Veloso Tours team member Chris remembers his three night stay in the tiny Patagonian town of El Chalten, home to cozy alipine cafes, mind-boggling clouds, creative dustbins and glorious Patagonian scenery.
In the footsteps of outlaws
The scenic road journey from El Calafate (base for the Perito Moreno Glacier) to El Chalten lasts around three hours, skirting first around Lago Argentino and then Lago Viedma. It offers non-stop panoramic views of sparkling lakes, distant snow-capped hills and sinuous roads for anyone so inclined to hold off the apparently fearsome urge to sleep and instead spend the duration staring out the window.
There’s a brief stop somewhere in the middle at La Leona Roadhouse, rousing my fellow travellers from their afternoon slumbers. This isn't just any old lonely pit stop though, because travellers far more notorious than us have passed this way before, over a century ago in fact. It is said that in 1905 three strangers spent a few nights at the guesthouse during their travels through Patagonia. It's highly improbable that they gave their real names when checking-in - it might perhaps have raised a few alarm bells had they done so, given that they went by the names of Ethel Place, Robert LeRoy Parker and Harry Alonzo Longabaugh. You might know the last two better as Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.
Cashless in El Chalten
Everything you need to know about the remoteness of El Chalten can be summed up by its cash machine. Yes, just the one. I rather naively disregarded the warning given to us in the guide book that this solitary machine is filled up just once a week and is promptly relieved of its freshly replenished content not long after, once word gets out. After three fruitless attempts to withdraw some Pesos the penny had dropped (even if the notes hadn’t). A word to the wise, don't come to El Chalten with an empty wallet.
The frugal cash machine is part of a mix of the weird and the wonderful that make El Chalten such a disarmingly charming place. The corrugated iron church, the sepia-tinted newspaper covering the walls in La Cervecería, the bicycle hung from the ceiling of La Chocolatería and the rubbish bin stood idly chatting on the phone are all easily overlooked in favour of the ever-present chiselled outline of Mount Fitz Roy and all the promise of pristine natural beauty beneath those endless Patagonian skies.
The long path to Laguna Torre
"The path rises and falls and you get a first glimpse of the lagoon, the water gently sloshing back and forth under the shadow of Cerro Torre and the glaciers which tumble downwards."
I wasn't here to admire the bins however, because El Chalten acts a centre for some truly wonderful hiking opportunities. The majority of these wind their way through splendid Andean natural beauty towards the shores of a peaceful lagoon at the foot of a set of towering spires. The walks are long, yet manageable for most.
It is to one of these lagoons, specifically Laguna Torre, that we set out early, armed with our neatly packed lunches (supplied by our local hotel) full of energy boosting snacks, numerous layers of clothing to protect from the occasionally biting wind and with a keen sense of adventure in anticipation of what lay ahead.
During the 6 mile trek to the lagoon we walked through wide valleys, thick woodland and alpine meadows, passing lazily meandering rivers, glistening waterfalls and plenty of interesting plant and bird-life, the chiselled east face of Cerro Torre ever-present in the background. As we got closer, we were met with the sight of an eerie dead forest spread out before us, an unsettling and rather melancholy sight, before the path widens, becomes more rocky and is reunited with the river. Finally the track rises and then falls and I see for the first time the lagoon gently sloshing back and forth under the shadow of Cerro Torre and the Torre massif, covered by thick layers of snow and tumbling glaciers.
In the end it takes us nearly five hours, one longer than expected, to complete the seven mile trek from El Chalten to Laguna Torre - mainly due to my inability to stop taking photos as the early morning clouds parted to reveal the extraordinary beauty of this place. Even on the way back I found myself aiming my camera towards the same bit of Patagonian landscape that I had captured a couple of hours previously.
With the packed lunch now just a few empty wrappers and with a feeling of awe and no little satisfaction, it was time to head back. Just as I started up the path to begin the return walk, I heard a sharp crackle behind me, followed by the sound of a mini explosion and a loud splash. I swivelled my head just in time to see the last vestiges of the small ‘iceberg’ that had accompanied our lunch disappearing below the surface, before being broken up and absorbed back into the icy water. It’s a timely reminder that Patagonia is a living, breathing wilderness, where even the most seemingly permanent fixtures come and go, freeze and melt, advance and retreat.
Soon it’ll be us that retreats from here though, a thought that I reflect upon with regret as we begin the long walk back.
Away with the clouds
I was to find out on my last day in El Chalten, when something so simple as walking in a straight line became an alarmingly difficult task, that the Patagonian wind is as fierce and unforgiving as it is billed. As Bruce Chatwin was told during his travels around the region, documented so evocatively in his prized 1977 book In Patagonia, the first thing anyone has to do when they move to Patagonia and set up home here, is find a way to stop the immense winds which blow across the vast steppe. Even here, the nearby Andes offer little protection.
There is, however, an upside to all this, because Patagonia's clouds get whipped into all manner of beguiling patterns high above. Just don't forget to look up every now and again.
Horse-riding under the big blue skies
"Save for the odd bout of spontaneous galloping, it was a relaxing, refreshing and inspiring meander in the company of clear blue skies, lush green grass and golden silence."
There was no better way to end an unforgettable few days in Patagonia and soothe our aching legs than by spending a day on horse-back exploring the valley of the Rio de La Vueltas. Even if we did have to endure a teeth-shattering drive down a dusty pothole-ridden road to get there.
If the thought of embarking on another full day hike appealed little to me and my relatively youthful legs, I could only imagine how it must have sounded to the 81 year old American with whom we swapped travel stories around the fire that night. Well actually I didn't need to imagine because he left his hired guide in no doubt that, regardless of what had been arranged for him, he really wasn't up to another 14 mile round trip before his legs had time to recover from the one he had just finished that day. Our invitation for him to join us instead was quickly snapped up.
"Have any of you ridden a horse before?" As it turns out yes I had, well a pony anyway. The only trouble was that it took place some 15 years ago and what limited instruction or confidence I had gained then was long since consigned to the past. Everyone else just shook their heads and smiled apologetically. So we set off with no little trepidation, perhaps not helped by a rather un-British disregard for health and safety. Who needs helmets, it's not like we're going to fall off, right? Well, four of us set off anyway, the fifth horse choosing to stubbornly remain rooted to the spot, becoming ever smaller as we advanced into the wide open spaces of the valley. I can't imagine Butch Cassidy ever had this problem.
Eventually we all got going and, save for a few spontaneous and nerve-shredding outbreaks of communal galloping initiated by our increasingly gung-ho American friend, we enjoyed a relaxing, refreshing and inspiring meander through the beautiful valley, with not a car, train or aeroplane in sight or within earshot, just the gentle clopping of horse hoofs and the occasional nervous cry. Nothing but clear blue skies, lush green grass and golden silence.
The office seemed a long way away from here.