Driving the Ruta 40: Exploring El Chalten and El Calafate

Your reward for driving, grim-faced, through hundreds of miles of featureless uninhabited steppe is the breath-taking beauty of southern Patagonia.

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Cards on the table, we did not make it as far as Tierra del Fuego. It wasn’t that much further but getting from Bariloche to El Calafate and back in two weeks was already a stretch.

So we made El Calafate our final staging post, stopping for a few days at El Chalten on the way. It’s not far between the two and by now, a couple of hours drive was beginning to feel like nipping to the shops.

El Chalten

The main reason to stop here, other than that you’ve been driving for eight hours straight and have nearly run out of petrol, is for the trekking.

This tiny town didn’t formally exist until 1985, when the Argentine government made it a bulwark in a long-running border dispute with Chile. While the area has long been a Mecca for hardened climbers, trekkers and more leisurely walkers also flock here these days.

The real pros come to have a crack at the imposing crags of Mount Fitzroy (in Spanish: Cerro Chalten, after which the town is named).

Mount Fitz Roy

I know it looks that way but this isn’t a facade from a film set, honest.

But there are also plenty of options for jaw-droppingly beautiful alpine walks, many of which take you on the amateur leg of the journey towards this imposing peak.

The whole area is paradise for anyone whose soul is gladdened by dense woodland, mountain views, glaciers and crystal-clear alpine streams.

Every corner presents a new and stunning view…

View down the Rio de los Vueltos

Glacial valleys sounded boring in geography lessons.

…and while the walks require a basic level of fitness, there are plenty of places to stop and enjoy a sandwich. You can use the icy mountain streams to wash some of the fresh local cherries you can buy on the way out of town.

Washing cherries in mountain stream

Just washing my cherries in an icy stream. No big deal.

We did the walk from the village towards Laguna de los Tres, a spectacular glacial lake with great views (weather permitting) of Mt Fitzroy. We took a different route back past Laguna Madre (mother) and Laguna Hija (daughter). The circuit took about nine hours including stops. Ideal for anyone who’s up for a long old hike but doesn’t want to do the most difficult uphill climbs.

If you’re not sick and tired of driving, you can also take the car out on a winding bumpy road (piece of cake if you’ve driven from Bariloche) to the Lago del Desierto. From there you can pay a small fee (you’re on private land here) to walk up to the Huemul Glacier. This very steep but short (1 hour) climb takes you right to the lake at the bottom of the ice.

Franki at the Huemul Glacier

Whatever you do, don’t fall in the lake.

The boat ride to the Viedma glacier is a must-do for tour groups but can be missed if you’re pushed for time/money and you’re heading to Perito Moreno anyway. Viedma is bigger in overall surface area but you can’t get that close to it unless you’re paying top dollar for the tours that actually take you onto the ice.

Argentina flag at Viedma glacier

Get a photo from the boat, if your fingers haven’t frozen off.

It’s a hell of a sight, no doubt, but if you’re only doing one major glacier, make it Perito Moreno.

Stay: We stayed at the Kau Si Aike hotel, which I can’t recommend highly enough. Modern, clean rooms, while the mother and son team who run it are simply the most charming hosts I can remember. The Mama (I’m mortified to have forgotten her name) is a supremely talented pastry chef who knocks up the most amazing cakes on a daily basis. There’s always plenty to go round, so you can take them along on a hike for emergency energy. Yum.

Eat/drink: La Vineria is a fantastic cosy bar beloved of hikers, climbers and casual tourists alike. They have a huge selection of wines and beers at surprisingly reasonable prices, given El Chalten’s remote setting, as well as impressive deli platters.

Beers at La Vineria

Yes, the beer on the right has been poured abysmally. We were tired, give us a break.

The music selection in there is also pretty good, so this is a must for an evening out in El Chalten. Make sure to check out the cosy alpine-style pubs serving artisanal beers on the way back from most of the walks. A little taste of the Alps in South America.

Restaurants here are hit and miss but opt for lamb or steak and you won’t go too far wrong.

El Calafate

The place to go to visit the picture-perfect Perito Moreno glacier and the most southerly point on our road trip. Named after the Calafate berries that grow in Patagonia, this is a larger town than El Chalten and more oriented towards bus tours and leisurely sight-seeing.

Perito Moreno glacier

Big. Cold. Blue.

Once again we were limited by budget, so couldn’t do the trip that takes you out on to the surface of the ice. But it’s an easy (and stunningly beautiful) drive to the viewing Perito Moreno galleries, which are pretty close to the glacier wall.

If you’re patient, you are almost guaranteed to see huge slabs of ice falling from into the freezing water below, with an explosive crash.

Perito Moreno glacier

The aftermath of a mega-slab falling into the lake

It’s such a hypnotic and viscerally moving spectacle that it can be hard to leave. ‘Let’s stay for one more,’ we kept saying, before eventually tearing ourselves away.

The wild bird reserve, on the edge of Lago Argentino, is definitely worth a look too. Very peaceful and the bird life is fantastically varied.

Stay: Las Cabanitas

Cabanita

When Franki can touch both walls, you know the room is small.

Do you want to stay in a miniature version of one of Patagonia’s typical steep-roofed houses, bedding down in a tiny, cosy attic-style bedroom you can only reach via a ladder? Of course you do! Make sure to get one of these rooms if you can, the ones inside the main building aren’t much to write home about.

Eat/drink: La Zaina. We came for a drink one night and the chef ended up giving us a juicy piece of lamb he was cooking on a spit. It was a good move on his part because we were back the next night, salivating profusely, for dinner.

Patagonian lamb

Patagonia is no place for vegetarians

The entire town was suffering a power cut at the time, but the restaurant provided emergency lamps so that customers could see their food, while the chefs cooked by the light of their mobile phones. It’s a good thing it was dim in there because Rob’s lamb was not afforded the impeccable table manners it no doubt deserved.

It’s also worth checking out the Borges y Alvarez Libro-Bar for a nice pub-style atmosphere among stacks of books and a strong range of craft beers.

After 2000km of hard driving to get this far, we deserved a ‘We freakin’ made it!’ celebratory beer.

Sharing a beer at Borges y Alvarez, El Calafate

Richly deserved and swiftly dispatched.

 

 

 

 

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