Our groggy fog from taking the earliest, 4:45am, flight from Buenos Aires to El Calafate could not dampen our anticipation as we traveled the lone road from El Calafate to El Chalten. There is nothing like the anticipation of the unknown and as such our tired eyes had sparks as the SUV pushed through the wind onward to El Chalten. To our left, Lago Argentina, the bluest, most turquoise lake we’d even seen. To our right barren, brown tundra. As we drove north I expected to see massive mountain ranges immediately but no, more brown tundra. Lots and lot of brown tundra. It took more than three-quarters of the drive until we finally saw the mountains, and until you’ve done the drive yourself you will have trust me, it is worth the wait. Imagine all around you, outside every window you see the same flat, windy, brown plains and then you round a single corner and as if out of no-where the most majestic thing you have ever seen shoots up out of the barren landscape, 11,000 feet high, clouds swirling around the summit. This is Fitz-Roy. This is Patagonia.
The town of El Chalten is a wonder. The kind of place that fascinates you. It is a small village and every building seems to either be accommodation or a rustic restaurant, brewery, pizzeria or tapas bar. Our accommodation could not have been better suited to our needs. El Puma Hosteria; aesthetically it reminded me of a western ski town lodge with the crackling fireplace and exposed brick. Its hospitality outshone any Ritz-Carlton I’ve ever stayed. El Chalten is small. The hosterias are small too. As such El Puma gave personalized attention to each guest. The hostesses, Anita, Paloma and Cintia I will always remember by name because after only a four night stay, they feel like family, or at the very least, people you wish were part of your family. In function they are a hybrid of host, guest services, room service, concierge and tour guide. As people, they are warm, patient and even loving in a way that is subtle and lets you know from the moment you arrive, you will be taken care of. Each morning they prepared breakfast. Each day they packed us lunches to take in our packs for our hikes. Each night they reviewed the next day’s plan of adventure, provided us with maps and made sure we felt conformable and knew our way. When we returned from our hikes the fire was cracking and they had prepared meats and cheeses for us to recover from the day. Admittedly on the first day, we returned to El Puma to change for dinner but were so tired from an early morning and long hike, Cintia prepared us the meat and cheese platter by the fire and we never left for dinner. We sat quietly in the bliss that comes from a day hiking the beauty of Patagonia.
I was intimidated by Patagonia before arriving. Patagonia and especially Fits-Roy are such well-known extreme mountaineering locations, I didn’t understand how many opportunities there are for people of all ability levels and ages. Many of the hikes we did were long but not demanding. We chose routes in the valley that meander through lakes and streams. Around every corner seems to be a view of the mountain range more breath-taking than the last. The day we did a hike more demanding route we went to Laguna de Los Tres. The route we took is mostly a valley walk with the exception of a 1km climb up to Laguna de Los Tres. The climb is steep but the trail (like every trail we saw in this area) was well-planned and had clear footing. To say I had a religious experience upon arrival at Laguna de Los Tres would be accurate but it also is true for the entirety of the four days we spent in El Chalten. I spent more time in quiet reflection, gratitude and prayer during those four days than I can ever remember. Maybe it’s the people you meet, the locals who seem so genuinely happy and fulfilled with their lives. Maybe it’s the majestic landscape that has you constantly wondering if you are in fact actually seeing what you think you’re seeing. Maybe it’s the long hikes themselves providing the time in nature to think and breathe. Of course, in truth it is all of these things. It’s all part of it.
When we did the reverse drive away from El Chalten we cried. Two best friends on a great South American Soul Search. We had left a piece of ourselves in Patagonia and are better for it.