My first view of El Chalten was from the window of the overnight bus that we took after crossing the border from Chile. With the early morning sun already shining brightly in the distant horizon, we walked along promenade-like Güemes street. El Chalten is considered the hiking capital of Argentina. Among the art installations along this street, there was a large wood carving of a backpack.
The town of El Chalten is located inside the Los Glaciares National Park. The Ranger station and information building are located just at the entrance to the town (there is basically one road into the town). The ranger station is a great first stop for your hiking adventures in this area.
Backpackers could spend days in the mountains wandering around the multiple trails. Camping is free and each designated camping area has at least one outhouse. Many of the popular viewpoints also have an outhouse or two along the way. This keeps the trails clean. I was impressed with the maintenance of the trails and lack of litter despite the popularity. Rather than rent a tent and sleeping bag, which can be done in the town of El Chalten, we chose to stay in town and just do day hikes.
Our Airbnb was a retired trailer and it had a kitchen and a bathroom. The owner had about five of them in his lot in the middle of town.
There are also campgrounds in the town limit that have more amenities. If you bring your own gear it is a great way to save money while traveling through this area.
The Hike to Fitz Roy
The peaks of Fitz Roy reach up to 3,405 meters. They are the tallest peaks in this area and the fifth highest peak in Patagonia, its rugged spires a familiar sight to many around the world.
The glacier and snow pack on the peaks of Fitz Roy melt into a crater near the top of her spires. The meltwater creates a beautiful blue lagoon. The trail from El Chalten to the Laguna de Los Tres in the Fitz Roy crater is about 10 kilometers one way.
The trail begins with a couple kilometers gradual incline but then evens out through the valley beyond the town of El Chalten. Almost the whole way we could see the peaks of Fitz Roy in the distance.
At about the halfway point, we came upon Laguna Capri with its clear waters providing a nice foreground to our views of Fitz Roy. Hiking only up to this point is a possible half-day hike for those who do not have much time.
At about three quarters of the way, we began to have a view of Piedras Blancas, a hanging glacier. Shards of the glacier adorned the top of the huge
Sweating out the final ascent
The last mile is the toughest part of this trail. This is where the ascent is a steep incline on loose sand and stones. This is also the point where the trail emerges from the tree line taking with it all shade from the intense rays of the sun. In addition, the heat also radiated from the rocks on the trail. Where’s that famous Patagonian wind to cool us down? Not even a breeze wafted by.
Finally, the top was in sight and the trail wound around leading us to the west side of the crater. It turned out to be a fake summit and we had to do one more final but short ascent.
From the top, we gazed down into the blue lagoon with large ice chunks floating on it. The basaltic spires of Fitz Roy towered above us. I felt like an ant standing before a Disney castle. The cool breeze coming off the glaciers blew away the heat and sweat from our bodies.
We didn’t pause long before making our way down the trail into the crater. There we found a large rock to relax on while enjoying the view and our packed lunch.
The Universal Language of a Squeal
Along the shore were other hikers seemingly all speaking different languages. People come from all over the world to see these peaks.
One man stripped down to his skivies and jumped into the lagoon. He immediately popped back up gasping for air making a high pitched sound and running for shore. Everyone on the shore laughed. His squeals and our laughter needed no translation.
After we ate our lunch, we made our way around the crater on the left side. The edge gave way to a steep cliff. I gasped when I looked down. Multiple waterfalls were cascading down from the glacier and snowpack into a lagoon far below us. The color was turquoise and seemed to glow in the sunlight. We sat on the cliff edge to stare at the sight.
Eventually, we pulled ourselves away from all those amazing views and started our way back to town.
We took a little side trip to get a closer look at Piedras Blancas. It’s a beautiful sight but it gets overshadowed by the splendor of Fitz Roy.
Other Hiking Options
This hike takes you to Laguna Torre (Tower Lagoon) and gives you a full view of El Torre (The Tower), a towering spire that can only be partially seen from town. There is a glacier at the base of El Torre that is called
Like most day hikes in El Chalten, this hike starts from town. It is a 20 km round trip hike but also the easiest of the three 20- km hikes that we did. With minimal elevation change along the way, the trail was fairly flat.
As hikers follow the trail through the valley beyond El Chalten El Torre can be seen in the distance coming ever closer. There are numerous viewpoints along the way. Aside from El Torre, hikers also get great views of Glacier Grande which sits on top of a huge monolith like a white gem set in its natural display case.
We reached Laguna Torre after a short final climb and we sat on some rocks along the lake shore. Laguna Torre is formed by the melted waters from Glaciar Grande and Glaciar Torre. Due to its location between El Torre and Fitz Roy, Glaciar Torre gathers dust on its surface and has the appearance of dirty snow. This also gives the lake a brown/yellowish color. Most of the other lakes in these mountains are crystal clear and emit stunning blue to turquoise colors.
Hikers can choose to walk along the rim of the lake for another two kilometers to get a closer view of El Torre and a fuller view of Glaciar Grande. If the winds are blowing strong, extra precaution must be taken. We walked halfway along this extra section and decided we’d already had a good view and turned around.
The Mirador – Loma del Pliegue Tumbado
The trek to this mirador is basically 10 km uphill but not too steep. The trail gains about 3,300 feet (1,000 meters) in altitude from its start behind the ranger’s station.
It initially climbs through the Patagonia Steppe, a desert-like terrain with small plants and drought-tolerant bushes. The day we hiked this trail was windy with cloud cover. We were thankful to reach and enter the forest to get a reprieve from the wind.
The trail continues to climb through the forest emerging from the treeline into high mountain meadows. This zone is hostile to most kinds of life. Here the wind was frigid. We immediately scrambled in our bags for our jackets and windbreakers, then continued to climb.
The reward at the top is a stunning view of El Torre, Fitz Roy, and Laguna Torre. We waited in the wind hoping for the clouds to clear a bit to reveal the peaks. Fitz Roy briefly made an appearance but the tower was ensconced in dark clouds that gave no indication of dispersing. The view was still spectacular.
Finally the frigid wind compelled us to head back down for the descent back to El Chalten.
Chorillo del Salto Waterfall
Just outside of town to the north is a small waterfall. The hike to the waterfall is fairly flat and only six kilometers round trip. It’s a pleasant walk and you can do it on a recovery day, or tack it onto the end of one of the longer hikes.
Las Aguilas & Los Condores Viewpoints
The hill just behind the ranger/information station can be climbed for a beautiful view of the town and Fitz Roy. It is only one kilometer to the top. Keep going one more kilometer to the Los Condors viewpoint to see both Fitz Roy and Lago Viedma. Rio de las Vueltas, which runs through the valley of El Chalten, feeds into Lago Viedma.
There are many trails to take from El Chalten. For longer multi-day hikes it is required to sign in with the rangers at the ranger station/visitor center.
If you are interested only in day hikes we recommend the hike to Laguna de Los Tres at the base of Fitz Roy first. It was our favorite from El Chalten. If you only get in one hike here I’d recommend this one. If you have more time then I’d recommend the mirador at Loma del Pliegue Tumbado, and then the Laguna Torre hike as a third choice.
Both the waterfall and Aguilas/Condores viewpoints are short hikes that could be added to the end of a day. During the summer the days are long. In December, when we did these treks, the sun was up before 6 AM. The sun didn’t set