Wishing we could have stayed for weeks or even months longer, we hesitantly boarded a bus from El Chaltén heading north, continuing our journey through Argentinian Patagonia. Next up on the hit list was a trip to a little known spot called Piedra Parada for some climbing. Little known to the masses at least, but a can’t miss destination amongst climbers. We hobbled into the rugged little foothill town of Esquel and made it home base for a few days, resting from our treks and gathering supplies for a week of camping and climbing.
West of Esquel is the beautiful Alerces National Park, home to amazing hiking, beautiful lakes and rivers, and world class fishing. Sounds perfect for us as well but instead we headed 2 hours east by bus, got dropped off on the side the road and that was that. We were there, Piedra Parada.
It’s easy to see why this is a local attraction, a nice place to visit on a day trip or for the weekend, but the real magic lies within a gorge canyon a little further on down the road. Tall, vertical gorge walls winding back and forth for a few kilometres, littered with unique rock formations. What was once a home for nomadic indigenous people is now a paradise for rock climbers.
There are two main camping options just outside the canyon, a free site amongst the trees on the far side of the river and a site on a local family’s property close to the river which had a communal hangout area with bathrooms and running water and costs only a few dollars a night. We changed our original plans and set up at the latter after a local on the bus warned us the river water wasn’t drinkable after a recent rain storm. Not only was it not drinkable, but looked more like chocolate milk which hampered any hopes of fishing when we needed a break from climbing. Since we were visiting late in the season both areas were relatively empty, only a few parties were camped at Mario’s property (even before we met him we had heard much of the infamous Mario and his climbers haven). It would have been fun to have a more lively après climbing scene but we were fortunate we wouldn’t have to contend with the crowds and unbearable heat associated with high season.
We got to climbing as soon as our tent was set up and it was a good thing because that night, despite a perfect sunset and clear evening, it started to rain.
Just our luck, the place where shaded climbing walls are prime real estate and the river is the only respite from the heat was now more reminiscent of Vancouver in the winter. Breaks in the clouds only gave us enough additional visibility to see even darker clouds coming our way. We were told this was unheard of but either way it rained on and off for almost 3 days straight. We were able to get out and climb a few routes on two of those days, tracking down walls with enough overhang that they stayed relatively dry and taking advantage of the abundance of awesome caves. Even if we couldn’t climb, hanging out in caves which were inhabited by indigenous tribes hundreds of years ago was far better than spending afternoons in the rain with the cows and chickens at Mario’s. When the rain finally let up for good, the area seemed to come alive again. Each day we’d enter the canyon around 11am once it had warmed up a bit and it would fill with the sounds of climbers laughing and hollering encouragement throughout the day. We’d climb all day, following the guidebook to different sections, going until we’d had our fill at which point we’d go join other climbers gathered at the base of a wall and watch our new amigos take on routes that were not just one, but many leagues out of our league. This canyon was downright mystical. Everything about it had us hooked and clearly the feeling was shared amongst everyone else who visited. Most of the climbers we met were part way through multi week to month long stays, doing nothing but camping, climbing and generally enjoying nature. While that might seem impractical, the friendliness of those with cars and the locals in the area allowed people to make short trips to nearby properties to stock up on basic foods, fresh produce, and of course booze, from makeshift stores. Even beyond the walls that were near perfect for climbing, the canyon was an awe inspiring site. Taking a walk up the trickle of a creek to see the unique rock formations was a rewarding experience in itself. Heck, even the ants in this canyon were amazing. At first you might not even notice them but once you did, you could say goodbye to climbing for a bit. They had highways connecting their massive nests made up of small sticks. The highways were just a nonstop train of ants carrying bits of wood in one direction and then setting off in the other direction to get more. On multiple occasions Roxy had to shout down to me, reminding me that I was supposed to be belaying instead of marvelling at the ants.
The final 4 days went by fast, the sun stayed out and we pushed ourselves climbing, usually returning to camp at dusk or later. We lamented the fact that we weren’t one of the many climbers staying for a longer period but we had a great send off. After another day of exiting the canyon by the light of the nearly full moon we headed over to the other campsite where most of the climbers we’d been spending the days with were staying. This was truly a home for the hardcore climbers, complete with a small training area, pantry, an oven made out of mud and a fire pit for cooking over. Through the generosity that we’ve come to associate with Argentinian culture and the climbing community we were treated to an amazing communal dinner consisting of handmade fried bread, and vegetable lentil stew as bottles of wine made non stop trips around the campfire. If there’s one thing that we’ve learned and come to love in Argentina is that no drink is a personal drink, they are always going to be offered around.
We had one more morning of climbing before heading back to Esquel. More than content with the past week, we barely climbed and instead soaked up the sun, sights and sounds of the canyon one last time before hiking back to the highway. One of our climbing amigos was also sombrely leaving paradise that day so after necessary showers we treated ourselves to an asado dinner.
One of the climbers we met at Piedra Parada lived in nearby El Bolson and made it very clear that we would be missing out if we drove straight through it on the way to Bariloche, our next stop. Seems to be an ongoing trend in Patagonia but as soon as we arrived in El Bolson we wished we had more time to spend there. This was one of the first towns that distinctly looked like areas back home. As the guidebook says it’s well known for its hippy community and their weekly market, dozens of microbreweries and the abundance of trails to lakes and crystal clear rivers. We only had 36 hours in town but we did our best to see as much as we could so we hiked to two nearby viewpoints, brought along some craft beers and hit the market the next day. While the market had some unique crafts we ended up spending our money at the food trucks instead of the artisans tables.
Full of empanadas and tartas we made our way to Bariloche, a hub of adventure in Argentina’s lakes district that is popular with backpackers, European and Argentinian vacationers alike. It’s got something for everyone, but more about that next time.