El Chaltén was founded in the late 1970s/early 1980s as an outpost of Argentina to anticipate land claims of Chile for that area. It is still a small town that is best known for being the gateway to Mount Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, two of the most rugged and impressive peaks in the Patagonian Andes, as well as the Viedma Glacier, the biggest one in Argentina. The growing number of hiking tourist has led to an increase in construction and in summer the town is full of tourists.
El Chaltén is also called the trekking capital of the world and offers trails of highly varying degrees. Most tourists go for the easy Mount Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre trails, while more enthusiastic hikers go for the Viedma Glacier trek. Besides that free salmon fishing, pricey glacier boat tours and even crossing over into Chile are possible here.
In general, the town is a budget paradise, considering the free national park and possibility to find inexpensive accommodation—see below.
- 1 Centro de Visitantes "Geoparque Ceferino Fonzo" (Seccional Lago Viedma del Parque Nacional Los Glaciares), Ruta Provincial 41 (right before you cross the bridge into town), ☎ . The place to head to general information regarding the trails and registration necessities for the Viedma Glacier trek. However, most trails can be done without registration.
Note, that hiking and trekking is highly dependent on the weather. Use WindGuru to plan ahead, which most people in Argentina and also the park office are using.
- From El Calafate : Daily buses take 3 hours to drive the 222 km over a newly paved road. Price for the buses is AR$800 one way (Jan 2018) and AR$1,600 round trip. Buses leave at 08:00, 13:00 and 18:00, depending on the company. Avoid the company Taqsa/Marga, they have old and bad buses with failing or no ventilation at all which is terrible.
- From Bariloche : Buses ride the half paved Ruta 40 across the desertic landscape (30 hours). On the way, they stop in El Bolson, Perito Moreno and Los Antiguos (AR$3,750 / 12 hours).
Hitchhiking is highly excepted but competition is fierce. So, it might be better to split up or have a backup plan.
Only by foot or car. The main streets have been recently paved. Side streets remain mostly gravel.
For most things that are to see here, you will have to hike, see below.
- In the centre of town you can also pay to go horse riding with a gaucho guide along some of the major walking trails. The horses are easy-going and well suited to beginner riders.
- Salmon fishing is popular near El Chalten, because many fish travel up Río de Las Vueltas back to their roots. It is unclear whether a permit is necessary, but good points seems to be right before waterfalls that the fish has problems to cross, being stranded at its foot. There are some beside the gravel road Ruta 23 out north of El Chalten, one such waterfall can be found 1 here.
A popular trekking area so the trails get very crowded in peak season. A good strategy is to skip your hotel breakfast (self cater instead) and depart at dawn to avoid the crowds, unless hiking in a line with hikers every 20 m is your thing. All trails are clearly marked, and safe water is available from the rivers flowing down the mountains along the trails, so carrying 0.5 l should be sufficient.
If you do not want to buy a paper map, that does not have much detail, use OpenStreetMap, which many mobile Apps like OsmAnd and MAPS.ME are based on. It has all trails and camp sites of the El Chalten region, especially the more untouristy ones in the north.
- The 2 Condor Mirador and 3 Eagle Miradors are easy climbs (two hours at most combined) behind the National Park office. Great views of the town, and the Fitz Roy range and Condors.
Mount Fitz Roy
- 4 Laguna de los Tres. 8 hr (mostly easy) round trip from the town. There are outstanding views of the Mount Fitz Roy range along the way. The trail ends at the cobalt-blue Laguna de los Tres, at the base of Mount Fitz Roy. The last 1.5 km of this hike are very steep and exposed, and as a result some hikers choose to overnight at the nearby Campamento Poincenot prior to climbing the difficult last stretch, though its quite possible to do the whole trek from town. A 500 m well marked additional trail winds around to the left of Laguna de los Tres and leads to a spectacular, cliffside overview of Laguna Sucia, some 200 m below Laguna de los Tres.
- 5 Laguna Torre. 6 hr easy round trip that leads to a lake at the base of the dramatic Cerro Torre, which, although only 3,100 m tall, was not summited until 1975, a generation after all the 8000-meter+ Himalayan peaks had been conquered. Cerro Torre's near vertical walls and a permanent, unstable ice veneer at its summit defeated all earlier attempts.
It is possible to combine the Laguna de los Tres and Laguna Torre treks using connecting side-trails and available camp sites that create a loop. In addition the following trail can be done:
- Cerro Torres, Mt. Fitz Roy, Laguna Marconi & Laguna Diablo Round Trail (orange) – Distance: 92 km. Altitude range: 783 m. Total climb: 2,582 m. Total descent: 2,605 m. Duration: 3-5 days. Grade: Medium to easy. Recommended: warm, weatherproof clothes, and hiking boots.
This is a beautiful trail that combines most easy to reach sights of the El Chalten region in a long trail with 3-5 overnight stays. No registration with the park office is needed for this trail. There are many camping options along the way (see OpenStreetMap), so it is not necessary to stick to the three-night option explained in the following. Furthermore, Mount Fitz Roy can be done in the evening or the morning, depending on the weather and expected clouds.
The 3-night trek is recommended as follows: (1st day) El Chalten to Laguna Torre and from there to the camp ground of Mount Fitz Roy. See the sunset or sunrise at Lago de los Tres. (2nd day) From Mount Fitz Roy camp ground hike down Rio Blanco on its western side to Laguna Piedras Blancas with the beautiful glacier, from there further through the picturesque forest by Lago Eléctrico to the far end of the trail at Laguna del Marconi. Here, depending on your time and considered camping options, you might go further to its glacier to the west or the impressing Laguna Loe, its waterfall and its glacier to the north. At the end of the day, hike back until Ruta 23, where right before it you will find a camp ground. (3rd day) Hike into the privately owned Huemul Reserve up to the wonderful blue Laguna Azul and from there by Laguna Verde up to Laguna El Diablo, which is the farthest point of the trail from El Chalten. At the second half of the day, hike back from here directly to Ruta 23, and up Rio Blanco again, but on its eastern side this time until the Laguna Capri camp ground. (4th day) An easy hike down to El Chalten in the morning.
Download track: KMZ, GeoJSON, for GPX (incl. waypoints) see GPSies.
The 1 Viedma Glacier is the reason why most experienced trekking tourists come to El Chaltén. However, meant by "experienced": 1) reasonable fit, 2) well-considering the weather, and 3) having the right equipment for registration (free) with the park office (especially harness).
- 6 Viedma Glacier Boat Tour (start from Bahia Tunel, reachable by car). This is the easy way, referred by most packaged tour tourists, but you will not see much of the glacier, only its end. A boat trip combined with a glacier trek on the Lago Viedma and the adjacent Glacier Viedma. US$135.
- Viedma Glacier Round Trail (blue) – Distance: 63.6 km. Altitude range: 1,161 m. Total climb: 2,593 m. Total descent: 2,592 m. Duration: 3-4 days. Grade: Medium to difficult. Recommended: warm, weatherproof clothes, hiking boots and harness for river crossing.
Also called Huemul Circuit Trail, this is a very exciting, but potentially strenuous trail, for which many experienced hikers come here. The harness can be rented for AR$120-150 per day in town, and one harness is often sufficient per group. In addition, the registration requires that you show a cooker and gas container, although you may be able to hire one. For all additionally necessary information, refer to the park office.
Download track: KMZ, GeoJSON, for GPX (incl. waypoints) see GPSies.
- Viedma Glacier Lower End (green) – Distance: 55.5 km. Altitude range: 812 m. Total climb: 2,183 m. Total descent: 2,180 m. Duration: 2-3 days. Grade: Medium to difficult. Recommended: warm, weatherproof clothes, and hiking boots.
Registration is not required for this trail, but the trail should not be undertaken when the round trail is not recommended due to the bad weather. A harness could be rented, but there are many people along the trail, which will help you with their harnesses over the lower part of the Tunel River. Otherwise, you can just cross the river (with wet feet) a little downstream were it divides.
You can do the trail in two days, either hiking up to Paso Huemul in the evening or morning. The trail between El Chalten and the camp site is 6-8 hr. Hence, it might be better to: 1) hike in the first day until the camp site, and see the sunset onto the glacier from there in the evening, 2) spend the next day hiking up and beyond Paso Huemul and exploring the region around the view points and even down until the end of the glacier, and hike back to the camp ground in the late afternoon, and 3) on the third day hike back to El Chalten.
Note, on the way from El Chalten, you have to go down a hill right before the Tunel boat station. This hill should be descended inside the farm land towards the mountain, otherwise you will have to fight with plants full of spikes.
Download track: KMZ, GeoJSON, for GPX (incl. waypoints) see GPSies.
Lago del Desierto
A dead-end ripio road (about 37 km one way) leads you to the very remote Lago del Desierto through a wonderful valley along a river. You can do easy hikes and strolls there and enjoy the peace and quiet.
Besides the easy trails there do seem to exist considerable further even demanding hiking trail, which however are not available on OpenStreetMap. So, you need to consult another source if interested. It is even supposed to be possible to cross into Chile to Villa O’Higgins from here (2-3 days). (In case you find additional information, put them here to help others.)
There are three supermarkets in town, the largest and most central of which accepts credit cards. All three are well stocked, but about twice as expensive as the larger ones in the city. Opening hours depend on season.
The calafate berry ice cream, a bit like blueberry but milder, from the ice cream shop in the middle of the town is worth trying. There are two small grocery stores selling food and supplies.
There are at least a dozen restaurants in town.
- Como Vaca, Lago del Desierto 410. Very nice parrilla restaurant, great steaks and also other home made food at fair prices. Open at 19:00. Can be very busy around 21:00.
What better after a long hike in the mountains then to enjoy a good beer. Home brews (rubia y negro) at the Cervezeria. Good food and friendly staff. However, 50 pesos for two beers is a bit pricey.
There are a large number of hotels and hostels in town. Walk around and you will find cheaper deals than on the usual reservation websites indicated (also see below), so long as it is not high season.
Most accommodation accept credit cards, at least this is what they advertise with. However, it is worth checking in advance to make sure that this is the case and the connections are working.
There are several free camping sites in the park, even close to the town.
- 1 Cabañas Arco Iris, 77 Halvorsen. Not shiny but cheap with apparently free luggage storage. The owner is said to be grumpy, but he is quite clever and is probably just annoyed of all the larger groups of backpackers stealing tableware and toilet paper for their treks. Dorm AR$180-250 depending on the season.
- 2 Hostal Las Cuatro Estaciones, 948 Avenida San Martín (at the very northern end of the town, right before the trail to Mount Fitz Roy begins and next to the bakery). Check-out: 11:00. Probably the cheapest option in town, but the staff is not very considerate. The dorms are spotless, but the toilet is not recommended. And unfortunately they have a strict 11:00 check-out and leave property policy. Luggage storage: AR$50 per day. AR$200.
- Rancho Grande Hostel, ☎ . Chaltentravel bus stop, Restaurant 24 hrs service.
- Pioneros del Valle, San Martin 9405 (The Caltur bus stops here after the bus terminal.), ☎ . New hostel affiliated with the Caltur bus company. Very clean and comfortable, dorms generally have attached bathrooms.
- La Comarca Hostel, Perito Moreno 70 (very close to bus station). One of the cheaper hostels. Friendly owner but with bad ventilation in the dorms.
Mid-range to splurge
- Hosteria Koonek, Lionel Terray 415, ☎ .
- 3 [dead link] Hotel la Aldea, Av. Guemes No.95 (9301) (Walk out of the bus station and head up Av. Guemes No.95. la Aldea is on your left after one block.), ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Very comfortable with excellent service.
- Cash: As of March 2015 there are two ATMs in town: one at the bus terminal, one at the new bank Nacion. The ATMs occasionally run out of cash on weekends, but since one of the supermakets and many restaurants accept credit cards you won't go hungry if you do. You can change Euro or US$ in almost all hotels/hosterias, the rate is even attractive. Many of the shops, like Argentina generally, are very short on coins. Expect sweets instead of change, rounding down or even discounts if you're willing to pay with coins.
- Credit cards: Some restaurants and small businesses such as bakeries and food shops do not accept credit cards.
- Supermarkets: There are three well stocked supermarkets in town. The largest accepts credit cards. There is no need to stock up with food in El Calafate.
- Internet: As of January 2017 the town has slow internet speeds, particularly in peak season, as the microwave link to the town is at capacity. Wi-fi is widespread but there are no exceptions to the slow internet as they all share the same microwave link.
- Cellular: As of 2017 the town has cellular coverage, but 2G/edge/GPRS only. For internet, you will be reliant on slow wi-fi services.