Sunday, 3 January 2016

PATAGONIA FOR CHRISTMAS

Torres del Paine
If there is one mountain area I would travel to time and time again it as to be Patagonia. It has been 18 years since my first visit here, so long overdue for another trip. This time it was even more special as Karen and I were on our Honeymoon for 3 weeks over the Christmas period. This wonderful place at the southern end of the world and a stones throw from Antarctica, is stunningly beautiful. Patagonia is a huge area straddling Chile and Argentina and has so many amazing places to explore. Mountains, glaciers, forest, lakes and unique wildlife.  After a couple of days in Santiago, the capital city of Chile, we headed south on a 3.5 hour plane journey to Punta Arenas. Our first area to trek was the Torres del Paine Circuit. One of the finest treks in the world. It's a cicular route around those most famous of rock towers, the Torres del Paine. Even if you've never been here, you no doubt have seen many images of these. The Paine National Park is much more than these famous pinnacles though. Every day there is something even more spectacular. We decided on doing the shorter 'W' circuit, as it is named. The full 'O' circuit takes around 8-10 days. We wanted to see the highlights.
Cerro Paine & te Valle Ascencio from Mirador de las Torres
We went for the camping option, despite the route having many hostels and huts you could spend the night in. Tenting  is by far the best choice as the two most spectacular valleys, The Valle Ascencio & the Valle Frances are more remote and haveno huts. If you are looking for solitude on this trek then you won't get it! By virtue of it's accessibility and numerous huts, hotels and refuges, there are many folk on the trail but you can find peace and quiet and of course the spectacular scenery doesn't detract from the shuffling, panting people passing by.

On the moraine ridge looking toward Torre Central
Mirador Torres del Paine
We couldn't have wished for a more stunning day when we headed up to one of the highlights of the trek, The Mirador Torres dal Paine. These iconic granite towers are the centre piece of the National Park. We got up at 2am, this time of year the sun is up at 5am so we just missed the orange glow on the Towers, but who cares? What spectacular early morning light. Patagonia is notorious for it's high winds, even at low altitudes but this morning there wasn't even a breeze.

Torrent Duck (Merganetta armata)
The National Park as many wonderful and unique wildlife with some fabulous birds. Highlight for me on day two was the Torrent Duck. It gets its name from the unusual location and means of catching small fish in fast moving rivers. Even at our campsite back down in one of the valleys we were amazed at the number of birds roaming around the tents, not a care in the world about the humans invading their space.

Southern Caracara (Caracara Plancus)
The trek as constantly changing scenery, on day 3 it travels for much of the way alongside the beautiful Lago Nordenskjold. On the map it looks like an easy day but if you continue on past the refuges and up to the start of the Valle Frances then it is a 9-10 hour day with big packs. It's well worth the effort so you can savour the following days walk up into the stunning Valle Frances.

The Valle Frances

We set off up into the Valle Frances in drizzle and low cloud next morning. It wasn't looking good, with low cloud but by the time we reached the head of the valley the skies cleared and it was a glorious afternoon. Such is the weather in Patagonia you just don't know what you are going to get, the forecast was for heavy rain!

Early evening walk with the beautiful light on the Cuernos
Our final days trekking out to Lago Grey and the snout of the Glacier Grey was an easier walk, we just carried day sacks as we were reversing the walk once we reached the Lago Grey ' Mirador'. There are very few places in the world where you can walk to the snout of a glacier which is only at an altitude of around 300m and sunbathe in hot sunshine!
Glacier Grey
Icebergs on Lago Grey
Austral Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium nana) they are tiny, and cute!
The West face of Cerro Paine Grande
Some great wildlife, more wonderful mountain scenery and warm evening sun as we headed back to our final camp at Paine Grande. To get back to civilisation the following day, we took the boat service out across Lago Pehoe. A 30 minute across the water with stunning views.

The boat ride out on Lago Pehoe
We left the Paine National Park and headed north to the next most 'famous' trekking area in Patagonia. The Los Glaciares National Park. The nearest town to here is El Chalten. It seems to grow bigger every year, my first visit there wasn't even a tarmac road to get to it. I guess you could say it's the equivalent of Chamonix to Mont Blanc or Fort William to Ben Nevis.

Cerro Solo
El Chalten is a good base to do day walks from. There are numerous, excellent trails which take you up to some amazing view points. Our first hike in the area took us up to the popular Laguna Torre. It's a lovely, easy walk through beautiful Lenga, Nirre & Southern Beech trees. More lovely wildlife as you walk through the forest.
Magellanic Woodpecker (Campephilus magellanicus)
There was warm sunshine lower down the hill but up at the Laguna the cloud was down. At the Laguna there is the view point of Cerro Torre, on of the finest mountains in the area. The amazing rock spire sits alongside Cerro Fitzroy and the two mountains are the iconic spires of the area. Right on the edge of the Southern Patagonian Icecap they receive a fair amount of precipitation and high winds. 
Laguna Torre, Cerro Torre is to the right of the glacier
We sat up at the Laguna and watched the icebergs falling off the glacier break up and melt. The winds picked up on the way back. Having set off late in the day, it became quiet on the way down and we were treated to a wonderful display from a pair of Condors, the iconic bird of the Andes.
Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus)
So Christmas Eve arrives, along with very strong, cold winds in El Chalten. Cloud down and still no views of Fitroy (you can see the top of Cerro Fitzroy from the village on a clear day). We had a rest day. Overnight and into Christmas Day and it turned colder and precipitation fell in the form of snow down to about 250m. It snowed constantly throughout the day. We got out anyway and certainly had a white Christmas. Our walk up to the best viewpoint of Cerro Fitzroy was fun but not a single view of the mountains. Normally you get views all the way up to the Poincenot campsite below this iconic mountain. Not today.
Low snow, No Fitzroy
We headed out from El Chalten the following day and back into some sunshine further east at El Calafate. Blue skies in the late afternoon and snow on the lower hills. El Calafate sits on the massive Lago Argentina. A beautiful setting and geat spot for loads of birdlife including Chilean Flamingo and many birds of prey.
Chilean flamingo (Phoenicopterus chilensis)
Female Cinerous Harrier (Circus cinerus)
Our final wee jaunt was to go and visit the Magellanic Penguins down at the Straits of Magellan. Commercial fishing and oil spills have lowered the number of these lovely birds. But no protected and better awreness so hopefully the numbers will rise. What a delight to see these penguis at close quaters and a great end to our fabulous trip to Patagonia.
Magellanic penguin (Spheniscus magellanicus)

3 comments:

Michelle Doroszenko said...

The owl is my favourite wildlife pic, so beautiful.

Seereen said...

Fantastic Gary! Brought back some lovely memories. Definitely one of my favourite treks ever and, I wish I had your photo skills :-) Particularly the wildlife!!

Gary said...

Thanks for your kind comments Seereen! Hope you are enjoying Russia?