Posted by Beth | December 20, 2015
We spent six days and five nights in Argentina’s trekking capital, El Chalten. Here’s our four best tips for how to make the most of your time in this part of Patagonia.
- Hike your heart out
El Chalten is best known as a hiker’s paradise. The tiny town in the heart of Patagonia seems to exist solely for the purpose of accommodating hikers (the town itself was only established in 1985 over a border dispute between Argentina and Chile). Entrance to this part of Los Glacieres National Park is free and there are enough day hikes to keep you occupied for at least a week.
A definite perk is that most of the major hikes leave right from the center of town. While the majority of hikes can be completed as day hikes (offering the luxury of a cold beer and warm bed at the end of a long hike), you can combine several routes into multi-day trips with free camping in between. This site has a basic list of hike overviews.
We did both Mount Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre as two-day, overnight trips to allow ourselves to go at a leisurely pace, save money on lodging and enjoy more time at the beautiful campgrounds (Poincenot and De Agostini).
- Plan a little in advance
Though there’s plenty of hiking trails in the area worthy of your attention, I would put some thought into when in your Patagonia trip you visit El Chalten. For us personally, the Chalten area was a distant second to Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park. I think perhaps if we had visited Argentina’s trekking capital first, we would have been a little more impressed and it may have been a good warm up for the W-Trek. That being said it could have taken away from the W-Trek and left us exhausted at the end, who knows.
El Chalten is about a 3.5 hour ride from El Calafate (where the international airport is located). We spent a few days in El Calafate visiting the Perito Mereno glacier, then spent six days and five nights in El Chalten, then went back to El Calafate for one more night before flying out. The main reason we went back was the Internet in El Chalten is practically non-existent. We had been in Patagonia for over two weeks at this point and were a little burnt out on hiking and ready for some Wi-Fi catch up time (unfortunately the Wi-Fi at our hotel in Calafate was out, leading to my first major trip breakdown, but that’s a story for another day).
If you’re planning on cooking your own food in El Chalten, we highly recommend you buy groceries in El Calafate and take them with you, as the grocery store in El Chalten is tiny and the shelves were practically empty. We ended up eating macaroni noodles with cream of asparagus soup as a sauce for our Thanksgiving dinner.
There are two main bus companies that make the trip between El Calafate and El Chalten, Chalten Travel and Cal-Tur. They basically leave at the same times and are priced the same. We used Chalten Travel, which has an option to drop you back off at the El Calafate airport for no additional charge, which would have saved us $16 in cab fare.
One final thing to consider about timing in El Chalten is if you’re dead set on getting great views or photos of Fitz Roy, the weather can be a major factor. It was pretty cloudy for the majority of our six days there, only allowing for clear views for a few hours total during that time period.
- Eat and drink well, even on a budget!
El Chalten really is a charming little mountain town and there’s no shortage of restaurants and bars catering to tourists. Here were some of our favorites:
- Bakery—I am not one to visit the same place more than once but I stopped by this bakery no less than five times it was so amazingly good and affordable. Empanadas, pre-made sandwiches, croissants, cheese biscuits and donuts; I ate more than my fair share of carbs here. Open 8 a.m. to midnight everyday. (Unfortunately I don’t remember the name but when you get off the bus, it’s
on your right on the street you walk into town on, past the big El Chalten sign).
- La Vineria—delicious, big sandwiches for about $10 USD (we easily split one), and bottles of wine starting at $6.
- Heladeria Domo Blanco-homemade ice cream. So good we went twice.
- Take your pick of restaurants offering happy hour craft beers (though none too impressive for these two Colorado craft beer snobs), wood-fired pizzas and Patagonian lamb dishes.
- Find cheap dorm rooms or camp for free
For our first night in El Chalten we splurged on a private room and paid about $45. We did not book in advance but walked around comparing prices on a few places near the bus station when we arrived. The lady was willing to negotiate prices and dropped it down about 10 percent.
We camped for free for two of the nights we were in El Chalten, and stayed in dorms the other two. Dorm beds range from 90 pesos to 250 pesos per person, per night. I apparently did a shit job of keeping track of names of places we visited, but the cheapest hostel was on the same little street as the bakery, right as you get in to town. It’s attached to a restaurant and has a sign in the window advertising dorms for 90 pesos. We stayed there one night and ended up with a private room since no one else was in the other bunk bed. The bathrooms were tiny and certainly not the cleanest, but for about $7 what can you expect? It was just as nice as the 150 pesos dorm we stayed in (luckily also ended up as a private room since we visited before the high season).