If you are planning a trip to Argentine Patagonia, you know that El Chalten hosts the biggest highlights for not just Argentine Patagonia, but also debatably all of Patagonia. (I have not been to Chile, but I met many travelers who had just been there and many of them felt that the peaks here are much more dramatic.) I was so excited for El Chalten and it really did not disappoint. I’m not exaggerating when I say this is one of my favorite places I’ve visited.
El Chalten is situated a couple hours north of El Calafate, very close to the Chilean border. El Chalten has only really become a tourist destination in recent years. In fact, the town itself has really only sprang up over the last few years, and was totally non-existent until the nineties. The town wasn’t even settled for tourist purposes, but instead for territorial purpose. In the nineties there were some disputes between Argentina and Chile over land, so the government moved some people to live in newly formed El Chalten to solidify Argentina’s claim to the land. I guess somewhere along the way people were like, wow this mountain is amazing, we could turn this into a tourist attraction. Now, the town sits in the beautiful valley underneath Cerro Fitz Roy.
El Chalten is a charming little town. After a long day of a grueling eight hour hike, it was a relaxing place to spend the evening. It’s a tourist town through and through, so while there are a lot of food options, most are pretty overpriced. My favorite was Che’s Empandas. Omg they were so good, and reasonably priced. El Chalten’s one big issue is the lack of groceries. Trying to shop for hiking snacks is impossible. El Chalten is so remote that all the produce needs to be shipped to the town. All the fruit and vegetables are extremely expensive, not to mention just pretty nasty. The easiest portable food item you can buy is a ham and cheese sandwich from a bakery or restaurant. IDK why, but southern Argentinians just really love ham and cheese sandwiches. Or maybe it’s just the least expensive thing for them to make. But, basically, ham and cheese sandwiches are the only food item that is packable in the town other than really old fruit. So every single hiker in El Chalten is living off of ham and cheese sandwiches. It was kind of a bonding point, talking about how much you hate ham and cheese sandwiches right now. I had one every single day for like five days straight. Luckily, I was just so hungry while hiking that I didn’t really care what I was eating, so long as it involved carbs. By the end of my time in El Chalten, I was swearing I would never be eating a ham and cheese sandwich again.
Also, due to El Chalten’s remote location was the total lack of wifi access, and cellular data. I was, thankfully, at the very least able to send a check-in text to my parents twice a day, but other than that there was really no access to wifi. It was a town wide issue. Apparently, it has something to do with the town’s location and inability to connect to satellites. The best place in the town for wi-fi was Matilda’s Cafe, but even there it would maybe be one text that would come through. Honestly, I was afraid that I was going to go through withdrawal over no social media access or something (lol I’m a millennial), but I was surprised by how relaxed I was about it. Yes, it would have been awesome to be able to get in touch with friends, but I kind of just didn’t care for that short time. In fact, I dare say, it was nice to be unplugged. It is probably one of the reasons I was a little more social in my hostel and met a lot of very cool people.
So finally, without further delay, here are not only the highlights of El Chalten, but the highlights of my entire time in Patagonia.
I was told by multiple people that the Cerro Torre is the most famous/popular of all the hikes. I will admit that I assumed that meant this was the hike to see the famous Cerro Fitz Roy. I did this hike on my first day in El Chalten and was so pumped to see the mountain. I ended up getting to the very end of the hike, Laguna Torre, and was so devastated that there were clouds covering the mountain! So this was upsetting enough to hike for 3 hours one way, just to turn around without seeing Cerro Torre, but I actual thought I was missing out on Cerro Fitz Roy. I was thinking I was going to have to redo the entire hike (don’t worry, I eventually did get to see both Fitz Roy and Torre). The rest of the hike was beautiful and so enjoyable though. The hike overall was definitely the easiest, with very little incline, so that is definitely why it is the “most popular.”
Laguna de los Tres
This hike is where it’s atttt! I was like a giddy child on this hike. About 20 minutes in you get your first glimpse of Cerro Fitz Roy, and I was actually running through the trees squealing “oh my God, oh my God, oh my God” to myself over and over. I stopped way too often trying to take a ton of photos. I loved this hike. Highlights were the cliff by the river with Cerro Fitz Roy in the background, the marsh and valley you travel through on your way to Cerro Fitz Roy, and, of course the grand finale, Laguna de los Tres. The majority of this hike was easy and fairly flat, but the last kilometer, was actually the worst hour of my life. It is incredibly steep and rocky, and it had rained the night before so it was slippery. Clearly, every hiker was absolutely angry at the mountain. I kept wanting to rest, but I also saw that as just a way to prolong my misery. Even the people I met who had just come from Torres Del Paine, which is notoriously rugged terrain and tough hiking, said the last kilometer of Laguna de los Tres was the worst hiking they had done in Patagonia. Just imagine waking straight up hill over rocks for a kilometer. It takes about an hour and it’s miserable. BUT it is sooo worth it. It just makes that Fitz Roy even more beautiful, and omg it is beautiful. Seeing the mountain in person, you really take in the details on the mountain, all the cracks and peaks. This was the absolute highlight of all of Argentine Patagonia.
On the way back down, I felt a second wave of energy, so I decided to take this random long detour home. This path basically links between the Laguna de los Tres and Laguna Torre, and meant for those camping in the park to be able to cut between the two camps. I wanted to go down the path because I figured it was less travelled, and thought it might be a nice chance to see a piece of the park without people around. It was absolutely beautiful, with bright blue lakes. I was really tempted to maybe go for a quick swim, but the rangers ask that people stay out of the water since it is potable in the park (in fact, I re-filled by bottle straight from the stream, and it was glorious). I also saw two condors gathering nesting materials! They were huge! It was so cool. However, this detour added a few miles and hours to my hike, which really took a toll on my knees (which were on fire), and my whole lower body, which came back to haunt me the following day.
By my third day in El Chalten, I was exhausted, and really tempted to just rest, but I knew I was never going to be in El Chalten again, so I forced myself out. My feet hurt, and my calves were so tight, but I powered through. Tombado, was somewhat unexciting. There are a couple of very cool fields you pass through, with AMAZING views of Cerro Torre and Cerro Fitz Roy. I also ran into quite a few cows. I always find cows fascinating for some reason. The cows were mooing to each other through the trees trying to locate each other. Kind of how whales call to each other. The peak of Tombado is one of the best views in El Chalten. In fact, most locals told me that Tombado is their personal favorite hike. Once you get up here, you can see where the Patagonia logo inspiration came from ;).