El Chaltén: paradise of trekking in the Argentine Patagonia

March 8, 2019

by Mariam J.

In the heart of Argentinian Patagonia, there is a unique valley, a mountain paradise known as the national capital of trekking, which treasures the most beautiful lakes, glaciers, forests and trails that lead to the majestic Mount Fitz Roy and countless views. A destination for different preferences and levels of difficulty that you definitely cannot miss if you go to South America.

A well-kept secret in Los Glaciares National Park, Santa Cruz Province

Have you ever wondered to be in a place from where you could walk to the mountain on your own, with absolute freedom, safely and at the end of the road find the most beautiful landscapes that were declared World Heritage of UNESCO? Well, El Chaltén is like that. It’s a town located in the northern area of Los Glaciares National Park, Santa Cruz province, Argentina. But how is it possible to arrive at this paradise that seems to be hidden in the mountain like a treasure? In fact, it’s not difficult at all. You will arrive there after a two-hour bus ride from the airport of the nearest city, El Calafate, through the desert steppe accompanied by the constant Patagonian wind, up to the feet of the Cordillera de los Andes. It is known as the spine of Latin America, the longest mountain range in the world, which you can see in the distance from the route, long before arriving, like a giant rocky monument that will make your heart beat strongly. 

El Chaltén is a small town, but it has all the services and infrastructure to receive travelers from all over the world. Every year, professional trekkers, amateur backpackers from all over the world, curious tourists, adventurers and others who prefer a relaxing visit in a secluded spot on the mountain arrives there to join the incredible nature and be part of it. While there are many options to choose how to spend the stay there, it is not characterized as a very popular destination for families with children or young people looking to enjoy the nightlife: the environment invites more than anything to go to bed early to start the day early too. It has some worthy bars to be visited -like “La Vinería wine bar” where you can try delicious Argentine wines at a good price-, but believe me, it’s not its main feature. The most recommended time to visit it is from November to April, because although it is not as high (450 meters), being at the foot of the Andes makes it has a very changeable weather and during the coldest months it gets to snow a lot and some trails, which do begin to take height, are blocked and cannot be passed. May you never miss shelter! During the night it is cold all year. In December, during the summer, I had night temperatures of 1 ° C, but all the lodgings have good heating even in the summer period.

What is the most compelling thing about the place? That the starting points of all the trails are in the same village! and can be done on foot, without a guide, only following the signs, with responsibility and paying attention. They are well signposted and safe. You can simply take a backpack with a coat, water, hat, dried fruit and a couple of sandwiches for the road. I also recommend a good shoe suitable for mountain, it does not need to be professional, but at least slip-resistant, and the charged cell battery because the landscapes will surprise you and you will want to treasure it forever with some amazing photographs. If your idea is to make a more professional excursion, even sleeping in mountain, you can rent the necessary equipment in the specialized places that you will find in the main avenue of the town that is called “San Martin Avenue” (like “Camping Center”, “Viento Oeste” and “Patagonia Hikes”).

Top 5 must-do excursions:

1-Chorrillo del Salto

After walking 20 minutes without any difficulty from the end of the main avenue and entering a few meters in the low forests of the mountainside, you will reach this beautiful waterfall which invites you to sit for a while to take a break and contemplate the forest. It is an easily accessible point to which you can return whenever you want because of its proximity to the urban center.

2-Mirador de los Cóndores

It is another very easy way to go at short distance, since it is a few meters from the town and its greatest charm is that it is overflown by condors -and eagles-, a strategic place to observe these amazing animals that are found in very few places in the world and that are in danger of extinction. It is also a good starting point as a first approach to the place to begin to know it. It will only take you half an hour to get to the panoramic point.

3-Laguna Capri

It is a half-day hike (3 hours to go). During the first hour, the terrain is quite steep and you will get to a viewpoint where you can see a beautiful landscape of De las Vueltas river, to finally drive to the view of a lagoon of turquoise waters surrounded by slender native forests. If you have a little more time -between 30 and 40 minutes- pass by the Mirador del Fitz Roy, where you will find an information sign that will allow you to interpret the mountain landscape and the glacier that will appear before you.

4-Laguna Torre

It is a classic trip that will occupy you the whole day. To start you will find two trails, but don’t worry, they are unified within a few meters and everything is perfectly marked so you don’t get lost. The route begins in a valley and then continues along the Fitz Roy River, and has several stops in very nice viewpoints. Do not forget the jacket, because the lagoon is full of ice floes that break off Grande glacier. I advise you to know this particular place, at dawn, since the sunlight at that time reflects very unusual red colors in certain minerals that contain the mountains that surround the whole way, so it’s definitely worth waking up very early! you will not regret it.

5-Laguna de los Tres

It is a full day hike and more difficult but at the same time the most famous for its spectacular views given the proximity that is reached from Mount Fitz Roy. It requires about 6 hours of walking in gravel to go and another 5 to return, the road is a bit steep in some parts and the closer you get to the foot of the hill, the stonier it gets. The last 45 minutes are the hardest -1-kilometer walk- because it gets steep. Once you cross the bridge over the Blanco River the views start to get even better. Pay close attention if there’s ice – no matter what time of the year it is, it is always cold and there is ice – and you can slip through the mud. As a final reward… you arrive at the foot of the imposing Mount Fitz Roy! On the way, you can stop to rest in viewpoints with unbeatable views.

El Chaltén is a little-promoted place, but in constant growth, like a treasured jewel by the connoisseurs.  It’s one of the preferred destinations in Patagonia, where legends seem to come alive in surreal landscapes that invited me to look deep into nature under the shadow of the sumptuous mount Fitz Roy that produces in me a hypnotic and restorative effect every time I look at him.

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