We stare at pieces of plastic strewn around our campsite. Chunks of bread lie here and there but we gather two of our three loaves have gone. We’re aghast.
A fellow camper walks up to us, “Yeah, we saw a bunch of caracaras coming down and ripping the bags apart to eat the bread,” he says. “Thanks pal, couldn’t you have chased them away? That’s a lot of food we’re missing now,” one of us answers, irritated.
“Hang up your food to protect if from mice and other rodents,” is the general advice given when hiking National Park Los Glaciares and so we did, never realizing that birds might be attacking it. There are five of us and we have been hiking in a fabulous part of the Andes Mountains in southwest Argentina for a couple of days. It’s a frustrating ending of a lovely morning’s walk to Piedras Blancas, named after the white stones that characterize this landscape.
In Your Bucket Because…
- You want to hike in one of the few remaining regions in the world that still has growing glaciers.
- You like to check off a UNESCO World Heritage Site on your list.
- You’re searching for a technically challenging mountain to climb (Fitz Roy or Cerro Torres) or like hiking in unspoiled mountains and forests.
- There are trails suited for families with kids as well as for hard-core hikers.
The Northern Sector of National Park Los Glaciares
For mountaineers, challenging 11,020-foot-high Fitz Roy is the park’s peak experience. The most prominent landmark in the park, Fitz Roy can be seen from many of the trails and campsites. We are not climbers, but we take advantage of the numerous trails — from two-or-three-hour walks — to multiple-day treks — to see various views of the pinnacle.
El Chaltén is the gateway to the northern sector of the park (the southern sector of National Park Los Glaciares is much visited for its Perito Moreno Glacier). We stock up on food and check with the park ranger office if any trail happens to be closed. All are open.
Reliable Water sources and Campsites
We don’t have to carry much water. There will be enough places to fill up our bottle. National Park Los Glaciares is one of the few remaining places on earth where you can still safely drink water from streams and lakes. In fact, the park was created in 1937 and obtained its UNESCO World Heritage Status (1982) exactly in order to preserve the region’s huge, pristine water reservoir.
A fair climb leads along low shrubs into a beech forest (called lenga). We struggle in gale force headwinds along a ravine to the forest campsite of Poincenot as quickly as possible to get dry. In order to get warm we try to make Glühwein by adding marmalade to a cheap package of red wines. Definitely can’t recommend that recipe. Luckily the weather breaks during the night. For the days to come we are under cobalt skies and have to slather our faces in sunscreen.
Trails and Views
From the campsite of Poincenot we follow various trails: To the Piedras Blancas Glacier that sprawls down a lake, and to Laguna de Los Tres, which is arguably the best predawn trek for a grand sunrise. Fitz Roy towers 6560 feet above the laguna, surrounded by ice fields which makes for some fantastic color spectacles in the early morning hours. Farther south lies the 10,262-foot-high spire of Cerro Torre, the park’s second landmark, which we admire after a scramble up a moraine to Mirador Maestri.
The mountain is close by, yet climbers sometimes have to wait for weeks to have good enough weather to climb the final stretch to Cerro Torre’s top. We are content to take in the view of the granite tower, and cool down by sucking on pieces of ice. At the foot of the Cerro Torre lies a glacier. Chunks calve off and thunder into the lake with turquoise water.
As we ease our way along yet another trail I find my own rhythm, my shoes steadily tramping across the earth. Spring has started and the meadows are dotted with dandelions. Birds accompany me with their concerts and I watch them flying back and forth with twigs to build their first nests of the season. Most impressive are the condors that soar high above me on ten-foot wingspans.
Being here means I have nothing to do but to immerse in the vastness of this geographical extravaganza of landscapes. Each mountain, each lake, each glacier has its charm and fascination because of its scale, its palette of colors, its challenge to be hiked or climbed. It invites me to return another time and explore more. No caracara or indifferent fellow camper can ruin that.
- Don’t be fooled by the weather. It may change instantaneously so be prepared for the worst. Days may be warm and pleasant; nights can be freezing cold. Bring warm clothes and a proper sleeping bag.
- Although El Chaltén isn’t a big town, there are some quality shops where you can buy tents, proper clothes and other trekking gear (all of which doesn’t come cheap).
- Best time of the year for hiking and climbing is November-April, summer in the Southern Hemisphere (note it gets very busy in January/February).
- National Park Los Glaciares is becoming increasingly popular, which threatens to pollute the waters. Bring organic soap and use the outhouses, or make a toilet far from any waterway to prevent contributing to this pollution.