The adrenalin capital of Chile

Our next destination was Villarrica, a small town in the center of Chile. This time we took a direct bus to cross the border, which seemed to be much faster than the last time I crossed it here. One reason might be that the busses have a separate counter, but then the lines in general were not as long as they were about three weeks ago. It still took us the whole day to get to Villarrica and its famous volcano.

The lake and the prominent volcano bear the same name as our town: Villarrica

Our original plan was to climb the volcano right the next day, but we couldn’t get a spot on one tours. All tours leave from the neighboring Pucon, but most companies don’t have a pick-up service from Villarrica, which is much more quiet and less touristy. Instead we decided to have a look at Pucon and try out an activity called Hydrospeed, which was recommended to me somewhere along the way. And it stood up to my expectations, as it was a lot of fun to go down the river rapids (up to class III) with nothing but a small floatation device.

Hydrospeed is rafting without a boat!

In some places the river was quite shallow, so it’s not much of a surprise that we got a bit bruised during the tour. Maybe it was not the best idea to do this on the day before the volcano (we had managed to book one for the day after), but was still worth every bit of it.

The start of the trail to the top of the volcano was already above the clouds

When we got picked up early the next morning, the sky was covered in clouds. We picked up all necessary equipment in Pucon and continued to the base of some skiing lifts at an altitude of about 1400m. Here, we had a blue sky and sunshine as we were already above the clouds. Although most people took the lift, Benno and I decided to walk up. Tobias, our guide for the tour, and two other Germans joined us. It was actually quite nice to be the last ones, as it was really quiet and we could go at our own pace without being constantly overtaken by some of the other 250 people that were heading up that day.

The top is still clearly visible as we start the hike with about 250 other people
An old ski lift station that was destroyed by a landslide during the last eruption in 2015

At 2200m we had to put on crampons and get out the pickaxe, because we had reached the snow. By now the top of the mountain, which had been at clear sight for most of the ascend, was covered by clouds. We continued slowly but steadily until 2600m, about 200m below the summit, where we were completely surrounded by clouds. Here we decided to turn around, because we wouldn’t be able to see the inside of the crater, where supposedly lava can be seen most of the days. Additionally, falling rocks are posing a greater hazard with the poor visibility conditions.

We’re ready to tackle the snow, which covers the top of the volcano
The clouds appeared during midday and stuck around until much later in the afternoon

The way back down was much faster and much easier than what you may expect. The first 400m were a giant snow slide, where we sat down on a little plastic bowl and went down at a speed that was sometimes too fast to be comfortable. It was still a lot of fun! The rest of the descend was pretty easy, as we took a different trail, where the soil was loose. This allowed us to slide down a little bit with every step we took, which is also not as tough on the knees.

We used a giant snow slide for the first part of the descend

The dry and loose soil enables us to take a more direct way back

The perfect way to end the day was the bring-and-share barbecue at our hostel. In Germany, most of the times we bring our own meat and a salad to share with everyone. In Chile it’s different: Their barbecue consists mostly of meat, which is why nobody knew what to do with the pasta salad that Benno and I had made. Nevertheless there was more than enough to eat for everyone. We even got introduced to a typical dish from Chile – “Disco”, a mix of fried onions with chicken, beef, pork and mussels.

Real Chilean barbecue with Disco and lots of meat

We used our last day in Villarrica for a quick visit to “Los Pozones”, one of the many hot springs in the area. They consist of several natural basins with varying water temperature, from luke warm to really hot. It was quite relaxing, but involved a lot of hustle on the way back. Due to a huge traffic jam, the way back to Villarrica took almost four hours instead of two and we got to the bus station just on time for our night bus to Santiago.

More people had the idea of spending some time at the “Los Pozones” hot springs

Racing time

After the “Huemul Circuit” we needed one day of recovery, just relaxing at our campground. The weather was also pushing us for a break, as it was really windy and a constant rain started in the afternoon . So instead we wanted to cook a bit more fancy than just pasta and tomato sauce, but even the most simple dish can be quite difficult to make when all the supermarkets are empty. Looking back we were quite happy that we had brought our food for the trail from Chile.

Empty supermarkets were normal in El Chalten

The next day the weather was looking great again and we had all day until 8pm, when our bus was scheduled to leave for Bariloche. By the time we had repacked our backpacks, it was almost noon. However, we still wanted to get a closer look at one of the major attractions of El Chalten – Mount “Fitz Roy”. The hike to the viewpoint at the “Laguna de los Tres” takes usually a full day, but we had only half a day left.

On our last day in the area we decided to take a closer look at Mount “Fitz Roy”

Fortunately most of the trail is relatively flat, so we managed to keep up a fast pace up to the last steep ascend. In contrast to the “Huemul Circuit”, this hike was really crowded, as it is also a very popular hike with all the day-tourists, who come from El Calafate for just one day. Therefore, we didn’t want to stay at the laguna for much longer than a short snack break. The way back was a little faster so that we reached the campground on time to collect our belongings and head to the bus terminal.

It was a bit difficult to get a picture without tourists at the “Laguna de los Tres”
We passed by “Laguna Capri” on the way back down

For the next 24 hours the bus was our home, taking us more than 1300 kilometers north, back to Bariloche. It was a long way, but Benno’s flight was leaving from Santiago – even further north – and he had only about a week left. To reduce a bit of the hustle, we picked two towns, where we would spent most of the time. One of them was Bariloche, where I showed Benno my favorite spot in the area, “Cerro Campanario”, before discovering something new – “Cerro Catedral” and “Rifugio Frey”.

The view at “Cerro Campanario” was even better than last time

The hike around “Cerro Catedral” was another full day trip. Our travel guide had estimated the time for the whole trip to take around ten hours. As we needed to take a bus to the start of the trail, we were dependent on the bus schedule (once per hour), leaving us only about eleven hours in total. We could have taken two lifts up to save some time and most of the ascend, but it was way too expensive and we preferred to invest our money in a nice steak for dinner, which was about the same price.

The ascend from Villa Catedral was steep and mostly on ski slopes

During winter, the slopes of “Cerro Catedral” turn into the most famous ski resort of the area, so the way up was mostly on ski slopes or on gravel roads. However, higher up the trail was closed as they were working on the slopes. This turned out to be even better for us, because we were allowed to use the second lift for free. We also had a clear conscience, as we had intended to walk all the way, but couldn’t due to the trail closure.

We got lucky and had to take the second lift – for free
Beyond the pass lies the Nahuel Huapi National Park

The trail continued from the upper lift station. Shortly after we turned off the main trail, which was full of people who had taken the lift all the way, and like on the first part of the ascend we were the only ones on our trail. This time the landscape was completely different and the whole mountain side was covered in rocks of all sizes, which required a bit of scrambling (easy climbing) as well. It was a lot of fun and we enjoyed it very much, as we felt that we were good on time.

The landscape had changed and required some scrambling
Behind the broad mountain pass…

In the early afternoon we reached a broad mountain pass and started our descend into the neighboring valley, which contains two picturesque lagoons and the “Rifugio Frey”. Here, the number of tourists increased quite a lot, because there is an easier way to get to the hut. We chose to do this for the way back, as it is less steep. The trail was really pretty with all the flowers that were growing on the surrounding forest floor. However, the end turned out to be a bit tiring, because the landscape didn’t change as much anymore.

… lies a nice valley with two lakes
“Refugio Frey” is very popular with day tourists, who come from the other side
Ducks enjoying the solitude at “Laguna Tonchek”

In total it was still a nice hike and we even managed to finish it in only seven hours, including the breaks we took along the way. By the end of the day we got back to Bariloche quite early and still had some time to relax, before heading out for another grand steak at “El Boliche de Alberto”.

The forest floor is covered in flowers on the way back to Villa Catedral
The last part of the trail is along “Lago Gutierrez”

Circuit of air, water, earth and fire

Once we had all the required equipment together we were eager to get started. The next morning was perfect for our hike – blue sky, sunshine and not too much wind. We registered at the park office, which is for free but mandatory, and started the “Huemul Circuit” – or as we named it “Circuit of the elements” – a four days hike totaling about 60 kilometers. Our backpacks were quite heavy with our camping equipment and all the food, but we didn’t mind, because we were fresh and looking for some adventures.

A fresh start into our new adventure

The first day was an easy one with trails gently going uphill through nice forests and swampy grassland. In the afternoon we reached the valley of the Tunel River and got a good view of the “Cerro Huemul”, which will be by our side for the next few days. To reach the campsite, we had to cross some smaller rivers on rocks, tree trunks or barefoot. We hardly met anyone during the day until we got to the campsite, located under some tall Lenga trees. About 15 tents were pitched by the end of the day, making it still a rather quiet place to stay.

Forests and swampy grasslands dominate the first part of the journey
Descend into the Tunel River valley

The weather forecast had predicted strong winds during the night and some rain until about 10am the next morning. This proved to be pretty accurate. The winds had no effect on us, because we were sheltered by the Lenga trees and by cliffs on two sides of the little forest. However, when we checked the front of the tent at 6am, we found a large pool of water which had gathered there and was threatening to enter our backpacks and the inside of our tent. We acted quickly, moved our backpacks inside the tent and dug a trench to drain the water.

Getting up at 6am to prevent our tent from getting flooded
The aftermath of the first night – but our tent stayed dry

Sure enough the rain stopped at 10am and we had managed to keep everything dry. When we left the tent to pack up, I ran into Dan, the guy from Israel whom I had met in Bariloche. He had arrived late last night and was quite unlucky, because had pitched his tent in a spot, in which a small river had developed during the night. Now most of his stuff was wet, but he had to return to El Chalten anyways to meet up with Dor, the other guy from our trip in Bariloche.

An unexpected encounter in the middle of nowhere – Dan from Bariloche

We continued the trail past Laguna Tunel, where the terrain was only rocks without proper trail markings, making it quite difficult to follow at times. But eventually we found the first river crossing, where we needed our rented equipment: It was a single steel rope with a little trolley. Here we met Steve and Jenn, both Canadians, and two Germans. Together we formed “Team River Crossing” and helped each other with the passage.

“Team River Crossing” at work
The glaciers of “Cerro Grande” at the end of the Tunel River valley

The following part of the trail was a long and steep ascend to the “Paso del Viento”, the pass of the wind. On the way we had beautiful views of the Tunel River valley and the glaciers of “Cerro Grande”, but also had some troubles with unstable or non-existing trails to avoid walking on the glacier, which we were not equipped for. And although the wind was not as strong as in the morning, it was blowing quite strong and cold up on the pass. It was all worth it – the view of the Southern Patagonian Icefield couldn’t have been more rewarding!

Luckily the winds at the “Paso del Viento” were not as strong as in the morning
A stunning view of the enormous Southern Patagonian Icefield

The camp for the night was located at a little lagoon in a small valley just behind the pass. Here we were only eleven people. And the forecast was right again as it stayed dry and calm, but it got very cold. The night proved to be perfect for star gazing, which we did from within our tent, where we could stay in the warmth of our sleeping bags. There was no moon and no artificial lights, but also no camera with long exposure to capture the clear view of the milky-way.

The second camp hosted even less people and was located at a small lagoon

From the lagoon the trail continued more or less at the same altitude with more views of the Icefield and the Viedma glacier, which extends from the Icefield. The highest point for that day was the “Paso Huemul”. The way down was the challenge of the day, as it was straight down and therefore very steep. To add some difficulty, the whole trail was covered with the thick branches of Nire shrubs and their roots, which sometimes crossed the path at knee-height. After we lost 700 m of altitude, we reached that day’s destination – a bay full of icebergs.

The icefield was in view for most of the day
The Nire shrubs added some difficulty on the descend to “Lago del Viedma”
Camping with icebergs is not as cold as you may think

The last day began with a firework of colors as the sun rose over our quiet bay of icebergs. After we had packed up, we hiked to Tunel Bay, where the trail ended. This part of the hike was not very challenging, just long and mostly flat. However, we were still happy that the forecast was wrong for today, because it would have been very difficult with the predicted storm-like winds. Still, we felt like celebrating and did so with Steve and Jenn and a delicious steak dinner.

The sky was on fire at sunrise
Another river crossing was waiting for us just before Tunel Bay
The steak we had with Steve and Jenn was well earned

On the way to wonderland

Close to Punta Arenas is the most famous National Park in southern Chile – Torres del Paine. I’ve seen pictures of rocky mountains and turquoise lakes, the landscape you imagine, when you think of Patagonia. But the closer I got to it, the more I read and heard about the tons of tourists, who come here every year during the peak season (December through February). Plus, it’s really complicated if you want to do a multi-day hike, because you need to reserve the campgrounds, which are managed by three different companies and they’re all booked out months in advance.

The closest we got to Torres del Paine was our layover in Puerto Natales

Therefore we decided to try our luck in El Chalten, Argentina’s hiking capital in Patagonia. It’s supposed to be less crowded, more relaxed and the campsites are free and without reservations. To get there, we had to cross the border back into Argentina, which was much easier than getting to Chile up in Bariloche. Our journey led us through El Calafate, another major tourist hub in the area. However, most people fly in and out, staying only a few days in the city.

El Calafate was on our way to El Chalten

El Calafate is well known for the massive glacier, which is located about 80 km west of the town. The “Perito Moreno” glacier is special, because it’s the only glacier, which hasn’t been receding in the last decades. It’s easily accessible, as it reaches down to about 200 m above sea level and gives an impressive sight with its width of more than 5 km.

One half of the Perito Moreno glacier
The glacier is 50-70 meters high at its end

The glacier is part of the South Patagonian Icefield and flows straight into a mountain side, cutting the lake at its base in two. The lakes are still connected through a large tunnel in the ice, which allows for the lakes to maintain their water level. And every time a big chunk of ice breaks off, it plunges into the water sending a wave of ripples across the calm surface.

The glacier runs into a mountain and separated the two lakes

There is a large system of boardwalks, which helps to spread the tourists, making it feel like a little less crowded than it actually is. It also gives the opportunity to get a good view of the glacier from different angles. However, half a day is more than enough to see everything, as we didn’t want to spend a fortune on a boat cruise or a glacier walk. Instead we used the afternoon to get to El Chalten, which is just a few hours northeast of El Calafate.

Benno joined me for three weeks
First row on the bus to El Chalten

El Chalten proved to be a quiet town with only about 6000 inhabitants, but excellent hiking possibilities. The weather forecast was promising and we had soon spotted our desired multi-day hike – the “Huemul Circuit”. But we couldn’t start right on the next morning, because we had to rent some equipment, which was only available later that day. After organizing everything else,  we went on some shorter hikes to the “Mirador de los Condores” and the “Mirador las Aguilas” for a  first impression of the area.

The condors were nowhere to be seen, probably because of the strong winds
A great view of “Lago del Viedma” from the “Mirador Las Aguilas”

Magellan and the kings

From Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas I took a flight to meet up with Benno, a friend of mine from Germany, who is joining me for about three weeks. Punta Arenas is located in the south of Chile, in a province called Magellanes Region, named after the famous explorer, who discovered the navigational channel between the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean, known as the Strait of Magellan.

Punta Arenas is located at the Strait of Magellan

It’s the southernmost city in continental South America and for sure has a climate that suits penguins. Just outside the city is Magdalena Island, which is inhabited by thousands of these little animals. However, I had already seen quite a few of them not too long ago on the Cape Peninsula in South Africa, so I opted for something different: A day trip to Tierra del Fuego with a visit to its king penguin colony.

Heading to Tierra del Fuego with lots of other tourist busses

After two hours of ferry ride we reached Porvenir a small harbor town on Tierra del Fuego. Here, we learned a bit about the Selknam, the indigenous group of about 4000 people that used to live here before the European settlers came in and killed most of them for pastures and through diseases, to which they had no natural resistance. In 1967 the last one of them died, and with her a proud tribe of people, who were tall, generally good looking and had managed to live with the strong winds of the area like nobody had before.

The museum in Porvenir has a little exposition on the Selknam people

From there we continued to the eastern end of “Bahia Inutil” (Useless Bay), which was only useless to the explorers, because it was too shallow for anchoring their ships. For the king penguins it’s just the right location for their colony, as the shallower water protects them from orcas, their predators. As excavations have shown, they’ve been living here for hundreds of years, but gave it up at some point only to rediscover it in 2007. Back then there used to be just a few of them, now their number has grown up to 150, about 50 of them were present when we visited them.

The main attraction for us was the king penguin colony

The royal inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego

On our way back to the mainland, we passed through the tiny town of Cerro Sombrero, which was built for the servicing of the oil and gas fields in the area. Unfortunately we could not have a look inside the oldest cinema in Chile, because it was closed due to the heavy winds. This meant, that we’d have to be lucky for the ferry back to the mainland, which doesn’t operate, if the waves are too high. But after about ten minutes of waiting we were able to enter the boat, bringing us safely to the other side.

Cerro Sombrero is all about servicing the oil and gas industry

Unfortunately it was raining too much to get a better look at this ship wreck

The next day we had nothing planned, because we wanted to take a bus to El Calafate (Argentina), but we only managed to get tickets for the day after. In the morning it was rainy and we didn’t do a lot, but in the afternoon it cleared up and we went for the Nao Victoria museum. The “Nao Victoria” was one of ships of Magellan’s fleet, which was sponsored by the Spanish king in hope for a new trading route to India. The Portuguese king did not believe in his mission and had denied him the funds for the expedition. The “Nao Victoria” is also the only one Magellan’s ships that completed the sail around the world and proved the theory of the globe. It even returned with enough goods that it paid off all the bills for the expedition.

A life-size model of Magellan’s “Nao Victoria”

On board of the “Nao Victoria”

Other life-size ship models in the museum include a ship to colonize southern Chile from the north, the “HMS Beagle”, which was Darwin’s ship for his expeditions, and the “James Caird”. This is the dinghy that played a key role in one of the mayor Antarctica expeditions, because it was improvised with a refit to suit sailing the rough oceans to get help after the main ship had been stuck and sunk in the antarctic ice. The rescue mission was successful and all men were rescued.

Darwin’s “HMS Beagle” seems to be the newest addition to the museum

The “James Caird” was a dinghy before its refit