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February 2018, El Chalten – Los Glaciares National Park, Patagonia, Argentina
There is a saying that places you go, become part of you. We keep thinking about South America and the journeys we had, people we met, things we kept in memory intact as a photo.
On top of all, hiking in El Chalten was a lifechanging experience. If you love the mountain, then grab your popcorn and get cozy. We will show you everything there is to explore in the northern part of the National Park Los Glaciares.
On the road
We’re in Patagonia for over a week now, trapped in this parallel universe of mountains and glaciers, as if time does not exist. Our host welcomes us with the only basic advice around here: “If you’re hot, open the window. If you’re cold, close the window.” The inn with a courtyard full of lavender has become our home.
Each morning we get our spoonful of cakes with “dulce de leche” (some kind of liquid caramel on top of everything that can enter your mouth) and a cup of “mate” (a very strong herbal tea) and we’re good to go for a new exploration adventure.
We wandered the town and surroundings until now, but today we’re thrilled! It’s that day when we’re gonna be exactly where we dreamed 1 year ago, when we were playing over and over documentaries about Patagonia.
3 hours later we’re at full speed on the legendary Route 40 through the empty Patagonian pampas, on the road to El Chalten. We keep looking out the window, but there is nothing to distinguish under the thick clouds. Suddenly, from the flat fields that surround us, majestic mountains rise in front of our eyes. The whole bus awakens, and people welcome the new landscape with a long “Woooooaaaaaa”.
“Chaltén” is a Tehuelche word meaning smoking mountain.The local people believed it was a volcano because its peak is most of the time covered by clouds.
El Chaltén town is located at the edge of the 12,363 square kilometers of Southern Patagonian Ice Field, and in the last years has become Argentina’s Trekking Capital.
In 1877, Argentine explorer Francisco Moreno named mount Chaltén as mount Fitz Roy, in honour of Robert FitzRoy, captain during the Second voyage of HMS Beagle in the 1830s. FitzRoy thought of the advantages of having an expert in geology on board, and convinced a naturalist to accompany them. The young graduate Charles Darwin accepted the opportunity. On this 5-years journey, he collected and made detailed observations of plants and animals, with results that shook his belief that species were fixed. Back in England, these ideas led to his theory of evolution by natural selection.
Down in El Chalten, we team up with an Argentinian and an Aussie girl, and we start the journey on the best half-a-day trek everyone recommended: Laguna Capri.
The route is pretty rough for our knees: a steep climb, narrow paths and dusty ground. Did they say it’s the easy trek? 🙂
The Argentinian only speaks Spanish, the Aussie speaks English, so guess who’s in the middle? Somehow we get along just perfectly. The road becomes more manageable as we enter the woods. The mountain has its own rules, and people on the trek respect nature and each other. We find ourselves saying “Ola” (hello) several times per minute, and this keeps us going. A couple of woodpeckers drumming on the trees are leading the way.
One hour later, as we’re walking and joking, Mount Fitz Roy pops up. We are completely humbled, reduced to silence and start wondering what else awaits at the end of the trek.
Hearts racing, with the last energy resources, we exit the woods and find our Aussie sitting on a rock for 20 minutes, eating an apple: “Hey guys, what took you so long? I was thinking to go back.” 🙂
Can’t believe what’s in front of us. We are face to face with an incredible crystal-clear blue lake, guarded by forests and white peaks. Nothing else to do than lay back in the sun and…eat an apple.
Mirador de los Condores
No minute to spare, we get back in a rush to start another trail. The name “Mirador de los Condores” (The condor’s viewpoint) makes us wonder if condors are really at the end of it. Too intriguing, let’s go!
Ups and downs, lefts and rights, easy path, this one feels like a walk in the park. The sun is gently shining over our heads. But the more we climb, the wind gets wilder.
Getting up there with the last breath rewards us with a panoramic view of the whole town. No condors, but we’re high enough to see everything, and truly appreciate Mother Nature.
Who would have thought that tiny El Chalten, with 300 inhabitants only, would become the Mecca of hiking?
We get back exhausted, but happy, and fall asleep as soon as we enter the bus.
When I wake up in noise, the cameras are clicking histerically. As we watch out the window, nature surprises us again with one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen.
The area offers multiple alternatives as outdoor activities. It is possible to do dozens of itineraries: from visiting panoramic points a few hours walk and with a minimum effort, to expeditions of several days or climbing vertical walls reserved for the best mountaineers.
Here are the best hiking treks from El Chalten (distance and time for one way):
Mirador de los Condores – 1 km, 1 h
Mirador de los Aguilas – 2 km, 1 h
Glaciar Huemul – 2 km, 1 h
Chorrillo del Salto – 3 km, 1 h
Mirador del Torre – 3 km, 1.5 h
Laguna Capri – 4 km, 2 h
Piedra del Fraile – 6 km , 2 h
Laguna Madre e Hija – 8 km, 2.5 h
Laguna Torre – 9 km, 3 h
Laguna de los Tres – 10 km, 4 h
Mirador Piedras Blancas – 10 km , 3.5 h
Mirador Maestri – 11 km, 4 h
Loma del Pliegue Tumbado – 12 km, 4 h
Punta Norte – Punta Sur – 14 km, 5 h
Punta Norte – Lago O’Higgins – 15 km, 5 h
Laguna Toro – 16 km, 7 h
Isn’t this heaven? 🙂
How to get to El Chalten
Flight to El Calafate +
Bus El Calafate – El Chalten (3 hours with Las Langas bus company)
When to go hiking to El Chalten
The best El Chalten weather is generally experienced during summer months, from December to February. March is also a good choice, as you’ll be able to see autumn colours in the woods. But be aware that many accomodations close in April.
950 ARS (50 USD)/pers roundtrip
The bus cost is pretty high, so maybe it’s your chance to try hitchhiking. 🙂 We heard a lot of travelers do it, to save some money.
The entry is free on this side of the National Park. Just get registered at the Visitor Center and off you go!
Can be pretty expensive at the restaurant in the small town El Chalten. Buy your snacks and water at the supermarket in El Calafate before getting here. Otherwise, be ready to spend 10-15 USD/person for a proper meal.
In January 2018 we booked one-way tickets, took our backpacks and left cozy old Europe, for (hopefully) the greatest adventure of our lives: South America. If you like our story, don’t forget to spread the word! 🙂
Happy travels and stay safe!
Anita & Geo, World travellers