Choosing between Argentinian and Chilean Patagonia

I had been dreaming of visiting Patagonia for years, but it was always Chilean Patagonia I was thinking of. I can’t even remember when exactly, but I know somehow, I stumbled upon Torres del Paine National Park when researching travel, and I was taken by it. Taken by the steep, spiky mountains so unlike the mountains I am used to. The almost sub alpine climate that resulted in wide expanses of land, though punctuated by interesting tree forests. And of course, the lake and glacier views and waterfalls, which go hand in hand with each other. So, I did a lot of reading about Torres del Paine, bought a guide book that incorporated it, and plotted and schemed about when was the best time to go.

I always assumed that a visit to Torres del Paine would be part of a wider trip to Chile. The question was, when to do it, since I have a list of desired travel destinations, that never seems to get shorter, even when I visit places on the list (I just keep finding new places to want to go). A few years ago (in early 2020 so before the pandemic brought international travel crashing down for a couple years), I decided to FINALLY pull the trigger on my long-desired Antarctica cruise. I originally booked a cruise for March 2021, which would put me in Patagonia near the fall. I always wanted to visit Patagonia in the fall, because so many of the most beautiful photos of the area I saw, had the park awash in fall colors, which I love anyway, but look particularly striking contrasted with deep blue lakes and light blue glaciers.

That however conflicted with my desired time to visit Antarctica. As soon as I booked March, I sort of regretted it. I had read March was a decent time to visit, but further readings indicated that because it was the end of the season, all the awe-inspiring icebergs Antarctica is known for have melted, and the penguins have gone back out to sea, leaving behind beaches covered in penguin poop. But as luck would have it, of course my March 2021 trip was canceled, because the pandemic was still roaring around the world. But in having to reschedule, I was able to request November 2021 (which turned into November 2022 when the Antarctica cruising season was delayed because of COVID), which was my desired time to visit Antarctica, because that is spring, so the abundant sea ice hasn’t melted and provides all those amazing views of ice and glaciers I wanted to see.

Of course, that left me with a less preferred time to visit Patagonia. It is unfortunate for my travel desires that Antarctica and Patagonia are the ends of the world, but not in synch with my preferred viewing schedule. Of course, going to Patagonia in the spring is not a bad thing, not by a long shot. The weather is starting to improve, though it is likely to still be windy, and you have spring flowers, like the pretty and fragrant calafate berry. Plus the spring meltoff means that waterfalls are at peak performance. So it’s not like I was put out when I chose my preferred Antarctica trip time over my preferred Patagonia trip time. Patagonia spans two countries, so while I could see Patagonia in the spring in Argentina, nothing would have to stop me from returning to Patagonia in the fall in Chile (as part of a larger Chile trip).

Now granted, I still had my heart set on Torres del Paine when I started doing the serious research for my Antarctica trip. There is a border crossing between Chile and Argentina not far from Torres del Paine. It is not uncommon to visit both places. However, at the time I was booking everything, the land border was still shut. Granted I could still fly to Punta Arenas in Chile from Argentina, but I wanted to visit El Calafate in Argentina as well, because of their famous glaciers. I hemmed and hawed for a while, but what finally tipped the balance in Argentina Patagonia’s favor were two things. The first was cost. Torres del Paine is fairly isolated, and there are hotels in the park, but the nearest town is a decent drive away. Staying in the park is nice and convenient but not cheap. My desired hotel had a four-day package that would cost me as much as my entire two weeks in Argentina was going to cost me. The second thing is that you can get a similar experience in Argentina as in Chile. Sure, the W circuit is very famous in Torres del Paine, but Argentina has their own famous mountain hikes, and the mountains are not so hidden on those hikes. El Chalten in particular has two very famous hikes to the mountains, Laguna Torre hike and Laguna de los Tres hike. Both are easily accessible from the town of El Chalten, and hotels are much more affordable than the ones in Torres del Paine. El Calafate is a great base town to explore a variety of glaciers from the Patagonian Icefield. Since Patagonia spans both Chile and Argentina, you can get similar mountain views, glaciers, lakes, hikes and other activities in both areas. Once I completed my research, I was very confident and secure in my decision to focus on seeing all of Argentinian Patagonia I wanted, with the knowledge I can always see Chilean Patagonia whenever I wanted. And since that trip wouldn’t be tied to an external thing like an Antarctica trip, I could see Patagonia in my favorite season, and indulge in all the fall colors I wished. It would provide a nice contrast to see the two areas in two different seasons.

Kayaking Down the Rio de las Vueltas- El Chalten, Argentina

Even though El Chalten is the hiking capitol of Argentina (deservedly so), there are other activities you can do in the area. When I was doing my research, I saw that there were opportunities for guided kayak tours down the Rio de las Vueltas. There are all day kayaking trips, but also half day kayaking trips. I enjoy kayaking, and even though this was on a river, this wasn’t a white-water kayak, but rather the larger sea kayaks I was used to. My travel agent booked a guided half day kayak trip for my final day in El Chalten (though if I did it all over again, I would probably put the kayaking between my two long hikes, just to give my body a slight break).

I ended up with an afternoon kayak tour, though I had the guides to myself, because a group that had booked for this trip had canceled. So, it was me and two guides out on the river. The nice thing about that, is that I didn’t feel like I was holding the group back, even though I was slow. The start of the kayaking trip is not that far from where I started the Laguna de los Tres hike. The van took a long, slow, bumpy drive up to where we put in the kayaks. The entire kayak trip was supposed to be around 10 kilometers. The nice thing about this river is that it is pretty flat without strong rapids, at least where we kayaked. The bad thing is that due to geography, the vicious Patagonian winds can come barreling through the valley, as I was soon to discover.

Since I was the only tourist, I got to share one of the two person kayaks with a guide, thankfully. After suiting up in a wetsuit (the river water is chilly) and getting a quick tutorial in kayak paddling (again, I have kayaked before, so I was not out of my depth), we put into a lagoon and paddled out toward the river. The paddling was pretty smooth and calm, and my guide was giving directions on which way to paddle. The scenery was really nice, as I was blessed with three reasonably sunny and clear days in a row (which can be somewhat of a rarity in El Chalten).

The hardest part of the whole trip was the roughly 200-meter portage we had to do from the lagoon to  put in at the river. The water is just too shallow to kayak, so we had to walk. What made it difficult is that the lagoon bottom was very soft mud, and I kept sinking and falling, to the point, where one of the guides basically had to hold me up as I stumbled and tripped until we got to the point where the kayaks would put in again.

The river was smooth, but fast in places, and a pleasantly milky gray blue, since the river water is fed from the nearby glaciers (the reason the water is so clear and clean to drink). For the most part, the paddling wasn’t too difficult. But there were places where the wind kicked up so much, I was afraid we wouldn’t be able to paddle down the river, because it kept pushing us toward the riverbed. But we were able to negotiate that, and for the most part, there were just nice peaceful views as we floated along. After the 10 kilometers, we got out at the camp where they run a lodge. Stripping out of the wet and cold wetsuit was certainly challenging, but soon enough I was back in my warm and dry clothes.

All told, it was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. The weather wasn’t hot, but I don’t think it gets really hot in Patagonia. Dress warmly, prepare for wind (and possible rain, though we didn’t have that), and try not to stumble and fall too much in the soft mud. After days of hiking, it was nice to get a different view of the area. Definitely worth your time.

Laguna de Los Tres Hike- an Alternate Start from El Pilar, El Chalten, Argentina

Let me start right out and say this post is NOT about the full and entire hike. I did a tremendous amount of research of on the El Chalten hikes, because I was getting mixed signals about the difficulty of the hikes. I read enough to realize that while the bulk of the Laguna de los Tres hike was within my capability, the final part of it (and what the hike is named for), was probably a bridge too far. It is true that the final part of the hike is only one kilometer with the hardest part being only about 400m, but it is SUPER steep (like around 45%  angle), and the trail is highly uneven with loose stones, so it is easy to trip and fall. Plus it is often super windy at the top and it is not uncommon for clouds to obscure the view of the lakes and mountains. So even though I certainly read blog posts from older people who have completed the hike, I read enough to know that I was likely to struggle mightily on this part of the hike. And since so many people do this hike, I was afraid of basically holding everyone up, because there really isn’t a way around me. And I was afraid of falling, spraining an ankle, or otherwise hurting myself. So I felt comfortable stating that this part of the hike was not for me.

But once I made that decision, the next decision is where to start this hike. The traditional way of starting this hike (and the cheapest), is to start from the trailhead in El Chalten, which is at a parking lot where the paved road ends at the end of town. Since El Chalten is a very small town, it isn’t a far walk from anywhere. HOWEVER, that would make the trail an out and back trail, with roughly 12 miles hiking round trip. And since I had done the Laguna Torre hike the day before, my body was already sore, and my feet ached. BUT, there is an alternate way of starting this hike, though it involves (at least for me) an expensive cab ride to the start point. There is a shuttle bus that will take there fairly cheaply, but it was completely booked my entire time in El Chalten. I would rather spend the money to take a cab and do one long hike (though the distance was still shorter than if I had done the hike as a round trip). I am not a fan of out and back hikes, because I am seeing the same landscape twice, whereas a single trail provides a continuously changing view.

So, if you want a different view of the trail, you can take a shuttle bus or a taxi out near Hosteria El Pilar. This way will take you up a different trail, past some nice glacier viewpoint, and then intersect with the main Laguna de los Tres hiking trail shortly before the trail begins the final ascent to the top. This startpoint is about a 30-minute drive down a gravelly bumpy road that follows the river and passes other camps and hotels along the way. I knew I was getting close when I saw the sign for Hosteria El Pilar, but then was surprised when my taxi kept going a bit further down the road.  At one point, the trailhead was basically on the property of the hosteria, but when I went, it was a bit off it. I am guessing the owners of the hosteria didn’t want a bunch of strangers tramping through their property, but I don’t know. Maybe there were some issues with the trail from the hosteria, and the way needed to be rerouted for a bit. My taxi driver dropped me off right by the bridge and pointed me in the right direction. The trail is marked with yellow markers every so often, just so you don’t wander off, because the terrain is open enough, where it could be easy to do since the trail isn’t always distinct. The view is pretty expansive at this point, and you are surrounded by mountains, trees, and river. It was a great way to start the morning, even if I was trailing a large group of hikers.

The first part of the hike wends its way through flat terrain and bushes near the river, but eventually crosses the river and turns up. After a short steep climb, I was back on the actual trail that started at Hosteria El Pilar. This trail is very clearly defined and marked with red markers. It climbs steadily upward, though I didn’t find the elevation gain too taxing. Sure I had to take breaks, but I wasn’t out of breath or anything. For this part of the trail, the view is nice forest, but it isn’t radically different from other forest hikes I have done. The first part where that changes is the viewpoint for Glacier Piedras Blancas and its lagoon. It is a small view, but it is a very nice view of the mountains, and a small glacier. By this point, tour groups were congregating on the trail, and I was trying to make sure that I had enough space to myself.

After the viewpoint, the trail keeps ascending, but again, the trail is not that steep. Eventually it flattens out and opens up in a wide field where I was able to get the first view of the mountaintop of Cerro Fitzroy (shrouded partly in clouds), and the surrounding landscape. The trail isn’t the most obvious at this point, but still navigable with the occasional red markers, and you know when you intersect with the main trail around the Rio Blanco checkpoint, not far from the Poincenot camping site. I took a long break letting my feet rest as I drank in the view of the mountains. The clouds weren’t thick that day, but they kept teasing me by hiding the top of Cerro Fitzroy for a while, and then briefly clearing to see its iconic spiky point. I wasn’t in any hurry, because I knew I just had to hike back to El Chalten. By this point, it was mid day, and the steady stream of hiking pairs and groups passed me as they were headed to the top.

Once I was rested enough, I took the main trail back to El Chalten. At this point, I only had about eight kilometers left, but my legs were definitely tired after yesterday’s long hike. Luckily the trail is fairly flat and level, so it was easy on the body. I made sure to turn around frequently, because the only bad part of hiking the trail the way I did, is that the mountain views were behind me and not in front. But I stopped enough to get my fill of the view before continuing down the trail. The wind at time was super fierce, and I was glad I was not at the top of the hike.

There are a couple points in the trip, where the trail diverges, and you can get different views, and then the trail reconnects. One of those points was the taking the trail toward Laguna Capri. The lake was only about four kilometers from the trailhead, so it is considered an easy hike compared to the more difficult destination of Laguna de Los Tres. Laguna Capri is a fairly large lake, and a great place to relax for a bit and have a snack or lunch. It is also one of the few places along the trail where you can camp. I still had good view of the mountain tops.

The rest of the hike was fairly easy, though as I was getting closer, I was starting to worry. I had read enough that the first part of the hike from the trailhead was fairly steep (one of the reasons why I wanted to take the alternate trail). I could see that the trail was slowly but surely heading downhill, though I was still fairly high up with not that many kilometers left to make a gentle descent. The trail was pretty good, if a bit narrow in spots, with some steep drop-offs. The final viewpoint for me is the first viewpoint for most people, as it provides a very expansive view of the river valley and the Rio de los Vueltas.

Much to my surprise and relief, the final part of the trail for me was fairly easy. The trail is very well maintained and achieves its elevation gain through manageable switchbacks.  I wouldn’t have wanted to come up it if I didn’t have to, because it was a steady, continuous ascent for four kilometers, but descending it was much easier than I expected, and I soon found myself at the trailhead with a short walk back to my hotel. My feet were tired, and my body ached, but I had a sense of accomplishment, because I had done two long hikes back to back and lucky that I had wonderful weather (which can be fleeting in Patagonia) and spectacular views to show for it.

This is one of those hikes you can customize to your skill and fitness level. If you don’t mind a steady uphill climb for the first four kilometers, or an out and back hike, you can easily start at the El Chalten trailhead and save yourself some time and money. However, if you are like me, and prefer a straight through hike, when possible, you can take the shuttle bus or a taxi (a shuttle bus is much cheaper, but it may be fully booked on the day you want to do your hike) and start out near Hosteria El Pilar. The total amount of miles is actually less if you start at El Pilar. I personally think the amount of uphill is less, and you get a different view throughout the entire hike. Just be sure to turn around frequently on your return trip to El Chalten, because those mountain views are not to be missed. And while the view of the lagunas is supposed to be the highlight of the hike, it is rather strenuous and difficult to reach, so there is no shame in knowing your physical limits, and not doing that part of the hike. Trust me, there are plenty of other beautiful views to enjoy along this hike.

Getting My Hike On (and Exhausting Myself) on the Laguna Torre Hike- El Chalten, Argentina

If you want to visit Argentina Patagonia, there are two main places to base yourself (though by no means the only places)- El Calafate and El Chalten. El Calafate is where you go if you want to enjoy glaciers, big lakes, estancias. El Chalten is where you go with you really want to get your hike on, and is about a three hour drive north from El Calafate. There are many hikes that are easily accessible from El Chalten, plus a variety of other outdoor activities, such as mountain climbing or river kayaking.

I did extensive research when prepping for this part of the trip. I knew I wanted to enjoy some hiking, BUT I also knew my own physical limits, and wanted to take that into account. I consider myself to be of moderate fitness, but I can struggle on long uphill hikes, especially ones that are already at elevation.

The two most celebrated hikes from El Chalten are the Laguna Torre hike and Laguna de los Tres hike. I read a lot of blog posts about individual experiences with hikes, trying to gauge how I would respond. I came to the conclusion that Laguna Torre is considered the “easier” of the two hikes, so I decided to hike that one first. The nice thing about most of the hikes in the area are they are easily accessible from the town of El Chalten. In fact, the trailhead for the Laguna Torre hike was only about 500 meters from my hotel.

I started out fairly early in the day (around 0730), because my research suggested that the trails get very crowded by 0800. Maybe that is true for the height of the summer season, but I was there in November, so it didn’t start getting crowded until mid-day when I was ready to hike back.

The Laguna Torre hike is an out and back hike, which are not my favorite type of hikes, and the combined mileage is around 11 miles, though I found differing distances listed in the different accounts I read. I knew based on my reading that the first three kilometers were the most strenuous of the hike, since it is mostly uphill. That is definitely true. The path can be flat and easy at times, but it also is the most uneven and precarious in the first part of the hike, and as I was ascending, I could see that I was going to struggle a bit with part of the trail on my return, just because of loose stones or dirt or other things that can make clumsy people trip and fall.

I was huffing and puffing on the first part of the hike, and inwardly wondering if this was going to be worth it. But I also enjoyed the mostly blissful solitude, since I saw very few people on this part of the trail. I was passed by two different pairs, but they quickly got ahead of me, and I felt like I had the whole trail to myself.

Those strenuous for me three kilometers were worth it when I arrived at the Mirador Laguna Torre, a viewpoint that gave me my first taste of the mountains, especially Cerro Torre off in the distance and the forest spread out before me. It was an inspiring sight to see, and the weather was perfect- sunny and clear. After taking it all in for several minutes, and wanting to stay ahead of the groups that were starting to catch up to me, I continued on. After climbing up for the first three kilometers of the hike, the trail after the viewpoint descends for about another kilometer, which I welcomed, though mindful that I would have to ascend the trail on the way back.

After the fourth kilometer, the trail gets markedly easier. It is pretty flat by this point, and easy to navigate. For the most part, the trail is pretty level, which means I could enjoy the view around me, and didn’t have to keep staring at the ground hoping I didn’t trip over something. That allowed me to really drink in the mountains as I was getting closer to them, and the surrounding forest.

The trail is fairly easy to follow most of the time, though sometimes when going through rock fields, you have to keep an eye on what is actually the trail. But it is near impossible to get lost on this trail, since there really aren’t other social trails drifting off any length of distance. I crossed a small creek, and I knew I was getting close. A very nice thing about this trail, is that it is clearly marked with signs every kilometer. It tells you what kilometer you are on, and how many kilometers in total to your destination (e.g. Kilometer 5 of 9). At the beginning, I found it somewhat demoralizing, only because I thought I was much farther on the trail, only to realize that I had only walked two kilometers of nine. But once the trail flattened out and became easier, the kilometer markings seemed to fly by, and it was heartening to see me getting closer.

The final part of the hike is a short hike up the rocks until you are overlooking Laguna Torre. That view makes any sort of huffing and puffing worth it. I knew this lake is not a brilliant blue like Laguna de Los Tres, but the spiky mountains look close enough to touch, and the lake had a wide variety of icebergs floating from the glacier by the lake. Truthfully I thought was even better than what I was expecting.

When I first arrived at the lake, there weren’t many people already there. I had only been passed a small number of times, much to my surprise. So at first I felt like I almost had the lake to myself. I just sat by the lake taking it all in. It was only about midday, and the only thing I had left was to walk back, so I was in no hurry to finish my lunch. Of course the longer I stayed there, the more and more people started arriving, especially those large walking groups.

Eventually I decided I had my fill of the view and was ready to return before the trail became clogged with hikers. By this time, my body was feeling the walk, and I knew I still had nine kilometers to go (a bit more when factoring in the walk from the trailhead back to my hotel). Thankfully the first five of those kilometers were the flat and easy part of the trail. Those parts flew by. Things started to slow down for me when I hit the fourth kilometer and I had the slow slog back up to the viewpoint.

After resting a bit, I finished the final three kilometers, but it was those three that were the hardest. This is the part of the trail I was getting passed left and right by spry, fit hikers as I was carefully placing my feet and maneuvering through uneven terrain, and by that point, I was tired and over the hike. But thankfully enough I found myself at the road without falling or twisting an ankle. From there, it was a slow walk back to my hotel where I could indulge in a welcome shower and a nap.

Overall, I am glad I did the hike, though part of me was cursing the hike as I was doing it. If I of moderate fitness could make it without my feet falling off, so can most people. If you can make it through the first three kilometers (and they aren’t THAT strenuous in the grand scheme of thins, but if you aren’t pretty fit, you will feel the uphill and the uneven terrain), the rest of it is a piece of cake. And of course, the views are worth it. Even though I have spent a fair amount of time in the mountains, the mountains of Patagonia look so different from the Cascade Mountains I am used to, that the view was an absolute delight.

Beautiful Glaciers and Lakes- El Calafate, Argentina

My second full day in El Calafate was also about glaciers, though a different view of them. This trip took me further afield, but provided some really nice views. I knew from my research, I wanted to take a cruise on Lago Argentina, and get views of the Upsala Glacier. I wanted to get as many glacier views as possible, since that is not something I readily have access to at home.

My travel agent recommended an all day tour that incorporated a boat tour of the lake with glacier views, with the afternoon at Estancia Cristina, which is an old isolated sheep farm that has converted into a hotel. I figured why not.

The morning started with a gray, chilly (the clouds were low and rolling in) boat cruise on Lago Argentina as we traveled all the way up the lake where the Uppsala Glacier is breaking off into the lake. The glacier views weren’t as big as the Perito Moreno Glacier from the day before, but we were able to get pretty close to the icebergs and glacier chunks floating in the lake. Some of them had the bluish tint of ice and were in a wide variety of shapes. It sorted of reminded me of Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon in Iceland.

After the glacier viewing, we boated up to the dock of Estancia Cristina. We had a very nice, leisurely lunch at the hotel.

After lunch we boarded these converted 4×4 vehicles for the slow, at times precarious trip up for a short hike. The road was very rutted, and the vehicle swayed a lot, which could be a bit nerve wracking at times, since I was seated on the side with the steep drop off. Even though I pictured us losing control and rolling down the hill, nothing of the kind happened, and eventually we arrived at the continental ice shelter where we started our walk.

The walk wasn’t especially difficult, though it could be a bit tricky at times, just because of the rocks. Plus the whipping wind didn’t help matters, but it was all part of the experience. After about a 30 minute walk, we arrived at the overlook of Lake Guillermo. It was quite the sight to behold, even with the low clouds obscuring the sun. The lake was this brilliant shade of blue. Off in the distance, we could see the icefield, which was the starting point of the Upsala Glacier that we saw breaking up in the lake earlier in the day.

This particular trip will result in a very full day, because we didn’t get back to El Calafate until later in the evening before dinner. But the sights you will see make it worth it for a long trip.

Mini Trek Perito Moreno Glacier- El Calafate, Argentina

When I originally started planning my trip to Antarctica, it was back in early 2020, before the pandemic was really a thing. So of course I wanted to combine the trip to Antarctica with a trip to Patagonia, because both feel like they are at the end of the world. Why take two super long flights at different times (with the accompanying cost of two round trip airline tickets), when you combine everything into one trip? I had been dreaming of Patagonia for years, specifically Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia. However, at the initial time of my planning for this trip, I decided to make things easy on myself traveling at the tail end of COVID, so I decided to enjoy Argentinian Patagonia rather than Chilean Patagonia. The views are very similar in both countries. Both have the spiky, unique looking mountains, huge awe inspiring glaciers, frigid alpine lakes, and great hiking. The bonus in staying in Argentina is that I think costs are much lower than in Chile.

It is super easy to get a flight to El Calafate, and the town isn’t THAT far from the airport. I decided to spend two full days in El Calafate (not counting my arrival day), enjoying the massive glaciers before heading further afield to El Chalten for hiking. El Calafate makes a great base town to view the immediate areas. Having a car is fairly easy here, because the roads are good, but it isn’t necessary as there are ample bus tours that will take you where you want to go.

My first full day in El Calafate was an all day trip out to Los Glaciares National Park, which is about a two hour drive from the town. There are a wide variety of tours from simple bus tours out to the glacier overlooks, all the way to a full day excursion of trekking on the Perito Moreno Glacier. I opted for the middle offering, which was a 1.5 hour adventure trekking on the glacier, followed by an afternoon at the glacier overlooks.

We started out with the glacier mini trekking, which involved taking a boat trip from the dock out to the hut near the glacier. From afar, the view of the glacier was cool, but it gets downright eye popping as you get close to it. The glacier is huge, goes back for miles into the mountains, and has this very beautiful blue hue to it. I had seen pictures of the glacier before, but it is quite the sight to see up close and personal. I had never seen a glacier this size before, and we got to walk on it for a bit.

The trip out on the ice was pretty straightforward. The guides outfit your feet with crampons, and you follow the marked path as part of the guided group. You certainly aren’t out wandering around alone, or walking in an unsafe area. The time on the ice involved some walking up and down the glacier, peering into crevasses, marveling at the blue color of the ice in part, and the blue water, and even getting to view an ice cave.

On the ice, you can really only see a small part in front of you, as the glacier goes up and back more than we saw. But it is still an intimate look at the ice and the view is amazing. I was afraid I would trip and fall and make an ass of myself, as I am wont to do, but I stayed upright for the entire trip. It helped that we were moving at a fairly slow pace, and some artificial handrails were put in for more precarious parts of the trail. The crampons were very effective at gripping the ice, so there was never a danger of slipping and falling.

After the guided tour of the glacier, we walked back on a boardwalked trail on our own to the hut where we enjoyed lunch until the boat returned to take us back to the dock. For the second part of our tour, we stopped at the boardwalk overlooks that face the glacier. It is a different view of the glacier, and even though you were some distance away, the glacier was big enough that it felt like it was in your face.

We only had a little over an hour of free time to walk the boardwalks. That was not enough time to walk every part of the boardwalk, but it was more than enough time to walk and get really great angles to see the glacier and the lake. We even saw some small glacier calving at times, and it is an eerie sound, but cool to observe. I would have stayed longer if I could, but I don’t feel like I missed anything. I just loved contemplating the glacier and seeing this dramatic, colorful view.

A trip out to Perito Moreno Glacier is almost required if you stay in El Calafate, because it is the essential thing in the area. It is absolutely worth your time. Getting to the park is easy enough if you are independent and have your own car. But there is a plethora of different bus tours to take you out there to enjoy the park. I am glad I got to do the more physically challenging mini trekking, but also having time to take in the views.

The Panoramic View of Iguacu Falls- Brazil side

I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered the majority of Iguazu Falls was in Argentina, because when I first learned about the falls from the Brazil side. Of course, the travel completist in me wanted to see both sides. But when I was imagining going to Iguazu, I was under the assumption that Brazil and America still had a fairly restrictive reciprocal visa policy in place, where it cost a decent chunk of money to visit Brazil, and Americans have to get a visa in advance. So when I had to make my pivot to incorporating Iguazu into my Argentina vacation, I assumed I wouldn’t be able to readily visit Brazil, because I wouldn’t have enough time to secure a visa. However, when I was talking with someone I met on my cruise and he was saying he was going to visit Brazil after the cruise, I asked about the cost of the visa, and he said that policy had been rescinded and you didn’t need a visa beforehand to visit Brazil as an American.

That opened up another whole day of possibility for my Iguazu excursion. It was easy to incorporate a day trip to Brazil on a guided tour to see those falls. Only about one third of Iguazu Falls are in Brazil, so I knew a trip there wouldn’t necessarily take all day. In fact from what I have seen, most of the day trips from Argentina to Brazil to see the falls are really only about a half day. Literally three countries converge at the meeting point of the Iguazu and Parana rivers, so Brazil is just across the bridge. Because we aren’t locals, we did need to clear passport control when entering Brazil to get our passports stamped, but that process only took about 20 minutes of waiting while our guide got them all done at once. That was actually a relief, because when I was talking to a woman the day prior on the Argentina guided tour, she had gone to Brazil the day prior on a guided tour, and it took her group 90 minutes of waiting to get their passports stamped.

So we were off and running a lot sooner than I feared, and the entrance to the park isn’t far from the border. As usual, you have to buy your own entry ticket (unless the ticket is included in the price of your excursion, which in my case, it wasn’t). Luckily the line wasn’t long. We arrived not long after the park opened, and again, this wasn’t peak tourist season for falls visiting.

After that, you get on a park bus that will stop at a variety of places. Brazil has a complementary river adventure to the falls like Argentina, and there is a trail you can access the pier. But the majority of people will get off at the bus stop across from the large pink Hotel Belmond Das Cataratas. The vast majority of visitors will traverse the 1.5 kilometer paved trail that starts with a frontal view of Tres Masqueteros falls and moves up the river, culminating in a close up view of Garganta del Diablo. Like with my visit to the Argentine side, I kept having to stop and gawk at the view and take pictures. The water flow was high so that provided a lot of visual drama when observing the falls. The rock formations and trees around the falls added to the picturesque nature of the site. However, unlike my independent trip to the Argentine side, I was part of a group tour, and even though we didn’t have to stay together as a group, I was mindful of how long we had before we were expected to meet back up at the bus stop. Not wanting to lose time on seeing the grand finale of the walk, I tried not to stare too long in any one place.

The culmination of the walk is the boardwalk out so you are facing Garganta del Diablo head on. I honestly didn’t have a super clear view of that part (which is the most thunderous part of the falls), because the mist from the spray and the wind was so strong as to obscure the view. This is also the part where you can get pretty wet if you want to. If you don’t, it’s probably best not to go far out on the boardwalk (you’ll know when you are about to get wet). But if you do go out, you can either just get pleasantly drenched, or you can don a plastic raincoat (they are sold everywhere in the park) to stay somewhat dry. I originally pooh poohed the idea of a raincoat, because I didn’t mind getting wet. However, I really didn’t want to get my backpack and all its stuff wet, so thankfully one of the fellow tourists on my trip gave me their throwaway rain poncho when they were done using it.

The walk out on the boardwalk is very scenic, as this is the closest you are to the waterfalls on the Brazil side, and you are looking up at the falls flowing down in front of you. And yes, you can get super wet if you walk all the way out to the end. As much as I wanted to stay longer, the mist constantly blowing in my face was a bit distracting, so I walked back to a drier vantage point.

Once you have had your fill of this view, that is pretty much the end of the path. There is an elevator that goes up to the top where the bus stop is, or there is a paved path that will go up. Since the wait for the elevator was long, and I was running short on time, I elected to take the walking path, which wasn’t as steep as I feared, even though it is all uphill. Honestly, anyone of moderate level of fitness should have no problem with that. Whether you take the elevator or the path, you will end up in the same place, with an overlook at the far left part of the falls.

That is pretty much it for the visit to the Brazil side of Iguazu Falls. It made for a nice half day excursion. Even though we were on a timetable, I didn’t feel overly rushed or feel like I missed any view. There is a lot to take in, but there is enough time to do so.

Visiting the Brazil side of Iguazu National Park is a rather different experience than visiting the Brazil side. In Argentina, the trails take you much more up close and personal with the falls, and much of the trail is just over the falls, so you can see them close up. Brazil is the place to see the falls from a distance and take in the wide panoramic view of the falls. It is a good companion piece to Argentina. From Argentina you see the falls and the rushing river from a more personal vantage point, but Brazil gives you the full breadth of the expanse of the falls, which are almost three kilometers wide. The visits are complementary, and I would recommend visiting both (on different days, otherwise you feel rushed trying to fit in both parks with a border crossing before the park closes at 1800). Of course if forced to choose only  one, I would recommend Argentina, just because of the closer view of the falls. I was very pleased I had the opportunity to visit Iguazu, and take advantage of the change in my itinerary to do so. Even with the heat (I pretty much hate heat and humidity), the trip was a delight. Though keep in mind if you visit Argentina, the Iguazu area has a much more tropical rain forest climate, so pack accordingly, if you are going to other, rather different climates in Argentina, like Patagonia or Tierra del Fuego.

Thrilling and Refreshing Iguazu Falls River Adventure

The next day in Iguazu, I had a full day national park excursion scheduled. My travel agent had billed it as a Iguazu Jungle Explorer Great Adventure, which is why I did the national park on my own the previous day. However, once talking to my guide that morning, I realized that the river adventure included a guided tour of the park. We started off early, to beat the heat and the crowds, and did a guided tour of the same trails I had seen the day before. I enjoyed seeing the views again, but I wasn’t bothered by the quicker pace, because I had spent plenty of time seeing the waterfalls the day prior. I got to spend all the time I wanted at each viewpoint, so I viewed the tour today as just getting to relive the views. Even though my pictures turned out well, nothing beats the in person experience. And seeing those falls and the rushing water and surrounding green landscape was just as exciting this day as it was when I was seeing them for the first time.

There is a wide variety of flora and fauna in the park. I saw a variety of birds, most memorably a toucan, and the most common mammal I saw was the coati, which is sort of like a raccoon. They tend to congregate where people are, hoping to get some food. Cute little critters, but best to keep your distance in case they attack and bite. I know larger mammals exist in the park, like pumas, but chances of seeing them with lots of people around are very remote.

We spent the morning walking the Superior and Inferior Circuit trails, and the afternoon was the Gran Aventura excursion with Iguazu Jungle Explorer. I was the only one from my group doing that excursion, so my guide dropped me off at the ticket place where I would board the jungle van.

The first part of the excursion is taking an open air truck trip down the road to the pier. This was a good opportunity to just enjoy the view of the tall jungle trees and just marvel at all the green around you. The journey ends at the stairs that you take down to the pier on the river. You get a life jacket and a dry bag to put all your stuff you don’t want to get wet (including your shoes if you desire) and then board the motorized rubber boats.

They take you on a super fast journey up the river until you reach the falls near San Martin Island. So you are looking at the falls from a completely different perspective. The prior day and this morning, I got my fill of the falls from overlooking the tops of the falls. But now I was looking up at the falls from the vantage point of the river, and I could really feel just how enormous and powerful these falls are.

You are given ample time to take in the view and take all your photos. And then the fun begins. The driver gets you as close to the pounding falls as possible. Since I was there in spring, the river levels were pretty high, so the falls were absolutely thundering. So while we weren’t able to get directly under the falls, we got so close, that we were absolutely drenched. The spray is overwhelming, and it’s hard keeping your eyes open. You just have to feel the cool, refreshing water soaking you completely. We got to enjoy this experience from two different vantage points. The first was at the base of the Tres Masqueteros Falls, and the other was near the base of the Mbigua Falls. Those views are on either side of San Martin Island that sits imposing in the river in front of the falls.

The entire effect was thrilling and an adrenaline rush, even if you are just enjoying the view from the boat. But to feel the awesome power of those falls is an experience to behold. Plus the river water is cool and feels oh so good in that bright hot sun. After our waterfall stops, we sped back to the pier at high speeds. You are still on an adrenaline high when you get back and walk up the stairs to the truck stop to get back to the starting point. Even though you are completely drenched after arriving at the pier, you will quickly dry off in the heat, and in no time, it didn’t even look like you got soaked.

This excursion is an add on to park admission, and it isn’t cheap (at least by Argentine standards). But I thought it was worth it. It is a very different, much more thrilling look at the falls. It may not last long, but the experience is memorable and the view worth it.

The Verdant and Steamy Iguazu Falls- Argentina side

My first day in Iguazu was an early one. I had an early morning flight from Buenos Aires to the town of Puerto Iguazu. It was the base for my three day excursion to see Iguazu Falls. I first learned about Iguazu Falls when I watched season 2 of The Amazing Race, and I was entranced and wanted to visit them. I absolutely adore waterfalls, and seek them out whenever I can. It was doing my research about Argentina, when I realized that the bulk of Iguazu Falls are actually in Argentina (The Amazing Race featured the falls from the Brazil side, so that is where I figured you had to access them).

The first thing I felt when I got off the plane was the strong heat and humidity, even at 0900 in the morning. It was a definite shock to the system. I had come from Ushuaia, and previously the Pacific Northwest, where the highs were in the 50s at best, and the fierce wind could make it feel even colder, to Puerto Iguazu, where the highs were in the 90s and the humidity was cooking. I had to scramble for appropriate clothes, because I had packed plenty of long sleeved shirts and warm pants to layer against the cold and wind, but only about two T shirts. But I made it work, even if the sweat was pouring off me at times.

Since I got to Puerto Iguazu early in the day, and I didn’t have any excursions planned that day, I decided to spend the afternoon visiting Iguazu National Park on my own. My taxi driver was more than willing to come back to the hotel to drive me to the park, and pick me up at the agreed upon time (for the right price of course). I knew I had an excursion in the park the next day, but I didn’t know if it consisted of a park tour. In any case, I like to do things at my own pace when possible and not under the direction of a guide (at least for things that don’t absolutely require a guide).

Now the afternoon is the not the BEST time to visit from a weather perspective, because the sun is at its peak heat. But there are also fewer crowds at that time, and the park has plenty of shade to hide from the sun. So I bought my ticket and headed in. There is a train that can take you from the main gate to the center of the park, but there is also a nice, fairly short nature path that takes you to the same destination but allows you to see some of the flora and fauna of the park. My one disappointment when I got to the park, was realizing that the Garganta del Diablo (or Devil’s Throat) was closed. It is a boardwalk that goes out to the center of the waterfall and overlooks the most thunderous part of the falls. I was really looking forward to seeing it, but spring meltoff had raised river levels so high, that it took out part of the boardwalk. So you could only see that part of the waterfall from afar.

But even with that closed, there were still ample things to see and do in the park. Argentina has about 2/3 of Iguazu Falls within its borders, and its boardwalks and trails give you a closer, more intimate view of the falls. The trails are very well marked and easy to use, and in the case of one trail, it is supposed to be one way only to better control visitor flow.

If you have the time, I would recommend you see all the main trails in the park, because they provide different views of the falls. But if you only have time for one trail, make it the Superior Circuit. It is the longest trail, because it has the most views of the falls. There are many viewpoints along the trail that give you a variety of awe inspiring views of the waterfalls. The trail itself is a well maintained boardwalk so you are on the side of the falls, and is flat and easily traversable.

The hardest thing about the trail was tearing myself from the viewpoints. It felt like every viewpoint was better than the last, and I was constantly taking pictures and taking the time to take it all in. This is when I was glad to have done this park on my own. I didn’t have to worry about keeping up with the group or afraid of pissing off the tour guide, because I was too slow. I had allowed myself nearly five hours of excursion time before my agreed upon pickup time with my taxi driver, so I had no need to hurry. Iguazu Falls were the best waterfalls I had ever seen, and I wanted to really take it all in.

It is hard to pick a favorite viewpoint, because they are all different, but spectacular. The crowds weren’t overwhelming, which is probably partly because it was the afternoon and many of the tour groups had left, but also because it was November, and the peak tourist season hadn’t hit yet. I heard the crowds get ridiculous in December and January, and I try to avoid peak travel time for most of my vacations.

I was definitely feeling the heat, but the nice cool water bottles helped a lot. The Superior Circuit has a clockwise travel pattern, so you see all the waterfall viewpoints first, and then the trail turns inland through the lush, verdant forest before bringing out near to where you started. I still had time on my hands, so I decided to do the Inferior Circuit, which is a shorter trail, and different viewpoints of waterfalls.

This circuit doesn’t have an established traffic pattern, maybe because the entire trail wasn’t open. The trail was open in two different directions taking you to different waterfall viewpoints, but the interior of the loop trail was closed down due to trail erosion. The first waterfall viewpoints I stopped at was Dos Hermanas Falls and Chico Falls. These views were from the bottom of the waterfall looking up, and were a counterpoint to the overhead falls views from the Superior Circuit trail.

Then I backtracked and followed the trail down past a couple other small waterfalls to an expansive lookout of San Martin Island in front of you in the Iguazu River. The view is wide and nice, though it feels a bit bifurcated by the terrain, since the island view divides the waterfall in half.

By this point, I was tired and sweaty and getting close to my pick up time. Instead of taking the train back to main gate, I decided to take the nature trail back, and it was a pleasant way to end my day. The park was getting ready to close in about an hour, so there were substantially fewer tourists, and it felt so much quieter than the din earlier in the day. I am very glad I took the opportunity to see the park at my own pace, because it is truly worth a full day of your time.

Shifting Travel Itinerary on a Dime in the Middle of the Southern Ocean

When I started planning my Argentina vacation, I looked at a variety of destinations within the country to visit. Eventually I decided to spend my time in Tierra del Fuego and Argentina Patagonia, in addition to my Antarctica cruise. I had wanted to fit in Iguazu Falls up in the way northeast of country (bordering Paraguay and Brazil), but I just didn’t have the time to fit it all in. I figured MAYBE I would fit it in on another trip to the area, but I didn’t expect to really come back to Argentina.

Fast forward to the third day of my cruise to Antarctica. We spent two somewhat queasy days traversing the Drake Passage, and we were excited that the next day to finally hit landfall in Antarctica. And then…we knew something was off when the ship captain gathered us all in the lounge for a group meeting, because it was important to tell us in person. A passenger had been seriously injured and needed to be medically evacuated. In most of those situations, the goal was to get the passenger to an airstrip in Antarctica, and then fly them back to Argentina. But bad weather and clouds were expected to roll in, and that would close the airstrips. There was also the possibility that we could transfer the passenger to a returning cruise ship. However, the nearest cruise ship was 600 miles away, so that wasn’t really feasible. So that left option number three, turning the ship around and returning to Ushuaia.

As you can imagine, there was quite the uproar. We had spent the previous two days experiencing a version of the  Drake Shake, and we had to go back and do it all over again. All without even seeing Antarctica from a distance. Some of the passengers tried to argue, but there was really nothing that could be done.

So that left me thinking of how I could spend the time upon return. The cruise was supposed to be 10 days, and I already had my itinerary booked for Patagonia upon my return. But that left five days to fill with time. I briefly considered staying in Tierra del Fuego, but I felt I had seen what I wanted to see. I had a week scheduled in Patagonia, so I was going to see what I wanted there. So of course my mind wandered to Iguazu. I really wanted to see the waterfalls, and it seemed like I could fly up there and enjoy the waterfalls for a few days before flying to Patagonia.

So I was trying to coordinate all of this via WhatsApp in the middle of the Drake Passage. Thankfully the ship turned on their WiFi, and it was good enough to communicate back to the mainland. I am super grateful for the quick and professional response from Oriunda, my travel company in Argentina. I was able to explain the situation and what my desired itinerary was, and they put together an itinerary that met my needs within 24 hours. So before the night was even over after we turned around, I had a viable travel alternative planned for when I arrived back to Ushuaia.

It is to their credit they were able to book a series of flights to get me from Ushuaia to Iguazu (because I had to overnight in Buenos Aires coming and going to the town of Puerto Iguazu), and have some excursions booked. I am forever grateful they responded as well as they did, and I was able to add in a place I wanted to visit anyway. Of course this side trip wasn’t cheap, but I would say it was overall worth it.

So I can’t say really anything about Antarctica just yet, but thankfully the company comped us new voyages, so I am going back in November this year to try again. I’m hoping this time I will get the Drake Lake on that crossing. The weather wasn’t as bad as it could be, but the ship was small (which is great for maximizing landings in Antarctica), and it didn’t have stabilizers, so we definitely felt the rolling sea more than the bigger ships. It was most interesting when eating meals. The crew put down sticky placemats on the tables, so the dinnerware didn’t shift, but sometimes it still felt precarious. And I saw the wisdom of having beds with bars on them, so we didn’t fall out of bed when the sea really starting getting up. This cruise was almost like a preview cruise for this coming year. I got to see some really nice views of Tierra del Fuego and Ushuaia from the Beagle Channel. I got a couple nice sunsets. And I got a better understanding of how to maneuver around a ship that is rocking from sea swells. And of course reinforce that you shouldn’t take a shower when crossing the Drake Passage.