Some travelers who are visiting Patagonia confine themselves to either Argentina or Chile, but many if not most see both countries, which offer similar but often complementary attractions. In 1979, when I first saw the startling granite needles of Torres del Paine, it was hard to imagine anything more exhilarating than the time I spent trekking into its backcountry – with barely another hiker. In ten days, I saw only three other people, a Chilean and two US citizens.
It was more than a decade before I finally saw the Argentine side of the area, where the town of El Calafate and the Moreno Glacier are the highest profile destinations. The glacier is one of the South American continent’s signature sights but, for my taste, it’s a little too “look and listen” – it’s absorbing to watch the shifting ice and hear the seracs crack off its face, but it’s also a little passive for my taste.
That’s why I enjoy the village of El Chaltén, Argentina’s Capital Nacional de Trekking (“National Trekking Capital”), three hours from El Calafate by a smooth paved highway. The setting resembles Torres del Paine but, in this case, the trailheads are just minutes from the hostels and hotels that have proliferated in town. Their presence makes it more affordable than most options in Paine and, if the weather does not cooperate early in the day, it will probably clear enough at some point to lace up your boots.
Paine’s trails are, in my opinion, best suited for multi-day treks, but Chaltén’s reward day-hikers with easily reached sights like Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre – granite towers to match those on Chilean side – and the lakes and tarns that lie beneath them. It’s a more active option than the Moreno Glacier, but only requires toting a daypack rather than several days’ gear and food. At day’s end, returning to El Chaltén, there are surprisingly good restaurants to let you contemplate the next day’s excursion.