In El Chaltén, Argentina’s ‘trekking capital’, you’ll find majestic peaks, astonishing glaciers and idyllic mountain tarns all within easy walking distance in the World Heritage-listed Parque Nacional Los Glaciares.
But at some stage, whatever the reason – weather (winds around Chaltén are notoriously strong), health, lack of appropriate footwear or simply a trekking overdose – most visitors to the region wonder what else there is to do that doesn't involve breaking a sweat. Ditch the pack, unlace your boots and relax in El Chaltén with these alternatives.
Whether avoiding the howling weather or returning ravenous from a 10-day march out on the ice, grabbing a bite to eat is a favorite non-trekking pastime. From the ubiquitous South American breakfast empanadas (stuffed pastries) to the all-you-can-eat asado (barbeque), almost every Argentinian food fantasy is catered to in El Chaltén.
There’s a small but slowly expanding scene of local artisans producing ice cream, chocolates, preserves, cheese, fish and processed meats. Don’t miss sampling the unique flavor of the calafate berry, which grows wild on hillsides above the town. This sweet, antioxidant-rich fruit is featured in jams, sauces, liquors and even ice cream.
Microbreweries and local-crafted ales are popping up all over El Chaltén, though quality can be hit or miss. Wine options are more consistent and even the cheapies are quaffable. La Vineria is an establishment not to be missed – you’ll find a huge selection of quality bottled ales, superb regional wines and mouth-watering antipasto all served up in a cozy setting. While the initial post-trek ritual might include chugging an ice-cold beer straight from the bottle outside a supermarket, consider a pisco sour – calafate-flavored, of course!
Known simply as mate (pronounced 'mah-tay'), locals around town can be seen imbibing Argentina’s national drink any time of day (or night). Slightly resembling a bitter green tea, this caffeinated herb is consumed from a small gourd using a bombilla (straw). Gourds and bombilla come in many designs and make lovely souvenirs; there’s even a collapsible rubber variety for camping.
Drinking mate alone is fine, but the fun begins when you’re invited to share. There’s etiquette that most travelers aren’t aware of: firstly, the water must be around 80°C (not boiling). When handed the gourd, don’t touch the bombilla, ever! Drink the entire contents and then hand it back to the person who handed it to you, the cebador, who will refill it and offer it to the next person. Only offer a gracias if you don’t want any more as the gourd will continually be refilled and passed around, always with the same mate – which mellows after several steepings.
If you’re keen to see some scenery but not up to trekking, consider a horseback ride. Gauchos (cowboys) roamed the surrounding valleys long before the town arrived, and there are still plenty of estancias (small ranches) in the nearby hills that offer riding tours and accommodation. There are options for riders of all skill levels and tour lengths range from several hours of carefree sightseeing to week-long expeditions with all meals and accommodation included.
When scaling a mountain isn't possible, adrenaline junkies can turn to two wheels – the area north of El Chaltén towards Lago Desierto is popular for mountain biking. There’s a specialist inside the national park (riding on walking trails is forbidden), and several good options outside of it, including rides to nearby waterfalls. Bikes can be hired around town. Those with their own can look into longer expeditions like crossing into/from Chile via Lago Desierto and attacking the Carretera Austral. Or, just sit back and watch how others do it in the annual Desafio Chaltén (Chaltén Challenge) that combines biking with trail running over a 50km course.
Steve Waters is a Melbourne-based travel and wilderness author. He loves mountains, deserts and obscure border crossings, and can order beer in 7 languages. Follow his tweets @roadotonow.