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The day El Chalten became Narnia: a photo essay

Awesome view from our window, El Chalten

Is it worth going El Chalten, Argentina’s hiking capital, in Autumn? This is a question that puzzled us for weeks. Summer is the peak hiking season but we could only get there for the end of May at the earliest, by which time Autumn would be in full swing. More than seventy five per cent of the town’s businesses would be shut, many of the hikes would be impassable, and the chance of clouds and rain was high. It wasn’t clear we’d be able to do anything – but still we wanted to go. So many people had waxed lyrical about El Chalten’s beauty that we were curious to at least try and see for ourselves. So we decided to risk it and booked three nights in one of the town’s only open hotels, La Guanaca.

We arrived to grey clouds and drizzle in a town that appeared to have more dogs than people. We were told it was surrounded by mountains, but all we could see was mist. Bars, restaurants, tour operators and hotels displayed closed signs on every road – we’d landed in an abandoned ghost town.

Stuck inside and learning the ukulele

Slowly we discovered a few places that were open for part of each day – a hire shop, a few restaurants, a surprisingly well-stocked supermarket and Rancho Grande Hostel with wi-fi. Our room at La Guanaca was cosy, and we passed the rainy days learning the ukulele, playing Scrabble and puzzling over the town’s tiny houses. We could have hiked, but it didn’t tempt us without the views.

Our plan was to stay two days, but on the second we were told that clearer skies were forecast for the third, and perfect weather for the fourth. The town’s residents were passionate about the scenery and we were convinced to stay.

Waking up to snow in El Chalten

On that third morning, we woke up and opened our door to more than two foot of snow – the first of the season.

Fitz Roy peeking through the clouds above El Chalten

El Chalten had been transformed into a winter wonderland, and what had looked forlorn, now looked charming and enchanted. When we peered out of our window, we were astounded to see the mountains, obscured but visible amid the clouds. It was mind-boggling to know they’d been hiding there all along.

Beginning of the walking trail, El Chalten

That day, we decided to do one of the short walks to the Mirador de Los Condors. Visibility still wasn’t perfect so we wanted to save a longer hike for the next day when clear skies were promised.

Victoria among the snowy trees, El Chalten

We climbed up to through snow drenched trees…

Knee-deep in snow above El Chalten

…and played like children in the freshly fallen snow.

 

El Chalten from above

The view of the town was beautiful.

Fitz Roy peering through the clouds

…and the Fitz Roy range appeared like a phantom from behind the clouds.

Promoting Planetary Collective up on a mountain

We even did some mountain-top networking for Steve’s company Planetary Collective!

Eduardos Whisky bar in El Chalten

After our walk, we noticed a building we hadn’t seen before. A fire roared inside and we were drawn in by the promise of warmth and coziness. It turned out to be the Hotel Aldea with its own whiskey bar, complete with sofas looking out onto the magnificent Fitz Roy mountian. It became our favourite place and we went every day after.

Steve editing in the whisky bar, El Chalten

With wi-fi, we could even get some work done. The owner, Eduardo, became a friend, and we interviewed him for If I had a Superpower. He takes photos of Fitz Roy every day because “When you love a mountain, each day it reveals more beauty.”

El Chalten early in the morning

On the fourth day, the weather forecast was right, and El Chalten revealed itself beneath a clear and sunny sky. Fitz Roy glowed pink in the morning light.

Snow-covered branches on the way to Laguna CapriAnd we decided to do the self-guided hike to Laguna Capri. It took us through trees that appeared fossilized by the snow…

Victoria takes in the view on the way to Fitz Roy

…past sweeping mountain views…

Woodpecker on the trail to Fitz Roy, El Chalten

…and busy red woodpeckers.

Victoria taking in Fitz Roy peak

We could see Fitz Roy in all its glory, with mist rising from its peak – a feature that earned the town its name (Chalten comes from a Tehuelche word meaning ‘smoking mountain’).

Laguna Capri, near El Chalten

Our final destination was the lake, which had frozen over in the cold. It was gloriously serene and we felt like we were in Narnia.

Freezing cold at Lago Capri, El Chalten

During the Summer, people camp at the lake on the way to Lago de los Tres. The grass is green and the sun warm, but as the wind blew across the ice and froze our fingers, we could barely imagine it.

We passed no more than six people along the way. It was blissfully deserted; scarce footprints in the snow, the only sign of human life. All this beauty, plus the forecast’s promise of another clear day made us decide to stay for two nights more. There are two main hikes possible in the snow and we wanted to try the other – to see the Glacier Grande and get a better view of the Cerro Torre mountain.

Lago Torre and glacier

The walk was flatter than the previous day but the snow just as deep. We reached the mirador in two hours and were greeted by spectacular views of the mountain range, with its ice-cream like glacier slipping down its sides.

Cerro TorreWe marveled at how people could ever climb the jagged Cerro Torre…

Ice crystals, El Chalten

…and became entranced by the intricacies of snow.

From here, we could have hiked another two hours for a view of the Laguna Torre, but time was getting on and we couldn’t risk the dark (we had been lazy and gotten up too late!).

Tiny one-room house in El Chalten

On our way home we passed more little houses, which we now knew were for the seasonal workers – an economical option in a town with steep land prices and camping restrictions for workers.

The stoner-house, El Chalten

It’s also a town that attracts stoners with creative architecture ideas, like this diagonal home.

Steve, Victoria and Fitz Roy

So there is our pictorial answer to whether or not it’s worth visiting El Chalten in Autumn. We are sure that summertime is beautiful, and we’d love to go to Lago de los Tres, but our snowy El Chalten was magical and its majesty had a profound effect. With no crowds, it felt intimate and serene, and we found the peace we’d been craving. It was always a risk that the clouds would persist, but we think it was a risk well worth taking.

Useful info on El Chalten

  • The visitor centre at the entrance to El Chalten provides a map and details of the self-guided hikes in the region. They can also tell you which ones are safe to pass that day.
  • During autumn/winter, a Chalten Travel bus runs from El Chalten to El Calafate twice every day in the morning and early evening. It runs even in the snow. There is also a once-weekly bus to Rio Gallegos.
  • Although much of the town is closed, there are still supermarkets, restaurants, bars, travel agents and hire shops open in autumn/winter. There is also an ATM, but it’s unreliable so it’s best to bring enough money with you.

 

Let us know if you have any questions or leave tips for other readers in the comments.

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Comments

    • Victoria says

      Thanks Suzy. We did feel very lucky in El Chalten. The comparison with Eastern Europe is fitting. We’ve been to Tallin and Budapest in Winter and, while cold, they were also enchanting and we met some great people.

    • Victoria says

      It was awesome! We never get that amount of snow around London so it was a brilliant novelty – and so beautiful!

  1. Claire says

    I visited El Chalten in the winter and was glad I did. You had incredible weather though… I got to see Fitzroy but not Cerro Torre – I’m very jealous :).

    Stunning photos! Looks like it was definitely a good choice to stay on.
    Claire recently posted..Postcard: From Fall with love…My Profile

    • Victoria says

      Thanks Claire. At least you got to see Fitz Roy. Isn’t it stunning? We really fell in love with El Chalten.

    • Victoria says

      Thanks Audrey. It was beautiful. In fact, looking back it feels like a bit of a dreamworld. Congratulations on getting the new site up, and Happy Belated Canada Day!

  2. Pete says

    Gorgeous! We had the chance to do Chalten sin snow. But with snow, it just looks even more magical. It gave me a reminder of what home is like back in Canada and made me miss it a little. Great blog guys!
    Pete recently posted..To be HumbledMy Profile

    • Victoria says

      Thanks Pete! I’m pleased you like the blog. I’ve really been enjoying yours too. Jordan looks incredible.

  3. Åsta says

    This post almost makes me want to ditch my travel plans and head south to Patagonia in the autumn instead of summer. It looks absolutely stunning. Even though I tend to flee the dark and cold Norwegian winters, I love snow and a winter wonderlands and this sure looks like one.
    Åsta recently posted..Snaps from Kuala LumpurMy Profile

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