Argentina’s Trekking Capital
Travelers who know about trekking will undoubtedly know about El Chaltén.
Located 220km north of El Calafate, El Chaltén was founded on October 12th 1985 by decree of the Argentine government, with the purpose of establishing a human settlement to offset territorial disputes with neighboring Chile. A member of Parque Nacional de Los Glaciares (Los Glaciares National Park), El Chaltén (or ‘smoking mountain’ as the native Tehuelches called it) initially started with a modest population of 41 people back in 1985, and has now ballooned to more than 1,500 residents, according to a 2010 government census. The sudden spike in population growth can be attributed to the influx of travelers eager to trek in what is considered Argentina’s Trekking Capital (Capital Nacional del Trekking).
The best part about El Chaltén are not only the trails but the availability of numerous campsites along the way, which means you have the potential to create any route and direction that you desire; for experienced trek-lovers this will be a trekking paradise. Also, make sure to bring clothing for all types of weather, including rain gear (jacket and pants). Depending on what time of year you plan to visit, the weather in El Chaltén can be somewhat unpredictable (weather forecasts tend not to be reliable in this area).
Keep in mind that most of the treks at El Chaltén can be done in a day or less. So if you don’t feel like camping or don’t have any gear (though there are multiple stores in town where you can rent and purchase almost everything you’ll need), you can still enjoy and experience the many trails that El Chaltén has to offer!
Note: All distances and times listed below are calculated as one-way routes from El Chaltén. All points of elevation listed below are calculated from El Chaltén.
1. Lago de los Tres
- Distance: 13 km
- Time: About 5 hours
- Difficulty: Medium/difficult
- Elevation: 700 meters
- Season: October to May
As the most popular trek in El Chaltén, the trail to Lago de los Tres is also the most difficult to undertake. It’s doable to trek in one day and, with spectacular views of Mount Fitz Roy to boot, it’s completely worthwhile.
Walk towards the end of town where Avenida San Martín ends; this is where the trailhead for Lago de los Tres begins. The first hour or so will be somewhat steep (moderate difficulty) but soon after the trail evens out for the next few hours. There are some great viewpoints along the way, including Mirador Fitz Roy and one of Río de las Vueltas.
One of the best parts about this trail are the amazingly brilliant and colorful flowers that grow seemingly everywhere along the mountainside. Flowers of the deepest and most radiant greens, yellows, oranges and reds pepper the mountainside in almost every direction. It’s a beautiful sight to behold, and especially useful to counteract the gloom of my overcast day of trekking (I went in mid-April) and take in the pleasant vibrancy of such colorful flora.
The last part of the trek will be difficult. When you near the end of the trek, you’ll read a sign that says ‘1 KM = 1 hora’ (trust me, it really does take an hour to climb the last kilometer). The ascent is similar to that of trekking Machu Picchu (to the top of ‘Machu Picchu’ mountain from the ruins, not to the ruins from Aguas Calientes), so it’s important to maintain a smooth, easy pace along the way. Take your time and enjoy the view as you go and make sure to take plenty of photos.
Once you reach the top (and if it’s a sunny day, which wasn’t the case for me), you’ll be rewarded with a breathtaking view of Mount Fitz Roy! If you can manage it, try to arrive for the sunrise where the Fitz Roy massif will turn a wonderful reddish hue, similar to the massif in Torres del Paine. Be sure to walk down to Lago de los Tres to enjoy and appreciate the quiet stillness of the lake.
2. Loma del Pliegue Tumbado
- Distance: 11km
- Time: 5 hours
- Difficulty: Medium
For an incredible panoramic view of El Chaltén and more, a trek to Loma del Pliegue Tumbado is a must. Start by walking across the bridge that you first crossed upon entering town and continue until you arrive at the National Park Visitor’s Center; the trail begins here. There are two viewpoints along the way: Mirador Cóndor (offers a great opportunity to view condors as they fly across Río Fitz Roy) and Mirador Águilas (located just 10-15 minutes prior to Mirador Cóndor).
For Pliegue Tumbado continue past Mirador Cóndor and follow the signs for the trail. The slopes are steep at points but diligence pays off once you reach the summit of the last snowy bit of terrain, which offers tremendous views of Lago Torre (from the opposite side), Cerro Torre and Mount Fitz Roy. And if you start early enough in the morning, head to Lago Túnel, which will take you the entire day to complete (round-trip).
Tip: Like most treks on this list, it’s important to dress warm and be prepared for rain, wind and sun. The higher in elevation you climb, the more unpredictable the weather will be, so dress in layers and bring plenty of food and water in your daypack.
3. Laguna Torre
- Distance: 12km
- Time: 4 hours
- Difficulty: Easy/medium
- Elevation: 200 meters
- Season: October to May
A favorite amongst trekkers, the sendero (trailway) to Lago Torre is a pleasant walk from El Chaltén. Though it officially takes 4 hours, I can tell you that you can complete the trek in much less time, of course depending on your walking speed. I was able to arrive at the lake in less than two hours by the time I left town, although, admittedly, I grew accustomed to trekking for quite some time (over a month in Patagonia will do that to you), and that’s probably why I was able to arrive under the official time. But, irrespective of that point, I think a more realistic time would be 3 hours or less to Lago Torre.
There are quite a few miradors (viewpoints) along the way, including one for Cascada Margarita and a beautiful view of Cerro Solo, Cerro Torre, Río Fitz Roy as well as the Fitz Roy massif. Another incredible viewpoint will be of Adela range, which features giant granite formations of needle-like shape, which can be viewed prominently from afar if trekking on a clear day.
Once you reach Lago Torre, make sure to walk to the shore to get a close-up view of one of the many tiny icebergs since broken off from Glaciar Grande.
Tip: dress warm! The cold air from the glacier tends to whip around in every direction, rather indiscriminately, which means if you don’t have a good windproof jacket or balaclava to cover your face you’ll soon feel drafts of cold wind draw tears from you eyes.
4. Laguna Capri
- Distance: 6km
- Time: 2 hours
- Difficulty: Easy
- Elevation: 200 meters
If you’re on the way to Lago de los Tres, make sure to stop by Laguna Capri. A mere two-hour trek from town, Laguna Capri is a beautiful lagoon that offers great views of Mount Fitz Roy (weather permitting, of course). Within an hour and a half, you’ll reach a division in the trail with signs pointing to either Laguna Capri (to the left) or Fitz Roy (to the right). It’s a great place to picnic, relax and take a siesta as well.
For those looking to camp, Laguna Capri campsite is situated right next to the lagoon.
5. Piedra del Fraile
- Distance: 12km
- Time: 5 hours
- Difficulty: Easy/Medium
- Elevation: 80 meters
- Season: November to April
Another long, though rewarding trek awaits you if Piedra del Fraile is your trail of choice. To reach Piedra del Fraile walk to El Pilar Hotel, where you have a couple of options to reach Río Eléctrico: you can either hire a car or hitch a ride. Patience is key as many vehicles will pass along the way, and one should eventually stop for you (or you can walk a little less than two kilometers from the hotel to Río Eléctrico). You can either camp at the campgrounds of Piedra del Fraile (costs about AR$25 pesos, since it’s private property you’re camping on) or you can continue trekking another three hours to Lago Eléctrico.