El Chaltén is a dusty climbing town with a contagious outdoor vibe. The self-proclaimed “trekking capital of Argentina” sprang up in the 1980’s for political purposes but is now supported entirely by outdoor tourism. Towering above the tiny village is Los Glaciares National Park and the dramatic Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre mountain massifs. Below is a smattering of unpretentious accommodations, shops, and restaurants catering to travelers and climbers.
The trekking in Los Glaciares is superb. In contrast to Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, which has a steep entry fee of $38 USD per person, Los Glaciares National Park is free and better maintained. And the terrain is easier to access: within just a couple hours walking distance from town are alpine lakes and dramatic mountain vistas. The trail system for multi-day treks in Los Glaciares isn’t as substantial as in Torres del Paine, but for natural beauty the two are equals.
Most of us won’t do any rock climbing in El Chaltén but the sport is an important part of its culture. The jagged peaks of Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre are in the very highest echelon of the world’s climbing destinations. Each summer, elite professionals, experienced amateurs, and a handful of brash novices head to El Chaltén and wait for windows of ideal weather. When the conditions are just right—considerations include wind and barometric pressure—they head up for ultra-challenging and potentially life-threatening ascents. Many climbers make the pilgrimage to El Chaltén year after year.
The areas north of El Chaltén are mostly undiscovered by tourists but as beautiful as anywhere in Patagonia. In particular, the 37-km Río de las Vueltas Valley and Lago del Desierto are extraordinary. Small vans make the trip from El Chaltén to Lago del Desierto daily (inquire at the main bus terminal), and the lake is home to the Aguas Arriba Lodge, but without much other infrastructure it still takes a little ingenuity to plan a significant extension of your trip.
El Chaltén Quick Facts
Location: Argentine Patagonia, approximately 2,000 kilometers south of Buenos Aires and 215 kilometers northwest of El Calafate
Getting to El Chaltén: The nearest airport is in El Calafate (FTE), which is 4 hours by bus
Best Day Hike: Lago de Los Tres (8-10 hours return)
Great Side Trips: Lago del Desierto