The jewel in Patagonia’s crown
Hiking in El Chalten
The road to El Chalten is now paved. It wasn’t always this way, but there reached a point where there was no denying it – word had got around and the travellers were coming here. What was once the quiet commune of the slow backpackers and serious trekkers is quickly becoming one of the most popular spots in southern Patagonia. And you can see why.
The town sits in a valley surrounded by mountains. White-capped, jagged and imposing, they and the paths within them are the main drawcard. Here, deep within Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park, are some of the most stunning views and scenery of South America.
Climbing Fitzroy Mountain
The jewel in the crown is Fitzroy Mountain and the hike to it – and it’s a fitting description as the peak looks like a crown from a distance. The final ascent is for only the most experienced of rock climbers and has defeated many who have tried to summit it. But for those of us without the equipment, skills or inclination to brave the cold sheer cliffs, it’s possible to hike close enough to truly marvel at its sight.
For nine hours I walked along the tracks to the lake at the base of Fitzroy’s peak, through camping sites, across rivers, through forests and with a detour to a blueish-white glacier slowly making its way down another slope. Every turn of the path revealed another photo opportunity, each seemingly more picture-perfect than the last.
In the air was a crispness that I had forgotten existed after so much time in the cities of the continent. It had a smell that was defined more by the absence of human activity than by the trees, the cold, the water and the purity from which it came. Breathing was heavy during the times I was climbing up steep paths, but it was a pleasure to inhale this air, not a chore.
Staying in El Chalten
Although you can camp overnight in parts of the national park – and many people chose to do that – I stayed in El Chalten during the nights and ventured out for day trips. To keep my daypack light, I carried only the essentials which, although this sounds strange, didn’t include water. Alongside many of the trails run rivers, the water tumbling over rocks as it races downhill. And those rivers have all originated from the glaciers you can see at the top of some of the mountains. Natural spring water companies like to boast about the freshness of their product. I’ll tell you what, you can’t get much fresher than this. And it was delicious water too.
El Chalten and its surrounds is the kind of place you can get lost in. Not literally (the tracks for hiking are quite well-marked), but figuratively. It’s a world away from the rest of the world, and it’s no wonder it’s one of the fastest-growing tourist stops in Patagonia.
* For information on El Chalten you can check out this website.