On the topic of trekking in Patagonia, the two names most bandied about: Chile's Torres del Paine and Argentina's El Chalten.
Although their hunks of uplifted granite are similar enough, the prevailing style of hikes they offer are quite different.
Whereas the “W” and Circuit treks at Torres del Paine are mainly about the long haul, El Chalten's strength: its day hikes.
On the edge of Argentina's Glacier National Park (Parque Nacional Los Glaciares), El Chalten also offers the thrill of nature at a lower cost than its Chilean neighbor — with the added feature of a microbrewery on the way home from the hills.
In other words, two Patagonian trekking centers; two rather different experiences.
El Chalten and Landscape Fatigue
Like so many Argentine Patagonian towns, El Chalten sprouted out of the vastness in the mid 1980s. Although the impetus for its existence was a border dispute with the Chileans, it now exists as a trekking center almost solely to serve tourists. As such, you don't come to El Chalten to immerse yourself in local history and indigenous culture — something already severely lacking throughout Patagonia. Rather, you come to El Chalten – nicknamed “The Trekking Capital of Argentina” – to trek.
In full disclosure, by the time we arrived in El Chalten we were experiencing a bit of landscape fatigue. We had just come off a trip to Antarctica, six days trekking around Torres del Paine, a look at Perito Moreno Glacier near El Calafate and a bevy of busrides across the vast, remote nothingness along Patagonia's Route 40 (Ruta 40). In spite of that, El Chalten turned out to be a pleasant surprise and struck us as a trekking compromise for someone who wants a taste of big nature with some creature comforts and apres-hike treats like local microbrew tasting and handmade pasta sampling thrown in.
El Chalten Treks – The Long and Short of It
Because the snowcapped peaks, lakes and glaciers are within several hours of the town, it's more than thinkable to sleep in, have a long breakfast, check your email, read a book, eat lunch — and then decide you want to get a bit of exercise and nature. Head out in early afternoon along the Laguna Capri or Laguna Torre paths for a half-day fix of exercise and shutterbugging.
For a longer walk after breakfast, tackle Laguna de Los Tres or Piedras Blancas a bit further afield. Don't be scared off by the estimated walking times on the maps and trail paths; you will likely complete the walks well ahead of the estimates (always nice for one's self confidence).
And for the hardcore trekkers out there, don't fear. If you're looking for more strenuous trekking or a camping experience, you can still don your backpacks and camping gear for one of the multi-day circuits around iconic Fitz Roy and Torre peaks.
Regardless of what you choose, one of the most refreshing aspects of El Chalten's treks: the price. Unlike Torres del Paine, you can hike and camp in the park around El Chalten for free, without being nickeled and dimed by entry and campsite fees along the way.
And you'll be happy for that since those nickels and dimes can go a good way towards a bock microbrew or two at El Bodegon Cerviceria on San Martin Street as you walk into town from a day of hiking in the National Park.