Two years ago, we found a cheap COPA fare down to Santiago de Chile for spring break. Of all the places available to us, we went for Patagonia and it has remained one of my favorite trips. Crossing over Paso John Gardener to the magnificent glacier grey was beyond words, though I tried my best. It was my favorite viewpoint among all the places I’d seen to that point. There was also something so simple as getting off the plane and hitting the trails for a week. That feeling was especially strong for me this past spring after the mega planned New Zealand trip a few month before. All these factors combined to motivate me to head back to Patagonia once again when we found another sale to Santiago de Chile, this time we were headed to the Argentinian side. At the end of it, I came out with a new favorite trek.
- the decision and planning
- trip report: getting in
- trip report: El Chaltén
- trip report: Fitz Roy and Laguna Torre
- trip report: Huemul Circuit
- trip report: getting out
- final impressions and budget
- useful links
As the winter neared, airlines again started to discount flights to Santiago de Chile (SCL). Originally I didn’t jump on any of them as I was busy planning for the New Zealand trip. When a $278 roundtrip airfare popped up from Air Mexico, my wanderlust was too overwhelming and I pulled the trigger on the deal from New York John F Kennedy airport (JFK) to SCL via Mexico City (MEX) for week of spring break 2017. That was all I thought about it until the calendar turned to Feb.
With a month out, it was decision time on where to go. Atacoma desert, the lake district, and the area around the Santiago were possibilities. However, I hadn’t really recovered from planning fatigue, so the simple idea of getting in, trekking, and getting out was very appealing. Many of these other areas required rental car or organizing buses, such as the Atacoma Desert or the Lake District, and others required much more research, such as the Condor Circuit. I even thought about heading back to Torres Del Paine (TDP) for the circuit again. I didn’t, but the idea of heading back to Patagonia took full flight.
During our time on the O-Circuit in TDP, several of our fellow trekkers were spending much longer time than we were in Patagonia. Usually their travels involved both visiting both Chile and Argentina, TDP being the Chilean section of their trip. On the Argentinian side, there are 2 specific towns. El Calafate with its views on the Merino Glacier or El Chaltén, which is know for the spires of Fitz Roy and Laguna Torre as part of the Parque Nacional Los Glaciers. Most people that visit El Chaltén only stay for a couple of days to visit both sites as day hikes or do a 2 day trek while camping. There are a couple other day hikes in the area as well. These specific day hikes doesn’t make for a trek such as the O-Circuit, but then I remembered BestHike had posted a video from Backpacker Steve doing something call the Huemul Circuit.
The Huemul Circuit is a much lesser known 4 day trek than that of the Fitz Roy and Laguna Torre, providing views of massive glaciers. Other than Backpacker Steve’s videos, information on the Huemul Circuit was very sparse. Secondly, there are a couple of technical aspects of the hike that makes it more challenging, they are Tyrolean Traverses/zipline and walking on a non-moving glacier. Lastly, the rangers don’t advertise the trek at all and will respond with strong warnings when you ask about it as a means to ward off unseasoned hikers, since most come for the Fitz Roy. With the combination of Huemul Circuit and the Fitz Roy, El Chaltén provided exactly what I was looking for.
Our main flight was from JFK so I’d first need reposition flights to JFK. I was able to get the Southwest Companion Pass again for 2017 and 2018 through Marriott’s vacation package (now expired), but Southwest only flew to New York LaGuardia (LGA). The combination of the higher point costs due the lateness of my booking and the extra cost and hassle of the LGA to JFK shuttle made it less appealing. Looking around, I knew Delta’s award chart between Raleigh (RDU) and JFK was 5k one way and was able to find space for the outbound. For the return reposition, the monetary cost for JFK to RDU on American Airlines was about US$68 each so I booked it using my Citi Prestige and Thankyou Points at a 1TY:1.6¢ ratio (recently devalued) for a total of 8524 TY points total. That total USA to SCL cost was equivalent the deal we got from 2 years ago.
The difficult award booking was to go from SCL to El Chaltén. From my last trip, I know I can get 2 roundtrip tickets to Punta Arenas (PUQ), the Chilean portal to Patagonia, for roughly US$380 for 2 tickets. The problem with that is the bus we’d have to take from Puerto Natales to El Calafate only runs 3 times a week (though switchbacktravel says otherwise) and the times didn’t fit our schedule. That brought us to trying to fly to El Calafate Airport (FTE), which was not cheap at about US$433 each. The other option was using 25k Delta miles as Milevalue detailed for flights in Argentina, but the award space was problematic so close to the date. Sometimes you just have to take the hit to make a tight itinerary work. I redeemed 46379 TY points at 1TY:1.33¢ ratio (again this has devalued since) and US$250 for 2 round trip tickets on Aerolineas Argentinas from SCL to FTE with a stop in Buenos Aires (EZE, AEP). I could have used all TY points as I had thought spending US$250 through the Thankyou Portal would qualify for Citi Prestige’s travel credit, but it did not.
To maximize our point earnings, we would try to have our Aeromexico flights applied to Alaskan Airlines and Aerolineas Argentinas to Delta based on mileage earnings.
That was it insofar as bookings I made ahead of time. I probably should have book bus tickets from FTE to El Chaltén ahead of time, but I figure it would be easier to figure out on the ground as we did for TDP and we had a whole day to get to El Chaltén. Part of it was also because I was still planning fatigued and got lazy diving into my online research. The information I found online in a brief search at the time was not clear as to if the buses went to El Chaltén from the airport or if it only left from El Calafate central. As you’ll see, we got there.
The plan for this trip was to just get off the plane and trek, so our equipment was our standard backpacking/trekking loadout. I scheduled enough time between all our separate flight segments so we would be able to go through immigration/customs and pickup our bags if we needed to, but of course our preference was to carry on the entire time and hopefully transiting through the international terminal without exiting, specifically at SCL. We both had our backpacking packs (Ospery Aether 70 M & REI Crestrail 65 XS), which I’ve had no problems carrying on except in California. To be sure, our equipment was pretty minimum and it’s good that most outdoor gear are trending toward the light and compact direction.
To deal with the rain and wind of Patagonia, we had 2-gallon Ziplocs to keep things dry since the winds can be brutal on rain covers. In anticipation of the cold, we had our winter down bags and better insulated camp clothing. We were glad to have our 4 season tent this time around in Patagonia, but the winds weren’t as bad in comparison to TDP.
For the Huemul Circuit, there are 2 zipline crossings (Tyrolean Traverses) that require climbing harnesses, carabiners, and rope, I’ll get into the specifics of this in my report. All the equipment can be rented from the outdoor shops in El Chaltén, though it isn’t cheap. We ended up renting 2 pairs of hiking sticks for the Huemul Circuit, which in retrospect, we should have bought cheap ones to bring.
Navigation on the Huemul can be pretty challenging, especially in day 2 and 3. I recommend having a gps with an approximate track loaded (either from wikiloc or feel free to email me for mine) so you have a general idea of navigation. I say general idea because conditions may dictate your exact route. The Openstreetmap gps had the trail labeled, but some other sources will only have the trail up to Laguna Toro. At a minimum, you should have the Chaltén trekking map found at the outfitters in town for reference and backcountry skills.
Lastly, I highly recommend bringing a mice proof food bag as they are aggressive and will chew through your backpack or tent. If not, hanging the bag ended up working for us. This should be easy since you have to carry rope and carabiners anyways.
There are a couple of recent changes that have made for easier travels to Argentina, especially for US citizens. First, the reciprocity fee for US citizens has been revoked in 2016 saving us $320.
Secondly, the US dollar exchange restrictions were removed at the end of 2015 making it easier to exchange money officially. Milevalue has a nice write up on it and as he points out, cash is still king making finicky ATMs more problematic. In El Chaltén, many merchants will take 5-10% off your bill for cash over credit card, which is a bigger discount than most credit card returns. So during our time there, there were many empty ATMs and my daily limit was around ARS$4500 in increments of ARS$1500. I’ll touch on this further in my getting in and El Chaltén trip report sections.
Unlike TDP or the Glaciar Perito Moreno entrance near El Calafate (ARS$500 for General Foreigners), there was no park fee of any sort for Parque Nacional Los Glaciares near El Chaltén. Even the campsites were free and first come, first serve. That makes trekking very affordable if you have your own equipment.
For communication purposes, I had google fi (my referral link) which worked through our flights across 3 different countries. However as expected, I lost signal when we reached remote El Chaltén. Our hotel did have decently reliable wifi near the common area for browsing and researching.
Our trip all the way south this time consisted of 5 different flights. It began with our usual drive down to Raleigh the night before for our award stay at the Holiday Inn at Raleigh (RDU) for 15k IHG points, where we took advantage of their park and fly policy. It was no hassle at all when we check in and they took our car information and kept in their record book at no extra cost. The shuttle was very quick for our early morning Delta flight from RDU to New York John F Kennedy Airport (JFK) and carried on or backpacks were no problems.
At JFK, Air Mexico and Delta were not in the same terminal, so we had to exit and transfer from terminal 4 to terminal 1. We had a long, planned layover at JFK in case of delays and to allow us to do some work that day. We were there so early that we caught the Air Mexico checking desk still manned from the morning flight. They had no issues with checking us in or with us carrying on our bags. The Air France Lounge access we had through the Priority Pass allowed us to a couple nice meals and I was able to teleconference into my lab’s Friday meeting. The lounge does get busy and the hot food will go fast at certain times. We also checked out the KAL Business Class Lounge in the afternoon, which didn’t have as much food but was a quieter and more comfortable setting with a nice work area.
Our second and third flights were on Aeromexico routing through Mexico City (MEX) that would take us through the night. Overall our flights were uneventful and we got to spread out on the first leg since the flight was at half capacity. The annoying thing about transiting through Mexico was that all international transfers went through immigration in Mexico, and the foreign nationals line took us around 45 minutes to get through. Luckily didn’t check our bags so we could get through customs and then again through security to reach the gates as the plane was boarding. Another group with our same roundtrip itinerary on Aeromexico were not so lucky because they had checked bags.
When we landed in Santiago de Chile (SCL) in the morning at 11 am and the transit was a completely different experience. SCL has an international transfer right after we exited the plane, so it was nice and fast without having entering Chile. I had loaded our boarding passes on the way in, though I’m pretty sure they didn’t care since I was able to transit through on the return when my boarding pass on Aeromexico did not load. It would have been just a matter of wasted time if we couldn’t transfer since the entry fee for US citizens ended a few years ago, but Aussies and Mexicans are still required to pay.
We had a long 8 hour layover before our Aerolineas Argentinas flight so we first visited Salones VIP Pacific Club, again through my Priority Pass, where we were able to take a shower get some basic snacks and lunch; the hot food goes fast so be quick. For dinner, we headed to the smaller and better Avianca Sala VIP Lounge, which had a nice salad bar, deli food, and a panini press. We filled up on salmon and prosciutto before our 4th flight to Buenos Aires Ministro Pistarini International Airport (EZE).
This was one of the more impressive flights crossing the Andes in Argentina. Immigration and customs at EZE took us about a half hour as another plane from the US arrived at the same time. For our international to domestic transfer, we had to take a shuttle across town to Aeroparque Jorge Newbery (AEP) near the waterfront and close to downtown. There is a shuttle service right outside of customs near the atms and cost ARG$180 each.
It was good that they took credit card as all the ATMs landside at EZE were empty.
The shuttle took about 45 minutes in no traffic to transit to AEP and being Saturday night, we got a glimpse of the night life from the bus. AEP seemed to be open all night as we were able go airside right away. AEP had plently of seats without armrests making good sleeping spots. Even though passengers started to arrive around 4:30am for 6am flights, no one bothered us. The next morning, I went ATM hunting both airside and landside and finally found one with money on my 5th ATM, the Banco Provincia. I don’t know the exact reason for this, perhaps a combination of airport and the weekend preventing the ATMs to be refills are the causes. Anyways, it’s a good idea to bring cash as backup to Argentina. I was glad to have cash on me before our last flight down to El Calafate since I didn’t know the ATM situation in El Chaltén.
Our flight into El Calafate (FTE), the gateway for the Argentinian Patagonia, was uneventful and we were the first out on our plane, which turned out to be fortunate.
There was only 1 shuttle company (possibly Las Lengas, but I don’t recall) that directly transferred from (FTE) to El Chaltén and they only had spots on their late shuttle for around ARS$800 per person (others reporting various prices). Being noon, we were hoping to get into El Chaltén as soon as possible to set up for our treks and talk to the rangers at the Parque Nacional Los Glaciers visitor center about our plans for the Huemul Circuit.
The Tripadvisor thread talks about 3 main bus companies, CalTur, Chaltén Travel, and TAQSA, that seemingly leaves from the El Calafate main bus station with the cost between ARS$450-600 and requiring addition transport from FTE. The major bus companies might have booth set up at the airport normally, but half the booths were closed possibly because it was Sunday. There are a couple of websites suggested by Lonelyplanet and other forums where you maybe able to book ahead.
While we were looking around, an elder couple saw us looking to go to El Chaltén and through a series of charades and some English communicated that we could share a taxi. Yep, we still don’t know Spanish. The cost of the taxi was ARS$3000, so we were happy to pay ARS$750 each to head for El Chaltén right away. After 5 plane rides, 2 days, and a final 2.5 hour drive through the rain, we arrived at Parque Nacional Los Glaciares and the town of El Chaltén.
When we first arrived in El Chaltén around 3pm, everything was closed down. Most places didn’t open back up around 4pm, so we checked into our base of operations the Vertical Lodge.
It was a pretty basic place that was heated very well with plenty of hot water, comfortable bed, breakfast, and pretty decent wifi near the lobby. It wasn’t the best sound isolated especially for the rooms on the first floor (where you can hear common area) and northwest facing rooms (where you can hear the power plant), but it worked for us. While walking around, we saw many hostels offering ARS$180 per night to fancy hotels going up. There were many new housing options being built in the city, as El Chaltén have grown multiplicatively tourism wise in the last 12 years according to a few we talked to.
information and final planning
The first thing we did was head out toward the visitor center at the entrance to the town to talk to the rangers.
At the visitor center, the rangers will give all the new arrives a short orientation of the area and the forecast both in English and Spanish. The buses into town has mandatory stop at the visitor center. If you don’t get the update about the weather from the tourist center, the trail heads will have signs describing the conditions briefly.
Most of the tourist here will only spend 1 to 3 days here, so we were a bit of an odd ball staying a week. Once majority of the crowd from the bus had left, I explained to the ranger my main goal was to trek the Huemul Circuit and to hike to the Fitz Roy and Largo Torres as other option. We had a total of 6 full days in El Chaltén and the weather forecast was great for day 1, but the rain would be coming around day 2 to 3. After that, the weather might slowly get better with great weather again at the end of the week. With the most important legs/days for the Huemul Circuit being the 2nd and 3rd, the ranger strongly encouraged us to wait and not to waste a great day 1. We heeded his advice and decided to trek up to see the granite peaks the Fitz Roy and continuing to Largo Torres before looping back to town on day 2. We would then plan to start the first leg of the Huemul Circuit in the forecasted bad weather of day 3, as it is a non-technical day, before making a judgement call for the second leg on day 4. We had the option of waiting out the bad weather for a day and do a 3 day in and out, heading up to the pass on day 5 with a day pack and trekking out on day 6.
With a plan now set, we needed to withdrawal a bit more cash as the taxi ride took half of what I had. Cash would be the theme of this trip and many places will give you a 5 to 10% off if you pay with cash, much higher rate of return than credit card rewards. There was 1 bank in town a couple blocks on the main street into town, so 1 atm. It is said to be low on money during the weekends, however we were able to withdrawal money on our first day in town, which again was a Sunday afternoon. There appeared to be a second bank in the process of being built. Wikitravel cites another ATM in the bus terminal, but I don’t recall it.
supermarkets and supplies
There are several supermarkets in town, only a few will take a credit card and only if you are spending over a certain amount. The pickings aren’t the best, especially with fresh fruit and veggies, which apparently get shipped in on Sundays (heard from another traveler doing long term travel). That maybe specific to a particular market. You won’t find any typical trekking dehydrated meals here, but we brought some leftovers from our New Zealand trip and supplemented it with local deli, cheese, bread, and of course, candy.
There are several outfitters and gear shops around and they have equipment for rent for several activates. Here is the rental price chart from Patagonia Hikes, where we rented our Tyrolean Traverse equipment for the Huemul Circuit. They also have propane canisters for sale, so no need to stop by El Calafate for that. However being in such a remote and small town, they do have limited supplies and the nothing is cheap. There is also a couple of hardware store where you can buy rope need to rest the zipline pulley.
As I mentioned earlier, some outfitters, shops, and restaurants will take 5-10% off your bill if you use cash instead of credit card.
For a small town, there is over saturation of restaurants and of all price ranges. For the budget traveler, there is plenty of bakeries to stuff your tummy of delicious empanadas, sandwiches, and pastries. In the midrange, there are pizza and burger places like B&B Burger shop.
Lastly, there are plenty sit down restaurants where you can get traditional Argentinian cruisine should you be looking to splurge. By splurge, I mean around ARS$700-1000, which was equivalent cost of a mediocre dinner out back in the states. La Tapera confirmed it’s Trip Advisor number 1 ranking for me, while Restaurante Ahonikenk Chaltén Fonda Patagonia was a good first meal for us in Argentina and they served dinner early. We did have to get some lamb, as it was the best thing we had last time in Patagonia, at Asador – Parrilla El Viejo Nando but I’d say to wait for it in Porto Natalies on the Chilean side. We splurged every time we were back in town. One thing about the restaurants is that the portions will make sure you are full.
There is definitely a party scene in El Chaltén with the amount of tourism that come through the town and especially lively on dreary days. We didn’t partake in much of that scene since we were mainly on a camper schedule with midnight been sundown, but we did hang out briefly at a packed La Vineria winebar.
We didn’t visit any of them, but there are several companies around. Other than hiking, there is a boat ride out to the Viedma Glacier. While we were there, the word was it was too soft for glacier walking. Again, I was there for trekking so I don’t have much research on that. Besthike has some listed on his page.
- name: Fitz Toy and Laguna Torre loop
- type: loop
- distance: 24.7 miles
- elevation change: 6226 ft ascend & 6242 ft descend
- time: 2 days
- location: Parque Nacional Los Glaciares
- This loop can be done in 3 days by camping at Campamento Poincenot. A small side trip to the Glacier Piedras Blancas can also be added.
We were up early on our first full day in El Chaltén and left for the trail head at the north side of town to start our 2 day loop.
The very first section was a steeper uphill with a few views of the El Chaltén valley and the tip of Fitz Roy further up.
After the uphill, the trail flattens out and we reached an intersection. The right path goes up on a hill for a viewpoint where as the left goes toward Laguna Capri and the campgrounds there. We decided to check out the lake by taking the left.
The lake was pretty cool with our first full view of the Fitz Roy.
The campgrounds was also well situated among the trees and there was a outhouse.
Shortly after the campgrounds, the trail from the view point rejoined us and the trail then continued relatively flat toward the Fitz Roy as it looms ever greater in front of you.
After the trail rounds away from the Fitz Roy briefly,
we came to an intersection with one branch toward the Fitz Roy and Campamento Poincenot while the other is the connection trail toward Laguna Torre. We headed for the Fitz Roy of course.
The trail before Poincenot crosses an area of marsh, streams, and strange windswept sandy areas.
The Poincenot was located among an area of forest right before a stream. There was a outhouse here as well and seemed pretty busy as we arrived. we left our packs here before continuing on.
The next section started uphill with decent incline
before a steeper section,
curving around to the left into a flat region,
and a last push up the moraine hill. The last bit can be a little slippery with the sand and small rocks.
On top of the moraine, you reach the view that makes the climb worth it.
We hang around the rim and eat lunch while making friends with Michael from my home state of Michigan and Marc. We headed down to Laguna de Los Tres afterwards.
We continued left of the Laguna de Los Tres
to do some more exploring and found the teal Laguna Sucia and a set of cascades that drains Laguna de Los Tres.
We doubled back and headed up the mound just left of Laguna de Los Tres to find a grand view point with both lakes and the Fitz Roy.
After spending around an hour at the view point, crowd started to get denser and we started our downhill back to pick up our packs.
Backtracking to the intersection before Campamento Poincenat, we took the other route toward Laguna Torres catching our last view of the Fitz Roy behind Laguna Madre. The connector trail is much less trafficked with the a few section having overgrown bushes.
At about the halfway point of the connector trail, we came to a pretty cool pebble beach on Laguna Hija.
The connector trail then heads downhills through a forest
before was get our first views of Cerro Torre.
Once we reached the intersection with the Laguna Torre trail,
The rest of the trail was a slight uphill toward Laguna Torre around a marsh area and a couple of stream crossings with Cerro Torre in the background.
If you are planning to camp at Campamento De Agostini, you’ll want to pay attention to a stream with very clear water right after a forest section. This should be about 1 km before the Campamento De Agostini and before the split for the tour operated campgrounds (based on the Chaltén topo map). This is a good stream to get clear water for the night as De Agostini Campgrounds’ clear water source is hard to locate (you’d have to find a little run off along rocks at the edge of Río Fitz Roy once you get down from the campgrounds, a local guide at the campgrounds showed it to me). I image drinking the treated water from the sediment heavy water for Río Fitz Roy is fine also, but be aware if you are picky.
The last portion of the trail runs along Río Fitz Roy
before it splits to the campsite.
In anticipation of the possible rain, we set up our camp first at the edge of the campsite. It was a far away from the toilets, which were pretty awful in terms of smell.
Next was dinner as we were starving at this point. It included leftover schnitzel from our dinner the first night at Restaurante Ahonikenk Chaltén Fonda Patagonia and some dehydrated meals we still had from New Zealand.
After dinner, we took a stroll up to Laguna Torre. Unfortunately, the clouds had rolled in obstructing the view to Cerro Torre.
The trail on the moraine continues up toward the Mirador Maestri, but we stopped short of the viewpoint since we’d see all that we would see of Glaciar Grande or Glaciar Torre with the clouds.
On the way back to camp, we were treated with an awesome view of large hawk that didn’t give us one care.
Our day 1 totals was 17.5 miles with a total ascent of 5118 ft and descent of 4436 ft including after dinner walk along the moraine around Laguna Torre. Total elapsed time was 12 hours with 8 hours moving. We were asleep once hiker midnight hit.
Day 2 was going to just be a day to head back to town and along Río Fitz Roy and the normal route for Laguna Torre. It did rain a little overnight and the clouds had remained.
The weather was very calm though and the lake was very still as we climbed up the moraine for another look in the morning after packing up camp.
We didn’t spend a lot of time walking along the moraine since planned to set up our Huemul Circuit that afternoon and the clouds didn’t look it would lift that day.
The trek back to town started retracing our steps yesterday on a slight decline.
After a slight uphill and a viewpoint back into the valley with the clouds covering up all the peaks, the down hill was more aggressive broken up by a viewpoint of Río Fitz Roy cutting through the canyon.
After a couple of hours hiking against the traffic from the campsite, El Chaltén came into view
as we passed the trailhead sign.
Our second day was only 7.2 miles with an ascent of 1101 ft and descent of 1800 ft including our walk in the morning onto the moraine. Our total time was about 3 hours but only 2 from the campsite.
- view: 5 – The Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre are very comparable to the Torres del Paine, referring to the peaks that the park is named after. They stand on guard over the glaciers and glacier lakes below them making for out of this world views. I look forward to bring friends back to this area.
- difficulty: 2 – Except for the climb up to Laguna de Los Tres (which maybe a 3 for endurance needed), the overall trail isn’t too bad. In high winds or rain, I can see this a more difficult and be more of a 3 rating though this really isn’t worth it if the clouds are low in those conditions. It is possible to do everything we did in 1 day if you are short on time, which would push this up to a 3. If you have the time and are worried about fitness, you can stretch out the trek to 3 days as there are many different campgrounds along the way.
- technical: 1 – This trails here are marked very well and you don’t need any technical skills for this loop.
We returned to town from the Fitz Roy Loop just a little bit after noon, so we grabbed a lunch of empanadas, pasties, and pop before checking into our hotel. We promptly laid out the contents of our bag to dry while we showered and washed our dirty hiking cloth while showering. The unlimited hot water at the hotel was pretty awesome. Napping promptly took place afterwards.
In the afternoon, our itinerary consisted of getting some more cash, going to the visitor center to check-in with the rangers, buy bus tickets to the airport from the bus station, groceries, and rental of our Tyrolean Traverses after 7pm that night.
- name: Huemul Circuit
- type: loop (though more a point to point)
- distance: 38.4 miles
- elevation change: 9228 ft. ascent and 10129 ft. descent
- time: 4 days
- location: Parque Nacional Los Glaciares
The forecast from the visitor center was still dubious when we checked in. The weather calls for rain the entire day 1 of our trip and most likely day 2. The 2nd and 3rd days of the loop are the most crucial sections since those are the days include where the more dangerous Tyrolean Traverse takes place, glacial crossing, Paso del Viento, exposure sections, Paso Huemul, and steep downhill through occurs. The 1st day is mostly getting to the impressive section of the loop and the 4th day was for getting out. Given all those factors, we decided to go forward with the circuit. However, we would make a judgement call on the day 2 section depending on the weather. If it was ok, we’d attempt the section. If it was bad, we’d hold up at the Campamento Laguna Toro for an extra day. Then if day 3 was clear, we’d day hike up to Paso del Viento before returning to Campamento Laguna Toro. And we’d then hike out the same way we entered on day 4.
At the visitor center, there is also an orientation video they’ve made for those that want to attempt the Huemul Circuit that is worth your time. Below are some of the key navigation points and Tyrolean Traverse harness setup from the video.
For food, we still had about 2.5 dinner’s worth of dehydrated meals and several cliff bars for breakfast (we tend just hit the trails right away in the morning and not cook breakfast). So we bought some bread, cheese, lunch meat including some nice cured pork, and of course chocolate and candy. I did buy a liter for pop to drink that night and use for water bottle. Even though I was no where in finishing it, we welcomed the flat sugar water the first day of the trek.
After a trip to the ATM and bus stop to buy tickets, we headed to Patagonia Hikes to reserve our Tyrolean Traverse equipment. Below is the required equipment the rangers need to check for you to attempt the Huemul Circuit.
Everything was available for us at Patagonia Hikes, except for the 20 meter of cord. These can be bought at the hardware stores in town. The first store we saw was closed when we checked. However, while we were in line at the ATM, a fellow traveler heard we were looking for the cord and they happened to had bought one that they weren’t going to use. They had planned to do the Huemul, but their window had closed due to the weather.
The rest of our tasks lead us up to dinner time and we enjoyed an amazing meal at La Tapera, which we can confirm their number 1 Tripadvisor ranking. We were the first there at 5pm and the place filled up completely while we dined there and there was a line by the time we left. We picked up our rental gear on the way back to our hotel and turned in early for the day with the rain coming down.
We woke up to the rain and complete overcast as expected. After breakfast at our hotel, we stored our traveling gear again and headed to the visitor center around 9 am when they opened. They checked our gear and we filled their log book. The rangers were much less cryptic once they saw that you were ready. So into the gloom we went.
Right away there is a split in the trail. All the signage will point to Laguna Toro.
The rain started to come down hard on us as we climb to the first flat area. The trail up to this point is pretty clear and will remain so until it splits as you reach the first marshy area. The right trail heads up to Loma del Pliegue Tumbado, a view point where you can get a 360 view of Laguna Torres, Fitz Roy, Cerro Huemul, and El Chaltén. It is a nice 5 mile side trip, just not on this day. So we continued on the left trail.
The next section consisted of sections of complete marsh to just hiking up a trail turned stream in the rain. In the marshy open areas, look for sticks or pipes in the ground as the trail completely disappears. We did get some glimpse of cows roaming the area. This is where we met the first group we saw heading out that day and they were completing the trail counter clockwise.
After a wet slosh uphill, we finally reached the plateau of our climb as Cerro Huemul started to show itself when the rain clouds finally relented.
Through a set of trees, the trail comes to an opening of the entire Río Túnel valley and a truly stupendous view.
It was downhills from there and I had to continuously remind myself to look down to avoid the cow pies.
Once we reached the valley floor, our second navigational challenge arrived with the rivers. On the first riverbed after reaching the floor, the trail became slightly washed out so we relied on our navigation skills. The next couple of crossings consisted of faster and deeper streams, so our shoes would not escape getting soaked on the first day. This was probably our easiest crossings of the day.
We reached the Campamento Laguna Toro just before 5pm, which we had to ourselves. The last of the hikers we saw heading out was the only one that attempted to head up to Paso del Viento that day, but was forced to turn back due to snow and visibility issues as he pushed up above Glaciar Río Túnel Superior o de Quervain, the final section toward the pass.
There is a small storage shack here that really isn’t useful for anything and plenty of camping spots with wood circles to help break the wind. The rock face here also stops most of the wind coming of the glaciers. There is a nice water source toward the back corner of the campgrounds to the right if you are facing the sign.
After we set up camp and had dinner, we changed into some dry cloth and climbed into our warm sleeping bags and fell asleep quickly. Wetness would be the theme of our entire circuit. Our total distance was 10.8 miles for day 1 with 2511 ft ascent and 2110 ft descent. Our total time was about 7 hours with about 5 hours moving time.
The rain came down through the night, but started to let up around 8am. So we decided to attempt the pass. As we packed up, we noticed that there was a hole in our food bag and that a mice had gotten to a package of cured meat and a package of lunch meat. We were still ok for food, our last dinner was just a little lighter. We headed out around 9am in the low clouds.
The navigation after the lake is a little unclear, but we were able to locate the next set of cairns on among the rock formation to the right of Río Túnel. If the Tyrolean Traverse is out or you’d not go on it, the section of river before Laguna Túnel o Toro is the shallowest. While we climbed upwards, the rain started to come down briefly.
Luckily, the rain stopped when we reached the tyrloean traverse. What I’m not showing you here is the rushing river through the canyon below. The traverse wasn’t bad overall, though the cord attached to the pulley was a bit too short making unclipping at the far end the most difficult part of it all, especially with a pack on. The few minutes Meg spent taking off her backpack and then unclipping on the far side of rocks was the by far the most anxiety inducing moments of the trek for me. I’d recommend not carrying your backpack for the crossing, rather move it with the pulley afterwards or clipping it on and moving it behind you. Since the traverse was uphill, the last bit was quite tiring. Lastly make sure a return line is attached if you are sharing carabiners or rope.
I would also recommend gloves as the thick cable did leave your hand feeling a bit cut up. We continued up the moraine with a look back at the slot under the traverse.
The next section continues up toward the Glaciar Río Túnel Inferior with a well marked trail.
As we headed down to the glacier, the rain started again.
We stayed up on the section of the glacier still covered rocks as there were a few cairns and we didn’t want take the risk of walking on the icy part of the glacier with the rain. You don’t really think of it but the glacier drives into the side of the mountain and we were walking on the glacier even when it didn’t seem like it.
We continued on the rocks for a while making our own route as we saw fit, it was quite an experience on the glacier. Glacier Río Túnel is not a moving glacier as we were told, so we don’t have to worry too much about crevasses opening up.
It’s hard not to stop every few second to be in awe, and this was just the start.
The rocks seemed to head downward toward the icy part of the glacier as we continued.
We could start to see the sun trying to break through the cloud cover at this point.
The scree was very loose slowly made our way down to the icy glacier. We were prepared since the rangers warned that getting on and off the glacier was a dangerous section because of the scree. That’s actually the reason we rented trekking poles.
It was just a huge piece of ice.
Our walk onto the actual icy part of the glacier was a short one, though it was still cool.
We got back onto the scree and the lower area was very difficult to traverse in term of loose rocks with the cairns very inconsistent. We noticed some cairns higher up above us on what looked like a ledge. So we slowly worked against the slippy rocks up the steep incline until we hit the clearest trail we’d seen since before getting to the glacier portion. It definitely seems that you kinda have to navigate your own way though this section as I imagine it is quite often changing with the loose rocks. The other trip reports also seem very ambiguous about this section, so navigation skill is very necessary. Just know that you should be climbing upwards a bit above the Glaciar Río Túnel Inferior as you reach the end of it.
We continued to follow the clear cairns at this point
passing some cool looking rocks reflecting the sunlight that was breaking through.
At the end of the section traversing Glaciar Río Túnel Inferior, there is a set of camp spots should you want to push the distance of day one or if you must delay the crossing of Paso del Viento
that is situated over Laguna Túnel Superior
and provides a last look at the entire Glaciar Río Túnel Inferior.
We took a quick food break here. The next section is the final up toward Paso de Viento and it looked that part of it was going to be through some snow. The trail was moderately inclined as we slowing to climb above Glaciar Río Túnel Superior o de Quervian
while looking back with continued amazement.
Shortly, Glaciar Río Túnel Superior o de Quervian stretched out in front of us.
The views did not stop inspiring as we pushed toward the pass through the snow. The trail was well marked with cairns that was visible even through the light snow. The further we climbed above the glacier, the more the clouds lifted, and the more the glacier revealed itself to us.
We reached Paso del Viento in perfect conditions and the most amazing view I’d ever seen.
After a late lunch, we headed across the snowy pass.
Apparently it was smiling back at us.
If there wasn’t so much snow, an alternative is to climb to Cerro Azara.
After the pass, the world opens up showing the Southern Patagonia Ice Field.
Just like that, the most amazing view I’d seen is replaced. When we crossed Paso John Gardner on the O circuit in Torres Del Paine a couple years ago, the scene that massive Glacier Gray sprawled out in front of us was nothing but spectacular. That dwarfs in comparison to The Southern Patagonia Ice Field view seen from Paso del Viento.
After gawking for a while, we started to make our way down the very steep route from the pass.
The combination of snow, steepness, and the view in front of us made the descent slow.
The trail continued zig zagging downwards until the view of the ice field was obstructed by the large moraine wall. The trail headed left at that point and then generally disappeared.
As long as you headed in the general direction along the valley created by the moraine wall and the mountain, you were ok. From the pass to this point was a section that was more difficult to navigate with cairns that were inconsistent and easily hidden as they blend into the rocks around them.
The cairns and the trail become more pronounced as we continued. After a while, the trail just follows a stream toward laguna del Refugio,
the campgrounds for the second day, Campamento Paso de Viento.
The second day on the Huemul Circuit was a day really beyond description. We set up our tent and cooked our dinner in the shelter at the campgrounds. We were once again the only ones there that night. After dinner, I climbed up a little bit to try to get another view of the Ice field and Glaciar Viedma, but the moraine was a quiet bit bigger then it appeared. There seem to be a marked route heading up the moraine, though I didn’t have the daylight to explore it. From patagoniahikes tour itinerary, it seems that the trail leads to a possible side trip to walk on the Glaciar Viedma.
Our awesome day 2 ended with 7.8 miles with 3055 ft ascent and 2214 ft descent. We left camp at 9am and reached camp around 5 pm for about 8 hours elapsed, 5 of those moving.
Before we turned in for the night. We tried a few different tactics to prevent the mice away from our tent. That included put the garbage bag away from our camp. It didn’t work as the mice attacked a half hour after we laid down. After spending another hour and half trying to keep the mice away, I tried a new tactic. I removed the top pouch of my backpack and put our food bag into it. Then hung it up on the wires for cloth drying near the shelter with our carabiners. That tactic worked out and our food was untouched the next couple of nights.
The morning of day 3 saw the return of the clouds and it only rolled in more as we packed up our camp by the stream.
We were on the trail around 8am and the day begin with a uphill through thickening fog. We got our last look at the bottom and Glaciar Viedma during the first ascent of the day.
The trail was marked very well to the point that we could always find the next one through the fog for the most part. After the uphill, the trail ungulates through a few flat areas, hills,
and crosses a few streams up and down.
Along the way, there are many native blueberries that are edible and super sweet.
There are a couple other fruits that we saw, but didn’t try because we weren’t sure of their edibility. The rangers at the visitor center later confirmed we could have ate them. The ranger told me the Prickly Heath taste like apples and the Diddle-dee is another berry.
After a couple hours, the mountain becomes more sloped and we reach a section of the trail with some exposure. It wasn’t really that bad, though we couldn’t see the bottom of the down slope at all. A couple of cascade crossing were the most dangerous, but not too bad overall.
Pretty soon, we were on our way cutting into the mountain toward Paso Huemul. The first section was up an rocky opening upwards.
The we rounds the side of the mountain a little more before following a stream inward up the mountain.
Then we pushed up the slope right of the stream. The area was decently marked with cairns.
Once we hit a ridge, we followed the cairns and instructions from the visitor center video to cut left reaching the pass in complete fog and rain. Paso Huemul is known to be super windy pass, but for us it was more rain than wind.
There is a possible side trip to the peak above the pass, but we didn’t take it since we already couldn’t see anything. I’m sure the views of Glaciar Viedma would have been something else here, but that will have to wait til next time.
The first down from the pass was through the very annoying shrubbery that made sure you were more than soaked to a flat area of marsh.
At least we were finally out of the clouds.
The already miserable day was about to hit the worst part as we descended below the clouds to see our final destination on the day.
After an initial wrong turn that had us descending among the dense shrubbery that made sure we didn’t have anything dry on us, we were able to backtrack to the trail. The trail consisted of a the incredibility steep and muddy descent. If you slipped, there was a good chance you were flying off the mountain here. I didn’t take many pictures during this section since it was difficult enough without having to hold a camera.
There is a point in the downhill where you had to repeal down a rockface holding on to a rope. This was the view from the bottom of the repeal.
This was by far the most difficult and dangerous section we encountered this trip. By the time we reached the bottom, we were dead tired and soaked. We were so out of it, that we thought the campsite right after the downhill wasn’t the one we were looking for since there was no signs. There were also plenty of cow pies around, so that wasn’t the most inviting. Little did we know, the private land from here until the uphills the next day would be covered by them.
The picture below is Campamento Bahía de Los Témpanos, at least more sheltered campsites from the wind. If you backtrack on the trail from here, there is a side trail to the beach and to the other side of the hill seen in the picture on the left. I think that’s where more Campamento Bahía de Los Témpanos sites are located.
It wasn’t until 20 minutes past that we realized our mistake. We decided it was too late to turn around as we were close to an old campgrounds just around the Península El Ventisquero and on the Bahía Cabo de Hornos, called Campamento Bahía de Hornos.
There was one indeed, but only water source we were comfortable with was from Lago Viedma and away from the streams. There were streams flowing into Lago Viedma around our campsite, but it was opaque brown. Regardless, the water here should be treated with cows graze this area. We set up camp and ate dinner before falling asleep to the heavy rain that night.
After an amazing day 2, day 3 was quite the opposite with no views and knee breaking downhill. Our total distance was 10.7 miles that took us 8.5 hours with about 5.5 hours of moving time. The total ascent was 2140 ft and descent was 4420 ft. If was good that we had 1 more day, so we didn’t have to get back into our wet cloth for the last day while rocking our sleepware.
The goal of our last day on the Huemul Circuit was just to get back to town. The official trail itself ends at the docks for Bahía Del Túnel, where boats leave for the Glaciar Viedma tours. However, that is still 23 km from town on the road. So the hope is to be able to catch a ride from there. Alternatively, there should be a trail that heads directly north from Bahía Del Túnel docks should you not be able to find a ride. It looks about 5-6 mile hike back to town on OpenStreeMaps.
We didn’t prebook a taxi to pick us up because we didn’t have concrete plans. We were told that there were 2 boat tours that go out, one at 10 and another at 3. So we wanted to be at the dock by 3 at the latest.
After 3 wet days, we were ready for some town life. So, we were up very early before sunrise around 4:30 am and on our way around 5:20am. Of course, this would be the day with clear sky. It seems like the clouds rained itself dry overnight.
Our first task was to wade through a marshy drainage area where the trails were pretty much wiped out. Nothing like wet feet to start the day.
The trail isn’t particularly clear as we walked along the lake with a pole marker here and there, but you’ll go in the right direction if you just follow the coast.
As the sun started to rise, we get a clear view of Cerro Huemul.
As we continued down the coast, it’s hard not to turn around often to take in as much of Glaciar Viedma as possible.
About a mile along the beach, the trail turns inland and uphills to the left. Again, look for pole markers as they are more prominent here.
We continued upwards crossing a couple more marshy areas for a little over 3.5 miles from Campamento Bahía de Hornos until we reach the top of our ascend and our last views of Glaciar Viedma and Cerro Huemul.
On the other side of the small pass, we see the Lago Veidma and mountains behind El Chaltén, which now have snow covering their peaks.
The trail winds pretty gently along the side of the mountain before heading down to the lake. There were a couple of clear streams here so we refilled of water supply, seemed like they would be less effected by the grazing cows around Campamento Bahía de Hornos.
Once we reached the valley floor, there was a sign pointing to the different areas for crossing Río Túnel. We went left, where the second tyrloean traverse was. If you prefer wading, take the trail to the right and cross Río Túnel at it’s widest and shallowest portions near the mouth of the lake.
The second tyrloean traverse was longer and more tiring as it crossed the a wider Río Túnel, but it was far less gut retching than the first.
The bit was a walk down the dirt road to the Bahía Del Túnel docks. We had to hop a cow fence at the end and we arrived around 10:30 in the morning.
Our total distance was 9.1 miles with 1422 ft ascent and 1392 ft descent with slightly over 5 hours elapsed time. Our total moving time was 3.75 hours.
There were several cars parked at the docks with a tour van. Lucky for us, the tour van driver was taking a nap. We asked him if we could catch a ride with him back to El Chaltén, but his initial answer was no because he was driving paid tourist around. So we proceeded to ask him how much it would take for him to give us a ride. His answer was US$20 for the both of us and I’d take us right away, we promptly said yes. Sometimes hot shower, hot food, and convenience is worth the money.
The drive back to El Chaltén on this clear day was quite spectacular with the Fitz Roy looming over the city. A fitting end to our week of trekking.
- view: 5 – Despite being soaked every day of the trip, the Huemul Circuit has become my favorite trek I’ve every done. Glaciers are my personal favorite when it comes to aesthetics and you can’t get any bigger than the Southern Patagonia Ice Field or closer to the Glaciar Túnel and Glaciar Viedma. All this is from really the 1.5 of the 4 days with good weather, so I can’t wait to go back with time to set up for a trek in good weather. A benefit the rain and fog we endured was that we did not see a single person on this trail after the first day. The feeling at Paso del Viento when you have it all to yourself is something like you are on an expedition at the edge of the world.
- difficulty: 4 – The weather was a huge challenge for us, but that’s expected in Patagonia. The marshes in day 1 were made significantly less pleasant to push through by the rain. The wetness also made a already difficult knee breaking downhill on sandy steep decent after Paso Huemul worse. We didn’t encounter too much wind on our hike, though I’ve heard it could be quiet brutal as you get to the passes. Endurance wise, the circuit were not too bad and each day’s distance was moderate. The most physically challenging parts were the steepest climb was up to Paso Del Viento and traversing Glaciar Túnel Inferior with climbing up on the skree above it. Under clear skies, the difficulty would probably be a 3. The rain and wetness definitely wore on us quiet a bit.
- technical: 3 – There isn’t too much in terms of technical hiking on this route even though there a section on the glacier. The Glaciar Túnel Inferior is pretty stable and we were told that because it isn’t moving, there really isn’t any hidden crevasses. Navigation is the main difficulty on the trail, this is mostly specific crossing and getting off the Glaciar Túnel Inferior and the area just after Paso del Viento. General idea of where to go is needed during these sections. Cairns and poles that mark the route are pretty prevalent throughout the circuit. The rangers told me afterwards that they walk the trail about every 2 weeks during the trekking season to ensure that it’s well marked.
Indeed the hot shower and being completely dry afterwards were very welcomed once we returned to town and check back into our hotel. I pretty much chugged a 40 of Argentinian beer right away. Lunch was at B&B Burger shop since the lamb at Asador – Parrilla El Viejo Nando wasn’t ready yet. We went there for dinner and might have ordered too much, but it was good for lunch the next day.
While Meg relaxed, I returned to the visitor center to check in and return our trekking splits. It was nice to talk to the rangers about our experience and ask a few question about stuff we saw.
The next morning, our travel home started at 8am with a CalTur bus, that cost ARS$450 each ticket plus ARS$20 for the terminal fee. We had some left over gas, matches, lighter, and a knife from our trip that we left at the bus station. Hopefully someone put it to good use.
The bus arrived directly at El Calafate Airport (FTE) plenty early for our Aerolineas Argentinas flight at 12:05pm.
The check-in line pretty long due to a couple flights leaving around the same time, so I was glad to have printed out the tickets the night before and carrying on our bags once again.
Our flights on Aerolineas Argentinas were on time and uneventful. We did have to go through security again and then customs and immegration at Buenos Aires Aeroparque Jorge Newbery (AEP), which we were able to do do with our 1:15 hour layover. At least we didn’t have to go to a different airport like the way in.
At Santiago de Chile (SCL), we were able to transit straight to the international termainal airside without entering the country eventhough my tickets didn’t print. Apperently I was flagged for extra security checks on my Aeromexico flights. We were able to return to the Avianca Sala VIP Lounge for a dinner consisting smoked salmon and prosciutto sandwiches during our 4 hour layover.
Our Aeromexico flights were on-time and uneventful other than the extra security screening I went through. Again we had to go through immegration and customs at Mexico City (MEX) at 4 in the morning, but had a longer layover of 3 hours. So we were able to pop into the Aeromexico – Salon Premier lounge in Terminal 2 with our priority pass. Most of the couches and booth were full with sleeping travelers. The lounge was very well stocked with drinks, but not food so early in the morning. We saw some locals ask for nachoes, so we did the same. Before we left, they started putting out fruit cups and baked good for breakfast. Our next flight to JFK was uneventful and on time as well.
Once back in the states, we still had one more flight back to Raleigh (RDU) on American Airlines. We were able to visit the American Airlines Admiral’s Lounge through my Citi Prestige Card (now expired) for lunch.
We were particularly happy that the last of our 10 flights this trip was the only one delayed. We were doubly fortunate to be able to fly out when we did as it was a day before New York was hit with a winter storm.
Once we landed at RDU, the Holiday Inn shuttle was very prompt when we called for a pickup and we were on our way home to conclude a wonderful trip.
Most travelers pass through El Chaltén rather quickly budgeting around 2-3 days, but there is much more to offer here. This trip was the perfect trip in my opinion, getting somewhere and just hitting the trails til my hearts content and then go home. There is no doubt that I will return to the area, hopefully with more time to revisit places like the Huemul Circuit or the O-Circuit at TDP, but also get to explore other regions of Patagonia and places like Parque Patagonia.
We spent a total of US$1791.31 out of pocket. We redeemed 54903 Citi Thankyou Points, 15000 IHG points, and 10000 Delta Skymiles worth a total of US$1103.45 based on thepointsguy’s March 2017 valuations. The total value of the trip is worth US$2894.76 for 2 people. The detailed spreadsheet is listed below.
Overall, we didn’t really skimp on much as we eat really well when in town and stayed at a decent hotel. It helped that we were pretty well feed as we traveled through access to the many lounges through my Priority Pass, which came with my Citi Prestige Card and Meg’s Chase Sapphire Reserve. We ended up using more points in our flight booking down to El Calafate (FTE) from Santiago de Chile (SCL) since it was so last minute, that flight was more expensive value wise than our flights to get down to (SCL). Still worth it though since it wasn’t out of pocket and making itineraries work is a strong use of bank points in my opinion.
Lastly, we were able to earn a few points with our flights as well, though part of it kinda got messed up. Between Meg and I, we earned 8174 Delta Skymiles, 4961 Alaskan Miles, and 426 American Airline Miles (mainly to reset the expiration clock).
links I used during my preparations (in no specific order)
- Besthike.com – Fitz Roy
- back-packer.org, Backpacker Steve – 2014 report
- Backpacker Steve – 2016 video
- Be My Travel Muse – companion report to Backpacker Steve 2016 video
- badass route by Alberto Pedrotti on Wikiloc
- wikiexplora – spanish
- Patrick’s New Zealand Weblog – trip report
- 2 Drifting Coconuts – trip report
- Walk Patagonia