Patagonia Without Plans: Letting Curiosity Lead the Way

Argentina, Backpacking & Trekking — By on June 24, 2011 at 12:00 pm

By Taylor Dolven
LG Correspondent

Sprained ankles, volcanoes, and canceled flights…can you imagine anything else going wrong on a single trip? When LG correspondent Taylor Dolven set out from her base in Buenos Aires for a weekend trip to Patagonia a couple of weeks ago, she had little idea what would await her. Almost everything that could have gone wrong on her trip did, but even with all of the hiccups and snafus, she would still do the whole thing all over again in a heartbeat. Sometimes, Taylor learns, a travel experience is what you make of it! Read the blog from her (mis)adventures…

Trekking in El Chalton ArgentinaEl Chalten

Our journey started at the El Calafate airport after a three hour flight from Buenos Aires. We knew we wanted to get to El Chaltén for the night to do some hiking the next day, but we didn’t have the logistics finalized, neither hostel nor transportation. Once we found out we had missed the daily bus to this trekking town, the rental car sign was calling our name. With two expired licenses, a trunk full of luggage, and an empty Ruta 40 ahead of us, we stick-shifted all the way to El Chaltén. Since winter is not the high season, we had no problem finding somewhere to sleep. Finding a restaurant, however, was tricky. As every single recommended restaurant was closed for the winter season, we headed to the only open joint in town for some red wine and lamb stew. Yum.

Taylor Takes a Tumble

The famous Mount Fitz Roy was our climb of choice for the next day. We woke up at 7 a.m. and headed out before the sun came up (sunrise isn’t until 9:30am down south).  It took us about five hours to reach Laguna del Los Tres. We stupidly ignored every “DANGER – do not proceed if ice is on trail” sign, and on the way down, the ice got the best of me. I slipped and twisted my ankle. Thankfully, I avoided my natural response (fainting), and was able to stand up. Kiki, my traveling companion, tied my shoe tight to stop the swelling, and we slowly and painfully hobbled down the mountain. The 2.5 hour descent took over five hours. After a stop at the grocery store for some frozen peas and dulce de leche (to ease the pain), we made the three-hour drive back to El Calafate.

El Calafate

The one plan we did make before coming to Patagonia was buying a Groupon deal for a hotel in El Calafate – $85USD for three nights in a beautiful hotel overlooking Lake Argentina. We woke up the next morning to a sunrise over the water and one very swollen ankle. Then it was off to the hospital and the pharmacy for a ride in a wheel chair and some X-rays. Luckily, it was just sprained! But still required a boot and crutches.

Glacier Perito Moreno ArgentinaGlacier Puerto Moreno

I didn’t want Kiki to miss out on the ice trekking experience just because of me, so the next day, I made her do it while I took a boat tour. We both left for Puerto Moreno glacier before the sun came up. Kiki would definitely recommend doing the mini trekking (about 500 pesos/$125USD), which is a half-day walking/hiking tour of the glacier. But if you happen to have a sprained ankle, the boat tour provides equally amazing views for half the price.

I had never seen a glacier before so I didn’t really know what to expect. But as soon as my tour bus rounded the corner to the first viewpoint, I was actually breathless. I hobbled all the way up the icy steps to get a better view, and had to be pulled back into the van to continue the tour. The glacier itself is the size of the city of Buenos Aires. Unlike other attractions, the glacier isn’t moving or doing anything, but for some reason it is hard to stop staring at it. And the mountains and clouds that frame the giant ice block are equally as breath taking. The boat tour lasted an hour and takes you about 30 feet away from the glacier, close enough to see a big sheet of ice plunge into the icy water.


The next day was Monday and our travel day back to BA. We were in the lobby early asking for a taxi to the airport when the receptionist calmly said, “All airports are closed because of the volcano in Chile. There aren’t any flights out of here until Wednesday.” She was slightly confused when huge grins spread across our faces. Neither of us had heard about the volcano, so we got online and read up about it. The eruption started on June 4, one day before our attempt to leave.

Besides the glacier and the beautiful Lake Argentina, there is not much else to do in El Calafate, especially with a sprained ankle. We bargained with the hotel to let us stay for another two nights for the same Groupon price (they were closing for the winter season in a few days). After spending an entire day in bed with an elevated foot, I woke up to an empty room and a note from Kiki saying “Planning our next move @ the bus station –K.” The news slowly spread that there were no flights until Friday, which means we were going to miss an entire week of class, including two exams. We decided we could not stay in El Calafate for three more days, so we bit the bullet and bought 20-hour bus tickets to Puerto Madryn in hopes of seeing some whales.

Peninsula Valdez in ArgentinaPuerto Madryn

Thankfully, we survived and made it to Puerto Madryn, and signed up for a tour of the Peninsula Valdez for the next day. We set out for a walk (without crutches!!) on the beach and down the pier. Being from Colorado, the ocean is especially fascinating to me. From the end of the pier, we spotted a whale and a sea lion. Since we were already way over budget for our four-day turned week-long vacation, we decided to cook dinner in our hostel and head to bed for an early bus tour Friday morning.

The tour of the peninsula only cost 180 pesos ($45USD) and lasted the entire day. The only down side was that it was a lot of time spent on the bus. If I could do it over again, I would have rented a car (or better yet–a bike) and gone to see the spots on my own. But we did get to see whales, elephant seals, and sea lions up close and personal! By the time we were there, the ash (ceniza) had made it to Puerto Madryn and it was difficult to breathe at times.

The Long Ride Home

The last the airlines had told us was that we could fly out of Puerto Madryn on Friday, but when Friday rolled around, all flights were canceled indefinitely. We had to make the difficult decision to buy another 20+ hour bus ride home. We left at 9 p.m. on Friday and arrived back in Buenos Aires at 4 p.m. Saturday, five days after our original return date.

More often then not, traveling means wandering. And wandering leads to discovering things that would have gone undiscovered with a rigid set of plans. In the case of our Patagonian adventure, sometimes traveling without plans is the best plan. Let your curiosity lead the way!

Thumbnails courtesy of Trip Advisor, Argentour, and Vacations International

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  • Andrew Atkin says:

    We would like to have you as a guest on Radio Groupenture’s “Groupenture Guides” talk show. On 12/21 at noon our show will focus areas of SA. We would like to interview you for a few minutes during this show. Please let me know if you would like to participate by 12/15.
    Andrew Atkin

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  • Wow! You hiked to Lago de Los Tres in Winter! We could only just get to Laguna Capri! We loved Perito Moreno too. just got back after a few weeks in Patagonia. You can see our photos and what our trip was like on our blog if you like.