Trekking in Patagonia is a highlight for many travelers to South America, and it’s never been easier than from Argentina’s 'trekking capital', the village-cum-fledgling-city of El Chaltén. Whether you prefer to rise late and dawdle the afternoon away next to picturesque tarns, or enjoy getting fully tooled for a week-long epic out on Hielos Sur (the Southern Patagonian Icecap), Chaltén has it all.
Rambling, chaotic, and in near constant danger of being blown off the map by the area's notorious alpine winds, Chaltén borders the magnificent World Heritage-listed Parque Nacional Los Glaciares and has a network of trails to suit trekkers of every level.
Length: 3-4 hrs rtn
Highlight: Several stunning viewpoints
Often overlooked for more famous walks, the trail to Laguna Capri is an easy introduction to trekking in Patagonia. Ascend the trail at the northern end of town, and quite soon you will arrive at a viewpoint facing north along the scenic Rio de las Vueltas. The trail turns westerly before arriving at a junction; a short distance down the right-hand track is another viewpoint where, if the weather is clear, you can catch a great view of 3405m Monte Fitz Roy and surrounding peaks. Return to the junction and follow the left fork down to the lake which will appear either deep blue or slate grey, depending on the sky. Dally awhile, imbibe something fortifying and skip back to town the way you came.
Length: 6-7hrs rtn
Highlight: Ice-rimmed Cerro Torre
Laguna Torre is the most popular day walk in the park and also the most fickle. Several trails lead west from the village into beech forest and all join up later. After an hour, you’ll reach a mirador (lookout) with the first view west towards the icy spire of Cerro Torre (3128m). If the weather is bad, turn around here. The trail continues west, following Rio Fitz Roy until you reach the glacial lake of Laguna Torre and a small climbers’ campground. Continue for another hour along the lake’s northern shore to reach Mirador Maestri, named after the Italian climber who notoriously used a compressor to create a “bolt ladder” up Cerro Torre’s southeast face. The view of the spire is best out on the icecap.
Laguna Los Tres & Piedra Del Fraile
Length: 2-5 days
Highlight: The best views of Fitz Roy and surrounding glaciers
This is an overnight walk that can optionally be lengthened by several days to include the beautiful Rio Electrico valley. Follow the Laguna Capri walk and take the right fork towards Fitz Roy. After several hours, you’ll arrive at Campground Poincenot where most people stay the night – though if crowded, try the smaller climbers' camp on the other side of the Rio Blanco. The best views of Monte Fitz Roy are just after dawn, so start early for the steep climb up to Laguna Los Tres, an exquisite glacial lake towered over by Fitz Roy and its attendant peaks and glaciers.
Piedra del Fraile, in nearby Valle Rio Electrico, is an easy half-day journey from either campground and makes for an interesting circuit. Stop for lunch by Glacier Piedras Blancas before you reach the small campsite and refugio (communal mountain shelter) of Piedra del Fraile. Camp (or splurge on a bunk), then rise the next day and enjoy a challenging day trip up to the climbers'camp of Piedra Negra. The truly adventurous can ascend a snow slope to the sharp ridge of Paso del Cuadrado, which offers incredible views of the rarely-seen northern side of Fitz Roy and the Aguja Pollone. Spend another night in del Fraile (after a well-earned beer or bottle of malbec) then retrace your steps back down the valley, either returning the same way or walking out to the road in two hours. You can then return along the other side of the river, or just stick your thumb out – hitchhiking is not uncommon in the area.
Paso del Vientos / Huemul Circuit
Length: 4-5 days
Difficulty: Hard – experienced trekkers only
Highlight: Hielos Sur, the white expanse of the Southern Patagonian ice cap
This spectacular multi-day trek is the most demanding one you can take without specialist mountaineering gear. Leaving behind the Parque Visitors Centre, the Laguna Toro trail climbs quickly onto the shoulders of nearby hills, with fine views of Lago Viedmar below, before dropping into the Valle Rio Túnel and a thick swamp. Laguna Toro campsite is on the other side of the swamp.
On day two, follow the Rio Túnel to its glacial source and then, after safely crossing the stream, ascend the glacier on its left side for fantastic views. You shouldn’t need crampons, nor find crevasses. The trail heads back to the scree, continually ascending steeply above glaciers until the permanently snow-covered Paso del Vientos is broached. Beneath is the mind-bending white expanse of the Hielos Sur, stretching away to neighboring Chile. Also below is Laguna Ferrari, where good rock bivs provide a cozy campsite.
Fit parties can take an optional walk out onto the icecap on day three. Follow cairns roughly north-west across the moraine and once on the ice, keep to the eastern edge. Several hours of moderate walking will bring you to the Cirque des Etoiles and the scarcely glimpsed western face of Cerro Torre. This is a wild, primeval place of incredible beauty, starkness and isolation. The landscape is minimal and the ocean of white is only briefly broken by distant nunatuks – exposed meringue-like ridges on the Chilean-side. Retrace your steps back to Laguna Ferrari.
The next day, follow an easy, cairned route south along the moraine before arriving at a rough refugio and campsite. There the trail begins to climb steeply up to Paso Huemul, with stunning views of the Hielos Sur behind you and the Viedmar Glacier in front. Carry lots of water as it’s a long, hot, steep descent over scree and beech forest before you bottom out onto the pampas. Camp wherever you find water, or on the little headland on the lake. The final day is just a 25km paddock bash back to Chaltén. Copious beer and an Argentine asado are mandatory after such an epic journey.
Know your capabilities and stick within them. National Park staff can recommend walks suitable for your experience. Wear proper hiking boots and pack rain gear, warm clothes and extra food, even if you’re only heading out for a few hours – and be sure to fill someone in on your plans. If staying overnight, ensure your camping gear is up to scratch. The wind, especially during the summer high season, can be ferocious. While you can rent or buy gear in town, you’ll save a lot of hassle by bringing your own. Keep an eye on the weather forecast. Hitchhiking is never completely safe anywhere, and travelers who decide to hitch should be aware that they are taking a potentially serious risk.
Several bus companies make the three-hour trip to nearby transport hub El Calafate, which has an airport and buses to neighbouring Chile and Patagonia’s other trekking mecca, Torres Del Paine. A much funkier route is the overland “Chilean Backdoor” from Villa O’Higgins, terminus of the remote Carretera Austral. Take the ferry across Lago O’Higgins before a walk of several days brings you to Lago del Desierto and Argentine Customs. A bus departs the southern shore daily for El Chaltén.
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.