Perito Moreno glacier

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.

 

 

 

 

Caffeine dreams in Salento

We were due to arrive in Salento around 4pm. At 3.55 the storm that had been threatening all afternoon, as we made our way through the Antioquia countryside from Medellin, broke.

Hauling our already-drenched backpacks onto our shoulders, we splashed across the flooded street into the tiny tourist office where we stood shivering until someone was able to call us a cab. I say “cab”. In Salento local taxis come in the form of 40-year-old Jeeps.

Nestled in the Quindío hills and the heart of Colombia’s coffee country, Salento is tiny, scruffy, but oddly charming. The whole place seems to move at an appealingly slow pace and the colonial architecture in the town square and its surrounding streets add a touch of vibrancy to this sleepy town.

Salento Colombia

Outside the centre it’s fair to say the rest of the town is plainer and more functional. Fewer than 8000 people live here and they work in agriculture, tourism, and of course coffee production.

But the countryside that surround the town is breathtaking and that, after all, is why we’re here.

Salento Colombia

We arrived dripping wet at La Serrana, our farmhouse-style hostel, where they have hot showers (our first for a while). The cosy common area, filled with solid furniture and agricultural curios, was a welcome retreat from the thundering weather and we were only to happy to settle ourselves in for the evening.

People, ourselves included, come to Salento for two things: coffee and palm trees. We started with palm trees.

Nearby Valle de Corcora is home to the world’s tallest palm trees. A looped walking trail that takes you through the lush valley, up into the hills, reaching altitudes of 2400 metres, and back down again. It takes around five hours.

We took a jeep from the town square around 11am, arriving around 11.30. The last jeep back was due to leave the valley at 5pm. Which gave us exactly five and a half hours. Time to crack on.

Vintage jeep

The route is not so much a walk as a scramble. It’s muddy, rocky, jungly, steep, wet and in parts you’re following the river so closely you’re practically in it. On our way up we passed a British family with two boys under five. At least two of the party were wearing sandals. I will never know how they managed it.

Valle de Corcora
Oh, and did I mention the dark clouds were starting to gather again?

Still, we weren’t going to be discouraged. We had heard there was a hummingbird sanctuary at the top where they also (and perhaps most crucially) served drinks and lunch.

Valle de Corcora

Valle de Corcora

Like I said, it’s jungly.

We clambered over boulders, scrambled up muddy banks, lost our footing on several occasions and once, while balancing precariously on a tiny strip of path between a barbed wire fence and a muddy trench, slipped and accidentally grabbed a handful of spikes.

From the start of the trail to the hummingbird sanctuary took us just under two hours and after the uphill climb we were looking forward to sitting down for a hearty lunch.

Except it didn’t quite go like that. The “hummingbird sanctuary” is actually the home of a canny local woman who has put out bird feeders filled with agua panela  or sugar water to attract wildlife. And “lunch” is whatever she has in her larder to sell. By the time we arrived at almost 1.30pm, the cupboard was  virtually bare. Options included a single chorizo sausage, mugs of hot chocolate and some agua panela served with cheese (pretty much as revolting as it sounds). We said yes to everything.

As we sat down to pick at our meagre meal, we saw there were two hikers already there, finishing off what was clearly the last of hummingbird lady’s reserves.

“I’m done with mine, you’re welcome to finish it if you like,” said one, pushing a quarter of a plate of seasoned rice towards me. I am not in the slightest bit ashamed to say I took it. And I’m not embarrassed to admit the world looked a lot better after that leftover stranger-rice. Plus, there were hummingbirds.

Hummingbird sanctuary Colombia

Hummingbird sanctuary Salento

On the way back  towards the trail we bumped into the British family with the kids, still climbing, the younger of the boys now riding on his dad’s back.

“Is it much further,” the dad asked. We assured him it was not.

“And can we get drinks there? Lunch?”

We hesitated, unsure whether we had the heart to tell them.

“There’s hot chocolate,” I volunteered.

“Wow, boys, hear that? Hot chocolate!”

And so with happy cries of “Hot chocolate! Hummingbirds!” they continued on their way. We, emboldened (and a little humbled) by the enthusiasm of these two tiny humans, scrambling through the Colombian jungle spurred on only by the vague promise of a hot chocolate, decided to hike on and climb to the top of the hill.

The Valle de Corcora trail begins at the road. You can start in the valley, as we did, and scramble up alongside the river, making a 1.5km detour to visit the hummingbirds, before climbing the final, steep, kilometre up to the finca (farmhouse) on top of the hill. From the finca, the walk down to the valley is an easy two-hour descent down a dirt road with breathtaking views along the way. Alternatively you can do it the other way around.

If you’re not much of a hiker, I’d very much suggest you do the latter because that final climb is killer. Also the breath-taking views are very much cloud-dependent.

Valle de Corcora

Hmm. That said, there’s something wonderfully spooky about catching your first glimpse of the famous palm trees through the rolling fog.

Valle de Corcora

Valle de Corcora’s wax palms are the tallest palm trees in the world. Up to 60 metres high, they seem barely possible as they sway over the lush landscape. The effect is almost fantastical, like a set from a science fiction movie.

“At any moment,” said Rob, reading my mind, “we’re going to see a brontosaurus lurching towards us.”

As we descended out of the clouds, our surroundings became clearer and the verdant, mist-soaked hills rose up before us, studded with these amazing trees.

World's tallest palm trees

Towering above and around us on every side, they were every bit as breath-taking as we had been promised. Naturally, I took about a hundred photos but I’m going to be very self-restrained and only post one more…

World's tallest palm trees

It was difficult to drag ourselves away. But the last Jeep back to Salento was due to depart and we had to go. We made it back to the road with fifteen minutes to spare.

The following day we went to visit a local plantation. Like many tourists, we had flocked to the area in the hope of sampling some of the purest, freshest Colombian produce, close to source.

Yes, as stoners to Amsterdam, so we came to Salento in search of coffee. Our hostel recommended the Finca Don Elias but be warned, the sign is hard to spot and the farm next door does a good line in nodding and smiling at confused visitors as they usher you in to their tour. Just so you know for sure that you’re in the right place, here’s the man himself, offering us bananas which he grows among the coffee plants to act as a pest-deterrent.

Don Elias coffee plantation

The plantation is entirely organic, as it has been since they started business when Don Elias was a young man. Banana, mango and pineapple trees provide shade while their fruits attract bugs away from the coffee and provide sweet compost for the soil.

Beans are picked by hand, and shelled using a hand-cranked machine. They are then laid out in a makeshift tarpaulin greenhouse to dry and roasted in great pans on top of the brick oven.

Don Elias coffee plantation

And if you want to buy a bag of coffee – which obviously we did – you also have to grind it by hand.

Don Elias coffee plantation

All that was left was to sit down and enjoy a cup of the stuff. There are pictures of me doing so but they’re not for public consumption. Let’s just say grinding coffee is sweaty work.

That evening we went out to sample Salento’s nightlife. You think I’m being ironic but let me ask you this, when was the last time you threw chunks of metal at a clay pit filled with gunpowder?

Tejo, the local pastime, involves arranging small packets of gunpowder into a “target” shape in the clay and throwing a 680g metal disc at this target. The gunpowder, as you would expect, explodes on impact and there are different amounts of points allocated depending on where on the target you hit. The pros (yes, really) throw from a distance 20 metres. We tried it from five.

I am and always have been terrible at all forms of sport so I don’t mind telling you I failed to trigger a single explosion. Rob, however, would like me to let you know that he got two direct hits. On the sidelines our new local friends barbecued meat and drank aguardiente  (a local aniseed liqueur) as though nothing in the world made more sense than to combine alcohol, fire, and explosive materials.

Finally, tired, tipsy and with the scent of gunpowder still in our nostrils, we made our way back to the hostel.

After three days in coffee country we packed up and were on our way back to the capital feeling as though we’d awoken from a strange and wonderful dream. Once again we’d experienced Colombia’s unique brand of magic… and, much like the coffee, it’s addictive.

Salento Colombia