Patagonia (and El Nino)

A friend and I spent two months in Patagonia this year. This was my second trip there but first with packraft. It was an El Nino year (Very Cold, Very Wet, Very Windy) and locals said it was the worst summer in 40 years. It rained on us every day for the first 33 days…

We initially attempted to cross the continent from Pacific to Atlantic on a 500 mile route beginning around Caleta Tortel, Chile and ending around Perto Santa Cruz, Arg. El Nino had different ideas for us. After days of delayed started, flooded rivers, and stronger than usual winds, and a few close calls, we decided to abandon the route for something more sane.

Nonetheless, we paddled the lower Rio Pascua, below where Chile plans to build three dams in a canyon few people have seen. (We also planned to paddle the lower Rio Baker where Chile also plans to build dams but it was just too strong with all the rain–it is the largest river by volume in chile.) The Pascua was a very high volume glacial river and because the water was so high (El Nino) there was little opportunity for escape–it was near bankfull. Also, little opportunity for camping in the dense jungley patagonian vegetation. At one point the wind was strong enough to tumble a raft with full backpack (60lbs)down a gravel bar. Even a paddle left on a gravel bar was victim to blowing away and had to be held down. The wind was able to kick up meter-high standing waves in just one patch of river. (We looked at the same patch the next day without wind and it was completely flat.) After a few days of this we abanodoned the planned route.

In agreement with others in this forum, the big patagonian lakes (Lago Ohiggins, Lago Viedma, Lago Argentina, etc) may be too much for an Alpacka. The waves were easily 4 feet and the waters ice-cold. The wind rips down these lakes kicking up intense mini-tornados of water. Of course, occasionally the winds die down and if one is patient enough to wait it out could cross these lakes. But we found the wind blowing for days relentlessly, and when it did die it would kick back up full force with out warning in the form of any other weather changes. We also did not carry drysuits, which could add a level of psychological comfort we lacked.

A few areas that did work well:

Took the ferry from Villa Ohiggins Chile across Lago Ohiggens to cross the border to Argentina. Hike 15 mi. to Lago Desierto (paddle 5 mi). Hike 3 miles along the road and enter the Rio Del Las Vueltas below the cascades. The river is mellow with few (but some) logs etc. This goes to Los Glaciares NP where you could abandon the river and hike past Fitz Roy on a good trail system. Or take the Rio Vueltas to town of Chalten. Alternatively, a good loop could be had hiking out of Chalten to Cerro Torre/Fitz roy, then putting in on the Rio Electrica and entering the Rio Vueltas and returning to Chalten (3 days or so). There is at least one barbed wire fence crossing the Rio Electrica :astonished: . These rivers are braided and swift with up to class 2.

Another good area is around Nahuel Huapi National PArk and Lanin NP (arg). These parks have good trail systems, extensive lake systems, and some good rivers. There are many good route possiblilites here. Regulations in Nahuel Huapi are tight, but I found if you just keep asking different park authorities you will eventually get the answer you want. Also, the rivers to the east of these parks offer much in the way of day paddles on outstanding clean water with world class trout fishing. And being in the rain shadow it is usually sunny!!

Hoping to go back in a couple years.


What a trip…?photos anywhere.

How fantastic to be able to spend 2 months somewhere - brings back lovely memories of Uni holidays!

Andrew A

I shot a ton of photos, but very few with rafts in them. It is hard to make anything out in most of the pics through the rain… :angry: If I ever get my act together and post them I’ll be sure to let the forum know.


You just hit a bad weather spell. Up to mid February the weather was awfull like you describe but then everything changed 180 degrees. For over a month there was no rain and sun every day. Locals could not believe it. The best time for expeditions since years.

Starting at the end of February we did a packrfting expedition exploring Southern edges of The Northern Patagonian Ice Field. We started at Tortel, went up the fjord and got to the Steffen glacier, then we continued on its western side and crossed East and explored there. Lots of paddling between gigantic iceberg and difficult pack ice. We got back to Tortel going down on Rio Huemules. Later on we moved to Jenimeni where we did the very first complete descent from the source to Gen. Carrera Lake. At the same time using excellent weather another packrafting team did western circumnavigation of the Northern Patagonian Ice Field. They started at the Explorers Valley, went up Valley Sur by Reicher Glacier entering Elephant fjord at Gualas Bay and continuing to San Rafael lagoon via River of Icebergs. They Crossed the famous Istmus Ofqui and got to Benito Glacier and down to Benito fjord and other unnamed fjords ending at the western flank of Steffen Glacier and then to Tortel.

Mike as you experienced expeditions in Patagonia are very demanding but rewards are beyond describing. And yes, winds can be torrential. Especially on the eastern side of the Andes where foehn type winds go down from the tops of the high Patagonian Andes acquiring speed and force as they fall down. So yes the big lakes on the lee side of the Andes you write about are rather off limits to packrafts. Hell, big car ferries often get suspended for that reason.