El Chalten is fairyland for adults and probably the most beautiful part of Patagonia on the Argentinean side. I am currently sitting in a bus heading to El Calafate and I feel utterly happy and sad at the same time; sad because I am leaving this magical place and happy because Chalten has given me some amazing memories. I did my first Medium and Hard level hikes here; it was also my longest hike at 24.6 km and I also got to see my first glacier.
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It is a place of immense, unspoiled beauty and it made me ever so happy to see how much people care about keeping it in its pristine condition. I didn’t see a single plastic bottle or a wrapper around. If you decide to visit, please do the same.
On the practical side of things; Chalten is gorgeous but it requires a bit of planning and preparation, you cannot just show up and go for a hike (I mean you can but you won’t get too far).
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Getting to El Chalten
The nearest airport to El Chalten is El Calafate Airport. It is quite a small airport but there are a few companies that can help you with things from arranging transfers to cars to accommodation and tours as well.
This is the longest I have ever travelled to get to a place, I took a direct (14 hours) flight from London to Buenos Aires, 3 hours wait later I took another 3 and a half hour flights from Buenos Aires to El Calafate. Another three hours later I was on a 3 hours long journey to El Chalten, phew (Didn’t regret it for a second though).
Getting nervous before a flight? Here is my guide on managing flight anxiety.
When I was planning the trip, I saw no bus connections from the airport to El Chalten and I bought a ticket from Bus Terminal in the city to Chalten with a company called Chalten Travel. I arrived to find out there is a bus from the airport. I decided to take it instead of going to the city but I had no cash and the only ATM machine at the airport was broken. There are no money changing facilities at the airport either and I was told to go to the city. I took a shuttle to the city and then took the bus from Terminal to Chalten which was a very comfortable ride. Buses in Argentina are amazing!
The company that had a link from the airport to Chaten are called Lenga.
The drive from Calafate to Chalten is AMAZING. You can see the scale of things, the lack of trees, the gorgeous lakes, snow-covered mountain tops and nothing-ness for miles. I am still not over how beautiful this journey was!
Tip: There is an option to get a more expensive ticket which gets you to your hotel, I’d suggest avoiding it considering how small Chalten is, unless you are really tired or have lots of luggage.
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Where to Stay in El Chalten?
Location wise it doesn’t matter; the town is very small and you can walk from one end to the other in 15 minutes. The quality of location varies though. I booked myself a nice wooden cabin which I shared with a friendly German couple. There’s plenty of hotels, hostels, apartments throughout the place and range from luxury to basic.
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When to Visit in El Chalten?
Summer is the best time to visit Patagonia and El Chalten. Mind you this is Southern hemisphere and seasons are opposite so summer is December January. I arrived in Mid December and it worked well on many levels. The weather was great and the days were very long so if it rained in the morning there was gorgeous weather later and I could still hike without wasting a full day. The first two days were a bit of a mix of this but the third day was absolutely amazing with sunshine throughout the day. You can also visit in Spring but there will be snow still and it will be quite cold and some parts of the hike can be quite tricky.
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Food in El Chalten
For a foodie like me, this place is simply heaven! Fresh roasted vegetables, beautifully done steaks and lamb, it is hard to find bad food here. I tried three restaurants and absolutely loved them all. You can find them in the Insta stories above.
Tip: I don’t know why but Argentineans always overcook the steaks so tell them a level of redness less than you want to get it in. Same goes for lamb.
For the hikes it is best to buy packed lunches, a lot of bakeries offer these and are very handy during hikes and absolutely delicious. You also need to try some Dulce de Leche, my favourite South American dessert!
This is what annoyed me the most; Argentinean banks are absolutely crap. There is a limit of 4000 ARS in one go with a 378 ARS fee, so every time I withdrew money, I paid £5 and I had to do it at a few times. There is also only 1 ATM at the bus terminal and if it is out of cash, you’re f***ed! I’d highly recommend changing money before coming here and keeping dollars of Euros as backup (They don’t like British Pounds here, say whaaaaat!). You can use your cards here but a lot of places are cash only which is also problematic.
You can learn how to manage your budget during travelling in this guide.
There is no internet coverage for phones anywhere in Chalten. You only get regular phone signals and that’s pretty much it. You can connect using WiFi but even that’s is patchy and speed isn’t great. That being said, you are not here to sit online, I really enjoyed my time offline; a 3 days digital detox of sorts!
Bring some basic meds with you as the town has only 1 pharmacy and even that doesn’t have a lot of meds. I caught a bit of flu and they didn’t have the non-drowsy tablets; it was fun going around with a tissue bag.
Hiking Equipment, Shoes and Clothes
You definitely need s a strong windbreaker, a waterproof jacket and some hiking boots here. I bought myself some heat tech t-shirts from Uniqlo which were a godsend and helped me a lot. It is also not wise to bring new shoes and clothes here; you will find it very useful to break into hard shoes going up a mountain. I was lucky enough to have read about it beforehand. Also, get yourself a nice water bottle and a sturdy bag, it will help you massively. I absolutely loved my Crosshatch jacket, it kept me very warm and dry. Also, keep a small towel in your bag to help clean up.
If you are going in summer you don’t really need any special equipment, I did the whole hike without any need for equipment.If you do need hiking equipment you can hire it in the town.
Google Translate and Maps
Make sure you download google maps for this region on your phone and also the Spanish pack for google Translate. A lot of people do not speak English and it really saved my ass especially in the pharmacy.
Honestly, I wanted to roam around and be a bit lost and it worked out perfectly for me. There’s plenty of information about the hikes and a lot of people going on hikes every day. The routes are also clearly marked so I don’t think you need a guide but if you need a bit of a push and not sure about doing hard hikes on your own, getting a guide will be a great thing. I saw a couple going with a guide and he was providing them with a lot of information. I was content with the beauty of the places than the facts or names attached to the place.
Things to do in El Chalten
After the first day of hiking, I felt like I needed new feet and legs. Luckily, I saw Spa Yaten on the way to the cabin and booked myself a massage and Jacuzzi appointment for the next day. It was a lifesaver. It is a beautiful spa with spectacular views of snow-clad mountains around. I sat in Jacuzzi with bubbles drinking lemonade, wearing a cooling eye mask and looking at these gorgeous mountains.
I cannot tell you how fortunate I felt, I’d reject a mountain of gold that moment. Pure heaven! The massage followed the Jacuzzi which was amazing and I felt like the guy literally breathed life into my legs and I could feel them function again. It was also quite cheap with ARS 3000 for three half-hour treatments.
Hike El Chalten in 2 days
I stayed in Chalten for 2 and a half days and did 2 hikes; one big one on Day 1 and a small one on Day 2. There are many hiking routes and you spend a month doing different paths here each leading to a different destination with equally astounding beauty. You have to be fit for some of these hikes, it did test my endurance dearly.
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Day 1 – El Pilar – Laguna de Los Tres – El Chalten
Time: 7-8 Hours
The most famous hike is the one from Chalten to Laguna de Los Tres and back which is roughly 20 km and I initially planned to do this but on arrival, I spoke to some locals and people who had done the hike and decided to change it a little bit.
I took a transfer from my hotel (You can book it through your hotel, travel company, I got mine from bus terminal). They picked me up around 12pm and we headed to El Pilar. The road has half paved but the place was so beautiful I couldn’t care less. It was cloudy with a little bit of rain. We arrived at Pilar and I headed to the track towards Laguna de Los Tres.
The entrance is so beautiful with a lot of forest and woodland. I walked for a little while and then got to the entrance of Los Glaciares National Park.
Tip: There is no entrance fee for the National park here, you only pay to enter the park on a boat when you go through Perito Moreno or other boat excursions from El Calafate.
The hike was easy and mostly flat with a little bit of ascension. I was accompanied by Rio Blanco on my right-hand side throughout. It was the easiest part of the full day hike. The wooded areas were so serene and peaceful. There weren’t very many people and I only met 2 or 3 people on the way.
The only sound I heard was that of the river and my own footsteps, I cannot tell you how amazing it was!
Mirador Piedras Blancas
The first stop was Mirador Piedras Blancas (Mirador means Viewpoint in Spanish). I just couldn’t believe how stunning that sight was. The mirador had a small wooden sign but as soon as you turn you see The Piedras Blancas Glacier and its lake at its feet. The glacier was blue and so was the lake. I sat there with my sandwich and juice and spent an hour looking at my first glacier. I’ll never forget that sight; the grandeur of glacier, the peace around me, the utter quiet…
Note: The hiking track for this part is not the best marked but when in doubt look for the small squares nailed to the trees to guide you.
I finished my sandwich and headed towards the second part of the hike towards Laguna de Los Tres. After a little bit more of a hike the scenery changed and I felt like I was getting out of woodlands and into open vast space a bit like Lord of the Rings movie. I was close to the camping point called Poincenot.
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Laguna de Los Tres
I saw the directions and headed towards the most difficult part of the hike. Somehow the rain accelerated at this point and tiny drops almost felt like tiny bullets. I crossed the small wooden bridge over the Rio Blanco and then I arrived at another small forest. The magic started again with small pathways, tiny streams, wooden bridges and stairs ways. It changed from being wet and glum to wet and ecstatic.
Note: This is the hardest part of the hike, it takes more energy than the rest of 23 km combined. If you’d like to stick to Easy-medium level hike skip this part.
I had never realised what 1 km in vertical direction means. The climb was steep, slippery and wet, the rain didn’t make it any easier. After a bit of hike, I started getting sweaty inside with cold outside, my body temperature got confused and I should have rested a bit to adjust body temperature. (I got flu the next day but who cares).
It took an hour to get to the top with a lot of times when I felt like I was almost there but saw a distant moving object to find out I am still far from the top.
I got to the top of the mountain with a small puddle in front of me and I almost felt like crying, thinking to myself if it was worth it and if it was a summer thing but then I saw some people coming back from another small climb. I mustered all my strength and headed there and Voila! There it was, my view of the Laguna de Los Tres. I sat down on a big stone and all of a sudden, the world disappeared and all I could see was this beautiful blue lake with cloud covered mountain at its back. The rain stopped after a few minutes and by some miracle, the sun came out uncovering the beautiful peaks, the lake changed colour as well.
I have no idea how long I sat there with my apple and Dulce de Leche but it was getting colder again. I took a few photos and headed back but this time I was joined by a couple of hikers.
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The way back was a 9 km trek to Chalten town. The hike downhill was more tedious and wet and we had to be extra careful.
We arrived back to the cross-section point and started hiking towards the town. The trek was varied from woodlands to beautiful viewpoints and open areas. This is the part where we saw some parakeets, a woody woodpecker couple and a beautiful deer.
Mirador Fitz Roy
We arrived at another viewpoint called Mirador Fitz Roy and saw a rainbow forming, a few hundred metres we saw another one and then later another one, it was our lucky day!
My feet were hurting by now and we still had 3 km to go. Luckily, my fellow hikers kept pressing on and we got to the final km. I could feel my feet almost cracking. We sat down for a few minutes and then I realised how I hadn’t eaten properly all day. The idea of a steak with roasted vegetables was irresistible. When we finally arrived in town, I saw a parilla (grill house) and got inside almost forgetting to say goodbye. (They understood completely). I said goodbyes and headed inside for an amazing dinner.
It was an unforgettable experience for me, one I will never get over and for those of you looking to go, don’t get bogged down by weather, by facts, by names and if you could see everything. Just being there was an absolutely amazing experience. I didn’t get to see the top of Fitz Roy mountain but what I saw was enough to appreciate the scale and eminence of beauty.
Tip: I strongly recommend keeping a muscle relaxant afterwards and if you don’t have it, a hot shower before bed will do wonders. If you are not an experienced hiker, don’t aim for long hikes on consecutive days, you won’t have the energy, I promise you.
Day 2 – El Chalten – Mirador de Los Condores – Mirador de Las Aguilas
Duration: 3-4 Hours
It was Day 2, I slept some 9-10 hours and woke up at 10:30, made myself some breakfast and took another hot shower. A bit of reading later I was back to sleep waking up at 2pm. I felt well enough to carry out a shorter hike. I decided to go to the 3 km hike from the town to Mirador de Los Aguilas (Viewpoint of Eagles) and then to Mirador de Los Condores (Viewpoint of Condores). These are short hikes near the town and quite beautiful for a rest day.
Mirador de Los Aguilas
I headed to the main road that brings you in and out of Chalten past the bus terminal. After crossing the bridge, 300 m later here is a small museum/information centre. This is the starting point and from the looks, it was going to be an easy hike. The grass was full of flowers and the weather had cleared up with beautiful sun over my head. I slowly started walking and then the ascension started, it was the hardest part of the trek. The views over the town of Chalten and the mountains keep the hike very interesting. After I almost got to the top, the way divided to go to Aguilar or to Condores, I picked the longer one first and headed to Aguilar.
This route takes you on the opposite side of all other hikes which means you can see the beauty of all these mountains right in front of you in one incredible scene like a postcard from Patagonia.
The walk is mostly quite flat with a well-marked path and I saw a lot of hikers going and coming back both ways.
Halfway through I spotted a small lake, my flu was annoying me slightly, I sat down with my tea and chilled for a bit. The scene was quiet with wind soaring through the skies, dragging small clouds with it.
I made my way to the mirador and after a few more minutes I was there. It was incredible, the view! The open plane, the only road for Chalten, the views of Lake Viedma…
Fun Fact: Lake Viedma is the second largest lake in Argentina after Lake Argentina. It is the lake of Viedma glacier which is the biggest in Argentina and Los Glaciares National park.
I spotted some people climbing further and followed them, the views got even better, it was a 360-degree delicacy. It is not common to see places with such diversity of views in every direction. A small climb further and I could see all the way to Fitz Roy today, the wind rushing through my hair. I sat there to finish the rest of my tea…
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Mirador de Los Condores
Another half an hour of enjoying the view I made my way to Condores because of my Spa appointment. Condores was a small climb up from the intersection and I’d highly recommend not skipping this because you can see the whole of Chalten at your feet. It also provides you with a unique perspective about the scale on which we work on human level versus the way nature plays its hand on such grand scales, it blows your mind away.
It was quite windy so I didn’t stay for too long and made my way back to the town where a hot jacuzzi was waiting for me…
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