Part 4 in a series: Everyone needs to be alone sometimes, especially The Geek and even MontaraManDan. In Patagonia we each found a slice of solitude in the steep meadows and forests that rise above Estancia Helsingfors, a remote ranch at the edge of Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park.
But first we had to get there from our base camp of the past four days at El Chaltén. The wildlife of the steppe below the rugged Andes Mountain provided more than serviceable entertainment as our tour bus looped around Lago Viedma to our new home at the estancia.
We saw ostrich-like rhea, zigging and zagging across the chaparral like NFL running backs with tail feathers.
We walked to the edge of shallow ponds to gawk at black-necked swans and salmon-colored Chilean flamingoes that seemed to take flight the moment a camera was raised. Andean condors stood watch from ridge lines or soared overhead.
A trio of gray fox kits trotted in hopeful circles at one turnout, looking for a handout that never came.
And we saw scores of guanaco butts as the nomadic camelids of the steppe fled the noisy approach of our bus.
The 115-mile drive took nearly five hours, in large part because the ranch sits at the end of a 45-mile gravel road that runs along the southern shore of Lago Viedma. The endless photo opportunities and a coffee break at the historic La Leona Rest Area and Countryside Hotel – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid once bunked there – didn’t help. We arrived at Helsingfors at least an hour behind schedule.
Our group had the estancia’s homey yellow lodge, Hosteria Helsingfors, all to itself. The hosteria is nestled within a wind break of cypress trees near the shore of the lake.
Our hosts welcomed us with a lamb barbecue that included beef empanadas, salad, sizzling fried provolone and other native goodies, all of it washed down with wine or agua con gas. MontaraManDan was overjoyed to discover a Coca Lite in the cooler.
A handful of folks took a short hike along the windswept lake to loosen their limbs and shake the gravel from their boots. But after some 40 miles of hiking the previous three days out of El Chaltén, MontaraManDan and The Geek decided to take the afternoon off. As a consequence of the group’s tardy arrival, dinner was served just three hours after the barbecue. No one could do it justice.
The next morning, after a leisurely breakfast, our local guide set a brisk pace as we began a nine-mile round trip from the lodge to Laguna Azul, a stunning blue glacial lake 2,100 feet above Viedma in the shadow of Cerro Norte, one of the towering stone peaks that make up the Fitz Roy massif.
Several members of “Team Dolphin” — a leftover nickname from our day on the Beagle Channel that sounds way cooler than “Team Guanaco Butt” – chose to ride horseback. MontaraManDan and The Geek decided to navigate the meadows and stands of old growth trees on foot. The team reunited as the trail got steep and the horses were left in the care of an estancia wrangler.
The final ascent to the lake up twisting dirt paths, small bridges and weeping rock steps left The Geek wondering “why the hurry” and a huffing and puffing MontaraManDan wondering “will I survive this climb.”
But Lago Azul was true to its name and worth the effort. Team Dolphin was the only group on the mountain, so we enjoyed noshing our lunches and snapping pictures without fear of photo bombs by strangers.
Refreshed, a slice of the group trooped back into the valley double time – at least one hiker determined to beat the horseback riders back to Helsingfors – while others slowed it down.
The Geek, who drifted to the back of the pack with great intention, described the hike back in her personal journal:
“It was magical. Vast expanses of grassland. A rolling stream tumbling straight from the glacier lake. No voices. No noises of machinery anywhere. I strolled. I took pictures. I realized how much my solitary sojourns nourish my soul.”
MontaraManDan could tell The Geek was having an extended moment, so he deftly drifted away and enjoyed a moment of his own. Stopping for a swig of water in the shade of a large glacial rock about a mile above the lodge, he took in the beauty of the snow-capped mountains, the lush green hillsides, the turquoise water of Lago Viedma and the ruddy steppe laid out in silent relief beneath a bright blue sky.
Time slowed. The daylight intensified. The colors popped. The rocky skyline of the Andes Mountains seemed just a bit crisper. Shhhhh.
This is the fourth in a series of posts on our hiking tour of Patagonia, booked through Berkeley, CA-based Wilderness Travel. We have received no compensation for writing these posts. The observations and opinions expressed are entirely our own. Your results may vary.