Situated in the heart of the Los Glaciares National Park, the remote settlement of El Chalten was founded in 1985 close to Chile in order to settle border disputes between the two countries. Over the course of its short history, it has become recognized as the trekking capital of Argentina, with hundreds of tourists descending on the tiny village every year to enjoy its incredible natural beauty and hiking opportunities.
It is easy to warm to El Chalten, despite the changeable weather and strong gusty winds which often make a walk through town quite a challenge. Many of the permanent residents moved south from large cities in the north of Argentina, at first escaping to the wild remoteness of Patagonia to hike during the summer, and now working as tour guides during the tourist season and spending the winter months skiing (there are no lifts but these committed outdoor enthusiasts will walk for 5 hours with their skis for one downhill run). They eagerly welcome tourists to their new home, telling intriguing stories about the world-renowed climbers and mountaineers who have attempted, sometimes successfully, to conquer the indomitable mountains in the national park.
El Chalten is a hiker’s paradise. Set off from the town in any direction and you will soon be passing through dense woodland, by icy lakes and emerald green lagoons, which contrast with the bright white of the glaciers and snow capped peaks in the distance.
One of the most popular options is the trek to the Laguna de los Tres. After a 30 minute drive out of the national park towards the Chilean border, the trek begins with an easy hike through a valley, home to woodpeckers, foxes, deer and pumas. On a clear day, the summit of the well-known Mount Fitz Roy will tower majestically above the other jagged mountains. Walking for around 10km, you will eventually cross a small river before beginning the ascent to the lagoon which peacefully sits in front of the three mountains after which the trek takes its name: Fitz Roy (3405m); Poinecot (3002m); and Saint-Exupery (2558m). Reaching the lagoon requires a steep 1 hour climb, and the views upon reaching the summit are incredible. Wrap up warm and enjoy a well deserved packed lunch by the water, before descending and hiking the remaining 8km back to El Chalten. On the way, you will pass LakeCapri, whose refreshingly cold waters are a good place in which to dip your tired feet.
Arriving back in the late afternoon, the sight of El Chalten nestled in the valley below the trail is a welcome sight after an invigorating 8-9 hour trek. There is now time to relax with a well-deserved warm drink or hearty meal by an open fire. Although the town is small, there are a number of good restaurants selling Patagonian lamb or fresh salmon caught earlier the same day. One of the best is La Tapera, a small, cozy restaurant where the friendly owner will invite you to sit by the wood-burning stove and serve generous portions of delicious food.
For those who want to take a more leisurely walk, or see the natural splendours of Patagonia without hiking, El Chalten does not disappoint. There are a number of short trails of varying difficulties that can be accessed directly from the town, and the vast LakeViedma is just a short drive away. The lake is fed by the Viedma Glacier, and a boat ride to the point where the lake and glacier meet is highly recommended.
It is worth visiting El Chalten simply to experience the memorable journey from El Calafate, the nearest Argentinean town. It is a breathtaking 3 hour drive on deserted roads through wild landscapes, passing lakes, horses, guanacos and condors, towards a spectacular panoramic mountain view. Despite its size, El Chalten is bursting with character, and the warm welcome from the locals will ensure that a short stay here will leave a long-lasting impression, and a strong desire to return.
If you are interested in visiting El Chalten, this is possible on our Splendours of Argentina holidays.