Friday, April 18, 2014

El Chalten: Patagonia On Our Front Door Step

In hindsight, the three hour twilight bus ride from El Calafate seems like the perfect welcome to El Chalten: long, straight, dry roads interrupted by glacial turquoise lakes with mountains reaching for the heavens. I'm not sure which of my sunset pictures I like the most from the ride, so I'll let you be the judge. 
Option 1
Option 2...(Who am I kidding? There are at least another handful of sunset pictures not included.)
This place could turn out to be pretty special.

The Town
El Chalten is one of Argentina's youngest towns as it was hastily homesteaded in 1985 by some hearty Argentinians in a land rush in order to lay claim to still undefined land boundaries between Chile and Argentina. As late as the late '90s it only had electricity for a few hours each day. As late as the mid 2000's it had only dirt roads, no ATM and no grocery store.
El Chalten: nestled into the mountains
Today it is still a sleepy little mountain town where GoreTex and puffy jackets rule the sidewalks, but the tourist infrastructure has grown up a bit. There is now an ATM (although it may only have cash available a few times a week); there are now at least three grocery-like-marts (although the selection is limited to whatever came in that days' delivery) and there are at least a few paved roads in town. There's not much internet access as it replies on intermittent satellite connections, but who needs internet in a place as beautiful as this? Kate and I felt immediately at home in the shadows of the looming mountains above the valley floor. 

The Accommodation
Kate did another terrific job here. We spent 3 nights in Chalten in a little efficiency apartment on the edge of town. A ten minute walk to La Cervasa, the best brew pub in town, a 5 minute walk to coffee and a 2 minute walk to the trial head. Amazing.
The view from our bedroom window in Chalten
After 3 nights in town, we headed 17 KM up the valley to El Pilar Hosteria, a great little lodge tucked even closer to world class hiking trails. You now only had to walk 10 feet from the front door to get on the trail.
El Pilar: Taken from the trail
The Weather
El Chalten is notorious for having heavy winds and fickle weather - as tends to be the status quo in this part of the world. We completely lucked out with mostly beautiful weather. The first day, we had some clouds and a bit of rain on our first day hike into Lago Torres; the second day we had a cloudy morning turn into a beautiful afternoon. After that, we had perfect hiking weather for the next 3 days: no wind, no rain, no clouds. Our last day in El Pillar was the first official day of autumn and it was gorgeous. Wow. We will take it!
The first break in the clouds on Day 2 gave us this hinting view
The Food
It's hard to pick just one highlight but La Cervasiria was up there. Kate got a butternut squash and cheese bake that somehow managed to combine two of her favorite foods into one gooey mess. I got a rediculuosly good pizza. The caprese salad was huge and unlike any caprese salad we've ever had. And they had tasty homemade beer. If you are there, go.
Dinner at La Cervasaria
Another culinary highlight was dinner with the Ronsse Family, our friends Bruno, Maud, Louie & Alex, from the Bariloche Bonus day. This time there was no whiskey drinking, only some quality dinner time with tasty homemade carbonara pasta and vino tinto. Simple and perfect.
Bruno, Alex, Maude, & Us (Louie - Not pictured)
And then there was our second night at El Pillar, when they told us that their normal chef had the night off, so was it ok if the best pizza chef in town came and fed us unlimited pizza that night for dinner? Um... Ok. How much pizza can I eat? Apparently more than I'm comfortable doing as I was in a food coma for the rest of the night. Best alternative meal ever.

The Activity: Hiking
Let's not kid ourselves, while we loved the town, our accommodation and the food, the primary reason we had based ourselves out of El Chalten is the world class hiking literally out your front door. The town is located in the national park so the closest hiking trail is as close as your first step out the door. And the hiking may have been some of our favorite hiking of the entire year.
Out your front door
Lagos de Los Tres at the foot of Fitz Roy is the cream of the crop in the park and we lucked into picking the best day we had to hike up to the lake. To make the hike even better, we were joined by the Ronsse family, which gave Kate and I even more time to chat, share stories and learn from our new friends.
The Ronsee & Westrin Fellowship
Louie and Alex (11 & 9) were champs throughout the hike and 4 hours after leaving El Pillar we found ourselves here:
Mountain Bliss
While the destination itself was amazingly beautiful, the trail to get there was no slouch either with huge, razor sharp mountain peaks jutting out of turquoise blue glacial lakes, raging rivers, tranquil forest and hanging glaciers to distract us along the way.
Fitz Roy in the distance
", you know, just another glacier covered mountain on our morning stroll..."

 With views like this, I would have to say that this may be a top 3 hike of the entire trip. Simply epic.
Fitz Roy

Kate & Alex, enjoying the lunch spot

Such a great place for a mid afternoon cat nap
There were so many trails out of town that we were able to complete a different hike each day that took us through this little slice of alpine heaven. Windows in the clouds gave us views like this:
Golden arches
The meandering rivers gave us the rare opportunity to drink water straight from the source, no treatment necessary. I'm not sure how, but somehow this makes the water taste SO much better when you can just dip your nalagene into the water and drink it straight away.
 And the unparalleled access gave us the opportunity to hike all day, soaking in the views and then ending at our comfy home for the evening with great food and drink a short walk away.

Lago Electrico
All in all, El Chalten proved to be one of our top stops on the entire trip. Great friends, amazing hiking, blue skies, soaring mountains and enough hiking to justify all the good food we ate. When Kate and I get a chance to come back to Patagonia, we already know that we will be looking forward to that bus ride back to El Chalten again.

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