20 years ago El Chalten didn’t exist, merely a guard shack in a pristine mountain valley with Fitz Roy looming overhead. Today the quaint little town is the self appointed backpackers capital of Argentina, and rightfully so. Radiating from town are a network of trails that access some of the most spectacular scenery anywhere in the world. Incredible peaks, crystal blue lakes, immense glaciers and lush green valleys abound. The one problem, this town and it’s visitors are growing faster than the infrastructure. The few groceries in town have an incredibly limited selection, fruits and vegetables of barely edible quality, the one atm is often empty for a week at a time and prices are some of the highest you’ll find anywhere in Argentina. But it’s a place worth dirtbagging it and spending quite a bit of time.
I decided to setup shop at Kaiken hostel, a nice little house with 14 beds, a small living room and kitchen. It felt more like home than a hostel, and was within 10m of the nearest trail! With a nice weather window on tap it was time to go big and run as much of the park in my one week as feasible. Below I’ll give a short intro to each area I explored and some photos for those interested.
Laguna Torre, 2/21
I hit the trail right out my hostel door, smooth double track and very runnable trail most of the way to the laguna. Normally this trail would have fantastic views of Cerro Torre, but a thick layer of clouds hung over the mountains that day, and a light rain blew off the mountains. Consequently a vibrant rainbow formed right over Laguna Torre, so while there were no mountain views, it made for a pretty spectacular scene. I added a short scramble up the hill for a better view before running back down. 14.5miles, 2600ft, 3:29.
Lago de los Tres, 2/22
Another casual crack of 9am start, this time I trekked across to the Lago de los Tres trailhead and on up. The trail started with a steady climb, but then leveled off into beautiful runnable tread. The views from Laguna Capri of Fitz Roy were phenomenal on the clear sunny day. The first 9km flew by and then I hit the wall that climbs up to Laguna de los Tres, a steep 1km accent to the top of the moraine and a breath taking view of Fitz Roy and more. I hopped around the right side of the lake to a secluded lunch spot, then to a small hill left of the viewpoint that looked down onto Laguna Sucia and the glaciers. But the day was young and I had energy so I cruised back down the trail, took the spur past Hija y Madre lakes until I finally reached a small saddle where I struck up into the forest on animal trails, bound for Loma de las Pizarras. After bushwacking through the forest I picked up a good use trail that climbed to treeline and above. I entered into the talus and broken shale and continued on the class 2 terrain to a nice view high above the lagunas below. Great view of the peaks, glaciers, and town. 23.1miles, 6400ft, 5:23.
Chorrillo del Salto and Mirador de los Condores, 2/23
If you’re looking for shorter and easier hikes near town, both of these are great for the less adventurous or as an off day. Chorrillo del Salto lies about 4km outside of town along the gravel road, so if you hitchhike to the trailhead it’s only 0.5km. Very nice waterfall in a grotto, and if you hike above the falls (left), there are several wonderful swimming holes and secluded spots. The Mirador de los Condores lies only 1km from the visitors center on the edge of town. But it offers some fantastic views of Fitz Roy and the surrounding area, and is well worth the short trip.6.6mi, 700ft, 3:22. 1.6mi, 350ft, 0:39.
Loma Pligue Tumbado, 2/24
In my opinion the best view (of the popular spots) in the park. From the visitor’s center the trail starts with a steady climb through the meadows and forest up to the junction with the trail to Laguna Toro. From here the trail climbs slowly up very runnable terrain to the mirador, a lovely viewpoint of Fitz Roy and the lagos. The final climb is a steep 1km hike straight up to the summit, where the views are truly breath taking. I enjoyed a 30min break on the summit, all by my lonesome, marveling at the 360 degree panorama. Then I bombed down the trail, the first part being a bit steep, after that it’s a nearly perfect trail run. 23km, 1100m, 3:07.
Laguna Sucia & Laguna Piedras Blancas, 2/25I’d hit all the major viewpoints so it was time for a little adventure. If you look at a good Topo map of the Fitz Roy region you’ll see many trails that are not listed on the general tourist maps. These are climbers trails and old trails that are no longer maintained, so require a bit of navigation and exploration. My first destination was Laguna Sucia, starting from the Laguna de los Tres trailhead, follow the standard trail all the way to the base of the final climb. Immediately after the last crossing of the Rio Blanco head uphill 20ft and take a hard left onto an unmaintained trail that parallels the North side of the Rio Blanco, don’t use any of the other use trails along the Rio Blanco, as you will then be forced to ford the river (dangerous). From here rock hop and scramble (class 2) upstream until you reach the Laguna, and the amazing views up towards Fitz Roy. Return the way you came, but to reach Laguna Piedras Blancas head straight across the main trail and head North along the West side of the Rio Blanco. The old trail is eroded in sections, but in general stay near the river as you head North. After several kilometers you’ll reach a broad plateau just before the Rio Piedras Blancas, head up the river for 1km to reach the Laguna, and views of the cascading Piedras Blancas Glaciar. Return the way you came, and if it’s a nice day stop for a swim in Laguna Capri. Lots of slow rough trail, but a fun day of adventure. 19.5mi, 2850ft, 5:30.
Laguna Toro, 2/26
My last full day in Chalten I went for the long run into Laguna Toro and to see the Rio Tunel Glaciar. Starting from the same trailhead as Pligue Tumbado one splits off about 3km up the trail to the left continuing the slow climb through the forest and into castle pastures (muddy mess). Then comes the steep descent to the Rio Tunel valley. All the water sources in the first 12km are contaminated by cattle, so I don’t recommend grabbing water until the rocky delta that feeds into the Rio Tunel. The last 6km to the Laguna is cruiser flat terrain. The campsites and Laguna at Toro are not very pretty, but if you follow the trail behind the Laguna there are several small Lagunas, and views up the deep glacial valley of the Rio Tunel Glaciar. For the more adventurous one can scramble the rocky hill behind the Laguna for a closer view of the glacier and upper valley (class 3-4). Crossing the Rio Tunel requires harness and equipment for a tyrolian traverse. I’ve then jogs out the way they came in, including the now 250-300m climb back up the ridge. While this is a nice quiet valley with good views, it’s not as spectacular as the other runs I did. 26.1mi, 4550ft, 6:19.
Additional Runs not Done:
Lago Azul and Lago del Diablo
Lago del Desierto
Paso de Viento (gear required)
El Calafate doesn’t have much to offer besides the massive Perito Moreno glacier. There is a decent walking path along Lago Argentino and an extensive trail system in the privately owned Calafate Mountain Park (11.8mi, 2600ft, 2:08) near town, use at your own risk. The town does have all the necessary supplies and several good bakeries with lots of facturas.
For the hikers and trail runners out there El Chalten is a little paradise, as long as you don’t mind paying a bit more and dirt bagging it for a bit. Helpful hints are to bring much of your groceries into town from El Calafate, obtain Argentinan pesos before coming to town, and if you reserve lodging via email or in person it’s often cheaper than via a hostel website. I’m sure in the coming years the town will change dramatically, but hopefully it retains its low key dirt bagger charm.
Social thanks to Vfuel for powering my adventures, the Pro Leisure Tour for giving me lots of time and Hostel Kaiken for giving me a home for the week (Miguel was a wonderful host, email him directly for a discounted price).