Trekking In South America: Machu Picchu, Patagonia, and more.

The Inka Trail to Machu Picchu, April 2011

We did this hike with our daughter and her boyfriend, and we were very lucky that the four of us were the only people in our hiking group.  Other groups had up to 25 people in them, and I am sure that they had a somewhat different experience than we did.  The photo below links to our Picasa page, where you can see ALL the photos.
 
The Peruvian government strictly regulates the Inka Trail to Machu Picchu.  There is a limit of 250 hikers and 250 porters/guides per day.    No horses are allowed, and all hikers are required to use both a government certified guide and a rough ratio of one porter per hiker.  While this may not be to the liking of more independent backpackers who are used to going it alone in the Sierra Nevada, the system was developed to protect employment in the area for the porters.  No mules or horses are allowed for the same reason.  To make it all work, there are a few checkpoints along the trail, and if you don’t have the proper paperwork presented by a certified guide, you are not allowed to continue. 

One charming element of this system is that they actually stamp your US PASSPORT upon entry and exit of the trail itself with a very attractive stamp at each location!  If you don't have your passport... you don't get to continue.

Day One:  It’s not a long drive, but a slow one to the trailhead at Km. 82.  We left our hotel in Cusco at 6 a.m., and by the time we had driven to the trailhead (about four hours to go roughly 60 miles, including a stop for breakfast and supplies at Ollantaytambo—a fascinating Inca site in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, at right.) and worked our way through the checkpoint, it was almost 11 a.m.  The route on this first day starts at Chillca at about 8,500 feet and descends along the Urubamba River for a few miles, then follows a tributary up to the first night’s camp.  The whole day is only about 6 miles long, and involves a couple of steep, short climbs and descents, most notably right around the junction of the two rivers.  On our way, we were passed by two young girls, ages about 7 and 11, who hike this every day in both directions to go to school in Chillca.  How's that for dedication?

Happily, the high point of the trek overlooks the ruins of Llactapacta, which are perched at the junction of the two rivers. ( see photo at left.)  As we did every day, we had a cooked lunch which included soup and a variety of other dishes.  We finished up that day climbing into the small community of Huayllabamba, which has some minor ruins.  Here we camped beside a stream in what was basically the backyard of a local farmer—his chickens strutted through our tents.   It was a good day to get the legs moving and the lungs breathing the air of the Andes…and the view from our campsite included a stunning shot of Mt. Veronica.

I was amused that when I went to buy bottled water here, I was charged 7 soles for a liter.  My daughter’s boyfriend from Argentina went to the same vendor and was charged 6 soles for a liter and a half.  And yes, I am fluent in Spanish.  Grin. 

The stars here at night were truly amazing, and you could not only see the Milky Way, but the soft glow of the Magellanic Clouds, our nearest celestial neighbors, clearly in the sky.

Day two: This is known as the Day of Death, or the lung-buster day.   We started early, and after a cooked breakfast we hit the trail by 7 a.m.  This is nothing but a steep climb.  The trail heads straight up from Huayllabamba to WarmiWanuska Pass, from 10,000 feet to 14,000 feet in 3.2 miles.  There was no flat section here—it just varied from stone steps to steep inclines all the way up.  Rest stops were organized at miles 1 (at Ayapata –10,900’) and 2 (at Llulluchapampa—12,600’), where we could buy water, Gatorade, etc. from the locals.  From that second stop to the top of the pass was one solid slog, and it took its toll on many of the hikers.  (I am in pretty good shape, and I hiked the first two sections in about 35 minutes each--the last section in about 80 minutes.  I didn’t think it was brutal, but I took a very steady pace and tried not to stop.)

But there were people on the trail that day who literally took five hours to climb the 3.2 miles.  And they were hurting.  One hiker actually turned around and headed for home, but that is out of 250 who started.  The others struggled, panted, wheezed, and cried to the top—often stopping every twenty feet to rest.  The trail followed the course of a cascading stream, so that the scenery often including dense lush forest growth (photo at left) as well as more open terrain.  That last mile or so is out in the open, and you should pray for cloud cover.  We did not have full sun, and it would have been a whole different hike if we had done it in full sun.  Check out the photo at right. 

Of course, every group tried to re-group at the top of the pass, so those of us who climbed faster had plenty of time to chat and get to know the hikers from some of the other groups.  There was a nice sense of camaraderie among us at the top, and we shared quite a few stories with each other.  And we cheered as each new hiker reached the top and joined us.

On this day there were also minor ruins to be seen, but the best part was seeing the towering Andes around you, with clouds billowing in and around the valleys and peaks to create a truly mysterious and wonderful cloud forest.  Remember that this trail is on the Amazon side of the Andes, not the Altiplano or Western side.  So at 14,000 feet we were still well below the snow level and the mountains were green with lush growth. High above us, snow-capped peaks were uncovered and hidden by the drifting clouds.

The descent was damn near as steep as the climb---you drop 2,000 feet in 2 miles to camp at a small Inca site at 12,000 feet.  I don’t think the photos even come close to conveying the pure verticality of the landscape—every single slope seemed to be nearly perpendicular, and there were times when it was hard to imagine where the trail might go.  At left is a shot from our campsite.

This second night we camped where we couldn’t purchase water and snacks, so we had to depend on our porters and cook for those on the third day of the hike.  Not a great system, as we were to see.

 

Day three:  Known as the knee-buster day, this was a fabulous hike of about ten miles through stunning cloud forest scenery.  We began with a steep climb up narrow stairs to the second high pass, at around 13,000 feet.  Our guide held a charming ceremony here where we left a small offering to the mountains and thought of other mountains and friends from around the world.  Very nice.

From there we wandered along ridges through the ancient world of the Inca, stopping for lunch at the ruins of Sayaqmarca, at right.  Orchids, fabulous trees, Inca tunnels through the rock, lush jungle…this day really changed the way I think of hiking in the mountains.  The trail was a stunning string of intimate cloud forest moments and massive Andean vistas, all to a sound track of whispering trickles, gushing streams and roaring cascades of water.  Who would have guessed that we would see these things at 12,000 feet?  

We were frequently warned to keep to the inside, mountain side of the trail, as the porters were flying by us, and they were much better at it than we were. (Our team of porters is in the photo at left, looking calm before hitting the trail.) They didn’t want to see any hikers bumped off the trail by a racing porter...because there were precipitous drops, and once you fell off this trail, it would be a long way before you stopped falling!

Lunch included a tour of the ruins, and we even took a short rest/nap to allow our food to digest a bit before the next big stretch.  This part continued along the ridges and contoured around and through the forest.  A fabulous hike that made it very clear that cross-country travel in this part of the world is simply impossible.  The jungle was impenetrable, and the slopes were absolutely vertical.  Following a stop at the third pass at 12,500 feet, we dropped into Phuyupatamarca to visit those ruins (below, left), and I even caught a tiny glimpse through my binoculars at the final goal---the ruins of Huayna Picchu overlooking Machu Picchu. 

But from the ruins the trail dropped 3,500 feet in less than three miles to our final campsite at Winay Wayna.  Steep, steep, steep, with lots of big stone steps!  For the first time, my wife had taken along hiking poles, and she swore that they saved her knees on this section of the trail. It took us most of the day to hike the ten miles, with stops at the two ruins.  But we still made it in time to visit the ruins at Intipata, which are less than a mile from the campsite.  We had these ruins to ourselves at the end of the day, and it was a magical time for us all. 

That night included warm showers and a cake for teatime!  We tidied up our packs, got ourselves organized, and held a small ceremony to thank our porters, who had been simply amazing.  (More on them, and our guide, in another report).  But we called it an early night, because the next day called for a very early start—up at 3:30 to allow the porters to catch the 5 a.m. train out of Aguas Calientes.  Oooof!

Day Four:  It rained most of the night, and so we got up prepared to hike in bad weather.  But Willy, our guide, explained that it almost always rained only at night---and sure enough, we didn’t really even feel a sprinkle during the day. 

From WinayWayna there is a mad rush to get to the Sun Gate, IntiPunku, by sunrise to see the morning’s first rays hit Machu Picchu.  But Willy explained that it was almost always cloudy…and we did have to pass through the checkpoint at WinayWayna first.  Rather than get up and hit the trail and then wait in line at the checkpoint (which doesn’t open until 5:30) we chose to wait until then to leave the camp.  So we sat in the large (but primitive) visitors center and stayed somewhat warmer than those on the trail.  And we were sitting down, not standing in line at the checkpoint for an hour.  By the time we got to the checkpoint at 5:40, there was only one group in front of us, and we flew through.

Once through the checkpoint, we climbed up to IntiPunku and were in time to see glimpses of Machu Picchu as the sun peeked through the clouds.  The last part of this climb was the steepest single section of the trail—a 75 foot stretch of steep steps that had most hikers using both hands and feet to ascend it. The clouds were constantly shifting, so that one moment the city was visible, the next it had disappeared again.  Wonderous. 

From Inti Punku it was only a mile or so down into Machu Picchu, where we arrived at about 7 a.m.  The first train arrives long before this, so there were already plenty of people at the ruins, but frankly, the place is so huge that you just don’t notice them.  We hiked down to the entrance station, got our passports stamped to show we had finished the hike, and then checked our backpacks at the luggage depot so that we could explore the ruins.  Willy spent a good two and-a-half hours touring us through the ruins, and by 10:30 or so he left us to explore on our own. 

I won’t go into huge detail on Machu Picchu itself, except to say that it is understandably one of the greatest of the world’s ancient archeological sites, and we were simply stunned.  We could not stop taking pictures!  If you really want to know more, you should read a book about it!

We finally met Willy for lunch in Aquas Calientes  (He had provided tickets for the bus, which leaves every few minutes for town.)  And then we wandered around Aguas Calientes for a few hours, including enjoying the local thermal baths.  It was Easter Sunday, and while the baths cost about $3 for tourists, local inhabitants can enter for less than a dollar, with children under twelve free.  Whole families of local residents were in some sections of the baths, soaping up, rinsing, and enjoying themselves along with us.  It was very sweet and nice.  (We rented suits and towels in town on the way to the baths---about $1.50 for each.)
 
That's Willy and our gang at right, enjoying a meal in Aguas Calientes.



The Santa Cruz Trek in the Cordillera Blanca
Day One:

We had spent the previous two and a half days acclimating at about 10,000 feet in Huaraz, having taken the noon bus from Lima three days before.  The first day after we arrived we walked around town and saw the sights (including the pre-Inca Killkawain ruins outside of town) and did some shopping.  The second day we took an organized tour of the much more ancient Chavin de Huantar ruins—an all day trip to the eastern side of the Cordillera Blanca. 

The good news for hiking the Santa Cruz in this direction is that the first day is not a tough one, so you don’t need to leave the hotel before dawn.  Our guide Hector picked us up at the very civilized hour of 7 a.m.  We picked up our hiking companion Kalie, a fit young woman from Pennsylvania who had been doing volunteer work in Cuzco, and we were off.

And peppers....  ©http://backpackthesierra.com

From Huaraz it was an hour drive down the valley to Caraz, where we turned off and climbed a tiny dirt road for two hours up to the trailhead, in the hamlet of Cashapampa.  This is where we met Clemente our arriero or muleteer, who would manage the donkeys that took a lot of our stuff. ©http://backpackthesierra.com

The weight limit per person was 12kg, but of course, as lightweight backpackers, this was way more than we needed—especially because we wouldn’t hike with the donkeys, so anything packed on them was gone for the day.  We sent our sleeping bag and extra clothes with the donkeys, as Hector was providing both tent and two sleeping pads per person.  And the donkeys had all of our food, the kitchen and kitchen tent, a “toilet tent” and Hector and Clemente’s packs as well.  We hiked with our rain gear, a warm jacket, a few snacks, bug juice, water, and our “box lunch” from Hector in our packs. 

Lush vegetation at over 10,000 feet.   ©http://backpackthesierra.com

The trail starts at 9,500 feet, and starts climbing up along the Santa Cruz River immediately.

But don’t think that 9,500 feet is alpine.  The vegetation here was almost tropical, and in Cashapampa there were fields of corn, amaranth, and tons of flowers and fruit.  

And the temperature was in the mid 70’s and humid.

The trail climbed steadily, and it was enough for us to ignore the warnings about mosquitoes to roll up our sleeves and take off the legs of our pants.  Hot sweaty work.  But the river was tumbling and roaring down the canyon, and we had plenty of reasons to stop and take photos and a rest.  Only later did we discover that the mosquitoes look different from our Sierra bugs...but do the same kind of damage.  We were all bitten a few times.

At around 1. p.m. Kalie and I arrived at a lovely waterfall right by the side of the trail, and we picked this as the spot to eat lunch.  Bromeliads covered the nearby trees and hills, and it was pretty darn spectacular.  The elevation was about 11,000 feet. 

Our lunch spot the first day.   ©http://backpackthesierra.com


This is also where we learned a little more about Hector and his company.  The lunches were extensive.  Each of us had two sandwiches, (including an avocado sandwich—the avocados in Peru are phenomenal) a piece of fruit, a box of juice, cookies, energy bars, chocolate, dried fruit, crackers…in fact, we found each day that our initial stock of snacks that we had packed was steadily increasing, as we could never eat all the food they had given us each day.  What a luxury on the trail!  We brought some of those snacks back to the US at the end of our trip...

Because there are lots of 600+ year old stone walls along this section of the trail, and we don't want to mess them up!   ©http://backpackthesierra.com
After lunch, the trail settled down a bit, and we followed the river up a huge glacial canyon.  The local population still used this part of Huascaran National Park as grazing grounds, and there were often donkeys, cattle or a few horses in sight.  But there were also pre-Incan stone corrals, which indicated that the area had been used this way for something like 800 years. 

As we worked our way up the canyon, waterfalls were cascading down the sides, and occasionally we were give a glimpse of a towering peak behind the canyon walls.  We got to camp about 3:30 and set up next to one other hiking group at 12,000 feet.

©http://backpackthesierra.com
 
Dinner that night was a classic Peruvian appetizer of fried won tons with guacamole, soup, chicken filets with rice, fruit, dessert, and as much hot water for coca or regular tea, whichever you preferred.  Again, it felt sumptuous at that elevation.  A big wind came up right after dinner, and we spent most of the night listening to it howl and shake the tent.  We were thankful to Hector for the solid four-season tents he had provided.
A note about the campsites: these are specific locations along the trail, and everybody is supposed to camp in that area.  They were originally provided with stone pit toilets, but those are now completely unusable, so we had a small tent with a hole in the ground for our toilet.   They are generally large open fields with lots of room...but not a lot of privacy.

Nice view, huh?   ©http://backpackthesierra.com

Day Two: 
This was to be the easy day, although there were a few adventures in store.  We were awake at six, and supposed to be packed up by 7 and in the dining tent.  At 6:30 Clemente delivered a small bucket of piping hot water to our tents, so that we could wash up a bit.  We found the schedule quite easy, and were often in the dining tent well before 7.   Oatmeal, fruit, toast, hot cocoa (and coca tea) for breakfast.  By 7:45 we were on the trail, ahead of both Hector and Clemente.  Hector stayed behind to help Clemente a bit, and we set off down the trail.  Within a few minutes, Hector had caught up with us, and we walked comfortably up along the gradual rise of this valley, always on the southern side of the river. 
Still windy today, but not cold.   ©http://backpackthesierra.com
This was pretty easy walking for the first few hours, and then we came to Lake Ichicocha.
  Beautifully set into the heart of the canyon, this lake was a talisman for many miles afterwards.  Above the lake, the remains of a massive landslide dominated the canyon.  It had happened some years ago, far above in one of the side canyons, but was so massive that it blew out a lake far above, and carried that sediment down all the way to Ichicocha, filling in another lake (Juntacocha, which still appears on some of the maps of this area) along the way.  Quite impressive, and a good reminder that these mountains are still quite alive!
Our guide Hector--trained as a journalist, he was extremely thoughtful and insightful on a wide range of topics.  And he's climbed many of these peaks.   ©http://backpackthesierra.com

Above the lake, the landslide had covered up the old trail, and we were surprised by a tiny traverse of class 5+ rock climbing to get past a tight point. M was suitably nervous, but passed the test with flying colors and a small assist from Hector.  But after that, it was a few miles of walking over the dead flat rock and sand of the catastrophe, to eat lunch in the first spot of greenery, just across a small bridge at the foot of the next steep section of the canyon.   That's Hector enjoying his lunch under the trees, at right.

Another filling lunch led to a discussion of our route from here on out.  The simple route was straight up the canyon to camp.  The alternative was an hour longer, but would take us up a steep trail that switch-backed up the side canyon that would give us a better view of Alpamayo, the “most beautiful mountain in the world.”  Who could pass that up?
And we got a brief glimpse of the summit of Alpamayo.   ©http://backpackthesierra.com

We found the trail not that hard….and Kalie and I actually hiked past the turn-off to our camp in our enthusiasm.  But a few hundred yards past it, we stopped to enjoy the view and hope that the clouds would part for a clear view of the peak.  They did.  And Hector and M arrived just minutes later to lead us to camp.
Now nearing our campsite above the landslide,   ©http://backpackthesierra.com

As we hiked this last section we could see the whole valley below us, including the lake and even a small section of the Cordillera Negra opposite us.  Spectacular.

Camp here was at 13,400 feet, and it was more crowded, as this was a key spot on the trail, and groups heading both directions were camped here.  But the setting was stunning.  And as we enjoyed the view, the clouds blew away, the peaks came out into full view, and even a pair of condors sailed overhead.  This was well worth the trip!  Zoom in on the photo below to see the condor... 

That's a condor  ©http://backpackthesierra.com
Here is where we also heard some sad stories from some of the groups who had paid less for their trips.  One group learned that they had paid for a four-day trek, and were going to do the hike in three days.  Anyone who disagreed would be left behind without food or shelter. 
Now we're talking.  And someone started to see condors...  ©http://backpackthesierra.com

There were people who complained that there wasn’t really enough food for the group (one serving for each person, and some of the young guys were really hungry) others whose tents leaked or seeped water, etc.

 Our hike was flawless in this regard, and we really liked both Hector and Clemente.  Hector, in particular, seemed to know everyone on the trail, greeted them all as friends, and was accorded great respect by the other guides and arrieros.

A dinner of hot buttered popcorn appetizer (!) soup, trout filets, and chocolate pudding left us with lots left over!  And afterwards, we watched the sun go down and cast a rosy glow on the surrounding peaks.

©http://backpackthesierra.com
That night, however, it rained all night long. In our tent, we worried whether the hike of the pass (15,500) would be possible the next day.

 

Day Three:

It was still sprinkling when we woke up, but by the time we were into a breakfast of eggs and toast, juice and hot beverages, it was down to a very light and occasional drizzle.  And that continued, off and on, for most of the day.  Again Hector sent us out on our own for the first twenty minutes, while he assisted Clemente in packing up camp.  He knew that he would catch up quickly…and Clemente, even though we know he left camp an hour after we did, always beat us into camp by hours.

Nice stonework  ©http://backpackthesierra.com
 
This was a steep climb.  From the campsite it was about 2.5 miles, and we would climb over 2,000 feet in that distance. But this part of the trail was stunning.  We were surrounded by peaks, albeit often with their heads in the clouds, and views back down the canyon to our campsite and beyond. 

The lake, the trail.  Gasp.   ©http://backpackthesierra.com
After the first mile we could begin to see the small lake below Mount Taulliraju, as well as other hikers (and Clemente and his donkeys) working along the trail below us.  Parts of this trail had been built by the Incas, and it was a pleasure to hike it.  It took a good two hours to get to the pass, Punta Union, which is at 15,617 feet.  As we rested here, Clemente passed us by. 
 
M. P, and Hector.  He's the one who looks like he hasn't been working.   ©http://backpackthesierra.com

The following section was nowhere near as pleasant.  Equally steep, but with jumbled boulders everywhere, it was slow going down this side of the pass.  And while there were some lovely lakes below, we were now having the worst day-time weather of the trip, with rain and hail showers in between minutes of intense sunlight.  The surrounding peaks were generally hidden by the clouds.

Walking through the lakes.   ©http://backpackthesierra.com

We ate lunch along the shores of one of the many lakes in this section, but then came the worst part of the trail. About six miles of pure, unadulterated mud, often six to ten inches deep.  Hector did his best to pick a path through the mud that kept his (and our) feet dry, but this often involved rock hopping, climbing well above the actual route of the trail, and endlessly slow going.   That's the mud, below.  Six miles of it.
But the scenery in this section was amazing.  We kept thinking of Jurassic Park as we hiked through this fantastic setting of towering peaks, jungle vegetation, and cascading water on all sides.
In the end, it took us just about ten hours to hike those twelve miles—and we had certainly used up all of our water by the time we collapsed into camp at 5:30.  We were at a little over 12,000 feet here.

Most of the last few miles of the trail was like this. A mess.   ©http://backpackthesierra.com

Hector, amazingly, set immediately to cooking dinner, and by 7:30 we had soup, spaghetti, dessert, and as a special treat for all of our hard work, hot mulled wine afterwards.  Incredible. 

Hector surveying the mud.  There were miles of this.   ©http://backpackthesierra.com
Kalie struggled on this day.  She had started very strongly (Hector told us later that he thought she had pushed too hard on the first climb, and never really recovered.) but after the pass, she began to feel poorly.  She could still hike faster than we could, but she was not feeling well at all, and eventually Hector sent her on ahead.  She said later that it was enormously difficult.  She was probably dehydrated, certainly suffering from the altitude, and in the end went straight to bed before eating any dinner.  Hector insisted that she drink some tea before sleeping that night, and by the next morning she was partially, if not completely, recovered.

Day Four:

Looking back...with regret.   ©http://backpackthesierra.com

This was a piece of cake.

 A stroll down the canyon was on a perfectly good trail, with no mud and no boulders.  We were in high spirits.  We stopped in at the National Park office to get our permits and chat with the ranger.  And then it was a nice walk down to the tiny town of Huaripampa, (elevation 11,000) where the local children had already learned that we might be carrying cookies.  (When we made our reservations for this trip, our contact in Peru had suggested that we bring pencils or ballpoint pens for this situation.  The school was always short of supplies…)
The town as we passed through  ©http://backpackthesierra.com
So we began to give out little pens, and we were extremely popular for a few hundred yards. 

There is a road to Huaripampa, but it is so long and rough that the trek doesn’t end here.  Instead, it climbs another 1,000 feet along trails and roads to reach Vaqueria, where our van awaited.  Here we could buy sodas, use a clean restroom, and get settled in for our long drive back to Huaraz.  And here we said good-bye to Clemente’s four-legged friends.

P, M, Kalie, Clemente, and Hector.

But we were not prepared for the scenery of the drive that followed.  Starting at 12,000 feet it soared and climbed up to 15,600 feet at the pass, with snow, rain, and hail on the way, and then dropped down through endless narrow switchbacks for more than two more hours.  Along the way we passed the shrine to those who went over the edge on a hairpin turn a few years ago, killing everyone on the bus. 

It was stunning, electrifying, and we are happy we don’t have to do it very often!

©http://backpackthesierra.com


 

We passed a small local rodeo where the local veterinarian was treated the cattle, drove alongside the glorious Llanganuco lakes, where we stopped to take the photo below, and eventually dropped back down into the valley near Yungay, where a massive avalanche from Mt. Huascaran had completely covered the city in 1970, killing virtually everyone in town.


Kalie and the lake.   ©http://backpackthesierra.com

By that time we were back on a paved road, and it was an easy drive back to Huaraz.  We checked into the hotel, took long, reviving showers, and enjoyed a great dinner at a local restaurant.  We were back in civilization.

This was a great hike, and we enjoyed all of it.  We were very happy with Hector, whom we hired through ActivePeru in Huaraz.  In Huaraz, the local contact is Romer, who was also full of information and very considerate.  We stayed in relative luxury at the Hotel Santa Cruz, although Kalie spent only about $10 a night to stay in a local hostel. While Huaraz has 80,000 inhabitants, it's a small town at heart.  There are lots of shops selling anything you might have forgotten for your trek...albeit maybe not exactly what you might buy in the US. And there are many, many agencies offering to organize any adventure you would like.  Caveat Emptor---not all of them can deliver, and some of the ones with the nicest offices have terrible reviews on tripadvisor.


Patagonia                                 

We took advantage of P’s massive collection of frequent flyer miles to take a trip south of the border, way south, to Argentina and the magical land of Patagonia. We both speak Spanish fluently, so this isn’t as daring an escape as it might seem. P had done some research, and found that while the trails to Torres del Paine are quite congested, and the campsites jam-packed, the small town of El Chalten has great hiking trails, and seemed to be less crowded. We would see. The peaks of Fitzroy and Cerro Torre compete in every way with Torres del Paine, so we thought it was worth a shot.

 

On the way to Patagonia, we stopped for a few days in Buenos Aires, one of the world’s more interesting cities. It’s larger than you can imagine, and even with friends and family there, we still find it too large to really understand. But we enjoy it. Our first day we spent walking from our cute hotel near the wonderful Ateneo Bookstore (inside a renovated theater, complete with café inside) all the way down Avenida Santa Fe to the Plaza San Martin, honoring that revolutionary hero, then across to the Casa Rosada (presidential palace) and back to the hotel past the largest boulevard in the world. And we caught the sunset just right behind the classic obelisk of Buenos Aires.

The next day was devoted to art: the Modern Art Museum (MAMBA) in San Telmo and the Fortabat collection in the trendy new Puerto Madero barrio. Both were well worth a visit. In between, we stopped in at the Museum of the City of Buenos Aires, which is a wonderfully fun and irreverent look at life in the city, but it was under construction and had very limited exhibits. The rest of the day was dedicated to visits with friends and family. 

The third day we spent exploring the area near our hotel—the Calle Arenal and the Recoleta district, which is every bit as lovely as parts of Paris. A few art galleries, a few plazas, a lunch in a local hangout, and we were delighted. Dinner with friends that night, and we were off to the domestic airport (BA has two, and it is not a good idea to confuse them!) the next morning for our flight to El Calafate on Aerolineas Argentinas. 

As always when we travel in Latin America, we gave ourselves plenty of time at the airport, and the flight was a piece of cake. Although it was cloudy for much of the flight down, P had cleverly selected windows on the west side of the plane for the trip down. And as we got into Patagonia, the skies cleared and we had stunning views of the desert steppes leading off to the snow-capped Andes extending for miles, hundreds of miles, out the window.

When we landed in El Calafate we were facing a three-hour drive north to El Chalten. (Torres del Paine is a bit longer, and to the south). At the airport we took the first available shuttle to El Chalten, which was with Las Lengas minivans. We’d read some negative reviews (and some positive ones) but the next full-sized bus wouldn’t leave for three hours. As it turned out, it was the smartest thing we did all trip. 

Our driver, Raul, was the owner of the company, and we were the only passengers. He gave us a guided tour of the road to El Chalten, complete with wildlife sightings, restaurant recommendations, and suggestions for all the best trails. The views of the mountains on the way into town are absolutely breathtaking. And he drove us door to door to our hostel. (Some of the complaints of this company seem to come from the fact that the first people they pick up have to sit in the van while they run around town collecting everyone else.)

It was a sparkling day in El Chalten, and we immediately took advantage of that to climb up the few miles to Mirador de los Condores and Mirador de las Aguilas—two high points east of town served by a trail that leaves the office of the national park. And while we didn’t see either condors or eagles, we did meet some fun groups of other hikers, and caught views of Mt. Fitzroy, Cerro Torre, Lago Viedma, and the local rivers (de las Vueltas and Fitzroy). A great way to find our way around town—followed by a quick dinner at Ahonikenk, an inexpensive local restaurant Raul had suggested. It was fun, cheap, and tasty.


Raul warned us that the skies are not always so clear, and so we took his advice the next morning, and headed up the trail to Laguna Cerro Torre. First we had to find a sandwich shop that was open on Sunday morning…and the little bakery next to Ahonikenk fit the bill. But that was a bit of a hike from our hostel, and then the trailhead was back where we started, so we didn’t really hit the trail until about 9 a.m. And there were lots of other people on the trail. Before we had hiked the first of ten kilometers, we met a ranger who encouraged us to visit the national park offices and exhibits in town. We assured him we would—and that we were sorry they closed at 5 p.m., or we would have dropped in the night before.


The first three kilometers out of town on this trail are a steady climb up over a ridge on across an old moraine. We seemed to be hiking at the same pace as a guided group, and unfortunately the guide spoke in a very piercing voice so that all of his group could hear him. Grrr. We eventually put enough space between us and him that the voice slowly faded into the distance. After that first climb the trail is very easy, along the Fitzroy river valley, until you get quite close to the lake, when you have to climb the last moraine to see the glory. And my, it was glorious! 

A part of the trail led off to the right, above the lake, along the very crest of the last moraine to a point named for the Italian climber Maestri. We took it partway along, and then decided to call a halt. We sat in awe and ate our sandwiches, occasionally hearing the roar of an ice fall on one of the glaciers in front of us. A lovely young woman from Slovakia saw us, took our picture, and sent it to us later. Thank you, Stefi!

This was a world class hike, and a great introduction to Patagonia. And the Torre was clear, standing like a monument to the power of rock and ice. While El Chalten was desert-like, getting only about 6-8 inches of rain a year, we had now hiked up into the lusher Andes. Just over the crest, the continental ice fields get snow 300 days per year, and the lower elevations of Chile are rainforests. The hike back out was perfect, and P had noticed a spur trail on the map that not only allowed us to see new sights, but left us about 50 yards from our hostel. We loved this warning to hikers on that section of the trail:

After hiking about 13 miles, we ended up back at our hostel (Nunataks—clean, inexpensive, and very functional—and very close to the trailheads into the park). We napped for a bit and then went to eat at the Rancho Grande next door, with empanadas, a salad, and a big steak. Steaks are a sure bet in Argentina, and this was no different. We found food and wine in El Chalten reasonable, but with limited choices. Wines in the restaurants were uniformly good and cheap—particularly if you chose the Malbec.

Day three in El Chalten was going to be a rest day. We knew that the following day would be a tough one, climbing up to Lago de los Tres, and so we decided to take it easy. We went back to the ranger station, pestered them with all sorts of questions about the flora and fauna that we’d seen, and then took a trail up towards the Lomo del Pliegue Tumbado—the hill of the fallen wrinkle. This was a lovely hike up a small canyon, then up the side of a ridge with frequent views around to the mountains of El Chalten. We took snacks, and eventually broke off trail to eat them in solitude overlooking Lake Viedma. And as we sat there, M noticed a condor sailing overhead, to our complete delight. 


We made it as far as the junction with the trail to Laguna Toro, and then decided that we would keep a little in our tank for the hike on the following day. There are some fossils further up the trail, once you get above the tree line, but we left those for another visit. We saw another condor on the way back down, as well as a few groups of heavily-laden climbers on their way to Laguna Toro. (The route there requires a single rope crossing of a crevasse, and a local guide plus extensive experience is recommended before you tackle that one. You need a permit from the rangers as well.)

We were back in town in time for lunch, and then decided that we had time to run up the 6 k to the little waterfall Chorillo del Salto. The first part of this hike is confusing. The road signs indicate to take the road, but we learned later that the trail leaves from just inside the park gate, right where the trail to Laguna de los Tres starts.) Instead, we walked along the gravel road for a mile, until the trail crossed it and we could follow the trail through forests and along the river. We saw an amazing Giant Patagonian Woodpecker who just about landed on our head, but by the time P could get out his camera, the bird had cleverly hidden itself on the other side of some branches. The size of a crow, this bird has a completely red head. It is unmistakable!

The waterfall is lovely, and as always on this trip, there were plenty of other people around. But we also enjoyed the signage that indicated this was a contemplative area—no rough-housing! In true Argentine fashion, one older couple calmly sat down and drank their mate tea while they gazed at the water. 

On the hike back we spotted more birds, and by the time all was said and done, we’d hiked another 12 miles or so on our “off” day. Dinner that night was at the Cerveceria (the brewery) where we drank local brews and enjoyed a typical Locro stew of hominy, meat, and potatoes. Yummy. 

We had made arrangements for Las Lengas to pick us up early the next morning for a drive up to the Hosteleria del Pilar. This hostel also marks the beginning of an alternate route to Laguna de los Tres, and we were looking forward to some stunning scenery, as well as fewer people on this part of the trail. 

Yes and no. Of course, everyone who hikes this trail catches the same group of shuttles, on the same schedule, so we leapfrogged with a couple of large guided groups in the early stages of the hike. But the scenery was spectacular, include the vista of Piedras Blancas, where you could see an enormous hanging glacier emptying out into the river. For ten kilometers we hiked along, enjoying the view and working out way slowly up the valley and through the woods to the climb up to Laguna de los Tres.

The last stop was the Poincenot campground (named after a French climber who died on one of the early attempts at Fitzroy) and it convinced us that day-hiking was the way to go. Densely packed with young campers from around the world, it had only one toilet for about 200 people, and it was…unspeakable. Yeah, we know. But we’ve traveled a lot of places. This was not a good one. 

And from there the trail goes straight up. Almost literally. It climbs 700 meters in just about one kilometer. That equals a rate of about 3,700 feet per mile, and I don’t know of another trail anywhere that is that steep. And while it starts out steep, it then gets a lot steeper. And then in the second half of the trail, steeper still. At the top of the ridge there is a brief respite of 50 years, and then the last 150 years seems to go straight up. The only saving grace is that the elevation is still manageable—about 4,500 feet at the top—so you are not sucking for air. You just wish you were twice as strong. The maps all say that it takes an hour to hike this last kilometer, and we found it took slightly more than that. Amazing.
 

(All the maps we saw list the distances in hours, not miles or kilometers. At first we found this really frustrating, but after hiking only a couple of sections of trail, we found it very easy to adapt their times to our hiking speed. And at 2.5 miles per hour, you are hiking almost exactly a kilometer every 15 minutes. How convenient! And our speeds were pretty close to what they predicted.)

What an amazing place this is, with huge glaciers hanging over the lake, and another lake just below behind a low ridge. The wind here was howling (in fact, it howled the whole time we were climbing, and all the way back to El Chalten) and so everyone was bundling up to avoid hypothermia. But everyone was also grinning. This hike is the Half Dome of the park, and there were tons of people. But the atmosphere and camaraderie were quite nice. We ate lunch, enjoyed the view, sat until we were just too cold, and then started back down. 

From Poincenot Camp, we took the normal trail back to El Chalten, which led us to a lovely view of Lake Capri. The campground here looked to be in better shape, and maybe less crowded. The toilet, at least, was newly built and quite nice. And from here we were chased by the wind back to town, with a nice overlook of the Rio de las Vueltas, to our hostel. Another 12+ mile day, when all was said and done.

Did we mention the wind? It blew P’s hat off his head twice (never before had that happened!) and once we were in town, people were bent over as they struggled to make headway against it. 

Dinner was at a newer restaurant, Pangea. More expensive, but really nice, and used more than the usual three or four ingredients of most of the dishes in El Chalten. We loved it. 

On our last day in El Chalten we wanted to revisit the ranger station and ask more questions. And we spent some time in shops and wandering about the backstreets of town. When we entered the tourist information office, we commented on the wind to the young woman there. She looked a bit surprised and informed us that this was not a windy day. Not in El Chalten!

It’s a funny town. It’s full of young backpackers (some with obviously limited funds…and maybe limited soap/razors as well) and other more hard-core older hikers from around the world. Lots of people trying to find cheap eats and cheaper places to stay, as well as a few much more expensive hotels. We were warned that there was only one ATM, and it frequently ran out of cash. But there are two, and we never had a problem getting cash—important, because almost everyone in El Chalten refuses credit cards.  And we were warned that there was only one grocery story, with limited merchandise. We counted at least eight in town, but the selection was almost always the same, very limited, and for three of the days we were there, the only fruit you could buy was oranges. Seriously. 

People in town were very friendly and helpful, but this is a new town (created in 1985) and nobody we met was born here.

Except our last adventure in El Chalten. We’d been told that we could get a personal tour of the old Estancia Cerro Andres Madsen if we wanted one. At the end of the only bridge over the Rio de las Vueltas, at three in the afternoon, the great-grandson of Madsen himself would meet people and give them a tour of his family’s original pioneer homestead. 

We couldn’t resist. 

And we loved it. Roy was the perfect host. He gave us both a thorough and personal history of the region, told us many of the local tales, showed us his family home (built room by room, as the family grew), toured us through the family cemetery and told the story of each member there, and then invited us into his home to page through books full of photos and have a nice cup of tea and cookies with him. It was totally cool. 

Dinner that night was at Fuegia, another more upscale restaurant that we enjoyed very much, and included a serenade by a couple of itinerant musicians who were really pretty good. And P’s a sceptic. He was convinced.

Las Lengas picked us up the next morning to take us back to El Calafate, where we stayed at the La Cantera hotel. My goodness, this was a step up! First class all the way, with a nice location just above downtown and view over Lago Argentino. We spent the afternoon exploring El Calafate, and discovered a very different vibe here. Nobody was carrying a backpack. Everybody was clean and shaved. Restaurants had hjgh mark-ups on wine…the whole thing reminded us more of Carmel or Jackson Hole, while El Chalten was a bit more like Yosemite’s Camp 4. 

But M had heard there were flamingoes along the shore, and so we set out to find them. Easy as pie, they were right where they were supposed to be! We watched for a while, then set out for the little museum in town, which was a wonderful combination of paleontology, anthropology, and history, all boiled in to one. Really nice, and every visitor is invited to enjoy a mate tea afterwards, on the house! We loved this one. And then we went back and looked at the birds again…and ate at Mako, a wood-burning brick oven restaurant downtown. Yummy. 

The next day, our hotel managed to find us a quick tour of the Perito Moreno Glacier. Simply amazing.  We had a great guide in the minivan, who encouraged us to get out and hike all the trails at the glacier.  We did. Simply amazing. A vast sheet of ice that is obviously in motion and stress, creaking and groaning, cracking off huge sections into the lake. We could have watched for hours. But we had a flight to catch.

The minivan got us back to the hotel at 4:20 and our taxi was there at 4:30 to take us to the airport and catch the flight back to Buenos Aires. It all went off without a hitch. 

Two more days in Buenos Aires, including visits to the flea market in Palermo, and the Bellas Artes Museum. We caught a car out to the airport the next afternoon, and were on our way home again. 

The whole photo log is here:  https://goo.gl/photos/2YNSZErXp7nSfrne8


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