El Chalten and El Calafate are the poster children of Argentinian Patagonia. Here is how we spent 4 days hiking the area – horseback riding, visiting glaciers, and of coarse, hiking Fitz Roy.
As fall persists in Vancouver, I am reminded of my favourite autumn of my life: the one Derek and I spent in Patagonia. When Derek first said the Patagonia was at the top of his travel list, I had no idea where it was. Patagonia is not a country or province, but rather a geographical region that makes up the southern tip of Argentina and Chile. The region is otherworldly. It boasts incredible mountainous rock formations, wind-tangled forests, and massive glaciers. Tourists visit the area for incredible hiking and sight-seeing.
Derek and I travelled in Patagonia in March of 2018. This was a part of the South American leg of our 10 month world tour (I know, I still can’t believe we did that). I also can’t believe how effectively we packed our days in Argentina Patagonia! We spent only 4 days in the area, and had so many amazing experiences! Here is what we did and how we did it.
Day 1: Travel to El Chalten and Hike Mirador de los Condores
We took a three-hour flight to El Calafate from Buenos Aires. El Calafate is the main town in northern Argentinian Patagonia. From here, we took a three our bus to the recently established town of El Chalten. Situated at the base of the El Chalten massif – also called Fitz Roy – this little town was established by rock climbers in the 80’s. Now, it is a well curated collection of hiking gear shops, cute restaurants, and hostels.
We arrived in El Chalten having been prepped that some travellers spend days and never get a clear view of the Fitz Roy mountain. El Chalten (the native name for the mountain and the namesake for the town) actually means “the Smokey one”. It was named for the shroud of wispy clouds that often obscured the top of the mountain from view.
At first, the mountain seemed to be living up to its name. After dropping our stuff at Vertical Lodge, we braved the 35km/hr gusts of wind and headed up on the short walk to Mirador de los Condores (The Condor’s Lookout). Just as we reached the top, the clouds cleared and we got our first view of the massif. It was a lovely little intro to what we would be doing the next day.
Day 2: Hiking to Laguna de los Tres (Fitz Roy) in El Chalten
The following morning we began our trek up to Laguna de los Tres. The first 9.5 kilometres of the hike is relatively easy. Though this was after a quick stop at the town bakery for a huge haul of empanadas (hiking fuel). Starting with a mild climb, we stopped briefly at lookouts that should offer a view of Fitz Roy, but mostly just offered a view of the clouds. From there, the hike was “Patagonia flat” – i.e. lots of up and down, but no change in elevation. Finally, after crossing beautiful alpine marshlands, we started the last 1.5km ascent. This more challenging part of the hike scales the glacial moraine, and takes about an hour. (please note: an hour to travel 1.5 km means its VERY steep).
Finally, we came up over the last ridge and were blown away figuratively by the view. (We were also quite literally blown away by the 50km/hr wind). Towering above a turquoise lagoon, the Fitz Roy massif had nearly cleared, revealing the three granite towers for which the lagoon is named. The entire scene was so shocking and unlike anything we had ever seen, that the aches and pains of the already 5 hour climb melted away.
After a picnic lunch of empanadas (the lamb ones, with olives and hard boiled egg, are my favourite), we wandered around the lagoon and up nearby hill. To our surprise, this offered a view of a valley down below, filled with at even bluer, white–capped lagoon far below us. This is called Laguna Sucia “the dirty lagoon”. From the top of the hill, the view of both lagoons and the three peaks was mind-blowing.
All too soon, it was time to descend. The overall journey took us 10 hours and was a total of 24km with a massive elevation gain! Quite the way to start the trip! A long, hot shower, and lamb ravioli at Cervesaria Artensanal was heaven after the long day.
Day 3: Horseback Riding in El Chalten
Blister covered and aching, we were happy to have activity that didn’t involve any hiking. Early the next morning, we were picked up and driven out through the valley to one of the original estancias (Patagonian ranches), of the area. We arranged this 2 days prior at a place in town of which I can’t for the life of me remember the name. After a greeting by rainbows, gauchas (Argentinian cowgirls), and a pack of adorable dogs, we were given beautiful horses and began a ride through a dramatic valley. The views were incredible, and D and I both love any excuse to horseback ride!
After climbing a small mountain from which we could see massive swooping condors and the multicoloured naked mountains, we stopped for maté at a small cottage. We were again greeted by a picture perfect Patagonian man, and his pack of playful puppies. Our horse grazed in the field, backdropped by windswept and glacier molded terrain. Warm, and with tea in our bellies, we rode back to the estancia all too soon, having had such a perfect morning.
After horseback riding, we hopped back on a bus and headed to El Calafate. I spent the car ride looking out for guanacos (Patagonian llama relatives). In particular, I was looking for those that had met a grizzly end by not being able to fully clear the wire fences that line both sides of the road. Maybe a bit morbid, but counting the petrified guanaco skeletons perched in various stages of decay along the fence really did make the time fly!
El Calafate is a rapidly growing tourist town. The population has grown from 5000 to 30 000 in the past ten years. Here, there are lots of good restaurants (my favourite BY FAR is La Zaina), and shops.
Day 4: Perito Moreno Glacier
Visiting Perito Moreno glacier was the main reason for our stay in El Calafate. While not the largest glacier in the area, this still massive glacier is unique. It is one of the only stable glaciers (isn’t shrinking) now in the world.
We drive to the glacier, stopping first at the boat docks. Here we hopped aboard a tourist boat for ~$30 each. Following boarding, we made sure to sit close to the doors. That way, when the captains announced we could go outside, we had prime views. We crossed the lake to the south face of the Perito Moreno glacier. Here we trolled back and forth, looking for chunks of ice falling down (called calving). It was a beautiful way to spend the hour, and cool to see the glacier from so close!
We then drove in the van to the Perito Moreno viewing balconies. Here, we walked the trails before stopping for lunch (and a sneaky bottle of Malbec) on the centre docks. We were lucky enough to see a HUGE part of the glacier break off and tumble into the water. The sound it made was like gunshots and thunder at the same time. Unfortunately, I had a pear in one hand and a glass of vino in the other, so I was only able to stare in camera-less awe. Thus, have no photos of the calving.
Those four days stand out so clearly as I constantly review memories of Derek’s and my amazing trip.