The tiny village of El Chalten sits inside Los Glaciers National Park and is framed by the dramatic spiky peaks of Fitz Roy and Co. Hiking trails branch off from the village and lead directly to some of the most impressive sights in Patagonia. But the best part is it’s free to visit, this section of the national park doesn’t have an entrance fee and there’s no buses required to reach the trails (unlike at Perito Moreno Glacier which sits in the same park but further south and charges $12 entry and $15 bus!). Our bus stopped at the park entrance so a ranger could inform everyone of the park rules and recommend trails to us. He was quite a monotone chap so when he slowly said “if it’s rainy…you get wet, if it’s windy…you get cold and if it’s cloudy…you see nothing” the whole room laughed.
The village had a nice vibe with happy hour bars spilling outside into the sunshine and the locals were such a friendly bunch. Another great thing about this area is you don’t need to do a multi day trek (unless you want to). Most of the trails are accessible on day hikes which was a relief for us after the tough W trek, and the food supply in the village was awful for a camping trip.
We arrived in the late afternoon so we took it easy and just headed up to Mirador De Los Condores to catch the sunset. The colours didn’t pop much but the view was just insane – it was the image of Patagonia, the spikiest ridge-line we’ve ever witnessed. While we were watching the sun go down I heard someone screaming and said it sounded like someone had broken their leg but Craig thought I was mad. It went on for awhile and when we headed back down we saw park rangers carrying someone in a stretcher….but there was still someone screaming and people were standing around her. I immediately thought the worst that it was a dead body being carried and the person screaming was mourning and I was quite worried…turns out the rangers were just doing a practice test and they deserved a bloody Oscar for their acting skills.
The first hike we did was up to Lago De Los Tres, a 24km return hike from the village that would gain 800m elevation. The sun was shining and we were so excited to get a closer look at the peaks. We reached the first viewpoint and the mountains sat right in front of us. They were absolutely jaw dropping and I just kept telling Craig they didn’t look real, it looked like a film set. We don’t normally ask people to take our photo, tending to prefer just using a tripod and self timer but it was a bit windy so we asked a french lady who replied “yes I am able to, I have hands so I am able”. What a weird thing to say. So we awkwardly stood for a picture, and she zoomed right out and took the shittest photo of us, obviously not as able as she thought!
The views along the trail were phenomenal as we got closer to Fitz Roy, the tallest peak. The final one kilometre was a steep uphill slog and once the ground levelled off the wind hit us. It was bitterly cold, we put all our layers on, balaclavas, hats and gloves and it literally felt like winter in the Arctic. The sun was still shining but cloud had formed around the peaks, hiding a few of them but also making the scenery look rather mystical. The lake sitting below the spires was frozen and covered in ice, which was a shame as in summer it’s a wonderful blue colour.
We continued down to the shoreline and found a second lake to the left which was beginning to defrost. A large boulder sheltered us from the wind so we could eat our lunch without the unbearable chill. Between the two lakes was a big mound which offers the best view of the two lakes together with the spiky backdrop.
On our way back we took a slightly different route which led us along the shores of Capri lake. Unlike the lake below Fitz Roy, this one was totally defrosted and filled with crystal clear water. A tempting spot for a swim when summer finally arrives here.
It was a long old hike and I already had a rotten cold so the following day we took it easy and watched a festival celebrating the birthday of El Chalten. There was a lot of very depressing music played by marching bands but the main thing we wanted to see was the Patagonian Rodeo. It took place in the upper section of town in a very dusty field, the weather was windy again so sometimes we’d be completely engulfed in a cloud of dust.
The local Gaucho (cowboys) wore berets and long riding boots. The men took it in turns riding a bucking horse who frantically tried to kick the men off – usually succeeding. We watched one horse get released and I remember saying “he doesn’t seem very active” when he suddenly arched his back and the little cowboy was projected into the air like a missile. There was a live band too, the men were playing instruments and wearing traditional ponchos, but it was really strange as they sang the same song non stop. I normally think these Latino songs all sound the same but this was literally the exact same song, with such enthusiasm even after repeating themselves for two hours straight.
The following day we woke early to catch the sun hitting the peaks from Mirador De Los Condores. Luckily as we were just 2km walk from the viewpoint we only had to wake at 6am which wasn’t too bad. The sky was clear blue, turning mauve until the peaks looked like they were on fire. The trail was lined with bushes covered in tiny bright red flowers which added even more colour to the landscape.
We headed back to our hostel for breakfast and then did our second hike in the area, up to Laguna Torre. It was another long hike of 20km but with very little elevation gain so it’s considered an easy trail. This hike focused on the view of the unnaturally pointy towers to the west of Fitz Roy. It was much quieter than our previous hike and we were treated to clear blues the entire day.
The trail ended at Laguna Torre which had melted and was a murky green colour with a few bobbing icebergs. Behind the lake were the three insanely tall spires and a snowy mountain draped in a glacier. The view wasn’t as impressive as it was at Fitz Roy but it was still a cracking sight. As we veered left we got a glimpse up the narrow valley where the ridge-line was so jagged and spiky that it looked like the blade of a saw. Maybe this area should be called the Sawtooth mountains.
We had plans to do another big hike but we were wiped out. My cold was still bad and Craig was apparently suffering from the same cold but without showing any obvious symptoms – I was a bit dubious about his claims for sympathy! So instead of hiking we took it easy and wandered up the road out of the village to get a different view of the mountain range. It was stunning from every angle and I’m pretty sure we will never see mountains as impressive as these ever again.
We couldn’t help but compare the Chilean and Argentinian sides of Patagonia…and we quickly decided Argentina won. Not only are the mountains spikier but there’s also more of them and it’s FREE to hike and doesn’t need any prior planning. I’m still very happy that we did the W trek in Chile (especially happy we did it before El Chalten!) but it was expensive and a headache to organise. Backcountry camping was a novelty for us though so the W trek was very memorable…plus we saw a mountain lion!!! But for a taste of Patagonia El Chalten is the place to go and right now is the best time with the Argentinian peso devaluing in their economic crisis it makes accommodation, food and transport much more affordable than it was a few years ago.