El Chaltén is a small town – probably more accurately described as a village – at the foot of a looming icy peak in Patagonia Argentina. This isn’t to say it’s a dozy, quiet place for reflection in the mountains. It is a hub for hikers and backpackers and it’s bustling with tourist activity. El Chaltén, in Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park. is the centre of adventurous excursions, hiking trails, glacial melt lakes, water rafting, and ice trekking. It’s surrounded by rises and valleys, peaks and turquoise rivers, waterfalls, and smooth, rocky, rapids. In the village itself, tarred roads are lined with cosy cafes and restaurants, craft breweries, and traditional barbecues. Adventure centres and outdoor stores are well sign posted so that wandering travellers know where to go to book their activities in the mountains. If there is anything you do in El Chaltén, make sure it’s at least one of these things…
Hike Mount Fitz Roy
El Chalten has the unmistakable air of back-backer heaven and just about everything is within walking distance. It’s the trekking capital of southern Patagonia, and there’s no doubt you’ll fall in love with its energy. There is so much on offer, starting with hiking the icon of El Chaltén: Cerro Fitz Roy. This jagged peak stands tall above the little town at its feet and it is the first thing you’ll see as you approach El Chaltén. Most often, the peak is shrouded in cloud, so you won’t even see it in all its glory, but in good weather when the granite tower is full revealed, there is no question why it is one of the best known mountains in the Deep South of the continent.
Climbing Mount Fitz Roy is a challenge plenty of hikers take on, but the last stretch of vertical rock climbing is reserved for the most experienced of cliff-scalers, and not ordinary trekkers without proper experience and gear. The ascent to the foot of the tower is, however, a challenging full day excursion most keen hikers conquer happily. Fitz Roy was named after the captain of the HMS Beagle, who navigated South America in the early 1800s with Charles Darwin in tow! After that, the avid climber who started the clothing brand, Patagonia, used the image of this peak to illustrate his logo after he successfully scaled Fitz Roy in the 1960s. So, this imposing mountain at El Chaltén really is worth the effort!
It’s a full day excursion to get to the base, where a magnificent, blue lake shimmers between the granitic rocks, and return to El Chalten. The hike takes you through green forests full of birds, like the Magellanic woodpecker, across rushing rivers, and via glaciers iced into the crevices of the mountain. It is guided and can be booked the day before at one of the activity centres in town, and probably shouldn’t be booked too far in advance because weather in Patagonia is notoriously temperamental.
Trek the ice on Cagliero Glacier
There are glaciers throughout Patagonia – after all, we are in the ice fields out here – but there are only a handful that you are permitted to walk on. It’s one of the most humbling feeling’s in the world to step out onto the ice that has solidified between the cracks in the mountain where water once flowed. These expeditions are full-day tours from El Chaltén, and form just one of the many outdoor activities that beckon.
One of the great glacier treks starts just outside El Chaltén where you meet your guide and hiking group for a briefing before setting off through the trees with the smell of wet earth and the sound of rushing water filling your senses. The hike to Cagliero glacier is moderate for most of the way with a few hours spent on uphills and downhills in the cool shade of the trees, cutting along a river and rounding huge boulders. It’s all green and woody until you emerge from the forest and see the snow-capped peaks ahead. Soon, you don a harness and and wrap your head around rock climbing!
The last stretch before reaching the glacier is a series of rope-guided wrangling along the lakeside using a carabiner. It presents some challenging footwork but is a lot of fun and makes a nice change from the pace of hiking. This last stretch gets you breathing heavily as you hoist yourself up the last rise and eventually you emerge at the great Cagliero. Ice-trekking shoes and are provided and laced over your boots, and then you’re good to go. Walking on the solid freeze and filling your water bottle from the blue glacial melt is an otherworldly experience, and certainly something that is iconically Patagonia. It’s cold and invigorating and your picnic lunch never tasted better!
Eat at a Patagonian barbecue and drink craft beers
With all the activity drawing travellers in to El Chaltén, there have got to be some places to refuel and replenish, right? So right. This town is an adventurers dream, and it caters to meat eaters and fans of the craft beer industry in the most delicious way. If you’ve ever done research on the food of Patagonia, you will have stumbled across the famous “Patagonian Barbecue“, which is essentially a sheep on a spit. This meat is the food of the people down south. Other than adventure tourism, sheep farming is the basis of the economy. There are even specialised cowboys who ride wild horses and herd sheep with their loyal and resilient sheep dogs out on the wild pastures.
In El Chaltén, there are a few places that offer the traditional Patagonian barbecue, and you can expect to see an entire lamb carcass turning steadily on a rotisserie around a fire right in the shop window. If you’re a carnivore at heart and your hiking activity has built up an appetite, there is just nothing else you’ll want to eat. Plus, it will end off with something scrumptious that involves more than a dollop of dulce de leche!
If you’re a vegan, there’s beer! The craft beer scene in El Chaltén fits so perfectly into its somewhat hipster atmosphere, and the only few streets in the town are lined with warm inns wafting the malty smell of beer through the doors. There are tree-filled beer gardens where you can choose items off the artisan-stamped menus and watch the passers by in their full adventurer regalia: leg-warmers, buffs, and backpacks.
Speaking of hiking: here is our info on puma tracking at Torres del Paine in Chilean Patagonia.
And this is what we have to say about visiting Argentina’s most famous glacier, Perito Moreno.
Plus, we’ve got this epic itinerary that explores the best bits of Chile, from the Atacama Desert, Valparaiso, and Torres del Paine.