Two things are immediately striking about Patagonia: they have some of the slowest, most careful drivers in South America and the sky seems unusually big. The long and straight bus from El Calafate to the small hiking resort town of El Chalten allowed us to appreciate both as the sun went down.

There are numerous trails to try from El Chalten, which stands in a valley surrounded by snow capped peaks, the most imposing of which is Mount Fitzroy, its domed pate rising defiantly up into the sky. As we only had two days of our whistle-stop tour of Patagonia available, and Helen being the ambitious hiker, we opted for the longest option, a seven hour hike to Largo Toro, returning the next day after camping out.

I have to be honest, this seemed a bit much for me. I’m someone who sees the real benefit of a walk from the toasty comfort of the pub at the end, or in the middle at the very least. Add to this a dismal record of rain effected camping and it’s easy to see how compliance in this venture was tricky for me.

Keen.

Not keen.

So, weighed down by what seemed like literally tons of camping equipment and food, and with me in a bit of a stinking state of mind not helped by a rude woman at the hire shop, we eventually got away along a trail leading away from town to the south.

The scenery was picturesque, with the mountains closing in slowly as we rose up though woods and picked our way gingerly across tumbling streams and snow melt. The packs were heavy, and the trail led constantly uphill, but very slowly my spirits lifted.

The careful traversing of water soon became futile. Despite a conspicuous lack of spare socks we were often more than ankle deep in freezing water. With one or two comedy slip-ups, the acquisition of a stick, a careful supply of empanadas and sugary food from Helen, and above all a realisation that it was too late to turn back, I became less grumpy and more morosely determined to get to the camp.

Along the way we passed sights both beautiful and slightly surreal. Throughout the forest there were trees in all stages of life and death. As spring reveals the havoc wrought on the trees by heavy snow, high winds and the other extremely harsh conditions of the southern Patagonian winter, dead trees littered the forest. Some had become almost integrate into the forest floor, others stood as ghostly statues: pale grey and flaking against the green of the living woodland.

Further on, as we approached the campsite, large parts of the mountainside looked like the aftermath of a battle. Unexplained fires had rid the landscape of living trees, leaving only sinister grey and charred stumps. On the ground, rocks bore the scars of burnt grass, leaving perfect charcoal etches on their sides.

We were very tired and our feet very wet by the time we reached the campsite (distinguishable by its latrine toilet and the fact that it represented the only manmade object we’d seen in seven hours). Expecting some company, we found none. The only person we were due to encounter in 24 hours was a man and his 3 llamas, a couple of hours into the first day. This left us camping alone, seven hours walk from civilisation and just around the corner from a rather large glacier. Only in Patagonia. Ominously and true to form, it was beginning to rain.

Who knew it would be possible to boil pasta in sparkling water?

After a tussle with the inevitably broken hired dome tent (lucky I inexplicably had brought selotape…) we managed to cook and eat our heaviest supplies before removing sopping shoes and resting our aching bones. It wasn’t long before my camping curse took full effect. The tent leaked and the light rain turned into eight hours of that big sky unleashing itself on us as we huddled just a few metres from a glacier.

The glacier at Largo Toro from near our camp site.

After a night of sometimes uncomfortable and damp sleep, we started early, determined to beat the seven hour barrier. As it was, a combination of lighter packs, determined wading and longer downhill stretches meant that we were back in El Chalten in just over five hours, wet and aching.

A cleanup and a couple of delicious beers later saw us stiffly lowering ourselves onto bus seats for the journey back to El Calafate under that huge sky.

And now even Helen agrees: if you find yourself with a couple of days to go trekking in beautiful El Chalten, take a couple of the shorter trails where you can carry small packs and you can shower and sleep in a real bed afterwards. Oh, and always remember the selotape.

One Comment to “1 Man, 3 Patagonian Llamas and 7 Hours – El Chalten”

  • I can just imagine how grumpy PB was. And there is only one other person in the entire world who would bring selotape and that is William!! Well done Helen for forcing him to do the long trek.

    Loving the pictures, the glacier looks absolutely incredible xx