When travelling in Argentinian Patagonia, Los Glaciares National Park is an essential place to visit. While El Calafate is the focal town, with its stunningly beautiful lake and spectacular glaciers, such as the Perito Moreno glacier, nearby, the small town of El Chaltén is also well worth a visit. The main activity in the area is walking and enjoying the great outdoors, so whether you’re a manic mountaineer, a high-spirited hiker, a rapturous rambler or simply savour a serious stroll, El Chaltén has gorgeous scenery and walks available for all abilities. Here’s a guide to hiking in El Chaltén.
Getting To El Chaltén
El Chaltén is located around 220km north of El Calafate and it’s a three to four hour bus ride from there. Buses run several times a day from the bus station. It’s worth booking a ticket in advance, especially during busy seasons. The buses are large and comfortable. The journey is exceptionally pretty as it takes you through beautifully picturesque scenery.
When you arrive, the bus will actually stop at the tourist centre just outside the town so that you can get an orientation talk (available in English and Spanish and there’s no charge for this) and pick up a hiking map. Then it’s back onto the bus for about 2 minutes to cross the Fitz Roy river before arriving at the bus station where you disembark.
The town itself is small and very easy to get around on foot. There are plenty of accommodation options as well as a variety of restaurants and cafés to suit all budgets and, just up the road from the bus station, a craft beer emporium that offers a range of interesting beer – perfect for a post-hike tipple. There are also some outdoor equipment shops just in case you spontaneously decide to go climbing and have forgotten to bring your gear.
We stayed at the charming Hosteria Lago Viedma which is run by two lovely ladies. The home-cooked breakfast was the best we had in Argentina: freshly baked bread, eggs cooked to order and lovely home-made biscuits/cakes. They had loads of hiking advice and also kindly rearranged our bus tickets for us when it was clear that the weather wasn’t going to be on our side on the final day and we had a long wait before our bus was due to leave.
Weather the Weather Whatever the Weather – A Couple of Hikes in El Chaltén
Hiking in El Chaltén ranges from short and easy walks to some that are more challenging, and the map gives an indication of distance and difficulty. Not only do the B&Bs offer good hiking advice, they can often offer a packed lunch if you are planning to go out hiking all day. Empanadas (like pasties) are perfect – easy to carry, they will happily hold their shape inside your backpack and they taste delicious.
Beware the weather. It can be very changeable, indeed part of some hikes may be closed on particularly windy days. We recommend wearing layers of clothes as the wind can be really chilly but you warm up quickly if you’re on an energetic hike, so may want to discard layers as you go.
The information booklet at the visitor’s centre gives lots of information about all the hikes, including distance, time to reach the end and difficulty level.
You need to be a really experienced climber to climb the iconic Mount Fitz Roy but don’t panic – there are loads of amazing hikes, with varying levels of difficulty, even for the casual walker. There are lakes, waterfalls, spectacular views of mountain peaks and lots of other hikers to chat with along the way. The walks have signposts for the hike itself as well as viewing points and the trails are well maintained.
Laguna Torre hike is an easy-moderate hike where you can get fantastic views of the area, including a view of Mount Fitz Roy.
Sendero del Fitz Roy hike is a little more challenging. The starting point is at the north of the town; just walk along the main road until you see the sign.
The first part of the hike climbs uphill then is relatively flat for several kilometres. It has lovely views of the mountains, lakes and glaciers all the way along. The very last section has a steep ascent and is not advisable if the weather, particularly the wind, is unfavourable. It’s around 10km each way and there are some alternative routes for the trip back so that you can see additional landscapes.
One of the loveliest things about walking in the area is that the water is absolutely pure. If you feel thirsty you can simply fill your water bottle directly from any of the streams and rivers that flow in abundance through the landscape. Cold, fresh, delicious water straight from the glacier/ground is a real treat.
There is also plenty of wildlife to see – condors circling the sky or a common snipe.
After a 20km hike, food and beer is always welcome.
After Hiking in El Chaltén Patagonia – Eating and Drinking
There isn’t a huge amount to do in town after hiking in El Chaltén but there are a number of bars and restaurants offering decent food and there are a couple of places to have a pint – or three – of craft beer.
We enjoyed traditional Patagonian fare at El Muro, located on Avenida San Martin. It’s quite difficult to be vegetarian in Argentina as meat forms a large part of the diet. Indeed, we ate so much meat during our time there, we started craving salads. It’s also worth noting that many restaurants provide bread with your meal free of charge and we found that the food was so filling we just didn’t need to order any additional carbs. Patagonia is rightly famous for its lamb. Slow cooked over an open fire, it just melts in the mouth.
Essential Equipment for Hiking in El Chaltén
Where the serious climber will already have a special kit, there are a few items that, as enthusiastic casual walkers, we find to be indispensable. Walking shoes/hiking boots are an essential when walking in the area. We tend to wear our walking shoes on the flight so that we don’t have to pack them into our luggage, taking up valuable space.
The weather can be extremely changeable in El Chaltén. We always make sure we carry waterproofs with us when walking. Ponchos are really useful because you can chuck them on quickly and they provide good coverage. They can also easily fit over your backpack, which helps prevent that getting wet, and will squish to a small size to minimise packing. You can also use them as a ground sheet or to shelter from the sun, so they are really versatile.
We always try to avoid single-use plastics in order to be as environmentally-friendly as we can, but this can sometimes be difficult when travelling, especially if the water quality in the area you are visiting isn’t suitable to drink and we need to buy bottled water. Fortunately the tap water in Patagonia is totally safe to drink, so we took collapsible water bottles and filled them at our hosteria each day before setting out. Then we topped up the water from any of the streams that we walked by.
We always carry our own water bottles. At 1L capacity these contain a good amount of liquid and fold away when not in use so are perfect for minimising your packing. They can smell a teeny bit rubbery initially, but this will go after a good wash. For us, a nice, foldable reusable bottle is a travel essential.
We also recommend Merino wool clothing for those all-important layers for hiking. It’s a natural fibre and has excellent wicking capabilities which means it’s great for wearing if you build up a sweat. And because it’s natural you can actually wear the same clothes several days running without them smelling (we have tried this and can confirm they are brilliant), which also helps minimise the number of items you need to pack.
If you are traveling in the area and enjoy walking it is definitely worth considering spending a couple of days hiking in El Chaltén, Patagonia – the landscapes are wonderful and there are walks suitable for all abilities.
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Central Argentina may not be at the very top on an itinerary when visiting the country, but it does offer some interesting places to visit. The cities are easy to fly to direct from Buenos Aires and, for lower budget travellers, the bus network is very good. Overnight buses, in particular, have a variety of services available, including a double decker first class option that offers a reclining bed, TV and food. It’s about a 5 hour journey from BA to Córdoba which is often used as a transit city when travelling from the coast to the mountains.
We were based in Córdoba, the second largest city in Argentina by population. It’s a pleasant city and it’s possible to undertake a number of day trips to interesting places from there – all an easy bus journey within an hour or two of the centre.
Alta Gracia is a small and pretty town in the Sierras Chicas. A former Jesuit residence has now been converted to the Museo Nacional Estancia Jesuitica Alta Gracia museum which has an interesting history of Jesuits in the area.
The Jesuits built El Tajamar, a lake which forms a focal point for the town. It’s worth hanging out by the clocktower at one end of the lake; it not only offers tourist information but is also a focal point for entertainment in the area – music and dance shows are regular events.
Che Guevara spent twelve years of his childhood in Alta Gracia until he moved to Buenos Aires in 1944 to study medicine and thereafter become one of the world’s most famous revolutionaries. His story is told in the fabulous film, The Motorcycle Diaries based on his book of the same name. The house he lived in has been converted into an interesting museum.
Villa General Belgrano, to the south-west of Cordoba, somewhat bizarrely, offers a little slice of Germany right in the middle of Argentina. It was established in 1930 and is a distinctly alpine town with traditional Bavarian architecture.
Food-wise, you can enjoy local versions of sausages, Spätzle and strudel amongst many traditional German delicacies, all of which can be washed down with a stein or two of beer. The town has an Oktoberfest event – an annual beer festival – held each October which, after Munich in Germany and Blumenau in Brazil, is considered to be one of the most important in the world.
Asados in Argentina
When visiting any towns and cities in central Argentina one of biggest impressions that strikes you as you walk around the area, particularly the suburbs, is the aroma, which is predominantly that of meat cooking. It is a mouth-watering scent. Argentinians are well known for their love of meat, especially beef. Asados in Argentina is the equivalent of a barbeque and is massively popular, particularly at weekends.
The word asado refers to both the cooking technique and the event. Most apartment buildings in the city have an asados area where residents can book space and enjoy family time cooking and eating good food together. The area will include a parilla (pronounced ‘parisha’ in Argentine Spanish as the ‘ll’ takes a ‘sh’ rather than a ‘y’ sound), a small kitchen area and benches to prepare and eat your food. You are responsible for clearing up afterwards and leaving the area clean and tidy for other residents to enjoy their asado at another time. We were delighted to be invited to a family asado in Cordoba.
With asados in Argentina there are two parts to the parilla – the v-shaped firebox and the grill. You need to make sure you have fuel. It’s quite common to scour the local area for wood/grasses to burn on the fire. First the fire needs to be started. Wood or charcoal are the most common fuels. Apparently it is not the done thing to use lighter fluid or briquettes – pine cones are sometimes used if the fire is not being very co-operative when starting up.
These flames burn too fiercely to cook the meat directly, so the firebox gets really hot then coals from the embers are transferred to the grill and spread around the cooking area. The meat is then placed on the grill above these coals. Traditionally the cook is the asador, invariably male, who takes on responsibility of watching over the feast.
Argentine meat is superb quality and very good value. Bife de chorizo (not to be confused with chorizo sausage) is a thick cut sirloin steak, which usually comes with a generous layer of fat – and remember, fat is flavour.
Meat is most definitely the main attraction of the meal. Everything else is secondary. The steak is served with just a hat-tip to carbs – usually bread -which is ideal to mop up the delicious juices – and some token salad so that the meal appears to have a semblance of nutritional balance. Sauces aren’t very common in Argentina either, although the heavenly piquant and gorgeously green chimichurri, which is usually comprised of chopped parsley and oregano, minced garlic, olive oil and red wine vinegar, all blended together, would be a good accompaniment.
Wine, often a rich, fruity red Malbec, accompanies the food, but beers are also popular. The whole process of cooking, eating and socialising together makes the asados in Argentina a pleasant and relaxing way of spending the afternoon, which can then turn into a very enjoyable evening as well.
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Whiskey on the Rocks
The Perito Moreno glacier, located a few kilometres away from the Patagonian town of El Calafate and inside Los Glaciares National Park, is one of the park’s most famous attractions. There are plenty of ways to visit the Perito Moreno glacier in Patagonia and loads of tour operators who can arrange a trip from El Calafate. It’s about an hour and a half journey to the glacier from the town.
When I was studying geography many years ago, human geography always seemed to be a little bit boring (counting different types of shop in the central business district of a small town) compared with physical geography and meteorology in which we learned about about oxbow lakes, karst scenery, lapse rates and glaciation. Moraine, especially terminal moraine, seemed to be exotic and exciting and, well, very different from any geographical feature to be found in suburban Surrey. To be able to see a glacier up close – and actually walk on it – was an ambition fulfilled.
The Perito Moreno glacier is unusual in that it is one of the few glaciers in the world that is still advancing. Most are shrinking as a result of climate change. You have to enter Los Glaciares park and pay the entrance fee. There are choices – you can walk along an excellent viewing trail but it is also possible to don crampons and undertake a trek on the glacier itself. There’s the Big Ice for hardy young souls, where you’ll spend about 8 hours on the ice and traverse a wide section of glacier, or the Little Ice which is a taster for people who are less intrepid. Or just old – you cannot do the Big Trek if you are over 45 years old.
If doing the glacier walk, you’ll be taken to a ferry and will then cross the lake – it takes about half an hour and the view of the glacier is wonderful. There’s a full briefing available in English and Spanish and you will be accompanied on the glacier by several guides.
LITTLE ICE TREK ON THE PERITO MORENO GLACIER
Even the Little Trek is a marvellous experience. You need to wear long-sleeved tops and gloves as the ice is surprisingly sharp so you don’t want to hurt your arms or hands if you fall over. Sturdy shoes are essential. You’ll be loaned some crampons, spikes that strap to your shoes (hence the need for good footwear) which will enable you to walk on the ice without slipping over. They’ll be fitted by people who know how to fit crampons and will ensure safety on the ice.
Crampons take a little bit of getting used to, especially when walking downwards on the ice. When walking straight or uphill, just walk firmly, keeping your legs slightly apart, about the same width as your shoulders (so they don’t get all tangled up), making sure the spikes embed themselves into the ice. When walking downhill, keep your feet facing forward, (penguin style doesn’t work), again with legs slightly apart and walk steadily.
Once on the glacier there are some amazing sights.
THE END OF THE TREK
At the end of the trek there is a table, and on that table is a bottle.
Yes, the end of the trek offers a warming whiskey on the rocks, the rocks, of course, being large chunks of glacial ice.
Fire and ice. Fortunately, it’s close to the edge of the glacier so you can stagger off in your crampons after enjoying a tipple.
PERITO MORENO GLACIER TOUR – THE BOARDWALK
When visiting the Perito Moreno glacier in Patagonia there’s a lovely walkway on the other side of the glacier to get some amazing views.
As the glacier advances, it cuts off part of the lake, effectively creating a dam. Over time, the water pressure causes this ice bridge to rupture and large parts of the glacier calve off.
The last rupture was in March 2018.
Even if you’re not around to see the rupture (it happens every few years) there will still be opportunities to see chunks of glacier calve away from the main ice. You’ll see it first. From a distance a chunk of ice will fall into the water. It looks pretty small from a distance but is probably a fairly large piece. Then you hear the sound – it’s a loud cracking sound, like a shotgun.