The town of El Chalten is perhaps one of Patagonia’s best kept secrets. If you are going to travel and Argentina is your destination, then this town, which is synonymous with hiking in Patagonia, must certainly feature on your list. Hidden behind a ring of mountains, bordered by a surging river, this small and yet rapidly growing town began as a present by the national park. Visiting gives one the feeling of being in the frontier town of a spaghetti western, but instead of cowboys or miners, this boom town services hikers. The sensation is uniquely reminiscent of being in a center of pilgrimage, where people arrive from all directions with a common sense of purpose—to commune with nature.
Hiking in Patagonia combines well marked trails with a ‘hands off’ approach which is refreshing in a national park. Upon entering the town, the park rangers list the park rules with a passion for the heritage they are protecting. This is summarized by one ranger in such a way: ‘This place is not Argentina’s, it’s yours.’ Anyone used to South American travel, and Argentina in particular, will find this uniquely gratifying to hear. The trails themselves are perfect for any level of hiker. They are easy to follow and at the same time are challenging enough to make the experience worthwhile. What’s more, one needn’t be kitted out for an overnight trek, though there are places to camp. All the principle hikes can be completed in a single day, so long as the hiker is reasonably fit. So making sure to remain in the enchanting town at least a couple days is important. In fact, almost everyone who visits either wishes they had more time, or goes ahead and makes more.
There are at least three days’ worth of hikes in the area. The shorter ones can be done in a single morning or afternoon. The first, known as the Mirador de los Cóndores and a little farther along the trail the Mirador de las Aguilas, provide quick altitude to take in the town, and, on the other side, the Lake Viedma. Looming over both, especially on a clear day, is Mount Fitz Roy, from which El Chalten gets its name. More likely than not this view will be partially covered by cloud, but this endows the peak with a mystical ambience, and explains why the Tehuelche called it Chalten (the smoking mountain). It is a good idea to prepare oneself for the journey to this most famous peak by first glimpsing it at a distance, whilst spending time with the condors. On the other side of town and up the valley a ways, is the Chorillo del Salto. A waterfall where the water is so clean one can drink it right out of the stream, one might be tempted to skip it, especially if time is short. Try not to, for the level hike provides the perfect chance to see red headed woodpeckers and is even accessible by car or bicycle.
The next hike, Laguna Torre, leads up a narrow river valley to the source of the river De Las Vueltas. Here, a lake choked with icebergs at the foot of the craggy expanse of the Cerro Torre seems of another world. The mix of woods, rocky outcrop, grass and riverbed build up this situation; were it not for the odd fellow hiker, one would be forgiven for thinking they were the only person on earth.
One simply hasn’t been hiking in Patagonia, or even in El Chalten, until one has ventured up the Lago de los Tres. This journey leads to the very base camp of Fitz Roy, and affords a clear view of the peaks a good two thirds of the way. Such is the effect that one finds oneself stopping every so often to gape in continued astonishment, thanking whatever powers that be for both travel and Argentina. It is almost unfortunate that at the top, any photo is so unbelievable it appears to be photo-shopped. Comparable with a pilgrimage to a sacred shrine, it is no surprise that this hike will prove to be the climax of any experiences hiking in Patagonia, and also be the most populated. For that reason, it is a good idea to rise early, attempting to be the first one on the trail. Beholding the Fitz Roy from the trail’s first ‘mirador’ will reemphasize the feeling of being the only person on earth. Such are the feelings which provide the reason for travel and Argentina.