El Chaltén

El Chaltén is ridiculous in the best way. In more diplomatic terms, the town is a hiker’s paradise since it was built in the 1980s to accommodate trekkers. A number of trails are accessible from the center of town, so you’re literally within walking distance to the most magnificent mountain scenery. Hiking in El Chaltén is much easier to plan than in Torres del Paine because you can wake up and decide where you want to go; you don’t have to map out a multi-day trek months in advance. Many hikes allow you to return to the town center every evening, so you don’t have to worry about camping or stocking up on food.

One of the best tips I got for El Chaltén was to add extra nights to my stay to maximize the odds of clear skies. Since my goal was to go on three hikes (Fitz Roy, Laguna Torre, and Loma del Pliegue Tumbado), I stayed in El Chaltén for five nights, giving me a buffer of a day and a half.

I took a bus to get from El Calafate to El Chaltén, and we were greeted with a gorgeous view as we approached our destination. No clouds were in the sky, so we were able to see Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy in all their glory.

los condores y las aguilas

Truth time: this was not the view from the bus ride into El Chaltén (I took this photo on the hike to Miradores de los Cóndores y las Águilas). But this seemed like the right place for a photo, so a photo you will get.

If I could redo this trip, I’d rent a car to be able to stop and take photos. Before reaching the station, my bus stopped at the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares office, so all the passengers could get a briefing on the trails, safety, and rules.

When I checked in at my hostel, the owner Sebastian gave me a map with details about the major trails from El Chaltén. This map was my bible during my stay, and it gave info about the length of each trail and time estimates to complete the treks.

My arrival day would have been the perfect time to hike to Fitz Roy since it was so clear, but there was no way I could pull off the full-day hike after arriving in El Chaltén at 4 PM. Instead, I started the hike to Miradores de los Cóndores y las Águilas, one of the shortest trails from El Chaltén, at around 5:10 PM. It took about 30 minutes to hike to the viewpoints, where I was treated to views of Fitz Roy and the valley by Lago Viedma.

el chalten

Fitz Roy overlooking El Chaltén

los condores y las aguilas

The valley by Lago Viedma

The hike was easy, and I returned to the town center at around 6:30 PM, with daylight to spare.

For my first full day in El Chaltén, I decided to hike to Fitz Roy, arguably the main attraction in the area. The hike was 10 km one way, and the estimate for the uphill climb was four hours. I left my hostel at around 8:05 AM and reached the start of the trail at around 8:30 AM.

The first couple of kilometers were a steady climb, so I broke into a sweat (no surprise there). Even though I was sweating, parts of the trail were so gusty that I had to wear a neck warmer to cover my nose and mouth. In true Patagonia trekking fashion, I alternated between pulling on my gloves and the hoods of both my fleece and rain jacket and shedding all these layers every few minutes.

During the first hour of the hike, I stopped at a viewpoint of the valley by El Chaltén.

fitz roy

At around 9:40, I reached Laguna Capri and got my first close look at Fitz Roy.

laguna capri fitz roy

Near Laguna Capri, I passed a couple of trekkers who gushed over “Mr. Fitz Roy,” and I got a kick out of that personification. It doesn’t take much to amuse me.

At around 11:05, I passed through Poincenot, one of the campgrounds by (Mr.) Fitz Roy. While the round-trip hike to Fitz Roy can be completed in a day, camping is an option for visitors who may want to see Fitz Roy at sunrise or sunset. That said, it’s still possible to see Fitz Roy early or late, even if you don’t camp. I met a traveler who left his hostel at 2 AM and hiked in the dark to catch Fitz Roy at sunlight. He confessed that he did it mainly for the Instagram photo opps. That’s…dedication. (What? How dare you accuse me of throwing shade?)

At around 11:25, I reached Río Blanco, which marked the last kilometer (and the last restroom stop) of the trail. Walking a kilometer on flat road would take less than 15 minutes, but the final kilometer of the Fitz Roy trail spanned 400 meters of elevation. When I saw “400 meters” on paper, I was like, “Whatever. Numbers.”

Clearly, I didn’t know what I was getting into. That last kilometer ended up taking an hour. Part of it involved scaling rocks, so my ankles were sore when I finished the hike. Although it was challenging, I liked complaining about it more than anything else. It was doable, even in sneakers.

I reached Laguna de los Tres, the end of the trail, at around 12:25 PM, bang on with the time estimate on my hostel map. This was my reward for completing the climb:

fitz roy

Laguna Sucia in the lower left (I don’t know about you, but that lagoon doesn’t look dirty to me), spectacular Fitz Roy in the middle, and Laguna de los Tres in the lower right

I was content to sit and marvel. Clouds obscured the top of Fitz Roy’s head, which made for a moodier atmosphere.

It was heart-wrenching to leave Fitz Roy, but I didn’t want to risk hiking back to town in the dark. I started the walk back to El Chaltén at around 2:35 PM. I rarely make it out of a hike without falling, but I had been lucky and avoided slipping during the uphill climb to Fitz Roy. Of course, at the exact moment I remembered that I hadn’t fallen on the hike yet, I wiped out on a rock. Womp. I had gloves on, which saved my palms from being shredded.

During the descent, I noticed that the clouds by Fitz Roy became denser, so starting the hike early was a good choice. I reached the end of the trail at around 6 PM, which meant the total trip took about 9.5 hours, including time taking photos and enjoying the views. My ankles were the sorest part of my body; all the blame goes to that rocky final kilometer.

The next day, I left my hostel at around 8:05 AM again for the hike to Loma del Pliegue Tumbado. I reached the start of the trail at around 8:30 AM and began the steady uphill. I was dealing with tight calves and sore thighs from Fitz Roy, so I plodded along for the first part of the hike.

loma del pliegue tumbado

Starting the hike to Loma del Pliegue Tumbado

Signs on the trail warned hikers to watch out for wild cows (no lie). I saw a couple and made sure to give them their space. Even with a wide berth, one gave me the stare down, and I was too spooked to take a photo.

At around 9:55, I entered a forest that shrouded any surrounding scenery. No mincing words here: this was boring. A steady incline with only a view of trees that all looked the same to my untrained eye? Bleh. I normally don’t listen to music while hiking, but I put my earbuds in to pass the time. With a snack break, I finally got out of the forest after 50 minutes.

At 11:20, I reached the mirador, which offered views of Fitz Roy and muddy Laguna Torre.

loma del pliegue tumbado

I hate admitting this, but my reaction was, “This is nice…I guess?” I was slightly disappointed with the view and debated whether the boring uphill trek was worthwhile. Only the most insufferable and jaded traveler (i.e., me) would think that.

Then I saw a faint, narrow path to my left and decided to continue.

loma del pliegue tumbado

Oh, hello, hill.

This climb to the top of Loma del Pliegue Tumbado was terrifying–much scarier than the last kilometer of Fitz Roy. My footing didn’t feel secure, and I was afraid of falling backward every time I stopped. I prayed that the view at the top would be worth the terror and tried to suppress creeping doubts about whether I’d be able to tackle the descent later.

The full view was obscured until I reached the peak at around noon. No question: the climb was worth it. I was wowed by the panoramic view.

loma del pliegue tumbado

The difference was subtle in photos, but it was a huge change in person. Something about the 30-minute climb completely changed the perspective. (Honestly, maybe it was just my relief at making it to the peak in one piece.)

loma del pliegue tumbado

Cerro Huemul

lago viedma

Lago Viedma

It was windy at the top, so I put on a neck warmer, rain jacket, and gloves. Even with the wind, I was a lot more comfortable with my footing at the top of the hill due to the spongy ground. A couple of hikers were living their best life by splitting a bottle of wine.

I started descending at around 1:45 PM. Going downhill was surprisingly less scary than the ascent; it may have been because I was so focused on my footing that I didn’t have the mental capacity to worry about falling off the edge. I inched along the path and managed to avoid slipping. (How? I have no idea.) I reached the bottom of hill at 2:10 PM and put my earbuds back in to get through the tedious part of the trail. Once I made it out of the snooze-worthy forest, I caught a glimpse of the peaks I had seen from the top of the hill.

el chalten

Loma del Pliegue Tumbado on the left, Cerro Torre in the middle, and Fitz Roy on the right

I reached the end of the trail at around 4:20 PM. The round-trip hike was about 18 km and consisted of about 7 hours and 5 minutes of walking; about three hours and 45 minutes of the walk were devoted to the climb to the top of the hill.

I took the next day off because the forecast predicted overcast skies. In the afternoon, gusts blew dust throughout the town, and the wind almost knocked me over when I stepped outside. I killed time in the evening by knocking back a couple of bottles of Argentinean wine with three other guests at my hostel.

I didn’t get to eat dinner, so I immediately regretted imbibing when I woke up the next morning. Headache aside, there was no way I was going to miss out on a hike on a sunny day in El Chaltén.

Before arriving in El Chaltén, I had planned to hike to Laguna Torre. However, a couple of travelers told me that Laguna Torre wasn’t as impressive as Fitz Roy, so I thought about revisiting Fitz Roy instead. The day was supposed to be beautiful, so it would have been a good chance to see Fitz Roy in different lighting. Ultimately, the idea of taking on that last killer kilometer in my oh-so-fresh state put me off on retrying Fitz Roy, so I went for Laguna Torre.

I left my hostel at around 9:45 AM (not 8:05 AM this time due to wine-drinking regrets). Laguna Torre ended up being a good choice after a wine-fueled night because it was the easiest trek. After a few gradual uphills during the first couple of kilometers, it was sweet, marvelous, flat trail. The sun was out, and it wasn’t windy, so I was able to walk with just a tshirt for most of the hike.

I arrived at Laguna Torre at around 12:25 PM. Other travelers may have their own opinions about Laguna Torre v. Fitz Roy, but I loved it. The view was certainly different from Fitz Roy, but it was still spellbinding.

laguna torre

During my lunch break at Laguna Torre, I had the vilest mini Oreo knockoffs. I don’t know why I ate more than one, but that’s mindless eating for you. Midway through the bag, I realized that–like, seriously–I didn’t have to finish the cookies; no one was forcing me to eat dessert. I usually forget to take pictures of food, but these were so horrible that I had to memorialize them to remind myself never to eat them again.

mini triton

Poisonous. DO NOT EAT.

To the right of Laguna Torre was a path to Mirador Maestri, which took about 45 minutes to reach. Lesson learned: don’t miss out on any miradores.

laguna torre

I heard a few distant rumbles from the glacier while I was hanging out at the mirador.

At around 2:05 PM, I started the hike back to El Chaltén from Mirador Maestri and reached the end of the trail at around 4:50 PM. The round-trip hike was about 18 km and consisted of about five hours of walking.

At the end of my stay in El Chaltén, I had sore thighs, calves, ankles, and arches. On the plus side, my thighs were made of steel after hiking for a couple of weeks in Chile’s Lake District and Patagonia. Not gonna lie, I prodded them a few times just to confirm they were real (#notahumblebrag, #justabrag). Of course, I lost all of that steeliness after eating cake every day during my whole stay in Argentina, so I didn’t get to be smug for long.

A few final observations about El Chaltén:

  • I didn’t bring hiking boots to South America because I thought they would be too heavy and take up too much space. I was #blessed with no rain during my hikes in El Chaltén, so I was able to get by with just sneakers. My ankles might have gotten less sore if I had worn supportive hiking boots, though. I didn’t have trekking poles, but they probably would have been helpful, especially since my sneakers didn’t have the best traction. Many other hikers used trekking poles, and shops in the town center rented out hiking gear.
  • If you don’t require special assistance, you can hike without a guide. I went solo on all of my hikes. The trails are well marked, with signs at regular intervals indicating how far you’ve walked.
  • The town center has everything you need, but grocery selection is pretty limited–no surprise for a small town tucked among mountains. If you don’t want to pack your own lunches, you can easily buy sandwiches to go. I subsisted on a diet of ham and cheese sandwiches and got so sick of them by the time I left El Chaltén. (I would have killed for chicken.) I never got tired of desserts, though, and El Chaltén had a good selection of post-hike pick-me-ups (besides those vile Oreo knockoffs), such as the alfajores at Chalteños.
  • I stayed in a six-bed dorm for five nights and had no snoring roommates. Truly a miracle.

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