Patagonia: El Chaltén: The Heart of Patagonia

You know how certain places give off a certain feeling and in return evoke a certain feeling within you? El Chaltén is one of those places. It’s a town that completely captures you. It’s a certain kind of paradise.

El Chaltén is a small village set within a valley at the base of the Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre mountain ranges, the two most iconic mountain ranges in Argentina. Known as the unofficial national trekking capital of Argentina, the town is a part of the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares.

El Chaltén formally became a town in 1985 when a territorial dispute between Argentina and Chile intensified. To fully claim the land the clever Argentines built houses and started living there. When it was time to make a decision, Argentina got the land because they already occupied it.

Before Chaltén was an official town, early pioneers inhabited the area. Andreas Madsen, one of the most well known pioneers in Chaltén, came to Argentina from Denmark in the early 1900s. When we hiked in Chaltén we saw his house in the distance and our guide told us the story.

Andreas Madsen worked as a cook on an expedition with the famous Argentine explorer, Perito Moreno. So enamored by the natural landscape he built a farm, Estancia Fitz Roy, and settled there with his house facing the mountain. He returned to Denmark to find the love of his life, found her, married her and brought her back to Patagonia. They raised their four children (one named Fitz Roy) on the farm. They were truly out in the middle of nowhere, living off the land and surviving through Patagonia’s harshest conditions.

                                “Patagonia!” he cried. “She is a hard mistress. She casts her spell.

                               An enchantress! She folds you in her arms and never lets go.” 

I found this picture of the Madsen house online.

Andreas wrote two books: “Patagonia Vieja (Old Patagonia)” and “Cazando Pumas (Hunting Pumas)” which I’d love to read, but I can’t seem to find much information about online.

I absolutely loved everything about El Chaltén. Similar to saying just Calafate, you can refer to it as Chaltén. The name is prononuced exactly as it looks. Chal and then ten.

Chalten From Above

Chaltén felt much more real to me than Calafate. There was no center of town or shops overdone with souvenirs. There were no supermercados, just a few grocery markets. Most of the people there were there to climb, hike or explore the outdoors. Chaltén felt the way Patagonia should feel.

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You know when you meet someone that listens so intently and truly cares about what you have to say, someone that isn’t afraid to express their feelings, someone that touches your life just by being present, someone that is so refreshing to meet, someone that is completely real. Chaltén is that person. Chaltén is genuine, down to earth, simple and peaceful. When it’s located in such a beautiful part of the world and inside a national park, it’s hard for a place not to posses those characteristics.

There’s something about mountains that bring serenity to a place, to people who live there. Chaltén rests comfortably at the mountains’ feet, like a child being watched over by a grandfather. The mountains exude their wisdom and patience down to Chaltén. Can you imagine being invigorated with this every single day?

Pondering the possibilities of the day by gazing out our hotel room’s window.

Chaltén is one of those places that still belongs completely to the Earth. Some streets are paved; some streets are just mud and gravel. I can’t find a reliable source online, but it seems that the town’s permanent population is generally around 1,000 people, maybe less. With a lot of the houses it was hard to tell what stage the construction was in. I couldn’t tell whether they were abandon or being fixed up. There isn’t an efficient home telephone network or cell phone service; internet connection is slow and expensive. There are no banks or money exchange places. I think there’s one ATM. No mayor, churches, newspapers. Because these general distractions from life are eliminated in Chaltén, you feel even more plugged in with the natural environment. You feel incredibly connected to nature.

Tips: There is no fee to go hiking or climbing in the park. If you plan on climbing you just need to register with the park service before you go.

The name Chaltén derives from the native Tehuelche’s word which means “smoking mountain.” The Tehuelches called the Fitz Roy mountain, “Chaltén” because there was always a cloud of smoke around its peak. They thought it could even be a volcano.

Perito Moreno renamed the mountain Fitz Roy in honor of Robert Fitz Roy, the captain of the Beagle, Darwin’s ship. But the name for the town stuck.

Chaltén is about a three hour bus ride from Calafate. Before the airport was built in Calafate in 2000 the only way to Chaltén was a ten hour bus ride from Rio Gallegos.

We spent three nights in Chaltén at the hotel Los Cerros. We spent two and a half days hiking in the national park. Those days were some of the most incredible days of my whole life. Stay tuned for another post that includes jaw-dropping pictures of the days spent hiking in Chaltén.

I left piece of my heart in Chaltén and will definitely make my way back someday.

Our hotel in Chaltén

View from our room