I am fairly certain that the idea of going to Patagonia was planted in my head by some travel blogger’s Instagram story of sunrise on Mt. Fitz Roy, its face glowing orange as the first rays of alpenglow came up over the horizon. I went down a rabbit hole doing research on Patagonia for days. And four months later… I made it! I was elated to learn those mind-blowing Patagonia views could be had without doing multi-day treks. I didn’t have the gear, or willpower, to do so – so I stayed on the Argentina side of the Andes mountains. El Chalten, known as Argentina’s trekking capital, has several options for both shorter and longer hikes if you’re into camping. It was the final leg of my Argentina adventure! (I started in Buenos Aires, went onto Ushuaia, and then El Calafate, from which we boarded an early morning bus for about a 3-hour trip)
Click HERE to see my overall 10-day itinerary.
I knew that I was lucky to have seen the peak of Fitz Roy at all… I read some bloggers’ accounts of being in El Chalten for a week without a single day of clear skies. Patagonian weather is notoriously unpredictable, so I was just happy that we saw Fitz clear as day before we even arrived in town! The bus ride from El Calafate to El Chalten was pretty quiet until this came into view:
The driver started playing upbeat music and the bus full of sleepy passengers started to stir as we approached, with increasingly palpable excitement. We didn’t get the seats at the front of the double-decker bus with panoramic windows… but there was a guy from Colorado sitting alone up there so I joined him for a few minutes to get this photo. I’m not a shy person to begin with, but any fear of talking to strangers left me a few days into being alone in Argentina.
Traveling by bus is actually comfortable in Argentina if time is on your side. They don’t necessarily leave on time (ours didn’t), but it’s cheap and much nicer than American bus lines. We booked Chalten Travel through our hostel. I recommend doing that since you don’t typically have to book bus tickets very far in advance. We heard some horror stories of people booking online only to show up at the bus station and find out the schedule changed or the transaction wasn’t valid.
- Le Waffleria: By the time we arrived in El Chalten, food was the only thing on our minds. We checked into Rancho Grande Hostel (see: “STAY”) and walked over a few doors down to a cute little waffle house I read about on Tripadvisor.
After being introduced to choripan in Buenos Aires, the “choriwaffle” was an easy decision. The chorizo sausage, fried egg, and greens sandwiched between two thin crispy waffles was more than enough to satisfy me for a meal and a half (leftovers for breakfast the next day!). Veronica and I both ordered the famed hot chocolate as well, reviving us after the long travel day.
- Heladeria Domo Blanco: 20 miles after a 3:30am alarm, all I wanted when I made it back to town after my big hiking day was ice cream. A girl I met at Laguna Torre hiked back with me and told me about this ice cream place. The thought of this reward is what got us through the last few hours of our return. I tried the “calafate berry” and lemon ginger – both light and delicious house made ice cream. As a bonus, the wifi was way better than at our hostel so I stuck around a bit to upload some stunning Instagram stories before returning my hiking poles from where I rented them.
- grocery stores: are very small and expensive in Chalten. We still had some sandwich supplies and our hostel had a small kitchen, so I purchased things like cheese and crackers, an apple, and granola bars for the hike. I’m glad I didn’t have much cooking to do with only two days left!
- Mirador de los Condores: Remember that incredible orange sunrise over Mt. Fitz Roy I wanted to see? The first question I asked any of the locals I met was what hike they would recommend to see the sunrise if I only had one full day. The unanimous answer was to take this “easy walk” to the viewpoint over El Chalten if I didn’t want to camp out at a closer viewpoint.
The “easy walk” turned out to not be so easy when it was pitch black and I wasn’t even sure where the trail head was! I brought a headlamp specifically for a sunrise hike (again – I was so set on seeing that orange alpenglow) – but having never actually used one before, I underestimated how tough it is to only be able to see 5-10 feet in front of you. I managed to take a wrong turn, lose a glove, and question whether I was on the right trail for a good ten minutes. The town was sound asleep at 4am, so it was just me and the wind howling and grass rustling all around me.
I eventually made it to this big rock with a nice view of Fitz and the town’s twinkling lights starting to come on. Armed with a granola bar and a handwarmer, I precariously balanced my phone against my backpack for a timelapse. Then I set up my tripod, praying the wind didn’t knock the whole setup off the rock.
I definitely thought I would be jostling with others for a view, but only one other lone hiker joined me with a tripod at sunrise. I packed up and headed back to Rancho Grande for a nap when I realized the sun was risen and the clouds weren’t going to dissipate. Miraculously, I found the glove I lost on the side of the road on my way back!
- Laguna Torre hike: I spent a long time debating whether I should do this 8-mile trek or the Laguna de Los Tres route with double the elevation gain (part of which is straight up for a mile). Veronica decided to take the challenge, while I opted to save my knees and avoid the downhill, even with trekking poles that I rented. The equipment shop Viento Oeste was conveniently located down the street from the hostel, and cheaper than the “Camping Center” – probably because it was on the edge of town. They take your ID as a security deposit, so bring something other than your passport!
As I mentioned earlier, it’s common knowledge that that clouds/fog/rain could throw off plans without notice. We got uncharacteristically lucky with sunny skies for only being in El Chalten for two full days. I was constantly removing layers under the sun, and then putting them back on when it randomly got windy again. After the cold of the morning, I stuffed my puffy coat at the bottom of my pack but didn’t end up needing it at all for the Laguna Torre trek! Better safe than sorry, because they say you can experience four seasons in one day in Patagonia.
I was by myself for the first half hour of the hike, enjoying some music and taking in the scenery around me. I asked a passer-by to take a photo of me, and he ended up walking with me almost all the way to the laguna. This 40-year old Polish guy had biked – yes, BIKED – from Calafate to Chalten (that was a 3 hour bus ride…) and could’ve run circles around me at my pace. But he waited up for me when I needed a break, and it was nice to have some company for a few hours. I love meeting well-traveled people and hearing the stories of places they’ve been all over the world! We also kept bumping into this Israeli couple on their honeymoon. You best believe I am not hiking 20 miles on my honeymoon, but all the power to them 🙂
I was just floored by the different landscapes we passed through – meadows with wildflowers, grassy clearings with a Big Foot-shaped pond in the middle, crazy geological features from movements of the Earth when the dinosaurs still roamed it. At some point I actually asked my Polish companion whether he believed in God. In hindsight, that may have been a little odd, but I was in awe of how anyone could see everything surrounding us as merely an accident.
Along one path, we stopped with a small crowd silently observing a redheaded woodpecker drilling into a tree overhead. Everything else was so still, I couldn’t help but think about what our planet must have been like before humans destroyed it. I’ve always loved nature and animals, but this trip ignited a new flame in my heart for the responsibility of humankind to steward these precious last frontiers.
As we got closer to the laguna, my companion dropped off to set up his tent at the De Agostini campground and I went on to enjoy my lunch of cheese and crackers with a view of the lake. The sun was beating down so I stripped down and splashed my feet in the water, wishing I had changed out of my fleece lined leggings.
Down by the water, there was a British girl painting the scene before us in watercolor. I took some photos of her, and she offered to take some of me in return – and that is how solo travelers make friends! It’s funny how traveling alone can lead you to these fast friendships with people. You can get to know someone so much deeper in a few short hours than some people you see every day at home.
From the laguna, you can continue onto another viewpoint to the right of the moraine, but I chose to play it safe and head back to town before I got hangry/panicky. I had nothing to worry about because the sun was out so late, but it was a good thing to be able to take my time. My new British friend caught up with me not long after I left. We chatted the whole way back, motivating each other with the thought of ice cream waiting for us in town.
Despite how long I wrestled with which hike I should choose, the reality is – and everyone kept telling me this – you can’t go wrong. There are no bad views wherever you go, just different. Ideally, you’d have more than one day of hiking in El Chalten so you don’t have to choose like I did. At the end of the day, I felt truly accomplished for pushing my body to its limits. I accomplished a lot of firsts that day, completely out of my comfort zone. I gave it my all, and it was such a relief not to have to conserve energy since the next day would be 24 hours of travel to get home!
STAY: Rancho Grande Hostel
Rancho Grande is one of the larger hostels in El Chalten, and it has a restaurant on the main floor that welcomes diners that aren’t staying in the hostel. It would get packed when tour buses dropped off large groups, which wasn’t ideal, but supposedly they only allow guests past the living quarters after a certain time. How strictly that was enforced, I cannot know.
Between the sheer size of the hostel and the lack of common area to socialize, it didn’t strike me as a place you could easily meet people. But unlike my other hostel stays, I hardly spent any time there. The rooms were comfy but honestly I was so exhausted after my hike that I could’ve slept on the floor.
On my last day, a staff member told me a helpful tip: foreigners aren’t supposed to pay taxes on lodging in Argentina. He advised that I ask for the taxes back at any hostels I may have booked online, because sometimes hostel staff will charge you for it and pocket the difference. The hostel also gives you a fun stamp for your passport!
The morning of my last day, I found out that the Chalten Travel bus picks up from the hostel as well as stopping at the bus station for the first trip of the morning going back to Calafate. The hostel is a 15-20 minute walk from the bus station, so it was nice to not have to leave as early in the morning to schlep my things to the bus station! The journey home was essentially retracing the steps of my trip, minus Ushuaia – so I flew out of Calafate back to Buenos Aires, and then back to Atlanta, and finally home. It’s hard to believe that this adventure of a lifetime started as merely a dream from seeing a photo… but if you can dream it, you can do it!