No camping! That had been the key request. Mike wanted a comfy bed and hot shower at the end of a long day of hiking in Patagonia. I had always associated Torres del Paine in Chile with epic Patagonian hikes. Much to my dismay, I read that the best way to see those iconic rock spires was on multi-day treks. Then, with a little research, I leaned about El Chaltén, Argentina. This tiny town sits underneath the mother of Patagonia’s granite towers, Mount Fitz Roy. It’s a charmingly quirky place with an end-of-the-earth feel and plenty of accommodations to suit hikers of all budgets. Trailheads to the most amazing day hikes in Patagonia start right in town. Let me introduce you to a few of them.
Laguna de los Tres (Fitz Roy)
Distance: 22-km (13.7 miles) roundtrip El Pilar route
Time: 8-10 hours
Elevation Gain: 750 m (2460 ft)
Laguna de los Tres (also called Cerro Fitz Roy) was our favourite hike in our 4 days in El Chaltén. Many hikers charge to the end point where the fabulous turquoise-coloured laguna (lake) provides the closest views of the Fitz Roy Massif. But the entire trail is stunning beyond words— massive glaciers, dramatic peaks, idyllic lakes, gurgling streams and brilliant fall foliage if you time it right. We savoured every step. It’s a longish hike but not particularly difficult; only the last kilometre is a bit of a grunt. I loved this hike so much that I’m going to do another post with details and lots of photos.
Distance: 18 km (11.2 miles) roundtrip
Time: 6-7 hours
Elevation Gain: 250 m (820 ft)
Seeing the peak of Cerro Torre eluded us (apparently a very common occurrence). It was a bit disappointing, but even without the darn peak, the hike to Laguna Torre is a beauty and we again enjoyed the journey as much as the destination. Plus, the iceberg lake looked very dramatic with the menacing grey clouds and bits of sunlight streaming through. There’s a great rest stop 3 km into the hike at Mirador Torre (Torre Viewpoint). Although Torre was enveloped in cloud, the surrounding peaks were clear and looked amazing with the foreground of dazzling crimson and gold. This is a relatively easy hike with a gradual uphill all the way to the lake.
Loma del Pliegue Tumbado
Distance: 20 km (12.5 miles) roundtrip
Time: 7-8 hours
Elevation Gain: 1000m (3280 ft)
The ranger at the Visitor Center told us that the Loma del Pliegue hike has the best panoramic views of both Cerro Torre and Cerro Fitz Roy. We set out on a day that looked promising. Parts of the sky were clear blue, but thick clouds were parked firmly in front of the elusive peaks. We hung out on the rocky viewpoint hoping the strong wind would push away the clouds. It only managed to seep into our bones and hurry us back into the sheltered forest. We have no regrets though, and in fact Mike loved this hike. There’s a real beauty in the barrenness of the windswept plateau and it was very cool to see Laguna Torre from on high. I especially enjoyed the peacefulness of this hike; it attracts far fewer hikers than Laguna Torre and Laguna de los Tres. Don’t let the elevation gain scare you, it’s pretty evenly distributed over the 10 km with no super steep section like the Laguna de los Tres hike.
Distance: 8 km (5 miles) roundtrip
Time: 3.5-4 hours
Elevation Gain: 350 m (1148 ft)
We had passed by Laguna Capri on our way back from Laguna de los Tres and I made a mental note to return another day if time permitted. I’m so glad we did. Laguna Capri deserves an extended visit especially on a calm, sunny day. We brought a picnic lunch and sat by its peaceful shore watching Cerro Fitz Roy make peek-a-boo appearances with the shifting clouds. I don’t think I’ve ever seen more exquisite fall foliage than at Laguna Capri. The viewpoint at Mirador Rio de las Vueltas is sublime and I could easily have sat there for hours. The Laguna Capri trail is a total gem of an easy, short hike.
Los Condores Viewpoint
Distance: 2 km
Time: 1-1.5 hours
This is an easy little hike that starts right at the Visitor Centre and has a big wow factor if you’re a fan of large birds of prey. Andean condors, the largest flying birds in the world, have wingspans of up to 3.3 m (10 ft 10 in). We were at the viewpoint early one morning and watched the giant creatures soaring above El Chaltén. It’s a nice spot too for views to the town, and when it’s clear to Mt Fitz Roy.
If You Go
- El Chaltén is most easily accessed from the town of El Calafate (213 km away), which has an airport with regular flights from Buenos Aires.
- There are several bus companies that provide transportation between El Calafate and El Chaltén (3-4 hours). We used Las Lengas, which conveniently departed from El Calafate airport and took us directly to our hostel in El Chaltén.
- El Chaltén is a small place but has a surprisingly good selection of accommodations, restaurants, bakeries and mini-markets.
- The main hiking season runs from October to April with busiest times December through February. Many services shut down from May through September.
- We think our April timing (2nd week) was perfect. There are less visitors and the fall colours take this amazing place over the top.
- The weather is fickle and it is often windy (very windy). Bring layers, down jacket, rain gear, hats, gloves, and of course good hiking shoes/boots. During our stay, the temperatures ranged from about 0 C (32 F) to 13 C (55 F).
- We found hiking poles useful. We brought ours from home but you can rent them in town.
- All trails are very well marked and maintained. A good first stop is the excellent Los Glaciares National Park Visitor Center at the entrance of town. They have maps (the one below) and helpful rangers.