Patagonia ARGENTINA: El Chalten & Cerro Fitz Roy
You’ve seen this mountain range before. Not only in pictures online, you’ve seen a stylized version of this exact set of peaks in the logo of the outdoor apparel company Patagonia. My trip to Argentinian Patagonia would not have been complete without a visit to see Cerro Fitz Roy (Mount Fitz Roy) named after English navy captiain Robert Fitz Roy who had led voyages to Patagonia in the days of Darwin.
the road to El Chalten
The easiest way to lay your eyes on Monte Fitz Roy in person is to fly to El Calafate airport and take a bus or rent a car and drive to the town of El Chaltén. I rented a car in town in El Calafate, which ended up being very expensive since all reasonably priced rentals were sold out (I highly recommend reserving in advance or just taking the bus). The drive to El Chaltén was about 3 hours, entirely through the desert. I had expected the drive to take us along dramatic mountain roads, but instead it was all flat, dry desert. Some of the drive was alongside the brilliant blue lakes Lago Argentino and Lago Viedma, or crossing the winding teal river that connects the two. My travel companion Alex and I picked up a young German couple who were hitchhiking, just two of the many backpackers looking to catch a ride between the two towns.
Not too far out of El Calafate, Fitz Roy came into view in the distance. It was a perfectly sunny day without a single cloud, I couldn’t believe our luck. As we continued to drive, the mountain became clearer and larger, until we were directly below it in the town of El Chaltén.
I am not sure what I was expecting El Chaltén to be like, but the town was not it. The small town was lacking any culture or charm that one would expect from a South American village nestled below one of the worlds most beautiful mountain ranges. I learned that the town was established in 1985 as the result of a border dispute between Argentina and Chile as to which country possessed the land. The large majority of the buildings and businesses in El Chaltén have popped up in the last couple of decades to cater to tourists, trekkers and mountaineers, so the town feels more like a backpacker’s outpost than anything.
TREKKING TO FITZ ROY
Prior to this, the most I had hiked in a day was probably 6 miles, and that was a flat walk which I thought was long. The trek to the lake Laguna de los Tres below Cerro Fitz Roy is 10-12 miles with an almost 3000 ft elevation gain, and I was nervous about doing it. As someone in average shape, but with below average lower body and cardio ability, I doubted whether I’d actually be able to make it that far (I’m more of a swimmer or climber, but have always been SLOW at running and hiking uphill). El Chaltén is Argentina’s “Capital of Trekking”, and trekking I was there to do. I had come to see the turquoise lake Laguna de Los Tres below those infamous mountain peaks, no matter if I had to crawl to see it.
The next morning Alex and I woke up early and drove north out of town to Hosteria El Pilar to begin our hike. If you have a car (or somebody like us who is kind enough to pick you up hitchhiking), you can drive to El Pilar rather than begin your hike from town. This shaves off a bit of time from the hike, as well as the beginning and end (less scenic) portion in and out of town.
As we started to walk from the parking area near El Pilar, I was feeling like we had chosen a less than ideal day to be hiking. The icy winds making their way down the mountainside were vey strong and unlike the day before, the sky was entirely cloudy. We had picked up two young French guys at the edge of town and given them a lift to El Pilar, and we decided why not do the hike together. The guys weren’t the least bit deterred by the wind, nor were other hikers making their way along the trail, so I kept on going.
And going. And going. Aaaaaaand going.
After a few miles all of the hiking started to pay off… jaw-dropping views of glaciers tucked between mountains and melting into crystal blue lakes.
We stopped and enjoyed the view before hiking another mile and another view would beg to be admired and photographed. At about the halfway point (time-wise, not distance-wise) we arrived to a valley where there was a hike-in only campground. If I do this hike again, I am definitely going to break it up by camping the night. Upon leaving the camping area we came to a bridge over a small river, Rio Blanco, which had that brilliant opaque whitish-bluish color and signs inviting us to drink straight from the river. One of my favorite things about this hike was that I could fill my water bottle straight from the lake or river and therefore did not have to carry more than one bottle in my pack.
Then came my least favorite part of the hike; the steep, rocky, mile long climb to the lake. The last mile took me over an hour, I had to watch my step so carefully and stop to catch my breath many times.
At the lake there were very strong winds, but the view of Fitz Roy and Laguna de Los Tres was gloriously clear. We and our French hiker friends took turns taking photos of one another before sitting and taking it all in. We had a long hike back and the winds were so strong that we were considering starting our hike back when I remembered a friend’s recommendation to see Lago Sucia, another lake tucked below this one. You would completely miss seeing Lago Sucia if you did not know to look for it. We walked down to the shore of Lago de los Tres and continued to the left to where Lago Sucia could be seen quite far below. I walked up a tall hill between the two lakes to capture both in one photograph. In the time that passed since we arrived to the lake, the strong wind had completely dissolved along with most of the clouds over Fitz Roy, and the lake had become perfectly still. Its crazy how quickly the weather changes in Patagonia (in this case for the better, but also it could just as easily change for the worse).
Visited March 2016
All photos by Renee Lusano