El Chalten

Here's where we're going.

We’re going to the bottom of the world. It took Magellan 3 years. We have a 3 hour flight to El Calafate then a 3 hour drive to El Chalten.

5:30 felt like an early time to check in to AEP, the Domestic airport in Buenos Aires. Thankfully we discovered a little coffee shop upstairs where we could watch the planes. Everyone gasped, “Oh!” when a bag from the luggage trolley landed plop on the tarmac. Luckily for someone, a worker ran & rescued it.

I fuss over silly things when I have too much time to plan. Seemed to me that you’d see mountains if you got seats on the right side of the plane on the way down. Nope. Not a peak in sight.

Natascha at ‘Swoop Patagonia’ helped plan our trip. Alejandro at ‘Serac Expeditions’ looked after all the details once we left Buenos Aires. Except for the flights. I did them all myself.

After we landed at the little El Calafate airport we climbed into a big van for the 3 hour drive to El Chalten. We were surprised at how flat & rocky the landscape was. We stopped for a break & our driver had the biggest piece of lemon pie I had ever seen. Lemon is definitely a big thing in Argentina, well lemon pie anyway.

El Chaltén is the gateway to trails surrounding the peaks of Cerro Torre and Mount Fitz Roy. Near Fitz Roy, a path leads to the Laguna de los Tres viewpoint. That’s where we were going!

Destino Sur Hotel, just steps away from the main street, was gorgeous. Thank you Alejandro! After a quick registration we took the elevator up to our large corner room with mountains on one side & the town on the other. We had requested two beds but there was a huge king. I called the front desk & immediately 3 young gals came in, whipped off bedding, separated the beds, & remade everything. It was so fast & so funny. We were all laughing.

While Jenny went for a run I went for a walk. Shops, restaurants & outfitters line San Martín, the main street. Is this what a frontier town looked like? Bustling. Happy. Young people gathering on patios, sharing their exploits & planning tomorrow’s excursions.

Jen & I headed out, a G&T calling our name. The patio we had our eye on was overflowing. Jen said, “That one across the street is empty, let’s go there.” Well I wasn’t keen to go to an empty place but I was keen for a bit of refreshment. Nicest young guy at the bar. Totally empty, obviously new, spot. So we took our rather large drink & sat ourselves on the sunny patio. People walked by. Looked up & saw us. By the time we went for a refill the place was hopping. Well done, Jen.

It wasn’t our fault that we were at the pub when our guide came to the hotel. Nevertheless, we missed our “guide talk”. So we went to the Serac store/office, talked to Alejandro & got our instructions for the next 4 days. On the trail! We had some packing to do!

Alejandro suggested ‘Mafia’ for dinner. But if you hadn’t sorted yourself out & made reservations, you were out of luck for any of the main street restaurants. “No problem,” said Jen, “we just find something on a side street.” And we did. Techado Negro was a great find! Not a tourist in sight. The mom at the table beside us helped choose our wine to go with our good food. Perfecto.

For dessert we head to the ice cream shop, Domo Blanco. I’m going back to Argentina just for dulce de leche ice cream. Breakfast buffets here even have little tubs of dulce de leche for your toast.

Day 1: Hike to Cerro Torre lookout. Continue on to Poincenot Campsite, passing Madre and Hija Lagoons
Juan, our fabulous guide & Austin, my special porter called for us at our hotel. The sun was shining. The air was clear. Suddenly we were on this adventure we had been planning for months. Rather more quickly than I expected, because we went out the front door of the hotel, walked about 3 minutes, & there was the sign for our trail. El Chalten is definitely the hub for trekkers. Go out your door & start your hike.
As we walked Juan gave us the history of the area & the names of the trees & flowers. Whenever we stopped at a lookout point people would ask him questions. How did everyone know he was a guide?
We were going up & up but there was no altitude problem as we had on the Inca trail.
(Machu Picchu – start 2750m, Dead Woman’s Pass 4200m, even Cusco is 3400m Patagonia – El Chalten 400m, Cerro Torre 3100m, Cerro Fitzroy 500m, Mt. Fitz Roy 3375m)
Of course, the Cerro Torre lookout (cerro torre means mountain peak), standing proudly behind an azure glacier lake, was stunning. It was a popular spot to stop for lunch, which we did.

I have to admit, our afternoon trek was a struggle for me. I felt badly that I was holding up our little group but the others didn’t complain at my slow pace. Juan kept saying, ‘How’s it going?’ & my reply was ‘Piece of cake!’. I lied.
Our lovely Poincenot Campsite was a very welcome sight, with tents set up just waiting for us.
After a rest & a big dinner I fell into my sleeping bag & didn’t move until the morning.

Day 2: Hike up to Laguna de los Tres (viewpoint of Mt. Fitz Roy), then up to the Adventure Camp in Los Huemules Reserve.
One of the things I loved about this trek was that the really difficult climbs were “up & back” which meant that Jenny & Juan could do them without me. Today was perfect. Jenny & Juan hiked up to Laguna de los Tres while Austin & I made our way, as slowly as we (I) liked, to a meeting spot. It was a great day. Jenny got to challenge herself & see the spectacular views, & I thoroughly enjoyed my slow trail walk along the valley. Austin seemed quite pleased to be ‘the guide’ in charge of me.

The Adventure Camp in Los Huemules Reserve was Laguna Condor Mountain Refuge. Overlooking the north face of the mythical Fitz Roy, this was one gorgeous spot! Glamping, for sure! Beautiful lodge, sweet comfy cabins with a shower, wonderful meals & a gracious host. We could have happily stayed here a few days instead of just one night.

We liked the wee cabin!

Day 3: Hike up to lookout. Transfer to Aquas Arribas Lodge.
Hoorah! Another ‘up’ hike for Jenny & Juan. Then, on the way to our next stop we discovered a little waterfall in the woods. Then we arrived at a dock. A dock? This trip just keeps getting better & better. Sadly we said goodbye to our wonderful friends & companions of the last two days & got on a boat!

Our itinerary said ‘transfer to Aquas Arribas Lodge’. There was no mention of a boat ride on a beautiful lake beside a glacier. Nothing about what a privilege it was to stay in one of only five rooms in an oasis of tranquility. Thank you Natascha from Swoop for planning our whole trip around availability there.

We were welcomed by Natalie who watched our faces, smiling with understanding as we realized we were in a very special spot. As we settled ourselves in one of the comfy sitting rooms, Barbara brought a tray of wine & cheese. Nico & Violeta came by with their maps of the private trails, asking which hikes we would like to take the next day. My ‘gratefuls’ were in overdrive.

Our hike with Violeta to the glacier lake
We’ve had the best time!

Information

Three Days in Buenos Aires

It’s hot!” Arriving at EZE, BA’s International airport, Jenny and I, coming from Scotland and Canada, were happy to peel off our layers of warm clothes. 

We came in at different times so I arranged for a car to meet each of us.  There’s not much better than arriving after an overnight flight to see someone holding a sign with your name on it, ready to whisk you into the city.

Our personal advisor for BA was Sandra Gutrejde, www.batravelguide.com

She was phenomenal.  Sandra looked after us completely. Starting with the all important airport transfers, then a city tour and all of our restaurant reservations.

Where To Stay

It was difficult to choose which neighbourhood to stay in.  Palermo was attractive with its many restaurants and shops but Recoleta was recommended on one of my favourite travel blogs, To Travel Too, so that’s where we stayed.  

Suites Leonardo da Vinci Residence, Libertad 1224, Retiro (edge of Recoleta) was perfect for us.  I felt like a spy when I arrived at the almost hidden doorway. My driver had to show me the bell to ring to gain admittance.  This was way more fun than a big hotel.  We checked in and with our old fashioned keys in hand we went up on the tiny elevator to our little flat. Charming and filled with light from sliding glass doors to our balcony overlooking city rooftops.  It was quiet and secluded. Private and perfect.  

Day 1 : Explore!

What treasures are right here, on your doorstep?  Ask the girl at the desk where she goes for coffee.  Ask the family you pass in the hallway if they found an ice cream place.  Ask the locals.  And try to do it in their language.  You’ll get laughter, surprised looks, and great advice.  You’ve been doing Duolingo, right? And you know how to say ‘Hello, please, thank you, how much is it & where’s the bathroom’, right’?  Trust me.  It makes a huge difference in your trip.  We discovered a little wine store.  ‘Donde esta la mercado?’ got us to a local grocery.  

Well fortified we headed back to our patio, turning our faces to the sun until we left for our big dinner date.

Argentine Wine Cocktail & Dinner Experience 

Argentine Experience – Cocktails First

Do this on your first night for a fun & hands-on introduction to many Argentinian customs.  After making & sampling of different wine cocktails at the bar we switched to tea. We put herbs into a gourd and filled it with hot water. Our first taste of the national drink – Mate. Consumed through a sieved straw this would not be our last mate experience. 

We created our own empanadas, with different designs depending on the filling. Baked & served as our appetizers!

We learned the Spanish words for ordering your Argentinian beef done just the way you like it. Jenny proudly used this throughout the rest of our trip.  It’s a novel idea & lots of fun.  Cudos to the gals that ran the evening with such enthusiasm.

Day 2 : Be a tourist  

Buenos Aries is huge and very hot in the summer.  I took Sandra’s advice to book us a city tour.

Our lovely guide Anna met us at the hotel, asking about our interests – coffee, quirky things, markets, lunch, a place for Jenny to train. And a pub.  She got the idea. She made suggestions and off we went with her driver in our air conditioned car.  Having a private guide for the day is like seeing the highlights of the city with a good friend.  Such a treat! Here are a few of the highlights of our day:

Tango was at the top of our list & Sandra chose Gala Tango for our Argentinian dance experience. We had a lesson first with a fabulous teacher.  I learned ‘the man’ part.  By the end of the lesson, each couple proved the skill of our teacher by dancing on the stage!   An intimate dinner plus an amazing show topped off a perfect day. 

Day 3 Live Your Life. Pretend You’re a Local

Jenny was training for the London marathon & needed to do a 14 mile run. The Reserve Ecologica was within walking distance of our hotel and had nice long trails through the park and along the water.  Just before you get to the nature reserve you come to the ‘Puerto Madero’ area which has long wide walkways along the water plus many coffee shops. Even a Starbucks.  

Puente de la Mujer from Temple Bar

I strolled the ‘puerto’, the old port area that has been rejuvenated. I crossed the bridge (Puente de La Mujer), and found myself at the pub that Anna had taken us to the day before.  Jenny met me there (aren’t phones wonderful?) where we had lunch.  We had a nice walk home, picking up pesos at a bank machine for our next adventure in El Chalten.  

Our pick-up to AEP, the ‘domestic airport’ was at 5:30 the next morning so there was packing to do. While enjoying the last of  the wine in the sunshine on our patio (with our drying clothes that we had washed while we showered that morning), we decided that since our next dinner experience was Fogon Asado Experience in Palermo, we should go early and have a walk-about.  After a short cab ride we strolled into the busy and happy vibe of the Capital district and of course found a patio where we enjoyed sitting outside. In February! 

We were welcomed into the cozy space at Fogon Asado with table settings on a wide bar surrounding the biggest bbq you can imagine.  Chefs were tending the coals, waiting to perform their magic. Once our small group was settled the fun began. Our server kept an amazing selection of wines flowing (and flowing, and flowing…) topping up any empty glass he spotted on the counter.  Seemingly endless courses of different meats were presented, culminating in (of course) great Argentinian beef.

Entertaining and funny servers ensured we all had a brilliant Buenos Aires experience.

Ask the maitre d’ to get you a taxi so you get home safely for your next adventure!

Perito Moreno Glacier

If you get all the way to Patagonia, Argentina, you must visit the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. Sounds pretty exotic doesn’t it? Pretty touristy but get yourself a good guide who knows all the secrets & go. Most folks stay in El Calafate, a fun little town and the gateway to Los Glaciares National Park, home of the massive Perito Moreno Glacier.

An Amazing Day

On the viewing platform at Perito Merino

Guide Pablo Antimi (pabloantimi@hotmail.com) Glaciar Sur. Tour Pioneros

From El Calafate you can take a bus, a taxi, or drive yourself to visit the glacier. It will take you about an hour and a half and there’s an entrance fee of 800 pesos. Or like my daughter Jenny and I, take one of the many guided tours. We were happy with our ‘typical tourist’ adventure with Pablo but he offers way more adventuresome trips if you’re looking for glacier walks or rock climbing.

Foxes along the road.

We travelled along Route 15 watching for wildlife & listening to Pablo’s stories about the area.    Our driver must have been a tracker in his former life.  He’d spot a family of foxes or a flock of  birds and make sure we saw them too.

Mate!

Mate

As we drove along beside Lago Argentino, it was definitely time for ‘elevenses’. Pablo brought out his thermos of hot water and proceeded to make his morning tea, ‘Mate’ (‘mawteh’), and gave everyone a chance to experience this National Beverage of Argentina. It is prepared by steeping dried leaves of yerba mate in hot water and is served with a metal straw from a shared hollow calabash gourd. Obviously we went before Covid 19 made sharing a straw ridiculous.

Lunch at Estancia Nipebo Aike

As we pulled into the estancia we felt like we could be in Scotland. There were horses grazing peacefully and two hard working collies keeping the sheep in order.

Arriving at the welcome centre we smelled our lunch cooking in the fireplace which was big enough to hold two men standing! The smiling, proud cook was busy roasting a lamb the traditional way so the fat drips down to keep the meat moist.  Salads, homemade breads, and of course Argentina’s famous Malbec wine, were on offer as well.

Jenny and I couldn’t move!

The Glacier – South Side 

Advertisements promised we would ‘take a boat to the face’ and sure enough, as the van pulled up to a lake we saw a small boat waiting for us. And not another tourist in sight!

We all climbed into the sturdy, covered boat and were on our way to the South Face of the only Glacier in the world that is still growing.

 Jenny and I, sitting at the front, had to be rescued by Pablo after we were lifted off our seats by the immense waves.  Pablo held onto us so we could move to the back where there was less intense buffeting!

Suddenly we were actually ‘at the face’.  With strong arms helping us, we all clambered onto the rocky shore. The sheer power of the place was overwhelming. It felt like our little group was alone on a prehistoric journey.

Pablo guided us out onto the rocks through the fierce winds, to get close to the ice then let go of our hands.  Jenny and I clung together and could. not. move.  We couldn’t go forward or back.  We  couldn’t lift our arms to get a picture!  Pablo had to come back and rescue us.   

As we all stumbled back onto the boat, everyone was laughing, delighted with this exciting, unexpected adventure.

To celebrate, Pablo offered everyone a toast of whiskey with 3000 year old glacier ice cubes. Salud! 

3000 year old bubbles in an ice cube

The North Face – The Main Event

Another short boat ride took us around to the North Face, where the van met us and drove us up to the visitor viewing area.

So many tourists. We were thankful we arrived late in the afternoon, just as  the big buses were leaving. Having a clever guide is a huge asset when you’re travelling!

There’s a good visitor centre with cafe, washrooms, and gift shop. The viewing platforms are quite extensive, sturdy, and well maintained.  Walk down to the first level, get your pictures taken, and see everything quite well.   We continued down to the bottom and just sat in the sun and gazed at the massive ice face.  Every time you heard a ‘crack’ you’d look quickly and see a bit of ice breaking off, a calving.  Too soon it was time to head back up.

There were condors cruising way above us. As we stopped to enjoy the show we heard a ‘boom’. A huge dark mound was rising out of the water, spreading big waves. It looked like a whale breaching. Pablo screamed, “It’s an underwater calving! It’s very rare!” As the water settled, a new bright aquamarine spike was all that was showing.

It was a perfect ending to a perfect day.

Do

Hire a guide to take you. Guides know the best routes, times, and of course stories. They help you & you help the local economy.

La Cocina , an Italian restaurant on the Main Street was wonderful & full of locals.

We stayed at a boutique hotel just steps away from the Main Street & the bird sanctuary, Madre Tierra. Highly recommend. The owners were fabulous & so helpful. We had the best breakfasts of our entire stay in Argentina.

If you want real pizza, with locals, go to La Lechuza. Great ambience, pizza, & beer.

Go in the summer (December- February) or Autumn (March-May). Summer is warmer but be prepared for the winds. Autumn is beautiful, there are fewer tourists, but be prepared for rain & even snow.

The Perito Moreno Glacier, named for a 19th-century explorer, is currently 19 miles long and rises an average height of 240 feet above the water. Altogether, the glacier covers about 121 square miles. It is part of an ice field located in both Argentina and Chile that is the third largest reserve of fresh water in the world. Part of an area known as Argentina’s Austral Andes, it became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1981.