Looking for the perfect weekend getaway? Somewhere with idyllic, painterly landscapes? Mountains that look like they’ve been ripped from a science fiction fantasy novel? And adventure activities, like ice climbing, trekking on glaciers, and extreme mountain climbing? Yes? Then El Chaltén, in the southern regions of Patagonia, Argentina, could be for you.
That unless you live in El Calafate, Argentina – three hours drive away – you aren’t likely to make it to El Chaltén on a regular weekend. The trip time isn’t too bad if you live in, say, Buenos Aires, from where you could probably reach El Chaltén in around seven hours. But beyond that it really starts to add up. If you’re from the USA, expect it to take between 20 and 24 hours to reach El Chaltén. From London make it 26 hours. And if you’re coming from Sydney, Australia, then all up it’s going to take around 38 hours with good connections.
38 hours is more or less the whole weekend gone, and you’ve only just arrived.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t come to El Chaltén, it just means you ought to take more time off.
What has El Chaltén got going for it?
Cerro Fitz Roy, El Chaltén
Cerro Fitz Roy (Mount Fitz Roy), which lies on the border between Argentina and Chile, was named in honour of Robert Fitz Roy, captain of the HMS Beagle (the ship that carried a young naturalist, by the name of Charles Darwin, on his exploration of Patagonia in the 1830s). At 3,405 metres it’s the highest peak in Los Glaciares National Park, and due to the technical challenges it offers, it is summited by mountain climbers just once a year on average.
And if the outline of the Cerro Fitz Roy range appears oddly familiar, that might be because you recognise it as the logo of clothing company Patagonia. (Although, I must admit, when I compare the two I struggle to see more than the barest similarities.)
Cerro Torre, El Chaltén
Cerro Torre, at 3,128 metres elevation, is a touch shorter than Cerro Fitz Roy, but it is the tougher climb of the two, and generally regarded as one of the most difficult climbs in the world. John Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air and Into the Wild, describes the peak as a frightening, mile-high spike of vertical and overhanging granite (this quote is taken from his book Eiger Dreams in which he gives an account of his successful summit of Cerro Torre in 1992).
His words, though fitting, are those of a mountaineer, and offer little in the way of romantic allusion. To me – someone who has no intention of going anywhere near the peak of Cerro Torre – the sharp, jagged profile of the mountain puts me in mind of a fractured tusk, a shattered talon, a broken sword.
Glaciar Grande, El Chaltén
Glaciar Grande (Grande Glacier) is one of the many glaciers connected to the Southern Patagonian Ice Field (which, measuring 350 kilometres in length, is the second largest contiguous stretch of ice in the world outside of Antarctica).
Glacier hiking, El Chaltén
A hike on Glaciar Grande makes for a fine day out. Strap on some crampons, grab a local guide (a guide is a must if you want to avoid falling down a crevasse), and trek up, over, and through the seracs (ice columns).
Most glacier hikes include a token attempt at ice climbing, and, when you’re done with that, a nip of whiskey chilled by 10,000-year-old glacier ice. The tour I went on didn’t provide any whiskey, so I made do with a 10,000-year-old ice block, which I snapped off a nearby serac.
Why come to El Chaltén?
Because it is a long, long, long way from home. Spend the weekend there, then extend your trip so that you can stay another week. Then quit your job and become a glacier trekking guide.
Drink in those mountains.
Revel in the sublime.
Practical information and how to reach El Chaltén:
El Chaltén is a 2 – 3 hour drive from El Calafate in southern Argentina. There are public buses that run at least daily.
Read more on Los Glaciares National Park in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.