Argentina is crammed full of cool little towns, especially near the mountains. El Chalten is one such location. Cool and rustic with an edge of unfulfilled promises, El Chalten was developed from the ground up (a planner’s dream case-study, by the way) in 1985 as a deterrent toward Chile with a side consideration as a tourist destination. Tourism has certainly taken over as it’s main purpose and El Chalten has developed into main supply depot for a burgeoning trekking and technical climbing industry…I mean…just look at those peaks! The culture of the place is similar to Kathmandu, but replace the ultra wealthy big mountaineers with hordes of technical climbing bums from Wyoming and you’ll get the picture. Climbers I spoke to while on the trail mentioned to me that there still remain no fees for scaling up the spires of Fitz Roy…hence it’s continuing appeal among the rope gun crowd. Still, like most spots that cater to that kind of crew, the climbing arrogance permeates well…you either climb or you don’t…you dirty trekker.
El Chalten has the feel of a half-finished project…one that never totally got off the ground in the eighties, had a burst of development in the early 2000’s when the economy was hot and has settled into the doldrums of the Kirchner years. Street networks extend to no where, with empty lots and half built businesses. It’s fairly obvious that speculation plays a big role in development. I like it though. It doesn’t have the wealthy polished feel of established mountain towns, yet still aesthetically pleasing and well serviced to make the rough bus ride from El Calafate palatable.
El Chalten is also the gateway to the famous and absolutely gorgeous Mt. Fitz Roy….my last destination in Patagonia. I could spend easily another three or four trips to fully explore the mountains of Argentina…especially in the north of the country, but this is where my time would end. I debated a 50 hour bus ride to Buenos Aries (I love overland travel) but opted to spend a few extra days in El Chalten, brave Aerolinas Argentina and fly to BA. A really good choice. People will often be faced with a choice…Torres del Paine or Fitz Roy? I’d recommend both, which is totally possible if one sticks to the shorter trekking options. They are both geographically similar and the trekking levels are about the same, although I would label Fitz Roy as less groomed and controlled as Torres del Paine (which is UNESCO). Fitz Roy won’t have the crowds, especially if you hit up the Rio Electrico valley. While it is difficult to describe, I found both to be very different culturally…and not just national culture differences…they are just different crowds…hence why I believe it is important to make the effort to see both (if you are into mountains, that is).
The main drag of El Chalten, once again blessed by the weather gods. Apparently it is very common for the area to be covered in a clouds. Home to your standard tourist fare…good restaurants, hostels, cafe’s and trekking shops. Drinking options were not that great, although there was a really good micro-brew in town. As I believe I mentioned before, Argentina is usually known for their wines…but I would argue their beers are just as good.
The trekking options in Fitz Roy, like Torres del Paine, operate in a “W” fashion. Many will opt for day hikes to Lago Torre or Lago Suci which are relatively short and easy excursions from the town site. Being hard-core, chiselled trekkers (;-P) we chose the half “w” which would take us out toe Lago Sucia and Camp Poincenot on the first night, heading north the second day up the Rio Blanco and Rio Electrico valleys to the private camp Piedra De Fraille. Day three would find us dropping all bags and making the 15000ft ascent up to Col. Electrico and the climbing base camp. We would then exit down the Rio Electrico and hitch-hike back along the highway to El Chalten.
Moving up into the hills west of El Chalten and looking north. El Chalten is extremely dry and water options are limited until you move closer to the mountains in the west. The initial ascent is also quite exposed to the sun, so don’t expect much shade until several hours into the trail.
El Chalten from above.
Fitz Roy – smoking hot at 3405m
The topography is quite similar to Ushuaia and other areas of Patagonia…wide low valleys with towering (yet relatively small…~2500m) peaks bordering all sides. Rocky soils with paradoxically interspersed with muskeg like sections.
This is a shitty photo, but I threw it in because it marks the turn-off to Camp Poincenot with a good view down the Rio Blanca valley.
View from Camp Poincenot
View from Camp Poincenot over a kick-ass meal of soup. We ate well on these treks…as opposed to many who subsisted off dried noodles. It’s worth the extra weight to carry around sausage, onions and tomato’s.