Patagonia: At the End of the World (Part II)

Fitz Roy Mountain, Argentina Patagonia

The iconic Fitz Roy mountain in Argentina Patagonia

After a couple of days in El Calafate, Jason and I hopped on a 3-hour bus ride to the less-visited sister town, El Chaltén.  There are three bus companies that bring you from El Calafate to El Chaltén.  First, they stop at the tourist centre in El Chaltén and then at the town’s tiny bus terminal.

Bus ride from El Calafate to El Chalten

The early-morning bus ride from El Calafate to El Chalten

The sole reason for El Chaltén’s existence is tourism and even during high season, it’s a pretty isolated little town.  It’s the self-declared trekking capital of Argentina, and is the gateway to amazing climbing and trekking territory.  It provides fairly easy access to the famous Cerro Torre and Cerro Fitz Roy mountains.  Those who are familiar with the Patagonia clothing company might find the mountain range here familiar-looking – the highest peak in the company’s logo is Fitz Roy.

Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre mountains (Argentina)

Cerro Fitz Roy (right of the center) and Cerro Torre (left of the center) mountains

One catch though: since we were visiting during the off-season (Argentina’s winter months), the town would likely be almost deserted.  We had read that most accommodations and restaurants would be closed for the season, so we were a little wary coming here.  However, the California couple we met at Perito Moreno Glacier gave us a great tip on where to stay since they had just come from El Chaltén.

El Chalten, Argentina

The little town of El Chalten

Upon arrival, we discovered that – in the whole town – there were two hostels and one restaurant that were still open. Their local market was also still open so we ended up spending the next four days making our own meals in the hostel’s well-equipped kitchen.

I loved our time there.  It was quiet, relaxed and peaceful.  The town was a charming little place full of smiling locals and, since it was off- season, almost no tourists.  We arrived on a brilliantly sunny day and the friendly guide at the town’s tourist centre made sure we understood how lucky we were – calm, sunny days were rare during the winter.  Many travellers who arrive here in the winter never even get to see the mountains because of the snow and clouds.

El Chalten covered in snow

With the exception of the two sunny days, El Chalten looked like this for the rest of our stay.

Unfortunately, I was trying to get over a pretty bad cold so we “wasted” the sunny day by staying indoors.  Luck was on our side though, because I got up the next morning (rested and feeling much better) and was greeted by another sunny day.  And we weren’t going to waste this one.

At the beginning of the Fitz Roy hike

At the beginning of the Fitz Roy hike

Jason and I were getting pretty good at trekking, at this point.  But trekking through icy and snowy terrain was a little new to us.  Our trusted hiking shoes that got us through slippery rocky terrain in Cusco and dry, dusty desert in Arequipa were no match for ice-covered trails.  Luckily, only the beginning of the trail was icy since those trails remained in the shade for most of the day.  The terrain was pretty varied actually.  Some parts of the the trail looked like this:

During our Fitz Roy hike

Parts of the trail which were mostly in the shade during the day were snowy or icy

And then other parts of the trail looked like this:

During our Fitz Roy hike

Parts of the hike which were in the sun for most of the day were dry. You can see the summit of Fitz Roy peaking peeking out in the distance

But no complaints when you get to soak in scenery that looks like this for most of the trek:

Patagonia scenery

Patagonia scenery

We had chosen the slightly shorter hike (3 hr), which took us to the nearby lake (lago Capri) and look-out point near Fitz Roy.  We arrived at the lake to find it completely frozen over and covered in a blanket of snow.  There were signs everywhere that warned us not to step on the frozen surface but there were footprints all over the lake, so it seemed pretty safe.  The view of Fitz Roy from the lake was magnificent.  Again, we were so lucky to have such amazing winter weather – couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day.

View of Fitz Roy on Lago Capri

View of Fitz Roy on Lago Capri

Iconic Fitz Roy

The iconic jagged peaks of Fitz Roy

Hiking in Patagonia was an awesome experience – the scenery is unmatched by anything else we’ve seen in South America.

Fitz Roy, Argentina

One last look at Fitz Roy

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Trekking into the Colca Canyon

After a restful week in Arequipa, we were ready for another beat-down trekking adventure. Arequipa is a main launching point for the surrounding canyon country and Jason had been itching to trek the Colca Canyon, which is about 200km north of Arequipa.

Colca Canyon, Peru

View of the Colca Canyon from the start of the hike

The Colca Canyon is one of Peru’s spectacular natural sights, although it’s often overshadowed by the country’s other attractions (i.e. Machu Picchu). It’s twice as deep as the famous Grand Canyon in the United States and is actually the world’s second deepest canyon – just few kilometers shallower than the nearby Cotahausi Canyon.

We decided to set up our base in nearby Chivay, a popular market town that still retains a lot of its traditional country origins.

Chivay, Peru

Town of Chivay, Peru

Chivay, Peru

The market bustling in the mornings in Chivay, Peru

It’s a logical entry point into the canyon country, and holds it own with many hiking trails and some of the most impressive and expansive Incan farm terracing on the continent.

Incan terraces from Coporque to Yanque, Peru

Incan terraces along our bike ride

We spent our first day in Chivay on rented bikes, touring the surrounding smaller towns further up the valley.

Scenery around Chivay, Peru

Beautiful day for a bike ride (Chivay, Peru)

We started off making our way to the nearby town of Coporaque. There are a couple of ruins in the small town but we didn’t stop long. Out of Coporaque is a (mainly) downhill ride to the orange bridge which crosses the Rio Colca and brings you into Yanque.

Rio Colca, Peru

Unfortunately, the downhill out of Coporaque meant a crazy uphill from Yanque back to Chivay. My thighs are burning just thinking about it.

Donkey Crossing in Chivay, Peru

Warning: Donkey Crossing

Just a warning to non-bikers: it is NOT a quick ride. We were told it’s a quick 2-3 hours bike tour. We took about 5-6 hours because we were not anticipating the intense uphill riding (i.e. walking our bikes uphill) we encountered at the end of our circuit.

Biking around canyon country, Peru

Biking and photography at the same time!

Successfully warmed up, we embarked on our 2D/1N trek into the Colca Canyon the next day. Although almost all tour companies in Chivay offer Colca Canyon treks, it’s pretty easy to do the trek solo.

Colca Canyon, Peru

Trekking into Colca Canyon

To properly experience Colca Canyon trekking, you have to make it as far as the little town of Cabanaconde. (Only about 20% of Colca Canyon visitors get this far – most only make it to the scenic viewpoint of Cruz del Condor). The shortest way to the canyon floor is the 2-3 hour hike from Cabanaconde to Sangalle (aka ‘the oasis’).

Colca Canyon, Peru

It’s a 1200m descent on steep, zigzagging paths, where upon reaching the bottom of the canyon, you can stay overnight in basic thatched-roof bungalows (S/.15 or CDN $7/pp) or campgrounds.

Colca Canyon, Peru

The ‘oasis’ is almost immediately visible once you start the trek into the Colca, but like any desert oasis, it’s deceptively far. (and here’s hoping it’s not just a beautiful mirage)

Sangalle, Peru (Colca Canyon)

View of Sangalle (the oasis) from afar

Sangalle, Peru (Colca Canyon)

Getting closer to the oasis!

After 2.5 hours of watching the oasis grow closer and closer, we finally made it.

Sangalle, Peru (Colca Canyon)

What the oasis looks like, up close and personal

Sangalle (“the oasis) is beautiful. A rich patch of green bound in by the Rio Colca and the sheer canyon walls.

Rio Colca, Sangalle, Peru

Rio Colca cutting through the Colca Canyon

Bungalows (Sangalle, Peru)

The little bungalows we stayed in while in Sangalle.

With no electricity, no phones, and no internet access, there was no choice but for us to relax. I even finally perfected the art of lounging in a hammock!

Sangalle, Peru (Colca Canyon)

Thanks to Jason’s tutelage:

Sangalle, Peru (Colca Canyon)

After a evening of candlelight dining (out of necessity, not romance), card-playing, and star-gazing, we called it a night.

The next day, we left around 8am to start the tough climb out of the canyon. We were told it’ll take 3-4 hours, so we wanted to start in the cooler morning air. I’m a slower trekker than Jason, so I decided to get a head start on the trail, while Jason was packing up.

Sangalle, Peru (Colca Canyon)

Goodbye beautiful oasis!

As I was climbing up, I noticed that the trail seemed much narrower and steeper than the climb down. ‘How did I climb down this yesterday, with such ease?‘, I found myself wondering. Typically, the climb down requires more concentration than the climb up, since the trail is covered with loose rocks. Any momentary lapse in concentration would likely result in me losing my footing and slipping (not enough to make me fall flat on my arse, but enough to make me concentrate hard for the next 30 minutes).

Colca Canyon, Peru

Concentrating on the trek down

However, on the climb up, I was concentrating way too hard for it to seem right. After about 20 minutes up, I realized that I had taken the wrong trail (Groan!) And by ‘wrong trail’ I meant the crazy-steep, really narrow trail that perhaps only mountain goats were sure-footed enough to take. So I had to turn around, edge slowly back down, and start all over again. By then, Jason had already caught up with me! So much for my head start 😛

On top of that, (oh, you’re gonna laugh) after we trekked up for about half an hour, I suddenly realized that I had left my iPhone in our bungalow. Back in the oasis. Back at the bottom of the canyon!

So Jason decided that I should keep on going, while he turned back around to trek back down into the oasis to get it. He gave all his valuables to me, tied his backpack to a nearby post, and sprinted back down. I continued my slow ascent up the canyon. Every 10 minutes or so, I would turn around and see if I could catch a glimpse of him.

Two and a half hours later, I was finishing the last leg of the trek out of the canyon and I still hadn’t caught sight of him. I was really getting worried – until some power trekkers caught up with me near the top and told me that they had seen my husband (i.e. the only other Asian person in the canyon) further down. About 20 minutes after I reached the top, he rounded the corner into view.

And he had my iPhone with him. That’s my hero! 🙂

Colca Canyon, Peru

My hero!