A little trekking in El Chalten
Originally a tiny mountain town built to mark the Chile /Argentina border, El Chalten has exploded in recent years to become the undisputed hiking capital of Argentina and is now a bustling mecca on the Patagonia tourist trail.
I have to admit that our arrival into El Chalten was a bit of a shock to our system as we had reached the busy town after several weeks hitch hiking along the Carretera Austral. We were used to swathes of open road, tiny villages and chatting Spanish to locals while we rode in the back of their pick-up trucks. We had travelled from Puerto Montt all the way south to Villa O-Higgins where it had then taken 2 boats, a 20km hike and a hitch in a truck to reach El Chalten. But that is another story that I have yet to get around to writing …
We had heard amazing things about the area from fellow travelers and I can now vouch that it is a better value, less stressful version of the famous Torres del Paine in Chile (still worth a visit but don’t miss El Chalten). However, after the freedom and quiet of the open road, one night at a youth hostel crammed to the rafters with fellow backpackers and free wifi was enough for us so we packed up our kit and hit the trails.
There are numerous well marked trails that lead from El Chalten out into Los Glaciares National Park for incredible views of Mt Fitzroy and Cerro Torres and the chance to see glaciers, waterfalls and spectacular rock formations. You can get a simple but really useful map from the bus station and more detailed hiking maps from local bookshops. For serious mountaineers and multi-day hikers there are lots of options for mountain climbing and circuits including glacier hiking and more challenging terrain. It is worth speaking to local adventure trekking companies for these.
We opted to spend our first day hiking the Lago de los Tres trail which heads out to the campsite at the base of Mt Fitzroy. Despite there only being a few trails, they were not as busy as we expected. The route starts with a steep climb out of the valley but the rest is relatively flat with great views across the plains. It is worth setting off early as it is a 7-8 hour hike and the campsites get busy. We camped overnight at Rio Blanco campsite and rose super early (4am!) for an hour’s scramble to the Lago de los Tres viewpoint for sunrise. Hiking in the dark has its challenges (good headtorch required – I discovered that mine was pathetic and I had to rely on following my buddies!) but is so worth it to watch the first rays on sunlight hit the spires of Mt Fitzroy while you’re eating brekkie.
We then pootled back down to the campsite for a couple more hours kip before we set off again. Day two took us along a newer path that had been built to join onto the Laguna Torre trail and runs past two lakes – Lago Madre y Hija and through a welcome wooded area that afforded a little shade in the midday sun. This connecting path then joins the main Lago Torres trail and leads you up to the campsite next to the beautiful iceberg filled lake below Cerro Torre. Another early start for sunrise was in order and delivered spectacular views once again.
The final day was the trek back along and down into El Chalten along the Lago Torres route. A relatively easy but fairly long walk (7-8 hours) to return to town but with more beautiful views down into the valley. We found that a fun game of ‘guess the hiker’s nationality’ killed some time and resulted in endless discussions about the pros and cons of each nation’s outdoor gear brands!
The best time to visit El Chalten is November to March when the weather is at its best but make sure you are prepared for anything as Patagonia’s climate is unpredictable to say the least. Waterproofs and a tent to withstand strong wind is essential as well as good hiking boots. The trails are well worn and well marked but you do need the right gear to make the most of the area.
I must end with a big shout out to the bestest hitchhiking and trekking buddies Zach and Simon (pictured above), without whom I would not have had such an amazing time nor eaten so many lentils!