We just landed in Santiago after 13 hours flight, excitement and anticipation overshadowed any fatigue or jet lag, if there was any. First international travel and first backpacking trip, we were ready for the beginning of our adventures. It was only a scenic flight with uninterrupted views of the Andes, lakes, volcanoes and countless fjords, between us and Patagonia now. We landed in Punta Arenas after 3.5 hours, the largest Chilean city in Patagonia. We were greeted by a smiling sun and cool breeze, which turned into light drizzle by afternoon – typical Patagonian weather. We sat in a cafe, absorbing new sounds, smells, and sights around us while overstuffing our tummies with delicious food.
We are still some 250 km away from our destination – Puerto Natales. Though direct flights to Puerto Natales from Santiago have started recently. Our options were only road-bound then – car or bus – and we chose the bus. Chile has a very reliable and comfortable bus network operated by several bus operators, making it the most accessible and cheapest option to travel around the country.
Sleep overtook excitement with the aid of gentle swaying motion of the bus. We reached our hostel Erratic Rock II by the evening, a perfect place to get some rest. Friendliest people, cozy decor, most satisfying breakfast, positive vibes – our kids still reminisce about wonderful time there. We left extra luggage at the hostel and boarded early morning bus to take us to El Chalten across the border in Argentina.
El Chaltén or ‘Smoking Mountain’ is Tehuelche language, a colorful village at the edge of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. It was founded in 1985, to beat Chile to the land claim, now evolved itself into a “trekking capital of Argentina.” Dramatic Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre mountain massifs tower above its smattering of unpretentious accommodations, shops, and restaurants catering to travelers and climbers.
I bet you will instantly fall in love with this charming quaint town. We stayed at Anita’s house, a beautiful house close to the park’s entrance managed by Anita. She was an epitome of hospitality and welcomed us as her old friends. Her home was the base for our first backpacking trip to Fitz Roy, and will always remain a special place in my heart. We hiked to Fitz Roy base, which was our first backpacking with kids and turned out be an unforgettable experience. You may read our story from Fitz Roy here – Fitz Roy.
Our next stop – El Calafate, named for the berry that, once eaten, guarantees your return to Patagonia, a base town to visit magnificent Perito Moreno Glacier. We stayed at Keu Ken hostel, a funky hostel in the middle of the town. The soft-spoken host, a delicious bbq dinner, company of travelers with lots of interesting travel stories to share – our first trip was getting interesting by every day.
We ditched bus tour in favor of total freedom and rented a cheap old car. The day was perfect, albeit a bit chilly, and my side of window refused to roll up, once rolled down. After driving 80 km west of town with lungs full of 100% fresh Patagonian air, and ice cold noses we made it to the parking lot, which may have had 10-15 other cars. We were early to beat bus crowds.
We were face to face with Perito Moreno Glacier after a short walk, and it took our breath away. I had never seen something so magnificent in my life before. Stretching 5 km wide with distant peaks in the background and towering 75 meters above the milky blue waters of Lago Argentino, (the largest freshwater lake in the country), it was a sight to behold. It is beyond imagination and beyond the capability of any camera to capture its grandeur.
Park has done an excellent job with wood and metal walkways, which blend with surroundings beautifully. They offer several viewing decks with benches to appreciate the glacier from different perspectives. All the paths are very well-marked and colored coded.
Perito Moreno is very active, substantial ice chunks crack off its face frequently, known as ‘calving,’ thundering and making big waves in the lake. We sat there spellbound looking at the 70 m high slowly advancing snow wall. Kids were thrilled by calving and cheered for the ones which they were able to witness just in time. We heard some crackling, and everyone around us got excited, and then a large slice calved into the water with a loud thunder, sending it several meters high.
There are three ways to enjoy this remarkable glacier – from the walkways, from lake’s level by boat, and from the top by hiking on it.
Bus tours take visitors in groups and have a time limit and generally, provide a guide and lunch. Boat tours, which you may book at the park, take you up to 100m close to the glacier’s face. Hiking on the glacier was ruled out for us. Our kids did not make required age limit. Anyway, we will go back to Patagonia, since we ate the berries.
On our way back to the town, we stopped at Glaciarium museum, which we thought will be good for kids as they were primed to learn more about the glacier. To our pleasant surprise, this museum far exceeded our expectations. It is a creatively designed museum using multimedia and audiovisual effects, to present every dimension of the glaciers, from their formation to their role in our planet, in a very inspiring way. Kids loved their time in here, and I would highly recommend to visit it, with or without kids. In the end, to feel the glacier bit more intimately, we went underground, to Glaciobar, where everything is made of ice – the walls, the bar, the stools, the glasses – everything. We raised our glasses to next Patagonia adventure – “W” trail and headed to the town to get ready for next day’s bus ride back to Puerto Natales.
Back at Erratic Rock, we prepared our backpacks for the much-anticipated “W” trail, the highlight of our Patagonia trip and a story for another time. After “W” we took our last bus back to where we started – Punta Arenas.
Punta Arenas, the “edge of the world,” the gateway to Antarctica, is a captivating windblown port town with friendly and relaxed people. Magellanic hospitality outweighs the inhospitality of nature any day, and our hostel Keoken was not an exception. We were made comfortable and fed in the morning by a friendly host, to seize our two days in the town, which we did!
The weather was perfect on our first day, and we were cautioned of its fickleness. Thanking our good luck, we reserved our seats for Magdalena and Santa Marta Islands tour and hopped on the bus which took us to Laredo Bay, the starting point for the boat tour. First stop was Isabel Island, not a stop in a real sense, as humans are not allowed to disembark on this island. Our boat circled the island giving us an opportunity to watch a colony of sea lions sunbathing, several otters going about their day, and loud cormorants feeding their young chicks.
Humans are allowed to disembark at Magdalena Island, with a strong warning to stay on the trail path and always keeping in mind penguins’ right of way to waddle by as they please. These amusing seabirds nest in the same spot every year and over 60 thousand couples take possession of the island from October to March. We visited them in December, their chicks were grown up a bit and were absolutely way louder than our kids, who were under Penguin magic that time. Magdalena Island is part of the Los Pingüinos Natural Monument, and home to around 120,000 Magellanic penguins.
We woke up with a great sense of urgency, and a tinge of sadness, today was our last day of the trip. We spend the day in museums to understand Chilean history and evening at Plaza Muñoz Gamero to soak up town’s vibes. With heavy hearts, we planted kisses at the toe of the statue of the indigenous Ona man in the center of the Plaza, which means we’ll be back!
ps: always carry a rain jacket in your bag while in Patagonia.