Patagonia is home to some of the world’s most dramatic scenery. El Chaltén in Argentina is on the doorstep of some of the region’s most famous natural landmarks, such as the granite peak of Mount Fitz Roy and the calm waters of Laguna de los Tres. After checking it out for ourselves, in this El Chaltén trekking guide we explain how to hike the best trails around the town.
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Trekking in El Chaltén: a quick introduction
El Chaltén is perched on the threshold of Los Glaciares National Park, not far from the Argentina–Chile border. Around the town are various hiking trails that are very well maintained and marked, making it easy to get out in the wilderness and explore the incredible landscapes this area has to offer.
The image of Mount Fitz Roy glowing orange at sunrise is El Chaltén’s most famous. However, it is just one of a plethora of beautiful scenes you will find just a short distance from the town.
The giant South Patagonian Ice Field is within close vicinity of the town, speckling the hiking trails with stunning glacier views. Glistening lakes such as Laguna Torre and Laguna Capri create a serene feel, while in the depths of the forests you can encounter tumbling waterfalls and an abundance of unique wildlife.
If you are travelling in Patagonia on a budget, El Chaltén offers a fantastic low-cost alternative to the popular Torres Del Paine on the Chile side. There is no fee required to enter Los Glaciares National Park from El Chaltén, and many of the trails can be hiked comfortably without a guide. We explain how below, but if you would prefer to go on an organised trek, these are two of the most popular:
We spent several days in El Chaltén during our month in Patagonia and we were simply blown away by its beauty. You will love it too! So, let’s begin…
Laguna de los Tres, Mount Fitz Roy and Laguna Torre (3-day loop hike)
- Total distance: 40–45 kilometres
- Difficulty: mostly easy, but includes some tough uphill sections
It’s possible to reach Laguna de los Tres for *that* image of Mount Fitz Roy in a day hike from El Chaltén, which we detail below. However, the only way to see it at sunrise for the glowing orange effect is by camping overnight. We incorporated this into a three-day, two-night loop trail that also encompasses Laguna Torre for views of Cerro Torre peak and Torre Glacier.
Day 1: trek to Campamento Poincenot
- Distance: 10 kilometres
The first destination this trekking route is Campamento Poincenot, a free campsite located near the foot of Mount Fitz Roy. With about four hours’ hiking in total, this 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. After you exit the town and walk past the last of the cafés and lodges, you will reach the trail entrance on the left.
The first hour of the hike is the most difficult part of day one, as it’s mostly uphill with an elevation gain of about 300 metres. 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 up 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, try not to make too much 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 animal’s status, 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
While the sunrise at Laguna de los Tres may be the most sought-after picture, 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 from Camping Poincenot, and enjoy the view before bedding down for the night.
Day 2, part 1: the climb to Laguna de los Tres
- Distance: 2 kilometres (but with an elevation gain of 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. Ideally you should aim to arrive at the top at least 20 minutes before sunrise.
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 legendary 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)
The destination for the second day of this route is Camping de Agostini, a free campsite next to Laguna Torre.
It will feel like half of the day’s efforts had been crammed in before 8am. However, to get from Laguna de los Tres to Laguna Torre, there is still 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; although there is no elevation gain, this is 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 had stumbled across 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 hiking later that day.
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. It turned out to be more like 10 kilometres left in reality. Even though the final few kilometres were back on a section with markers, I struggled badly as I thought we would be done already.
One you rejoin the path with distance markers that leads towards Laguna Torre, you will reach Camping de Agostini at kilometre 9. Knowing the remaining distance can really help to push you mentally through the hike.
Torre Glacier: a rewarding spectacle
After arriving at Camping de Agostini and setting up for the night, you should still have 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 to the right 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 further 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)
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.
Don’t forget to stop occasionally and look back during the entire first 6 kilometres. 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 down 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, Burger and Beers on Avenida San Martin.
Laguna de los Tres and Mount Fitz Roy (2-day return hike)
- Distance: 24 kilometres
- Difficulty: mostly easy, but with two tough uphill sections
An alternative to the 3-day loop route is to simply hike to Laguna de los Tres and back over two days. This allows you to see that Fitz Roy sunrise view if you’re a bit short on time, or don’t want a longer hike.
The first day of this route is the same as the 3-day loop hike detailed above. Begin the second day the same as well, with an early ascent to Laguna de los Tres in time for sunrise. Then, simply return on the path you came, back to the north side of El Chaltén.
The return distance from Laguna de los Tres to El Chaltén is around 12 kilometres, so you can take this at a gentle pace and make it back with plenty of daylight hours remaining. The only tricky bits are the two descents at the beginning and end.
Day hikes from El Chaltén
You don’t need to camp overnight to see the scenery around El Chaltén. There are various day hikes that can be done from the town into Los Glaciares National Park to see the lakes, peaks, glaciers and more.
Laguna de Los Tres and Mount Fitz Roy
- Distance: 24 kilometres
- 8–10 hours
- Difficulty: requires a good level of fitness to cover the distance and two steep ascents in a day
While it is possible to hike all the way from El Chaltén to Laguna de los Tres and back in a day, there are some drawbacks to this option. First of all is the sheer distance – 24 kilometres in a day with two steep ascents is hard work.
A second downside is that by doing this route as a day hike, you miss out on the sunrise view of Mount Fitz Roy. However, seeing it in full midday sunlight is still a spectacular alternative, and you avoid the cold and dark of early morning.
Follow the same route outlined above for a two-day return hike. In total this involves around eight to ten hours of trekking as a day hike, so it’s best to set off early to allow some breathing space.
- Distance: 8 kilometres
- 3–4 hours
- Difficulty: easy (but begins with a short, steep uphill section)
Another classic day hike from El Chaltén leads to the tranquil shores of Laguna Capri for a beautiful alternative view of Mount Fitz Roy. This is a gentle route that can be done by hikers of all abilities.
The trail begins the same as the route to Laguna de los Tres. At the north side of town, enter at the trailhead and hike the first 3 kilometres up to Mirador del Fitz Roy. Then, when the gradient levels out, a path leads off to the left towards Laguna Capri. You will wander through forestland and past gurgling streams before arriving at the water’s edge.
This return hike can easily be done in a few hours, but there’s also a free campsite next to the lake if want to sleep among nature. In the summer you can even go for a dip in the water.
Laguna Torre and Mirador Maestri
- Distance: 23 kilometres
- 7–8 hours
- Difficulty: mostly easy, with a couple of manageable short uphill sections
Laguna Torre and Mirador Maestri can also be reached in a return day hike from El Chaltén. This is an easier hike than the one to Laguna de los Tres, as the climbs are much less steep. There are a couple of different trailheads to begin this hike, both at the south side of the town and the paths converge within a few minutes.
The most obvious path begins near Camping La Torcida and Hostel Kaiken, where you will see a path climbing a hill. At the top of the hill you will find a sign demarcating the official start of the trail. After a short climb, the path runs along the edge of Rio Fitz Roy before emerging onto broad plains, where you will see Cerro Torre in the distance.
At kilometre 9 you will reach the shore of Laguna Torre. You can walk an additional 2.5 kilometres around the Mirador Maestri for a glimpse of Glaciar Torre (see the section above on day 2, part 2 of the 3-day loop hike).
Mirador Los Cóndores and Las Aguilas
- Distance: 6 kilometres
- 2 hours
- Difficulty: easy
Probably the easiest way to catch a great view of Mount Fitz Roy and the surrounding landscape is to make the short return hike to Mirador Los Cóndores. You can combine this with a stop at Mirador Las Aguilas for an alternative view of the huge Lago Viedma.
The trailhead for this route begins as the National Park Visitors’ Centre at the south entrance to El Chaltén. The path to Mirador Los Cóndores is very well signposted from here. If you’re lucky you might see a few Andean condors – that is, after all, where the name comes from. On the way back you can detour via Mirador Las Aguilas, which is also clearly signposted.
Chorrillo del Salto
- Distance: 5 kilometres
- 2 hours
- Difficulty: easy
An easy alternative half-day return hike from El Chaltén begins at the north side of town and leads to the picturesque Salto waterfall. It’s a completely flat hike that culminates with a view of water flowing off a steep rock face into a spluttering river below.
To reach the trailhead, simply walk north out of town along Ruta 23. After a kilometre or so, you will see a path trailing off to the left, signposted towards Chorrillo Del Salto. The path traces alongside the main road before veering off to the left towards the waterfall.
Multi-day hike: the Huemul Circuit
- Distance: 70 kilometres
- 4–5 days
- Difficulty: one of Patagonia’s toughest hikes – experienced climbers only
The Huemul Circuit is considered one of the most difficult trails in Patagonia. If you are up for the challenge, then you can expect to see breathtaking scenes of mountain passes, remote lagoons, aerial glacier views and the vast expanse of the South Patagonian Ice Field.
This is a highly technical hike that includes climbings and river crossings, requiring specialist gear. It’s also quite easy to get lost as the route is not well marked. If you attempt it without a guide, you need to register for a permit the National Park Visitors’ Centre (which is also where the route begins). There is no entrance fee, but you may be charged a hefty fine if caught on the trail without a permit.
Wild campsites are located along the way for overnight stays with basic facilities. Check out this short video for an excellent overview of the Huemul Circuit route and what you can expect to see:
Food 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 and gas.
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 a good idea to pack some containers to eat from.
What to pack for El Chaltén trekking
For a comprehensive guide to what you need for trekking in Patagonia, see our packing list for the region. For your trek in El Chaltén, the most important things to take are:
- Sturdy hiking boots (read our guide to the best hiking boots)
- Waterproof and windproof hiking jacket
- Quality backpack that distributed weight well (read our guide to travel backpacks)
- 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
- Meals if multi-day trekking
- Plenty of trekking snacks
- ‘Camel pack’ water dispenser
Pumas and wild dogs
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 for pumas to attack humans though, and with some simple precautions you can keep yourself safe.
In campsites 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 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, which also details campsites, hostels and refugios around the town.
You can also check Booking.com for a range of accommodation options in El Chaltén.
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.
For more detailed information on the climate and seasons, check out our complete guide to the best times to visit Patagonia.
Do you have any experiences to share from El Chaltén? Please share in the comments section below.
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