I had dreamed of visiting El Chalten for years. When I finally made it there, it blew away even my loftiest expectations. This little village deep in Argentinian Patagonia was my idea of a perfect travel destination. A small, walkable town tucked away between dense forests, majestic mountain ranges, roaring rivers and nature in all of its untamed glory. The village itself was littered with breweries and bars for post-trekking happy hours. I seriously couldn’t ask for more. Even the bleak Wi-Fi and cell signal situation could not bring me down in a place like this. In fact, it might have only improved the experience. Despite the monstrous expectations that I had set for El Chalten, it had met and exceeded all of them.
As a backpacker, El Chalten is a destination that most of us could only imagine up. My love for the mountains is no secret. As we reached the twentieth hour of the bus ride from Esquel, the sun started to rise. The morning light set the Patagonian landscapes ablaze with soft hues of pink and purple. Fitz Roy started peeking out from the background, jutting into the skies as I smushed my face onto the window to try and get a better view. My eight month journey throughout South America was coming to its dramatic climax, as my dream destinations of El Chalten, Perito Moreno Glacier, Torres del Paine National Park, and Ushuaia were all finally within reach.
Of course, for those of you that have kept up with my coronavirus ordeals, it wasn’t to be so. My journey ended in El Calafate shortly after having to flee an El Chalten under lockdown. It was a bitter irony for me. I slowly worked my way down to Patagonia thinking to myself that the lengthy journey would make the reward even more sweet. I had to fly home from El Calafate before I could cross off the rest of my Patagonian bucket list, but I was at least able to experience El Chalten.
Those six days in El Chalten were enough for me to know that it would be a place that I would be coming back to in the future. Never had I felt so free in a little village before. Everywhere you looked, there were mountains. The strong winds of Patagonia would often make you feel like you were flying, and in a place like this, it was hard not to feel like you were. My time in El Chalten made me feel both like a powerful conqueror and a powerless conquer-ee. Nature is as humbling as it is inspiring, and never have I felt as in tune with nature as I did in El Chalten.
How To Get To El Chalten
El Chalten is one of the most popular stops along a Patagonian road trip. If a road trip isn’t your style, the quickest way to get to El Chalten is to fly to El Calafate airport and then catch a bus. The ride costs about $20 and lasts around three hours. If you are traveling by bus or by Ruta 40 from north to south, then you’ll likely need to find a Marga Taqsa ticket booth. Marga Taqsa is the only bus company that currently does routes from all the way north, such as Bariloche, El Bolson, Esquel, and more.
The adventurous soul could also hitchhike down Ruta 40. Plenty of travelers and road trippers make this same journey, and with Ruta 40 being the main road spanning almost all of Argentine Patagonia, you’re guaranteed to find someone going the same way.
The Best Things To Do In El Chalten
El Chalten was named the national capital of trekking by Argentina, a title that is more than well-deserved. There are dozens and dozens of hikes that one could go on in El Chalten, as it is located ideally right at the doorstep of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. It is going to be impossible to do all of the hiking that El Chalten and the surrounding national parks offer, but these are the essentials. Throw in a few other adventures like horseback riding and rock climbing, and you’ve got more adventure than you could ask for.
Laguna de los Tres
Hike to Laguna Torre
Laguna de los Tres
For most travelers, this is the must-do hike when in El Chalten. It is a challenging 20+ kilometer round trip from the trailhead, but well worth the struggle. This is where you will catch the iconic view of Cerro Fitz Roy from the laguna at its base. A lot of people try to trek here for sunrise, which warrants a wake up call of around 2 AM, or a scramble for the limited campsites in the area. No matter what time of day you go, it is a stunner.
You’ll pass this laguna on the way up to Laguna de los Tres, and it’s honestly an attraction in itself. There’s a campsite here along the lake, which would be the star of El Chalten if it weren’t for Lagunas Torre and de los Tres.
Mirador de los Condores y Aguiles
Chorrillo De Salta
At the trailhead to Laguna de los Tres is another trailhead. This one is to one of the lesser-visited destinations in El Chalten, the Chorrillo de Salta waterfalls. If you’ve got time to kill in El Chalten, this makes for a great starter hike with some even greater views.
Lago del Desierto and Glacier Huemul
Along with all of these epic treks, there are lots of other non-hiking outdoor activities in El Chalten. Among the most popular ones are rock climbing, bouldering, kayaking, rafting, and horseback riding.
Where To Stay in El Chalten
The cabin-style hotels and hostels in El Chalten only add to the magic of this little backpacker haven. Make sure to bring cash because most hostels will offer discounts if paid for in cash. For example, when I stayed at Patagonia Traveler’s Hostel, I was able to get the price down to 1000 pesos per night by paying with cash, as opposed to 1300 if I paid with card.
Location doesn’t matter too much in El Chalten since the little village is very small and walkable. It takes about 15 minutes to walk from one side of town to the other. The Wi-Fi is also almost universally bad throughout El Chalten. You’d be lucky to have a hostel that didn’t experience internet outages for hours at a time. The main things to consider when choosing a hostel in El Chalten is its social atmosphere, common kitchen space, and price.
Accommodation in Patagonia will be more expensive than the rest of South America. A shared hostel room in El Chalten will likely run you a minimum of $15, depending on what the exchange rate chooses to be while you are in Argentina. Seriously, it can be a wild crapshoot. Like I said, paying with cash can get you sizeable discounts, and I was paying the equivalent of about $13 a night for the hostel I stayed in. I’ve seen nicer hostels go all the way up to $25-30 for a shared room. Let’s be honest. After a long day of trekking, you won’t have problems falling asleep wherever you lay your head.
My favorite hostel that I stayed at was Patagonia Travelers’ Hostel. It was affordable and had everything you needed. The Wi-Fi was actually decent and it has a wide array of common rooms to choose from. It looks more like a hotel when you walk in but you will undoubtedly meet fellow travelers and backpackers in your room or the common areas. It is located as centrally as can be in El Chalten, so about a 7 or 8 minute walk in either direction to the bus station or the entrance of the national park.
Other good ones include Hostel del Lago and Pioneros del Valle for cheaper accommodation and Rancho Grande and Aylen-Aike for people looking to shell out a bit more for the added comfort.
Nightlife in El Chalten
El Chalten knows what the people want. For a town with a population of only about 450 permanent residents year-round, El Chalten has an abundance of breweries, bars, and restaurants. El Chalten even has a nightclub, or boliche if we’re using Argentine-speak. Unfortunately, the nightclub was closed as coronavirus started to make its way to Argentina, so I can’t give you the low-down on that right now. I’m certain I’ll be back one day to take over the dance floor, though.
The main street of San Martin is where you’ll find most of these establishments, many of which are much nicer than you’d expect for a small town. Here are some of my favorite places to have a drink in El Chalten:
- Bourbon Smokehouse
- My personally favorite spot in El Chalten. The music’s always bumping and it’s got great happy hour deals. Oh yeah, and the view. The view is to die for.
- Beers and Burgers
- Exactly what it sounds like. Good beer and good burgers. Simple as that.
- La Zorra
- My other favorite, mainly because their loaded fries were the perfect counter-balance to a long day of hiking. It’s a smaller joint but it’s got great beer and great food.
- Rancho Grande
- One of your best bets for a late night in El Chalten. We ended up here a few times because the other bars tend to shut down pretty early. However, Rancho Grande is usually open all night, restaurant included so it’s where people flock to for late night eats.
- La Vineria
- El Chalten is expensive. La Vineria is not. For the best bang for your buck, come here for there several-hour-long happy hour. Like their name suggests, they do wine as well as beer. I also would recommend the mulled wine, if not for the taste, for the warmth it gives your hands on a cold El Chalten night.
How To Travel El Chalten On A Budget
Like most places in Patagonia, El Chalten is more expensive than the rest of Argentina. Its remote location and popularity as a tourist destination means that pretty much everything is more expensive here. Hostels and other accommodation, restaurants and bars, and even supermarkets will be pricier than what you are used to. In the supermarkets, I was paying maybe double what one would pay in other places in Argentina. They even have a special price for the locals just because even they know their prices are ridiculously high.
However, there are still plenty of ways to stick to a budget. Like I mentioned before, bring a lot of cash as you will either get a discount or avoid surcharges for paying with a credit card. There are no reliable places to withdraw cash in El Chalten, so stock up before you get here.
Here are some of the best ways to travel in El Chalten on a budget.
Volunteer At A Hostel
There are no shortage of hostels in El Chalten, and many of which would be happy to take on volunteers. You can reach out to hostels beforehand to see if any of them are in need of volunteers. However, be prepared to stay at least two weeks. Most hostels will only take on volunteers if they can stay longer-term or offer something that other employees or volunteers can’t. For example, I am often able to stay at hostels for free in exchange for photography work or promotion on my blog and social media pages. If you have a similar talent, you might be able to work something out.
I’d say nearly every other building in El Chalten is a hostel or hotel, so you could just go door-to-door once you arrive in the village. Sometimes, it is more effective to talk to them up front than it is to reach out via email. El Chalten has notoriously bad Wi-Fi so it isn’t easy to get in touch right away.
Cooking Your Own Food
I was a hungry boy in El Chalten. Between all that trekking, there is not much else to do but stuff your face to regain all those calories that you’ve lost. Unfortunately, El Chalten’s restaurant scene is not very cheap. Neither are the supermarkets, but you will save a significant amount of money cooking your own meals. My hostel charged 350 pesos for breakfast. I could make the same thing for about 50 pesos from the supermarket. Eggs, rice, meat, pasta, fruits, and vegetables are all much more affordable at supermarkets in El Chalten.
Renting Or Buying A Tent and Camping Equipment
Some hostels will offer you discounted rates if you bring your own tent. You’ll be able to use all of the hostel facilities and amenities without paying the price for a dorm. Normally, you would pay about 1,000 pesos or more for a dorm bed. With a tent and your own sleeping bag, most hostels will usually only charge about 400 pesos.
If you are looking for campsites outside of town, there are plenty of those as well. Unlike the Chilean side of Patagonia, entrance to Argentina’s national parks around El Chalten are free. There are plenty of campsites to choose from, although the hikes are always much more grueling with your entire pack on your back.
Hitchhiking is a very common and popular means of getting around in Patagonia. You know how it’s done. While you don’t necessarily need to hitchhike for any of the treks in El Chalten itself, there are a few further away attractions that might need you to catch a ride with someone.
Hitching a ride to El Calafate is also a popular option for travelers looking to save a bit of money. A bus will cost you about $15-20 from El Chalten to El Calafate. Hitchhiking etiquette is usually between you and your ride, so I can’t really say whether or not there is a standard to tipping or paying around these parts. I’d say it’s a good idea to offer them some money as a way of saying thanks and whether they accept it or not is up to them.
I would be going on and on forever if I had to keep rattling off all of the things I love about El Chalten. I keep fumbling my words just trying to describe it with any semblance of the justice it deserves. El Chalten has a vibe to it that is difficult to put into words. It is one of my happy places, to put it simply. Give yourself plenty of time in this action-packed little village in the mountains.