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Is it worth going El Chalten, Argentina’s hiking capital, in Autumn? This is a question that puzzled us for weeks. Summer is the peak hiking season but we could only get there for the end of May at the earliest, by which time Autumn would be in full swing. More than seventy five per cent of the town’s businesses would be shut, many of the hikes would be impassable, and the chance of clouds and rain was high. It wasn’t clear we’d be able to do anything – but still we wanted to go. So many people had waxed lyrical about El Chalten’s beauty that we were curious to at least try and see for ourselves. So we decided to risk it and booked three nights in one of the town’s only open hotels, La Guanaca.
We arrived to grey clouds and drizzle in a town that appeared to have more dogs than people. We were told it was surrounded by mountains, but all we could see was mist. Bars, restaurants, tour operators and hotels displayed closed signs on every road – we’d landed in an abandoned ghost town.
Slowly we discovered a few places that were open for part of each day – a hire shop, a few restaurants, a surprisingly well-stocked supermarket and Rancho Grande Hostel with wi-fi. Our room at La Guanaca was cosy, and we passed the rainy days learning the ukulele, playing Scrabble and puzzling over the town’s tiny houses. We could have hiked, but it didn’t tempt us without the views.
Our plan was to stay two days, but on the second we were told that clearer skies were forecast for the third, and perfect weather for the fourth. The town’s residents were passionate about the scenery and we were convinced to stay.
On that third morning, we woke up and opened our door to more than two foot of snow – the first of the season.
El Chalten had been transformed into a winter wonderland, and what had looked forlorn, now looked charming and enchanted. When we peered out of our window, we were astounded to see the mountains, obscured but visible amid the clouds. It was mind-boggling to know they’d been hiding there all along.
Patagonia is famous for hiking, so that day, we decided to do one of the short walks to the Mirador de Los Condors. Visibility still wasn’t perfect so we wanted to save a longer hike for the next day when clear skies were promised.
We climbed up to through snow drenched trees…
…and played like children in the freshly fallen snow.
The view of the town was beautiful.
…and the Fitz Roy range appeared like a phantom from behind the clouds.
We even did some mountain-top networking for Steve’s company Planetary Collective!
After our walk, we noticed a building we hadn’t seen before. A fire roared inside and we were drawn in by the promise of warmth and coziness. It turned out to be the Hotel Aldea with its own whiskey bar, complete with sofas looking out onto the magnificent Fitz Roy mountian. It became our favourite place and we went every day after.
With wi-fi, we could even get some work done. The owner, Eduardo, became a friend, and we interviewed him for If I had a Superpower. He takes photos of Fitz Roy every day because “When you love a mountain, each day it reveals more beauty.”
On the fourth day, the weather forecast was right, and El Chalten revealed itself beneath a clear and sunny sky. Fitz Roy glowed pink in the morning light.
…past sweeping mountain views…
…and busy red woodpeckers.
We could see Fitz Roy in all its glory, with mist rising from its peak – a feature that earned the town its name (Chalten comes from a Tehuelche word meaning ‘smoking mountain’).
Our final destination was the lake, which had frozen over in the cold. It was gloriously serene and we felt like we were in Narnia.
During the Summer, people camp at the lake on the way to Lago de los Tres. The grass is green and the sun warm, but as the wind blew across the ice and froze our fingers, we could barely imagine it.
We passed no more than six people along the way. It was blissfully deserted; scarce footprints in the snow, the only sign of human life. All this beauty, plus the forecast’s promise of another clear day made us decide to stay for two nights more. There are two main hikes possible in the snow and we wanted to try the other – to see the Glacier Grande and get a better view of the Cerro Torre mountain.
The walk was flatter than the previous day but the snow just as deep. We reached the mirador in two hours and were greeted by spectacular views of the mountain range, with its ice-cream like glacier slipping down its sides.
…and became entranced by the intricacies of snow.
From here, we could have hiked another two hours for a view of the Laguna Torre, but time was getting on and we couldn’t risk the dark (we had been lazy and gotten up too late!).
On our way home we passed more little houses, which we now knew were for the seasonal workers – an economical option in a town with steep land prices and camping restrictions for workers.
It’s also a town that attracts stoners with creative architecture ideas, like this diagonal home.
So there is our pictorial answer to whether or not it’s worth visiting El Chalten in Autumn. We are sure that summertime is beautiful, and we’d love to go to Lago de los Tres, but our snowy El Chalten was magical and its majesty had a profound effect. With no crowds, it felt intimate and serene, and we found the peace we’d been craving. It was always a risk that the clouds would persist, but we think it was a risk well worth taking.
El Chalten travel tips
- The visitor centre at the entrance to El Chalten provides a map and details of the self-guided hikes in the region. They can also tell you which ones are safe to pass that day.
- During autumn/winter, a Chalten Travel bus runs from El Chalten to El Calafate twice every day in the morning and early evening. It runs even in the snow. There is also a once-weekly bus to Rio Gallegos.
- Although much of the town is closed, there are still supermarkets, restaurants, bars, travel agents and hire shops open in autumn/winter. There is also an ATM, but it’s unreliable so it’s best to bring enough money with you.
- The most popular time to visit El Chalten is in the summer when the hiking season is in full swing. The most popular hikes are to Laguna de los Tres, which is a round-trip from the town that takes eight hours, and another to Laguna Torre that takes six hours. We did the trek to Laguna Torre in the snow and it was perfectly doable. We didn’t go to Laguna de los Tres as it would have been treacherous in the snow.
- If you’re looking to include El Chalten as part of a larger Patagonia trip, this 28 or 14-day Patagonia itinerary is really helpful.
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