Patagonia is home to some of the most dramatic natural scenery on the planet, but it can be expensive to explore. In El Chaltén, you can see the iconic sites of Laguna de los Tres and Mount Fitz Roy without spending a fortune. Here’s our guide to the most popular El Chaltén trekking route.
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El Chaltén trekking: a quick introduction
Mount Fitz Roy at sunrise, bathed in orange and towering above Laguna de los Tres, is one of the most famous images of Patagonia. It’s possible to reach in a day trek from El Chaltén, but with a new-found fondness for multi-day hiking, we took our tent for a three-day, two-night trail.
Our route also included Laguna Torre for views of Cerro Torre peak and Torre Glacier. If you prefer, you can complete the route in two days by going all the way to Laguna de los Tres on the first day. We chose to stretch it out so we could see that Mount Fitz Roy sunrise.
When we did our trek from El Chaltén, we were fairly new to hiking, and were lacking a little in confidence. This route was great for us! While strenuous at times it was manageable, the trail was well-marked, and the scenery outstanding.
What’s more, we spent less money during our time in El Chaltén than anywhere else in Patagonia. There was no entry fee for the national park, and the campsites we stayed in were free.
Without further ado, let’s begin.
Day 1: trek to Campamento Poincenot
- Distance: 10 kilometres
- Elevation: 370 metres
The destination on the first day of our trekking route is Campamento Poincenot, a free campsite at the foot of Mount Fitz Roy. With about four hours’ hiking in total, the first day is fairly gentle work.
The trail begins on the north side of El Chaltén. From the centre of town, walk north on the main road, Avenida San Martin, for about a kilometre. As you exit the town and walk past the last of the cafés and lodges, the trail entrance is on the left.
The first hour of the hike is the most difficult part of day one: it’s mostly uphill. Take your time during this tricky section, and keep in mind that once you conquer it, it’s mostly even ground for the rest of the day. There are plenty of places to stop on the way for some great views of Rio de las Vueltas.
After 3 kilometres the gradient levels out, and soon you will reach Mirador del Fitz Roy for your first glimpse of the famous peak. In clear weather, it is unmissable on the horizon alongside the peaks of Aguja Poincenot and Cerro Torre.
From the mirador, there is a short descent before you emerge onto a boarded pathway through open plains. Now it’s a steady trek for those last few kilometres until you reach Campamento Poincenot. By leaving El Chaltén around 10:30am, we arrived with ample time to rest ahead of the second day’s early rise.
Look out for endangered wildlife
Upon entering Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, you will see signs about the huemul, the endangered South Andean deer. We weren’t lucky enough to spot one – they are very hard to come by!
To give yourself the best chance of seeing a huemul, be mindful about making noise on the trek. They are afraid of humans and will stay away, hence they won’t be around when the route is busy.
If you do spot a huemul, try and take a photo without disturbing the animal. The park authorities monitor the situation, and any sightings can provide them with vital information about its behaviour and whereabouts. When you’re back in town, let the park rangers know the sighting location and share your photos with them. The office is on the south side of town on the main road in.
Mount Fitz Roy at sunset
The sunrise at Laguna de los Tres might be the most sought-after picture, but the sunset behind Mount Fitz Roy is pretty spectacular too.
Make sure you check sunset times before you set off. When the time is right, take a short walk out of the forest in which Camping Poincenot is set, and enjoy the view before bedding down for the night.
Day 2 part 1: the climb to Laguna de los Tres
- Distance: 2 kilometres
- Elevation: 400 metres
Now comes the most challenging part, but also the most rewarding. To make it to Laguna de los Tres for sunrise, you need to start early. We set our alarms for 4:30am and set off at 5am.
We are intermediate hikers, and it took us about an hour to make it to the top. Check the sunrise time and plan accordingly. Remember to bring a torch – it will be dark when you begin your ascent.
Leaving the campsite you emerge onto a rocky plain before the mountain foot, where you cross a flowing stream before the uphill section begins. From here the path winds up over loose stones all the way to the summit. Be careful with your footing in the dark – we had a couple of little slips!
As sunrise approaches and the light strengthens, don’t forget to stop and look around. In the valley behind, dawn’s light reflects beautifully from the three lagunas of Madre, Hija and Nieta.
If you time it right, Laguna de los Tres will still be obscured in darkness when you reach the top. Now you just need to wait for the sun to peek out, and watch that famed picture unfold in front of you.
Day 2 part 2: Laguna de los Tres to Laguna Torre
- Distance: 19 kilometres (or 24 kilometres with Mirador Maestri)
- Elevation: 100 metres
The destination for the second day of this route is Camping de Agostini, a free campsite next to Laguna Torre.
It felt like half of our day’s efforts had been packed in before 8am. However, to get from Laguna de los Tres to Laguna Torre, there was plenty of walking ahead.
Factoring in the walk back down to Camping Poincenot, it took us another six hours to reach Camping De Agostini. Campsite to campsite is roughly 17 kilometres; while there was no elevation gain, this was a toil after the early morning climb.
The beauty of trekking in Patagonia, however, is that you are always surrounded by incredible natural landscapes. It does a lot to ease the pain of exertion. The day’s route passes the three pretty lagunas of Madre, Hija and Nieta, which were visible from up on the mountain.
Spotting the giant Magellanic woodpecker
As we twisted through forest paths near the lagunas, we suddenly heard a loud banging sound among the trees. I veered off the path into the brush to investigate.
I was amazed by what I saw. Clinging to a tree just a few metres in front of me was a huge woodpecker with a red head and black body. It was swinging its head violently and repeatedly hammering its giant beak into the tree, generating a sound louder than a human with a hammer.
I later discovered that this was a Magellanic woodpecker – the largest woodpecker in South America! It can only be found in the Andes mountains in Patagonia. Another example of the unique wildlife the region has to offer.
Combating fatigue towards the end of the day
Getting through a long day’s hiking can be a tough psychological challenge and difficulty can strike at unexpected times. For me, the hardest part of our three-day trek was not the 400-metre early-morning ascent to Mount Fitz Roy, but the final stretch of the day’s hiking that followed it.
Between the two campsites, in a section where there are no kilometres markers, we passed a hiker going in the opposite direction. “How far is it to Laguna Torre?” I asked. “Oh, I’m not sure – about 5 kilometres I think?” she replied.
This exchange set a mental expectation for how much further we would have to walk. It turned out to be a lot further in reality – more like 11 or 12 kilometers. Even though the final 4 kilometres was back on a section with markers, I struggled badly as I had conditioned myself that we would already be finished.
Amid my angst, I wanted to press on and get to the campsite as soon as possible. This was a mistake. In situations like this it helps to take a break, drink water, eat some snacks and refocus.
Torre Glacier: a rewarding spectacle
After arriving at Camping de Agostini and setting up for the night, we still had some daylight left to enjoy Laguna Torre.
The shore of the lake is a short walk from the campsite. Here you will find another of Patagonia’s iconic images: the peak of Cerro Torre staring imposingly across the water.
If you walk around the lake you can begin to catch a glimpse of Torre Glacier, a swathing sheet of ice among the mountains. The glacier is part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the world’s largest body of ice outside of Antarctica. It’s a truly rewarding sight at the end of a hard day’s hiking.
The best spot to see Torre Glacier is Mirador Maestri, an elevated viewpoint about 2.5 kilometres’ walk around the lake. You can opt instead to incorporate this into the third day of the trek. We found an extra burst of energy and decided to brave it at the end of the second day. We were glad we did.
Day 3: Laguna Torre back to El Chaltén
- Distance: 9 kilometres (or 14 kilometres with Mirador Maestri)
- Elevation: 250 metres
The final leg of the three-day trek is, thankfully, the simplest and easiest. Having seen Torre Glacier the previous evening, we packed up our tent and headed back towards El Chaltén.
The 9-kilometre return route is marked all the way. Around mid-way, between kilometres 4 and 6, there is an uphill section to Mirador Laguna Torre. Here you can enjoy a different perspective of the laguna and surrounding peaks in the distance.
Throughout the entire first 6 kilometres, don’t forget to stop occasionally and look back. Cerro Torre is behind you all the way, and you can capture it from many different viewpoints, across grassy plains, flowery fields and rocky wastelands.
In the final section of the return hike, to the right, Rio Fitz Roy flows through a gorge far below. We found a few great spots to stop and look out over the river.
Finally, you will emerge back into El Chaltén at the south-west side of the town. If you’re anything like us, you’ll be ready for a good meal and a beer! We celebrated in typical style at an aptly named establishment on Avenida San Martin, Burger and Beers.
El Chaltén day treks
Both Laguna de los Tres and Laguna Torre are possible to visit in separate day treks from El Chaltén. You don’t need to be an experienced hiker, but each requires a decent level of fitness due to the distances covered and elevation gain.
Laguna de Los Tres is around a 25-kilometre return trip from El Chaltén. Simply follow the route outlined for day 1 and the morning of day 2 of the three-day trail above, and then return to the town on the same path. With around 8 hours of total trekking time, you’ll need to set off early.
Laguna Torre is a more gentle 18-kilometre round trip, rising to 23 kilometres if you include Mirador Maestri (which is well worth it if you can).
To find the starting point, walk south-west on Lago del Desierto in the town and turn right up Jose Antonio Rojo. At the end of the road, you will reach a hill. Climb up it, walk through a small residential area and you will reach the beginning of the trail to Laguna Torre.
What to pack for El Chaltén trekking
You can take a look at our recommended hiking gear here. [Note: I do sometimes include affiliate links, which means I will earn a small commission if you buy products after clicking.] For your trek in El Chaltén, the most important things to take are:
- Sturdy hiking boots
- Waterproof and windproof hiking jacket
- Quality rucksack that distributed weight well
- Tent that can withstand extreme weather, if camping
- Walking poles
- Thick hiking socks
- Neck scarf / warm hat
- Quality gloves (Gore-Tex if possible)
- Well-insulated sleeping bags and silk liners
- Plenty of trekking snacks
- Trekking meals (see more below)
- ‘Camel pack’ water dispenser
Meals for your trek
There isn’t anywhere to buy food inside Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, so if you’re multi-day trekking you’ll need to prepare and bring your own. You’ll need something that isn’t too heavy and keeps well.
We prepared meals of tuna, chickpeas and mixed beans, stirred up with some chilli sauce. This is nourishing, tasty, provides energy and doesn’t weigh too much when you remove them from the tins and pack portions into zip-lock bags. You can also eat it cold, which meant we didn’t have to carry a stove.
For breakfasts we brought porridge, sweetener and powdered milk (again portioned out into zip-lock bags), and used water from the national park’s streams to mix it. The natural water throughout the park is perfectly safe to drink.
Bring plenty of snacks, too – dried fruit, sweets, nuts and oat snacks are all great for energy. We bought all of these things and made our own trail mix, one big bag per day.
Preparing your meals in advance and putting them into zip-lock bags means that you don’t have to carry things like tin-openers. However, it’s useful to pack some small plastic bowls to eat from.
Things to know before you go
Besides what to pack, there are a couple of things to be aware of before hiking in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares.
Pumas are native to Patagonia, and there is a tiny chance you will see one while hiking near El Chaltén. Indeed, after ascending to Laguna de los Tres, we saw some fresh puma prints in the snow. It was a little unnerving! It’s incredibly rare though for pumas to attack humans, and with some simple precautions you can keep yourself safe.
In the campsite you will find signs giving clear instructions on what to do if you see a puma. First of all, the most important thing is to stay calm. On the incredibly rare occasions that a puma becomes aggressive:
- Pick up children
- Make yourself look big
- Make loud noise – shout or speak firmly
- Never turn your back
- Throw rocks, sticks, anything you have to hand
I can’t stress enough how unlikely it is you’ll find yourself in this situation, but it’s worth knowing what to do just in case.
There is another local animal to be aware of: El Chaltén’s wild dogs. We saw plenty of these around the town. They are rarely a threat, but do not feed them, especially when you are setting off on a hike. If you do, they will try to follow you into the national park.
The local rangers do not allow dogs onto the hiking trails as they are a threat to the wildlife, in particular the aforementioned endangered huemul.
Where to stay in El Chaltén
For the main hiking trails around El Chaltén, there are a range of free campsites to chose from. For all the information you need, check out our guide to camping in El Chaltén.
It’s likely you will stay in the town either side of your trek, and you’ll probably want a roof over your head.
We stayed at two different hostels. Before our trek, we stayed at Patagonia Travellers Hostel, for which we paid USD 45 for a night in a private double room. The facilities were very good. Most importantly, we had access to a quality kitchen where we could prepare for the trek.
On our return we stayed at Lo De Trivi, which was a little cheaper as we opted for dorms – USD 62 for both of us for two nights. Again we were happy with the facilities, and the staff were very friendly. Both hostels were conveniently located on Avenida San Martin.
Best time to trek in El Chaltén
The Patagonia hiking season runs from October to April, through summer. We did our three-day trek in early November. The temperature was still quite low at this time, and the water of Laguna de los Tres was covered in ice.
For the best chance of good weather, visit between December and February – although be aware, the hiking trails will be busier then.
Do you have any experiences to share from El Chaltén? Please share in the comments section below.
Are you taking on the Torres Del Paine W Trek during your time in Patagonia? Check out our handy novice’s guide here.
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