Patagonia

Glaciers in Argentina

The Patagonian ice fields extend for about 16,800 km2, covering part of Chile and part of Argentina’s geography. Even though that more than 80% falls into Chile (such as Glacier Grey, in Torres del Paine and Glaciar Aguila, in Agostini Sound), Argentina offers easy access to some of the most impressive glaciers in the continent (among them, the upmost famous Perito Moreno!).

While in Calafate, we decided to take a boat trip through Los Glaciares National Park – a World Heritage site since 1981. The trip took us along a small part of Lago Argentino, the largest lake in the country – coming so close, you could almost touch the ice!

Close Up in Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Close Up in Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Close Up in Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Among all the white icy islands we came across with throughout the tour, there were also a few intense blue bodies of ice. It appears blue because this ice is very compact and so absorbs all colors of the visible light spectrum, except blue – which is transmitted instead. The deeper under the surface of the visible glacier, the more compact the ice becomes and therewith, the bluer it reflects when a piece of it cracks and ends up floating in the water.

Close Up in Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Have you ever come up close to a glacier?

Glaciers in Calafate, Argentina

Visiting glaciers is exciting. I study the details of their rips, cracks and holes sharpening my senses in the hope of catching the next slide. I block all distractions – In my head, it’s just me and the glacier. Then I hear a crack. My heart starts racing and my head keeps turning from one side to the other.

Where did it come from?

Nothing seems to move. I continue to examine its rips, trying to guess which parts loose and are highly probable to break off in the next few minutes. I stare at it continuously, as if my glare could burn the last little piece that attaches it to the rest of the block. I hold my camera tight. I’m sure its going to happen any time soon.

I hear another crack. And another one. My head is spinning – I don’t know where to look anymore. And then, I see it – A big piece of blue glacier falls into the water at slow motion.

Not slow enough for me to turn on my camera. I will have to learn to be happy with only a mental picture then.

There have been a few times in life when I looked around myself, admired how far I had gotten and then told myself:

Holy sh*t, you actually made it!
(yes, I occasionally talk to myself – specially when I’ve accomplished something good or am about to do something that my other me knows I will regret in a few seconds).

Those times when I’ve felt so proud of myself that I shook my hands in glory and accomplishment have been usually limited to academic stuff: you know, the day I picked up a diploma in my masters’ graduation or the day I arrived a my 14th floor hotel room in Hong Kong and admired the beginning of my career. Or the day my school maths teacher, who peeked into each of our calculators and pencil cases during an exam didn’t notice my super super secret crib. But occasionally, I feel proud after completing a more physical challenge.

This, was one of them.

Overview of the 9km Trail to Mirador las Torres

We started off the day leaving our hotel at 7am to drive to the start of the trail at Hotel Las Torres. The hike is a 9km walk to the Mirador, most of the being (considerable) uphill. At the initial stage, the walk wasn’t steep; but for a good part of it, you walk exposed to the wind (which is usually quite strong around that corner). After walking about 300m uphill, you’ll stay at that level for a while, and will already start appreciating a broad view over the valley.

Torres del Paine, ChileLooking back

Looking into the Valley, Torres del Paine, ChileLooking forward

After reaching the campamento Chileno, you hike for another few hours – first drawing the curves of river Ascensio (a rather comfortable after-lunch walk), and later entering the woods. At this point, the trail starts to become steeper until reaching an open space from where the crazy moraine climb begins.

The Final Stage: Rocky Moraine

This final climb reaches 890m height in only 0.8km distance. However, you need to account for 45min/1 hour to reach the top. This is when you put your hiking shoes into a test – the path is a rocky ramp!

All the way up the moraine, you won’t see more than the peaks of the towers. It’s only once you reach the top that you discover the majestic landscape in front of you.

Torres del Paine, Chile

View From the Mirador: All three towers: Torre Sur, Torre Central and Torre Norte; the Torres glacier and a lake formed of glacial water.

Practical Information

Route: From Hotel Las Torres to Mirador Las Torres (Chile) – circular
Elevation gain uphill: 1.157m
Elevation gain downhill: 1.157m
Length: 19 km
Duration: 8 – 9 hrs trekking (12 hrs including breaks)
Difficulty: Challenging
Wikiloc: Mirador Las Torres, Chile

Guanaco in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

Guanacos are fascinating creatures. They often live in herds mostly composed of females, their chulengos and one dominant male, who needs to continually fight against other bachelor males that want to take over his position. He protects his herd from predators by carefully scanning the surroundings from the top and, when he feels a threat, he’ll alert with a high-pitched trill.

A though job, being a guardian of so many females and vulnerable new borns – luckily there are very few pumas in Torres del Paine National Park.

There’s no doubt that Argentineans are known for their fine wine and rich food – many of them are italian descendants, so a passion for cuisine is in their blood. But you probably already know about their rump steaks and rib-eye steaks. You might have even had an argentinean tenderloin some time (my personal favorite, by the way).

So, instead of walking you through the numerous eatable parts of a cow, I’ll focus on Patagonia in general, covering both, the Argentinean and Chilean sides. Chilean food, although with a more limited international representation, deserves a special mention here. After all, Chile’s long coastline adds a wide range of ocean products to their main ingredients (and hey, sea food is one of my weak points!).

Spider Crab

Spider Crab Ceviche, Ushuaia (Argentina)

Spider crab is a certainly a regional delicacy that you shouldn’t miss out. Restaurants offer them prepared in so many different ways: natural, as a soup, in a salad or even prepared as ceviche (pictured above) where the spider crab is basically cooked by using acidic juice from limes and/or lemons (a must try!).

Although spider crab was on menus all over Patagonia, I believe that one of the top places to go for it was Ushuaia, where it’s freshly brought right from the Beagle Channel. I spotted the above spider crab ceviche above at Restaurante Tante Nina, where they did not only offer a huge variety of fresh sea food, but also a perfect view over the southernmost harbour of the World.

Merluza Negra

The patagonian toothfish is regionally known as merluza negra, which translates literally into black hake. The first time I read it on a menu it caught my attention – I had only known the silver toned hake, how would a black hake look like and most importantly, how does it taste?

The merluza negra can only be found in very cold waters in the southern hemisphere, and can get to become a pretty big lady – up to 2 meters long! I’m no fish expert, but I do recognize a good fish when I try it, and this patagonian treat, in my opinion, is much more savory than other sea products (maybe it’s because of its fat layer between skin and flesh?).

Cordero Fueguino and Cordero Patagónico

Cordero Fueguino, Patagonia

Asadores are everywhere in Patagonia, but instead of highlighting their beef products, they focus on their regional lamb – the cordero fueguino and cordero patagónico. The cordero patagónico has a unique flavor because of the sheeps’ diet of regional mixed herbs and grasses (particularly a type of grass called coirones). This, together with a delicious chimichurri sauce made of hot peppers, garlic, vinegar, oil and mixed herbs makes the perfect meal after a rough day of hiking.

Dulce de Leche

Brownie with Dulce de Leche

Alfajor with Dulce de Leche

Flan with Dulce de Leche

Ok, so before you attack me on this one – yes, Dulce de Leche is not originally from Patagonia. It might not even be Argentinean! But although the origin of Dulce de Leche is uncertain, there’s no doubt about Argentina being the world leader of its production and consumption, and Patagonia was no exception. This sweet paste was a key ingredient to any dessert – it filled home-made alfajores, it topped a chocolate brownie and accompanied a simple flan.

Calafate

Calafate Berry in Patagonia

This was a failed attempt of adjusting my camera’s focus to the calafate berry, manually. Mental Note: Learn how to use DSLR camera before the next big trip.

It’s very easy to come across it when hiking anywhere in Patagonia. When the fruit is mature, it adopts a dark color blue-violet color, similar to the one of blueberries, and can be eaten right away from the bush! In my opinion, they tastes like a mix of blueberries and raspberries and are used to make multiple products: from jams and cakes to beer – yes! there’s a chilean ale called Cerveza Austral that is made with these berries. A must try!

A legend tells that anyone who eats the Calafate berry, will certainly return to Patagonia – I really hope this is true.

Have you ever tried any of these dishes? Which is your favorite?

Hiking Valle Frances, Torres del Paine, Chile

Hiking aficionados will, sooner or later, come across The W Trek in Torres del Paine National Park – one of the most popular treks in Chile. This 5 day trek covers most of the park’s highlights including, among others, the Valle del Francés, which is often rated as the best landscape in the park.

I’d like to say that I did the complete W Trek – but I didn’t.

Instead, we stayed at one of the few hotels in the area and took day excursion to explore the different branches of the Trek. Was I lazy? Maybe – but I couldn’t really consider it part of my annual vacation leave if I had to return to the office with a damaged back, right?

Valle del Francés (or Frenchman´s Valley) is the central spike of the W, starting at Lago Pehoe towards the north east. Soon after departing from the Refugio Paine Grande, which was conveniently located next to the lakeshore, we could already admire the majestic Cuernos del Paine in front of us.

Hiking Valle Frances, Torres del Paine, Chile

After an almost leisurely walk with easy paths and only minor ups and downs, we reached a suspension bridge over Río Francés. Even though this bridge was not as impressive in height and length as the one I crossed over the Massa River in Switzerland, the view over the raging river, the mountains and glacier definitely made up for that bit.

When crossing the bridge, we could get a 360º View over many of the park’s attractions: turquoise blue lakes to the right, the Cuernos del Paine to the front, Glaciar Francés to the left and Paine Grande to the back.

Waking up at 6:30am already became worth it!

Hiking Valle Frances, Torres del Paine, Chile

Once on the other side, we arrived at the Campamento Italiano, a simple (but therefore free of charge!) campsite in the park. From here on, day hikers are advised to continue up north as much as they want (there’s meant to be a beautiful viewpoint another 2 hours away from this point), always keeping in mind the departure of the last ferry back to the other side of Lake Pehoe.

Since our group was mixed in age and level of fitness, we all decided to continue up the river for another 20 minutes and find an exclusive spot to enjoy our lunch with a first class view of Glaciar Francés and take our time to explore the area.

Hiking Valle Frances, Torres del Paine, Chile

The view over the fast-flowing river and the Glaciar Francés.

Hiking Valle Frances, Torres del Paine, Chile

A bumblebee next to the French River

Hiking Valle Frances, Torres del Paine, Chile

Cuernos del Paine in the background

We wanted to postpone our time to return as much as possible – It just felt too good to sit on a warm flat stone, getting some color on our skins while cooling down our feet in glacial water. However, when the time had come to catch the last ferry of the day, we were surprised by a breathtaking view of Lake Pehoe (no Photoshop for this one, I swear!).

Hiking Valle Frances, Torres del Paine, Chile

Practical Information

Route: From Refugio Paine Grande (Lake Pehoe) to some point before Refugio Británico (Chile) – circular
Elevation gain uphill: 516m
Elevation gain downhill: 516m
Length: 19.6 km
Duration: 4 – 5 hrs
Difficulty: Easy
Wikiloc: Ok, so I didn’t find a wikiloc for this route exactly, but it might help to check out this guy who did the complete W circuit for reference.

Shortly after waving goodbye to a colony of Magellanic penguins on Isla Magdalena, we arrived at our last stop: Punta Arenas. From there, a mere 5 and a half hours ride took us into one of the World’s most impressive landscapes: the Torres del Paine National Park.

Torres del Paine National Park is takes it name from three impressive granite towers (torres) that, together with the horns (cuernos), rise more than 3,000 meters above the Patagonian steppe. It’s beauty and uniqueness was officially recognized in 1975, when it was declared World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO.

What makes this place so special?

The Mountains

Mountains in Torres del Paine, Chile

Those of you who know me, know that I love mountainous landscapes., which is a bit unusual from someone who’s spent her teens in a bikini.

That Torres del Paine National Park is considered a paradise for hikers and climbers and overall mountaineers was no surprise – its many valleys and peaks form a fantastic playground for any adventurer seeking for unspoiled allure!

I took the above picture of one of the Cuernos del Paine while hiking in Valle Francés.

The Lakes

Lake in Torres del Paine, Chile

Although I had spent two years living next to a beautiful lake in Switzerland, I held my breath as I saw the shades of blue of the lakes in the park.

Shouldn’t this color belong in the Caribbean?

I took this picture was taken from Puente Weber, overlooking Rio Paine and the Paine Massif.

The Flora

Flowers in Torres del Paine, Chile

The best months to travel to Torres del Paine is between October and April – not only because of the milder temperatures and longer hours of sunlight, but to appreciate the diverse flora that colors the ground of the park.

I soon learned that looking down can be as rewarding as looking up!

The picture above is of a bed of lupins, one of the iconic wildflowers in the Andean region in Patagonia.

The Waterfalls

Waterfall in Torres del Paine, Chile

The Park has two waterfalls – Salto Grande (pictured above) and Cascada del Rio Paine, which exhibit very different attractions. Salto Grande caught my eye due to the tremendous power used to drain the water from Lake Nordenskjöld to Lake Pehoé. Cascada del Rio Paine, although less powerful, had a perfect setting – in front of the dramatic Torres.

Although one can get closer to Salto Grande by walking down a few steps, I am certain that the best view was from the top of the Mirador, from where I shot this photograph.

The Fauna

Eagle in Torres del Paine, Chile

Torres del Paine is the perfect place for those, like me, enjoy getting closer to the regional wildlife. During my time in the park, I walked with guanacos and ñandús (darwin’s rhea), spotted a family of cute grey foxes, flamingos, condors and this majestic eagle – just to name a few!

I spotted this eagle during our lunch break, close to Lago Azul.

The Glaciers

Glaciers in Torres del Paine, Chile

The region we now know as Patagonia is said to have been once covered under a thick volume of ice. Millions of years have passed and still we find hundreds of (smaller) moving bodies of ice. Glaciar Grey is probably the most famous of the park’s glaciers, attracting a considerable number of tourists each year that want to experience ice trekking or get a closer look to the walls of ice from one of cruises. The large pieces that fall off the glacier slowly drift towards the stone beach, creating what is commonly known as a Cementerio de Tempanos (ice floes cementery).

In the picture: Lake Grey with a big ice floe and in the Grey Glacier in the background.

Isla Magdalena, Chile

Penguins are simply adorable, aren’t they?

Before disembarking at a floating dock on Isla Magdalena (Chile), I had only watched them behind a glass in the Zoo, where a couple of dozens occupied the fake islands and saw their days pass by staring to each other and, from time to time, having a short dive into the water.

The Magellanic penguins on Isla Magdalena had nothing to do with the picture I had from the Zoo. thousands of penguins were waddling down the hills towards the sea to go and catch lunch for their family, while their partners took care of their furry chicks. Some of them wandered in groups of friends, while others stood by them selves calling out for their life partners.

Isla Magdalena, Chile

Yes, that’s right. Penguins mate for life.

Not only are they loyal, but build a relationship based on teamwork – they build their nest together and then make shifts on catching fish and raising their chicks. Year after year, male penguins search for their female partners, who recognize them through the male’s calls. I spotted a few of them hoping to reconnect with their beloved ones!

Isla Magdalena, Chile

Isla Magdalena, Chile

Isla Magdalena is not as easy to access as the smaller colony in Seno Otway, about an hour drive from Punta Arenas.

Despite receiving far less visitors than Otway, the birds were curious about us – some of them even seemed to enjoyed standing in front of a camera!

Isla Magdalena, Chile

Isla Magdalena, Chile

Although our visit was short – about an hour on land -, the visit is most definitely worth it! I managed to use up my camera’s battery, but returned with at least 60 unique postcards.

I could have stayed the whole day watching them.

Isla Magdalena, Chile

Arrival at Parque Nacional Alberto de Agostini, Chile

After surrounding Cape Horn and hiking up Wulaia Bay to soak up it’s beautiful and unspoiled landscape, we embarked our expedition cruise towards the Agostini Sound, in the heart of the Cordillera Darwin, in Tierra del Fuego. The region is famous for its numerous glaciers that, in some cases, reach all the way down to the sea.

In the afternoon, we got on our zodiacs to get a closer look to one of the most fascinating glaciers, the Aguila Glacier.

Aguila Glacier, Parque Nacional Alberto de Agostini, Chile

Aguila Glacier, Parque Nacional Alberto de Agostini, Chile

The Aguila Glacier is situated at the end of a tranquil lagoon and surrounded by mountains. The easy walk from the beach where we disembarked to the glacier itself took less than 15 minutes, and once I stood in front of it, I couldn’t help but taking more than 70 shots of it.

Aguila Glacier, Parque Nacional Alberto de Agostini, Chile

Aguila Glacier, Parque Nacional Alberto de Agostini, Chile

I was fascinated by the bright blue cracks, the way sun light illuminated the whites, the water reflections of the lagoon… there’s no doubt about it – Glaciar Aguila is ideal for any landscape photography enthusiast like me.

A View over Wulaia Bay, Chile

Wulaia Bay used to be the region’s largest Yamana aboriginal settlements and is nowadays known for its incredible beauty. As we disembarked and hiked uphill, through a forest of Coihues and Lengas towards the look-out point from which I took the photograph, I realized how much I had been missing this – the peaceful sound of wind brushing the leaves and constant waves playing in the background.

I stood there for some time, in complete silence, sketching this panoramic view over the bay deep into my memory – right before rushing back down to avoid being drenched by the rain.