El Chaltén and El Calafate are two of Argentina’s most popular Patagonian tourist towns, respectively marking the northern and southern extents of the huge Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. On the broad plateau above and east of this park lies the ancient and massive Southern Patagonian Ice Field, mother to many local glaciers. These plus the dramatic mountain and steppe scenery are the draw here.
It was with a bit of hesitation that we headed east from Puerto Rio Tranquilo to the Argentinian border: the last time we were in Argentina at Bariloche we weren’t thrilled with the vibe (despite good hiking) and Chile had been so beautiful. It turns out this worry was unwarranted… but first we had to get there. We started with one of the most scenic bus rides we’ve ever taken, winding around the impossibly blue Lago General Carrera beneath snowy mountain peaks. It was dusty, bumpy, and breathtaking!
The bus dropped us at the border town of Chile Chico. Though the Argentinan town of Los Antiguos is only a few kilometers due east, the road itself hooks south for a river crossing to make a total of 20km or so without public transportation. We weren’t sure if we would cross that evening or just stay in Chile Chico for the night, but we met up with a French couple – also jobless for a year of travel – who were itching to go so we fed off their energy and joined in.
We split a cab to the Chile side of the border to shave off the first 6km, crossed through, and started walking. It may have been late afternoon but there’s plenty of summer daylight left down here! We hoped we would be lucky and catch a ride – and before long a pickup truck pulled over to haul us the rest of the way. Driving this truck was a ninety-something Belgian emigrant to Argentina, who left her home at the age of ten with her family after WWII… wow! She happily chatted away in French with our fellow travelers. A lot of Europeans ended up here in Chile and Argentina after the war and really ended up shaping the culture a lot, but I never thought I’d meet someone from that first generation. She was incredibly nice, driving us the rest of the way to the bus station at Los Antiguos and even waiting to make sure we could get onward bus tickets.
So it went that, instead of crashing in Chile Chico, we caught the last overnight bus from Los Antiguos south to El Chaltén. Wahoo! Such efficiency. Of course we were a little woozy upon arrival to the overcast town but we managed to wander around, find breakfast, and wind up in a nice hostel/hotel to clean up.
Later in the day we did an easy hike up to Mirador de los Cóndores and Las Águilas. We hoped for some clear views of the famous local mountain range (which as you can read in pretty much everyone’s travel blog about El Chaltén is the silhouette on Patagonia, Inc.’s logo). Monte Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre didn’t quite make an appearance for us but it was beautiful nonetheless.
El Chaltén is dubbed Argentina’s ” capital of trekking” with awesome trails accessible right from town. We did two of the biggest day hikes here and have to agree it’s pretty fantastic!
Hike to Laguna Torre and Mirador Maestri
On paper this one is 22km and 8 hours round trip, though we did closer to 25km in 7 hours. The point of this one is to get an up close look at Cerro Torre which in my opinion might be the most otherworldly peak on the planet. To really see what I mean you’ll have to look at other people’s photos, though! As is common in Patagonia the clouds obscured a perfect vista.
And yet, this is still one of the best hikes I’ve ever done. the valley leading up to Laguna Torre is beautiful, the trail clean and interesting, the terrain varying but not tough. The only challenging bit was at the end scrambling up glacial moraine from the laguna to the viewpoint while being punched by with hefty gusts of wind. We were rewarded with one of the finest picnic views of our journey, overlooking the lake and Glaciar Grande (oddly, one of the smaller glaciers in the area).
We were chased out by increasing winds and scattered rain but left the weather behind as we got closer to El Chaltén. We rewarded ourselves with truly world-class burgers at B&B Burger Joint. This town is awesome – Argentina, you are redeemed!
Hike to Laguna de los Tres
Out-and-back from town is 21km, 9 hours round trip; we did an alternative route by catching a shuttle to “El Pilar” to make a loop of 24km in 7 hours (easier than the out-and-back, there’s less climbing). Another amazing hike… and another chance for the Patagonia gods to hide a sought-after view, this time of Monte Fitz Roy.
We started out in gray drizzle which held off from worsening as we hiked the first half past gorgeous Glaciar de Piedras Blancas. Midway we joined up with many other hikers coming from town for the short but steep leg up to Laguna de los Tres.
The climb to the viewpoint was the most crowded section of trail we found in Patagonia – not only visitors from El Chaltén but also folks on day trips from El Calafate. There were some… er, slow people on the narrow rocky climb. It took a bit of patience, especially with darker clouds moving in!
Our arrival at the top coincided with increasing precipitation – partially snow – and strong winds. We admired the view, still beautiful despite the low clouds, for just a few minutes before the numbing wet wind drove us back down. Our trek finished with an easy 10km mosey through a scenic river valley. On a clear day, we agreed, even the views from down here would be absolutely stunning.
The Other El
After trekking around El Chaltén we rode south a few hours to the bigger and busier town of El Calafate. Sporting a real airport with flights from Buenos Aires, this town is busy with tourists taking day trips as far as Torres Del Paine in Chile (5 hours each way and border crossings? Yuk!). Despite all this it’s still a pretty decent town to stay in with good food and lodging.
The main attraction here is the Glaciar Perito Moreno. There are a lot of glaciers here in Patagonia (at least for now… many are rapidly receding) but this one is special because it’s pretty active and easy to visit. It’s constantly dropping off chunks from its 5km-long, 60m-high front; and every few years it advances far enough to run into the opposite peninsula, blocking the outflow of a lake until it builds up enough to dramatically breach through.
With easy access to a close-up view it’s not surprising that this is a pretty touristy site. It might be, however, the most awesome touristy scenic overlook ever. We’re talking Grand Canyon level of majesty here (in our opinion). The glacier – still a small one if you can believe it! – is a boggling blue complex of spires and crevasses straddling opaque gray- and cyan-hued lakes in the fore while stretching away behind up to crisp mountain peaks. An extensive set of platforms and walkways means that it never feels crowded.
The best part of this glacier is how lively it is. Blocks of ice of all sizes – often as large as a car or house – constantly tumble off the high cliffs with echoing rumbles and thunderclaps. It’s mesmerizing to sit and wait for the next piece to go. We had a few hours of sightseeing here and we wished for several more by the time we had to leave! In hindsight we probably would have planned another day here so we could trek on the ice or kayak nearby – not the cheapest activities but I’m sure it would be worth it.
We wrapped up the “El”s – and Argentina entirely, in fact – with a great Patagonian dinner back in town. Lamb, trout, and a delicious southern Argentine pinot noir. This portion of our trip was just great, but it was time to head back into Chile and close out the trip at famous Torres Del Paine.