This whole trip is about adventure. Sure, we’re ticking countries off our list of ‘been to’, but it’s more about truly experiencing those places and challenging ourselves with different experiences – some of which are indeed ‘bucket list’ items that we’ve longed planned (like going to the Amazonian rainforest) and others come about more serendipitously once we’re in an area.
That pretty much sums up our experience in Patagonia – prior to getting to Argentina, we had nothing planned for the region, other than knowing we wanted to go to Bariloche, following friends’ suggestions (previous post). We also knew we were meeting family in El Calafate and Ushuaia, but everything else was open.
Once we arrived in Buenos Aires, we began looking into Patagonia a bit more and suddenly we had two distinct goals to achieve – visit Cueva de las Manos and hike the Cerro Fitzroy and Cerro Torre circuit in El Chalten.
We found out about Cueva de las Manos thanks to the UNESCO bucket list app (check it out – it’s free) and discovered the circuit thanks to the plethora of blogs/travel sites that absolutely rave about it. It also helped that some friends confirmed it was feasible for unfit people.
Yet here’s where the challenge comes in:
- Cueva de las Manos is outside the tiny town of Perito Moreno, which only has main buses to it a few times a week (and which we could not purchase online or at the large Buenos Aires bus station). Even once in Perito Moreno, you had to find transport out to the site (it’s a few hours away) – which also didn’t seem to exist online. Logistical challenge accepted!
- The Cerro Fitzroy/Cerro Torre circuit is 30km, with the final ascent supposedly being one of the most difficult in South America (of public trails) – and we’re not hikers. We’re walkers – but urban, live in flat, few hills London. Sure, when travelling we’ll go on nature walks for a few hours, maybe a half day, but in our 13 years together we have never done a proper mountain hike. Erwan is usually allergic to significant exercise and Jen last hiked a mountain while living in Germany in 2002. Physical challenge accepted!
Ok, spoiler alert! We achieved both! But follow along anyways, because there’s some pretty cool photos. . .
As mentioned above, in Buenos Aires, we were unable to book the bus to Perito Moreno and thus, Cueva de las Manos. So, in the capital city, we just booked our travel to Mendoza and then Bariloche and hoped the rest would fall in place. And fortunately, it did fairly easily.
Once in Bariloche, on the free tourist map, we noticed that Chalten Travel was denoted on the Main Street – we read in a blog that this company has shuttles to Cueva de las Manos! So, on our first evening in Bariloche, we popped in. Not only was there a bus in three day’s time to Perito Moreno, but they could coordinate a minibus to Cueva de las Manos the day after and then a night bus to El Chalten – booked, booked and booked! Logistical challenged achieved! Now we just needed to go do it. . .
And we did – it was spectacular!
Not only did the day tour take in Cueva de las Manos, but also included a hike along the Rio Pinturas,
Where we saw these awesome hills. . .
Fun facts about Cueva de las Manos:
- It is 9000 years old.
- The pigment comes from the rocks like the coloured hill pictured above.
- All the hands are left hands, as it’s thought they used the right hand to hold the blow gun that administered the paint.
- Some hands had 6 fingers – can you find them?
- It is thought that the hand painting was a coming of age ritual.
Less interesting facts about our day tour:
- Jen practiced her Hamlet along the way, thanks to finding some old cow skulls. . .
- Jen lost her sunglasses (we think they fell off her head when she tripped on a vine).
- The day was pretty long thanks to the 2.5 hours’ drive out to site and some slow walkers on the hike. At least we saw some guanaco and choique along the way though. . .
On to the physical challenge!
Our night bus from Perito Moreno arrived in El Chalten admits rain and fog – good thing we weren’t planning on doing the hike that day. Instead, we used the day to rest, cover some admin, and set ourselves up for the hike the following day.
Sadly, that night, Jen didn’t sleep well. As some of you might know, Jen occasionally suffers from insomnia, where she wakes up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep. And of course, it occurs the night before the physical challenge! It also didn’t help that we couldn’t get to sleep as early as we intended due to noise in the hostel (our room was just off the kitchen and Argentines eat dinner late).
Despite having only a few hours of sleep, we still head out for the hike at 7am. Our goal is to finish it in 12 hours, yet even if we were longer, due to how far south we are, we still had an additional 2.5 hours before sunset in order to get back.
Jen is already exhausted, but this is the only day for us to complete the hike, as the next day we have to head to El Calafate to meet her family – so we trudge on. Fortunately, she got her second wind about an hour in and was fine for the rest of the hike (or as much ‘fine’ as can be for 30 kilometres).
And thank god she did get her second wind – the hike was spectacular! Even though Cerro Torre was entirely in cloud while on its trail. . .
and Fitzroy was partial in cloud the whole time. . .
There were still photos opportunities everywhere!
And the air was so fresh! Like, breath in deep, savour it, Buddhist meditation level fresh.
The last kilometre was indeed tough – it took us an hour to climb!
And sadly, when we got to the very top, Fitzroy decided to be entirely in cloud and give us a bit of rain. That didn’t stop us from spending an hour exploring the lakes at the top and marvelling the glacier.
It also didn’t stop some hikers from skinny dipping. . .
Due to the rain, we also got some amazing rainbows on the descent.
Also going down, we started to feel the physical exhaustion. We definitely felt the pressure in our knees – particularly the last 5 kilometres through the woods.
After a nice break wading in the waters of Laguna Capri, we pushed on, however slowly we were now walking.
And at 6:45pm we finished! We made our goal of within 12 hours!
To celebrate, we went straight for drinks and dinner. We knew that if we headed back to the hostel first, we would just stay there exhausted and eat our crackers (the only food we had).
On the way down, we had briefly discussed what would be the perfect dinner after such a huge physical feat. Erwan just wanted another Argentinian steak; whereas Jen wanted Indian (after 3 months in South America, she was really craving a good Tikka Masala), with her next choices being either fajitas or a good solid veggie burger. They, of course, were all just hypotheticals since these choices are rarely found in Argentina, particularly a small town like El Chalten. Oh, ye of little faith! The restaurant that we went to had fajitas as one of the veggie options! Erwan of course still got his steak. . .
After dinner, we headed back to the hostel, where despite there still being noise from the kitchen, we fell asleep within minutes and slept a solid 12 hours. Jen does not remember when we last slept that long! Mission accomplished!
Fun facts about the Cerro Torre/Cerro Fitzroy:
- We did it in 1 day, but many do it across 3 days, staying at the various campsites along the way (so carrying all their gear and food).
- Even if staying in town, many hike the two trails across different days.
- The final ascent of the Fitzroy goes up close to 500 meters in elevation in that 1 kilometre of hiking. It hurts the heart going up and hurts the knees going down – and Jen’s got a dodgy one (knee, not heart).
- You can drink from all the streams you pass along the way – they are that pure. Many hikers (particularly the camping ones) filled up their water bottles this way. We didn’t know prior to setting out, so we were carrying around two 1 litre bottles of aqua.
Less interesting fact about our time in El Chalten:
- Erwan picked out a microbrewery that he wanted to eat at the first night. However, he didn’t look up where it was in town and apparently, there’s a lot of places called La Cerveceria. Thus we went to the wrong place. The second night (at the end of the hike), we tried again, but still went to the wrong place. Third times a charm, but we were only there for two days. . .
- Following from the above, the first mistaken restaurant was horrible. It was the only time in her life, Jen actually sent her food back. The cheese on her cannoli had gone off (she even had to google how to say this in Spanish).
- The day after the hike, we had half a day to kill before our bus to El Calafate. Surprisingly Jen had energy to do the small hikes of Los Condores and Las Aguilas, which overlook the town (thanks 12 hours of sleep)! Erwan decided to opt out and thus, guarded the bags at the bus station (allergic to exercise).
Finally, whenever now faced with a challenge, Erwan confidently puffs up his chest and states “I hiked the Fitzroy.” And there are definitely more challenges to come on this trip. . .