Patagonia, a vast and sparsely populated area (almost the same size as British Columbia), is located on the southern tip of South America, and is home to a dizzying array of breathtaking mountains, lakes, and glaciers. It extends into both Chile and Argentina, and owing to its remoteness and staggering beauty it is a remarkable place to experience true wilderness.
On our visit to the region in March 2014, we explored the Torres del Paine National Park in Chile and also spent time near the town of El Chalten, within the Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina. In this article we’ll focus on the Argentinian region of Patagonia, with the equally stunning Chilean region covered here.
After our outstanding experience in Chilean Patagonia, we were sure that nothing could compare to the vast uninhabited wilderness, lakes, glaciers, and mountains of Torres del Paine. Boy, were we wrong! The magnificent Los Glaciares National Park in Argentinian Patagonia quietly inhabits the landscape with slowly shifting ice fields, towering peaks, and wind swept trees and vegetation.
After a few days in El Calafate, gateway to Argentina’s Patagonia region, we headed to the small town of El Chalten, the trekking capital of Argentina. Easily accessed by 3-hour bus from El Calafate on Route 23, El Chalten is nestled within the Los Glaciares National Park and provides near doorstep access to a wide variety of mountain trails in the region leading to and through some of the most amazing scenery on the planet. Although the town is tiny, El Chalten has well stocked supermarkets, trekking gear shops, and many restaurants, bakeries and coffee shops. It also has an internet cafe and travel booking service centre. Don’t be alarmed by siesta time though – most stores and restaurants close from roughly 1-5pm.
We loved the simple and understated commitment to mountain exploration in El Chalten. The singular purpose of the town is to support the trekking community, making this a very easy place to find information and exchange grand stories of mountain adventures! Not to be outdone by those who prefer both feet on the ground, this region is also popular with rock and ice climbers.
A few days of weather imposed downtime with extreme wind and rain (common in these parts!), gave us a chance to relax in our cozy hostel, Albergue Patagonia, and research the trail options in the area. Once the weather cleared we departed on our first mountain exploration run – to discover the majestic Mount Fitz Roy standing tall at 3,359m. The spectacular view of this massif is the reward at the turnaround of the 23km out and back Laguna de Los Tres trail with 1,000m of elevation gain. Starting at the edge of the town, the clearly marked trail winds up steadily along single track with varied terrain underfoot. At times hard packed dirt, other times rooty with thick bush, but always beautiful with the freshest mountain air imaginable.
The trail opens up and flattens somewhat when it traverses the Del Salto stream valley and follows the natural course of the stream passing through two campgrounds along the way. Natural viewpoints offer glimpses of the Fitz Roy peak, but it’s only by pressing on and up the final and very steep grind of almost a kilometer that you reach the trail terminus point at the edge of an old moraine ridge. From this vantage point you can attempt to make sense of the full frontal assault on your eyes: a crystal blue lagoon and eons of glacier pack pushing up against the towering Mount Fitz Roy alongside its less well known but no less striking siblings.
With the sun out, we basked in its warmth and the privilege of finding ourselves at this amazing juncture while eating our customary trail run snack of peanut butter and jam sandwiches. Fueled up for our return journey we reluctantly turned away from the breathtaking view and completed the trail in reverse. Our legs enjoyed the downhill as much as our minds celebrated the gift of wanderlust!
There are numerous other trails to explore from the village of El Chalten. We ran a few shorter trails to a few easily accessible viewpoints, as well as one additional longer run. This 21km out and back trot with 600m of elevation gain took us along the undulating and relatively easy (albeit rocky) Laguna Torre trail to the lake of the same name fed by the Torre and Grande glaciers.
Here the mountain vistas are just as grand as Mount Fitz Roy with the jagged spire of Cerro Torre reaching above the rest of the Adela range at a height of 3,128m. If you’re lucky enough to arrive at this point on a clear day (we weren’t), the mythical Cerro Torre may be revealed to you. We had to settle for a brief glimpse of the spiky ridges before a wind storm swept in and literally blew us off our feet while a heavy blanket of cloud descended over the mountains and into the lake basin. We scrambled for cover under a rock shelf until the worst of the storm passed and then hightailed it back to the warmth and safety of our hostel. Another day well lived!
El Calafate is the gateway town to Los Glaciares National Park.
Regular buses run between El Calafate and El Chalten, a small town located in the park providing access to some of Argentina’s finest mountain trails.
This region is less structured than the Torres del Paine circuits in Chilean Patagonia, but multi-day adventures with overnight camping are possible if you are self-supported.
El Chalten is a perfect base for single day trail runs with options for accommodation and meals to suit all budgets.
After your trail adventures, don’t miss a visit to the awe-inspiring Perito Moreno Glacier near El Calafate.
Expect unpredictable and extreme weather conditions especially strong winds and quickly changing temperatures.
Bring layers and a good wind/rain jacket along with gloves, hat and neck covering.
Bring sunscreen and lip balm.
Best time to visit is October through March.
www.losglaciares.com/en/calafate (general info)
www.elchalten.com (general info and maps)
www.losglaciares.com/en/parque/#1 (official park website)
www.americahostel.com.ar (hostel in El Calafate)
www.patagoniahostel.com.ar (hostel in El Chalten)