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The Puzzle of Patagonia Part II: Donde Ir?

Back in August I set out with the best intentions to compile a series of blog posts to share my first-hand knowledge of the vast region known simply as Patagonia and help educate you, dear readers, on where and when to spend your time in this most fabled swath of South America. Between planning custom trips, developing new programs in Brazil and Colombia (coming soon!), embarking on a few jaunts myself and readying for winter relocation to Breckenridge, CO, I got a tad sidetracked. Without further ado, here is part II of our Patagonia Puzzle series, which delves into the highlights of three of the most popular destinations in the region; Torres del Paine National Park in Chile and El Calafate & El Chalten in Argentina, located at opposite ends of Los Glacieres National Park.

Two questions that I hear from potential travelers time and again are "What is the difference between Chilean and Argentine Patagonia?” and “Do I need to visit both?” ‘Needs’ differ from person to person, so I can’t hope to correctly answer the latter but my recent travels to both Torres del Paine in Chile and Los Glacieres National Park in Argentina refreshed my perspective on the highlights and differences between these two regions of Patagonia . Most people immediately envision the iconic shot of Los Cuernos in Torres del Paine when they hear Patagonia, but the region is much more diverse and vast than this range.

Weather: The sign posted outside a ranger’s office in Torres del Paine says it best; no one has any idea what the day will bring. Pack for all four seasons and be prepared for occasionally strong wind. Weather ranges from sunny, clear days with zero wind and temperatures in the low 70s to sudden bursts of rain, cloudy days, gusting wind and snow. Rarely, however, does anything stay the same for long, so cloudy skies in the morning don’t necessarily mean that it will be cloudy or raining on your hike. Some trails are more exposed than others; in El Chalten much of the hiking is through beech forests which offer shelter from the wind. Torres del Paine trails are slightly more exposed, particularly on the longer and steeper hikes up to the Towers Base Camp.

Landscape: In contrast to the rolling hills that surround the abruptly rising Paine Massif in Chile, the Patagonia you find across the border in El Calafate, Argentina, is one of wide, flat pampas used for ranching. Here the grasslands are embraced by the surrounding mountains which develop more gently into the steep granite peaks of Cerro Torre and Fitzy Roy in El Chalten. The scenery around El Calafate reminds me of Montana, with the rivers, forests and high peaks of El Chalten seeming a bit more like Colorado. To put Torres del Paine in similar perspective, Chile’s Patagonia is a bit like Mt. Rainier in that the Paine Massif sits in isolation at the center of the park and is the most prominent attraction.

Flora and Fauna: Hands down, Torres del Paine is the best place to view terrestrial wildlife in the entire Southern Patagonian region.* You won’t get any closer to herds of guanacos posing perfectly against a mountain backdrop or have a better chance at spotting the elusive puma. Lesser rheas, native hares, red and grey foxes round out the four-legged species commonly seen in Torres del Paine. Bird life is even more diverse and abundant: caracaras; flamingos; upland geese; torrent ducks; several types of eagle; the magnificent Andean condor and countless other varieties of LBB (little brown birds to my untrained birding eye) were spotted in our first two days at Torres del Paine.

Since much of southern Argentina was cleared for ranching, spotting large fauna is more challenging here. However, the large beech forests around El Chalten (absolutely beautiful in fall colors!) offer the best opportunity to see the endangered huemel deer and are very good for bird watching. A member of our group spotted the Austral Pygmy Owl and we were treated to several prolonged sessions with pairs of Magellenic Woodpeckers who pecked away zestfully while we snapped photos at close range. In Torres del Paine the forests are not as large and sadly a beautiful stretch of the park’s most verdant woodland in the French Valley was burned in the fire this past January. It will take a few hundred years for the small saplings already poking through the ash to reach the size of the charred beeches that overshadow them.

Hiking & Trekking: The main draw of hiking in Patagonia is the hundreds of miles of trails through wild, rugged and breathtaking scenery at very low elevation. Hiking in Torres del Paine ranges from short (4-6 mile) day hikes to multi-day fully-assisted treks around the massif that require porters and tent camping. Flat in Torres del Paine is definitely ‘Patagonia Flat’ in that every mile sees at least a few hundred feet in elevation change over undulating hills. Easier hikes generally last for a half day over gentler terrain, often through low beech forests and along lagoons. Longer hikes have elevation gain and most include a final steep-uphill scramble (1-1.5 hours) to the prized viewpoint. Trekking poles are very helpful here.

Hiking towards Cerro Torre, El Chalten

El Chalten is the trekking capital of Argentine Patagonia. Trails here tend to be easier (closer to actually flat) though many of the paths are boulder strewn so you need to watch your step. A few of the best vantage points require scrambling up scree fields for the last mile or so. The longest hike our group did in El Chalten was 12 miles out and back though you can create a longer day by linking several trails and either starting or ending in town.

Ice cave at Viedma glacier
Glaciers: Torres del Paine has several hanging glaciers and the tidewater Grey Glacier that is a popular day-trip via boat. But nothing compares to strapping on crampons and getting out on the ice of Perito Moreno and/or Viedma glaciers in Argentina‘s Los Glacieres National Park. I’m not sure that there is anywhere else in the world that a person in average physical condition without any sort of mountaineering ambition can hike around on a glacier with the range of features (crevasses, ice caves and pools) found on Argentina’s glaciers.
*We’ll save Argentina’s Northern Patagonia for another post The Valdes Peninsula and surrounding Atlantic Coast down to Bahia Bustamante boast perhaps the best marine and terrestrial wildlife viewing of either country. Orcas, southern right whales, penguins, sea lions, elephant seals, mares and greater rheas of the Peninsula Valdes compliment the wildlife found elsewhere in Patagonia. This is a great add-on to Southern Patagonia for photography and wildlife enthusiasts.

For more photos from Patagonia, check out our facebook album Hikers Patagonia from an escorted trip in March of 2012.

Keep on trekking! Your friendly Patagonia expert,

Kirsten Gardner
Part 1: Breaking down the puzzle of Patagonia
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