Puyuhuapi

From Cerro Castillo we drove on to Coyhaique.. The only city in that entire area with an ATM. Yay. Also, apparently, the city with the capability to steal your credit card data. bleh. I got lucky in the sense that my bank blocked the card at the first attempt and no money was withdrawn, while a friend didn’t get so lucky. But we left the town unaware of what was set in motion there. (My bank blocked my card but didn’t think it necessary to inform me of anything.. I only found out a few days later when I tried to pay with it.)

IMG_20170321_195215From Coyhaique we drove on to Puyuhuapi.. The origin of the name of the town is  unclear. In most restaurants one can find the poster above which can be summarised as: the name could come from a plant or a fish or something else.

My guide made it sound like Coyhaique and Puyuhuapi were both major hubs in the area. So we were a bit surprised when the bus kicked us out in the middle of the street about a kilometer from the town. We’d later find out that a) Puyuhuapi is barely large enough to be a village and b) that its three streets are currently under construction, preventing larger vehicles from entering it.
The location of the village is picturesque, however. We reached it in the early evening. At the very end of a long fjord, it crests on the shore. A layer of smoke hovers over the wood-paneled houses as most people here cook and heat with wood. The place emits a vibe of absolut peace and serenity.

Unfortunately our hostel made every effort to sour the stay. From the fact that foreigners do not seem to get eggs at breakfast to the cook that didn’t feel like making us anything but chicken when we enquired, we quickly realised we were considered a nuisance. In addition the land lady, after assuring us that the credit machine worked, ended up telling us that the 5 credit cards we tried must all be broken, because it certainly wasn’t her machine that was wonky. She basically walked away with all our hard earned cash… 300km from the closest ATM. We were a bit mad.
Luckily everyone else turned out to be absolutely charming and the grocery shop and the bus company mostly accepted credit cards (which worked there.. wonder oh wonder).

We also had an amazing day at the local hot springs: terma del ventisquero. Lying in the baking sun, with the hot springs completely to ourselves and even direct access to the sea. A great day spent doing absolutely nothing (but getting a sunburn, of course.. This is not optional for me if I spend a day in the sun)

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Cerro Castillo

Cerro Castillo was a surprise. Three people in our group of six had vaguely heard about this place. It was meant to offer a nice four day hike through woods and up to a laguna under a glacier. The entry point lay in the middle of nowhere, the exit point in the village Villa Cerro Castillo. One of our group had scouted ahead and already informed us that a) the weather was good and b) the scenery was beautiful. So expectations where high when we left Puerto Rio Tranquilo.


They weren’t disappointed. Villa Cerro Castillo is easily my favorite place so far. The scenery is simply amazing and the people very friendly. As it turned out our bus had its scheduled lunch stop in Villa Cerro Castillo and I saw more than one jealous eye following us unload our backpack in this little village. What they didnt know was that we had just seriously screwed ourselves… None of us had any Chilean Pesos left,, only credit cards and of course this place had no accommodation where we could pay by credit card. But where there’s a problem, there’s a solution and we ended up in the lovely dorms in Senderos Patagonia, where, on  a good day, the wifi will allow you to pay by paypal.

After we had established that we would indeed be able to pay for our stay, more questions arose: One member of our group proclaimed that she was sick of trees and didn’t want to hike through forests anymore. Another pointed out that he actually had to be in Santiago in a week and 4-days of hiking was really not that easily squeezed in. One wasn’t that big a fan of hiking in the first place and it became obvious pretty quickly that there was really only one person interested in the 4 day hike: Me. The person with no tent, no sleeping back and no camping experience.

After a short chat with the owner of our hostel, I had a tent, a sleeping back and even a plan: Do a shorter loop of two days with one night at the laguna, because “the rest is really not that spectacular anyways”. Trusting in that assessment and the fact that they announced rain for the third day, I set off the next morning solo towards the laguna. A short 10km hike more or less continuously steep uphill. I was cooked when I arrived and needed a little under four hours to reach the top. But the views. There are no words.. Lagunas, glaciers and mountain peaks are all nice (in fact they are very nice), but what really took my breath away was the view over the valley. So pretty. The camp was set up quickly and illegally, due to a misunderstanding.. I later found where the actual camping site was..


Since I had set off early, I had time to explore the area, it was only early afternoon. I found a lovely waterfall not too far away and then decided to take a bath in the laguna… I only had minor frostbite on my toes coming back out.

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After a night of clear skies, thousands of stars and mediocre sleep (it turned out my inflatable mattress had a hole), I set off to conquer the pass and descend on the other side..  But not before enjoying a mostly cloudy sunrise below the Cerro Castillo.

The clearly posted path of the previous day made way to a waste land of gravel and rocks. I lost my way a few times, but always ended up regaining the path.. Climbing the pass, the view onto the valley revealed more lakes and even offered a view onto the Lago General Carrera again.

On the other side the descend began, guiding me through some woods and ultimately stopping at the 4th day camp site for lunch.

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From there it continued on down until I regained the road. Up to that point I had managed to kep dry feet, even though I had been warned that there were many water streams to cross.

The last one, of course, had to be my downfall. And while all the previous rivers had been crystal clear glacier water, this one was muddy and stale. I still made it out with a single wet foot… and too lazy to change the shoes then and there, I walked my wet shoe all the way home. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Glaciar Exploradores

The glacier hike on the Exploradores glacier was completely different from the other ones again. In particular because the weather was just soooo crappy. Rain, wind, cold..  We had it all.

In the beginning the guides told us that it would be up to us to make this fun, because the weather was trying to make it a challenge.. It really was hard work.

However it is the rain this glacier frequently receives that creates the caves and tunnels which make visiting it so interesting. This was the first time I could actually walk through ice tunnels or climb into ice caves. The first illusion of being protected from the rain in the ice cave quickly were shattered when I realised that we still have about 10 degrees and what we escape is the rain and what we gain is the melted water dripping onto you everywhere inside the caves.

I was soaked within the first 200m we did on the ice. Mostly because I had the great idea to lean against one of the walls in an ice cave and thereby learned first hand that they have a lot of water running down those walls. Still, I kept my hopes up that the weather would improve, just like it had on the Perito Moreno. In the mean time we walked on. The weather got worse. We stayed strong. Though I didn’t see too many laughing faces. We were closing in on the lunch spot and not even the fact that clouds and rain make the ice appear bluer could cheer us up…


That’s when I noticed my crampons feeling loose and kinda funny. And three steps later, the crampon broke and I was left crampon less.. Luckily the tour guides come prepared and had replacements for the piece that broke. A few minutes later we were on the road again. Generally speaking the equipment made a much better impression than the one at Perito Moreno. It seemed newer and just more complete. We got helmets and waterproof gloves. We also got protection for our trousers/shoes from the crampons and the crampons, for me, stuck much better to my shoes.

All this, however, could not make up for the amazingly crappy weather. The wind had picked up and shock frozen the soaked jackets.. We finally admitted that it was time to retreat and probably made the way back in record time. It was a great experience, nevertheless, I’ll not be going again if the weather is predicted to be that crappy.

Of course the moment we got off the ice, a sun ray broke through:

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(Then it rained some more)

 

Capilla de Marmól

We visited the marble caves in the early morning. Again the cave is not really what I expect of a cave, but the washed out marble is quite nice. This being said, it wasn’t the must-see the guide books make it out to be. In addition we left very early, around 8am, to be able to catch the bus. We weren’t the only ones who had had that idea, so there were about 15 boats swarming around the caves and it got very hard to actually enjoy the trip.

The mood of the driver wasn’t helping. We had been at a booth the evening before to do a reservation. This person had promised to alleviate our cash-flow issues by charging us by credit card. The next morning we went back to said person and he walked us to the gas station, where he bought gas for the amount we owed him. All dandy.

But with this taken care of we walked back to the port where a very agitated guy came running towards us. Telling us that we had a responsibility towards him and that we committed to do the tour with him. Why were we standing at another person’s booth now. He was going to run a deficit on the boat tour because we weren’t joining it. We didn’t quite understand what was happening. My best guess is that we were handed on from the original guy we did the reservation with to this guy. We told him we paid the guy we did the reservation with and that we weren’t psychic and couldn’t have known that we’d changed boat overnight. He insisted we should’ve check the logs to make sure they hadn’t been modified.
In the end, the guy we paid ended up having full boats, so he handed us over to the guy that had been complaining before. That just made it more confusing. It also led to the boat driver being rather unmotivated, rushing through the caves with little opportunity to stop and watch in peace.

The visit itself consists of three stops, there’s a marble front, in which caves are currently being dug by the water and the capillo and catedral de marmól.Two boulders, one smaller the other larger, that have been completely perforated by tunnels at the height of the water. All in all, it’s quite a sight. But it would’ve been nice to have a little more time to enjoy the view and, maybe, a little less traffic while we were visiting.
If you have the time, in general I’d recommend to catch the 9am tour.. That one is much less frequented. A single boat headed towards the Capilla while we were heading back.. But it means you can’t catch the 10am bus.. And who knows if the other buses truly exist.

Puerto Rio Tranquilo

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFrom Los Antiguos we wanted to cross into Chile. I’d been told that there’s no bus going, but hitch hiking should be easy. Well… it’s really not. We ended up walking the 5km in the no man’s land between the Argentinian and Chilean border control. Once through customs we asked the custom officer to call us a taxi for the next 10km. It wasn’t our lucky day.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAArriving in Chile Chico, we were informed that a) there’s no ATM, so retrieving money won’t be an option and b) there’s no bus in the afternoon. Only in the mornings. Another day ‘lost’, spent lying in the sun and enjoying the view of the Lago General Carrera. Second largest lake in South America and over 600m deep. The next morning we took a mini-van to Puert Rio Tranquilo. We got lucky, with the weather, the view and the driver.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA A proud Chilean who enjoyed very much stopping at the big view points and even pointed out the one prehistoric guanako drawn on a rock on the side of a road. She even had a heavily used magazine on dinosaurs ready to show us the article about the dinosaur discovered in that area two years ago. The drive was along the lake for a few hundred kilometers. The deep blue of the lake, the mountains and the sky flowing into each other. It was just incredibly pretty. Probably the most beautiful stretch of road we’ve done.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAArriving in Puerto Rio Tranquilo, we found that the village is a lot smaller than Chile Chico. However, it’s quite well set up in tourist attraction. It therefore, of course, has a cerveceria offering self-brewed beer and some nice places to eat. In addition the main IMG_20170313_160519attractions are the Exploradores glacier, the marble caves and the laguna San Rafael. What it doesn’t have is an ATM and we were running seriously low on cash. Another thing it doesn’t have is an understandable bus system. We arrived and where told buses to Coyhaique leave every morning at 9 and 10.  That’s it. Simple enough. But it’s 3pm, and there’s a bus indicating it’s going to Coyhaique right in front of us. When we ask what that bus is, we’re told “Oh, that’s the transfer”. What’s a transfer you may ask? It’s a bus going from Puerto Rio Tranquilo to Coyhaique, transferring people. But, for some reason, it apparently isn’t a bus. So with this newly gained information that there’s a bus at 9,10 and around 4pm we decided to visit the marble caves in the morning, then catch the bus in direction of Coyhaique.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the morning, during the check out our land lady asks us if we’re planning on taking the 10 o’clock or the 11:30 bus. A bit confused, we look at each other. Apparently there’s another bus, that’s not a bus and not a transfer going at 11:30. At that point we just gave up and decided to simply stand at the exit of the village once we’re back from the caves and catch the first bus that would take us. It turned out to be the 10am one. I understand now why people usually hitchhike in this area.

Cueva de los manos

I had no plans to visit the east coast of Argentina.. But Argentina made different plans. AS already mentioned the road was closed when we tried to leave El Chalten.. And it remained closed, so our bus had to take a little detour. Instead of going up the ruta40 along the Andes, instead we drove all the way to and then up the coast before going back in land at the height of Chile Chico.. This turned our already long 11h bus ride, into a 15h bus ride. But I can now claim to have been at the east coast.. I may have been sleeping, but nobody needs to know that. In Lost Antiguos the “real” Patagonia experience began.. Arriving 4h later than planned made us decide to spend the night there and if we’re staying a night, we might as well stay two and visit the UNESCO world heritage site of the Cueva de los manos. Now when I hear Cueva, I’m thinking cave systems, deep under the earth… What you usually get here is an opening that’s maybe 25m deep. But, the cave is not famous for being a cave, but for being one of the very few remaining traces of the indigenous people that used to live here, going back almost 10.000 years for the oldest drawings.


Since the cave is in the middle of nowhere, we decided to take an organized trip there. Which turned out to be good, because they spiced up the entire thing, something we wouldn’t have done. It started out with a ‘hike’ of one our through the canyon the Cueva is in. Even though the guide kept talking about how frequently he saw pumas none showed their face that day. But we did get to see guanakos, choique and a couple of foxes. In addition, we were visited by condors a couple of time. As if all this wasn’t nice enough, the scenery is actually also really stunning.

We reached the cave a little before 3pm, perfect time for lunch, according to local customs. After that we visited the cave or, more truthfully, the walls surrounding the cave. The famous drawings are hand negatives, it’s assumed that people put their hand on the wall and then used a tiny tube to spit the color all around it. But there is evolution, one also finds animal prints from the nandus (or choique) and towards the end things get really creative.. See if you can make out what these things are supposed to be!

As a final stop we visited the place where the ancient tribes collected the colors to create the hand prints. This was a secret highlight for me. It reminded me, on a much much smaller scale, of Capadoccia in Turkey, but with many more colors. It was a fitting end.

Lago de los Tres

This is meant to be the ‘best hike’ in El Chalten, so we kept if for the one reasonably good day we had in El Chalten. Setting out in the morning, things looked promising. There was sun and some clouds. But as the path wound its way up slowly, more clouds started appearing and it became a bit of a race against time. Unfortunately we know that at the end was a rather steep slope. We’d been warned “500m of elevation over a distance of 2km. It’s not for the faint hearted”.

The mathematician in me had already calculated, 500m in 2km, means 250 of height over 1km.. That’s not nothing, but it’s not deadly either… What the guy at the park entrance didn’t tell us is that the 500m are actually distributed as follows: roughly 100m on the first kilometer and then 400m on the second. It was partially big rocks, partially loose gravel, partially an attempt to create steps… It was long, it was hard, but I made it up just in time to see the final bit of blue sky disappear. It didn’t matter, I was exhausted. I sat down, had lunch and just lay there for a while, looking at El Chalten in its massiveness. By the time I felt ready to explore again, the sky was already clearing up again.
Walking around I soon discovered that there is more than one lake, a second one, a lot lower than the one I was at, was visible from a lookout point on a little hill to the left. Much more turquoise, I finally understood why the laguna we were at was called “La sucia”. It just couldn’t compete with the other laguna. I spent a good three hours up at the laguna. I would’ve spent more time, but I also didn’t wanted to be able to enjoy the way back home.

 

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The path is very well maintained, it’s fortified with wood or stones along many parts of the way. There’s wooden bridges along the way and in the thick of the bushes someone has, lovingly, cut back the little branches one by one to clear a path.. The only drawback here being that the Argentinians don’t seem to expect anyone of more than 1.70m of height… So the nicely cut path ends just short of my face and leaves my head fending for itself through the thick bushes.

On the final meters of the hike, I was also lucky enough to see one of the great woodpeckers I’d been told about. Black with a complete red head, they seem to be quite common around here.. At least you hear them regularly.. A little punk, a little rebel, they’re just cute too look at.

Lago Torre

 

After the initiation the day before, I set out to do the trek up to lago torre.. The “easy” 20km hike. Just to see if I still remembered how to hike. It had been a while. I had consulted three weather forecasts for that day, one said it would be rainy, the other said it would be clear skies and the third predicted sun in the morning and rain in the evening. They were all wrong. We didn’t get rain, but we didn’t get clear skies either. I didn’t see cerro torre, the mountain after which lago torre is named at all. I actually found out through pictures later that day, that it was way further to the right than I had anticipated. But that doesn’t matter because a) The lago torre and its glacier are pretty even without the surrounding mountains and b) the hike there is absolutely lovely. The path climbs a steep hill initially and then runs almost flat through the valley before reaching the final climb to the lake.

I had barely been walking for twenty minutes when I ran into a puesto de control, a check point of the national parc. My mind went crazy.. What will they check? How thorough are they?What if they think my boots aren’t adequate? What if they say I don’t have good enough clothing? What if they consider my food or water insufficient? My heart sank a little when I turned the corner and a parc ranger was actually standing there. The moment of truth. Nonchalantly and totally confident I approached the check point. We greet each other and then – the moment of truth: The control. “Did you attend the mandatory presentation at the national park center?”. That was  it, the entire check. I won’t give away the answer to that question, of course. But I was allowed to continue on. The first viewpoint of the glacier and the mountains in the distance comes shortly after. Then it goes through small forests, through bushes and the open valley onwards always closer to the mountain and its glacier.  Finally you reach the lake with its tiny icebergs. Still the clouds hung low in the mountains and I couldn’t make out which peaks where supposed to be what.
Along the border of the ravine runs a small path up to another viewpoint.. Although I’m not sure where that viewpoint is meant to be. I followed the path and eventually found myself in a field of loose gravel on a steep slope with no more path in sight.. That’s when I decided I’d gone far enough and turned around.. On the way back I noticed a branch on the way, which may have been meant to indicate that one shouldn’t go beyond that point.. But we don’t know for sure.. Noone does.


While walking back I saw heavy clouds approaching rapidly. I could see it raining heavily in the distance and was mentally preparing myself to get soaked. But the clouds rushed in, rushed through and rushed out with not a drop of water coming down. I couldn’t help but notice that they also took with them the low-hanging clouds around Cerro Torre, just half an hour after I’d left.. I’m fairly sure they did that on purpose just to tease me.

El Chalten

We left El calafate with amazing weather the next morning. Not 10 minutes into the drive we saw Mount El Chalten for the first time and the view would remain for the rest of the road. Clear skies. Something I hadn’t seen so far. Unfortunately by the time we reached El Chalten (the village, not the mountain), clouds started coming in. Still there was hope.. But then we had to stop at the entry of the park and listen to a 10 minute discourse about what to do and not to do in the national park.. The sun slowly faded away. We made it into town shortly before noon. Our first stop on that Saturday was the supermarket.. It was horrifying. A few shrivelled up carrots, a rooting bell pepper and some almost liquid prunes were all the vegetable section had to offer. Individual packages of cookies had been spaced out on most shelves to create the illusion of full shelves. It failed miserably. It was depressing. We bought some cookies and decided to postpone our cooking plans to another day.
Instead I went to do the short hikes shown on the map we’d been given by the park guards. One was a short walk to a waterfall. The waterfall was much nicer than expected, about thirty meters high, it actually had a lot of water and could be heard quite far away. Back from the waterfall I crossed to the other end of town and walked up to the viewpoints. The weather allowed for some nice views and I returned home happily. The next morning, we discovered that new produce arrives Saturday evenings, so where yesterday had been individual cookie packages, was now a variety of cookie options. They had reasonably fresh vegetables, eggs and most of the other things one could desire. That evening I learned how to peel a carrot with a spoon, in order to maker ourselves a nice stew.
I shared the room with an Argentinian girl, young, motivated, hyperactive and slightly oversharing, she was also simply super nice. There were many “First times” I had here because of her. I tried Mate for the first time, I had a home cooked Argentinian meal for the first time, I played truco for the first time (No I can’t explain the rules) and I watched how our group grew.. We started out as three or four people cooking and ended up with easily 15-20 by the time it was done. Every Argentinian in the hostel would ultimately become involved in the cooking process. It was absolutely great.
After a great lunch with our Argentian friends, we went to the bus stop to buy our tickets for the next step on the road, only to learn that the road was closed due to heavy rains.. But we were told it would surely be open the next day. The next day, we asked again and were told “the road is a mystery”… which we took to mean “We’re gonna see if we can make through whatever’s on the road”… so wish us luck!

We did some small hikes the first day, to the waterfalls and to a small viewpoint over the lago viedma. I encountered a funny sign on the way, showing a parent with its kid walking on the road and says “Attention drive slowly” and below it doesn’t say “save lives” but “avoid fines”. I think this is much more likely to have an effect.

Trekking on Perito Moreno

I treated myself today. After finding out that I may be eligible for a partial refund on my delayed flight into Buenos Aires, I decided to spend that money (and then some) straight away before finding out that I won’t be getting it.
So I booked myself the Big Ice trip, an entire day of glacier walking. I’d done this once before and loved it, so here was my chance to do it again. I even put on the same trousers as last time. There’s no need to ruin a second pair of pants with the crampons after all. We set of at 7am in El Calafate but it would be past noon before we actually reached the ice. We stopped at the Perito Moreno view point (that’s how I know how much broke off. Then took a boat over the lake and hiked up the mountain next to the glacier for about 50min. During all this time it was raining. Along the way you run into a nice little waterfall.
We’d already been told that we don’t need to bring much water because you can “get it everywhere”. The waterfall was one such option. I refrained from tasting it as I had a full bottle, but did try the water on the glacier later on and it was absolutely delicious. Although I have to admit that the bottle I brought back home didn’t taste half as good the next morning.


Around half pas twelve we finally set foot onto the ice and my camera went crazy. I’m pretty sure it must be a firmware issue. There’s no way I took 400 pictures that day. Come on.

The glacier experience was quite different from the one we had in Iceland. I was looking forward to the little dirt cones we’d seen there, but none of those existed. Instead real rivers ran on and in the ice. The ice we walked on was like crushed ice. Loose and in small chunks, which is apparently due to the summer heat and not the fact that it was still raining.
The guides led us on a rather random path. We started out down a rather steep slope. I was a bit worried if that’s the start how the rest is going to be, but in retrospect they probably just wanted to test us out. The rest was  much easier. In general the guides will tell you that the hardest part is the hike up to the entry point onto the ice. It’s not entirely true, the hike on the ice is challenging, but indeed no more so than the hike up. If you managed that you’ll also manage the rest.
Each group used their own path to make its way to the ‘top sights’, there is no beaten path and the guides are seemingly free to walk you wherever they please. Nothing seemed to be caved or predefined.. Although with the rain I would imagine not much would’ve remained if they had had carved a way into the ice.
But they will all show you everything: big blue holes, small caves, the river. There’s no need to choose ‘the right group’.
Meanwhile, two hours into the glacier hie it was still raining and the wind had picked up. Our guide decided that it was time for lunch, despite the weather and we huddled in a corner and ate our lunch as quickly as possible. This was the breaking point for a part of our group unfortunately. One of them had torn a muscle earlier on and the weather made them stop wanting to try. They turned around. That’s also possible, although not encouraged. One of our guides went back down with them while we continued on to the arc. The main camera malfunction must’ve happened there.

I have about 60 pictures from the arc alone. Next to the arc is a tunnel that just begs to be investigated and you could climb in as far as you like.. provided you know how to get back out afterwards. While I was in the tunnel it stopped raining, only I didn’t notice because I had melting ice dripping down on me constantly. But on our way back down, the sun even came out and revealed the entire glacier to us. Amazing scenery. The color of the ice and the glacier front don’t change much, sunshine or rain.. But being able to see the mountains in the background sure adds a lot!
Once we finally returned onto solid ground, we proudly asked how far we’d gone onto the ice and our guides told us that in total we’d walked about 1.5km.. It sure did feel much farther than that!

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