El Chaltén – Summary (March – 2005)
El Chalten was founded in 1985 for geopolitical reasons, after a border dispute between Argentina and Chile, concerning the lake Lago del Desierto. Finally, in 1994 an international jury ruled in favor of Argentina the sovereignty of this lake. As a result of this dispute you can still find the border police placed on the North shore of the lake.
Nowadays El Chalten is known as a trekking capital, with a network of trails joining their most popular attractions: mounts Fitz Roy and Torre, both very popular among climbers from around the world. El Chalten is a very small town located Southwest of the province of Santa Cruz. The nearest airport is El Calafate, 215 km away (3 hours drive). From Calafate you can reach Chalten by private vehicle or public transportation. The bus companies offering regular service are Chalten Travel, Cal Tur and Taqsa. At present (2018) the route connecting Chalten has been paved only 2 years ago.
El Chalten is located inside the National Park Los Glaciares. But you do not have to pay any entrance fee to enter the town or the trails (for now). Very important: in Chalten there are no ATMs and most stores do not accept credit cards, so we suggest taking cash (in local currency) with you. For lodgment you can find hotels, hosterias, hostels, cabins and campsites.
The best months to visit Chalten are from November to March. We travelled in March (2005) and the weather was cold in the evenings, pretty much rain and some sunny days. Strong winds are very usual here.
In town we camped at El Relincho campsite. It is located on the main road of the town and only few blocks away from a small market. Our tip: supplies in Chalten are expensive and options are limited. We suggest buying your supplies in El Calafate.
Topographic map of El Chaltén, with all trails!
Our first trek was to Pliegue Tumbado (7-8 hours round trip). It was not in our original plan, but as the weather was clear, without any cloud (which is very unusual), we decided to do this trek.
Ascending to Pliegue Tumbado is only worth with a clear sky. From the top you have a view on mounts Fitz Roy, Torre, Viedma glacier, the Rio de las Vueltas valley, Capri, Madre and Hija lagoons, and the town itself. We suggest starting as early as possible to have a pleasant walk enjoying the trip. Do not forget sun protection as most part of the trail runs outside the forest, and water as there is nowhere to refill your bottle. The trail starts in town (you do not need any transfer) and climbs gently up. The last part is the steepest one, as it goes up a hill with loose stones.
Once on top of the hill you will get one of the most astonishing views! This trail is detailed in next link: chalten-pliegue-tumbado-trail/.
The following day we took a transfer to Lago del Desierto (there is no regular service. You have to hire it at any of the agencies in town). This unpaved road runs aside the river called “Rio de las Vueltas”. Although there are only 37 Km distance to the lake, we had to drive very slowly as the road is in bad conditions. Once arrived to the lake there is a small pier to embark on motor boats that take you to the North end of the lake. Close to the pier starts a trail that leads you to the Huemul glacier. We took one of the motor boats to cross the lake to the North end, where a detachment of the border police is located.
There is no oficial campsite but police allow you to camp on the lake shore. From there you have an astonishing view on the lake and mount Fitz Roy.
Next day we took the trail to Laguna del Diablo. This is a very long trail and at some parts it is not well indicated. We suggest starting as early as posible as you may spend some time to find the trail. We started at 8 AM and it took us 10 hours round trip. At the beginning the trail follows the river “Rio del Diablo” but you cannot Access it. During the hole walk you will cross several streams where you can refill water for drinking.
You won’t find any signs indicating where you are during the entire trail. But do not despair!! At the end you will reach a tiny refuge where you can have your lunch. If it rained a lot and you got wet to your bones, taking your stove with you to get a warm cup of coffee or soup would be a good idea! It will encourage you for the way back. This walk is described in next link: Chaltén – Trail Laguna del diablo.
The following day we took the motor boat back to the South end of the lake and took a transfer to town. But at the river Eléctrico we stepped out and took a trail to Piedra del Fraile. These were 6 km and it took us 2h 15min of easy walk. The trail has almost no grade and it runs through a forest of lengas (one of the native trees in Patagonia).
We had this misty rain during out entire walk. In Piedra del Fraile there is a camp site called Los Troncos and dormis (hostel-like).
As Piedra del Fraile is located on prívate ground, you have to pay for camping and also for entering the private property. We decided to camp here. From this place you can start the expedition that takes you to the continental ice field. We had the idea of walking only to Maconi Pass and Cuadrado Pass.
But it rained 3 days in a rough, and we were stuck there. All other people left as soon as the rain started. The problem with the rain is that coulds are so low that you cannot see any landscape. Stones get slippery so you cannot do much walking. And our tent had a leak. We tried to walk to Marconi Pass, but visibility was cero.
After spending 3 dys there hoping the rain would stop (but that never happened) we had to return to Chalten for new supplies. From Piedra del Fraile there is a trail that leads to Poincenot camp. If we would have had enough supplies, we would have taken this trail. But we returned to the town, to the camp site El Relincho.
Finally the rain stopped after few more days and we could walk to mount Torre. Distance: 11 Km. It took us 5h round trip. The trail climbs constantly but smooth. Once at the lagoon we could see a wonderful view on mount Torre and its glacier.
A strong wind was blowing. We had to hice behind big stones to have our lunch. At moments the wind blew so strong you felt you could almost lay on it and it would hold you. Nearby you can find De Agostini base camp. We did not camp there but it is a good option if you come from Capri lagoon. There used to be a zip-line on the river people used to cross over to the glacier Torre. But I think it is not allowed to use that anymore because of its bad conditions.
Next day we left Chalten and walked to Poincenot base camp.
Distance: 10 km. It took us 3 hs. The trail starts in town (there is a big sign indicating the start) and at the beginning it is very steap. But if you walk slowly it can be done without problems. Poincenot is the closest base camp for trekkers to mount Fitz Roy.
Close to it there is Rio Blanco based camp only for climbers. This is a very crowded place so at night it can get a bit noisy. From this base camp you can see mount Fitz Roy in first line. We suggest waking before sunrise to see the entire massif becoming red and orange before the sun goes up. You need a clear sky to ascent to Laguna de los Tres and to Laguna Sucia. This short trail is very steep but it takes only 1 hour to climb it. Once arrived to the lagoon you will have the best view of Fitz Roy!! This is a very good place to spend some hours enjoying the landscape and having lunch, off course!.
From Poincenot we did a short walk to Piedras Blancas glacier, that is a tiny very beautiful glacier:
This was the last camp we visited. Afterwards we returned to Chalten and took a public bus to Calafate.
Suggested equipment for daily walks: sun protection, hut, sun glasses, a fleece, winds topper anorak, water, food and rain equipment. If you are taking an expedition backpack we suggest using walking sticks. At the camp sites you cannot buy food. All supplies have to be carried from Chalten.