Nestled within Los Glaciares National Park, El Chalten is a small village in Argentina’s south-west. With the population consisting mostly of seasonal tourists, it is also not surprising that staple items in town are priced well above the norm for this South American country. Given this region of Patagonia had already cost us a pretty penny, we were there for one thing and one thing only…the free hiking.
When we arrived in El Chalten, our first stop was the visitor information centre for a map of the national park. There are three main treks starting from the village and they’re broken down into smaller trails with changing difficulty ratings.
Sendero del Torre
Cerro Torre or, Tower Hill, stands at 3,102 metres above sea level. The trail follows the Fitz Roy River for 11km and is divided into three parts. The first, is a 3km hike to Mirador del Torre with a rating of medium difficulty. The views of the glacier from here are spectacular. If you wish to push on, the second part of the trail, a further 6km, will lead you to Laguna Torre, also rated at medium difficulty. The final 2km to reach the Mirador Maestri is rated as hard. It’s also ill-advised to attempt this section of the hike during bad weather or strong wind. The entire hike will take around 4 hours one way.
Want to spend the night? Campamento De Agostini can be found close to the lake and it’s free.
Lago del Desierto
This hike is actually quite epic in my opinion as the lake itself is 37km north of El Chalten and inside the national park boundary. While it is possible to walk from town, the trails actually start from Punta Sur and run 15km to Lago O’Higgins in the north.
The first section of the hike is a short 2km at medium difficulty to reach Glacier Huemul. It gets much more demanding after this however, with the track increasing to a rating of hard and the next point of interest, Punta Norte, a further 12km away. Lago O’Higgins is another 1km past Punta Norte.
There are sleeping options available along the trail. From south to north you have these options;
Unfortunately, camp grounds inside the national park are not free of charge.
Sendero a Fitz Roy
Fitz Roy is El Chalten’s ‘postcard’ backdrop and at only 10km in length (8 of these rated at medium difficulty) it’s the most popular hike available for the stunning view of snow-capped Mount Fitz Roy and the surrounding lakes.
Deciding to avoid the crowds, Justin and I, along with some other Aussies and a token Yank, completed this hike in time for sunrise. The first couple of kilometres on this trail is uphill. We’re not going to lie, it hurt a little bit and climbing mountains in the dark is always going to have its disadvantages. The path dissects into two parts about 3km in. The left, leads to Laguna Capri and Campamento Capri (free camping) before continuing on to Fitz Roy. The right, we deemed a short cut and given it was night, we decided to follow this path around to avoid disturbing campers who may be sleeping.
At 8km in, Campamento Poincenot, sits as the final marker before shit gets real. The path leaves the camp grounds and begins to zigzag its way through the forest, uphill for the best part of the next 2km. The steps become slippery with loose stones and just when you think you have reached the top, you turn the corner only to realise you still have one more bloody mountain to climb before you’re there. With no real defined path, this section is the most dangerous and is mostly loose gravel. I slipped several times and found this to be the most exhausting part of the hike.
Having reached the viewpoint with an hour to spare before sunrise, our little group celebrated with pre-packed snacks before layering ourselves as much as possible as our body temperatures finally caught up with the freezing conditions a top the hill.
Now, we had heard that sunrise was the best time to view Fitz Roy because the sun changed the colour of the stone as it rose from behind the lookout. We had clear skies over the mountain and could even make out the torches of rock climbers heading for her summit but behind us, the sun struggled to free herself of thick clouds on the horizon. No pretty colour changes for us but, still a magnificent view over Laguna de los Tres and Laguna Sucia.
I should also mention that it is bloody freezing up there. I couldn't feel any of my fingers or toes and while we were all wearing layers, the breeze just cut through us like a knife of ice. Would hate to be up there on a bad day! We also jealously watched on as a few other hikers set up their mini butane burners and made hot chocolates. If you're headed up, I'd highly recommend copying this really intelligent idea.
The walk back was even more impressive with the landscape completely back-dropped the entire way by Fitz Roy. We found a nice fallen tree to stop and eat our sandwiches on and a clear stream to refill our water bottles. It was here we met an old Korean guy who we also shared some food with and of course, had our picture taken with a hundred times.
We took the path through Campamento Capri on the return journey in time to see some crazy fella’s skinny dipping in the freezing waters of the lake before we finally made it back to the hostel where we all promptly took long naps!
Other Hiking Paths
We didn’t even both to attempt this but, for the experienced hiker Laguna Toro is a 16km hike along some narrow mountain paths. All hikers using this path need to register first at the visitor centre. The trail is extremely dangerous during strong winds and rain.
If you’re headed to El Chalten, we’d recommend booking your accommodation in advance to avoid disappointment. Tents and sleeping gear are also available for hire at fairly reasonable prices if you don’t want to lug everything around with you.
Travel safe x
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