One of my favourite places I visited in South America was the small town of El Chaltén. It’s located in the south of Patagonia, close to the Chilean border, in a truly stunning area. Many people visit for hiking and there are some incredible walks to take in. The main highlights are Mount Fitzroy and Laguna de los Tres, one of the best one-day hikes anywhere in the world.
Getting to El Chaltén is relatively simple in that you have limited options. By far the easiest and most popular route is to arrive from El Calfate. The route is fully paved and takes approximately three hours by bus to travel the 220km between the two towns.
Once you arrive in El Chaltén you’ll find yourself in a picturesque small town surrounded by impressive mountains. Due to its isolated location, El Chaltén is very limited in terms of supermarkets, shops and even ATMs. There are however a good number of restaurants and hotels/hostels, but you’ll find these to be more expensive due to the remote setting. I would definitely recommend bringing plenty of cash with you before you depart for El Chaltén, and maybe even food supplies if you plan on cooking while you are there. Not only will you find just a few supermarkets in town, but they’re also poorly stocked with slightly overpriced items. Supplies only come through once or twice a week so you could be out of luck when you arrive.
Upon arrival the buses generally stop at the ranger station on the edge of town where you’re given maps, as much information as you can take in about hiking the area and an opportunity to ask any pressing questions you have. You’ll also be warned to be on the lookout for the local mountain lions/pumas, but I didn’t see any while I was there (unfortunately).
Once you have your bearings your first stop should be the waterfall just outside town. Chorillo del Salto is often neglected due to the other spectacular hikes in the area, but it’s a good taster to introduce yourself to what El Chaltén has to offer. The walk is a straightforward 5km from town and takes approximately an hour. You could also cycle the route or, if you don’t feel like being so active, drive 90% of the way there.
Following the river out of town, you’ll soon find yourself surrounded by mountains. Everything looks and feels so isolated and it’s a great place to lose yourself (so long as you don’t actually get lost).
When you reach the waterfall you’ll often find yourself entirely alone. I was there for at least ten minutes before I saw another person. Just enjoying the waterfall and listening to the sounds around me.
Later, during my first evening in El Chaltén, a friend I’d made in Rio (about two months earlier) walked into my dorm room. We caught up and he introduced me to the other guys he was travelling with. None of us were too pleased about the hostel we were in so we made the decision to move the next day to another hostel a little further down the same street; Hostel Rancho Grande y Restaurante. The first place was nice without being too expensive, but the new hostel had more of a backpacker feel to it.
Everyone was planning to do the hike to Laguna de los Tres that day, however the weather changed that idea. Around the middle of the morning it started snowing heavily. The view out of the window looked even more stunning than it had before. But, as is usually the case when travelling, a disappointing situation turned into one of my most memorable experiences in Patagonia.
We all stayed inside in the warmth and I got to know my new friends, and several others in the hostel, over a few drinks of Fernet and coke (which we could chill nicely using the freezing temperatures outside). In the evening we all got together to cook a meal using whatever supplies we could find in the supermarket. Splitting the tasks between cooking, prepping and shopping amongst the group. We sat down to eat as a group of around 15, all from different parts of the world.
The next morning, with the weather cleared up, the majority of that same group set off together to make the hike to Laguna de los Tres. As I mentioned earlier it’s one of the best one-day hikes in the world, but there are many other options in the area. From shorter hikes to multi-day treks, including hiking to Mount Fitzroy itself. The region is well prepared and you’ll find campsites with suitable facilities along the routes. On the edge of town you’ll see a large sign for the start of the route to Laguna de los Tres, including plenty of information.
The hike to Laguna de los Tres is a 21km round-trip and takes anywhere from 6-8 hours, depending on how long you spend marvelling at the scenery. It’s perfectly manageable with a decent level of fitness and the views make it all worthwhile. Mount Fitzroy is prominent throughout, as are glaciers and woodland. The covering of snow after the previous day made everything appear even more incredible. While the initial part of the route is relatively straightforward, the final section up to Laguna de los Tres is a steep 1km that takes approximately an hour.
This was made even more difficult during our visit due to being covered in ice. However, when you finally reach the top everything is worth it. You’ll find a couple of false dawns as you near the top. Seeing what you think is the summit before finding another incline just behind. Eventually though you’ll arrive at the lakes. The perfect place to stop for a packed lunch as you take in the breath-taking scenery – Laguna de los Tres ahead of you while Mount Fitzroy stands tall and proud in the background.
Eventually it was time to head back to El Chaltén on the same route. While most people prefer hiking downhill due to it being less strenuous, I’m not always in agreement. I feel like I’m going to fall if I go too fast and sliding down the ice only intensified the problem. My friends went on ahead and I caught up with them at the bottom. As is often the case, it was quicker returning to town. After a long day hiking we were all eager for a hot shower and a chance to relax over a glass or two of Fernet and coke.