El Chaltén, our first stop in Argentina (and the first bit of civilisation after our border crossing), is a new town. Only built in the 80s, its really just one main road with streets leading off the side. It’s all about location, location, location in El Chaltén; built right beneath the Mont Fitzroy range, it’s a haven for walkers, climbers and outdoor adventure enthusiasts. We arrived on a windy afternoon and traipsed around finding somewhere to stay; all along the road were people still in walking gear, sat outside bars, enjoying the many happy hour deals. Translated as “smoking mountain”, El Chaltén is dwarfed by Mont Fitzroy, its huge peaks visible wherever you go in the town, and you can’t help but feel your eyes drawn to it.
We treat ourselves to a bed (the first in a long time) and are so happy that the room has a bath that I squeal in delight. Lucas, the guy on reception who has shown us upstairs, looks at me like I’m mad. We drink boxed wine and read our books in the bath – there’s a very dirty tide mark when we let the water out – then head out for meat.
Our first trek from town is to Fitzroy herself. It’s a two day walk but we feel light as feathers carrying just our camping stuff compared to all the weight we’d carried from Chile. The day is hot and the well trodden path climbs out of town and through woodland, the dappled light turning the leaves into shimmering shadows on the path. The path becomes rockier and opens out into a plain; we catch our first full sight of Fitzroy and it’s so beautiful.
After 10km we reach Poincenot campsite, pitch our tent and leave our stuff inside, heading onwards to walk the final section up to the mirador. It’s only another kilometre but it’s a vertical climb, a zigzag rocky path where you clamber up and say hello to the other walkers. At the top, it’s simply amazing. Fitzroy sits right ahead, wisps of cloud continually rising and peeling off the sheer mountain face. There are huge stacks of snow banked up on the cliff edges, a breathtaking jagged range of mountain tops and the bright blue of the lagoon beneath.
We were advised by Louise, a friend who is traveling in the opposite direction, to follow a small trail around to the left which takes you to another viewpoint of a second lagoon hidden far below. It’s a steep drop of hundreds of feet and we steer clear of the edge, filling up our bottles from the waterfall that flows from the first lagoon. The water is sweet and delicious and freezing cold. I spot a small brightly coloured flash nestled in amongst the grey rock and go closer to take a look; it’s a small pebble painted with a beautiful pattern in pink and red, “RIP Lynn 19.11.2017” is inscribed along the edge.
Back down at the campsite, we go down to the river with our kettle and stove and boil the water for a cuppa. We eat the cake we stole from the hotel breakfast buffet and lie back to snooze in the heather, the sun hot on our faces.
The next morning we have a 4.30am alarm, aiming to see sunrise. By the time we’re dressed and out of the tent it’s that grey light all around; we’ve missed dawn. Moz goes back to bed but I stubbornly persevere and sit looking at the mountain with a cup for tea to warm my hands, hoping it’ll turn pink and fold. It doesn’t. Eventually I head back to bed, but as I’m doing so, treading softly back to the campground I spot a wild fox, flecked grey and brown and looking at me for a long time with his cheeky face. He slips off and I head to bed. It’s a great reminder that being here isn’t always about “that” sunrise or “that” photo opportunity, it’s the stillness, the quietness, how beautiful Fitzroy still was even though it wasn’t lit up with the dawn, the stolen surprise of seeing that wild fox so close.
Our second walk was to Tumbado, a day hike from town. We woke to wind, the inside of the tent flapping madly, and the sight of distant rain falling up the valley. Never ones to let a little thing like the infamous Patagonian winds dampen our spirits or change our plans, we set off out of town and up onto scrubby moorland. “Aaaaand we’re in the Peak District” I turned to Moz as I pulled my buff up over my face. The woodland gave a bit more shelter and we were lucky to see a family of woodpeckers jumping around in a tree, training the babies to knock the wood with their beaks. Out of the forest, we reached desolate mountaintop with a scree hill up ahead. This walk is famous for its panoramic views of the Fitzroy and Torre peaks; we could see nothing! We headed on and climbed almost to the top but the hailstones and strong wind made us decide to turn back and head back to town.
On the way back I feel exhausted, I’m not sure if it’s the last few days or the past month that was catching up on us but we both lay down in the grass next to the tent and slept. It was calmer and warmer in town and there was the sunwarmed grass beneath us and the sounds of the wind moving in the trees above. That night I got out of the tent in the middle of the night to go for a wee and looked up, gasping, the stars so many and so bright filling the nights sky.
Our final walk here is to Cerro Torre, another two day hike into the national park. When we left town the sky was clear and we climb up again on rocky path, through woodland, and over mountain outcrops until we’re walking up the valley with the mountains on either side of us. Ahead of us are some murky looking rainclouds and we can’t even see the peaks of Torre, which are totally shrouded in white. We can see the glacier ahead and the soaring peaks above, and it feels a bit ominous as we walk in sunshine but feel the drops of rain, that have been carried by the strong winds, fall on our legs. We reach Agostini campsite, set up and eat our sandwiches. All the campgrounds here are free which is a nice bonus, they’re very basic but always in beautiful spots.
We take the short walk to the Laguna and it’s very grey: the glacier ahead, the lapping water, the scree-covered mountainsides, the clouds. It’s dramatic and wild and we decide to save the walk to the mirador for the next day when we hope the weather will be better. We follow the rushing river back to the campsite and take shelter from the rain in our tent, reading our books and watching a film, getting a fit of giggles over something daft.
The next morning when we wake I lie for a second to see if there is the sound of raindrops on the tent. It’s quiet. Unzipping the flaps, we’re welcomed by blue skies; we dress and head up the Laguna again. This time, Torre is there – huge jagged peaks spiking the blue, blue sky. It’s amazing.
We follow the path up and around to the right, climbing along the ridge of the scree and over rock to reach the mirador. From here you’re close to the glacier, huge cliffs of ice and covered in part by rock and dust. We can hear distant thunder of avalanches but can’t see any, straining our eyes against the bright light.
After a while we head back to the campsite and set up our breakfast stuff, making scrambled eggs and brewing tea with Torre as the perfect view ahead.
It’s our last night in town and we’re saying goodbye to our tent as we’ve found a really nice guy who’d like to buy it for a good price. When we get back to town we find that Chino, the guy we negotiated with, had broken a bone longboarding but has put us in touch with his friend Ale who will sort out the money. It turns out that Ale is the lovely guy that let us get in the bus back from Punta Sur on the second border crossing day and we’re really happy to see him again. We head for a drink with him, his girlfriend Marianca and Fernando and it’s really fun sitting in the beer garden talking and having a drink, drawing our jackets around us as the wind gets up. They’re really nice people and we enjoy the night so much. Ale has been to Newcastle, he tells me; his sister is married to a guy from the north east and I burst out laughing when he says “yeah, she lives in Ashington” – it’s so odd to hear a name from home so far away.
Next stop on our travels and the last port of call in Patagonia: El Calafete.