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


Feb 8th, 2018, 05:43 PM
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Mr_go, thank you for a reminder of a connection and a very sweet memory. We returned to the Dolomites for a week in September 2015 with our older daughter and some friends. It was as beuatiful as ever, but we did not get to take the flying phone booths!

sf7307, I had a chance to look at the Active Adventures trip in Southern Patagonia, called by them “Condor”. The hiking on the W trek in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, and the Perito Glacier visit and hikes at El Chalten are pretty much the same as what we did with Mountain Travel Sobek, although we did an additional hiking day at El Chalten.

The two differences I see are these:

Active Adventures is a multi-sport trip, with additional days that involve kayaking and bicycling. This is either a plus or a minus, depending on what you want. Their extra activities sound great, but we wanted a strictly hiking trip. We have kayaked among icebergs at the face of a glacier in Alaska, and I was a bit anxious the whole time, although an experienced sea kayaker. I do not mean that to discourage your, just saying that it did not fit our wishes for the trip.

Second, the lodging options with Active Adventures are a step below what Mountain Travel provides. On the W, the middle lodging spot at Los Cuernos provides camping, dorm rooms, and private cabins. MTS books the private cabins by the waterfall. Active Adventures puts you in the 8-person dorms.

Los Cuernos Refugio & Camping | W Circuit | Fantástico Sur | Torres del Paine

Again, just a matter of personal preference, but as I said earlier my husband will not tolerate shared space with strangers, especially after I made the mistake of putting him in the mens’ dorm at Phantom Ranch when I led a trip down there for some friends from the UK. We had the group cabin for 10, plus 2 extra men. I was only able to book two extra spaces in the mens’ dorm, not the women’s, so I felt that as hosts “we” should be the ones to stay there in the less desirable spot. But it was him not me, and he hated it, the snoring, etc. Of course there was some snoring in the group cabin, but at least I was among friends. Anyway, he has never forgiven me, and will not consider situations where we share sleeping space with strangers.

Another difference is the end of the W, where Active Adventures puts you in Refugio Lago Grey, while MTS ferries you across the lake, with a stip at the glacier, to the very nice Hotel Lage Grey.

Finally, at El Chalten, it appears that Active Adventures spends two nights in the town. MTS had us stay two nights at the lovely and memorable eco-lodge I linked above (Laguna Condors) and then another two in town at Destino Sur, which was a quality hotel that provided nice options for dinner. The next night Felipe took us to a local restaurant where I had the best steak in my life.( La Tapera). Of course if you are vegetarian or do not eat red meat this would not matter. We also had one of the best meals of the trip at the eco-lodge, a vegetarian thing of filled cornmeal crepes, with a lovely green sauce.
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Feb 9th, 2018, 07:37 AM
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enzian, I cannot thank you enough for doing that very thoughtful comparison (not the mention your wonderful trip report).
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Feb 10th, 2018, 06:14 AM
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Originally Posted by sf7307 View Post
rhbphoto, did you take the cruise with Australis? We are thinking of adding that to our trip. Would love to know your thoughts.
Yes we did do the cruise on the Australis from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia, 4 nights (Jan 27-31 in 2013). It was great experience. The ship is a small expedition class and I believe has around 125 passengers and ours was 2/3 full. We are not traditional cruise folks by a long shot but the cruise was one of our trip's highlights. Accommodations and service was nice, not luxury but totally appropriate for this type of excursion. We are foodies and we thought the meals were quite serviceable. You do a number of excursions in the Zodiacs each day with a a guide and have some nature talks at night. There is a nice bar. One day cruising you go through the channel with all the glaciers and have cocktails and tapas. We often saw whales surfacing. All in all great fun. I really can't imagine going to Patagonia and not doing a cruise of some sort. It is not cheap but what the heck, you probably are not going back any time soon. One tip that will save you hundreds on the Australis is to book the B cabins. They are on the lower level, there are only a couple and they are identical to the other cabins on the next deck up. They are usually the first ones to sell out. We spent several days in Ushuaia hiking in Tierra del Fuego park, checking out the penguins and some of the outer islands, then flew to Calafate. We used Jim at amazonadventures.com to set up our trip and I can not more highly recommend him. We told him where we wanted to visit, our thoughts and budget and he took it from there, probably one of the best guide services we have used in nearly 40 years of travels.
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Feb 11th, 2018, 08:45 AM
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We were greeted the next morning by another beautiful sunrise, and no wind. After breakfast, we said farewell to the porters, who would walk on ahead of us and leave our small bags at Hotel Lago Grey, then depart for home. Today we had a nearly level walk from Refugio Paine Grande to Lago Grey, passing beneath cliffs where we saw a condor soaring. Felipe said it was a female - he could tell by the “red eyes”. I think he was joking.

After 4-5 miles of walking, we arrived at a high viewpoint, looking over the lake and down to the huge Grey Glacier. This was our lunch and photo stop. The path then descended down to the lakeshore, meeting it at Refugio Lago Grey (bathroom opportunity). We continued on to the beach area to await the boat that would take us to visit the face of the glacier and then down to the other end of the lake to Hotel Lago Grey. This is a lovely modern hotel with a nice restaurant and bar, and I would recommend it as a possible stop for those planning an independent trip. This night we had the oppportunity to order off the menu, so I chose the salmon (Chilean farmed salmon). Not as good as wild Alaskan sockeye, but it tasted pretty good after the day’s walk and boat ride.

This was our last night in Chile. The next morning we climbed back in the van for the drive to El Calafate in Argentina. We were advised that the border crossing could take some time, and there were some precautions we had to take with packing in case of inspection by the Argentine border guards. It had something to with food; I think we were not given our packed lunches to carry ourselves, but instead they were kept together all in a box in the back.

The border crossing is a two-step process: first you line up on the Chilean side to show your passport and the slip of paper you were given upon entry (make sure you keep that with your passport when you enter Chile!). There was also time here for shopping in a little store, and my sister and I bought vials of the tasty Chilean red pepper flakes that were sprinkled on cubes of cheese on our appetizer platter each evening. Then we boarded the van and drove the 100 yards or so to the Argentina entry station, where we got out and again lined up to show passports. Felipe was visibly nervous about this, and became all the more so when one of the women in our group asked him a question about the Falklands. He quickly “shushed” her and said we could talk about it later, but not there. Apparently it is still a sore point between Chile and Argentina. The mood lightened a bit when a Labrador puppy appeared and went the rounds of the line.

After showing our passports we re-boarded the van to actually drive across the line that marked the border. Two border guards came out and asked to see what was in back, but fortunately it was only a cursory inspection and we were on our way. Once out of sight of the guard station we pulled over and Felipe handed out our lunches to be eaten as we drove.
As usual, everyone got gluten-free bread because of my request, but by this time they had stopped teasing me about it.

Our hotel in El Calafate was Mirador del Lago, a few blocks out if the main downtown area up on a hill, with lake views as suggested by the name. It was good to get out and walk to explore the town after the long day’s drive, and check out menus as dinner was on our own tonight. From the path along the lakeshore we spotted some flamingos; not up close but fun to see in any case.

The tour spends two nights in El Calafate so the whole day is free for an excursion to Perito Moreno Glacier in Los Glacieres National Park. This is pretty much a mandatory part of every Patagonia guided trip, for good reason - the glacier is impressive, even to ones who have seen Alaskan tidewater glaciers up close as we had. At the park entrance, we were given brochures for the national park, which are identical to the ones handed out in US national parks in format, paper size, folding, etc. I really mean identical. I collect these park brochures and love having this one from a Patagonian national park.

Those in our group who were 65 and under (four people, including my sister and her husband) got a boat ride to the glacier and a trek on the ice. This activity is deemed too hazardous for “old people” se we went with Felipe and our park service guide to walk the catwalks along the face of the glacier. I had read mixed reviews of these stairways and engineered paths, many saying they are hopelessly crowded. But that was not our experience at all. It is something like 2 Km one can walk, up and down, sometimes approaching quite close to the face of the glacier with its deep blue ice. I really enjoyed this. But I could see the crowding problem start to develop as the tour buses started arriving in late morning. If you do this on your own, make sure you go early!
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Feb 13th, 2018, 12:50 PM
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Our last four nights were spent in El Chalten, first at the Laguna Condores eco-lodge and then at a hotel in town, Destino Sur. As we drove into town we stopped on the outskirts for a short hike to a viewpoint, but it was cloudy and we did not have a view of iconic Fitz Roy, the peak whose silhouette forms the patagonia company logo. On clear days the peak can be seen from many places in town.

Speaking of Patagonia, most of us on the trip were well-outfitted with their clothing. We did see a shop in El Chalten selling it, but Felipe said he finds the brand too expensive (who doesn't?) and favors Outdoor Research (OR), a Seattle company, for his outdoor clothing.

After lunch at a nice local cafe and time to explore the town, we drove out to the eco-camp to settle iin for the next two nights. We dropped our gear in the cabins, strung out in a row under the trees and well=separated by lush green lawn, and then gathered in the main lodge to be amazed at the architecture (hand-crafted logs) and the view---the clouds had disappeared and Fitz Roy was visible from the lodge windows.

The next two days we hiked in sunshine under glorious blue skies, much of the time in full view of Fitz Roy or the famed Cerro Torre. We hiked along streams so clean you really can drink from them (and we did), along lakeshores, and through healthy forests of southern beech, stunted in growth by weather but untouched by fire. We saw very few other people, although the trails are among the most popular in Patagonia. On the second day, we hiked back to El Chalten, to Hotel Destino Sur, a lovvely modern hotel. Dinner in the hotel dining room that night was excellent.

Our final hike of the trip was in light drizzle, a hike along a ridge above the river where we spent the nights in the eco-lodge. I notice the trip itinerary does not describe a specific hike for this day, so it must be weather-dependent. There were options for a shorter or longer hike, and I chose the shorter so I would have some time left at the end of the day to relax and shop for a bottle of wine (not hard to find in Argentina, although a bottle of white wine was a challenge). I also wanted to find potato chips for my husband as he had been crving them the past few days. The only potato chips I could find in El Chalten's three stores were Lays Classic in 3/4 ounce bags.
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Feb 13th, 2018, 02:01 PM
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(I hit “send accidentally!)

So the 3/4 oz. bag of Lays chips was 60 pesos or the equivalent of $2 US. A nice bottle of Malbec could be found for 180 pesos. So that meant a small bag of chips was 1/3 the price of the wine. I decided my husband was worth it and bought both.

Wrapping up—-we liked everything about this trip. I really did leave my heart, as well as my hat, in Patagonia, and I love looking at the photos playing on my Nixplay and reliving those moments surrounded by the beautiful scenery. Of particular note was the camaraderie between Felipe and our driver Victor, who spoke little English and at first appeared rather shy. But the two of them had a routine that often had us all laughing. And once Victor realized how much we enjoyed the local music, he would find some to play on the radio to enliven the long driving stretches.

I want to sure an mention that a fairly unique aspect of hiking in Patagonia is the low elevation, making it suitable for people who have difficulty with altitude. Most of our hikes started near sea level, and I don’t think we ever went above 3500 feet, if that. So it is very different from hiking in Peru or Colombia, or most of the US and Canada.

I also want to mention the name of the red Chile flakes I bought. It is called Aji Molido and it is smoked (ahumado). Mine was produced in Bariloche.

MTS offers a number of other Patagonia trips besides this, some easier (such as a wne focused trip around Mendoza, or a cruise around Cape Horn) and some harder, like the two mostly-camping treks (The Paine Circuit and the new Smuggler’s Trek).

There are many other good companies who offer guided trips in Patagonia, and I suggest you look carefully at the itineraries to find just what you want in terms of hikes, other activities, lodging choices, driving distances, and other factors. If you prefer an independent trip, you can use the various itineraries to help you narrow your choices in activities and lodging. I cannot imagine doing an independent trip without a car, but the driving did not appear at all difficult. The roads were mostly empty.

Let me know if you have questions!
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Mar 12th, 2018, 09:29 AM
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enzian, thanks for the great report. We were just in Torres del Paine in January, and you gave me a taste for what the hiking was like that I missed due to feet problems. although I wouldn't have attempted that much in the first place! We had a taste of that ferocious wind trying to walk to the Mirador near Salto Chico and turned back for the car. Told my husband about your wallet episode because he thought too that if its in a zippered front pocket you're safe.
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