Nestled between the mountains, a 3 hour drive north of El Calafate, the town of El Chalten was set up by climbers as a basecamp for their ascents of Mount Fitz Roy and its surrounding peaks. Years have passed and what was once an empty little town is now considered “the trekking capital” of Argentina. Still remote, the town is now filled with hotels, hostels, campsites and restaurants catering for ambitious climbers and holiday day hikers.
We chose to come to El Chalten for the laid back (and free) hiking options available to view Mount Fitz Roy and Cerro Torres. Hiking here is completely free, in fact it is part of the national park in which Perito Moreno is located. We think the crazy high prices to enter the Perito Moreno glacier allow hikers to access this part of the park for free.
El Chalten comes from a word meaning “smoking mountain”.
The jagged peak of Mount Fitz Roy (3,359 meters) is half size of the Andes mountains but it is known to be more difficult to climb and is considered one of the most challenging climbs in the world. The mountain is named in honour of Robert Fitz Roy, the captain of Charles Darwin’s expeditions.
Doug Thompkins & Yvon Chouinard, The founders of The North Face & Patagonia were some of the first men to reach the summit of Mount Fitz Roy.
We arrived in El Chalten on the last day of March and began looking for someplace to stay. We had planned to spend two nights in the town and then two nights camping in the park. We had heard being in Patagonia in April was difficult as most towns shut down for the winter. We didn’t know this literally meant April 1st! The first hostel we arrived in said we could of course stay, great! However, after giving us the tour they then informed us they where only open for one more night and were closing tomorrow April 1st. Literally things start to shut down for winter in April.
After finding accommodation and a tent from a local outdoor store we planned our route. On our first day, we would hike from town to Camp Poincenot to see Mount Fitz Roy during the day. We would then hike up again in the morning, this time in darkness to watch the sunrise. On day two we would hike towards Cerro Torres where we would spend a night before hiking back to town.
The route from town to Camp Poincenot was straightforward. The trail was mostly empty and we had the beauty to ourselves. A bonus for arriving late in the season was that the colours of the trees are in the midst of changing from greens to oranges and browns and provide a beautiful scene within the dramatic landscape. During the hike we saw our first Patagonian woodpeckers. Once in camp, we quickly set up our tent and started our hike up the steep mountain to the viewpoint of Fitz Roy. We left a little later in the day so most hikers were making their way down while we were climbing up, meaning we also had a lot less people at the top when we arrived. We’ll let the photos below show you why it was worth the climb.
After a camp dinner and a few long exposure photos of the mountains and the night sky we called it a night to avoid the cold. No such luck. The tent and sleeping bags we had were completely unsuitable for the cold night at the bottom of glacier-capped mountains. Between the two of us we got zero sleep. Even wearing all of the clothes we brought, we felt like we were slowly freezing! 4am arrived and we jumped out of our sleeping bags to start our hike with the hopes that that would warm us up. Once again we hiked up the steep incline to the viewpoint and passed hikers fully equipped with the latest outdoor gear, those using shopping bags for their clothes and those without any form of light for the trail.
We had hoped that the sunrise would allow us to see the iconic pink glow of the mountain range but unfortunately it wasn’t to be. We heard of some hikers who did the sunrise hike 4 mornings in a row and didn’t see the glow and others who got it on their first attempt. That’s nature, unpredictable.
After hiking back down, taking down the tent and a quick camp breakfast we decided to abandon our plans for a second night of camping at Tres Lagunas. One night of no sleep and almost freezing was enough to put us off spending another night at the base of a glacier.
We started our hike passing the crystal clear lakes of Madre and Hija and were once again struck by the beauty of the autumn colours against the mountains. Arriving in Tres Lagunas we saw the leftovers of icebergs in the lake, which had parted not long ago from the glacier. A beautiful spot for photos.
How we got to El Chalten
As mentioned above, El Chalten is a small town in the middle of the mountains 3 hours north of El Calafate. There is only one route to get there, Route 40, which goes al the way to Bariloche trough the empty Patagonian pampas. By this stage we were sick and tired of the expensive Argentinian Bus system (buses counted for almost 50% of our expenses in Argentina), so we decided to try our hand at hitchhiking out of El Calafate.
It is important to remember that we were at the end of the season so the amount of travellers had drastically reduced in the region, this was both good and bad. We have heard stories of queues of backpackers on the sides of the roads looking for a lift but we had the roads pretty much to ourselves. The other bad part is that there is less traffic attempting the route so finding a ride is more difficult.
To be successful, we first had to walk out of town to the road going north. This was a 30-minute walk in which we were accompanied by two street dogs. It may have been that it was not our luck that day or that the dogs barked, chased and obstructed any car that passed, but after 5 hours by the side of the road we gave up and headed back to town.
Undeterred we decided we would try again the next morning and if we failed we would get the afternoon bus. After cleverly avoiding every street dog we saw, we were picked up almost immediately after starting. Maybe our sign “we have cookies” worked.
Our ride unfortunately wasn’t going to El Calafate and left us in the middle of nowhere beside the road into El Calafate. We wondered what we would do if we couldn’t find a ride, maybe spend a night sleeping in the pampas with the Guanacos? After 9 cars and an hour wait we were picked up by a young Argentinian photographer who worked for TripAdviser and his family on holiday. Lucky us, he wanted to stop and take photos of the mountains on the route in, something we were more than happy to do too.
From El Chalten
From El Chalten we continued north to Los Antiguos where we crossed the border into Chile to start our journey on the Carretera Austral.
Many backpackers choose to do a 2 day hike and take a ferry from El Chalten to Villa O’Higgins to begin the Carretera Austral, however we didn’t have the equipment to camp and heard conflicting reports that the ferry had finished its service for winter.
Cost and useful information
Currency (average) : €1 = ARS 16.38
Hitchhiking : El Calafate to El Chalten : Free
Hostel El Chalten : Glaciar Marconi : ARS 200 (€12) pp / pn
Tent Rental : ARS 210 (€12.50) pp / pn
Bus : El Chalten to Los Antigos : ARS 1140 (€70) pp