The Patagonia Region: Mountains and Glaciers
Remote Hiking Towns in Argentina’s Patagonia
By Jared Shein
My dad is always searching for good trails, and, (lucky me), he usually takes me when he finds one. We’ve backpacked through Yellowstone, hiked in Denali National Park in Alaska, and trekked the Inca trail in Peru, but the plan for this past year was a new challenge.
We were going to the Patagonia region in the south of Argentina, where we were to spend our days hiking among some of the tallest mountains on the continent.
We started our trip in El Calafate. The small town is located on the southern border of Lake Argentino and is named after a little bush that is native to the region. Calafate also lies near Los Glaciares National Park, which is home to mountains Cerro Torre and Cerro Fitz Roy, as well as the first stop on our trip, the Perito Moreno Glacier.
We set off early the next morning bound for the national park, and the drive was stunning. Out the window, we saw hundreds of miles of grasslands, with fences on the roadside for grazing cattle, all leading up to towering mountains in the distance.
Our first encounter with the glacier was by boat. Most of Perito Moreno is up on the mountain range, but the edge of the glacier comes down into a lake. When we reached the glacier, it towered over our heads and it’s striking blue hues and jagged brown lines sparkled in the early-afternoon sunlight. Off to the far left, we could see ice climbers clomping about on the glacier, and chunks of ice crashing into the water.
Back in town, we went for a short bike ride and stopped at a small lake, where we saw locals relaxing after school and work near black-necked swans and a few flamingos. We went to town to look for some food and saw sign after sign for Jamon y queso and empanadas.
The next day we woke up early in the morning and boarded a bus to El Chalten. El Chalten is a 3-4 hour bus ride from Calafate and is located at the edge of the Southern Patagonian ice field. It’s many mountains and trails makes it the trekking capital of Patagonia, and the vast majority of local business is focused on tourism.
The bus ride was a lot like the one from the previous day. Out the window, we once again saw grasslands, miles of roadside fence, and the occasional animal, but the closer we got to Chalten, the more the view changed.
The region was becoming more mountainous, and Cerro Fitz Roy soon became visible. El Chalten is much smaller than El Calafate; this time everything was within walking distance, so when we got off the bus we decided to walk down the lazy streets to our hotel.
Everywhere we looked we saw hotels, restaurants, and little outdoors shops with hiking and climbing gear. We looked for some food, and once again found mostly Jamon y queso and empanadas.
Planning for the Week
We took a good look at the trail map of the area over another lunch of empanadas. There were all sorts of options, from easy two hour walks to difficult multi-day journeys. It was already mid-afternoon by the time we arrived so we decided to take it easy the first day and do a quick two-hour hike to a waterfall.
Even the easiest hike in the area had some really sweet views. The waterfall was nice, but on our way back we got a great view of the small town amongst the surrounding mountains; it was just so different from any other town I had seen before.
Laguna De Los Tres
The next morning we were a bit more aggressive. We spoke to the owner of our hotel and she recommended the hike to Laguna De Los Tres, so we hopped into a van and took a bumpy ride to the start of the trail.
We seriously lucked out.
It’s often difficult to plan trips to places with tall mountains, as even a reasonably cloudy day can completely block the peak from view, but that morning there was not a cloud in the sky.
The hike started in a forest, and as we walked we got some good views of the mountain and the glacier, but they were nothing compared to what was to come. A few hours in, the forest began to clear up and we walked in a lush valley, filled with trees and different colored Patagonian bushes. The weather also changed as we hiked, and the sky started filling with cirrus clouds that blocked the sky, but not the mountain.
The opportunity to see Laguna De Los Tres has to be worked for, and around midway through the hike, we reached a steep mile-long climb. My dad and I are pretty serious hikers, but even we struggled at times to climb the steep steep trail.
Around 45 minutes in things started to level out, and the scene started to change. Instead of trees and bushes, we were surrounded by rocks, and the view of the mountains was now a view of the valley.
We walked a little more, went over a small hill, and there it was.
The mountains were imposing.
The water was so blue.
The contrast between the two looked straight out of a Patagonia postcard.
Out of all of the hikes I’ve been on, this glacial lagoon is the most beautiful sight I’ve seen.
We sat down to take it all in while we munched on dulce de leche and banana sandwiches.
After lunch, we returned down the mountain and finished the hike. We got back to our hotel exhausted and asked the owner for a dinner recommendation, making sure to tell her that we don’t eat ham and that we were sick of empanadas.
I’m not big on giving restaurant recommendations. I think one of the great parts of traveling is strolling around a town and finding small hole in the wall spots that haven’t yet been overrun by tourists, but if you ever find yourself in El Chalten you should most certainly go to Maffia.
They make their pasta fresh every day and pair it well with sauces and a wide selection of local wines. The place also has a nice homey atmosphere and isn’t afraid to really pack people in. We ended up sitting at a table with a couple from the UK who told us all about their recent honeymoon adventures around South America.
Return to Buenos Aires
The next day we woke up to sore legs and bad weather so we decided to take it easy and relax. We had mostly recovered the day after that, and the nice weather was back, so we hiked to Laguna Torre. This was a much shorter hike than Los Tres, and although it was quite nice, it didn’t compare to the majesty of the scene from two days before.
The next morning we bussed back to El Calafate and flew back to Buenos Aires. We spent the weekend there walking around the city and going to a few art museums.
BA is a unique place. I was expecting to be dwarfed by tall buildings in the international renown capital but was instead met with mid-sized stone buildings with early 20th century features.
My dad and I have been to many places, and Argentian was definitely a unique one. The ease of getting to such remote towns was great, and the views and hikes from El Chalten were truly special.
Visit the Argentina tourism website here.