I journeyed to El Chaltén on Argentina’s legendary Ruta 40, also known as RN 40 or Route 40. Running parallel to the Andes for the length of the country, Ruta 40 is one of the world’s great driving adventures, alongside U.S. Route 66 and Canada’s Trans-Canada Highway. The remote section of road near El Chaltén passes through the windy Patagonian Desert, devoid of life except for occasional guanacos and condors circling high above. Near El Chaltén, I stopped alongside the road to take a photo of the dramatic Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Terre mountain massifs, a classic shot that I’ve seen in countless Patagonia articles.
El Chaltén didn’t exist when Mountain of Storms, my favorite Patagonia documentary, was filmed in 1968. The Argentinians founded the town in 1985 to claim territory disputed with the Chileans. Each summer, elite climbers make the pilgrimage to El Chaltén to climb the jagged peaks of Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. Hikers flock to the self-proclaimed “trekking capital of Argentina” to trek the world-class trails in the northern section of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares.
I arrived in El Chaltén on Christmas Eve and immediately felt at home in the outdoorsy town, as everyone I met was also there to trek. While drinking craft beers at a pub with other trekkers, I learned that most of them were hiking to the Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre viewpoints over two days. Christmas was my only day in El Chaltén, and I wanted to see both of the famous peaks up close. I had no option but to attempt trekking both Sendero al Fitz Roy and Sendero al Torre in one day.
On Christmas morning, my driver dropped me off on Ruta 21 near the entrance of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, the start of Sendero al Fitz Roy. Following the trail alongside the Rio Blanco, I hiked without stopping until reaching Mirador Piedras Blancas, a lookout of Glaciar Piedras Blancas. After admiring the glacier, I continued trekking through the forest and grasslands to a campsite, where I started ascending the steep section of the trail. Before noon, I arrived at Laguna de los Tres, a glacial lake and the Cerro Fitz Roy viewpoint. Clouds were obscuring the mountain, but the clouds dissipated as I ate my packed lunch, revealing the iconic Cerro Fitz Roy. I couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas present.
As I gazed at Cerro Fitz Roy, I thought about the world-class climbers who summit the jagged monolith of granite and ice “because it’s there”. Yvon Chouinard (Patagonia founder) and the late Doug Tompkins (The North Face founder) were among the five “Fun Hogs” who spent 31 days in a snow cave before achieving one of the early summits in 1968. More recently in 2014, Tommy Caldwell (The Dawn Wall) and Alex Honnold (Free Solo) were the first to climb across the ridgeline of Cerro Fitz Roy and its satellite peaks, a feat referred to as the “Fitz Traverse”. The Fitz Roy Range is probably second only to Yosemite in the annals of rock climbing.
After lunch, I backtracked the steep section of the trail and joined Sendero Laguna Madre E Hija, a splinter trail connecting Sendero al Fitz Roy with Sendero al Torre. While gazing back at Cerro Fitz Roy, I noticed that the outline of the mountain is identical to the Patagonia clothing logo on this section of trail. After hours of trekking past Laguna Madre and Laguna Hija, I reached Sendero al Torre and began hiking towards Cerro Torre. The other hikers had already completed their day hike to the Cerro Torre viewpoint and were walking in the opposite direction to El Chaltén. The Patagonian summer days are long, so I continued trekking towards Cerro Torre, knowing that I wouldn’t have to find my way back to El Chaltén in the dark. Arriving at Laguna Torre in the late afternoon, I peered across the glacial lake at the stunning rock needle of Cerro Torre. It was a satisfying moment, having realized my modest ambition of trekking both Sendero al Fitz Roy and Sendero al Torre.
While I had several hours of daylight remaining, I decided to increase my pace when returning to El Chaltén so that I could arrive in time for a Christmas BBQ at the hostel. I cinched my backpack tight to my body and ran for miles in my heavy hiking boots. As I ran up and down slopes of patchy, dry-land vegetation, I felt blisters forming on my feet. Upon cresting each hill, I wished that El Chaltén would appear. Finally, at around 6:30 pm, I descended the final hill into El Chaltén. The Health app on my phone said that my Walking + Running Distance was 25 miles.
El Chaltén is a paradise for outdoor adventurers–it’s my favorite town in Argentina. Sadly, with only ten days of holiday remaining, I couldn’t linger. The next morning I departed El Chaltén for El Calafate, the gateway to the Perito Moreno Glacier.