After a few days in El Calafate we decided to go check out the “Trekking Capital of South America” El Chalten, located another 200km north in the Glaciers National Park. The weather outlook, in contrast to the last couple of weeks was predicting 4 days of sun and almost cloudless skies. With this in mind we booked onto an early bus and slept the 3 hours to El Chalten. We both awoke as the bus pulled into the last stretch of road leading into town and we’re glad we did. Situated virtually at the base of the Fitz Roy and Torre mountains, El Chalten must have one of the most breathtaking backdrops on the planet. The early morning clear skies made the last 10 minutes an event in their own right.
Anyone heading to the “town” of El Chalten should be prepared for a change of pace. Only established in 1985 in order to settle border rights with neighbouring Chile, the central authority seemed to lose interest in development after people started living there. The main 3 streets have tarmac, after that it’s dirt tracks. There are no petrol stations, though the remains of one sit by the entrance to town. There is 1 ATM in town, however the chances of it working are so slim you’d do better playing the lottery. Finally most places only accept cash, so take every peso you plan on spending. The power seems to cut out for a bit every now and then as well.
This all makes it sound far worse than it actually is. Despite the lack of certain amenities the locals have all of your comforts well in hand (as long as you remembered to bring cash.) The hotels, hostels, restaurants, bars and cafes are of a very good standard and you can easily pick up everything you’ll need for your stay in the area.
El Chalten advertises itself as the Argentine capital of trekking and you can immediately see why. As our bus pulled into town we were first dropped off at the information center for what can only be described as orientation, it seems every bus El Chalten bound does this and its well worth it. The whole area, including the town, is in the national park so you get a run down of the rules straight away. After this we got a really useful talk through all the different routes and treks available straight from town. This is what I think makes El Chalten so good, most of the trails start from the town, once you’ve arrived and dropped off your bags you can just get walking.
Due to the amazing weather and the fact it was still before midday, we dropped our bags at the hostel and shot straight out of the door to do the short hike to Laguna Capri. Climbing straight up out of town you quickly gain the 350 meters in a series of steep rises before arriving at the viewpoint above Laguna Capri. A description isn’t necessary, here’s the photo.
Not bad for a 90 minute hike from your bedroom.
After soaking in the view and eating a relaxing lunch we headed down to the lake to soak in the view from a slightly different angle. It is a really good view!
Heading back into town was done at a much slower pace allowing us to catch all the local wildlife undisturbed. Condors were soaring past the craggy cliff sides and the woodpeckers seemed completely unperturbed by our passing.
Our favorite trek in the area was undoubtedly the one to Laguna Torre, which we undertook on Day 2. Rising fairly early to beat the crowds we set off on the 6 hour round trip. The walk was described as having a 250 meter elevation out of town and was flat thereafter. This was a lie as its fairly undulating throughout. Despite this it was a lovely walk through the red and orange of the Patagonian Autumn. We recommend getting up early to do this walk not only so you give yourself enough time to enjoy but also because any mud is frozen making it easier. All the water running in the area is glacial melt water and it is perfectly safe to fill up your bottle at any of the streams you come across, which we did with great delight! Nothing beats fresh water from a stream. As we neared the end of the valley Lauren had to put up with me pointing out the interesting glacial geography, (using the same “interested” voice as when I’m trying to point out the local fauna or gaming). The final bit of the walk is up a short slope and then you get the most amazing view. I think the photo says it all again…
With Glacier Grande at the end of the valley and Cerro Torre partly obscured by cloud we think this has to be one of the most impressive views we’ve had in South America so far. The constant cracking of the glacier resounding across the lake and the gentler sounds of the icebergs melting and bouncing together were the only ones to be heard.
What made this all the more interesting was the appearance of a hawk, that had it’s sights set on stealing our sandwiches. It failed to get them but had a good stab at turning Mr.Ducky into a meal!
Out of our Patagonian exploration we think that El Chalten has been the best place so far, here’s why.
Value for Money
Unlike most other places we’d visited, there’s no park entry fee. Once you’ve caught the bus there, your costs are limited to food and accommodation, which are reasonable enough for Patagonia. Since there are campsites out in the wilds that don’t cost you a penny, if you bring a tent you’re not going to be paying much at all.
Ease of access
With loads of really simple day treks, you can go out see amazing views and be back in time for dinner. This also means that unlike Torres del Paine it doesn’t matter if you get soaking wet in the rain, you can just hang your stuff up to dry at the end of the day. Even if you’re camping you’re never more than 6 hours from town.
We didn’t get great views in Torres del Paine, but we think even if we had then the ones around El Chalten would give them a run for their money. If you can, we’d say go in autumn, the colour on the trees was amazing!
So if you’re planning a trip down south, don’t leave this little town off your itinerary.