El Chalten had long been near the top of the list of places I wanted to visit in Patagonia. Being at the foot of both Mt Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, El Chalten has a well-earned reputation as the hiking and climbing capital of Patagonia.
How to Get to El Chalten
We arrived into El Chalten from El Calafate, which is located approximately 200km to the south, on the other side of Lago Viedma and Lago Argentina. We took a morning bus with Chalten Travel and arrived into the El Chalten terminal (at the south end of town) around 5 hours later. Cal-Tur and TAQSA also run on this route (we found Chalten Travel to be a bit cheaper than the other options) - more details can be found here.
When you arrive into El Chalten the bus will stop at the ranger station / visitor centre (APN) just outside of town, where you'll attend a short information briefing and be provided with some town and trail maps. You'll be shown a video on park and trekking safety and best-practice behaviours (don't light fires, try not to die, etc.). The ranger will also give you a low down on the weather forecast - ours was pretty spot on for the five days we were in El Chalten, so its worth a listen. Once you've made it through this, you jump back on the bus and you're dropped off at the bus terminal (located at the south end of town, just across the river on Perito Moreno).
We booked in at Pudu Lodge at the north end of town, so we jumped in a taxi with our gear (it wasn't an official taxi, just a friendly lady who waits at the bus station to run new arrivals to their lodgings, very entrepreneurial). We liked the location of Pudu Lodge - its very close to the beginning of the Mt Fitz Roy trail, which shaves off 20 or 30 minutes of walking from the south end of town (an advantage when you're heading out at 4am for sunrise).
The town itself is small (but bigger than we anticipated) and growing rapidly. There are a couple of supermarkets where you can grab some essentials, and plenty of cafes and restaurants. We were fans of Don Guerra and B&B Burger joint. The internet still hasn't really arrived in El Chalten in any big way, and the connections are often relatively poor given they're all satellite connections. The best wi-fi (and friendliest staff) we found was in Cafe Lo de Haydee on Lago del Desierto.
El Chalten Hiking Trails and Miradors
The two principal medium-distance trails in El Chalten are the Fitz Roy / Laguna Los Tres trail and the Laguna Torre trail. Both trails will eventually take you to a lagoon near the base of their respective peaks. Two shorter trails that provide great views are the trail to the Mirador Los Condores, and the trail to Chorrillo del Salto.
You can see clearly on the map the two principal mountain chains of the region - the Cerro Torre massif to the east and the Fitz Roy massif further to the west.
The Fitz Roy trail (Sendero del Fitz Roy as it will be labelled on most of the signs in town) starts the north end of town. Follow the main street out past the last houses, through a car park to a large wooden gateway that marks the start of the trail. There is a large wooden map / information display which will give you can idea of the trail.
The trail is approximately 9km long (18km return if you've forgotten your two-times table) and will take you 3 hours or so each way. There are kilometre markers so you can track your progress and curse at your slowness - the first three or so kilometres are uphill (only gaining about 300m, so not too bad) before the trail levels off all the way to the start of the climb up to the Laguna Los Tres. This last section of the trail climbs 400m in around a kilometre, and is tough work if you're carrying a lot of camera gear.
On the walk up you'll reach a nice view point at Mirador Fitz Roy - on a clear day you'll get a great view of the mountain. If that is all you've come for and you don't fancy a walk up to the lagoon you could easily turn around here. Its also a nice place for sunrise, as its only a 90 minute walk from town.
The Laguna Torre trek takes you out to a lagoon with a great view of Cerro Torre. We didn't get a clear view of Cerro Torre during our time in El Chalten (thats the risk you run), so I can't show you any photos or speak in detail about the end of the trail. Both Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre seem to have their own weather patterns, and even when one is clear the other is often not.
As you can see on the map above, there are a couple of trailheads that connect into the main Laguna Torre trail - one each from the north, central and south points of town. The trek takes in a couple of nice viewpoints before reaching the lagoon. You'll get great views of the Rio Fitz Roy on your left after a kilometre or so, and you'll reach the Mirador Torre after around 90 minutes of walking. If its thick and foggy here, you're probably best off turning around. If its clear and you can see Cerro Torre, continue onwards. Before the Torre Mirador you'll pass the Mirador Margarita - on a clear day this has a great panoramic view of Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy. On a cloudy day like we had, you'll have a hard time picking anything out. We turned around at the Mirador Torre given the conditions.
There are two shorter trails which are great if you only have an afternoon in El Chalten. If you follow the dirt road out of town to the north you'll eventually come across the Chorrillo del Salto, and impressive 20m or 30m waterfall at the terminus of the Arroyo del Salto. This spot can also be accessed by car and tax (or tour bus) and there is a large car park near to the falls.
The trail to the Mirador Los Condores is a short 1.5km to 2km trail at the south end of town. You access the trail near the visitor's centre / ranger's office, which is just across the bridge near the bus terminal. You gain around 200m or 300m of altitude, and the viewpoint gives you a great vista of Fitz Roy and the town of El Chalten. This is where the shot at the top of this post was taken from.
Fitz Roy Hidden Falls
It was easy to find a photo of these falls online (and they're on postcards inside every building in El Chalten), but it was impossible to find directions to the falls online. If you've found your way to this blog post, its your lucky day.
The falls are located on the Arroyo del Salto on the Fitz Roy trail, near to Laguna Capri and around 1.5km past the Mirador Fitz Roy. Its easiest to point them out on a map:
I dropped a couple of pins on my Maps.me app to remind where to find these falls (it has a much better trail map than you get in Google Maps), which you can see in the screenshot above. The first pin on the map above (on the dotted trail) is where you turn off the main trail. Before you reach this point you'll pass through some pretty narrow track sections once you're past the Mirador Fitz Roy, but the trail will begin to open up just before the turn off. From the turn-off point there are a few tracks (not as well marked as the main trail) that lead down to the river and the falls. You can't really miss it if you follow where these pins are dropped.
I found Maps.me to be excellent for hiking trails in South America generally, especially in El Chalten. It was accurate and worked offline (provided you download the maps you need in advance), which is a godsend in a lot of places in this part of the world.
The GPS co-ordinates for the turn off point are 49°17'48"S 72°56'07"W. These are the co-ordinates provided by the app, not by an independent GPS device, so take them as an approximate guide. I'd suggest doing a scout during the day to find these falls (you can easily do it as part of the trek up to Laguna Los Tres) before you attempt it in the dark before sunrise. There aren't really any objective dangers here through, just be careful around the water as you have to scramble on some rocks to get the best viewpoint here.
This is the view you'll get from the falls if the peaks of Fitz Roy are clear:
So there you have it - a rough guide to El Chalten and its trails, and a guide to finding the secret falls of Fitz Roy. Good luck, and let me know how you go!