El Chalten is located along the Río de las Vueltas, within the Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina. It’s existence has been relatively short, having been established in 1985 in order to settle a border dispute with Chile. Nowadays, it is known as the trekking capital of Argentina, with a growing number of outdoors enthusiasts arriving each year to take in the imposing sites of Cerro Torre and Cerro Fitz Roy. It is also what I would consider a location that rivals the more expensive and highly marketed Torres del Paine in Chile.
Unlike Torres del Paine though, it is possible to see the towering granite peaks, lagunas and glaciers via day hikes from the town of El Chalten, rather than having to undertake expensive and multi day hikes. Of course, if you have an adventurous spirit then it also caters for campers as well and photographers who want the capture those landmarks in the best light possible, whilst sleeping under the stars.
El Chalten Photographic Highlights.
The entire Patagonian region is the photographic highlight of South America for me. Not only is there a unique laid back lifestyle charming, there are amazing vistas that you’ll come across in this region that blankets Southern Chile and Argentina, it is a landscape photographer’s dream. The countless mountain ranges, fjords, lakes, volcanoes and glaciers that define this regional landscape makes it gut wrenchingly difficult to leave.
The best views getting to El Chalten
As soon as you pass Lago Argentino from El Calafate airport, for the remainder of the ride into El Chalten you will have Mt Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre staring down at you. I guarantee that you won’t be able to contain yourself when you see those imposing landmarks that lure photographers, hikers and climbers from around the world.
The best position is at the front of the bus or on the left hand side so that you can take advantages of the views of Lago Argentino, Lago Viedma and of Mt Fitz Roy as you reach Lago Viedma.
Laguna de Los Tres and Cerro Fitzroy.
This is the jewel of El Chalten and the most famous of the views. The day trek is a 22 km round trip, ascending approximately 700m taking around 7-9 hours, but took me closer to 10 hours allowing for photography time. For most of the way, it is a relatively flat and a slightly undulating hike that will take you along numerous rivers, streams and lookouts.The final section is the most difficult part as it is a steep hike up the final incline to reach the snow line where the temperatures drop considerably. If you have walking poles, they will come in handy on the way down as this is where I damaged the ligaments in my right knee.
Once you reach the peak, you will reach Laguna de Los Tres and if there are no clouds then you will have the closest view to the granite wall of Mt. Fitz Roy and the surrounding peaks. Some people, by the time they reach the top are so tired that they immediately head back. However, if you keep exploring to the left side of the laguna, there is a short trail that will take you to an aerial view of the the turquoise waters of the Laguna Sucia and the Rio Blanco glacier that clings from the mountain top. If you are patient then you will most likely witness mini avalanches coming off the glacier as well.
Laguna and Cerro Torre
This is usually a fairly easy hike, but for me, my knee was buggered from the previous day and I spent most of it limping the 20 km round trip. Along the middle section of the hike, there is a hauntingly white forest amongst the Antarctic Beech trees, with Cerro Torre in the distant background.
When you come out of the forest and climb the final section of loose terrain, you are presented with a huge glacial lake with floating icebergs that have become detached from the glacier and with Cerro Torre in the distance.There are varying reports of how long it takes to get there and return but ultimately it will come down to how fast you hike on flat terrain. Keep in mind that once you reach this point, the wind whipping off the glacier is quite strong, so be prepared for it in terms of weather protection for yourself and camera gear. There are some large boulders to take shelter behind while you wait for ideal conditions and lighting, so factor this into your scheduling.
If you have enough energy and enthusiasm, you can hike around the right hand side of the laguna to get a closer view of Cerro Torre as well as the glacier. This will be an added benefit of camping closer to the location as you will have additional time to explore around the surrounding areas.
- Prepare for the unexpected – The seasons can change drastically during the day so don’t be surprised to see sunshine, rain, snow and plenty of wind all on the same afternoon.
- You will want a very sturdy tripod as anything less than won’t stand up to the harsh winds. Extra points if it has a hook to hang some additional weight such as your bag to it.
- Be patient as there will be moments when the sun will be too harsh for capturing the right photo, but a cloud may come rolling in to act as a diffuser. It is possible to take ten shots within a minute and they will all turn out differently.
- Bring your filters such as a polariser and graduated filter as it will be useful in gaining the correct exposure for the snowcapped mountains and the foreground. If not, then bracket your exposures in case anyway and blend them together in Photoshop. If you have a super sturdy tripod and ND filters then a longer exposure shot at the Lago Torre will provide better visual results rather than ending up with a choppy surface like I have.
- This may sound odd but I wish I brought my telephoto lens because at times, the huge granite towers of Fitz Roy were exposed while I was still from a distance and it would have made a great photo if I could have achieved the reach.
When is the best time to go?
Between October (Spring) and March (Autumn) will provide the most favourable weather conditions, however the vibrant March foliage will provide best results. This doesn’t guarantee great weather as previously mentioned, so expect four seasons in one day. Some hotels may also choose to not operate outside of those periods due to extreme weather and lack of tourists.
How to get there?
Getting there is pretty easy via El Calafate airport if you are flying in. Bus tickets can be bought at the airport which will take just under four hours to reach El Chalten. Usually the bus will take you to whatever hotel you are staying at.
Should I trek or camp?
There’s no right or wrong answer, but if you prefer day hikes and the creature comforts of sleeping in a bed then your best bet would be to stay at a guesthouse or hotel in town. The town is pretty small but it’s best to stay as close to the start of the trails as possible because by the time you can see the town on the way back, all you will want to do is pull your boots off and enjoy a cold beer at the local bar that serves up locally brewed craft beers.
If you want to be up for first and last light and also the least amount of wind, then camping would definitely be your best option.
The best camping location to see Cerro Fitzroy is Poincenot base camp. It is a free, spacious and relatively protected area, located three quarters of the way to Laguna de Los Tres, about four hours from town.
For Cerro Torre, the mountains faces east, so they are directly illuminated by the golden sun only in the morning, meaning you will need to get up pretty early. This may only be achievable for those camping overnight in the DeAgostini camp just a short distance from Laguna Torre. It is possible to hike between both of these campgrounds quite easily via the Madre e Hija Trail.
What to pack for the hike
I can only comment on what to pack for day treks, but the theme is to pack plenty of energy food and also protection from the elements. During the hikes, there will be some protection in the form of trees but when you get to elevation then it will become colder, exposed and a hell of a lot windier. Here’s what I brought with me each day.
- 15 litre Daypack
- Olympus OMD EM5
- Olympus Zuiko 12mm f2.0
- Panasonic Lumix Leica 25mm f1.4 lens
- Tiffen filter set
- The North Face Gore Tex shell (only used this at the summit)
- The North Face polar fleece jacket
- Windproof gloves
- Cap and Beanie
- 500ml water bottle (you won’t need anything larger unless if you’re camping)
- 3 x packed sandwiches, 4 x chocolate bars, packet of nuts which can be brought at the local bakery. Note that if you leave super early in the morning then you should purchase these the evening prior.
What else would I have packed?
- Walking poles. The final ascent from Laguna de Los Tres was brutal on this old man’s knees and I ended up limping the second day to Laguna Torres.
- A sturdy tripod for long exposure shots to smooth out the water on the lake at Laguna Torre.