Between a Rock and a Quiet Place: the 1N/2D Camping Option in El Chaltén
El Chaltén, in Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina, is one of my favorite hiking destinations in all of South America. The town itself is rambling and a little funky, founded only 32 years ago during a border dispute between Argentina and Chile. This haphazard beginning is still apparent as you walk along the 13 blocks which currently compose this tiny town, with businesses that cater to the backpacking and climbing culture (i.e. microbrewery after microbrewery after empanada shop). The big, fancy, international hotels haven’t descended on this town quite yet.
One aspect of El Chaltén that makes it so special is the accessibility it offers to the bases of the stunning mountains of Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. Unlike its famous Chilean neighbor Torres del Paine National Park, which is also stunning but encompasses a larger area requiring some vehicle/vessel support to navigate, in El Chaltén one can walk straight out of their front door and onto the trails to these famous peaks.
Due to the popularity of these treks, there is no question that you’ll be sharing the paths and the viewpoints with other hikers. This is why, on a recent return trip to El Chaltén, I was eager to do these hikes again but wanted to camp between the two (rather than hiking back into town) to get a bit more solitude and also more time at the peaks themselves.
There are several advantages to camping for one night at Poincenot, the campground close to Fitz Roy. One is that the first hiking day is shorter. In total, you hike about 10.5 miles: from the starting point at Hostería El Pilar up to Laguna de los Tres and then back down to the campground. (Laguna de los Tres, or “Lake of the Three,” is the endpoint of the Fitz Roy trail.) If one starts at El Pilar and hikes to Laguna de los Tres and then back to El Chaltén, it is about 15 miles in total.
When hiking with a guide, one has access to a cleverly hidden and private campground, which is several hundred feet removed from the public Poincenot campground. After about 3 hours of hiking, my guide and I dropped most of the weight from our bags (overnight clothes, toiletries, etc.) in our tents, had a quick snack, then started the most difficult part of this trail: the approximately 1 hour hike up mostly large rocks to the top of Laguna de los Tres.
Knowing that you don’t have to hike back to town means you have the rest of the day to actually enjoy being at the top. Most hikers on the day hike from El Chaltén spend an average of about an hour at the top, eating lunch and snapping a few photos, before starting the approximately four hour hike back to their hotels. It was an immense pleasure to get to the top and simply sit back and enjoy the incredible view. My guide and I basked in the sunshine and listened to the multilingual chatter of the international hikers who would come and go. I got comfy enough to doze for a little while. With only a 90 minute hike back down to camp, we were in no rush to leave.
The real highlight came at the end of this first day. After a hearty dinner served by the friendly campground staff, I walked to the clearing of the campground with Fitz Roy right in front of me. With a glass of wine in my hand, I leaned back on a bank of grass and watched the sunset. All by myself. It was just me and one of the most stunning peaks in all of Patagonia.
It is so rare to have a moment like this while traveling, or in life in general. So many of us are in a hurry for what’s next, eager to experience more and accomplish more in our ambitious travel itineraries and lives. The quiet and stillness enveloped me and I was transfixed by the beauty. My mind cleared, with no other thought but the magnificence of this present moment. I sat like that for over two hours, cozily bundled up against the Patagonian wind, wine warming my belly and mind, entirely at peace.
The first sound to break my reverie was my guide’s radio crackling in the campground behind me. A young woman had fallen at the top and broken her knee, no doubt in a rush to complete the hike before nightfall and get back to town. A rescue team was dispatched from town. They wouldn’t get her down and to medical help in El Chaltén until 3 a.m., a poignant reminder of the perils of trying to live life too quickly.
The next day we hiked on the path that passes by Madre y Hija Lagunas (Mother and Daughter Lakes, one larger and one smaller, connected by a small piece of land). We then joined with the regular path that leads from town to Laguna Torre (the lake below Mount Cerro Torre and the end point of the trail). This is normally a 12.5 mile day when making the round trip hike from El Chaltén. The walk from the Poincenot campground adds about a half mile, making this a 13 mile day in total; however, the 2 paths, when completed as day trips from El Chaltén, are about 27 miles in total. By camping, you save approximately 5 miles in total hiking distance and gain figurative miles in solitude and relaxation by camping at Poincenot.
Like so many excursions in Patagonia, this experience will very much depend on the weather. Although I had two days of nearly perfect sunshine, that’s not all that common in El Chaltén. For those who are interested in this option but unsure about their willingness to camp in less-than-ideal weather, a great way to set this up is to book all 3 nights at a hotel in El Chaltén, so that if the weather really isn’t cooperating you can always head back to town rather than sleep at the campground.
A few other details:
- • All meals are provided during the two days, including two box lunches, afternoon tea, a hot dinner and hot breakfast. Water, coffee, tea and juice are always available and included at the campground. One can purchase wine (bottles only) and beer directly at the campsite (limited selection and payment in cash only).
- • At the campground there are only port-o-potties and a hand washing station. There are no shower facilities.
- • State of the art 2-person tents and high-quality sleeping bags and camping mattresses are provided.
- • In your day pack, you’ll only need to hike with a change of clothes, water, camera, toiletries, and the box lunch that is provided each day.
- • An insulating layer, including long johns, a fleece sweater, and a hat and gloves, is recommended for the evening, as is a head lamp.
- • We can provide hiking poles if you wish. Please be sure to request these in advance.