March 15, 2008

Patagonia in Two Weeks: Chapter 1

Two weeks is the usual amount of vacation time that we get in North America, and we generally only get to take a week at a time. With one week, or two weeks if we are lucky, most people like to either relax in one spot, or try and cram so much in that you need an additional recovery period when you get home. I tend to travel too much in a given time, but our Patagonia trip was cut short by about a month, so we had no choice but to move quickly. Our reason is that we are coming back to the US for a quick stopover en route to New Zealand. Here is our guide on how to travel through Patagonia if you only have two weeks.

We started the trip on February 29th with a LAN Argentina flight from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. If you are looking to travel through patagonia, avoid January and Feburuary as this is the high season, and transportation and lodging is expensive. If you book ahead, flights are also a good option and sometimes only a little more than buses which can take you several days!

The city of Ushuaia, nestled on the side of the Beagle Channel (named after Darwin and FitzRoy's boat that charted these waters), is the largest city in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. It is the gateway for all the package cruises to Antarctica, and this is the main reason people visit the area (aside from bragging rights on getting to the southernmost city in the world). Belive me, we really wanted to go to Antarctica, but the 10 day cruise runs about $4500 per head, and is a little too steep for our around the world budget. To put it in perspective, that same amount of money for 10 days could last us 6 months in India!

We stayed at our favorite hostel to date, called La Posta, on the outskirts of town. The location wasn't the best, but to be honest, the downtown of Ushuaia is only one main drag filled with overpriced tourist shops and restaurants, and La Posta made up for everything with their large homely hostel. La Posta is family-run, and their son Lucas is a climbing and snowboarding fanatic with great tips on the area.

The first day we walked around town. The second day was spent hiking around lakes in the National Park of Tierra del Fuego, and on our last day we hiked up to the mountain and glacier behind the city that gave us a good overview of the area with stunning views. Both of us were glad to have visited Ushuaia, but if you aren't going on a cruise, and don't care about traveler bragging rights, then I would skip this city on your tour of Patagonia. The National Park is nice hiking, but it reminded me of southern Ontario where I grew up, so nothing really new.

From Ushuaia we traveled 12 hours northwest by bus into Punta Arenas, Chile, the main southern city and place you would most likely fly into, if coming from Santiago. It was a beautiful journey that included a ferry crossing over the Straight of Magellan where we saw some river dolphins! We liked Punta Arenas much more than Ushuaia, but only had two nights, and one full day to explore. The main reason we were there was to visit the Penguin colony on the Isla de Magdelena. There are times traveling when you spend a little more and realize that your experience was priceless. This was one of these times. The tour with Comapa took about 5 hours. Two hours each way by boat, and one hour on the island to walk around and watch about 100,000 penguins. Yes, that is correct, 100,000 penguins. It was one of the highlights of the trip for us, and well worth the $40 per person that we spent. As the crowd of about eighty people moved along with a tour operator, we hung back and sat down watching the penguins waddle about. You can get to about a foot from them if you are quiet. Here are my photos of Ushuaia, Punta Arenas, and the Penguins.

After Punta Arenas, we took another bus three hours northwest to the town of Puerto Natales, the gateway to the famous Torres del Paine National Park. Most people are familiar with the park from the iconic pictures of the three towers (or torres in Spanish). Our first encounter with the image was ironically enough in the Patagonia store in New York City. The main reason that people come to Puerto Natales is to visit the park, and hike the famous trekking circuit called the 'W'. The hike takes four days and three nights, but if you are like us, and only have a short time, you can see a fair amount in two days and one night. The first day we took an organized 'full-day' tour that shuttles you around to the main sights. Not my preferred method of sightseeing as you are hearded around like sheep, but it was the only way to get an overview in a day. The route follows the south part of park, and gives you views of Glacier Grey, the French Valley, and the Torres. I should mention that the wind in Patagonia is ferocious, and we spent a good part of the day fighting to walk short distances. At five o'clock, when the tour headed back to Puerto Natales, we got off on the edge of the eastern part of the park, and hiked uphill for about 4 hours to the campground of Campamento Torres. I should note that in Patagonia the sun doesn't set until about 10pm in summer, so we had plenty of daylight hours to hike. At 5:30 am the next day, I woke and hiked (or really scrambled) up the trail for one hour to the see the sunrise over the Torres. A mystical experience, you see these huge granite towers change colors from pink and purple to fire red. One of the best sunrises I have seen to date. Here are my photos from Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine.

If you come to Puerto Natales and want to hike the 'W', or the 'Q' (which is the backside of the park as well), I would recommend staying at either Backpackers Kawashkar or Erratic Rock. You can easily find a trekking partner, both give great advice on what to bring and how to trek, and Erratic Rock even holds a daily seminar at 3pm and rents gear. Word of warning, gear is twice as much as it costs in the US and Canada, so bring it with you or rent.


Alex Quinn 82 said...
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Alex Quinn 82 said...

Glad you were able to see Patagonia! I went there about two years ago and it was the most amazing trip I have taken. Patagonia glaciers , penguins, mountains, and interacting with the locals were all part of what made this trip magical.