Trekking in El Chalten, Argentina (Patagonia) - the trek to Laguna de los Tres
The trek, from El Chalten to Laguna de los Tres, really consists of two hikes in my opinion. The first is a three-hour-plus hike to the campsite Poincenot. It’s a constant climb for the first hour and then fairly flat for the next couple of hours. The second part is nothing short of an ass-kicker. It’s an hour of climbing the side of a mountain, one switchback after another totally exposed to the elements – wind, sun and rain. What makes it so challenging is not just the steepness of the climb; but, the rocks you have to step around, the boulders you have to climb over and the gravel you have to navigate past without slipping back down the hill. As you’re doing all of this, you have to sidestep hikers coming down the trail. And then, after reaching the top, you have to very carefully step your way back down the mountain, which is an easier effort than ascending; however, can be much trickier as you navigate the uneven terrain. The park ranger’s office says do not attempt to climb this section if it is windy or rainy because it’s very dangerous. After climbing this mountain, when it was not very windy, and seeing the winds the next day at Laguna Torre, I can totally see why. The gusts of wind can knock you over and potentially down the mountain. See my blog about the trek to Laguna Torre.
I was really fortunate with the weather. I don’t think I could have had a better day for the trek with few clouds and little wind. I started off just before ten in the morning. It was a little windy – much less than the other days I’d been in Patagonia. Right from the start of the trail, I climbed, off and on, for the first hour or so.
About thirty minutes into the hike, after clambering up a number of pine tree logs embedded into the ground to form steps, I arrived at a cliff with a gorgeous view overlooking the Rio de las Vueltas zigzagging its way from the snow-capped peaks at the far end through the valley below. It was such a stunning scene – like one you would find on a painting. I was greeted by a blast of wind as I stepped closer to the edge trying to get in position to get the best photo. This was the first of several miradors (or viewpoints) along the 12.5 km trail that ends at Laguna de los Tres – a lake at the base of the Fitz Roy range of peaks. It was here that I took the photo of a couple who I had never met before. They were happy that I offered.
As I moved on, the trail clung to the side of the mountain. I felt like a goat moving above the valley floor below. All the while, the stunning scene continued along my right side. There were several other groups of hikers who I would get to know a little bit as the trek continued. I was not too far behind a couple of young women who were moving at a fairly brisk pace. I caught up to them after they stopped under some trees. One of them said, “Wow, you really walk fast”. They were from an area outside of Tel Aviv. We chatted for a few minutes and then I continued on past them.
I came to a fork in the trail at the same time as a few other hikers. The sign indicated the trail split but then rejoined further up. The left side went to Laguna Capri and the right to Mirador Fitz Roy. I decided to take the right side because it was Fitz Roy that I really wanted to see with their rugged, shark-tooth peaks. On the return, I would take the other trail and pass by Laguna Capri.
I hiked briskly along the slightly up and down trail for the next fifteen minutes. All of a sudden, I rounded a corner and noticed the Mirador Fitz Roy sign. I looked up and said “wow”. There before me was Fitz Roy and the other peaks in its chain. I was ecstatic that the peaks were uncovered except for a slight cloud that was passing by Fitz Roy. I stood there and gawked at the scene in front of me. It was stunning! It’s not often, I’ve read, where the peaks are clear of cloud cover. I was concerned I was going to mess up the photos. I snapped a number of pictures with my Canon DSLR that I’ve had for about eight years and just love. I used all of the settings that I could think of hoping to get one that would mirror what I was standing there in awe of. The first hour and a half of the hike made my day. The two miradors were simply awesome. I didn’t care what happened the rest of the day.
After viewing, photographing, resting and drinking some water for about 20 minutes, I was up and looking for the trail. Sometimes, these viewpoints have a little mini-trail off to the side so I had to backtrack to pick up the main trail again.
For the next hour and a half, I meandered through open fields, bushes where the trail opening was barely a couple feet wide and under tree canopies where I lazily walked along. It was a nice respite from the climbing earlier in the trek. The entire time, Fitz Roy and the other peaks just got closer and closer. I literally took a million photos (or so it seemed). Every 100 feet or so, the photo op was different than the last one. The couple, whose photo I took at the first mirador, and I seemed to be hiking together much of the time and stopping at the same scenic locations. We finally exchanged names. They were Carlos and Rosanna from Spain. They had just bought a new DSLR and we got into some good discussions about camera settings and which ones to use in each situation. I really enjoyed interacting with them.
It was in this section of the trail, that I came across some kind of flying bugs. They were like mosquitos; however, they didn’t seem to bite. With the sun out, it was a little warm today. I had my sweatshirt tied around my waist, my jacket in my backpack and just a short-sleeved shirt on. Every few minutes, I would look down and see these bugs on my arms, shirt and everywhere else. They were such a distraction because I felt like I had to keep brushing them off.
After three hours of hiking, I came to a stopping point where the trail from the Hosteria El Pilar connected with the trail that I had been on. Some hikers catch a shuttle from El Chalten to El Pilar and then hike the two hours to the connection here with my trail. It saves an hour and a half of hiking and allows for different scenery than going out and back on the same trail. There were about ten, or so, people here who had stopped to rest and eat some of the snacks they carried in. I went over to Carlos and Rosanna and chatted for a little while. Rosanna asked me if I was going on to the top to see Laguna de los Tres. All of us had heard the stories about how tough the last hour of the climb was. I told her that I didn’t know. I was going to see how I felt when I got to the start of the tough section. I had mentioned how challenging the hike up Machu Picchu Montana had been. I wasn’t going to make any promises on this hike. After eating some peanuts (I don’t really eat much when I’m hiking) and continuing to drink either water or Gatorade, I was off again.
In about fifteen minutes, I came to the campground at Poincenot. It was a primitive site with just an outhouse nearby. I could see about four or five tents around the site. I passed on through and made a right turn before the creek bed. Within a few minutes, I couldn’t pick up the trail any longer. With no one around, I took this time for a quick bathroom stop and then continued to look for the trail. I saw some people sitting across the dry riverbed and headed towards them. I spotted the trail. Instead of making a right turn before the riverbed, I should have stayed straight ahead. Just past the riverbed, the trail started to climb slightly. I was feeling ok at this point and thought I would continue on.
In another fifteen minutes, I came across Nick and Crystal, a couple of attorneys from San Francisco I had met in a restaurant in El Calafate and then ran into again at my hotel, in El Chalten, the night before. They had just descended the mountain and were headed back to El Chalten. Nick pointed to a yellow wooden arrow, nailed to a signpost, across the way, which read “Laguna de los Tres 1h” and said, “I’m not going to kid you. It’s a pretty tough hike to the top”. Well, I had come all this way. I was still feeling pretty good. I was going “all the way” as Chris Berman says.
Without any further delay, I started my ascent. It was gradual at first. As I looked up, I could see a number of hikers navigating the numerous switchbacks ascending the mountain ahead of me. There was no tree cover. I was totally exposed to the elements. Thank goodness there wasn’t much wind on this day – probably the calmest day that I had in Patagonia. I kept a close look at my watch. I figured that I hiked at an average pace and in an hour, I expected to be at the lake. At least I had better be or there was going to be hell to pay. Sometimes, you think of silly things when you’re in your own world.
After about ten minutes, the trail steepened and the footing was much more of a challenge. There were boulders in the middle of the path that I had to climb over or around. I had to make sure that my footing on each step was solid due to the loose gravel in certain sections. The smaller rocks were a problem because a wrong step could mean a twisted ankle and an almost sure end to my day. I tried to go at a steady pace. I remember the early quick pace at Machu Picchu that slowed me down later on. What made matters worse was making room for hikers who were descending the mountain. The trail was not very wide. I hoped no one “lost it” and took me out on their way down the hill. Plus, I was still knocking bugs off of me. They were just a pain in the neck.
I soon got to twenty minutes and then thirty. I was half way there I told myself. This climb is just a real ass-kicker I was thinking. There’s no two ways about it. This was by far the most challenging section of the entire trail. Everyone was struggling up the mountain. Some just seemed to be a little more focused and appeared to have a little more desire. I didn’t talk to anyone who was coming down like I did at Machu Picchu. My watch told me how much further I had to go. I stayed focused on putting one foot in front of the other, looking for the easiest route each step of the way, working my way around those coming down and staying balanced on both feet. This is usually the way I am when I find myself with a job to do. Stay focused and get it done as soon as possible. It may hurt for a while; but it will not last forever. The sun kept beating down. I couldn’t wear my Nike hat due to the wind gusts that came up periodically. It would blow right off.
My watch said I was now 50 minutes into the climb. I was almost there. I crested this one section and saw some hikers turning the corner of the mountain. I passed them and noticed there was still another small hill to navigate. “Oh, I can handle this one. This is a piece of cake after the last hill”. Well, it was a little steeper than I thought. It wasn’t very high though. It looked like a normal trail up the side of a dirt mountain. Again, there was no vegetation on the hill – just dirt and rocks. The good thing is that there were no boulders or large rocks to navigate. The problem is that there was a lot of loose gravel and, with the steep incline; I had to make sure I didn’t slip while I was going up. I had my Nike running shoes on, which have good traction on the bottom; however, it would have been nice to have some hiking shoes with even better traction.
In a few minutes, I was peering over the top of the hill to see Laguna de los Tres. I made it! What a feeling of accomplishment. Again, I am so thankful that at 62 years old, I still have enough in the tank to complete a hike like this. This was not an easy one which makes it that much more satisfying.
It’s not a very large lake. Most of these type lakes are rather small and the result of the run-off from the glacier next to it. This was a beautiful sight though. The peaks of the Fitz Roy range were directly behind the ice-fringed lake. After taking some photos and chatting with some folks from Buenos Aires who I alternated back and forth during the climb to the top and getting them to take my photo (one for the record book to show I actually made it to the top), I was heading back down. As I started my descent, I came upon Carlos and Rosanna were just arriving at the top. We chatted for a little while and Rosanna said they couldn’t believe how fast I had ascended the last mountain. They indicated they hoped they would be in that kind of shape when they get to their sixties.
The descent wasn’t too bad. I had to make sure I had good balance on that last little hill where there was a lot of gravel. And then just make sure that I had good footing as I climbed over and around the boulders on the switchbacks going down. I gave encouragement to one 34-year-old male hiker on the way down. He was tired and asking how much further. I told him an approximate time and indicated that I was 62 years old and if I could do it, he could to. That was all the motivation he needed. He was off for the top.
At 6:09 pm, I was going past the start of the trail sign back in El Chalten. The total time was just about eight hours (five going out and three coming back) after subtracting the approximately twenty minutes I spent at the lake at the top. According to the park information, the round trip total is 25 km (or a little over 16 miles). Wow! I was tired. I was pretty thirsty. I drank a fair amount of water during the hike and then after also. I was looking forward to a nice cold beer and then getting a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow was the hike to Laguna Torre – another long one.
Basic trail information
This is a self-guided hike. I think the trail is very well defined and easy to follow (except for one little section just past Poincenot where I got off trail slightly). There are directional signs at all of the trail intersections. In addition, there are many hikers on the main trails going in both directions. I felt very comfortable hiking by myself. During my hikes, I came across a number of solo hikers – both men and women.
There are informational signs at the miradors, or key viewpoints, along the trail that help explain what you are looking at.
The following information shows the hiking time, increase in elevation and distance from the start of trail to:
Fitz Roy Mirador – 1 hour 30 minutes, 350 meters, 6 km
Laguna Capri – 1 hour 45 minutes, 350 meters, 7 km
Poincenot camp – 3 hours 15 minutes, 350 meters, 9.5 km
Laguna de los Tres – 4 hours 30 minutes, 750 meters (2,400 foot rise in elevation), 12.5 km
Start of trail is at the end of Avenue San Martin, which is on the opposite end of the town from the park ranger’s office and the bus station
Getting there – arrive at El Calafate (by plane, bus or car); take a three hour bus ride from El Calafate to El Chalten (I used Chalten Travel for a one-way fare of about 300 pesos; payable in cash at the bus station); there are a number of hotels and hostels in El Chalten which is only operating from about October to April each year.