Hiking from Argentina to Chile: 2 Boats, 2 Busses, 20 Kilometers, and 20 Kilograms
Traveler’s notes (updated August 2019):
The trek between El Chaltén and O’Higgins is crossable during warm season (November through April)
Robinson Crusoe - Deep Patagonia is the company that sells travel packages including bus and boat transport to and from the 20km hike across the border
Room and board and/or camping space can be reserved near the Calendario Mancilla dock via Ricardo Levican at email@example.com
El Chaltén is a small Patagonian town in southwest Argentina, known for the Fitzroy mountain, which from certain angles looks bit like a giant rocky thumb protruding from the Earth. It’s a remote location, but it’s full of international travelers looking for scenic hikes. Arriving by bus on a Monday, the plan was to stay in El Chaltén for a few days, and then to find another bus heading north to cross the border to O’Higgins, Chile.
After exploring this small town (where half of the businesses cater to international travelers), the search for a bus heading north is looking more difficult than expected. None of the bus companies at the terminal have O’Higgins listed as a destination. At the information desk, a helpful woman describes a multi-stage trip to O’Higgins that includes a long hike through the forest. She has a flyer explaining the itinerary, the travel company is just down the street.
The travel company explains that the trip from El Chaltén to O’Higgins will require a bus to the nearest lake, a boat to the Argentine border station, a 20 kilometer (12.4 mile) hike with full baggage to the Chilean border station, another boat from the Calendario Mancilla dock, and finally a short bus to Villa O’Higgins. It’s a two-day journey, so arrival at the final dock before the Wednesday boat requires a Tuesday morning departure. She also says that Ricardo, the only person who lives near the Calendario Mancilla dock, has overnight beds for travelers. There isn’t enough time to confirm a reservation via email, but she responds to my concern with incredulity, “Ricardo is not going to leave you outside.” Everything is coming together quickly. Monday night is spent preparing by purchasing food and water from a local grocery store and then packing everything into a 70 liter backpack, weighing in at 20 kilograms (44 pounds).
The small shuttle bus arrives at 7:50, it’s a twelve-person transport. The bus stops at the bakery before we leave town, and then drives for about ninety minutes on dirt roads to Lago del Desierto (it’s not in a desert, it’s just called that because it previously had no fish). Everyone waiting at the dock boards the boat and it departs at 10:00 from the lake’s south shore for an hour-long trip to the north shore. Those who will be hiking to Chile walk directly to the Argentine border outpost. A military uniformed gentleman with a large Argentine flag next to his desk checks our passports individually. We each head into the forest via a path that is marked with a small sign that says “Border ARG-CHI →”.
The first few kilometers are uphill, but a Spanish bike-rider on the trail says the trail will flatten out soon. The path weaves through dense forest, crossing multiple streams, with occasional mud.
After two and a half hours of hiking, the unmanned Argentine and Chilean border appears at a small clearing. It’s marked by a 10 foot tall metal tower with a street sign sized label: “Argentina” on one side and “Chile” on the other. A German couple from the boat is there taking a snack break. Continuing forward into Chile, there are now signs marking how much distance to the Chilean border station. The first sign says fifteen kilometers (9.3 miles), implying a surprisingly slow pace thus far of five kilometers (3.1 miles) in two and a half hours. It’s already 2:00 PM, arrival before dark will require some acceleration.
Thankfully the trail on the Chilean side is easier, it’s a gravel road that allows vehicles to directly reach the border marker from Chile. The signs every kilometer allow for better pacing.
At kilometer twelve there’s a hidden air strip. I look back to make sure there wasn’t a missed turn. Indeed, the path walks alongside the remote gravel airstrip that has no control tower, minimal markings, and a single wind sock. There are no aircraft in sight, so it looks like the Chilean military maintains it for emergency use.
Around kilometer ten there are cattle in the forest, staring from across a stream that runs near the path. A bit further there are horses in a wooden pen. There’s plenty of indication that these horses use this trail often, but I haven’t seen any horseback riders today.
The last few kilometers downhill to the Chilean border checkpoint feel like a tired walk home after a workout. The scenic view of the lake below says the end is near.
Arriving at the Chilean military outpost. Sargent Carreño tells me to leave my bag outside. While filling out the border entry slip, I mention that I’m looking for Ricardo Levican to find accommodations for the night. He responds “Ricardo’s right there.” Ricardo is sitting in a chair seven feet away, a plain clothed gentleman wearing a baseball hat. After a brief introduction, he confirms he has space. Sargent Carreño stamps my passport with a logo that has two crossed guns. He asks if I have any fruit or other produce, takes a quick look at my bag, and says I’m okay to go.
Continuing down the road to Ricardo’s farmhouse, I’m greeted by Carmen along with a few others who arrive at the same time. She shows us to our beds and says dinner will be ready at 8:00. The farmhouse looks like a painting, there are chickens, a dog, cats, a Chilean flag. The satellite dish and large solar panel are a bit out of place. We’re served a Chilean dinner, after which I immediately fall asleep.
The sun rises above the snowcapped mountains, and the little fluffy dog is awake and willing to follow anyone who is walking outside. After a walk near the shore, I return to the house and ask Carmen what the dog’s name is.
“Little One.” she says.
“Yes, him.” I confirm.
“Little One.” she repeats “That’s what he’s called.” (“Pequeñito”)
She says the dog recently followed some hikers towards Argentina all the way to Lago del Desierto and they almost lost him.
We’re joined at breakfast by the Spanish biker and three Dutch travelers. There are five middle-aged adults permanently living here at the house, and they’re all sipping yerba mate. They’re very friendly, but they seem like private people. Carmen mentions that they have about a hundred visitors per week this time of year; so maybe detailed introductions would be asking a lot. The Spanish biker tells me this house has been in Ricardo’s family for three generations.
Later in the day all the guests pack up and meet at the dock to board the boat at Calendario Mancilla. This boat doubles as a tour boat, so we’re treated to a long detour to visit the O’Higgins Glacier, including whisky with glacier ice pulled from the water. Hours later, upon arrival at the destination dock, a bus takes us into Villa O’Higgins. It’s already dark, everyone leaves the bus to find a room to stay or a campground to pitch a tent.
A woman working reception at the hostel across from the bus terminal mentions that bus space heading north will be limited for the next few days, but it’s a problem that can wait for tomorrow. Hiking 20 kilometers with 20 kilos was a challenge, finding a seat on a bus should be doable.