El Chalten & Fitz Roy
|Laguna de los Tres and Fitz Roy
After a few days in Buenos Aires, on the morning of December 13th I boarded an Aerolineas Argentinas Boeing 737 at Aeroparque Jorge Newbery (the primarily domestic airport in Buenos Aires) for about a three hour flight to El Calafate, a city in the southern part of Argentina. The view from the plane window gradually changed from the flat, moist subtropical land around Buenos Aires to the arid steppe in the south all while roughly following the Atlantic coastline. As we approached El Calafate, the white caps of the distant Andes came into view, then Viedma Lake appeared, and finally Argentino Lake appeared just before the plane landed on a runway along its southern shore.
They cool, dry wind was a pleasant change from the heat of Buenos Aires, but I had a another three hour ride, this time in a van to El Chalten, before I could enjoy it. Not long after departing the airport we stopped briefly at the eastern end of Argentino Lake to take in the views of the largest lake entirely within Argentina. About halfway through the drive we stopped at La Leona, the only human habitation between the airport and El Chalten, on the banks La Leona River, which flows from Viedma Lake to Argentino Lake. There is a full restaurant here, but we just grabbed empanadas, snacks, and drinks before continuing on the drive. From La Leona, the road continues along Viedma Lake for much of the remainder of the route before arriving in El Chalten.
|El Chalten welcome sign with Fitz Roy in the background
El Chalten is a small town built in the 1980s at the confluence of the Rio de los Vueltos and the Rio Fitz Roy within Los Glaciares National Park. The town is entirely dependent on tourism and is known as the trekking capital of Argentina because of the extensive network of hiking trails in the area. The town is so small we could walk across it in 15 minutes and had no need for the one taxi that apparently operates here. We arrived at Hotel Fitz Roy in the middle of the afternoon and got our first experience of what seemed to be universal among hotels in Patagonia: excessively hot rooms that can only be cooled down by opening your window. Hotel Fitz Roy was also the most unappealing hotel on the entire trip, but it would have to make do for only two nights.
|Crossing the Rio Fitz Roy towards the visitor center in Los Glaciares National Park. Los Condores viewpoint is at the top of the cliff directly behind the bridge.
Because it was so close to the summer solstice, it didn't get dark until after 10:00 pm, so we went for a hike that afternoon. It was about a 15 minute walk across town to the visitor center at Los Glaciares National Park on the other side of the Rio Fitz Roy. The primary destination from this trailhead is Los Condores viewpoint, but trail to the the nearby Las Aguilas viewpoint splits just a short distance (about a five minute walk) below Los Condores viewpoint.
|The trail to the viewpoints above El Chalten
From Los Condores viewpoint you can look across the town, rivers, and mountains with a view of Fitz Roy all from the top of the cliff above the visitor center. The view from Las Aguilas includes an unobscured vista to the south to Viedma Lake and a higher view of the mountains, but the town and most of the rivers are not visible from this point. We were fortunate that there were relatively few clouds this day, which gave us great views of the mountains. It was along the trail between the two viewpoints where I got my first view of Andean condors, with several perched on a cliff only a couple hundred feet above the trail.
|Panorama from Las Aguilas viewpoint
After returning to town we went to a shop near the northern end of town to reserve any gear we wanted for the next couple of days; I only reserved hard-bottomed boots for ice climbing. We then stopped at a small store to buy snacks for the next few days and then went on to Aires Patagonicos, a restaurant and bar where we tried the beer from the microbrewery in El Chalten. The beer was decent, but unfortunately it would turn out to be the best beer during the entire trip.
We then returned to the hotel, showered, dropped off our stuff, and walked across town to have dinner at La Tapera, which turned out to be a fairly good restaurant. By the time we were walking back from dinner at almost 10:00 pm the clouds were completely gone from the mountains as they glowed orange in the rays of the setting sun. We stopped at a small restaurant across the street from the hotel to order bag lunches for the following day's hike as well as to reserve breakfast for that morning as we were advised that it offered a better breakfast than that at our hotel. This better breakfast ended up consisting of the standard ham and cheese with toast and also scrambled eggs - the only time breakfast included eggs on the entire trip. To say the least, I was entirely disappointed by every breakfast I had on the trip.
|9:40 pm in El Chalten
Following breakfast we began our walk to the northern end of town where we reached the trail that would take us to Laguna de Los Tres, the most popular hiking destination in El Chalten. The hike typically takes about 4-5 hours and gains about 750 meters in elevation over the course of 10.2 kilometers - all one way - making for a long day hike. Immediately after departing the trailhead, the trail climbs up a steep slope for a relatively short distance before emerging at an overlook above the Rio de los Vueltos. After this point the trail gains elevation only at moderate rates for most of its length.
|View across Rio de los Vueltos
|Mirador del Fitz Roy
Much of the early part of the hike is through forest, but soon enough you'll reach the Mirador del Fitz Roy where you get your first great view of the mountains (assuming there aren't many clouds). Once past this point the hike is quite easy until you reach the crossing of the Rio Blanco, and there are great views of the surrounding mountains for much of this section. The Rio Blanco is a good place to refill on water (all the water in Patagonia - in towns, streams, lakes - is potable without filtration) before starting the final climb to the lake. This last section of the trail is the most difficult and gains about 500 meters in elevation in a relatively short distance, but once you reach the top of the trail you're at the destination and are treated to an amazing view of Laguna de los Tres and Fitz Roy.
|Along the trail to Laguna de los Tres
When we reached the lake there were some clouds around the summit of Fitz Roy, but right before we were about to leave nearly all the clouds disappeared. We spent nearly an hour around the lake, first having lunch on the moraine, then exploring around the lake, and then walking up the small ridge on the south side of Laguna de los Tres. The south side of this ridge drops nearly 300 meters straight down to Laguna Sucia, an even more spectacular lake. The moment I reached the top of the ridge a large chunk of the small alpine glacier above this lake broke off, shattered, and cascaded down the cliffs into the lake appearing like a roaring waterfall.
The notorious Patagonian summer wind wasn't very bad at Laguna de los Tres, though we were treated to sporadic bursts of rain and snow. Overall the weather for this hike was great, and on the hike back to town, rather than taking the route back to Mirador del Fitz Roy, we went by Laguna Capri for one last view of Fitz Roy before making the final descent. This turned out to be my favorite hike of the entire trip. Back in town, we stopped to drop off our great we rented for the Fitz Roy hike and picked up gear we rented for ice climbing and went to Aires Patagonicos for happy hour again. We went to Estepa Resto & Bar for dinner on our final night in El Chalten, and it turned out to be a great choice for dinner.
|The view to to the east and the best extent of the sunrise from Los Condores viewpoint
I decided to wake up at 4:30 the following morning and hike back up to Los Condores viewpoint to hopefully catch an amazing sunrise on the Fitz Roy massif. Despite being covered in clouds when I left the hotel, I maintained hope that they would clear out by the time I reached my destination. Unfortunately I was only able to see a small bit of the sunrise to the east, and the mountains remained enshrouded in clouds until I left the viewpoint at 6:30 am. We chose not to reserve a disappointing breakfast at the restaurant as we did the previous day and rather ate the hotel's breakfast and food we purchased at the store on our first day in town. After breakfast we walked to an outfitter in town to be transported to Viedma Lake to begin our day-long ice climbing excursion on the Viedma Glacier.
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