Patagonia Series: El Chalten. Get there before everybody does

The Patagonian region of Chile and Argentina was going to be the pinnacle of my trip in South America; the reason why I would travel approximately 14,000km across Central to South America. Throughout all of South America, I could feel my obsession growing with the breathtaking vistas that the Andean mountain range would throw at me. So much so that I ended up cutting short my stay in Buenos Aires in order to maximise my time there. I had asked a few people where else I should go and they said that El Chalten was a must visit. So as per usual, I went off their recommendation and decided to go.

I had no idea exactly on how much time I’d spend in each area within the Patagonian region as it is vast in scale, covering over a million square kilometres across both Chile and Argentina – the possibilities were endless. As I was coming from Buenos Aires, the most convenient and relatively cost efficient way was to fly into El Calafate. Taking the bus wasn’t going to save me too much money as it would take 30+ hours to get there and only slightly the cheaper option.

As soon as the plane landed it was off to the ticket office to get a bus to El Chalten which is about 200km away or a 3 hour bus ride, which by now after numerous bus rides, seemed like a fairly short trip. After passing Lake Viedma and various rivers that are fed by the melting glacial ice, I realised that I had made the correct decision. Staring down at you for the last hours drive is the Mt Fitz Roy and the surrounding mountain ranges. Imposing mountains of granite with a “come at me” attitude that attract climbers from around the world who attempt to climb her. It’s impossible to get a bad view on this bus ride.

el chalten

For the last leg of the trip from El Calafate, Mt Fitzroy is staring at you in the face. Sit on the left hand side of the bus or right up the front on the top level for the best views.

There are those moment’s when you’re travelling with minimal planning on where to stay. I’ve been doing it the entire time on this trip, but El Chalten was one of those places where I did ZERO planning. I had no idea where to stay and the layout of the town. The bus was doing the rounds throughout the small village, dropping people off at their hostel/hostels. I had no idea where to go so I took a punt and jumped off at a random hostel with some others from the bus to what looked like a nice hostel called Patagonia Travellers Hostel. It eventually turned out to be a sweet place and in a great location close to the start of the main trails.

El Chalten argentina patagonia

Yes, it’s good to be here.

El Chalten is a fairly young town and by that I mean it’s only been in existence since 1985 when it was created during a border dispute with Argentina. These days it’s sole purpose is tourism to me, it’s still a hidden gem where in recent times, the only way there was via an unpaved road. There are a couple of ways of exploring the region around El Chalten. If you’re the hardcore trekker then you can load up the rucksack, tent and sleeping bag and camp in the designated camping areas a few hours into the park. By doing this, it allows you to go further  and explore more terrain each day. If you’re like me and enjoy a cold beer after a long day in the outdoors then exploring the trails through day hikes is the way to go with the trails ranging between 30mins to 9 hours. The best part about any of either of these ways is that it costs nothing to enter the park. Which in later blogs on patagonia, you will see is a huge advantage over the other locations such as the W-Trek, and one of the main reasons as to why you should come to El Chalten.

On the first day I decided to hike up to Lago de las Torres where you could get the best view of Mt Fitz Roy. Again, I was a totally unprepared rookie and forgot to buy any food the day before to take with me on the hike, so I had to wait until the supermarket opened. It turned out to be ok as I met Clara, a New Yorker who had been living in Buenos Aires and we were doing the same trek so decided to hike it together.

el chalten argentina

Start of the trail.

I hadn’t looked at many photos during my lack of research and in a way it came as a blessing as on every corner, it felt like there was something that would present itself as a perfect picture postcard moment. The views of the river, valley, mountain ranges, forests and glaciers would continually blow my mind into oblivion. For most of the time you’re along streams that you can drink from, powering through forests and then stopping every 20 or so minutes to take photos. Even the man made walkways were perfectly composed against the maintain ranges as if they were designed by a photographer.

The total elevation of the hike from town to peak is 700m, with the final 400m taking you on a steep ascent into the snow level and up to the lake and the closest views of Mt Fitz Roy. The walk up until now was pretty easy but this final part was an absolute bitch and reminded me of climbing the steps at Machu Picchu. After we arrive to the top, the feeling is one of elation and relief but when we looked up, the lake was frozen over and Fit Roy was covered in fog.

el chalten patagonia

Steep ascent.

mount fitzroy el chalten

Somewhere behind the clouds is Mt Fitzroy

It was cold, windy and dull looking at the time. A French Canadian we met on the way up said we should keep walking around for a view of another lake so we went in search of it.

What we saw was this….

el chalten patagonia

Laguna Sucia

It made the hike well worth it with an incredible view of the turquoise colour waters of Laguna Sucia and its hanging glaciers.  Every now and then there would be rays of light beaming down from the gaps in the clouds that would momentarily open up and move across the lake. It was quite the surreal experience.

el chalten

Picture perfect

The following day I set out again to hike the trail to Lago Torres. It’s a easier more forgiving hike than Lago de Los Tres as there is no steep elevation to break you. Again, the views are incredible with blooms of yellow flowers dotting the grassy fields as you exit the town. Further into the hike is the De las Vueltas river valley that lead you to a marsh land and also with what seems like  thousands of dead trees. I wasn’t sure if they were dead from their colour, but the grey trunks set against the green forest on the mountain background offered a beautiful contrast.

el chalten

A white forest

It’s quite a dramatic entrance to Lago Torres. You can’t see the lake upon approach because it’s surrounded by a wall of stones and rubble but when you arrive, you’re presented with this view…..

el chalten

Lago Torre

Dotting the shore of the lake are icebergs that have broken off from the glacier at the opposite end of the lake. Varying in different shapes and sizes, these blocks of ice are incredibly blue. It was quite windy and raining lightly but it didn’t prevent me from enjoying the view as well tucking into a ham and cheese roll with extra hot sauce. I was probably there for about thirty minutes soaking it up.

There was one issue from stopping for so long though. My body had cooled down and my right knee was stiffening up. I didn’t think much of it but a third of the way back it was hurting quite bad and by half way I was limping like an old fart. I’d put it down to the previous day and the strain of hiking down from Fitz Roy on the steep hills. I’ve always been pretty good at uphill but have never been a fan of downhills for that particular reason.

Throughout the entire morning prior to reaching the lake I was looking for some strong branches to use as a stick and by now I had scenarios of being rescued and carted out on a donkey. However, by what felt like a miracle, two perfectly formed branches suddenly appeared out of nowhere that I would use to support myself on the downhill sections. Even with the added assistance, it took me a couple of more hours to get back to town for the remaining few kilometres.

el chalten

Impossible to get a bad shot.

I ended up resting the following day as El Chalten is the perfect place to enjoy not doing anything. Being set in a valley you don’t have to go far for amazing views. I was going to do the same thing the following day but it seemed like my luck with travelling from day to day unplanned came back to bite me. The hostel had run out of room so I ended up jumping on the next bus out of town and back to El Calafate for the next leg of the Patagonia trip.

el chalten

The charming part of town where I stayed at.

Overall, I loved El Chalten. It wasn’t too expensive, the people were lovely, everybody is there for the same reason so it’s easy to meet and bond with other travellers and also there’s so much beautiful scenery to explore. Although I was outside only for the two days of hiking, there are at least nine hikes that you can do all at varying degrees of difficulty and I could have easily stayed for five days.

Before I came here, I knew next to nothing about the place and by the end I was completely in love with it. For me it’s a hidden gem that seems to be overlooked for Bariloche in Argentina and Torres del Paine in Chile. Since leaving, I’ve recommended it with much enthusiasm to everybody who I’ve come across. Maybe I shouldn’t though because when I return, I want it to be the same quiet, unspoilt and peaceful town of El Chalten that I first visited.

Other Useful information:

Getting there: Flights operate frequently into El Calafate. Getting from El Calafae Airport to El Chalten costs abou US$40 (Official rate) and takes just under 3 hours with a rest stop. A tip for anybody catching the bus would be to sit up the front and to the left as you will get the best views of the lakes and Mt Fitz Roy. Busses from El Chalten back to El Calafate leave three times a day at 7am, 1pm and 6pm.

Stayed: Patagonia Travellers Hostel. Cost is about US$30 (official rate) per night for a beed in a four bedroom dorm. Doesn’t include breakfast but has cooking facilities and reliable hot water. Internet can be slow at times. The main benefit is it’s location close to the entrance to the trails.

Camping or hiking?: It’s up to you. It’ only a 300m walk from town to the entrance of the trails but if you want to camp then there are multiple locations where you can camp. The beauty about doing either is that you won’t have to carry any excess water because you can drink from the many streams. You won’t be any further away than ten minutes from water in most places.  For food, there’s a supermarket in town that opens at 9am so get your supplies the day earlier. if you want it all taken care of then there’s a bakery across the road from the supermarket that has pre-made sandwiches as well as empanadas you can have for breakfast…mmmm

Have you been to El Chalten or a place that you never thought of going and fell in love it it? 

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Patagonia Series: El Chalten. Get there before everybody does — 16 Comments

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  2. I have a confession to make: even though I know South America is incredible, I have a really hard time getting excited about visiting it myself. I am immensely happy for those who have decided to travel there, but I always feel like I made the right choice by heading to Asia instead.

    And then I read this post. I kid you not, it’s the very first one I’ve ever read that actually makes me want to visit South America sooner rather than later. So kudos to you! El Chalten really looks incredible; the last few photos in particular are stunning beyond belief.
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted…A Wild Ride on the Kinabatangan RiverMy Profile

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  7. I had the opportunity to go to El Chalten with my dad in the last summer. We did those hikes that you couldn’t have been more accurate, I felt very identified with all your post.

    El Chalten is a magical place, believe me it has something special that you won’t find in another place.
    I went 3 months ago and I still can’t get this AWESOME place out my mind.

    People: don’t hesitate and go!! The paradise is waiting you

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