El Chalten is easily the smallest town I’ve visited in Patagonia thus far. The population is listed as 1,500 but at this point in the season it feels like it might really be half that. Half of town is small aluminum-sided houses where the locals live; the main drag is an assortment of hotels, restaurants, and outdoor outfitters (including a Patagonia store, a brand which takes it’s logo from the outline of Mt Fitz Roy, which overlooks the town). Half of these establishments are already closed for the winter.
The hostel I check into when I roll into town ends up being a bit crowded in the evenings, with little space to charge my electronics, so I end up switching to a different place the next morning. The process eats up a couple of hours that I could have spent hiking and I fear that the clouds might eat up the views again by the time I get to the top of my first hike. Fortunately, unlike Torres del Paine, the posted time estimates for the Chalten hikes are easily beatable. My estimated four-hour hike up the Laguna de los Tres trail takes me only a bit over three hours to complete, and that includes a number of stops to take photos of the stunning autumn scenery beneath Fitz Roy’s jagged peaks.
Any lingering disappointment I had from the weather on the Base Torres hike disappears by the time I reach Laguna de Los Tres. It’s sunny and clear, and to be honest Fitz Roy and its surrounding peaks are more picturesque than the Torres del Paine were. That’s not to say that I liked it better. I had to earn the Torres del Paine over four days. Los Tres is an easy day hike. Even for the people who day hike to the Torres from the fancy hotel at the base, it’s a difficult last climb in the snow. The hike to Los Tres is steep, but there’s almost no snow despite the high elevation.
I spend a long time up at the split-level lakes at the top of the trail. When I’m finally satisfied, I head back to town in about as good a mood as I ever have been. The weather has been perfect and the hike easily made up for all the pain of the W trek. Although I rarely hike with music in my ear, I put on some ELO (look, it’s one of the few bands that always just sounds upbeat to me, along with Boston, Daft Punk, and Andrew WK) and lope back through the sparse forest.
The next day I get up at sunrise to try to get some early morning shots of Fitz Roy. I feel like I’m making up for skipping the Torres del Paine sunrise on the W after my painful experience getting to Base Torres. I set out at 7 to reach the first mirador on the same trail as yesterday before 8:30. I know i can get there much quicker than that in daytime from my experience the previous day, but I’m hiking through the dark now. Halfway up the trail I hear a rustling a few yards away from me. A brief wave of fear hits me…there’s pumas that live somewhere in these mountains. No one ever talks about them being a problem for hikers…but what about at night? I anxiously glance into the grass and my headlamp comes across something much worse: skunk. Fortunately it takes no notice of me and I quietly sneak further up the trail and get to the mirador in time for dawn.
I get some good shots of pink light on the mountainside, and head back down. I’m back down at the hostel before 11 but I’m not up for any more hiking as the crappy tendon in my right knee is killing me. In the afternoon, I walk out past the edge of town around sunset in hopes of getting some colors behind Fitz Roy but the sunset is nothing but blue.
For such a tiny town, the supply of craft beer, some made locally and others brought in from around Argentina, is really outstanding. There’s a shop at the front of town that sells craft bottles and I am easily swayed by the label based on the Klingon empire symbol. It’s called Warnog IPA Gagh and it’s pretty friggin good.