Hello, Patagonia: El Calafate & El Chalten, Argentina

Welcome to true Patagonia.

These two southern Argentinian towns are often mixed up when in the planning stages. A short three hours apart, both offer expeditions, glaciers and incredible scenery. But a little tip? El Calafate is worth a one-night-stopover to see the awe-inspiring Perito Moreno glacier, while the real adventure lies in El Chalten.

Recommendations? Whether flying or bussing into El Calafate (it’s rare to go straight to El Chalten unless you have your own means of transportation), go directly to El Chalten. There is a single ‘private van service’ that you can take from the airport that I should have used, but at the time thought the $400 ARS charge was outrageous and instead took a $150 ARS shuttle from the airport. You have no other option and it takes you directly to your hostel in El Calafate, which I guess isn’t an awful deal.

El Calafate to Perito Moreno Glacier: The plan was a half-day exploring El Calafate, spend the night and head to the glacier the next day before jumping on a bus to El Chalten that evening. I wasn’t about to spend a few day’s budget on a group tour to the glacier, so I purchased bus tickets from the terminal the night I got into El Calafate. For $450 ARS round trip, I left at 8 a.m. the next morning and left the glacier at 4 p.m. Not included was the national park’s entrance fee of $260 ARS for foreigners. Totaled up, it was quite the expense for a one-day trip—still cheaper than an organized tour—but an incredible sight that is impossible to describe.

After entering Los Glaciares National Park, the bus stopped at the dock for those who wanted to pay more for a closer view via a boat tour. No one got off. Reading online, I knew it wasn’t worth it—the free walkways get you just as close. Continuing on about 5 km later, we all disembarked and spent the rest of our time exploring with mouths wide open at the massively, beautiful chunk of growing ice. The ‘booms’ of ice chunks falling into the water sound like gunshots and the thrill of catching one tumbling down in slow motion is half the fun. Bring a lunch (cafeteria is expensive), take a short nap (you have more than enough time between drop-off and pick-up time) and be inspired by the natural phenomenon in front of you.

When in El Chalten…

Back at the El Calafate bus terminal, I had an hour to spare before my three hour trip to El Chalten. I purchased this bus ticket in advance online knowing that high-tourist season could have prevented me from getting to my destination that night (smooth move on my part as others had to wait until the next day). I also booked one of the few accommodations I could find on hostelworld.com: Kospi Hostel (which I wouldn’t recommend… you can’t cook and a bit off the main drag) so that I would feel comfortable knowing I had a place to stay for two nights.

El Chalten stole my heart right away. With a population of 1,500, this tiny mountain village is a home base for nature lovers. There’s no denying it’s a tourist destination, but for some miraculous reason it hasn’t been consumed by it and maintains its charm.

Immediately after setting my pack down, I talked to my fellow dorm-mate who mentioned that the next day’s weather was supposed to be great and recommended I hike to Mount Fitz Roy (Laguna de Los Tres) to avoid any cloud coverage. (Always good to check/ask about the weather if you have the luxury to wait until a picture perfect day.) As you can see from the pictures below, she was right: I had cloudless skies and a perfect view.

Laguna de Los Tres: I started the hike at 9 a.m. and took my time, enjoying the reflections in Laguna Capri and the views of vast valleys and stark blue rivers. There are two routes you can take that loop back to the same trail, I opted for Laguna Capri on the way there and Mirador Fitz Roy (but easy to miss the actual lookout point) on the return trip just to get some variety. The mountain is in eyesight for the majority of the hike—the more face time, the better! About 3 hours later I arrived at the 1-hour-to-go mark—the start of the uphill battle to reach the end goal at the crater rim and three lakes. I knew what was to come so I stopped and fueled up with some trail mix and a cliff bar. The next 40 minutes were a combo of breathless moments and self-motivating talks, but I made it up without stopping. Well worth it. I can’t describe the beauty of being up close to Fitz Roy. I felt so insignificant being in the midst of such raw nature and stayed in the area for two hours before making my way back down. Pictures don’t do it justice and I felt so empowered, inspired and lucky just being there. Moments for me, myself and I.

Laguna Torre: Wanting some camping time, I decided to rent gear and stay for two nights at the D’Agostini campsite next to Lake Torre. It was a shocking $410 ARS a night, plus gas and food, for a tent, sleeping bag, pad, cooking stove and kit from Camping Center. Geared up, I started the hike around 1 p.m., following the very obvious signage from the center of town. I stopped for a bit at the mirador (lookout) to see my end destination and hiked my way through tight trails and dessert-like areas (aftermath of glaciers). By 6 p.m. my tent was upright and I was on my way to the laguna, a short 15 minutes from the campsite. I was not expecting the extreme wind that ensued, and laughed to myself as I was blown every which way. I was lucky to have a somewhat cloudless view for 45 minutes before nature decided to take over.

The next day I hiked La Madre y La Hija—the connector trail between Fitz Roy and Torre. It was 20km in total between getting from the campsite to the trailhead and back, but a relaxing day since I could take my time. There honestly wasn’t really a point for me to do it, but I wanted another day of hiking and didn’t mind admiring Fitz Roy again.

Ice Trekking: This was a splurge, but so glad I did it! I emailed Patagonia Aventura a few days prior to ask about availability due to the high season, but took a chance by just walking in and purchasing on the spot (secretly hoping for a discount, but no-go). Turned out they had a spot for me the next day—either early morning or 11 a.m. I charged the $1900 ARS to my card and was back at the shop the next mid-morning. They advised you to bring gloves, so I rented some from the nearby rental shop. (Turns out, they have pairs on the glacier for those that aren’t prepared—so you can save the $50 ARS.) The bus ride to the boat was an extra $170 ARS, where we sailed for about 45 minutes, getting some glances at Glacier Viedma before making our way to shore. The group of about 30-40 disembarked and we walked for about 25 minutes through slick, glacier-ridden areas toward the glacier. Once on the ice, we all were fitted with crampons to give us the necessary traction and started our walk up and down crevasses made with 500 year old ice. This is the biggest glacier in the area and I’ll never forget the crunchy steps I took on ancient history.

Recommendations? Looking back, I should have camped at D’Agostini for one night, hiked the connector trail with my gear and spent the second night at Poincenot near Fitz Roy, hiking up to the Tres Lagunas that night or on the third morning before returning to town. It’s a common route that many backpackers take, so do it!

Where to Eat…

  • Che Empanadas: You can’t miss it. Not only does everyone know about it, but the yellow sign and random, small hut-like building is in plain view in the tiny town. I met a woman who got a few and took them with her on her hike to Laguna de Los Tres as a summit-reward. My last day I decided I had to go. You walk in and the empanadas are staked high and cover every inch of counter space. It’s magical. It’s the take-a-paper-and-mark-what-you-want kind of setup, so I marked one caprese and one with cheese, pine nuts and celery before handing it back to the guy. I could have tried all of them and been perfectly content.
  • Mathilda: A cute cafe with lots of coffee and desert options. I went for lunch and got stuffed bread (pan relleno). Not too shabby! Also, free wi-fi and outdoor seating with a hammock.
  • Prana: Vegetarian all the way. I ordered a veggie curry rice dish and it was wonderful. Just needed a few spices, but that’s a nation-wide issue for later discussion. I wanted to return and get a smoothie, but didn’t have the time or funds. Would definitely recommend!
  • El Muro: I was treated to this dinner by some fellow Midwesterners, or else I wouldn’t have spent the money. But the lamb lasagna here was pretty darn good. Good steak and wine options as well.
  • A couple of places have happy hour with their “cerveza artesanal”, which times up perfectly after getting back to town from a hike. Take advantage! Then go grab some grub and pass out, gearing up for the next day’s adventures.

Where to next? South to Puerto Natales, Chile and Torres del Paine for some real backpacking.

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