El Chaltén – Argentina
Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, the Hielos Sur Ice Cap – it’s no wonder Chaltén has quickly become Argentina’s trekking capital.
Foreign visitors per year: 50,000+
Language: Argentine Spanish
Unit of currency: Argentine peso (AR$)
Cost index: 970ml bottle of beer AR$15-50 (US$2-6), campsite AR$50-60 (US$6-8), all-you-can-eat asado AR$100-150 (US$12-20), seven-day guided glacier trek (from US$2000)
Why go ASAP?
Take a stunningly beautiful Zermatt, raze everything over two storeys (or three stars!), fill it with a motley collection of artisans, entrepreneurs and students, add a gaucho or two, then turn a cyclone loose, and you’ll be getting close to the vibe of Argentina’s newest city. While the town (`city’ is an overstatement) is towered over by jagged 3405m Monte Fitz Roy and enigmatic, ice-rimed Cerro Torre (3102m), its barrios include the 726,927 hectares of pristine World Heritage glaciers, peaks, lakes, forests and waterfalls of the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares.
Throw in the second-largest chunk of ice outside polar regions, the wild and mysterious Hielos Sur (Southern Patagonian Ice Cap), and it’s no wonder Chaltén has quickly become Argentina’s trekking capital.
Even ‘town’ is optimistic. There’s still a village atmosphere, aided and abetted by a straggly main drag, unsealed side roads, lack of mobile phone reception, flakey internet, and a single ATM (which routinely runs out of cash on weekends). The closest airport is three hours away and the only civilised way into town is along Ruta 23 from El Calafate. But this just adds to Chaltén’s quirky appeal.
Make no mistake, it’s Los Glaciares that people come to see, and there are plenty of trails, views and peaks for enthusiasts of all capabilities, from half-day lakeside meanders to fully tooled week¬long sorties out on the ice cap. And if walking or getting vertical doesn’t do it for you, consider horseback, mountain bikes, fishing or sucking on a hand-crafted ale among other diversions. Officialdom is refreshingly laid-back.
Festivals & Events:
Commemorating the first Argentine ascent of Fitz Roy, the annual Fiesta Nacional del Trekking in March sees numerous cross-country endurance events held in the surrounding hills.
Desafio Chaltén (Chaltén Challenge) every April combines mountain biking with trekking in an adventure racing.
Long summer days; hand-crafted beers; plastic travel gourds for mate (great for hiking if you’ve become addicted to Argentina’s national drink); coffee socks (reusable cloth filters, the best way for a caffeine hit on the trail)
Los vientos (wind). Screaming in off the ice cap like a demented banshee, it will shred tents, knock over fully laden trekkers and blow any loose gear into Tierra del Fuego.
The snow crunches underfoot as you stop to catch your breath out on the Hielos Sur, a vast expanse of white that stretches mind-bendingly to infinity. Or at least to Chile, where in the distance a range of nunatuks (exposed peaks) look like smashed pavlova. Shackleton eat your heart out!
Sit in the cold above Laguna Los Tres watching the first rays of dawn turn the sheer east face of Fitz Roy into molten lava.
Walk into town using the Chilean back door, via Lago O’Higgins and Laguna del Desierto, a multi-day wilderness crossing that sees only a handful of travellers.
The first apres-trek beer, a long-neck Quilmes Bock scoffed outside el supermercado. You haven’t even taken your pack off.
Mobile phone access. Should it come or not? Will it be the end of business or the end of the world? Everyone in town has an opinion.
Classic restaurant experience:
Vegetarians stop reading now. After days on the trail eating dehydrated soups and two-minute noodles, there is one dining experience in town that shouldn’t be missed, one whose mere mention brings saliva to jaded tastebuds. The all-you-can-eat asado. Argentines do barbecue meat with a religious fervour, and the asado, complete with charcoal firepit and crucified whole carcasses, is a meat-lover’s nirvana. Well, until the day after, when you decide to eat salad for the next week. Look for a tin shed north of Relinchos with the words ‘all you can eat’ and `parilla’ outside, but really, any parilla (grill) will do.
Classic place to stay:
It’s busy, cramped and sometimes downright uncomfortable, but there’s no greater (nor cheaper) melting pot of travellers than Camping Relincho. Perched above the Rio de las Vueltas, campers seek shelter behind trees, fences, cars, anything vaguely out of the wind. Your next-door neighbours could be a pair of hard-core Slovenian climbers, a well-groomed Buenos Aires family spanning three generations, or a lone Aussie motorbiker. When the wind is blowing a gale and your tent is bending double, the warm, cheery, chaotic communal kitchen is a refugio in every sense of the word, and somehow, everyone still manages to charge their mobile phones, even though they can’t use them.