Waiting in El Chalten

Trip Start Mar 29, 2010
Trip End May 24, 2010

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Flag of Argentina  , Patagonia,
Monday, April 19, 2010

A country of clean air and open spaces; of black mesas and blue mountains; of grey scrub breaking into yellow flowers, a country of bones picked clean by hawks, stripped by the wind, stripping men to the raw.

- Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia (1977)

Weather in Patagonia is a fickle mistress.   She was warm and embracing in Torres del Paine, cool but temperate in El Calafate, and cold, temperamental, and blustery in El Chalten.

As we stepped off the bus in Chalten, the wind was gusting between 70 and 80 kilometers per hour.  I know because I asked our bus driver, who, despite temperatures in the thirties (around 0 Celsius) and heavy winds, refused to wear more anything heavier than a t-shirt. 

When I asked him if he was cold, he replied "I'm from here; we sometimes see wind gusts of 120 kilometers.  This isn’t bad."

The winds may not have been "bad," but they were enough nearly blow Monique and I over when we stepped off the bus.  Fortunately, we only had about 100 yards to our hostel.   Aside from winds I once experienced in a tropical storm in Miami, these were the fiercest wind gusts I had ever seen.  Throughout the night, the entire hostel creaked and swayed, as if it was minutes away from disintegration.

It’s hard to imagine what 120 kilometer wind gusts would be like here.

We arrived to El Chalten because it’s known as the national trekking capital of Argentina, and in practice, is the northern boundary of Southern Argentine Patagonia.  Aside from a few small isolated towns, the next pocket of human civilization is about 30 hours north by bus near Bariloche.

A young town founded in 1985, El Chalten is located on the southern Patagonian steppe.  As a territorial dispute between Chile and Argentina intensified, Argentina founded the town as a means to lay claim to the region.   The government chose a small valley at the base of two of the most iconic peaks in Argentina as the site for the town.  These two mountains, called Cerro Fitzroy and Cerro Torre, literally dominate the skyline of this small town of no more than a couple of thousand people.  

That is, assuming the weather cooperates. 

In our four days in El Chalten, we could not catch a glimpse these signature peaks – literally.  If it wasn’t the fog, it was the rain, sleet, or snow.  In case you’re curious, click here to see a picture of what El Chalten looks like when the weather is more forgiving.

On our second day in El Chalten , we did a day hike to Laguna Torre.  The trail ends at what was promised to be an “extraordinary” view according to our guidebook.  The second picture in this posting shows what we saw - a whole lot of nothing.

While we couldn’t see any of the signature mountain vistas, it was still an interesting hike.  The fall colors were out in full force and there was something about the bad weather which was strangely welcoming.   Frankly, we were spoiled in Torres del Paine with sunshine and clear skies.  It was something new and interesting to see Patagonia’s more blustery side. 

With that said, one day hike in these conditions was enough for us.  After tasting the bitter wind, cold, and unpredictable weather, we spent the rest of our time in El Chalten licking our wounds from our previous treks and socializing with new friends. 

In a serendipitous turn of events, a number of people we met in El Calafate – including two delightful Canadian couples we met on the “Big Ice” at the Perito Moreno Glacier – happened to be in El Chalten at the same time as Monique and I.   After our day of obligatory hiking, our remaining days were spent sleeping, reading, watching episodes of “Lost” on my laptop, and waiting for the weather to clear (it never did).   Our evenings were spent dining on rich food, drinking good wine, and socializing with interesting people.

It was not at all what we expected when we planned to visit this part of Patagonia, but it turned out to be a lovely, relaxing time.   With that said I would love to return one day and actually see the Cerro Fitzroy and Torre for myself.  

Traveling Notes

If traveling from El Calafate, two buses run daily to El Chalten- one in the early morning (around 8 AM) and another in the evening (around 6 PM).  In the high season, and additional bus runs mid-day around 1 PM.
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Maggie on

Well, I feel like I am in that lousy weather with you guys! The picture in the sunshine you did not experience looked gorgeous. How is Lost going?

David on

Well said

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