Born at the confluence of two rivers, El Chalten is Patagonia’s premier destination for eco-tourism and the only habitable jumping off point to explore the iconic Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Groovy geocentric domes and colorful houses line the wide streets, which are home to overwhelmingly touristic amenities. Hostels, restaurants, and newly built chic hotels cater to hikers exploring the wide variety of mountain trails and rock climbers wiling away weeks or months attacking the multitude of world class pitches that lie a stone’s throw from town. When the weather is nice, El Chalten pretty much shuts down during the middle of the day when everyone is out exploring nature, so Stefje and I arrived in a ghost town when our third hitchhiking pick-up of the day dropped us close to the center.
During our numerous online searches, prices for accommodation never dipped under 250 pesos so we were pleasantly surprised when multiple hostels offered rooms for 130 pesos or less, even though most of them were overrun with packs of Israeli travelers.
An interesting sociological study, Israelis generally travel in Patagonia for an extended period of time after their obligatory army service, but restrict themselves to certain premier destinations: Torres del Paine National Park, Ushuaia, El Calafate, and El Chalten. Roaming about in large groups, they are notorious among fellow travelers and hostel owners for their overwhelming noise and ability, to quote one of their own, to have “3 Israelis and 5 opinions.” Many hostel owners in both Calafate and Chalten engage in a weird form of racial profiling, falsely informing groups of Israelis they don’t have room even when there’s plenty of space. It’s certainly one of the oddest traveling quirks I’ve ever experienced, and Stefje and I got a first-hand experience with their rowdy style on our first night in El Chalten.
Dubbed “The Trekking Capital of Argentina,” El Chalten has a wealth of hiking options, ranging from leisurely jaunts just outside of town to week long expeditions across the windswept Patagonian ice fields. We decided to start easy and work our way up in difficulty, so on our first full day in town, Stefje and I ventured out to Salto de Chorillo, an impressive 20 meter waterfall only an hour outside of town. The trail meandered along the gravel road that leads to a variety of other treks, with cliffs beginning to rise up one one side and a lazy azure river weaving like braids of hair back into the glacier-filled valley in the distance.
We could hear the waterfall before we could see it, as immense amounts of water came flowing down a hollowed out vertical cliff, forming a precipitous fall into a cold pool below.
To celebrate the holidays, Stefje and I holed up at Lo de Trivi for our longest contagious stay at a single hostel in South America. While outside the wind howled, cloud cover dominated the sky, and the nearby mountains were obscured, we enjoyed the cozy hostel with a fun crowd of travelers and a restaurant quality kitchen. Over Christmas we put the equipment to good use, whipping up an apple pie and some scrumptious roasted vegetable dishes to accompany everyone else’s centerpiece: steak. The highlight of the night came when the owner came in to light the coals for our traditional Argentine asado, almost lighting the whole building on fire.
Christmas dinner was a feast of an affair, with plenty of red wine to accompany the red meat and get us ready for one of the town's biggest party nights of the year. Locals swarmed the town's only bars for a late night of dancing and revelry to celebrate, so we gladly took part.
While the East Coast of The United States was enjoying its warmest Christmas on record, the Patagonian weather again reared its ugly head and on Christmas morning we woke up to the sight of big fat wet snowflakes floating gently through the windless air. It was the perfect time to sit inside with a warm cup of tea and a good book, enjoying the magical sight and lack of wifi that made us feel like we were truly in a remote location.
Half of the challenge of trekking in Chalten is waiting patiently for the right weather to venture out into the mountains, so we kept our eyes focused firmly on the weather forecast in the week to come. Indeed, in the constantly changing conditions it seems the only constant is deep howling winds whipping across the town's haphazard structures. Although there was still rain to come, we took advantage of a brief opening on December 27th to hike out to Loma del Pliegue Tumbado, the only viewpoint in the valley that offers the chance to glimpse the entire Fitz Roy range.
Heading out of town due Southwest, we climbed up over grassy hillsides until the entire town of Chalten looked just like a snug little postcard village snuggled between the two rivers.
Adjacent to the trail a river carved a path through the hillside, keeping us serenaded with the sounds of rainwater and glacier run-off headed down to the rivers that straddle the town. As we progressed upwards, gaining elevation that would hopefully afford us an epic view, we crossed through a forest populated by huge trees, their thick trunks adorned with light green moss. Beyond the tree line, small bushes eventually gave way to barren rockscapes, as we ventured into the part of the mountain where wind and snow made it impossible for even the toughest Patagonian grasses to survive.
It was here that we caught our first glimpse of the imposing face of Mount Fitz Roy, the storied mountain that tugs at the heartstrings of climbers and outdoor enthusiasts from all over the world.
It took four hours of almost constant uphill hiking, but the trail finally veered off towards the cliff face on our right and we were rewarded for all the hard work. In front of us lay a panorama of the entire Fitz Roy range in all its staggering glory, the soaring peaks and their glaciers accompanied by half a dozen lakes spread across the view.
A few pesky clouds hung over the notoriously challenging peak of Cerro Torre, but otherwise our view was unobstructed and for the first time we truly grasped El Chalten is such a captivating destination for just about anyone who simply loves the outdoors.
Pure white snowpack melted away in the midday heat, forming long gushing waterfalls slowly carving crevices into the rock walls and feeding lakes dotted with icebergs and their corresponding rivers, all the water headed downhill toward the town. It was a stunning sight on a grand scale, making us both exceptionally grateful for this opportunity to see the raw beauty of Patagonia and reflect on the journey that led us here.
We spent an hour at the viewpoint enjoying a lunch with a tremendous view and relaxing on top of a huge boulder, then packed it in for the comparatively easy downhill jaunt back to town. At the entrance to the forest I turned back for one last look at the skyline and was shocked to find that a whole line of clouds had descended upon the row of mountains, completely darkening the view for anyone making the uphill slog in the afternoon.
It was a sign of things to come, as a light rain peppered us on the way into town and then the next day strong winds and rains returned, trapping us in the hostel yet again.
With three days left in the year we were finally granted the stretch of clear skies and dry weather we had been waiting for all along, so we seized the opportunity and set off for a 3 day hike on the Fitz Roy to Cerro Torre loop. Weighed down by tents, sleeping bags, and plenty of food to keep us satiated at the free campsites that line the trail, our path out of town was immediately impeded by a steep incline.
We huffed and puffed our way up the hill, flanked on the left side by steep climbing cliffs well-marked with chalk and hooks and on the right with panoramas of Rio de Las Vueltas, a lazy criss-crossing river that snakes through the valley.
An hour and a half of uphill slogging reached its culmination at Lago Capri, where we were greeted with our first full frontal view of Cerro Fitz Roy. Right in front of us was the idyllic water of the lake, a deep clear blue contrasted against the greenery of the surrounding forest. Take a close look at the Fitz Roy massif and the peaks on either side - does it look familiar?
Maybe you've seen it before, as the wide granite teeth with the unique monolith protruding from the middle is also the inspiration behind the logo for the outdoor clothing company Patagonia. The founder was so enamored with this place that he even paid homage to the mountain by naming his son Fitz.
From the laguna the trail leveled out, crossing a wide boggy area of open grasslands before returning to the tree cover at a campsite at the base of the mountain. Stefje and I set up the tent and left the final steep climb for the following morning, electing instead to follow the nearby Rio Blanco to a viewpoint for Glacier Piedras Blancas.
Quickly the trail gave way to open plains and we lost our way, slogging through swamps, crossing forests and streams, and eventually climbing a steep tree-lined hillside. I was out of breath by the time I reached the top after one last rock scramble, but before I could catch my breath - WHAM! - the wind hit me straight in the face. Perched at the top of a ridge, nothing stopped the ferocious gusts coming down off the ice sheet; we couldn't even stand up for a few minutes without getting knocked down again.
Yet by hiding behind rocks and taking shelter we could gaze in wonder at the steep face of the two tiered glacier which fed the blue-grey lake below us. On either side of the lake we could saw steep walls of fine rock, moraine formed by the slow receding of the ice. The face was a combination of pure white and eery deep blue, the result of intense pressure on the ice over tens of thousands of years.
At the top level of the glacier huge chunks of compacted snow hung directly over the water, threatening to calve off in huge chunks at any time and constantly feeding a set of gushing waterfalls.
On the way back we found a more manageable trail along the river and worked our way across the boulder-strewn riverbed until we were back at camp.
The following morning my alarm went off at 5:30AM and I poked my head out of the tent to peek at the sheer cliffs of Fitz Roy. Over the next half hour the sun worked its way from the tip of the mountain down to the valley's forest, soaking everything in sight in soft morning light.
Two more hours of much-needed sleep later, we took off for the toughest section of the trail: the uphill rock scramble to Fitz Roy's Laguna de Los Tres. This hike wasn't for the faint of heart, as erverytime I looked up I grew more disenchanted with the prospect of tackling the steep switchbacks ahead of me. It was a constant struggle to keep me eyes on the ground, making progress one step at a time. Behind me, the huge lakes, climbing boulders, and forests of the lush valley came into focus.
After an hour I reached the ridge line that brings the crystal clear lake into focus, rewarding defeated hikers with perfect views of the entire mountain range. This is mecca for hikers; the place that thousands every year plan their vacations around. Before the multitude of day hikers around, we deeply enjoyed the tranquil surroundings, perching ourselves on a rock jutting out of the laguna and taking in the epic stillness.
Needless to say, despite all the hype this is not a destination that disappoints.
We then followed a small trail around the left side of the lake, where we found a waterfall gushing from the laguna down the rocky hillside, along with another glacier-adorned mountain and a long, deep azure lake. All in all, we spent over an hour relaxing and reflecting at the viewpoint, impressed with the sight's other worldly vistas.
By the time we turned around the day hikers from El Chalten had begun to arrive in droves; on the way down we passed by over a hundred breathless hikers. The steep climb expended a ton of energy, but nevertheless we had to saddle up again and keep hiking, this time through a valley towards our next campsite.
The trail started by skirting the surface of two impressive lakes, Lagunas Madre y Hija (Mother and Daughter).
At the tip of Laguna Hija we found a calm if rocky beach, the perfect place to soak our tired feet for a quick bout of rejuvenation, our eyes delighted by the shimmering light playing across the surface.
The respite ended up being a highly necessary rejuvenation, as what followed was a ridiculously steep downhill that left my quads burning and a bourgeoning blister on my foot. Thankfully the path eventually leveled out and from there it was just a few hundred yards until we turned a corner and could glimpse a new valley in front of us.
Unfortunately the crown jewel of the skyline, a frighteningly steep incisor known as Cerro Torre, was covered in a plush layer of clouds for the second time this week. Yet as we progressed closer, the cloud sunk just enough to expose the frightening tip of the jagged peak.
Cerro Torre is one of the world's most challenging mountains for rock climbers, attracting borderline lunatic adrenaline junkies from everyone on the planet. It's almost a kilometer straight up and the combination of winds, tumultuous weather, and a lethal mushroom cap of ice on top have claimed the lives of dozens of climbers.
On New Years Eve we woke to see that the weather finally abided, affording us with awe-inspiring views of its incredible facade. We hiked from the nearby campsite up to Laguna Torre, where icebergs the size of trucks floated on the freezing surface.
The morning light reflected off the clear surface for an exceptionally calming atmosphere, aided by the fact that we were the only hikers in sight. Although it's tough to beat that view, we moved on to the viewpoint closer to the granite peaks, rising up around the rim on the right side of the lake. From here we earned a bird's eye view of the weaving cracks and scraggly peaks of the glacier's top facade, leaving us staring in awe at the monstrous body of dangerous ice.
Even from here, we were dwarfed in comparison to Cerro Torre's impressive line of mountains and snow pack alongside the monster of a lake.
Having culminated our walk with perfect views and weather better than we could have even wished for, we were both now eager to return to the comforts of El Chalten for some creature comforts and a fun New Years Eve. On the way back to camp dozens of hikers began to populate the lake shore, and by the time we progressed into the valley hundreds of people were passing us by, flooding the well-marked trail.
Even though a high layer of clouds slowly and imperceptibly floated across the sky, the entire range of towers remained in view, making for spectacular reminders of nature's power every time we turned around. The trail left icy glaciers behind, passing through a combination of forests and rolling hills covered in grass, flanked by a tumultuous cascading river the entire time.
Three hours later we staggered back into El Chalten, fatigue wreaking havoc on our legs and feet but the relief palpably smeared across our grinning faces. We sat outside in the sun and downed a rewarding snack of Lays Potato Chips and Quilmes beer, toasting an adventurous, jaw-dropping end to 2015 and kicking off our Patagonian New Years celebration.
PATAGONIA ON A BUDGET
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Prices and details for accommodation, transportation, and activities in every destination
Detailed maps and itineraries of the most popular backpacking routes
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Instructions and safety advice for hitchhiking
The only packing list you'll ever need for camping
The electronics, websites, and applications to depend on during your expedition
A special bonus guide on packing and cooking during long hikes through national parks