Epic Adventures Los Glaciares

Why El Chaltén is a trekker’s paradise

El Chaltén, a small town nestled within the rugged embrace of Los Glaciares National Park in Argentinian Patagonia is one the trekking world’s great gateways to adventure. Although many first time visitors to the region focus on the headline-grabbing Torres del Paine National Park just across the border in Chile, Los Glaciares is equally spectacular and, in many ways, even more accessible and familiar. 

Accessible? When I say that El Chaltén is tucked into the national park, I really mean it. Whereas Torres del Paine is about an hour and half away from the nearest town of Puerto Natales, El Chaltén sits right at the feet of the mountains so you can do a lot of hiking straight out of your hotel in the morning, then enjoy a good meal and a drink back in town in the evening. 

But familiar? Well, if you’re an outdoor enthusiast you probably already know how spectacular the mountains of Los Glaciares really are even if you haven’t been here because you might have worn their image on your body. In 1973 the profile of Mount FitzRoy and its surrounding peaks was chosen as the logo for the newly founded Patagonia outdoor clothing company. El Chaltén sits in the shadow of FitzRoy’s granite spire, with mountain and logo alike acting as triggers to adventure. 

The road to El Chaltén, with Mount FitzRoy
The road to El Chaltén with its classic mountain profile

These factors contrive to create a perfect base for trekking. During the season El Chaltén can feel like the centre of a brilliant outdoor adventure universe. You have first time trekkers who are are focusing on their day hikes to places like Cerro Torre and Laguna de los Tres, or heading down to the road to kayak at Lago del Desierto. There are those getting ready for some of the more serious multi-day hikes like the Huemul Circuit, and – not forgetting that this is big mountain territory – you’ll find a selection of avid climbers off to take on summits of FitzRoy, Cerro Torre or Aguja Guillaumet. 

It’s a really inclusive place with a rustic ski resort sort of atmosphere, where you go out for dinner in your hiking gear. When I’m in town my favourite place to grab a drink is a little wine bar called Viniera that’s also big on craft beers and does amazing cheese and meat platters. Just follow the music coming from the patios of the coffee shops and bars until you find a vibe you’re into.

Trekkers walking into El Chalten
Day hiking trails lead in an out of El Chaltén

But however cool El Chaltén is, no one comes just to spend time in the town. People are here for what’s on its doorstep, so let’s dive into some of the best outdoor adventures it has to offer.

For day hikers, there are plenty of brilliant options but the most popular option is hike to Laguna de los Tres. This quickly puts you right into the middle of the action, trekking past the Piedras Blancas glacier to a stunning blue glacial lake overlooked by towering peaks. If you want to know if you made it to the right viewpoint, check your trekking gear for that iconic outline.

On the trail to Laguna de los Tres

An equally spectacular day hike is to Cerro Torre, a stiff granite finger pointing to the heavens, surrounded by glaciers and terminating in another stunning icy lagoon.

One of the great things about El Chaltén is that day hikes like this can be combined into multi-day adventures. The ability to return to town at the end of a day is a real delight of course, but so is staying out a little longer to sleep under canvas. Stitching the routes together with supported camping is a great way to traverse Los Glaciares. Especially in the high summer season, some of the day hikes can get a little crowded, but this way you get to linger when everyone else has gone home and enjoy the sunsets (and the sunrises) all to yourself. By doing this you can have four nights camping and get to enjoy the best of what the park has to offer. 

The pinnacle of Cerro Torre

The various day hikes you can do from El Chaltén are all discussed on a separate blog, but as one of Swoop Patagonia’s trekking specialists what really gets me excited is striking out into the wilderness for a real hiking and camping adventure. 

One of the most popular multi-day hikes that you can do in Los Glaciares is the Huemul Circuit. In trekking circles it’s quite common to compare it with the classic W Trek in Torres del Paine, but for my money it’s a little more challenging that. I put it more in the same category as the O Circuit in terms of difficulty as the terrain is a lot more varied and there are a lot of steep ascents and descents. 

Glacier Tunel on the route to the Viento Pass

But the four day Huemul Circuit is definitely the full package when it comes to adventure. You trek through meadows and past lakes and in two places have to use ziplines to cross rivers. It’s also remote as well as dynamic: while it’s easy enough to walk the day hikes independently, this is one route where you really need to have a guide. If you have a bad weather day up on the Viento Pass, which is the windy pass, it’s going to be really tough up there and you don’t want to be alone.

This is not supported camping either: you have to be prepared to carry your own camping gear on your back or hire a private porter to help lighten the load. But the rewards for your labours are undoubtedly worth it. The Viento Pass leads you up to an outlook over the Southern Patagonian Icefield for truly stupendous views. Trails take you above the mighty Viedma glacier then down to its lake to camp close to the ice at the Bahia de los Tempanos (Bay of Icebergs). It’s a truly fantastic experience. 

The descent to Bahía Tempanos on the Huemul Circuit

If you’re comfortable hiking long distances carrying your own heavy pack and have a little more trekking experience (and perhaps a little climbing experience too) then you may want to take on the Southern Patagonian Icefield expedition. This is one for those who really want to get out there. Having done this trip once, I can say that it’s definitely very challenging but is one of the best trips I’ve ever been on. 

The trek starts a short drive from El Chaltén, taking your bearings by Mount Fitzroy before fording one river and crossing another by zipline. Doing this feels like symbolically leaving civilization behind: from here the hike certainly gets a lot wilder. 

Hiking on the Southern Patagonian Ice Field

You climb to a steep pass to reach the Marconi Glacier, where you don crampons and rope together for a tough day to reach the plateau to have the vast expanse of the entire icefield laid out before you, fringed by the peaks of mountains. You truly feel like you’re on top of the world. After a night in a hut on the southern ice field itself, it’s then on to the Circo de los Altares, an extraordinary amphitheatre of mountains in what must be one of most jaw dropping wild campsites in Patagonia. 

The last two days of the expedition are rather less intense as you take off your crampons and unhitch your ropes to essentially join the Huemul Circuit back to El Chaltén. After an adventure like this, it’s a joy to be back in this funky little trekker’s paradise. But after a well-earned shower and a glass of wine in a long Patagonian evening, you can look up at Mount FitzRoy and be reminded that there are still plenty more adventures to be had from Los Glaciares. Perhaps a few more selections from the cheese platter and a night in a soft bed first though.


Avatar photo

Sarah Schneider

Swoop Patagonia Specialist

Born and raised in the United States, Sarah came to Chile in 2011 for 'one year'. Almost 10 years later, she has travelled extensively throughout South America and Chile, is now fluent in Spanish and has found her home in Chilean Patagonia.