The mountain that smokes and the magic of Patagonia
I came to Patagonia to do 2 things: visit Perito Moreno glacier and hike in the Southern Andes.
After visiting the glacier, I took an afternoon bus to the little village of El Chalten. It sits at the bottom of a famous mountain - Fitz Roy - which I intended to hike.
TL;DR at the end of the post if you don't feel like reading it all (it's long).
El Chalten means "the mountain that smokes" because it's always covered in clouds.
At the bottom of Fitz Roy there is a beautiful turquoise lagoon, called Laguna de Los Tres. The mountain itself is extremely difficult to reach, as most of it is a vertical wall. So, instead of hiking towards the summit, you hike to the Laguna and observe it from there.
It's still a sight to see, especially at sunrise and sunset. Because of its composition, it's very reflective and turns bright pink-red. Many hikers camp at the bottom, so they can wake up early and see the sunrise.
When I came, unfortunately, I wasn't prepared for camping - I wasn't prepared for anything!
What I did wrong
I did a lot of things wrong on this particular trip, so let me get them out of the way before I start the post.
1. I didn't plan enough time! I only gave myself 3 (yes, THREE) full days in Patagonia. 1 in Calafate and 2 in Chalten. Not nearly enough! Well guess what, spoiler alert, I was unlucky and the weather was bad during the whole time. More on that later in the post.
Come to think of it, it was kinda stupid to go to such a remote place - travel this far - fulfill such a big dream - and give myself so little time!
Why? Reason #1 was that I'm not used to taking a long time off work. Reason #2 was that I wasn't sure if I'd like it. Well, now I know that I definitely like it down here, and next time I'm booking a minimum of 7 days just for El Chalten.
2. I didn't bring the proper clothes and equipment! I severely underestimated the mountain, which is always a big mistake. Maybe that's why I got punished with the bad weather :) Seriously, I went hiking with old gym shoes (that had holes in them) and a light spring jacket. At least I bought a thermal shirt and pants before I left. I would probably be frozen to death without them.
Why? In the past I always overpacked and brought a lot of unnecessary stuff with me. In recent years I've been very relaxed with packing, and I bring very little stuff with me. Which is OK since I'm usually a beach bum and spend all of my time in bikini and shorts.
I knew I was coming to Patagonia - I knew it's 1500km away from Antarctica - and I still somehow thought "Well, it's summer down there, I'll be alright..."
Lesson learned, I guess.
Now that's out of the way, here is the story of my encounter with Fitz Roy.
I arrived to the little village of Chalten around 6pm. The place is very small - I literally walked through all of it while going from the bus station to my hostel. It's made to look like a Swiss Apline town, just like El Calafate. The main street was lined with cute restaurants. Everyone I saw in the streets were hikers with big backpacks.
Fitz Roy was towering above the hills in the distance. A bit of it was visible but most was covered in clouds. I'll see you tomorrow, Mr. Fitz, I thought as I went into my hostel.
The hostel (called Rancho Grande) was actually very nice, and had a 24-hour open restaurant, so I could have super early morning coffee before my hikes! The downside was that the room was shared. I booked too late and there were only dorm rooms left, so I took that. I hadn't stayed in one of those for years. Brought back some nice memories, although I ended up really tired - roommates kept on making noise at 2am...
Next day, I managed to wake up at 6:30am. I took my time having a coffee at the hostel, then walking around Chalten and buying empanadas, water and other "supplies" for my hike.
I also bought a last-minute rain poncho from one of the shops, as the sky was cloudy and I thought it would be a good idea in case of rain.
I ended up starting the hike at 10:30am, which was quite late.
Judging from the landscape in El Calafate, Google Maps, and videos I've seen online, I expected it to be quite empty and rocky here. I was wrong!
From the start of the hike I entered a magical forest, different from any other forest I've seen. The trees were short and grayish, bent and twisted. Long grey moss was growing all over them, like in a fairytale. I was told that this is a sign of absolutely ZERO pollution in the air!
The first kilometer of the hike was steep, but I was rewarded with views! I was stopping every other minute to take pictures.
About 1 hour in, I reached the Mirador (view point). If I was lucky, I would get a beautiful view of Fitz Roy here. Unfortunately, the mountain was hiding in the clouds. I waited for a bit but the clouds weren't moving. I pressed on, hoping it would clear by the afternoon. I was ready to wait if I had to.
I kept walking for two more hours. It started drizzling and my rain poncho came in handy. I walked through forests and open swampy areas. Everything felt like a fairytale. So much pure wilderness!
There are no big cities in Patagonia - just tiny villages very far from each other, spread over hundreds of miles. And Patagonia is very, very big. I had never felt such freedom and rawness before.
I was walking along a river that came straight from the glacier and was drinkable. No need to bring water here, just empty bottles to fill up!
There were people on the trail, but not many. The weather was bad, cloudy and rainy.
As I started ascending the last 1km - the most difficult one - it got foggy. And kept getting foggy. For the last 30 minutes of the hike I could barely see where I was going. But I kept it up. I had gotten that far, can't give up at the last 5%!
When I finally got to the top... I saw nothing. No mountain. Not even the lagoon. Just fog. I could barely see the rocks around my feet.
I don't have any pictures from that moment as it was all blank... Just white fog.
The disappointment I felt was hard to express. But at least I had one more day, I told myself.
In this fog I met a group of Argentinian guys. They were also very disappointed. We made our way back together, stopping at the Refugio hut to share a mate (that was actually my first time trying mate).
So I went back all the way, back to my hostel, had dinner and then to bed.
The next morning, I rose early and set off to do the hike AGAIN! I was confident that I was gonna see Fitz Roy. I mean, I can't come that far and not see it, right?
The weather was nice, even though crazy wind was forecasted. "Cool, it will blow the clouds away" silly me thought, as I took the trail again. This time I was early - I started at 7:30am.
It as going well and the sun was shining. Fitz Roy was still hiding in the clouds.
Towads the middle of the hike, the crazy wind came out and it became very difficult to walk. It was also blowing rain in my face, which wasn't making it easier! The rain poncho was saving me.
I started the last kilometer of the trail. I was already tired from doing the day before, so it was even more difficult now. Also, I was freezing. But I pressed on! I was so close.
There was no fog this time, and I felt hopeful as I was ascending the last kilometer of the trail. I could see the mountains around me. It's coming, I'm almost there, I'll finally see mount Fitz Roy...
Well, I was wrong. Here's what I saw when I finally got to the top.
Yes, the lagoon was beautiful (and this picture is not edited, that's the real color of the water). But Fitz Roy did not show himself.
On top of all, a few seconds after this picture was taken, it started SNOWING! The crazy wind blew the snow into my face and it felt like needles. I could not stay here. I had to start going back.
By that time my hands were completely frozen. Remember those mistakes I wrote about in the beginning of the post? My gym shoes were soaked and my light spring jacket was not helping. The only thing saving me was my poncho.
Which got completely torn apart by the wind a few minutes later.
And then it started raining (well, at least it wasn't snowing anymore).
So, I had to walk back 10 kilometers in the rain - no rain poncho, no rain jacket, no hood, no head protection at all, and no hiking shoes. On top of all I was surrounded by hikers, all wearing their top equipment! I felt like such a fool.
I still don't know how I survived those 3 hours on the way back. Finally, I left the rain behind (I could still see it in the distance) an the sun came out! It felt like magic. I was still soaked and freezing, but it was sunny and beautiful around me.
I wasn't able to take many pictures, as I couldn't move my fingers - they were frozen!
When I finally reached my hostel and walked into a heated room, I felt like crying happy tears. I took a 45-minute hot shower. I could finally move my hands again. Then I ran to the restaurant next door - a "Waffleria" - and had cognac hot chocolate and omelette with waffles.
The next day was my flight back to Buenos Aires. I was very sad that I did not get to see Fitz Roy. And - guess what - that day was going to be a sunny one! Just when I was leaving.
I decided to wake up early and do another quick hike - this time only to the Mirador at the 3rd kilometer - hoping I would be able to see Fitz Roy from far away.
Once again, Mr. Fitz was hiding in the clouds. At least the weather was nice and sunny and I got to see the magical forest and the views around it in their full glory.
At 11am I got on the bus to the airport. I spent the whole time looking back at the cloud-covered Fitz Roy. And just before it got out of sight, as if to mock me... It cleared completely and I saw it for 2 seconds.
The hike was 25km total, and 8 hours long. I did that twice in a row, and I also did the short hike! I was completely destroyed when I arrived in Buenos Aires, it took me a couple of days to recover.
I must admit, I cried a lot that night. I'm incredibly grateful for my trip to Patagonia, and I fell in love with the wilderness there. But not being able to see Fitz Roy - especailly after all the effort I made - broke my heart.
That's why I'm coming back here next year. This time with all the equipment: tent, sleeping bag, clothes, shoes... And I'm spending at least a week at El Chalten. And while I'm at it, I might as well check out Torres del Paine in Chile, and do the W trek.
Maybe that happened to give me a reason to come back to Patagonia and see it properly? Not sure, but I'm definitely counting the days until I'm back here :)
Patagonia is one of the most magical places I've been to, and I'm happy I have a reason to come back here very soon.
TL;DR: I came to El Chalten unprepared, with no proper clothes and very little time. I did the hike twice and couldn't see Fitz Roy because of bad weather conditions. I also got soaked in the rain and nearly froze. I'm coming back next year with ALL the equipment and lots of time to do this properly - and do Torres del Paine while I'm at it.