft) and Mirador Maestri, with stunning views of Cerro Torre (3,128 m or 10,262 ft elevation). On the way out, we encountered hundreds of hikers going both directions.
  • From Mirador Loma del Pliegue Tumbado (“hill of the collapsed fold”), see Cerro Fitz Roy rising high above Laguna Torre (634 m or 2080 ft). Sadly, clouds hid Cerro Torre that day. The trailhead starts from the Los Glaciares National Park Visitor Center, going for 19 km (11.9 mi) with 1170 meters (3860 ft) cumulative gain (which I’ve hiked 3 times).
  • Laguna de Los Tres is one of the park’s most crowded, most scenic trails. Start early (ideally before sunrise) and follow Sendero Fitz Roy for 20 km round trip with 1100 meters gain. To reach the best view, slightly descend left of Laguna de Los Tres then ascend 50 m to a bare knoll overlooking both it and Lago Sucia under mighty Mount Fitz Roy.
  • Huemul Lake and Glacier: A short, steep, sweet hike 4 km round trip with 215 m gain on private land. Pay the trail entrance fee at the campground at Estancia Lago Del Desierto. Note the knife-like north face of Fitz Roy rising to the south. Directions: drive or shuttle north from El Chalten for 35 km on gravel road RP23, leaving the national park, to reach Punta Sur of Lago del Desierto, just before reaching the ferry.
  • Paso Quadrado: Rio Electrico Valley staged my favorite experience in Patagonia. North of El Chalten, we parked where the gravel road RP23 crosses Rio Electrico bridge. An easy 7.3 km hike leads to Refugio and Campground Piedra del Fraile (“Stone of the Friar”). From the refuge, a scenic half-day route visits turquoise Lago Electrico under the glacier-clad Marconi Range, then leads to rocky Lago Pollone which reflects Mount Fitz Roy (8.5 km round trip with 320 m gain). For us, hiking to Lago Pollone completed a 16 km day including the trail from the highway. The relaxed, uncrowded Refuge’s dining building served good hearty food, including delicious pizza and cakes! We slept comfortably in our sleeping bags on provided mats in a quiet 4-person dorm room. After a breakfast of cold pizza saved from last night, we ascended very steeply to the breathtaking Paso Quadrado (gaining 1340 m vertically in 8.4 km round trip). Views improved steadily during the ascent. From Piedra Negra climbers camp, you can see an icy Chilean peak rising from the South Patagonian Ice Cap, 27 km northwest. What to me resembled a ptarmigan was actually a rufous-bellied seedsnipe (Attagis gayi), a common wading bird resident in the Andes. To our delight, a pair of rare huemul (south Andean deer, Hippocamelus bisulcus) wandered across Piedra Negra. A rocky, sometimes-exposed cairned route crosses between muddy green Lago Quadrado and an unnamed pure blue lake partially covered in ice. The last kilometer climbs steep snow which could require crampons and ice axe if icy, but was passable in soft snow using our trailrunning shoes. Scrambling the last 30 meters of rock to reach Paso Quadrado requires comfort with exposure (not for those with fear of heights).
Cerro Fitz Roy (3405 meters or 11,171 feet elevation)

is also known as Cerro Chaltén, Monte Fitz Roy, or Mount Fitz Roy. The first Europeans recorded as seeing the peak were the Spanish explorer Antonio de Viedma and his companions, who in 1783 reached the shores of Viedma Lake. In 1877, Argentine explorer Francisco Moreno saw the mountain and named it Fitz Roy in honor of Robert FitzRoy who, as captain of HMS Beagle (accompanied by Charles Darwin), had traveled up the Santa Cruz River in 1834 and charted large parts of the Patagonian coast. Cerro Fitz Roy was first climbed in 1952. Cerro is a Spanish word meaning hill, while Chaltén comes from a Tehuelche word meaning “smoking mountain”, due to its frequent orographic clouds.

Phase 3: CHILE: Trek the W Route in Torres del Paine National Park


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Round trip by bus from Argentina’s El Calafate, our generous nine-day itinerary to trek the W Route in Chile allowed for two shots of weather window for each of the three major valleys, as follows:

  1. Picked up from our lodging in El Calafate (Argentina) at 6:20am, we bused (BookingCalafate.com, US$67 per person) from El Calafate 6.5 hrs to Laguna Amarga Entrance Station then to Refugio Pudeto in CHILE’s Torres del Paine National Park. Before crossing into Chile, be sure to eat your sandwiches or any fresh food, otherwise Chilean Customs will capriciously confiscate it at the border! (Going the other way, bringing Chilean food into Argentina is fine.) Walking an hour on the dusty park road reached Hosteria PehoeHosteria Pehoe, which provided wonderful views of Los Cuernos but mediocre meals, on our first of eight nights in the park. Take your hot showers early as we did, because others later suffered cold showers.
  2. Hosteria Pehoe’s concierge booked us a pricey US$150 ride for 28 km to reach the nicer Hotel Lago Grey, the best starting point for the W Route (if you can book it at least 5+ months in advance). Their shuttle boat ferried us to the sandspit where we boarded their Lago Grey Ferry’s special third sailing (at 14:00, US$92, reservations recommended), which cruises dramatically close to Glacier Grey before dropping we trekkers (and pick up others) at Vertice Refugio & Camping Grey for two nights. (The first two sailings drop & pick up trekkers BEFORE sightseeing the glacier.) Our W Route trek began auspiciously with onboard gratis pisco sours and astounding glacier views! Don’t miss the inspiring Mirador Glacier Grey just 1 km north of Vertice Refugio Grey. Their elaborate new mountain hotel lavished us with elegant bedding in comfortable 4-person shared dorm rooms.
    • W Route trekkers have a cheaper alternative ferry which takes no reservations, departing from Refugio Pudeto (our backup plan). Catamaran Hielos Patagonia ferries hikers to Paine Grande (US$35 for foreigners; 35-minute crossing at 09:00, 11:00, 16:15, 18:00). Walking from Refugio Paine Grande to Vertice Grey Refuge is 6.8 miles with 1200 feet gain, each way. You can walk to the nearby Salto Grande waterfall while waiting for the catamaran.
  3. Staying a second night at the remarkably comfortable Vertice Refugio Grey allowed weather flexibility to hike 4.5 miles round trip to the best viewpoint over Grey Glacier, located just after the Second Swing Bridge. If extra energy allows, continue up to twice as far, as we did to Campamento Paso Ranger Station viewpoint, relatively lightly traveled by day hikers (for 14 km round trip with 924 m gain & loss; or 8.9 miles, 3030 ft up & down). The thrilling trail crosses three swing bridges high over deep gorges cut into the steep mountainside, through ancient twisted Nothofagus forest, breaking periodically into panoramic views of vast Glaciar Grey and surrounding peaks. Dozens of weary but exuberant “O Route” backpackers exited one-way from Paso John Gardner towards Vertice’s hot showers.
  4. We walked from Vertice Grey Refuge to Refugio Paine Grande 6.8 miles with 1200 feet gain, with the gusty prevailing 25-mph winds at our backs. Our 6-bunk room encouraged hours-long conversations with two French economists (who we met again at Chileno Refuge).
  5. From comfortable Refugio Paine Grande, we hiked via panoramic Mirador Britanico in the French Valley to Camping & Domes Francés (12.9 mi gaining 4610 feet up, dropping 4050 ft down). Hiking to Mirador Britanico reveals an impressive cirque of tall cliffs, including Cerro Cota 2000, Cerro Catedral, the granite arête of Aleta de Tiburón (Shark’s Fin), Los Cuernos, and more. Mysterious thunderous crashes heard throughout the day turned out to be calving icefalls (see video near top) periodically plunging from the imposing Cerro Paine Grande (9462 ft or 2884 m elevation measured by GPS in 2011). Staying in Fully-Equipped Tents at Camping Francés required walking a steep 1-km road for dinner and breakfast, except for lucky people staying in the attractive geodesic Domes dormitories (which were harder to book). Good healthy dinners were served with fresh green salads, imported by boat via Lake Nordenskjöld, seen broadly below.
  6. A rest day scheduled at Camping & Domes Francés allowed weather flexibility for seeing French Valley (done yesterday). But the ambiance would have been better if scheduled 2 hours further east at scenic Refugio Torres.
  7. Walking from Refugio & Camping Francés to Refugio Chileno (10 miles with 2680 ft gain, 1860 ft down) was my hardest day, due to fighting a head cold in hot, humid weather. We followed along Lake Nordenskjöld then crossed drier estancia land, then steeply up Ascencio Valley. Refugio Chileno served the best food of the W Route, a delicious salmon dinner and layered dessert.
  8. We ascended from Refugio Chileno to Mirador Base Las Torres on Lago Torres, then descended all the way out to Fantástico Sur’s Refugio Torre Central on the park road (9.6 miles gaining 2450 ft and descending 3270 ft). The popular hike from the refuge to Lago Torres alone was 5.85 miles round trip with 1980 ft gain and loss. Rising at 4:00am allowed dozens of others from the hut to hike to Lago Torres to see magenta sunrise light strike the namesake Towers in a magical setting. But instead, I slept off my head cold and first ate breakfast with Dave and Rebecca before ascending the route. On the descent, we encountered hundreds of others going each direction, many doing a much longer day round trip from Refugio Central and other lodges located on the park road terminus (13.5 miles round trip with 3270 ft gain). For weather flexibility, we had tried to book a second night at well-worn Chileno Refuge, but it was fully booked several months in advance. Instead, Dave & Rebecca stayed in a Fully-Quipped Tent in Camping Central, and I stayed in a 6-person dorm room with 2 others in the spacious, nicely furnished Refugio Central, where all shared tasty hot meals. Chirping exuberantly in the trees were several of the world’s southernmost parrot species, the austral parakeet (Enicognathus ferrugineus or austral conure), posing for my photos.
  9. A Fantástico Sur shuttle bus (US$5 with several daily departures, ticket bought a few hours in advance) took us from the Central Welcome Center to Laguna Amarga Entrance Station, where we caught our afternoon bus back to El Calafate in Argentina (BookingCalafate.com, US$55).
Planning tips for Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

Backpacking in the park carrying your own tent and/or camping gear may pay off for stronger, younger, more-frugal adventurers such as on the longer, less-crowded “O Route” (see stingynomads.com) circumnavigating the Paine massif, counterclockwise only.

However, the most stunning landscape of the “O Route” can be seen by day hiking north from Refugio Grey across two exciting swing bridges, to the entrancing viewpoint over Grey Glacier just north of Second Swing Bridge (4.5 miles round trip). Also worthwhile for us was continuing on to Campamento Paso (8.9 miles total round trip, 3030 ft up & down). Above that, Paso John Gardner offers higher, perhaps grander, but incredibly windier views.

The Park’s grandest mountain scenery is on the W Route. My 60s-year old body prefers the comfortable huts and Full Equipo Tents, with all meals optionally provided (yes). Simply carry lightweight day-hiking gear plus change of cloths and camera. No need to carry any food, fuel, or camping equipment. Hot showers are available for all. Don’t hike the W Route from east to west, due to prevailing winds blasting you in the face. Go west to east as we did.

All lodging AND camping are strictly limited within Torres del Paine National Park, and must be booked at least 6 MONTHS IN ADVANCE, as we tried to do. Booking any later will severely limit your options. Booking everything ourselves for our 5-week trip cut costs nearly in half compared to a packaged tour, but took weeks of work and some headaches. The refugios (refuges) in the park are comfortable mountain hotels operated by two different companies, inconveniently requiring separate bookings:

  • Refugios operated by FantasticoSur.com: Camping & Domes Francés; Refugio Los Cuernos; Refugio Chileno; and on the park road terminus are grouped Refugio Torre Central, Camping Central, and Refugio Torre Norte.
  • Refugios operated by VerticePatagonia.com: Refugio & Camping Paine Grande; Refugio & Camping Grey; and Dickson Shelter & Camping (on the “O Route”).
  • Campgrounds operated by CONAF (nice park overview map): Paso Camping & Ranger Station (above Grey Glacier); and smelly Campamento Italiano.

Offloading your booking tasks to a professional organizer or tour operator can be worth the price premium. My research for self-guided tours on a budget revealed the following promising USA-based company: Pygmy Elephant’s 5-day W-Trek (external link).

Weather forecast for trekkers near Paine Grande at 500m/1600 ft elevation:
www.mountain-forecast.com/peaks/Paine-Grande/forecasts/500

Patagonia flight tips

All flights between Chile and Argentina must go through their capital cities. Over a dozen small airports serve Patagonia, but none of their flights cross the international border. (In our 2005 trip, one flight went from Ushuaua to Punta Arenas but wasn’t unavailable in 2020.) Efficiently touring within Patagonia can require patching together a series of one-way flight legs within either Argentina or Chile, but not flying crossing the border. Search by specifying “one-way” or “multi-city” in flight websites. To reach Torres del Paine by air from Chile, you must fly from Santiago to Punta Arenas Airport, then continue by bus or rented vehicle to Puerto Natales, and from there to the Park. Access from Argentina’s El Calafate by bus was more efficient for us. Our Argentine travel goals in El Chalten and Bariloche based our flights in Argentina instead of Chile. To explore Patagonia by RV, fly to Puerto Montt, Coyhaique, or Punta Arenas in Chile (see Bariloche: “Car versus RV or camper”).

“If anything can save the world, I’d put my money on beauty.”Douglas Tompkins (see video)

Patagonia overview map

Patagonia map: Argentina & Chile.  — January 28–30, 2020: Fly from Seattle > Los Angeles > Lima > Buenos Aires > Bariloche.  — January 31–February 10: Phase 1: road trip loop from Bariloche by three Dempseys driving 1600 miles in 11 days, first south on Argentina’s Ruta 40 then returning north via Chile’s Carretera Austral.  — February 11–24: Phase 2: El Calafate & El Chalten.  — February 25–March 4: Phase 3: Torres del Paine National Park, Chile.  — March 5–7: Fly home El Calafate > Buenos Aires > Santiago > Los Angeles > Seattle. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)
Patagonia 2020 map, Argentina & Chile. Itinerary:

  1. January 28–30, 2020: Tom Flies from Seattle > Los Angeles > Lima > Buenos Aires > Bariloche.
  2. January 31–February 10: Phase 1: road trip loop from Bariloche by three Dempseys driving 1600 miles in 11 days, first south on Argentina’s Ruta 40 then returning north via Chile’s Carretera Austral
  3. February 11–24: Phase 2: El Calafate & El Chalten.
  4. February 25–March 4: Phase 3: Torres del Paine National Park, Chile.
  5. March 5–7: Tom flies home from El Calafate > Buenos Aires > Santiago > Los Angeles > Seattle. Dave & Rebecca flew to Ushuaia to cruise Antarctica round trip. Their healthy ship unexpectedly added 7 days extra cruising to Montevideo, Uruguay due to Argentina’s COVID-19 border closures.

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