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I Left my H[e]a[r]t in Patagonia---Trip Report

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Feb 1st, 2018, 03:35 PM
  #1
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I Left my H[e]a[r]t in Patagonia---Trip Report

A long overdue trip report from our March 2017 trip to Patagonia. Although I do not favor the term "trip of a lifetime", if ever I would use that term, I would apply it here. I loved every minute; the scenery surpassed my expectations, the hiking was great, and the food, lodging and camaraderie were all fantastic. I would love to do it again, but it is a loooong way down there from the US west coast.

Short summary: Who, what, where.

My husband and I (seniors) booked a hiking trip in Patagonia with my younger sister and her husband. We are frequent travel companions, especially for hiking trips. We wanted guided hiking, transport, and lodging provided. After considerable research on itineraries, we narrowed it down to National Geographic and Mountain Travel Sobek's (Hikers Patagonia) trip. Both trips covered both Chile and Argentina, which we wanted, with no camping and no nights on a cruise boat, which we did not want. The only difference we could see was that they tackled the famed multi-day "W" hike from opposite directions. Turns out Mountain Travel Sobek (MTS) runs both trips, and on our fist day we learned why they go from opposite directions.

We decided on March as that was the only time my sis and her husband could go. It turned out to be a good choice---we were very fortunate with the weather.

To meet the trip we had to fly into Punta Arenas, Chile, on the Straits of Magellan. After the hiking portions, they would fly us to Buenos Aires for one night, and they we would fly home from there. My husband and I fly long-haul in business class with miles, so I had to work hard to figure out which airline and program would be easiest to book, and then work at earning the miles through bonuses and credit card spending. I ended up with American Airlines from Miami to Santiago, Chile, and then from Buenos Aires to JFK. We got ourselves from Seattle to Florida and back from New York to Seattle with Alaska miles. As these were separate tickets, I allowed plenty of time between the flights, so we spent three delightful days in the Florida Keys on the way down, and three fun days in New York on the way back. We stayed with friends in both places.

To be continued (time to walk the dog).
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Feb 1st, 2018, 06:14 PM
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Our flight from Miami to Santiago was an overnight flight, arriving around 8 am. As we had only one night before our LATAM flight to Punta Arenas the next day, I booked the Holiday Inn at the airport. This was an excellent choice for the purpose. The hotel is modern and welcoming, and our room was ready for us to check in. A quick shower, a one-hour nap, and we were ready to hit the city. Our goal was lunch and a visit to La Chascona, Pablo Neruda's house, now a museum. We caught the airport bus into town to a metro stop, and metro to the Baquedano stop, a few blocks from La Chascona.

The bus was standing room only. A young man near us overheard our discussion about where to get off for the metro station and offered to help. He was Catalan from Barcelona, in Santiago to do archeology research. He kindly helped us with metro tickets (getting the correct ticket is not all that easy) and boarded the metro with us as his home was in that direction. We thanked him as we got off at Banquedano, and he replied, "Be careful with your wallet."

So you can probably see what is coming. We had a nice lunch at an outdoor place in a complex of shops and cafes, then thoroughly enjoyed our visit at la Chascona. It was rush hour when we walked back to catch the metro, and the first train along was mobbed. We hesitated, then both found ourselves pushed into an already packed car, and ended up slightly separated, but in view of one another. The 5 stops to the bus seemed to take forever. It was not until we got back to the hotel that my husband discovered his wallet was missing. It was a very thin card case, holding only one credit card, debit card, driver's license and $80 cash (we were advised by the tour company to bring dollars for tips for the guides). He carried it in a zipped pocket in front, and it was barely visible to an onlooker. He never felt the zipper being opened. Fortunately it was still daytime at home and he was able to call and cancel the cards, before they were used by anyone, so all we lost was the $80. Lesson learned. (Normally we would not allow ourselves to get separated that way, or to be pushed onto an already full car).

We used the workout room at the hotel and then showered and dressed for dinner in the hotel dining room. Unremarkable but not objectionable either.

Our flight down to Punta Arenas the next day was uneventful, but I regretted the seats I chose. I saw a pair of seats (instead of the usual three abreast) in row 10, and chose those. I failed to check SeatGuru or other sources so it was not until we boarded that I learned there was no window! So we missed most of the gorgeous scenery flying over the peaks and glaciers of Patagonia.

From the Punta Arenas airport we caught a transfer to our hotel, Cabo de Hornos. We met my sister and her husband there, but would not meet up with the tour group until the following evening. So we had an evening and the whole next day to explore on our own. We decided to do a hike in the nearby nature preserve, and the hotel called us a taxi to take us there and drop us off. Nice hike with views over the Straits of Magellen and some birding and botanizing. We asked the driver to return to pick us up at 2:00 and he was right on time. Total for the transport both ways (he would not allow us to pay until the end of the return trip) was less that $10 US (I forget the amount in Chilean pesos, which is what we actually paid.)

Then we met our tour guides, Felipe and Mariano, and the other tour members---only 3, and a family like us (husband and wife, and the husband's sister). We were very compatible and have stayed in touch since the trip.

I will pause here and list the lodging we used for the trip, in order of appearance. All very nice places I could recommend, and one absolute standout.

Punta Arenas---Cabo de Hornos

Then we drove by van to an estancia near the Torres del Paine national park, but unfortunately I did not get the name. Two nights here. Normally the uses the Hotel Torres del Paine.

Along the W trek we stayed at Cabanas de los Cuernos- scenically located near the base of a waterfall, then Refugio Paine Grande at the end. this was the most basic of our accommodations---bunk rooms with bathroom down the hall--but you cannot beat the location and the views of Los Cuernos---the most beautiful peaks of all.

Hotel Lago Grey, on, gusee what, Lago Grey. This is a lovely hotel on the lake. bonus was the heated floor in the large modern bathroom, where we could dry the clothes we used on the 3-day trek and washed in the sink. Dinner here was excellent.

Then we crossed the border into Argentina, and spent 2 nights at El Calafate, in the Mirador al Lago.

Next, 4 nights around El Chalten: two at an eco-lodge (Cabanas Fitzroy) outside of town (this was the highlight of the trip in terms of lodging), and two in town at Destino Sur. Our last group dinner was in El Chalten, at a small restaurant I will have to look up. It was the best (most flavorful) steak I have had in my life.

Tomorrow I will describe some of the hiking, and explain how I lost my hat.
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Feb 2nd, 2018, 05:06 AM
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Thanks for sharing. A part of South America we have yet to visit.
Sorry to hear of your pickpocket experience. It could happen anywhere. I had the pocket of my jacket cut with a razor in an attempt to reiieve me of my wallet on the London Underground my way to my office. Didn’t even notice until a colleague pointed out tha5 I appeared to be wearing an old suit!

Looking forward to hearing about your hat..
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Feb 2nd, 2018, 06:07 AM
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Sounds like you had a great trip. We spent 3 weeks in Patagonia in 2013 and added the 4 day fjord cruise from Puenta Arenas to Ushusia.
My wife still won't forgive me for the hike in TDP. Lots of great memories. Argentina is a beautiful country, been there several times, and will return this April to Mendoza for some wine and to hike in the Aconcagua park. If you are thinking of going, don't wait, an outstanding experience, especially drinking Scotch after a glacier hike.
Life is good.
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Feb 2nd, 2018, 06:05 PM
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This is very discouraging. I just wrote a long next section, all about the hikes, and when I hit "post" it said it has been too long since I logged in. Really? I am still logged in. I cannot find what I wrote anywhere, although it kept saying it had been "saved". If anyone knows how I ca retrieve it, please help.

Not at all impressed with the new format.
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Feb 3rd, 2018, 11:20 AM
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I will re-post one thing. I mis-named the eco-lodge at El Chaltén. MTS calls it Fitzroy Adventure Camp, but the name on the sign at the top of the driveway is Laguna Condor. You can find it on booking.com (of all places) under the name Laguna Condor-Refugio de Montaña. Worth a look at the photos, as it really is lovely and unique.

https://www.booking.com/hotel/ar/lag...e-montana.html
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Feb 3rd, 2018, 03:17 PM
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I lost a part of a trip report too. Save it in on your computer first!

Too bad about the pickpocket...
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Feb 4th, 2018, 09:59 AM
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Please please please - I need it all! We are planning a trip for next winter and at the moment are deciding among 1) planning it ourselves vs. 2) going with a trip like you did, and if the latter, between 1) Mountain Travel Sobek and 2) Active Adventures New Zealand.

Ours will I’ll be part of a much longer first post-retirement trip. We plan to be in that part of the world at least 6 weeks, maybe more.

FWIW, our only other similar trek was our “trip of a lifetime “ (so far) to Peru - we did the Mountain Lodges of Peru Salkantay trek and loved everything about it. We signed up through REI but the trip is also sold by MTS and others.

I’m begging you to continue...
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Feb 6th, 2018, 08:46 AM
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rhbphoto, did you take the cruise with Australis? We are thinking of adding that to our trip. Would love to know your thoughts.
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Feb 7th, 2018, 05:57 AM
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Originally Posted by sf7307 View Post
Please please please - I need it all!
I’m begging you to continue...
Same here. We have started looking at this specific trip for 2019.

sf7307, if you are also looking at New Zealand and liked the mountain lodges trip in Peru, we did the Milford Track guided walk with Ultimate Hikes a year ago and loved it. I think some of the NZ great walks like Milford and Routeburn are built into the Active Adventures itineraries.
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Feb 7th, 2018, 07:28 AM
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hi enzian, I hope you will continue with your trip report. I am going on a post-retirement OAT trip at the end of the month, covering some of the same areas you did. I'm still struggling on what to pack, so if there is any advice you can give about what you took that was necessary and what you wish you had packed, that would be invaluable. Thank you!
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Feb 7th, 2018, 09:31 AM
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Looking forward to more ...........................thanks!
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Feb 7th, 2018, 09:45 AM
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FWIW I didn't do the Australis cruise, but did book a full cruise in the "Zika Year" all the way from Santiago to Buenos Aires that included the Beagle Channel, Cape Horn (no landing) and Falklands (my favorite). The Beagle Channel is a bit like an Alaska Cruise. I liked Ushuaia and the Falklands. The fiords on the west coast of Chile were also part of the route. So you might do your active vacation this time with lots of hiking and save the cruising bit for later on.

My trip report from 2009 although quite a bit has changed in terms of ease of bookings (now everything is on booking.com) and the Seno Otway colony is closed. Plu the old bridge to Las Torres has been replaced (although I guess it's still there, it isn't used by vehicles). And you won't be able to see the photos

Trip Report Punta Arenas, Puerto Natales, Torres Del Paine

And the cruise in 2016 (with some whining about our bird guide and probably too much about birds)

Santiago to Buenos Aires on the Sun in March 2016.

Last edited by mlgb; Feb 7th, 2018 at 09:50 AM.
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Feb 7th, 2018, 11:05 AM
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Thanks for your comments, motivating me to continue the report. I will work on it later today. For now, I will just say that I highly recommend Mountain Travel Sobek and will use them again, probably for a Japan trip. We also use REI Adventures, but I did not care for their Patagonia itinerary as much. I have heard of Active Adventures (I am signed up for their emails) but did not look at their Patagonia trip. I can do that and compare the itinerary to MTS and report back.

As for New Zealand---we also did the Milford Track with Ultimate Hikes. (My husband refuses to sleep in shared accommodations like the huts). We loved everything about that experience but the rain---it rained constantly, although not a drenching rain. Fortunately we had excellent rain gear! The guides are fun and also very well-organized: the inns along the way were very comfortable, and the food was excellent. I asked for "gluten-free" and one of the guides was very attentive, to make sure I received the correct plate at dinner each night., and there was gluten-free bread on the sandwich table each morning for lunch-making.
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Feb 7th, 2018, 01:04 PM
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Originally Posted by enzian View Post
For now, I will just say that I highly recommend Mountain Travel Sobek and will use them again
I really look forward to hearing more about them, and ALL about your incredible journey!

Like you, we loved our experience on the Milford Track with Ultimate Hikes. We also enjoyed the best of times with Enigma when we did the Inca Trail a few years back. If MTS is in the same league as those guys, I'll be bookmarking them for future reference.

I don't use the phrase "bucket list" very often, but I will do so here... hiking Patagonia is on the very short bucket list for both of us. So I'll be paying attention!
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Feb 8th, 2018, 09:05 AM
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I just looked at the Ultimate Hikes website and it does sound wonderful. I'll put that down for 2020!

Looking forward to more detail from enzian!
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Feb 8th, 2018, 10:26 AM
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The Hikes

Starting in Chile, our first hikes were on the "W", an inn to inn trek through a roadless area, in a path shaped like the letter. There are campgrounds used by many, and three lodges, one at either end and one in the middle (the Cabanas de los Cuernos). Mountain Travel Sobek does the first day of the W as an out-and-back to the base of the famed Torres del Paine. The next three days are a supported inn-to-inn trek, each of us carrying a small daypack with food, water, and hiking essentials. We were given a small drybag (about 12 x 18) where we put extra clothing, toiletries, etc. that we would need the next two nights. Porters carried these bags and met us at the inn at the end of each day. We were reunited with our luggage at Hotel Lago Grey.

The hike to the base of Torres del Paine is the toughest of the trip. (MTS runs the National Geo trips in the opposite direction in part to put this hike last, making it a somewhat "softer" trip. Apparently they had some dropouts from the first NatGeo trip because it put this hike first and it was deemed too hard.)

The hike traverses rolling terrain most of the way, and only the last mile is tough--steep and rocky, with bigs steps. I managed OK with my hiking poles, but sometimes had to use my hands on the rocks, especially on the way down. The total roundtrip distance is 12 miles, with 2500 feet of elevation gain and loss. Not a strenuous hike by Seattle Mountaineers standards (my local alpine club) but still tough because of those big steps.

You end at a small lake directly across from the famed towers. We did not have sunshine this day, and the towers were not as glorious as some photos I have seen, but still impressive. We spent about an hour there, eating lunch and soaking in the scene, then started back down. that was hard on my knees and I did have some knee pain on subsequent days.

We started from and returned to the Hotel Torres del Paine, but we were not staying overnight there. Usually MTS does use the hotel, but for our trip they booked a lovely estancia about thirty minutes away. The drive between was a good opportunity to see guanacos and other wildlife, including on this day a fox, an armadillo, and yes, a puma! I was the one who spotted him and called for the van to stop. He stared at us for a minute or two, then glided off into the bushes. It is a rare sighting and we felt very fortunate.

Upon return to the estancia we were greeted by the sight of dinner roasting in front of an open fire---the traditional lamb splayed out on two sticks propped close to the flames. Not particularly appetizing, in my view. I preferred the conger ell dinner we had the previous night.

We had a chance to shower and relax before dinner, with a walk around to visit the horses and play with one of the resident pups. Sunset when it came was stunning.
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Feb 8th, 2018, 11:03 AM
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The following morning, after admiring the little skunk grazing on the lawn by the dining lodge, we drove back to Hotel Torres del Paine to begin our three-day trek through Torres del Paine National Park on the W. This was an easy relaxed day, hiking along the shores of Lago Nordenskjold beneath the jagged peaks Cuernos del Paine. These sinuous multi-colored peaks were my favorite, and we were fortunate to see them from many sides this day and the next.

With only seven miles two cover, and little elevation change, we had lots of time to dawdle on the way. When we stopped for lunch on a larger rock above the lake, I wandered around looking at the low-growing plants, drawn along by one I kind of recognized from Alaska. It is a black berry on a matted plant called Crowberry up there, scientific name Empetrum nigrum. The Patagonia plant had stunning red berries, so is appropriately named Empetrum rubrum. I found patches 3-4 feet across, totally covered with berries. In Alaska the berries are devoured by bears, but these appeared to be safe from predation by anything other than birds.

Much of this area was burned in a forest fire in 2011, but the setting is still beautiful, and the green is returning. The fire was blamed on a hiker burning his toilet paper, but our guide disputed that story.

Where the forest remains, it consists of wind-stunted Southern Beech trees (Nothofagus), which come in both deciduous and evergreen species. The deciduous ones were turning color, and any given tree would have a mix of red, green, and yellow leaves in a nice flashy display.

We arrived at our first overnight stop of the trek, the Cabanas de los Cuernos, in late afternoon. This place has a campground and eight cabins by a waterfall, along with a central lodge and dining room. The path to the cabins from the lodge was the toughest part of the day’s hike, as it was more of a scramble than a walk. After a shower in the central bathhouse, we admired the waterfall and joined the group for our pre-dinner meeting. The guides provided appetizers (prosciutto, cheese, and crackers) and wine for this, all carried by the porters. Pablo and Miguel, the porters, joined us for the meeting and for dinner (salmon tonight).

With more wine at dinner, it was not an easy walk in the dark back to our cabin.

In the night we were awakened by the sound of wind and rain. We had been warned about the notorious Patagonia winds, but this was our first (and fortunately only) experience. By morning the rain had abated, but the wind persisted. Sunrise on Los Cuernos was glorious, but one had to go outside on the deck to see it, and it was hard to even stand up there.

Felipe gave us a lesson on bracing for the wind gusts before we started out, and for once he and Mariano kept us in a tight group, one at the front and the other at the back. When we reached the lake, we were met with increased wind, shipping across the lake and showering us with wind blown spray. Fortunately it was not cold, but that wind was brutal. I failed to brace in time for one mega-gust, and was blown down to the ground. I landed on a low-groaning bush and was not hurt, but my hat (a watch cap style I used to keep my hair from whipping around) blew off and flew far away before I or anyone could reach it. I felt bad about littering, but hopefully it ended up someplace where someone could pick it up. Bright blue,not hard to spot.
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Feb 8th, 2018, 11:19 AM
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Our goal on this day was to reach a mirador (viewpoint) at the end of the French Valley, and then return down the last leg of the W to Hotel Paine Grande, a Refugio on the shores of Pehoe lake. The total hike would be 14 miles with 2500 feet of elevation gain, but because of the wind Felipe was unsure about the safety of doing the whole thing. He consulted with rangers at the campground and they authorized us to continue, but Felipe gave us a choice about that. As he put it whenever we had an option, he would say, “And then we take the decision, yes or yes.” In other words, it’s all good.

At the choice point I was hit by another big wind gust and was blown over again. This time I landed between some rocks and had to be helped out (still unhurt). But that convinced me not to continue. So My husband, sister, and her husband continued on to the mirador with Felipe, and the other three of us walked with Mariano to the Refugio and claimed our rooms.

Here instead of a private double room with ensuite bath, we had a small private room with a set of bunk beds, and bathroom down the hall. That is pretty standard for a Refugio. But the showers were great, and by getting there early I did not have to wait my turn. The rest of our group arrived 90 minutes later, with glowing tales of their adventure. Ironically the wind abated after we separated, so I probably would have been fine to continue.

The views of Los Cuernos from the bar at the Refugio are one of my favorite memories of the trip. There is something about the clarity of the air that makes them look almost other-worldly. The only other place I have seen peaks look like that is in the Dolomites.

This was a fairly rowdy night at the Refugio as Chile and Argentina were meeting in a big football match. Our guides allegiances were mixed, as Felipe is Chilean, while Mariano is Argentine. I confess I do not remember who won the match.
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Feb 8th, 2018, 04:25 PM
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Seriously, this is a really nice trip report, and you’re doing a great job of putting me right... there.

(Speaking of the Dolomites, I can’t thank you enough for recommending those “flying phone booth” lifts when we were there years ago. A very memorable day!)
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