I hesitate to write about El Chaltén in fear of attracting more attention to this sleepy little mountain town. Nestled in the Andes mountains within Los Glaciares National Park, El Chaltén is a true gem. Referred to as the “hiking capital” of Patagonia, El Chaltén is unlike anywhere else in the world. After four years we’ve returned to this hiking paradise, which is perhaps a good indication of just how special it is.
Scroll to the bottom of this page to see the blog from our first visit in 2015.
With few buildings exceeding two stories there are panoramic mountain views from almost every point in town. El Chaltén is about a mile long and easily navigated by foot. In fact, the town is so small that there are no taxi’s or local buses. Daily buses to neighboring cities and farther destinations can be found at the bus station.
El Chaltén is a laid-back hiking town. The streets are dotted with cozy cabins, restaurants, hotels, hostels, bakeries, outdoor gear shops, cafes, a few tour agencies, artisanal product shops, a few grocery stories, and a spattering of friendly street dogs. The food and craft beer scene is impressive and keeps hikers well nourished for daily excursions. Despite plenty of tasty craft brews to choose from, El Chaltén is not a destination for drinking or partying, but rather a haven for the outdoor enthusiast. Hiking is the true allure of El Chaltén and the town is very quiet during the day while most head out on day hikes
El Chaltén sits at the foot of Cerro Torres and Mt. Fitzroy making it the gateway for dozens of hikes. Trail heads are accessible within a few minutes walk from the center of town. There are a variety of hikes ranging from 2-10 hours. There are also several overnight treks. The trails vary in difficulty, are well marked and generally easy to follow. You can stop by the Ranger Station at the entrance to El Chaltén or the visitor center in the bus station for any questions you may have prior to hiking.
Additionally, a free app that we’ve found to be helpful for identifying and navigating trails is called MAPS.ME (download app on Android or Apple). This resource allows you to download a region in advance and access trail maps off-line while you are hiking. With MAPS.ME you can follow a trail, track your hike, track the distance and time remaining, and most importantly, make sure not to get lost.
Top Two Hikes
While there are many hikes to choose from, the two most popular day treks include Laguna de Los Tres with incredible views of Mt.Fitzroy’s spikey granite peaks and Laguna Torre, which ends at a picturesque icy colored glacial lake. The Mt. Fitzroy ridge is so striking that it inspired the logo for the Patagonia clothing brand.
Laguna de Los Tres is the most popular hike and this accolade is well deserved. With an up-close look at Mt. Fitzroy and its neighboring peaks this trek is a must. That said, it is also the longest and most challenging day hike. It’s an out-and-back hike totaling 16 miles (26km). The hike takes 7-10 hours to complete. It’s best to get an early start to beat the crowds to the final view point. The last 1.25 miles (2km) of the hike is a steep uphill scramble. This part of the trail is narrow and out of necessity, hikers organize into two single-files lanes. During high season, there’s heavy foot traffic and this part of the hike is crowded. With little space to maneuver, your pace is set by those in front of you. Fortunately, all frustrations melt away when you reach the top and soak in the view. There are campsites along the route for those who want to make it an overnight excursion.
Laguna Torre is another day hike not to miss. It’s an easy/moderate out-and-back hike. The roundtrip distance is 11 miles (18km). The hike takes 5-7 hours to complete. There’s an initial accent but the trail levels out after 1.25 miles (2km). When you reach the final viewpoint of the hike you are rewarded with a glacier-fed lake framed by Cerro Torre. If you listen closely, what sounds like thunder is actually the sound of distant glaciers breaking and falling.
Need to Know
November through March is the best time to visit El Chaltén. It’s important to be prepared for unpredictable Patagonian weather. The weather can change quickly and a nice morning can turn into a windy or rainy afternoon. We encountered fierce winds at the top of Lauguna De Los Tres. Hats were blown from hikers heads and some people took cover behind boulders during particularly strong gusts. However, during our stay we also experienced beautiful crisp sunny days and sighted rainbows, which brings me to my next point; always be on the look out for rainbows!
Views on the hike are weather dependent. Sometimes mountain peaks are hidden behind clouds. The most accurate weather website, that locals in this region swear by, is windguru.com. Windguru.com not only provides a highly detailed weather forecast (in Celsius) but wind information as well.
There are several types of accommodations to choose from in El Chaltén. You can camp, stay in hostels, airbnb, apartments, and hotels. After long days of hiking it’s important to have a comfortable home-base. We really enjoyed our stay at Las Agachonas Apart where we had our own quiet and peaceful apartment to retire after long hikes. It was located close to the trail heads as well.
Hosteria El Puma is a cozy lodge offering a communal fire place and beautiful wood finishes throughout. The staff is helpful and knowledgeable and the hearty breakfast is perfect for a day of hiking.
Visiting El Chalten in 2015
November 19-22, 2015
We took a 31-hour bus ride from Bariloche to El Calafate with a bus change in Rio Grande. To occupy ourselves during the long trip we watched two Avenger movies, Black or White (a movie they showed on the bus with English subtitles), a 60-minute Vice special, a Sandra Bullock cop comedy, and a horrible teen party movie called “Project X”. We enjoyed 2 full meals and 3 snacks on the bus which included a muffin, a chocolate wafer, and coffee. We slept relatively well in our "semicama (semi-bed)" reclining seats, though the bus stopped every couple hours for pick ups and drop-offs.
We arrived in El Calafate within 5 minutes of our scheduled arrival, 1:45pm—The day after we had left Bariloche. While still in the El Calafate bus station, we booked our ticket to El Chaltén for later that day, a ticket back to El Calafate for when we return in 4 days, and we bought our tickets to Puerto Natales, Chile to get it out of the way.
Two hours later we caught a mini bus, drove for 2.5 hours and finally arrived in El Chaltén after a whopping 36 hours of travel!
Stepping off the bus in El Chaltén we were taken aback by the outstanding views of snow covered mountains in all directions, especially the view of Mt. Ritz Roy, the tallest and most impressive mountain of stone jutting upright above the other peaks with a series of jagged pointy peaks.
We dropped off our belongings at our hotel and got acquainted with the small town rather quickly. The tiny town is walkable in all of 20minutes. We explored the quaint streets as we searched for a supermarket to stock up on hiking food for our stay. We passed by adorable log cabin restaurants offering hot stews and microbrews on their menus-definitely a German feeling influence here with the cuisine and beer. Though the town feels a bit unauthentic and lacking culture, visually it is quite charming and reminiscent of a tiny ski town. El Chaltén, located inside the Glacier National Park, was only built 30 years ago to accommodate tourists. There are few locals around, most have moved to work here and many foreigners have opened restaurants, seizing the opportunity before El Chaltén blows up as a major trekking destination. El Chaltén currently boasts itself as a trekking capital, with dozens of trails accessible right from the center of town. But for now it is still relatively remote and its wilderness unspoiled by tourism. El Chaltén is the furthest south either of us have ever been and we are amazed by how late the sun sets here, around 10pm!
We set out early the next day to hike the trail "Laguna de Los Tres (really the only activity there is in El Chaltén is hiking) We lucked out with beautiful weather! Cool, crisp air, a refreshing breeze and sunny skies- perfect weather for catching unobstructed views of Mt. Fitz Roy. We walked from our hotel and found the trailhead for "Laguna de Los Tres" within 10 minutes. The trail winded through the mountain offering scenic "miradors" (look outs) every kilometer or so. The trail took us through forests, over streams, past lakes and meadows and rocky clearings. The last kilometer of the trail climbed steeply up the mountain, taking us around an hour to scramble up the rocky path. The pay off was worth it as we reached the snowy top and stood over looking a frozen snow covered lake and Mt. Fit Roy in front of us in all of its imposing glory. It was truly spectacular. We took a short lunch break at the top to bask in the views and take a breather. The cold and wind was harsh at the top and we started our descent back down. 7.5 hours and 20 miles later we completed the hike.
We decided to take our third day easy and rest up for a long hike the following day. We walked down to the river, enjoyed the views of the mountains and later shared a bean, chorizo and beef stew for dinner- disappointingly, it was a little light on the meat. No beer with dinner for us unfortunately. Buying alcohol after 8pm was prohibited in lieu of the presidential election the following day. This election comes as a "tie-breaking" secondary election to the previous election a month earlier.
e began our final day early and set out at 8:30 for the 'Laguna Torre' trek. The trail head started right off of one of one of the town's streets. We walked for around 2.5 hours before reaching the Laguna Torre, a glacial lake in front of Cerro Torre, a jagged rocky mountain peak. We initially planned to follow the trail for an hour further for a look out point of another mountain but somehow lopped back around on the trail we had just come from. We walked for a few kilometers on the trail before asking a passing American couple if we were headed the right directions. They were very kind and took our their map clarifying that we had gotten turned around. It ended up working out in or favor because we continued the 8 kilometer hike back to town with them. They were a couple, around our age, from Colorado. They had bought a camper in the states and had been driving it for the last ten months through Central America and South America. We shared travel stories and follies as we hiked together. They were incredible nice, as most travelers we've met have been. They shared similar views as us about life, travel and the importance of exposure to other cultures and ways of living.
We spend the rest of the day enjoying the town and Scott builds a penny-stove that he plans on using during our 5-day hike in Torres del Paine.