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Battling the Fickle Patagonian Weather

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Gregor and I woke up feeling groggy after a bad night’s sleep in the van. Lucky rocked violently in 80-km/hr winds for most of the evening and the wind was still raging when we went out for our morning pee. The inertia was strong, but we managed to muster up enough energy to pack our daypacks and put on our hiking boots. After all, we drove all the way from Canada to see these peaks.

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Cerro Torre. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

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Mt. Fitz Roy. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

El Chaltén, Los Glaciares National Park

It was the end of October and we were in the town of El Chaltén, camped at a trailhead parking lot in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. The park is one of several world-renowned outdoor destinations in Argentine Patagonia, particularly for rock climbers. The park’s iconic granite peaks, Mt. Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, are famous not just for their technical difficulty, but for having terrible storms that can turn a climbing adventure into an epic nightmare.

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Location of El Chaltén, Argentina

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The town of El Chaltén in the distance

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It was storming at elevation when we arrived.

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On our first night, we camped with John, Paula, and their truck camper, LoJo.

We didn’t come to the park to rock climb – it had been several years since we last climbed and these peaks are far beyond our league. No, we were here to see the peaks from the park’s hiking trails. Despite the poor night’s sleep, we dragged ourselves onto the Fitz Roy trail and headed straight into 60 km/hr winds.

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It was tough to stand up in the wind.

Our destination was Laguna Capri, where the Fitz Roy range could be viewed across a beautifully clear lake. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see a single peak because the clouds covered them by the time we got there. So we took a selfie and turned around.

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When we got back to the van, the skies opened up and the afternoon rain came down. From our dry, cushy seats Gregor and I watched the other hikers trickling out of the trail, completely drenched. We spent the rest of the evening hunkered down in the van and let the gusting wind rock us into another night of fitful sleep.

Our second hiking day in El Chaltén was similar to the first. We started on the trail in hopes to get a nice lakeside view of Cerro Torre. Just like the day before, the wind was relentless and the clouds completely obscured the peaks. What was different this time was that Gregor’s right knee started to hurt. He didn’t feel it would hold up for the entire 20-km hike so we stopped early and turned around – without a single photograph.

This is what we missed:

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John and Paula (Our Bigger Picture) had a great view of Cerro Torre the week before.

The afternoon rain came down like clockwork. Once again, Gregor and I hunkered down in the van, watching soaked hikers file out of the trail.

Neither of us wanted to spend another night in the same parking lot being tossed around by the howling wind, so we moved to a more sheltered parking area about 15 km away. Thanks to the surrounding trees, we had a merciful windbreak and finally got a good night’s sleep. The next morning the sun came out and the wind died once we hit the trail.

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Camped in the parking lot of El Pilar hostel

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Finally, we can see Fitz Roy!

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Sadly, Gregor’s knee was bothering him again so we had to turn around at the trail’s halfway point. I admit, I was disappointed that we couldn’t go further because the weather was so good that day. But Gregor reminded me of a saying we use when things don’t go as we expect:

“We can have it all, just not all at once.”

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While we were in El Chaltén, our friends John and Paula introduced us to an English biker named Ian who was riding solo through South America. Ian wanted to continue his journey southward, but he was low on fuel and the only gas station in town ran out of gas. Luckily, we had some extra fuel to spare so we filled him up.

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We think it’s tough to drive our little van in Patagonia’s raging winds but we’re really just panty-wasted whiners compared to the bikers and cyclists who share the same roads. These guys expose themselves to the powers of nature every day, so props to all the riders out there!

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We honestly don’t know how they do this trip on their bikes.

After saying goodbye to Ian, we went to the national park office to check the weather forecast: daytime wind gusts of up to 90 km/hr with periods of rain for the next three days. With no cellular 3G access in town, we couldn’t even wait out the weather by working or blogging in the van.

In Argentina, it seemed that if weren’t chasing the weather, we were chasing the Internet. In this case, we were chasing both. So we high-tailed out of El Chaltén and drove south.

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El Calafate

The town of El Calafate is located on the edge of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field and is a popular stop because it’s close to the spectacular Perito Moreno Glacier. When we arrived in El Calafate, the weather was good so we walked around to get a feel for the town.

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There were lots of outdoor clothing stores…

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…adventure tour offices…

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…tacky souvenir shops…

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…and stores selling Argentine alfajores (cookie sandwiches).

“El Calafate” is named after the calafate berry, a dark berry that is believed to guarantee your return to Patagonia once you eat it. It’s found on thorny bushes that grow in the harshest Patagonian weather, so it’s not very easy to harvest. As a result, calafate berry products are expensive.

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This tiny jar of El Calafate jam cost $5.00 CAD/$3.75 USD.

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The thorny calafate bush

In El Calafate, we met up with John, Paula, and Ian again and went out for craft beers at La Zorra. Argentina has great wine, but it also has some of the best craft beers we have ever tasted.

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Hanging out at La Zorra (“The Fox”)

The beers at La Zorra were so good that we indulged a bit too much that night. Gregor was super hung over the next morning, yet he still got up and put in a full work day.

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After work, we ate at our campground’s onsite restaurant called El Ovejero. It served traditional Argentine barbecued meat (parrilla) and the Patagonian specialty: grilled lamb (cordero al asador). As in many Argentine restaurants, portions were huge and the meat was delicious.

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We had become very obsessed with food during our time in Patagonia, not just because it tasted good, but because the act of eating kept us warm. We felt chilled most days inside the van, with indoor temperatures between 5 to 10 deg C overnight and 15 to 20 deg C during the day. Eating hot food with a nice glass of wine or a pint of beer was a welcome distraction in the cooler weather.

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Cooking with the pop-top down warmed us up in the van.

Food and drink may have provided us with some comfort in the colder temperatures, but it certainly didn’t do much for our health. Our metabolism dropped proportionately with the mercury and we started getting fatter. Our alcohol consumption became a daily habit and we started losing our mojo. It was a vicious circle: the more we drank, the more we ate, and vice versa.

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The first beer is a pick-me-up, the second is a downfall

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Our other downfall: exotic-flavoured potato chips

Contrary to what we imagined, it’s not easy to stay fit on the road. Back home, getting out of our climate-controlled house to go to the climate-controlled gym was hard enough. Getting out of the van to do some jumping jacks in the drizzling rain, howling wind, or crippling heat…it totally sucks. Combine that with exhausting driving days and stationary work days, and road life becomes rather sedentary.

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Waiting out the weather in the van

Perito Moreno Glacier

The Perito Moreno Glacier is located 80 km from El Calafate and weather conditions there can be very different from the conditions in town. On the day we visited the glacier it wasn’t too windy but we had rain, drizzle, and fog (“RDF”, as our Newfoundlander friends say).

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Gregor and I actually got into a petty fight on the drive to the glacier because I was feeling irritated by the weather. More specifically, I felt resentful because we had missed a window of nice sight-seeing weather during Gregor’s scheduled work days. This happens more often than we want to remember, but it is what it is.

We sat in the parking lot to the glacier’s entrance, arguing fruitlessly while we waited for a squall to pass. Things got so heated that Gregor stormed out of the van and we ended up entering the park separately. In the end, it turned out fine because the time apart gave us enough headspace to fully appreciate the glacier. It is truly stunning, even in the rain.

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Every now and then we heard the thunder of calving ice and saw explosions of water as the ice crashed into the lake. What’s interesting is that Perito Moreno isn’t receding like most other glaciers. It’s actually considered to be “stable” – not growing and not shrinking. Hopefully it stays that way for a long time.

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That’s a tour boat in the water, on the right.

After visiting the glacier, we drove a rough gravel road to a lakeside campground called Lago Roca. By the time we arrived, the wind picked up and the mountains around the lake were completely obscured by cloud and drizzling rain. Gregor and I were already getting used to this fickle spring weather and we figured that this would be the worst of it. The next morning, everything was covered in a layer of wet snow.

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In all our years of van camping, we had never woken up to this much snow. In Canada, we never dared to camp in our van in winter and here we were in South America, surrounded by the white stuff. It was a totally new experience for us and we felt completely sheltered inside our little van.

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In the end we spent over three months in Patagonia, driving the Argentine and Chilean sides in spring season. In those three months, we had only a handful of calm, sunny days. The rest were filled with rain, wind, and cloud. After being in crappy weather for so long we eventually learned to surrender to nature and accept our sedentary road life. As soon as that happened, every ray of sunshine that streamed into the van became a joyful gift.

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9 thoughts on “Battling the Fickle Patagonian Weather

  1. Pingback: Misson Accomplished: Ushuaia, Argentina - Live. Travel. Play.

  2. Suchot

    I have gotten behind in reading your blog so I binge-read six posts :). You are doing such a great job with capturing your travels and sharing them with all of us. I love following along! I can’t believe it has been over two years that you have been traveling!

    1. Janice Post author

      So glad you enjoyed the posts. We can’t believe two years has gone by already! More stories to come – thanks for reading 🙂

  3. paula

    Great post! BTW, John and I got into a doozy on our second day at the glacier too! Must be all that hard cold ice. Great that we got to experience some of this stretch together!

    1. Janice Post author

      Ugh, if it’s not the bad weather, it’s the terrible grocery stores. No wonder we drank so much! Thank gawd you guys were around to help us diffuse some of the tension we accumulated on the road.

  4. Juergen | dare2go

    We’ll, that’s pretty much how we experienced Patagonia. Overlanders, who rely on roof top tents or can’t make their bed without opening their canvas pop-top, always look doubtful when I tell them that they will have problems in Patagonia…
    Our visit to Perito Moreno was pretty much the same, except that the sun broke through for a few seconds. Enough to get one photo with a rainbow above the ice. Well, at least half a rainbow…

    1. Janice Post author

      So glad to know that we weren’t the only ones who were cursed with bad weather in Patagonia. At least you got a rainbow! 🙂

  5. Janice S.

    Thanks for sharing the ups and downs of van life.

    Pretty spectacular photos.

    This really spoke to me: ““We can have it all, just not all at once.” I love that.

    1. Janice Post author

      A co-worker of mine introduced me to that saying many years ago. At the time, she applied it to the challenge of balancing work-life, home-life, and pleasure. It definitely applies to our travels in the van. I’m glad you liked the post 🙂