After spending two nights in El Calafate and visting the Perito Moreno Glacier, it was time to move onto our final Patagonian destination: El Chalten! This small town is nestled amongst some of the best-known peaks in Patagonia, and is a mecca for rock climbers. The town is also very well known for its hiking trail, with a slogan stating: “National Capital of Trekking”. This is not just lip service though. That title is actually the result of a National Law enshrined in January of 2015! Either way, this was a town we knew we wanted to visit when we were planning this trip, and would be a great final stop on the adventure. All told, we’d be spending 5 nights in this town, and all of these in a single hostel! This would be a luxury, as we’d end with nice long hikes using daypacks and ending at the same spot, with an abundance of food options available to us! The town was pretty compact too, so stomping around would be very easy. This first post will cover the first two days where Deanna and I hiked together. Sadly, Deanna got rather ill, and the last 2 days I was on my own.
Day 1: Arrival and Hike to Laguna Capri
Since the first day of our arrival in El Chalten was a bit of a travel day, we didn’t arrive in town until mid-day. As such, we knew we wouldn’t be able to tackle any of the longer hikes. We chose to use this day to get our bearings a bit, stomp around the village, settle into our hostel, and even [gasp!] do a load of laundry. However, that didn’t stop us from at least tackling one nice day hike. Overall, the weather wasn’t super co-operative anyway, so the views weren’t going to be that great. We were hopeful that the next few days might improve, but as with Torres del Paine, you just never know what you might get. Incidentally, if you ever find yourself in El Chalten, we whole-heartedly recommend the Rancho Grande Hostel. Very reasonable prices, clean, great rooms, restaurant, wi-fi, the works. It was the perfect home base for the week!
Okay, back to the hike of the day. The route was pretty straightforward, and we’d cover a total of about 10k on this hike. From the hostel, it was a short hike to the trail head before heading up, up, and away to Laguna Capri. We chose this route for two simple reasons. Firstly, it was the closest to the hostel, and secondly, it would take us to one of the better viewpoints of Fitz Roy Mountain. If ever you were seeking that ‘quintessential’ mountain desktop wallpaper for your computer, snagging a good picture of Fitz Roy would definitely get you cool points. This peak is absolutely spectacular. Today was just meant to whet our appetites for Fitz Roy, with plans to get much closer in longer hikes in the next few days.
Unfortunately for us, this wasn’t the day for sightseeing. Although we could see where the mountain was supposed to be, there were just too many low-hanging clouds to let us really get a sense of her features. We waited for quite a bit at Laguna Capri, where it was windy. I had hoped the wind might blow the clouds away, but instead, it just brought more clouds. I’d set my camera up to capture a timelapse, but it never got completely clear. Sad as that was, it didn’t deter our spirits, as just being in this wild environment is always a kick. We continued our hike, circumnavigating the lake and checking out other features like campsites with windbreaks built from branches over the years, reminding us how crazy the weather can get around here. Eventually, we decided heading back to the village was the best course of action for the day.
The hike certainly wasn’t a complete bust though. Where the Fitz Roy viewpoint may have disappointed, the Viewpoint of Rio de las Vueltas did not! This is a point in the trail where we got to peer down the mountain valley along the river delta. The clouds made it slightly ominous, but we were still definitely able to get a sense of the scale of the natural features around here, and stirred our imagination for additional hikes. Once back in town, we decided to look for some different wildlife, and headed out looking for grub and brews. We ultimately settled on an aptly-named spot called ‘Beers and Burgers‘ where we skipped on the food, and settled for just the beers (well, and the view, which wasn’t too shabby!), where were local craft beers from a brewery called Esquel. From there, we returned to the hostel and had a giant delicious pizza for supper while I pored over maps and planned our hike for the next day.
Day 2: Hike to Laguna Torre and Maestri Viewpoint
I had a special trek planned for us today. When all the dust settled, we’d covered over 24 km, and almost every step of it was a new sense of wonder as we got closer and closer to the far point of our trek. The reason we chose this route was ultimately to catch our views of Cerro Torre, the other famous peak that everyone clamors to see in this area. Torre is one of those stereotypical ‘pointy’ rocky mountains that seems to impossibly climb straight up from the ground around it, and an absolute must-see in Patagonia. The first part of the hike kept the mystery alive for us. The trail was going gradually uphill, more or less following the Rio (River) Fitz Roy. This is hard-scrabble terrain, but taking us ever-closer to our goals of the day. We had gotten a nice early start in the day, with the first stop being Deanna’s new-found favourite coffee-trailer near the hostel, Primo’s Coffee. This helped her warm up as we trekked through the chilly morning.
The mysteries would not stay hidden for too long. I clearly recall the moment we crested a small hill, only to come face to face with the amazing view of the picture above. Whereas yesterday everything was clouded over, today (at least now) we had (nearly) clear skies. From our point on the trail, we could clearly see all the features of both Cerros Torre and Fitz Roy. It was achingly perfect, and had me so excited to get to the next part of our hike.
As we kept hiking towards Laguna Torre, we had the opportunity to snap great pictures of both Fitz Roy and Torre. If the weather closed in on us and covered the peaks with clouds again, we would still have been happy with the way the day had unfolded to this point, since some people will spend weeks down here and NEVER get to see the sights that we were privileged enough to witness.
Approaching Cerro Torres
We spent the next hour or so hiking somewhat quietly, as we were both wrapped up in our own thoughts about the scenery around us. Some sections of the trail were tree-covered and there were no views at all, while others took us through open valleys, and yet others a mix of to. I think one of my favourite parts was the picture you see here where there was a very aged ‘boardwalk’ leading us through even more aged trees gnarled by decades of harsh winds. The boardwalk was seemingly leading us directly towards the spires of the Cerro Torre ahead.
There was just enough cloud cover in this section to provide some framing for the peaks, reminding us that things can change in the blink of an eye. Given our early start in the day, we were lucky enough to essentially have the trail to ourselves. Our packs were laden with a range of emergency gear, but I’d also brought luxuries that I hadn’t yet told Deanna about, as I had a surprise picnic planned for us a little later. Lucky thing too, as this would turn out to be our last true big adventure ‘together’ on this trip due to a cold that was going to take hold of Deanna later that night. For now though, we were all systems go, and the hiking was fantastic!
Amazingly, not 10 minutes after the boardwalk picture was snapped, we found ourselves arriving at Laguna Torre itself, which is the large glacier lake formed at the base of Cerro Torre, fed by the Grande Glacier. At the far end where we found ourselves was a little beach, with the requisite little ice chunks to remind us this was a glacier lake. This is the point in the hike where I would guess 95% or so of day hikers call it a day. Or, they wander just a little further around the lake before turning back. However, that wouldn’t be quite good enough for me. I had planned on taking us to a spot called ‘Maestri Viewpoint’. This spot is far around the lake, and required ‘ranger consultation’ before proceeding on.
Thanks to the good weather, I decided we should press on, and convinced Deanna it was a good idea. Immediately after climbing away from the ‘safety’ of the beach, I could tell things would be a bit different on this leg of the hike. The wind picked up. Not a little, but a lot! The trail was a much more tricky affair, with scree slopes around us, boulders, and trickier navigation to stay on the ‘official’ path. I think Deanna was legitimately scared a few times, which made me feel a bit bad about encouraging her forward, but ultimately, I had a feeling this was going to pay off at the far end. Why else would this trail exist at end abruptly at the far end at a viewpoint? It HAD to be good, right?
Allow me to spare you any great suspense, and instead present you with the following picture which absolutely confirmed my suspicions of the absolutely correct decision to press on 🙂
At the far end, we were greeted with arguably the best views of our entire trip. Cerro Torre was intermittently cloud free. Glacier Grande spilled down from its snowy mountain perch before us. The terminal face and glacier morraine spilled all around us. It was a combination of sights I will never forget. We managed to find some large boulders we could use for a bit of respite from the steady winds around us. It was at about this point that we donned our down jackets to stay warm. Although it was sunny, there were cold winds, so we had to bundle up a bit. I had another solution to ward off the chill though. A tetra-pak of Argentinian red wine :-). It went great with the picnic lunch I had packed!
We spent probably 40 minutes at this spot, slowly enjoying our lunch and taking in the view from all angles. It was as close to a perfect day as we could ever hope for, and we wanted to make the best of it. As always, we knew that the next day(s) could be terrible, so don’t ever waste a perfect moment. Savour it. Obviously though, we couldn’t stay here forever, and eventually packed up our gear, and started the twisting, slippery scree trail back towards the beach, and eventually, the town. As we made our way back, the weather did indeed begin deteriorating. As we glanced back a few times, the clouds started rolling back in over the mountain, obscuring the amazing views we’d had not 30 minutes before. We thanked our luck, and walked with lightness in our steps, energized from the great lunch, the great views, and a head full of red wine.
For our return route, I opted to take the ‘longer’ trails back, meandering around a few other spots a bit ‘off the beaten track’. This was especially true towards the end of the hike. I had downloaded a few mapping apps, looking for trails, and the one I chose wasn’t on any tourist maps, so we had them once again all to ourselves. The tail end of this trail give us a pretty good vantage of the town of El Chalten from a northern approach. It was a nice perspective on the town and where it is situated, which is basically the edge of arid desert land.
Once back at the hostel, we cleaned up a bit before ‘hitting the town’ once again to celebrate. First stop was a great little brewery known as Fresco where we were basically at the door waiting for them to open for the evening. The beer was good, the views even better, and made for the perfect first stop after the hike. While there, we researched where we might go to eat that night, finally setting on a place called Ruca Mahuida based on recommendation and ratings. The restaurant was not on the main strip, was small, and had a waitlist to get into even at this time of year! Here is their own description: “Ancient South American and Patagonian ingredients and elaborated recipes in the hands of our passionate chefs gave birth to our renowned style in local Patagonian gastronomy.”. Yes, a little ‘upscale’ compared to our normal fare, but well worth it. It had a nice communal feel, in that we were even seated in a booth with other diners in order to help people get seated quickly. It was a great meal, and a fitting end to this perfect day. Back at the hostel, I got to work plotting the next day’s route before we drifted off to sleep. For the next adventures, you’ll have to come back another day, as I’ll save them for another post! Till then, dream big!