El Chaltén: Spectacular and Accessible Hiking in Patagonia
Glowing turquoise lakes, calving glaciers, and a skyline so remarkable that it became the logo for the outdoor company Patagonia. When hiking in Patagonia, you can see it all from the town of El Chaltén, Argentina.
El Chaltén is on the eastern edge of Argentina’s Glacier National Park. The best trails lead west from town up into the Andes to imposing glaciers and stunning lakes. To the north of El Chaltén is a valley with more lakes, glaciers, and trails. Only the first seven miles to the north are in the park, past that is private property where many trails have fees for hiking and camping. The good news is that the most breathtaking lakes, glaciers, and peaks are all within the park and free.
Laguna Torre Trail is a Popular Trail for Hiking in Patagonia
Laguna Torre is seven miles roundtrip and was my favorite of all the hikes I did from El Chaltén. (In Chile small lakes and glacial cirques are called laguna, while larger lakes are called lago). The first mile of the trail goes uphill through a forest where I saw wild hares and Magellanic woodpeckers. This is where you have your best chance of seeing the endangered huemul, a deer endemic to Patagonia.
Past the forest, the trail goes through a wide glacial valley with fabulous views of Grand Glacier and one of El Chaltén’s most famous peaks, Poincenot at 9,850 feet above sea level. Laguna Torre itself is not the typical glowing turquoise, but the glacial views more than make up for the lack of color. From where the trail meets the lake it’s only another half hour to the Maestri Overlook where you have terrific views looking down on the end of Grand Glacier. Massive icebergs the size of apartment buildings break off and float out into the lake.
Laguna Torre is a full-day hike but not particularly strenuous. The closer you get to the lake the more springs you’ll pass along the trail. The water is safe to drink, but I recommend bringing a water filter to sift out bits of sand and glacial minerals.
Hiking the Laguna de Los Tres Trail
Laguna de Los Tres is even more popular than Laguna Torre though also longer and more strenuous. The trail is almost 16 miles roundtrip, and the last half mile is a steep slope of loose scree. It’s a scramble up the moraine that holds the lake in place. Before that, most of the trail goes through a wide, flat-bottomed glacial valley.
When you reach Laguna de Los Tres, walk along the shore to the right to see dozens of tiny springs bubble up out of the sand. It’s the sweetest water I’ve ever tasted, and I didn’t bother to filter it. You’ll have a stunning view of “Los Tres,” the three most famous peaks in the range: Fitz Roy (11,073 ft.), Poincenot (9,850 ft.), and St. Exupéry (8,392 ft.).
If you walk left from where the trail hits Laguna Torre, you’ll be treated to a spectacular view from high above Laguna Sucia. The name means “Dirty Lake,” and it’s the most misnamed lake I’ve ever seen. The water is pure, sparkling turquoise, and numerous waterfalls leap off cliffs several stories above the lake. This is also a great place to spot Andean condors; I saw two as I started back down the trail.
Food and Drink While Hiking in Patagonia
Like mountain towns in Europe and North America, El Chaltén has many breweries and restaurants with hearty portions. I tried over a dozen restaurants in El Chaltén and liked them all. My two favorites were La Vinería for the giant chicken sandwiches, veggie burgers, and happy hour micro-brews, and La Cervecería Chaltén for the delicious locro, and in-house micro-brews. Locro is a traditional Argentine soup made with white beans, chorizo, corn, pumpkin, and a dozen other ingredients.
If you are on a tight budget it is good to know that all the hostels in town have kitchens, and you can easily do all your own cooking. Make sure you treat yourself at least once to breakfast at the bakery Lo De Haydee, which makes delicious cheese puffs every morning that locals buy by the kilo.
Lodging and Camping in Patagonia
El Chaltén has everything from luxury apartments to inexpensive hostels and camping. There are two large hotels in town, plus numerous small hotels, hostels, and homes that people have converted to Airbnbs. There are two campgrounds in town with facilities for camper vans or RVs. If you would rather not sleep in town camping in the national park is free, and there are several private campgrounds up the valley north of El Chaltén. You can rent camping equipment in El Chaltén for the same price as a cheap hostel.
If you arrive without a place to stay, stop at the bus station before you start looking around town. Each morning hotels and hostels notify the information desk at the bus station how many rooms they have available that night. You can pick up free maps and get the name and number of any place with availability.
Information About Glacier National Park
After you find a place to stay, your first stop should be the park ranger station. This is a ten-minute walk south of town. It’s staffed by volunteers who are as passionate about preserving the native flora and fauna as they are about ensuring visitors have all the information they need. A short hike leads from the ranger station to an overlook called Mirador Los Cóndores, which is perfect for sunset and spotting condors.
How to Get to Patagonia
The first leg of my trip to El Chaltén was a flight from Buenos Aires to El Calafate. El Calafate is a fun town that is an excellent base for tours to lakes and glaciers. However, if you want to hike take the bus to El Chaltén. You can rent a car in El Calafate, but it’s unnecessary. El Chaltén is a quaint, no-stop light town. Not only is everything in town walkable within a few blocks, but you also don’t need a car to get to the best trails.
Currency and Exchange Rate
If airfare to Argentina looks too high consider the exchange rate and how much you’ll spend once you get there. Every few years the Argentine economy takes a dive, and the value of the US dollar goes through the roof. The best way to travel on a budget in Argentina is to bring cash and exchange it for Argentine pesos once you get there. The US dollar is commonly used because it is more stable than most South American currencies. To check the current rate search online for “dólar blue.” Several Argentine news sites post the daily rate, which is different from the official bank rate. You’ll get much better rates at currency exchange shops than at banks.
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When You Go Hiking in Patagonia
El Chaltén in Argentina’s Glacier National Park offers some of the best hiking in Patagonia. The grandeur of the imposing glaciers and stunning lakes makes for ample wow moments as you hike the trails. All of this beauty is within the park and free to explore. When you’re planning your next outdoor adventure, be sure to read some of our favorite hiking spots on Wander. We also have more suggestions for what to see when you explore South America.