Awe Inspiring Argentina – A Video Blog

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

When I set out to explore Argentina over the course of a 21 day trip in December 2010 I was drawn by the stories I had heard of Buenos Aires. Stories of passion, romance, great food and tango dancing so sensual it would leave you with goose bumps. I expected Buenos Aires to be the highlight of my trip, and the place I’d fall in love with during my visit. The embarrassing truth is that the time I set aside for exploring the rest of the country was done almost as an after thought – an added bonus if you will.

Wow was I wrong. While Buenos Aires is an incredible city, the Argentina I fell in love with is the Argentina I experienced in Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia, and Misiones. These regions feature some of the most incredible scenery I’ve seen anywhere on the globe, but don’t take my word for it – here’s footage I shot featuring four of my favorite destinations:

1. Iguazu Falls (Misiones)

This somewhat difficult to reach series of falls is often ranked as the 2nd most impressive waterfall in the world just behind Victoria Falls in Africa. The falls are one of the few “must visit in your lifetime” destinations I suggest to everyone. As an added bonus, if you get lucky it’s sometimes possible to swim on a small beach along San Martin island. Cool right?

2. El Chalten & Mt. Fitz Roy (Patagonia)

The area around El Chalten is stunning. The colors of the rocks in the mountains give off rich colors while seeming to glow. The rock formations are mind boggling and the combination of exotically colored river water, glaciers, and rugged peaks will leave you awed.

3. Perito Moreno Glacier (Patagonia)

This massive glacier is located just a few miles outside of El Calafate. The clean whites and deep rich blues of this glacier are captivating. The towering mountains on either side humbling. The flowers in bloom and waterfalls flowing down and into the glacier amazing. When you visit, make sure to do a hike out onto the glacier. You won’t be disappointed!

4. The Beagle Channel (Tierra del Fuego)

Accessed through Ushuaia, the world’s most southern city and gateway to Antarctica, this video features a day trip out to a small island that serves as home to more than 4,000 penguins from two species. It also highlights spring in one of the world’s most southern locales.

The Fitz Roy Hike – Exploring Southern Patagonia

Mount Fitz Roy Near El Chalten - Patagonia, Argentina

Mount Fitz Roy wouldn’t qualify as a small mountain under any circumstances, but by that same token, it’s not one of the world’s greats…size wise that is.  At a hair over 11,000 feet the mountain has earned a ferocious reputation for it’s sheer cliff faces and near-impossible climbs.  With sleepy glaciers resting at its feet, not unlike hunting dogs warming before a hearth, Fitz Roy stands tall and imposing over the surrounding countryside.  In truth, as I reflect on the mountain and region at large, I can’t help but imagine authors from several hundred years previous taken by flights of fancy,  creative minds compelled to write about Fitz Roy and its siblings the Cerro Torres as the jagged, sharp teeth of some sort of sleeping titan.  A creature at rest with giant maw or spiked carapace protruding violently from the icy snows that decorate the range’s slopes.

Valley Near El Chalten - Patagonia, Argentina

The howling winds that had terrorized us the evening before had died down slightly leaving the three of us to dress, shower, and prepare for our hike.  A light rain threatened but had temporary submitted to the buffeting winds and splotches of sunlight which burst through the clouds in ragged spurts.   Eager to begin the adventure we grabbed our maps, identified where the trail left El Chalten, and began our walk.  We paused briefly at a small market to pick up a tin of spam, several loaves of bread, other small snacks, and three victory beers.  The plan was to hike along the 12 km (24km round trip) path which cut through the foothills and led to a base camp at the foot of Mt. Fitz Roy. The weather was mixed and threatened to deteriorate further, we weren’t in the worlds most amazing shape, and it was already 11 o’clock. I suppose in retrospect, the decision to pack beers with us was a solid indication of the relaxed general approach we were taking to the outing.

Start of Fitz Roy Hike - Patagonia, Argentina

We wound our way across the town and past a small corral which serves as home to a small group of gorgeous horses. Fit, stout, hearty and a little wild, they fit the region perfectly.  Unfortunately, the closest we’d come during our hike to a pack horse was whomever ended up lugging our sole backpack. True to form the pack was loaded down with our beverages, food, and camera gear.

Mount Fitz Roy Hike - Patagonia, Argentina

Once on the trail proper we wasted no time cutting towards the heavens in a steep zig-zag pattern. Legs burning we trudged along enjoying the scenery and refreshing sharpness of the cool, clean mountain air. Before long we found a small overlook and paused to take in the river as it spread out and slithered its way out of El Chalten.  The water was a wonderful blue-gray and the clouds teased at a break in the weather.

Mount Fitz Roy Hike - Patagonia, Argentina

It wasn’t long before we reached the next break in the trail.  A large, open gravel space in the saddle between a small hill and the main one.  The small gap offered a great view down the valley and left us grinning at the pure natural beauty of the vista. It also left us grunting in surprise as the wind blasted our faces, tore at our clothing and ripped off one of the guys aviators, blowing them along the ground back the way we’d come. With an anxious lump in our throat we also noted the visible haze of wind-blown rain drifting further down the valley. As it turned out, it was only a matter of minutes before it found us.  As we continued on from the gap the trail cut across a meadow and clung to the steep sides of the mountain. It was then that a light rain began to tease at our jackets and dampen our hair. Undeterred we continued on, smiling and waving at hikers who had struck out early in the morning and were now finishing their hike having given in to the weather.

Mount Fitz Roy Hike - Patagonia, Argentina

As we crested our first major foothill we entered moss-covered forest.  The slightly muddy underbrush consisted mostly of mixed grasses, blooming wildflowers, shrub, and moss-covered earth. The trees were a mixture of squat, ragged, scraggly things and slightly taller healthy trunks which supported a splotchy canopy.   Luckily the trees offered some protection from the light rain and blocked most of the wind, allowing us a brief respite and the opportunity to pause and enjoy some of the wildlife.  At one point we stumbled upon a gorgeous woodpecker with a raven-black body and scarlet red tuft of color around his beak. He clung leisurely to the side of one of the trees pausing periodically to evaluate us disapprovingly before returning to his war on small bugs and and ragged tree bark.

Mount Fitz Roy Hike - Patagonia, Argentina

Shortly thereafter we came across an amazing sight. As you’ll note in the photo above, one of the trees had literally been twisted to the point of shredding. Set to the back drop of Mt. Fitz Roy, I couldn’t help but imagine the hands of some massive giant reaching down and twisting the tree in its fingers as one might a water-logged pair of socks or piece of straw. It was yet another reminder of the ferocious and temperamental nature of the weather that periodically sweeps across Southern Argentina.

Mount Fitz Roy Hike - Patagonia, Argentina

As we continued along our path we paused from time to time to evaluate the weather and our condition. Though damp, windblown and cold we decided we had plenty of daylight, warmth and spirit and that the weather didn’t threaten further deterioration. So, with the invigorated spring of exploration in our steps we struck down and across the valleys which separated us from Fitz Roy’s base. The mossy terrain gave way to tundra-esque peat and incredible views of the mountains and winding glaciers they feed.

Mount Fitz Roy Hike - Patagonia, Argentina

As we continued to close on the mountain we would periodically pass hikers who had obviously made the trip to El Chalten and the region specifically to hike. As more city-oriented travelers on mixed backpacking and hostel-oriented trips, we lacked the dedicated equipment (waterproof pants, hiking poles, etc.) that stuck out as an unspoken uniform among the other hikers. As they trudged past us – often heading back to town – some smiled, others shot us inquisitive glances and mumbles.

Mount Fitz Roy Hike - Patagonia, Argentina

Growing tired and hungry but feeling tantalizingly close to our goal we continued to strike towards one of the nearby glaciers. Unfortunately, as we drew close and crossed through the main campground that feeds Fitz Roy, we came to the conclusion that it was time to eat, and perhaps call it a day.  The weather was continuing to nag at us and the water and reduced traffic levels had made the path nearly invisible. We decided it was time to ford one last river, pause, eat our late lunch and then begin the arduous trek back towards town and a warm shower.

Mount Fitz Roy Hike - Patagonia, Argentina

We paused for our cold lunch – a combination of candy bars and cold spam smeared across soft baguettes – before beginning our march back. As we chewed away gratefully we chatted and generally agreed that we’d accomplished what we set out to do, and more. After warming up a bit sheltered by a small grove we re-filled our water bottles from the river before turning back towards El Chalten.

Mount Fitz Roy Hike - Patagonia, Argentina

The area near the base of Fitz Roy is gorgeous. I can only imagine that there are a wealth of stunning glacial lakes and snow-covered valleys to be explored under better conditions. Despite the clouds, rain and wind we still enjoyed the small stream’s blue-tinted crystal clear waters and what we could reach/see. The view of rain-slicked, black mountains and of large glaciers slipping and sliding their way gently towards the valley below still rests pleasantly in my memory.

Mount Fitz Roy Hike - Patagonia, Argentina

The return trip was made largely in silence. Tired, cold, happy but exhausted, we retreated to our ipods and enjoyed the 12km return hike. Each relishing the feel and added mystical aura our custom soundtracks offered. It’s amazing the different emotions, connections and feel music can have when you’re traveling. For my part, the silken crooning of Il Divo and Enya served as a stunning backdrop for the remainder of my hike … all mixed in with some symphonic metal and classic punk rock to keep my heartbeat cranking.

Mount Fitz Roy Hike - Patagonia, Argentina

Back at the gap, as we neared town once again, we paused and cracked open our celebratory beers. True, we probably should have drunk them earlier but there were few things more entertaining than the bemused, startled, and periodically baffled looks of fellow hikers just starting down the trail as we approached the trailhead with frothy beers in hand and welcoming grins on our faces.

By the time we reached our hotel room we collapsed into our beds utterly exhausted. We had bested the mountain, but just barely. Legs feeling swollen and ready to burst we relished a day well spent. It was Christmas Eve. Time to find some food, drink, and celebrations.

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The Majesty of Mt. Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre

The bus was clean, modern and comfortable. The view started out fairly unimpressive. That wouldn’t last. As we cut straight across the barren desert we slid past the airport and then traced our way along the subtle ridge line that shadowed the fascinating blue-gray, almost silver, glacial waters that separated us from the Andes. The three or so hour bus ride wound up past Lago Argentino in a large lazy partial U before sliding along the shores of Lago Viedma. Eventually as foothills rose to our right and the lake blocked us in to the left we crested a final rise and were greeted with our first real view of Mt. Fitz Roy, Cerro Torre and their siblings.

Mount Fitz Roy Near El Chalten - Patagonia, Argentina

Contrary to what I’m familiar with, the flat lowlands didn’t give way to low foothills.  They just suddenly vanished. The flat land was swallowed by massive stone Cathedrals with majestic snow covered buttresses. Even as the bus rolled along through the flat lands I realized why the few people I had talked to who had made it to El Chalten spoke so highly of it.

The Andes Near El Chalten - Patagonia, Argentina

As our path began to gently curve away from Lago Viedma I glanced one last time and caught sight of a small stream feeding the glacier, before turning back to the front of the Bus and watching in awe as we approached Fitz Roy, Cerro Torre and the tiny climbing town of El Chalten.

Mount Fitz Roy Near El Chalten - Patagonia, Argentina

Though I didn’t appreciate it at the time I’ve come to realize just how lucky I was. The weather was perfect: Mixed puffy clouds, rich blue skies, gentle wind. All things I’d take for granted back home in Arizona, but in a place like El Chalten? Rare luxuries.

Mount Fitz Roy Near El Chalten - Patagonia, Argentina

You’ve probably seen photos of Mt. Fitz Roy before. One of the most difficult mountains in the world to climb, it is the mountain that appears in Patagonia clothing’s logo and is a favorite photography destination among big name photographers. Though I wasn’t aware the specifics of where the photos were taken I always assumed that they had been edited due to the vibrant colors and reflective sheen the mountains give off. To my surprise that’s not the case at all.  It’s actually the nature of the mountains and rocks. Those photos which seem too good to be real?  They’re the real McCoy and the photos reflect their true appearance.

Mount Fitz Roy Near El Chalten - Patagonia, Argentina

As we crossed the river and entered El Chalten the bus pulled into the National Park station where we were told we would need to temporarily disembark for orientation. Once inside we split into an English group and a Spanish one, were handed a brochure on the park, and a map that outlined major hiking trails, distances and times.  They made a point of warning us that the region was prone to turbulent weather, high winds and storms while encouraging us to be careful.

Bus to El Chalten - Patagonia, Argentina

Properly briefed we piled back on the bus and made the 5 minute drive around the corner and into the city’s bus station.  The town has wide, empty, streets and squat buildings built for harsh winters and strong winds. The entire town has a newness to it that makes it clear that it’s only there because of hikers and tourists.  It has that fledgling feel that suggests it’s still attempting to decide if it is willing to become a year round destination and brave the winters or content to be a tiny town that grows exponentially during the summer.

Mount Fitz Roy Near El Chalten - Patagonia, Argentina

My hostel ended up being on the far side of town which constituted little more than a 4 minute walk. Once there I paused outside and collected my materials. I wasn’t sure how it would go. The reservation had actually been made by an American and Norwegian who I had met in El Calafate at my previous hostel. The town was all booked up right before Christmas and as a result they’d had to buy one of the few remaining private rooms. That meant they had 3 beds for 2 people and were eager to add a third to help with the cost. We had chatted briefly, then I’d jumped on board. Unfortunately, they were scheduled to arrive later in the evening leaving me to check in on their reservation (if i could) early in the afternoon.

Mount Fitz Roy Near El Chalten - Patagonia, Argentina

Unfortunately, the girl on the front desk didn’t speak any English and my Spanish is somewhat…spotty. It didn’t help that I wasn’t positive on either of the guy’s last names. Luckily, I was able to pull out my laptop and call up Google Translate to explain the peculiar situation and why my name didn’t match the reservation. That is, we were able to use it intermittently as the wifi signal was beamed up to El Chalten from El Calafate and tended to vanish every few minutes when the wind blew.  Despite a few small obstacles it only took a few minutes before I had the key to the room and a basic map of the town. The hostel was less hostel and more B&B but would work out nicely.

Mount Fitz Roy Near El Chalten - Patagonia, Argentina

Eager to get while the getting was good, and itching to explore/enjoy the beautiful weather I paused at a small restaurant for a quick Argentinian steak (Bife de Chorizo) with Garlic fries then set off down one of the shorter paths. Aware that I only had 2.5 hours I set a brisk pace and tried to remain mindful of my timing.

Flowers and Fitz Roy Near El Chalten - Patagonia, Argentina

Before long I had wound up over and between the first few hills.  With music cranking away through my ipod I wound through forests of rugged, gnarled trees that stood as a testament to the harsh, windswept winters which mark the region. Initially I was slightly concerned that most of my view was blocked by the small hills between Fitz Roy, Cerro Torre and I. Those concerns melted away as I was distracted by butterflies, blooming flowers and the alien beauty of a small river fed by glacial melt which wound down through the small gorge to my left.

Mount Fitz Roy Near El Chalten - Patagonia, Argentina

Gradually stripping off clothing in the heat I continued to thread my way through forests, small hills and valleys before eventually finding the perfect lookout point. I was immediately both thrilled and baffled by what I saw. A truly unique cloud formation unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Blown by the wind but blocked by the mountain the clouds had formed a near identical, cone shaped, wind swept cloud thousands of feet tall which shadowed one of the main mountains perfectly.  As other clouds blew by, formed, and were consumed the cloud retained its shape and position. I’ve seen similar cloud formations in the past, but always as flying saucer like clouds hovering over mountains, never behind them.

Glacier Near Fitz Roy - Patagonia, Argentina

As I paused and relaxed, I took note of how perfect visibility was. Crisp, sharp, and clean the air was fresh and invigorating offering a beautiful view of the snow covered mountains, river, and glacier. All the while clouds slowly slithered their way along the mountains before being torn asunder by high altitude winds.

Mount Fitz Roy Near El Chalten - Patagonia, Argentina

While there are a number of different mountains in the area, the two key ones are Mt. Fitz Roy which is the largest and tallest and the Cerro Torre. The Cerro Torre is the highest of four sister peaks which stand like sharks teeth with the Southern Patagonian Ice Fields to their back. At 2,685 meters and an elevation of over 10,000 ft it is an impressive mountain which wasn’t climbed completely until 40 years ago.

Waterfalls and River Near El Chalten - Patagonia, Argentina

As I checked my watch and decided it was time to head back to town I paused briefly to take in a small waterfall as it joined the near by river. The multi-colored waters in the region are an incredibly fascinating and beautiful thing. One which adds a certain alien ambiance to the region.

Valley Near El Chalten - Patagonia, Argentina

Once back in town I met up with the other guys and caught up briefly before snagging a quick nap, food, and then heading out on the town in search of drinks and social adventures. By then the weather had started to change and strong winds had begun to set in. To our surprise the winds were so strong and harsh that they would buffet our bodies – knocking us back a few steps. By the time we reached one of the local restaurants we chuckled and debated if the roof would stay on long enough for us to finish dinner. Luckily it did.

The following morning promised grand adventure. We were heart set on hiking the long 24KM RT path to the base of Mt. Fitz Roy. Little did we know what the following day – Christmas Eve – had in store for us. Stay tuned! More to come soon.

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