That time I got lost in El Chaltén


Tales of a trip to the end of the world


At the end of 2023 I set off to travel through Patagonia, to discover a land I heard so much about, read so much about and dreamt about through the eyes and the stories of pioneer climbers and mountaineers. Names like Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre had been part of my imagination forever, it was time to go and check out what the fuss was all about.

First Patagonian summit

El Chaltén: the mecca of South American mountaineering, the Chamonix of the Andes. I got to this once forgotten corner of the earth on a late spring evening, welcomed by a persistent drizzle and a strong wind. My master plan was to stop there for a couple of weeks, do some hiking and then continue north to Bariloche and northern Patagonia. So I hiked the two main treks I had in mind with some really great fellow travellers, lived the town like any backpacker would for the first few days, but as I was getting ready to leave something went wrong, or rather terribly right: I met the locals, and that’s how I got lost.

The Fitz Roy skyline

It’s the same in all of these over touristy mountain places, whether you’re in Europe or South America: if you’re not careful you risk to only see them from an outsider perspective, beautiful as they may be, but barely scratching the surface. Getting sucked into the loop of those routes and itineraries that you find in each and every blog and Instagram page, those must-see bucket-list places where everybody goes but that nobody really explores, is far too easy. But I’ve never been one for bucket lists, I always end up getting disappointed (not by the places themselves, of course, but by the situations that have developed around them). So I dug deeper, followed some leads and ended up drinking wine and eating salmon with some crazy welcoming local mountain guides on a sunny and weirdly summery Christmas eve. And climbing peaks that I never even thought I would climb, spending time on the warm rock just above the river, drinking mate and talking about those mountains and those stories I had heard so much about. Does this happen only in Argentina?

A refuge on the edge of the national park

El Chaltén is a strange place. It developed quickly over the last thirty years, following a huge increase in the number of people who came to climb the surrounding peaks. There was nothing there at the time of the first intrepid expeditions to the area, all those years ago when those brave (or reckless) mountaineers decided it was time to see if it was possible to climb those never ending vertical granite walls. It’s one of those places where everybody seems to come and go but never stay, where the shops never close and where you can hear all the languages of the world all at once.

Sunrise on Cerro Torre

It’s also a place of incredible beauty. There’s kilometres of well trodden trails and way more unmarked paths, lots of lakes and rivers, little summits and viewpoints. And the mountains are so perfect it looks like someone sat down and drew them with their best paint brush and without faults. That is when you can actually see the mountains, of course. Yes, because the main flaw of this otherwise flawless place is the weather. The wind is so fierce it can easily swipe you off your feet on the main street, let alone in the mountains; the clouds run fast in the sky and quite often hide those same peaks that everybody goes there to see and climb. It kind of reminded me of Scotland, but worse, and you know how much I love/hate Scotland. But then again, it wouldn’t be the same without the wind, so I guess it’s what you get. Somehow I was lucky, though, and I witnessed one of the longest and best good weather windows of the whole summer. They’re still talking about it.

Sunrise as we hiked into the mountains

There’s two kinds of hiking in El Chaltén: the one that everybody knows about and the one nobody has ever heard of, or maybe has heard of but thinks it’s too much. The first kind takes you to the most iconic places, those that you have to go and see, just at a different time or you’ll end up queuing on the path. But the second kind, man, that’s what it’s all about. One good thing about this place is the distances. Everything is far away and there’s no way of cheating the system: you have to walk. Unlike Europe, where we build trains and cable cars just to bring the mountain closer to us, here the mountain has been allowed to stay a little bit truer to itself and once you reach those far away places they really taste so sweet.

The best camping spot in the world

I’ve rarely experienced so much grandeur, such endless spaces, and I rarely sat in awe for hours in front of a landscape. Maybe I got used to it, who knows, maybe it’s become the norm as I spend more and more time outside, but this bit of Patagonia really got me there. And it’s not to say that it’s paradise on earth, because it’s not. It shows all the signs of exploitation, over-tourism and that much praised development at all costs that in the Alps we know all too well. Land erosion off the path, littering, water pollution, fires and the general ill-use of natural resources are in fact, as we all know too well, the dark side of mountain tourism and unfortunately El Chaltén is not immune to this. But I digress.

Cosy in my tent

Back to my tale of getting lost in El Chaltèn, it came a point when I had to find myself again and leave. So I packed my bags and got onto a bus that took me north, because I thought I wanted to see more, to discover more. What I hadn’t realised is that I had already found everything, and since then I’ve been dreaming of going back. During my time in El Chaltén I laughed, climbed, slept under the stars, met new friends, loved, ate empanadas, hiked, forgot about everything else, cried, drank lots of beer, shared, doubted, made right decisions and wrong decisions, stared at the mountains, swam in cold lakes, said goodbye, regretted, looked forward, lived. It felt a lifetime but it was only a month. God knows how that happens, sometimes.

The perfect bivvy spot

I guess all I want to say is that Patagonia is great and I barely even scratched the surface. I loved the hiking, the climbing, the mountains, but most of all the people. If you go to El Chaltén look around, give it the time it deserves and dig deeper, you won’t be disappointed and you will never want to leave.

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