El Calafate is a popular tourist town in southern Argentina, it is part of the Patagonian region and is the gateway to Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, and stunning trekking in El Chalten. There are buses and flights to El Calafate from as far north as Buenos Aires, in the south from Ushuaia and also buses from Torres del Paine in Chile. A trip out to Perito Moreno Glacier is a must which can be done on a tour or simply by catching the bus out for a few hours.
Perito Moreno Glacier is one of only a few patagonian glaciers that are still advancing. This glacier is in a constant state of movement which gives its visitors a spectacular show every single day when sections, sometimes quite large sections, break-off and crash into the water below. On occasion the glacier has been know to make landfall and dam the water on the western side of the glacier which then builds ups and eventually creates a land-bridge and then that bridge eventually collapses.
The shape of the valley and the general area make access and viewing of this glacier very easy, there is a road right up to its face. A substantial boardwalk has been constructed along the shore opposite the face of the glacier which gives you a front row seat to all the action but at a safe distance. If the boardwalk isn’t enough then you can head out onto the ice on a tour with Hielo & Aventura. We did the Mini Ice option which was OK but I wouldn’t really recommend it, the Big Ice option would be much better as you get to spend a lot more time on the ice and see a more remote area. Other companies also offer similar trips in the El Chalten region and they also include ice climbing.
The only thing to see in El Calafate is the glacier so the following day we caught one of the many daily buses to El Chalten, 3 hours away.
Bariloche is a beautiful small town in Argentina which lies on the eastern side of the Andes. In winter it a very popular ski town and in the summer it is great for trekking and rock climbing. Bariloche and the surrounding area is in one of the northern sections of the Patagonia region which extends north to Concepcion, Chile, and south to the bottom of the continent, encompassing parts of both Argentina and Chile. The town itself is stunning and sits on the edge of Lago Nahuel Huapi with views onto the Andes and has streets full of chocolate and ice-cream stores. While here apart from exploring the town and trying the local chocolate we competed a one day trek to Refugio Frey.
To get to the trailhead from Bariloche it is a short 30 min bus ride out to the Catedral Ski park. There are maps available from the information desk near the carpark but they really only show the ski runs which in summer are pretty much worthless. The trail is however very well marked and a map is not necessary. From the left side of the carpark (when facing the mountain) the trail heads up and around the mountain heading away from the winter ski area. It continues south around the mountain giving some nice views back towards some nearby lakes. After about an hour the trail heads west up into the mountain through a forested region before finally breaking out into a rocky and dry valley. Despite the lack of vegetation in this area there is a solid river running through the valley that is fed by a couple of alpine lakes, one of which is at Refugio Frey.
The hike up to Refugio Frey on this trail was quite easy and the views across the lake and the rocky outcrop above are stunning. From Refugio Frey many climbers also set out for what looks like a pretty amazing climb up a sheer rock face above the lake. For the return journey we had the option of returning the way we came or continuing north-west past the lake and then up out of the valley. We chose to continue on and we were rewarded with great views the whole way. This section of the trail was a bit more challenging than the way up and included a bit of scrambling. It takes maybe an hour to get up to the second lake and then another 45 mins to get up over the pass to the other side of the mountain. Once over the pass you are welcomed to views out to some snow capped mountains and a green valley below. The trail then cuts across lose rock for almost two hours until you reach the top of the ski park. It is then possible to head down to a ski lift on the right for a cable car ride down to the car park. By this stage a free ride was most welcome as the second part of the hike was quite tiring. The walk down from the top of the ski park would likely take another two hours, fortunately we made it to the ski lifts just before they shut them off at about 5pm (in summer there are two lifts running for hikers). Once on the lift the workers jumped on behind us and we were the last passengers for the day.
Completing the hike as a circuit, and in the direction we did, was in hindsight a good choice as the views you get are completely different and the return journey was much more dramatic. If you intend to do this trek make sure you allow about 8 hours and leave early enough so that you can make it to the last ski lift at around 5pm to avoid a long walk down the dry slopes.
From Bariloche we did a marathon 30hr bus ride to El Calafate.