Argentinian Patagonia is full of dramatic scenery. There are loads of hiking routes in El Chalten to choose from, and they’re all really easy to follow, even if you’re on your own and not particularly experienced in wandering about through the wilderness.
Your first obstacle though will actually be getting to El Chalten in the first place. If you can navigate that, the footpaths will be a breeze (excuse the pun – Patgonia is ridiculously windy).
I came down from Bariloche, further north. While Bariloche is a popular traveller stop off, there was only one direct bus a week to El Chalten. The other options were to take a 2-day bus with a stop over in Perito Moreno, or to travel down to El Calafate first and backtrack – neither of which was ideal.
For the record, if you choose the first option with Chalten Travel, bring a good book because they seriously lack in the entertainment department and you can’t really sleep on the bus for two days solid. Even the scenery is unchangeable.
Once settled in El Chalten, the hostels and park ranger centre offer plenty of information on different hiking routes in the area. Some people choose to lug their gear around and camp overnight, but it’s more pleasant to do day trips and warm up with a strong hot shower and some Patagonian steak in the evenings.
Top three trails:
Bronze: Laguna Torre
The bronze medal goes to the footpath to Laguna Torre. The best thing about this walk is that it’s really easy. It’s meant to take about 6 hours but I was back in 5, despite taking it at a leisurely pace and stopping to take a lot of photos.
Almost the whole trail is along the river bank and the path is more or less flat the whole way. You get some great views of Cerro Torre, and the first glimpse of the semi-frozen lagoon, dotted with icebergs and fed by an overhanging glacier, is quite something.
Prepare yourself to be battered by strong winds as soon as you arrive there. I had to backtrack to regain my balance, tie my hair out of my eyes, then give it another go. And don’t expect to have a pleasant picnic by the view. Once I’d taken a few phoots, wiping the spray from my camera lens in between every shot, I cowered behind a rock to dig into my emergency supply of biscuits.
Do this walk if you have a cloudy day, because you’ll still be able to see the lagoon in low visibility.
Silver: Loma del Pliegue Tumbado
A more challenging walk is the Loma del Pliegue Tumbado. The park rangers say it should take 8 hours, but again, I was up and down in about 6. It might have had something to do with the upwards hail making me less inclined to hang about…
From the bottom end of town, you head past the ranger’s station and straight up the hill. Aside from a section in the woods, which offers brief respite from the elements, it’s a pretty steep climb the whole way.
To begin with, you get some lovely views of El Chalten. Eventually, you come out onto a viewpoint amidst a baron, rocky landscape, where you can look down over Laguna Torre and the footpath along the river.
We met a couple of hikers who’d assumed this was the end of the path and turned back, but my friend and I had mentally prepared ourselves for the last steep mound and weren’t about to give in. As we scaled it, we found an unclear footpath and were relieved to know we weren’t trespassing on dangerous terrain after all.
The weather changes dramatically up at the top. While we’d been slogging in t-shirts on the lower path, now, we’d layered up in fleeces and waterproofs, and where once there was sun, we were now getting battered by strong winds and hail that was actually being swept ‘up’ the mountainside.
The final challenge was a snowy peak. To reach the summit, I had to scale a 70 degree patch of fresh snow. It was only possible by digging my feet in numerous times to create little footholds and balancing myself on numb hands. A couple of times, my foot shot back down and I clung helplessly to avoid plummeting back onto the rocks below. My companion didn’t even risk it, and called me the ‘crazy English girl’.
Once on top, the views were great. I can only imagine how spectacular they’d have been if the skies had been clear and Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy had been visible too.
Gold: Laguna de los Tres
The piece de resistance is the Laguna de los Tres trek. Another 8-hour hike, it takes in a viewpoint with in-your-face views of Fitz Roy, before continuing on to a beautiful valley. The last section is a precipitous slog over bouldered terrain to reach a beautiful frozen lake surrounded by towering peaks. It’s brimming with icebergs and you can clamber onto a big rock just off the shore to get some shots of you surrounded by ice.
Don’t miss out on taking a look around the corner and climbing the extra hill. From there, you can look down on a beautiful green lagoon and watch small avalanches crashing down, causing the water to ripple and cascade over the rim of the mountainside.
On your way back, you can take a slightly different path and, rather than returning to the Fitz Roy mirador, amble past Laguna Capri. It’s not as amazing as some of the other lagoons, but it makes a nice change from all the walks that take you back to town exactly the same way you came.
A few tips
- Don’t be concerned if you can’t find a hiking buddy. All the paths are really well signposted and, with the exception of Loma del Pliegue Tombado, you will meet many other hikers along the way.
- Take food and water with you because there is nowhere to buy refreshments along the footpaths.
- Take a plastic bag with you so you can bring your rubbish back to town.
- Come prepared for all weather possibilities. It can change in the blink of an eye. A waterproof bag for your camera is also a good idea.