Hiking Laguna Esmerelda in Ushuaia, Argentine Patagonia

Wednesday 1 March

After our very late night getting into Ushuaia, we eventually got to sleep, fueled by our late night Pisco Sours and Empanadas. It had been a hectic few days since leaving Australia, with much flying, walking and very little sleep.

A breakfast with views

We headed down to breakfast at the Wyndham Gardens, with beautiful views out over the harbour as we fueled up for the day. Despite still being in Argentina, although 3,000km from Buenos Aires, there were far less sweet things on offer for breakfast but still some coconut and cinnamon bread that was rather tasty.

It was a beautiful morning, if still a little chilly compared to both an Australian Summer and Buenos Aires, that had been in the mid 30’s!

The hotel was perched right up on the mountain where the Martial Glacier was located. The glacier hike was on my agenda for the following day, but for our first full day in Ushuaia I wanted to visit the National Park or hike to Laguna Esmerelda.

The scenic location for the hotel had the downside of being a long way from town. There were supposedly shuttles from the hotel into town, but when we checked with the reception staff the night before it appeared the shuttles were at 7.30am and then 4pm and 8pm. Not overly useful!

Shuttles, hikes and confusion….

My pre-trip research had indicated there were shuttles from town to both the National park and lagoon, but the desk staff tried to convince me otherwise. Luckily as we emerged from breakfast the Intrepid staff member was at a desk out the front, ready for us to check in and collect our luggage tags and do our health declarations. Today was the first official day of our Antarctic trip, despite us being nowhere near the ship yet!

The Intrepid staff member not only spoke excellent English, he also knew exactly what I was talking about with the National park walks and shuttles. He drew us maps of where we needed to go, and his directions matched up with my online research.

We packed up our hiking gear and got a taxi back down the mountain to the tourist information centre. Most of the taxi drivers speak no English, but the hotel are usually happy to call them and then give them the location you want to go. Our Intrepid guide had also given us all the Spanish names for the places we needed to find, so we had no issues with our taxi driver delivering us to the tourist information centre. The drive down the mountain was much more scenic and much less terrifying in the daylight!

I had attempted to research the hikes and National Park walks before leaving Australia but the information online was rather contradictory. The best info was from various blog posts, and most said you needed to rock up and find the schedule for the different shuttles and fees on the day, as they changed often. This indeed seemed to be the case. However, the staff at the tourist information centre were wonderful and gave very thorough maps of all the hikes, the shuttle times, drop off and pick up points and entrance fees. If only the same information was available online! As we’d come to expect though things change in Argentina a lot.

Of course everything was requiring cash. Luckily we still had enough Argentine p\Peso’s for the days activities. It turns out the Laguna Esmerelda hike is actually in the opposite direction to the Tierra del Fuego National Park. Given our limited time, I was most keen to do this hike. We weren’t going to have time to do it and visit the National Park in the same day, but as a bonus we didn’t have to pay the park entry for the Lagoon hike.

By the time we’d sorted out which bus company we needed to use, and where we were going, we were going to be on the 11am shuttle, for the princely sum of 5000 Argentine Pesos each (about 20 USD at the time), for a return ticket. Tickets purchased and we waited around for a short time while tourists were directed in to different buses depending on which direction they were going and their intended drop-off point.

While we were hanging around the information bureau we’d been watching some of the giant ships that had come in overnight (ours wasn’t due in until the next day) and talking to passengers who’d just disembarked from their Antarctic adventures. The reviews were all wonderful, although apparently the Drake passage hadn’t been kind in the preceding couple of days. That was tomorrow’s problem, and we were off out of Ushuaia, heading 17km East to the starting point for the hike.

The views from the bus were already amazing. Beautiful green trees and stunning mountains in the distance.

Laguna Esmerelda

In a short 20 minutes we had arrived in the Tierra Mayor Valley and at the dirt carpark that is the start point for the hike. The carpark was full of hire cars, shuttle buses and taxis and you certainly couldn’t see much!

Our shuttle return was at either 3pm or 5pm and you needed to be back at the carpark at the departure time. The hike was listed as a fairly easy our and back walk, with a 3-4 return time for the approximately 9km (excluding any loop around the lagoon). We decided to aim to be back for the 3pm shuttle but given it was now 11.20am we were not guaranteed we’d make it!

We set off-out of the carpark and into the first forested area. The trail was busy as there were a constant stream of tourists coming out of taxis and buses and heading into the forest.

The Lenga beech tree forest is the first section of the walk. They are native to the Southern Andes ranges and the temperate forests of Argentina and Chile in the Patagonia region. Here they grow up to 30m high and 1.5m wide.

We hadn’t even gotten to the official start of the walk sign and already the mud was evident! All the warnings for this walk said it is extremely muddy. I’d brought my hiking boots and hiking pants and was rather comfortable for the day. Unfortunately, Di had broken some toes prior to leaving Australia, and while able to walk ok, could not get her hiking boots on. She’d elected to sacrifice a pair of more comfortable sneakers to the mud-gods and hope for the best!

Parts of this section of the hike did have some stepping stones and wood so we managed to stay mostly mud free for a bit!

The light in the forest was beautiful. The trees are deciduous but it was the first day of Autumn and they hadn’t yet changed colour.

After a bit over a kilometre, we emerged from the wooded area into are more open section, and met up with a river. The views were already stunning, beautiful green trees and those mountains in the background!

The path was pretty wet but we followed our way along the river, with a few bridge crossings and plenty of mud.

It was well under 10 degrees but not too cold or windy so we didn’t need our coats for the first part of the walk. As was the case for most of the day the weather never stayed the same for long, and we got rained on for short periods and then the clouds would clear for brilliant sunshine.

Even this first fairly flat section of the walk, it wasn’t fast, picking our way through the mud and negotiang slippery boardwalks. Those views though made up for it!

The colour of the water was amazing, and the scenery was constantly changing as we walked along the river for another kilometre.

After 2km we entered the forest again, and here is where the mud really started, along with the gradient. The first couple of k’s were mostly flat or slightly downhill and now we started climbing and squelching through the mud.

The trails were still pretty full with constant streams of hikers. Most were navigating themselves (it was easy to follow the signs and blue trail markers) but we did see a few groups on guided walks. The guides tended to know the least muddy routes, so we would follow their trails if we could.

About now is where Di started complaining about my ‘easy, mostly flat hike’. Well it was mostly flat, except a couple of sections including this kilometre, were we gained 75m of elevation in a few rather steep sections. Fine for me and my cycling legs as I bounded up, but less good for my mum and her sneakers!

Di was not a big fan of this section of the walk but a few groups we saw coming back encouraged her to keep going as we were about to be back into the open plains and more flat. Sure enough, we emerged from the forest again to a new set of stunning views. This is the peat bog section of the trail and is best described as soggy!

We realised that we probably weren’t going to make it back for the 3pm shuttle as we had a fair way to go to reach the lagoon, and I wasn’t keen on rushing past all the beautiful views. So we slowed down and took in the vistas. Content to let people pass us.

This section of the walk you can see people winding their way through the peat bog for quite a way into the distance. There is a gentle climb upwards as you head towards to lagoon – which you can’t see at all from down in the peat bog!

We again met up with the river and followed it along, trying to pick the best path. The wind was rather icy in the exposed sections and then we’d get warm when out of the wind. The water was most definitely cold!

My feet were staying dry and warm in my boots and although Di had very muddy sneakers, her wool hiking socks meant her feet had stayed dry so far!

Oh the mud! Lucky it was so pretty…..

Almost there…..

As the trail meets up again with the river, you start climbing again and the mud lessens a little. At this point Di started to doubt there was a lagoon. She accused me of making the whole thing up! I even got people returning back down to tell her there was in fact a lagoon. They all said it was definitely worth the walk but she was not being convinced.

At this point she thought she’d stay right here and wait for me to return. I suggested that rather than have a tantrum she might as well keep walking and see the lagoon, since we’d come all this way and it was ‘just over there’. Apparently my pep talk worked and she huffed along behind, trying not to look at the stunning scenery in case I was right.

Tantrum averted we kept trudging on. We could see the line of hikers snaking up to a plateau. I assured Di that is where the lagoon must be (based on the distance I’d recorded and how far we had to go). Returning hikers said it was indeed only another half a kilometre. Unfortunately this included a few more steep and rather muddy sections but we were almost there…..

The weather continued to be fickle and we had a storm closing in but it did make for some dramatic photos.

The reward…..

At last we climbed the last steep section and the Laguna Esmerelda appeared before our eyes.

There were plenty of people enjoying the scenery. The stunning water colour with the mountains behind was a sight to behold! The views from above the lake are fabulous but we picked our way down to water level and had a little rest and snack.

While enjoying our lunch break of muesli bars and cinnamon cake from breakfast we came across these giant birds. They were quite a fan of hikers and rather curious. We guessed it was a type of falcon and sure enough I’ve since determined it’s a Southern Crested Caracara from the falcon family. We enjoyed watching them harass hikers, like seagulls after hot chips!

There is a track encircling the lake which you can take for different views. While Di had a rest and did some people and falcon watching, I went for a wander. I didn’t want to risk missing the last shuttle of the day so only wandered half a kilometre or so, as much as I’d have liked to do the whole loop. I did get a few wonderful views from different spots.

With the sun coming and going at times it was like views on a topical island (although the temperature didn’t feel like it) and other times definitely like an impending Winter storm – all in the space of 5 minutes…

Back to the trail head, and we decided it was time for last photos and to head back. Di did admit that when she finally made it to the lagoon it was indeed impressive!

The return journey, with a side of snow!

We hiked back up the the edge of plateau and took in the views before descending back down into that peat bog! Not everyone gets to do amazing hikes in Patagonia and we earned these views!

We’d gotten quite cold on our stop, and the weather was definitely closing in. During the return 4.5km we had rain and several bouts of snow! Luckily we didn’t have to stop to take quite as many photos as I had given my camera a good workout in every direction on the way in!

We hiked most of the trail back with a German lady who was travelling on her own. We’d been crossing paths all day and ended up walking several kilometres together swapping stories and me practicing my bad German on her, while she told us her English was terrible in near perfect English, only occasionally forgetting a word! She was a school teacher travelling South America for several months and was planning on doing a lot of Patagonian hikes so we had some interesting conversations.

Ironically when we stopped worrying about the time we actually made better time. If we had of really pushed and not taken our time stopping at the lagoon, we would have possibly made the 3pm shuttle. As it was now rather cold and starting to snow we actually slowed down for sections of the Lenga forest as it was sheltered and we figured more fun than the freezing carpark!

We made it back to the carpark at almost 4pm on the dot so had an hours wait for our shuttle. We’d covered 9.5km in a tick over 3 hours moving time (4.5 hours elapsed time) with an elevation gain of 269m.

The mud was epic but my boots held up well. Di was 2kg heavier with mud and her feet had stayed dry until she trudged through an icy water puddle near the end to clean them off! We filled in the long wait chatting to our German friend (whose name we never got, if you ever read this drop me a line I’d love to hear about your trip).

At 4.30pm the snow really started coming down and got progressively worse luckily our shuttle pulled up so we piled in and waited in the warm. It was at this point our German friend got picked up by a different shuttle company, so we missed the opportunity to swap details as we were all hiding from the snow…..

A toasty warm hotel and welcome drinks…..

By the time our 5pm shuttle departed (at 5pm on the dot) it was blowing a blizzard. I felt sorry for anyone who missed the last shuttle, but was happy to be heading back to Ushuaia and a warm hotel. Twenty minutes and a random police vehicle check later and we were back at the same place we’d caught the shuttle that morning. A quick walk over to a taxi rank and we were flying back up the mountain to our hotel, a bit too cold and tired for any more sight-seeing that day.

I’d promised to try and video chat with the kids if I made it back from the hike before they had to head off to school. The 14 hour time difference made it challenging around school and them being asleep! I’d run into the room all muddy just before 6pm, but had already missed Astrid who had left to catch her 8am bus. Still, I got to see Anto and the younger two, the first chat we’d managed in a few days. We were boarding the ship the following afternoon so it would be a good 10 or more days before I’d get to talk to them again.

A quick chat done and Soren had to run off to school and I had to go and sort out swapping rooms before we could head down to the cruise welcome drinks. As we had single cabins booked on the ship we had our own rooms booked for this night as it was the first official day of the cruise. At this time of night it seemed more hassle than it was worth, but my new room, further along the same floor, did have a giant king sized bed, and no snoring Di, so I decided to take advantage. Di’s room was staying the same and had the single beds but she did get the amazing views over the harbour, unlike mine over a carpark.

It was then a mad dash down to our cruise welcome drinks where we got to meet some of our fellow travelers. Funnily enough, some people we chatted to briefly that night ended up being great friends on the ship, others we can’t remember ever seeing again, despite there only being 195 passengers 🙂

Once the noise of the drinks got too much we popped next door back to the restaurant for dinner. We’d originally planned to head into town for our last Argentinian meal of the trip, but decided we were too tired to be bothered with taxis back and forward. The majority of the cruise passengers seemed to be eating in the restaurant tonight. Unlike the previous night it was still daylight, being only 8pm rather than an 11pm dinner.

We fortuitously sat next to Anna and Martin who we ended up being great friends with on the ship. They were also planning the martial glacier hike for the next day so we made plans to meet up for that. The drinks and food were welcome after a long day, although not quite as good as our previous nights Pisco Sours and empanadas!

It had definitely been a wonderfully scenic day. Despite Di’s protests about her feet, and telling all who would listen that I tried to kill her with the hardest ‘not flat’ hike ever, she did admit she felt she’d enjoyed the scenery and was proud she made it all the way through. I was already looking forward to exploring more of the beautiful scenery the next day, as well as the anticipation of being Antarctica bound by the following night!

The day ended with a host of tech issues, but more about that later!

Up next…

Hiking to Martial Glacier and off to the Ocean Endeavour before we set sail for Antarctica….

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