Hailed as ‘Capital Nacional del Trekking’ in Argentinian (‘National Trekking Capital’), El Chaltern is the mountain mecca for eco tourist hikers looking for a foothold right in the heart of the country’s most coveted and trail-packed national park, Los Glaciares.
This town itself is a quaint mix of bungalow cabins that are typical of the Argentinian highlands, and was built originally as a border outpost to solidify the country’s claim to the Los Glaciares region against the Chilean government.
However, with the increased flow of backpacking traffic, and Argentina’s rise to the forefront of trekking tourism in South America, this hitherto unassuming mountain village has placed itself as the perfect base camp for those looking to hit some of the most sought after hiking trails on the continent.
One of the most walked trails that run from town winds its way through the hills towards the Laguna de los Tres, a mountain lake with spectacular panoramas over the Fitz Roy peaks that span into the distance. It takes around 8 hours, but can be linked with a trek to the base of Cerro Torre which requires and overnight camp.
A trip to the hills is the obvious first choice, but in between treks many people choose to wander around the picturesque town of El Chaltern itself, enjoying the humble touristic offerings on the streets. Check out the La Chocolatería Josh Aike, a welcoming mountain cabin that’s become famous in the region for its mouth-watering confectionary. Retreating inside to the warmth of the open fire for a trademark Josh Aike hot chocolate is a favourite among the non-walking visitors that come here.
Particularly in the last ten year, the accommodation options here have increased significantly. While most of the options are still focussed on utility – catering for the non-luxury backpacking traveller who’s in search of just a place to drop their bag before putting on their boots – a number of 4 and 5 star hotels, bed and breakfasts and mountain lodges have begun to spring up in El Chaltern town.
The newly built Hotel Cumbres Nevadas is a 3 star place on the Av. Antonio Rojo. The bright yellow exterior that’s in the town’s centre plays host to a clean inside that offers a great place to settle down after a day’s hiking. Contrasting in both colour and character, within the red painted walls of the Lunajuim Hotel, guests will find a bona fide mountain lodge complete with open fire.
The most luxurious of the middle range hotels in Argentina however, is the 3 star Kalenshen lodge and spa, a family run joint that boasts a super-welcoming service, a small gym, and wide windowed views from the indoor pool room. For the highest luxury, visitors should look for Los Cerros at 260, San Martín Ave; the town’s only 4 star establishment that claims some of the best hotel-to-mountain views in town.
Still firmly in the rough and ready, room-to-trek tradition of Argentinian backpacking, El Chaltern offers a real myriad of hostel accommodation too. On the whole the standard is very high, and places like the Patagonia Travellers Hostel, or the Cóndor de los Andes claim make up in atmosphere what they may lack in luxury. The former is one of two ‘true’ hostels in town, with a range of dormitory accommodation in bunk-bed rooms, while the latter is more of a guesthouse with accommodation for 2, 4 and 6 people in one room at a time. The newest budget accommodation however, is the Aylen-Aike hostel, which has some amazing views over the snow-capped Fitz Roy peak in the distance.
If it’s the real outdoor experience you’re after, and want to nestle down under the shadow of the mountains, then El Chaltern is also home to 4 separate campsites, each with their own unique panoramas of the passes in the distance, or the Rio de las Vueltas basin in which the town itself sits.
In addition to this array of accommodation, El Chaltern now has plenty of places to eat. From the cosily decorated Estepa restaurant that serves traditional Argentinian cuisine, to the Patagonicus pizzeria with its long menus and enticing selection of deserts, there’s plenty here to suit every palate and help rejuvenate the body after a long hike in the mountains.
Remoteness is the name of the game in El Chaltern, and it can be difficult to get in to town. That said a newly laid road connection direct to El Calafate has cut journey times down to just under 3 hours, so there’s really no excuse not to pay a visit.