6 mins

The way of the condor: A wild trip through Argentina's Patagonian Andes

We take to the wild Argentine slopes of the Patagonian Andes for a first look – and to help create – a route to rival Torres del Paine’s ever-busy W Trail...

Spotting Condor in Argentina's Andean Patagonia (Shutterstock)

Diego scrambled to the top of the tump and declared, “Now I see the light.” Being eternally optimistic is a prerequisite to being a mountain guide. I wasn’t at all surprised when, five minutes later, he had unsheathed his machete and was attacking the dense undergrowth of spiky neneo, thorny calafate and a tough, stubborn plant called mata negra with renewed vigour.

I was the slowest, oldest, least limber member of a five-man hiking party – the others were two super-fit Argentine guides, a marathon-running tour operator and a videographer in his late twenties – that was getting ever more entangled in the mountainous wilderness of Los Glaciares National Park in the south-west of Argentina.

Los Glaciares National Park in the south-west of Santa Cruz province, Argentina (Shutterstock)

Los Glaciares National Park in the south-west of Santa Cruz province, Argentina (Shutterstock)

Signposts a couple of hours out of Estancia Helsingfors (Chris Moss)

Signposts a couple of hours out of Estancia Helsingfors (Chris Moss)

Our plan: to walk south from Estancia Helsingfors to Estancia Cristina, two centenarian sheep farms deep in the Andes. We had five days to cover the 60-70km. That didn’t sound too hard. Torres del Paine National Park’s famous W Trek, just over the border in Chile, was 71km and thousands of people completed it in four or five days.

Indeed, so many that just under 290,000 people visited the park in 2018 and that despised buzzword “overtourism” was being uttered. But Argentine Patagonia presents its own particular challenges. Our first aim was to find a trail where the park authorities had omitted to develop one.

We wanted to see if Argentina, lagging far behind Chile in terms of adventure tourism, could offer intrepid walkers a hike in its Los Glaciares National Park to rival those in Torres del Paine – without the heavy (foot and vehicular) traffic, gangs of campers, unnecessary lodges and posh hotels.

Going off track

A group shot outside the Estancia Helsingfors before the walk (Chris Moss)

A group shot outside the Estancia Helsingfors before the walk (Chris Moss)

Estancia Helsingfors was our point of departure – and our last night of cosy comforts. At the end of a long gravel side road off  the famous Ruta 40, it sits in sombre isolation at an elbow on Lago Viedma. The only neighbours were a herd of twitchy guanacos and some frolicking criollo horses.

Towering above the homestead were the ice-scarred peaks of Cerro Huemul and Cerro Mascarello and, on the cloudy, gusty afternoon we arrived, it looked like an end-of-the-world outpost. 

But the estancia had managed to convince a gifted Uruguayan chef, Nicolás, to stay for a season; the ribeyes, soups, salads and full-bodied malbec served to our little recce team, combined with open fires and soft beds, made the prospect of cup-a-soups and tents over the next few days less than enticing.

Still, come dawn, we set out on our mission. “We’re going to get wet,” warned Diego, taking a last look at the forecast. Expectation management is another prerequisite of the hiking guide. I got an estancia employee to take a Scott-style group expedition shot and we left Helsingfors and its wind-breaking poplars behind for the exposed slopes of the lakeside.

Summit else

A condor contrasted against a blue, Andean sky (Shutterstock)

A condor contrasted against a blue, Andean sky (Shutterstock)

We were heading south along a valley hemmed in by the looming snowcapped Cerro Norte and Cerro Moyano mountains on the west and Cerros Mesón and Masters to the east – all had summits between 2,300 and 2,600m above sea level. Our first stage was to get to the source of Lago Viedma, which involved rounding the base of a mountain and leaving the lake behind for a time.

A couple of signs indicated this section of the route was a day’s walk for those staying at the estancia and, indeed, there was already a rough track through the dense undergrowth. The Patagonia Andes have many of the same species as the vast steppe to the east, but are somewhat less arid

Trying yerba mate - green tea (Chris Moss)

Trying yerba mate - green tea (Chris Moss)

Hardy, ankle and knee-height bushes prosper and multiply. There was also chaura with its tiny, tough leaves; llareta, a Martian dome of a plant that is rock hard; plus a very low plant known as ‘devil’s strawberry’. Together they conspired to pinch and prick exposed skin, and tug and tear at our loose kit.

There are no sheep or rheas in the wilder uplands, and few guanacos to cut back the shrubbery. At the same time, the native nothofagus beeches seem to struggle to grow tall at southern latitudes, and the lenga and ñirre trees were usually low-slung dwarf varieties. Glacial erosion has left in its wake a rocky, rough, scarily steep topograph

Combine all these factors and you have quite a feat for foot-travel. My gaiters did sterling work, although the cord at the top loved to escape and grab a passing branch from time to time. We lunched at a small blue lake called Laguna del Aserradero – alluding to lumber cutting, probably from the old days when wood was the only fuel nearby.

Diego and his trainee porter-cum-assistant, Machi, had packed bagfuls of delicious empanadas and we made sure we stayed hydrated as we glugged water and yerba mate tea. Another four hours took us on to an alluvial plain framed by a crown of sharply pointed peaks, some with a dusting of snow. We still had a good way to climb.

Cutting through the low bush (Chris Moss)

Cutting through the low bush (Chris Moss)

The Los Glaciares National Park sits at 50 degrees south of the equator but a climb of even 1,000m is akin to swapping summer for winter.

Down here, where the winds blow cold and fierce, the temperature drops fast as you ascend. But it is these extreme conditions that make the park so special. Ice-cloaked summits, their steep slopes sculpted by perpetual frost, burst out of the rainforests.

Glaciers hang from mountains, fringe the lakes, grind away at the valleys. Mists and snowstorms routinely swirl around the highest peaks, but when they clear the views are starkly epic. We met four people at the campsite: two rangers and two fungus collectors, having a quiet quarrel as the latter had lit a campfire the night before.

Forest fires have wreaked havoc in Patagonia. They were the only people we were to meet during the walk. Long treks are, by their nature episodic – something I try to avoid – but this one had an extra quality like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and other fables of human endeavour. It was a hike that delivered its topographies as themed challenges.

A Condor sweeping through the sky (Shutterstock)

A Condor sweeping through the sky (Shutterstock)

On day two, we climbed up ‘the Mountain of Illusory Passes’ – the kind where  you pant and gasp your way to the top of a gap in the mountains, but don’t ever seem to reach it – and then descended through ‘the Valley of Impassable Bush’.

Being the tallest member of the team, I had the added pleasure of being slapped in the face by thorny branches. Diego was mapping the route on an app, which showed we covered only 5.83km during an eight-hour hike; more than half the time we were more or less static, trapped in thorny undergrowth and morass, boggy sphagnum.

Still, after facing this green gauntlet, we had a final climb to a gusty high pass where the uppermost rocks had been smoothed into wave-like forms and, by way of reward, three condors wheeled close by to get a look at us. The pass was a natural eyrie for these majestic creatures in the Andean sky.

We were above them and could see the top of their wings, flashing white where they caught the sun. “I always say a Patagonian hike is a preparation for mountaineering,” said Diego during one of the many breaks. “You have rocks, scree, rivers, boulders, steep climbs and lots of trail finding.”

It was also a preparation for bed. After a hurried bowl of something hot, a foot-wash in an icy stream and a quick glance at the surroundings –  I was too beat to take in its natural beauty – I collapsed into my tent.

Icy paths

Upsala Glacier on Lago Argentino (Chris Moss)

Upsala Glacier on Lago Argentino (Chris Moss)

Day three was relatively smooth sailing. We woke up to a glacier glinting in the dawn sun and proceeded to walk alongside the Río Norte for around five hours.

With his photographer’s keen eye, videographer Marcus pointed out that the river looked as if it had been shot on a slow exposure; the milky greenish colour of many Patagonian watercourses is caused by melting ice from glaciers.

Occasionally, the echo of ice calving resonated along the river valley. We saw the first of several baguales – cows and bulls that have escaped from estancias  and gone feral; these naturally selected 1,000kg beasts are a major problem for park rangers. I had sore shoulders by this stage. Machi laughed at my old rucksack, calling me 'Eric Shipton'.

Boggy dead forest (Chris Moss)

Boggy dead forest (Chris Moss)

If only I was as scrawny and tough as that old hero of the Himalayas. But kit is a major consideration for this walk. I’d never used walking poles as much, or as desperately, as I did over those five days. Patagonia is, among other things, a semi-desert and descending sandy slopes requires sure-footedness or, at least, great care.

Poles take talentless humans some way towards becoming four-legged mammals and while I slipped a few times, my pricey German Leki poles saved my bones and tendons on several occasions. The wild campgrounds were lovely, sited beneath hanging glaciers or beside rivers (cold, clean water is always on tap in the southern Andes).

We dined on amazingly good food, which Diego and Machi cooked up while helping pitch tents, prepare mate and sort out kit. Chatting around the stove, we tried to come up with a catchy name for the hike. The “Two Estancias Walk” was satisfactory, but seemed to emphasise the domestic start and finish rather than the journey between them.

The terrain suggested something linked to nimble pumas (sexy) or even goats (inappropriate). “The Bagual Path” sounded OK; “The Wild Bull Way” could also work, but were bulls cool enough to lure people off Chile’s mobbed W trail?

Trailblazers

End of the trip, posing at Lago Argentino (Chris Moss)

End of the trip, posing at Lago Argentino (Chris Moss)

Day four was heavenly, with the best paths already been hacked through by baguales – another vote for “The Bagual Path”. We walked along the Rio Caterina, in spate after a long summer of melting and recent rains. The sun was out, the sky was clear. Hares dashed around the grassy pampas.

We enjoyed picking berries from the now less bothersome calafate bushes. Machi explained that one of the thorniest plants was known locally as ‘mother-in-law’s pillow’. As the land flattened out we were able to look around and admire the multi-hued rocks, the glaciers tucked into each small valley, the view back to our trials.

Chaura fruit (Chris Moss)

Chaura fruit (Chris Moss)

Diego delivered his verdict on the trail. “If the park rangers’ first priority is conservation, surely their second is education. They have to open up this region so that people see it,” he said passionately. “El Chaltén [the hiking mecca in this region] is already too busy.

We need to get people away from there and from El Calafate. The authorities have a responsibility to help us develop this hike.” When we had to wade across the Caterina, several two-foot-long, peach-coloured fish torpedoed past us in the rapids, turning easily in the current to swim back upriver.

This was now baptised the “River of the Giant Salmon.” We saw a couple more condors spying on us, and a huge bagual bull taking a drink at a small lake, where we stopped for a picnic and a swim.

Fording the Caterina River (Shutterstock)

Fording the Caterina River (Shutterstock)

The bottom was foot-suckingly soft, and the water cold but not alarmingly so. It was my first proper bath since leaving Helsingfors. From here we had a short, sharp climb up into a canyon formed by violent glacial and seismic movements that the Argentines called “Fossil Canyon.”

We climbed some more. Diego was a fan of aggressively direct and obstacle-strewn routes. Eventually we found a high pass and our first good view over the South Patagonian ice field and the magnificent Upsala glacier, one of the largest in Argentina.

As dusk fell, more condors appeared, one of them floating calmly over the glacier’s blue seracs. That night we had a refugio to stay in, but I pitched my tent anyway. I love being alone at night, and prefer sleeping in a tent. I also suspected that, with four tired fellow walkers, at least one would be a drowning warthog of a snorer.

Landing the condor

Torres del Paine National Park, Chilean Patagonia (Shutterstock)

Torres del Paine National Park, Chilean Patagonia (Shutterstock)

We were welcomed at Estancia Cristina as heroes. Well, not quite, but they gave us a couple of puddings while we had our celebratory beers. I stayed on at the estancia for two nights, while the others continued on their separate ways.

A barhop told me I was the only guest that season, who had arrived on foot (the estancia is reached by boat as there are no roads); that felt satisfying, and sufficient reason for another beer. The “Way of the Condor” – the name I eventually decided on, even if the route remains officially title-less – was not easy, not for me anyway as we broke in – and beat – the route and that treacherous undergrowth.

I had swollen feet, badly bruised toes, dead nails, sprained wrists from two falls and pressure on the walking poles, and my skin was cured like a gaucho’s. But the hike is doable by anyone in moderate health. It could be a six or seven day hike.

It could be combined with kit-rafting, lake crossing, or horses perhaps. It could really do with a few rangers being employed to cut a proper trail on the day-two section. But the ‘Way’ is wild and wonderful and it has none of the backpacker folklore or tick-box appeal that’s led to the W circuit becoming oversubscribed.

It has mountain views to rival any in South America and its plains and valleys offer an unfiltered, panoramic window onto some on the continent’s hardiest and least appreciated flora and fauna. It allows you to camp anywhere, to find your own path, to make it as hard or easy as you wish. I see a bright future for this shortish, steep, road-free route.

The next time, I’ll slow things down even more, perhaps climbing a few of the mountains en route, taking a diversion on to the ice-field, maybe learn to ice-climb. For now, though, I was just glad to play a small part in helping to open up this stirring trail. For any keen walker, that’s a buzz almost as high as the walk itself. And in that moment I was Eric Shipton, not Chris Moss.

The trip

The author travelled with Swoop Patagonia (0117 369 0196). The six-day ‘Two Estancias’ guided hike in Los Glaciares NP – or as the author has unofficially called it in this article, ‘The Way of the Condor’ – costs from $2,490pp (£1,917) and includes one night at the Estancia Helsingfors on the shores of Viedma Lake, four nights camping and all meals, transport, guides and porter support. For an additional fee you can add a night at Estancia Cristina. Prices do not include international or domestic flights. 

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