Travel is addictive. The moment you feel comfortable somewhere, you start to wonder where to go next. It’s a craving, pushing and pulling you in every way. Standing still is not an option. So on you go, satisfying that urge, following your heart. That was what I was feeling when we left Puerto Natales. After Torres del Paine, I wanted to stop and reflect, to simply bask in the pleasure we’d just enjoyed, and hang around in one place for a while. But there was Argentina, just there, almost within touching distance. It beckoned like a sunrise.
The road to the border is well maintained. At the tiny outpost, with the sun-bleached blue-and-white Argentine flag fluttering in the breeze, we queue in a makeshift office for passport checks and to ensure we’re bringing no banned substances into the country, like fruit or meat. And now the road becomes rough and potholed, as though the Argentines want to discourage anyone from driving into Chile, and perhaps punish those who did. Thankfully our coach to El Calafate is comfortable enough to soak up the bumps and I enjoy gazing out at the huge dry landscape which reminds me of Arizona. There are guanaco and flightless rheas, like our emus in Australia, and occasionally gauchos appear, herding large flocks of sheep.
Some hours later, after a stop at a bleak petrol station with filthy toilets and a chance to buy a greasy empanada, the road swings down to the lakeside town of El Calafate. It feels like an oasis, with street trees and houses that have gardens. It also feels much more sophisticated than Puerto Natales, with tourist shops and pleasant restaurants, and a general sense of well being. It’s the gateway to Los Glaciares National Park, with its many glaciers, the most famous being the Perito Moreno. Its airport makes it easy for middle-class Argentines from Buenos Aires and elsewhere to fly down for a few days.
We’re staying in a self-catering place, El Puente, run by a friendly woman called Lucia who advises us of places to eat. We spend the afternoon walking around the Laguna Nimez bird reserve where flocks of flamingos congregate and it’s hard not to laugh at their awkward landings in the water, their pipe-cleaner legs dangling. I spy my first Spectacled Tyrant, an unmissable bird if only for its wonderful name. There’s an owl silently passing low over the marsh and endless types of ducks and geese and views out to the turquoise Lake Argentino beyond where wild horses canter through the surrounding wetlands.
Later, we inspect the large monument to the heroes of Las Malvinas and I think of the monuments to the British soldiers that I saw just over a week ago in the Falkland Islands. This one aims for triumphalism with its figure of victory but every war memorial is imbued with the spirit of loss and futility
It’s clear that Argentines love their wine. Almost the first thing you see in supermarkets is the huge display of bottles. Even small shops offer a wide range, most of it from Mendoza, the wine capital. When I order a glass of Malbec with dinner that evening, I’m given an enormous glass with what must be half a bottle of Malbec in it, all for a couple of dollars. I’m beginning to think Argentina is my kind of place.
The next day starts with a trip in a tatty Cal-Tur coach to El Chaltén. It’s a lovely drive that takes a couple of hours around the lake and then across a broad, flat valley with the Fitz Roy range rising ahead. It’s a classic Patagonian view, as famous as that one in Torres del Paine. The outline of this particular range inspired the logo of outdoor clothing company, Patagonia. We stop at the rangers’ office just before the little town itself, where we’re given a talk about the various walking trails and all the do’s and don’ts of being there. There is no entrance fee, as there is with Torres del Paine, but you’re encouraged to leave an amount to cover the cost of the map they give you. Fifteen minutes later, we’re dropped in the town itself.
It’s a curious little place, built in the 1980s after a dispute with Chile over who owned the area. Argentina won and quickly built the small settlement to seal the deal. Today, its only purpose is to service tourism. The little town itself still feels like a walkers’ and a mountaineers’ hangout, not yet given over to the luxury accommodation and First World transformation that Torres del Paine has undergone. I imagine this will change as its reputation continues to grow and it becomes busier.
The real beauty of El Chaltén is that you can walk straight out to the many trails, no need for transport once you’re there, which is why we haven’t bothered with a car rental. Overlooking the whole place is the utterly magnificent mountain Fitz Roy. It was named after the captain of the second Beagle expedition in the 1830s but must have been significant for the indigenous people for centuries. I can sense its power even when it is partially hidden by the ridge above the town.
We’re staying in a self-catering apartment for three nights, the Las Agachonas apartments at the northern end of town. It’s a welcoming and well-equipped place with great views and comfy beds and the owner, Marina, who lives next door, sets us up with a good range of supplies, including homemade bread and mate tea bags. (Everyone drinks mate in Patagonia, strong and herbal and a definite acquired taste, but I love the metal straws with strainers at the end, and the silver-rimmed gourds it is traditionally served in.)
We spend the afternoon walking in the hills above the town with expansive views to the plain over which we’ve just travelled, and to Fitz Roy in the other direction. It feels so spacious, the sky so huge, the scale of everything so grand. I like the place enormously. Despite the dryness and the rocks and the withering wind, there are flowers everywhere, great clumps of pink and yellow springing in tight bunches from every crevice. I can’t help thinking philosophically, about the resilience of nature and the beauty it can provide in the harshest environments. Walking in grand landscapes is always a meditative experience.
Our first proper day is spent walking to the base of Fitz Roy, a four-hour trek each way. While the trail up to the base of the Torres del Paine felt wild and raw, this feels like stepping into a Disney animation. The weather is superb. The sun is shining, the streams are sparkling, and, as we pass through forests of luminous green, we stop to watch comical-looking crimson-headed woodpeckers work their way up the trunks, tapping for insects. It’s a simply gorgeous walk and always, guiding you forward, is Fitz Roy.
The final push is up a scree-type incline that’s hard work but rewarding, even when I stop for a breather and turn around to view the vast landscape behind. At the top, there’s a perched lake, holding all the meltwater from the mountain, much of it still frozen. Fitz Roy looms above and there’s something so perfect about its presence. I’m unable to capture the right word for it. Magnificent, magical, awesome? It’s like the Paramount mountain at the movies and every mythical mountain you’ve ever dreamed of. We sit and eat lunch, transfixed by the view. If you believe in a higher source – Mother Earth, God, or whatever you like to call it – then this surely is one of its power sites, like Chartres cathedral made into a mountain. I have goosebumps.
Returning, we decide to take a slightly different path and find ourselves a little lost. There’s a beautiful lake along the way, though, where we stop to eat our apples and sigh at the view. This detour adds an hour or so to the walk, meaning we run out of water and begin to flag. Eventually, I creep into El Chaltén like Julie Walters doing Mrs Overall.
Dinner is a reviving and virtuous meal at a lovely vegetarian restaurant called Curcuma, where they take payment not only in pesos and American dollars, as everyone does, but also in euros. Which says something about the source of its clientele.
The next day we dawdle over breakfast and then amble out for what we believe will be a relaxed four-hour walk. It turns out to be, as we really should know by now, four hours each way. This one goes from the rangers’ office up the valley towards the Cerro Torre pinnacle at the side of Fitzroy. Some of it is along the track we’d come back on yesterday but today, refreshed and fully supplied, it feels much more welcoming. The birds are tweeting, the flowers are a-bloomin’ and I’m feeling the joys of this place. The final stretch is up and across a rather barren, lunar landscape with wind that tears your hat off but it’s still magnificent, tiny flowers bursting through the stone. We sit in the wind and gaze at the grey water of Laguna Torre and the magic mountains beyond. All the same, I’m glad to return to the shelter of the enchanted woods again, and to see the abundant woodpeckers at work.
Back in El Chaltén, we treat ourselves to a chocolate, coconut and banana shake at Curcuma and then buy fruit for tomorrow’s travels. Financial transactions are tricky, just as in Chile, with many businesses asking for cash, and most bank ATMs only allowing you to draw out a tiny amount while charging a high fee for the inconvenience. It’s a tiny frustration but a sign, despite the seeming affluence of shiny cars and plentiful restaurants, that Argentina’s financial state remains as precarious as ever.
That night we dine at a cosy bistro called Fuegia where I devour a huge and perfectly-cooked steak and down a couple of glasses of Malbec. If you judge a country by its food then Argentina’s large platefuls and big flavours suggest a generous nature. It’s a delicious ending to a great few days. Tomorrow morning we will head back to El Calafate and its airport, unaware that we will waste most of the day waiting for the LATAM plane to Buenos Aires that is delayed again and again for unspecified reasons.
I have loved El Chaltén, even though we’ve barely pricked its surface. Something about it has touched me in a way that Torres del Paine didn’t. Maybe that young woman in Torres del Paine was right, this is the better place. But that’s silly, like saying you prefer the Matterhorn to Mont Blanc. They’re different, that’s all. Here, the mountains are mesmeric, too, and the landscape every bit as majestic but there’s a soulfulness to it all. It’s as though everything has come together in just the right way. I feel, in some bizarre way, that I have been through some rite of passage simply walking here and I can’t explain that.
All the same, I’m excited by the prospect of being in a city again. After weeks of wild landscapes, albeit cushioned by soft beds and cosiness, I’m seeking the balance of a manmade place (and Buenos Aires won’t disappoint). As the bus trundles back across that broad plain toward El Calafate, I know that El Chaltén has made its way into that special place that occupies every traveller’s heart, providing a constant reminder of exactly why we travel.