Part 3: Puerto Ibañez to El Chaltén – Heading south in search of Mount Fitzroy

The Final Leg

This was the section that was tagged on at the last minute; we only decided to go past Puerto Ibañez and hike the section from Villa O’Higgins to El Chaltén when we were at Villa Cerro Castillo. We realised then that because we had planned the onward journey from El Bolsón using the pack-rafting route instead of the hiking route, and the subsequent hitchhiking of sections, we would finish sooner than we intended. We also wanted to go down to Patagonia proper and see Mount Fitzroy, and the hike from Villa O’Higgins to El Chaltén seemed like a good stretch to finish on.

Puerto Ibañez to Villa O’Higgins

To get to Villa O’Higgins from Puerto Ibañez, there was the option of taking the ferry across Lago General Carrera to Chile Chico, and then head south by bus/hitching, or to go back northward to Villa Cerro Castillo and then take the bus/hitch from there. We were told it would be easier to hitch from Villa Cerro Castillo, so back there we went on day 41 of the hike (26 Dec 2016). Hamish had left us the day before, so from Puerto Ibañez, Anne, Omar and I managed to get a ride back up to Villa Cerro Castillo, after a fair amount of waiting time. Hitching from Villa Cerro Castillo onwards (to Puerto Tranquilo) was tough going, and after hours of trying to hide from the blasting wind and sand, we retreated to Puesto Huemul for a coffee. We stayed there for another night, before attempting the next day.

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After more hours of waiting in the morning (Day 42), having tried various methods such as Omar hiding in the bus stop while Anne and I stuck our thumb out at every passing vehicle, and waving a board with our destination to the drivers, we eventually gave up and took the bus that came (CLP 5000). Puerto Tranquilo on the Lago General Carrera is famed for its marble caves (Capilla de marmol, Catedral de marmol etc.), and as we had not really indulged in any touristy activities so far, we thought we might treat ourselves and go for a tour with Eco Tranquilo (CLP 10,000).

Puerto Tranquilo was the first of the subsequently very many touristy places. On arrival in the fairly small town, we saw a row of booths/stands, all advertising for trips to the Capilla de marmol or for glacier tours. Lots of backpackers standing around, waiting for buses or tours or trying to hitch a ride. We found out from the owner of a completo/cafe that all the tours for the marble caves are at a standard price of CLP 10,000,  who also seemed to double as the town’s information provider. She knew the timings and prices for buses passing through as well. We camped that night at Bella Vista campsite (CLP 5000), which had very good hot showers and an indoor area for campers to cook with (their own) gas stoves.

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The provided for gas stove at San Lorenzo 

I woke up the next day (Day 43) feeling generally crap and feverish. While Omar and Anne tried to get a hitch out of Puerto Tranquilo towards Cochrane, I sat slumped beside the post dozing. Little surprise we didn’t manage to get any rides out, but we realised that hitching from south of Villa Cerro Castillo is much harder just because of the higher volume of backpackers trying to hitch as well, and the lower volume of traffic (it was still early in the season). We took the bus when it came around (CLP 6000), which took almost 4-5 hours. We found the campsite San Lorenzo (CLP 4000), whose owner was extremely nice. The kitchen/dining area had two gas stoves for cooking, and he gave us some fresh herbs to add to our food. I slept most of the day, and managed to sleep/sweat away my fever as well, while Omar and Anne went food shopping on arrival in Cochrane.

They had got some bread, cheese and butter, and were looking forward to having some of that for breakfast on Day 44. We woke up to a surprising mystery, with our cheese, bread and butter gone. The pot which stored the cheese and butter was on the floor, but the meat that was also stored in it was still on the table, as well as the pot lid. There was also some leftover butter left lying on the table from previous campers, and that was left untouched. We wondered if perhaps the other campers, a pair of Swedish girls, had eaten our food in the middle of a drunken night, and tried to make it look like dogs had taken them, but they reassured us that they had done no such thing. We did another major food shop in preparation for the higher prices further South. Prices are three times higher in Argentina than Chile, or so we were told. In preparation for the ban on making fires in El Chaltén National Park, we also made some can stoves like the one we used at the bus stop near Elizalde, but an improved version, and obtained some high grade alcohol.

We attempted to hitch out of Cochrane to Villa O’Higgins the next day (Day 45), but the going was slow. We walked a bit out of town before getting a short hitch to a junction, walked another >20km before we got another short hitch, on the back of a pickup amidst some poop, a dead animal, and pots of cooked food to Puente Barrancoso. There we found a pretty decent campsite, if not for the tonnes of mosquitoes.

We had heard from the lady at the tourist office the day before that the bus from Cochrane to Villa O’Higgins leaves at 7am, and with all our luck in hitching so far, thought it might be best to try and catch that bus as it passed us by. It was pouring with rain as we woke up, but the fear of missing the bus was a strong incentive, and we quickly packed up our tent after waking up at 645am and attempted to hide in the bus shelter. It eventually arrived at 845am, though not after we were all soaked to a certain extent. The Carretera Austral is not all road, and there’s a stretch where a water body connects two ends of the road. At Puerto Yungay, where we waited for the municipal ferry to take us across, there’s a little cafe El Peregrines which sells coffee (instant Nescafé, the coffee of the Chileans, but more on that later)/tea for CLP 1000, some sandwiches/cakes/empanadas etc. and various snacks. After a short ride across the river, we got back on the Carretera Austral, and arrived in Villa O’Higgins at 330pm. The El Mosco campsite (CLP 6000) has an excellent reputation, and for good reason. They’ve got really good kitchen facilities, open to both hostel and camp guests. It was New Year’s Eve (Day 46), and we arrived just in time to join the party. We made some stew to share with the rest of the guests, and had lots of wine. Villa O’Higgins is reputed to have one of the best firework displays (in the South of Chile?), and it was pretty good, with a fiesta in the town hall till the wee hours of the morning.

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The village of Villa O’Higgins

New Year’s Day (Day 47) was spent doing not very much at all, mostly cooking/baking and hanging out with the nice people at El Mosco. There are two companies that take people across Lago O’Higgins/Lago San Martin from Villa O’Higgins to Candelaria Mancilla, Robinson Crusoe which is slightly more upmarket and has a bigger ferry, and Las Ruedas which is smaller but cheaper. The lake is notoriously difficult to cross, with bad weather often forcing the ferry services to halt. The week before we arrived, people were apparently stranded on the Candelaria Mancilla side of the lake for 3/4 days (and since there’s not a village there, they also had no food supplies) as the ferries were suspended due to bad weather. There was a Robinson Crusoe ferry guaranteed to leave on this day, but we didn’t want to have to wake up at the crack of dawn to get the ferry nor did we want to pay that much (we had tried our hardest to look for alternative ways to cross the lake but there were none), so we opted to take our chances and hope Las Ruedas would be running two days later.

The second day of the new year (Day 48) did not start out too well, with rain chucking down almost the entire day. If there is one shortcoming of El Mosco, it’d be that they had a policy of not allowing guests to stay past checkout at 10am. It was raining real hard and we had no where to go, and were allowed to stay till noon. We made the most of the extra time and the kitchen facilities we had to cook our lunch and dinner to take away. We took refuge in the village church for most of the rain to pass, before heading to the pier which was 7km away from the village, and found a bit of a grassy patch to pitch our tents.

Villa O’Higgins to El Chaltén

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Our ferry was due to leave at 8am (Day 49), and as the clocked ticked by and no one appeared, we started getting worried that perhaps the weather forecast was bad and we weren’t going to leave after all. Another passenger was going on the same boat, a 74 year old American named Gary who was on a cycle tour. We eventually did depart a little past 8am, with just the four of us as passengers. They gave out biscuits, which made me very pleased. After two hours on the lake, seeing the snow-topped mountains go by, we arrived at Candelaria Mancilla, and continued on our hike. With a couple of short-cuts (not possible for cyclists, but they’ve got a nice wide gravel path anyway), it didn’t take us long to arrive at the Chilean passport control check point. A police officer whom we had met earlier on the ferry at Puerto Yungay was stationed there, and it was nice to see him again. We continued on the gravel path on the Chilean side before the frontier, where it somewhat abruptly transitioned into a muddy hiking trail on the Argentinian side. There, the going got pretty tough, especially if you’ve got a bike. We met a few cyclists pushing/hauling their bike along the muddy, bumpy, winding trail and across rivers, and we were all just glad that we didn’t have bikes. We made camp with Gary that night, and shared our dinner and had some whisky.

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The next day (Day 50), we quickly got to the Argentinian passport control and got our passport stamped, before heading to the 16km trail that ran alongside Lago del Desierto. There was the option to pay for a ferry ride across, if anyone would like to. We didn’t even think of it, not having that much money on us and with the whole point of the expedition being to hike, but there was absolutely no sense of regret, for that day’s hike was probably one of the most beautiful in the entire expedition.

It was amazingly sunny, in contrast with the cloudy, rainy previous days, and we had a great view of all the mountains around us and the glaciers too. Mount Fitzroy itself loomed into view whenever we approached a clearing, and it was such an mind-blowing sight, we stopped countless times just to take a few minutes to admire the view. The forest we walked through was home to the Magellanic woodpeckers, and we paused to watch some of them. We even found an access trail to a little rocky beach by the lake in the late afternoon to rest and admire the view of the glacier/mountains. This however was also the end of our wild camping days, as the high volume of traffic meant that everyone had to stay in designated campsites. We camped that night in Estancia Lago del Desierto (got a discount of AP 400 for three, instead of AP 200 pp), which had a nice indoor area that was sheltered from the freezing wind.

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Our penultimate day of hiking (Day 51) was another rather epic one, though perhaps not quite as much as that day we attempted to cross the pass to Cerro Castillo. Between Lago del Desierto and El Chaltén National Park was a 37km stretch of (pretty bad) road, which we weren’t keen on hiking on (no one really enjoys having a cloud of dust settling over them every time a car drives past, right?), so we tried to hitch to where the trails in the national park start. We had to split up again, since getting rides in threes is extremely hard, and no one seemed to want to pick us up. Anne and I walked for a couple of kilometres before we got picked up by a nice couple on vacation from Tierra del Fuego (which made the weather here at El Chaltén seem tame in comparison), whereas Omar walked 9+km before some kind Canadians finally gave him a ride.

It was raining by this point, as we started our walk towards Mount Fitzroy, by Piedra Blanca trail. It turned out to be fairly hazardous, with lots of rockfalls and a boulder field to cross, and with heavy rain and strong winds, it made for quite an exciting journey. The wind was so strong that at one point all three of us were blown flat on the ground! We managed to get a really close look at the glacier piedra blanca though, amidst the clouds, but it was quite awe-inspiring nonetheless, though we didn’t loiter too long to admire the ‘view’. We got into Poincenot campsite (one of the three free campsites situated within the national park) and quickly set up camp to try and dry/warm ourselves up a bit. Our alcohol can stoves came in really handy and we made ourselves a nice dinner of mash potatoes. The winds were so strong that sand and grit were blown into the tent (despite the fly sheet being zipped up), and we realised why all the other campers around us had huge stones weighing down their tents. And my phone battery died at some point during the walk, but in any case the foul weather did not encourage any photo-taking, hence the lack of photos.

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Our final day (Day 52) of this expedition to Patagonia involved very little and fairly easy hiking. From Poincenot campsite, it took us less than 3 hours to make our way to El Chaltén town, while enjoying the sights. It was another nice day, with a clear view of  Mount Fitzroy and the other peaks around it. As civilisation loomed nearer, our spirits got higher (and our tummies got hungrier). To celebrate the end of our expedition, we got 12 empanadas from Che Empanada (the nicest and cheapest place to get some good grub; AP 20 each) and met up with Gary again. We stayed at campsite El Cuatro Estaciones (AP 120) which had a decent indoor kitchen, cos we thought we ought to treat ourselves instead of fighting the freezing cold in the outdoor kitchen at the cheapest campsite in town (AP 100).

The end of the expedition

Thus we officially ended our expedition, though we stayed on in the country/vicinity for a while more after. We are all grateful to Imperial College Exploration Board for making the trip possible, and to our family/friends for the support. The trip was nothing but eventful, the scenery way more beautiful than anything I’ve seen before, and looking back on it now, actually feels like a different life. The feeling of having nothing more to do than just walk the whole day while enjoying the outdoors is almost fading in my mind. It is not helped by my recent move back home to Singapore, where the contrast could not be starker. But that’s for another post, another day.

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About Jocelyne Sze

I'm a Nature-lover, aspiring conservationist, and wannabe traveller in search of outdoor adventure.
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