Phoenix to Denver, 2 hours
Denver to Houston, 2 hours
Houston to Santiago, 9 hours
8 hour Layover
Santiago to Punta Arenas, 4 hours
Spend a night on the Magellan Strait
Van ride to Puerto Natales, 3 hours
Phew, we’ve arrived. In Puerto Natales, we’re now overlooking the Last Hope Sound, named by a Spanish explorer who felt it was his last chance at finding the Strait of Magellan. Feels like we’re at the end of the earth!
Across the sound, we can finally see, peeking out from behind the clouds, the peaks of Torres Del Paine National Park, the most popular destination in the southern Patagonia region shared by Chile and Argentina.
Another two-hour bus trip would get us to the Park entrance the next morning, where we planned to spend the next 9-10 days, hiking in the foothills of snow-capped peaks and granite towers, amongst the glacier fed lakes, creeks and waterfalls.
Surrounded by ocean and exposed to Antarctic winds, the area experiences harsh, unpredictable weather systems. We packed accordingly, expecting strong winds and rain. What we didn’t prepare for was all of that, plus below average temperatures (in the 40’s instead of 50’s – 60’s) and a chance of snow flurries (keep in mind this is late spring/early summer in South America). We were on vacation, after all, not an expedition. Be gone snow!
And how did we end up in Patagonia for our Christmas vacation? Aminda has two weeks off over the holidays, which makes it difficult not to take advantage of the opportunity to go far away. Several prospects were considered, including Chile, which we discovered when researching South American rock climbing areas.
Then, last summer Josh found himself working alongside two Chilean-based guides who were spending their off-season working in California. He found Hernan and Alvaro, to be amazingly enthusiastic salesmen of their beloved Patagonia. Any rare moment of down time was an opportunity for these dudes to show off pictures and tell stories about the wild and beautiful land of southern Patagonia. All it took was a Google images search to convince Aminda. Patagonia it was.
And so, less than six months later, it was with Alvaro who we found ourselves, having a beer and lamenting the unseasonably terrible weather threatening our vacation. Should we continue with our plans and hope for the best? Should we try to wait out the weather? If so, where would we wait, given how far out-of-the way we had already traveled to our current destination?
There was only one answer. Argentine Patagonia would require another full day of travel via bus, but our reward was a perfect five-day forecast. So, after a night at Hernan’s comfortable and welcoming Kau Lodge, we were off to Argentina. (Hernan is well known in the region for being a visionary and leader in developing tourism in the area. He helped us out a lot with our logistics.)
The trip to Argentina required two long border stops as each passenger was stamped out and then in to the neighboring country. On our bus we met four separate parties coming who had planned treks in Torres del Paine over the previous few days. All of them had either cut their time short, or left without starting due to the bad weather. We felt for them but appreciated the validation of our hasty decision.
Our long days of travel were quickly forgotten as soon as we glimpsed this iconic skyline.
Each morning in the town of El Chalten, a small, laid back town in the foothills of Argentine Patagonia which served as a base for our explorations, trekkers head out from their campsites and hostels, stop at the bakery for the day’s rations, then continue until the road ends, continuing on as the trails of Los Glaciares National Park.
The three days we spent here included a highlight of our entire trip, the hike up to the base of the Fitz Roy, an iconic mountaineering route. Jagged granite towers, straight out of the glacier, presiding over azure lakes. The fierce winds and light rains helped us acclimate for the days ahead.
Yes, the granite faces spoke to the climbers in us… but the alpine-style climbing here is a little more of a project than we wanted to take on. Not to mention that the amount of gear required and the time needed to wait out good weather would have prohibited us from seeing anything else. This video captures the process.
For us west-coasters, used to the alpine peaks of the Rockies and Sierra, it was remarkable to find these alpine-like vistas without the lung-busting hikes of being at elevation. In Argentina, we barely hiked over 4000 feet, while in Chile, being right on the Pacific, we were usually at 500-1000 feet.
After our detour to Argentina,we were greeted back in Natales, Chile with an improved forecast and much more optimism about the next segment of our trip to Torres Del Paine Park.
Our original goal was to hike the full circle around the Park, taking 8-10 days to do the 70-mile loop. But after three days of hiking in Argentina, our motivation waned, so we again adjusted our plans and set out on a shorter, 6-day route.