El Chaltén is an independent traveler’s paradise and easy on the budget. This tiny town nestled in Los Glaciares National Park is known for its trekking paths, all of which are free and well-marked.
While spending multiple nights in El Chaltén is ideal for the hardcore trekker, taking a day trip to El Chaltén from El Calafate is feasible.
I opted for a day trip due to timing, and I’ll share what I learned to help you make the most of your visit.
How to get to El Chaltén
Taking a day trip to El Chaltén is most commonly done from El Calafate. There are a number of bus companies that serve this route, but oddly enough, they all have the same departures.
Below is the bus schedule:
|El Calafate - El Chaltén||8:00am||13:30||18:00||21:00|
|El Chaltén - El Calafate||7:30am||11:00am||13:00||18:00|
Keep in mind when reading this chart that the times listed are departure times. The bus ride takes approximately 3 hours one way. Therefore, if you take the 13:30 bus from El Calafate to El Chaltén you can expect to arrive in El Chaltén around 16:30.
Since you’ll be taking a day trip to El Chaltén, it should go without saying that you’ll want to take the 8:00am bus. This will get you into El Chaltén at around 11:00am. For your return to El Calafate, you should take the 18:00 bus. It seems like a short amount of time, I know. But I’m here to show you just how much of El Chaltén you can see in seven hours!
If you’re lucky enough to have a car, this post will only mildly apply to you. That’s because you’ll be able to leave early enough so that you can do one of the longer treks, if that’s up your trekking alley.
Travel Tip: When planning your travels, keep in mind that daylight hours fluctuate tremendously in Patagonia. Summer months (December – February) have the longest daylight hours. In the winter, you’d be taking the 18:00 bus back to El Calafate in the dark!
Cost of Buses
The cost is around $18 USD per way. If you purchase your ticket at the bus terminal, you can pay in cash or by credit card. You can also purchase your ticket online.
Since there are so many bus companies that run this route, seats don’t sell out too frequently, although there’s a higher risk of availability issues during the summer. If you’re taking a day trip you should book your round trip ticket in advance to be on the safe side. Unfortunately, there aren’t any discounts for purchasing a round trip ticket.
Where to sit on the bus
If you’re on the fence about whether or not to purchase your bus ticket in advance, this part may help to make up your mind. The views of beautiful Mount Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre mountains as you drive to El Chaltén will be…for the driver!
In order to get to enjoy these driver views, you have two options:
- Book a front seat on the second story of a two story bus. This is the ideal option.
- If your bus only has one level, book a seat in the front row.
Be careful with the two story bus if the second floor front seats are full. Sitting in the first row of the first floor of a two story bus will have you staring at a wall!
To make these front seats even better, try to secure a seat on the driver’s side when traveling from El Calafate to El Chaltén (passenger side from El Chaltén to El Calafate). And of course, if you can’t secure a front seat the driver’s side for any seat is a good option. That way, you’ll get glimpses of the mountain range as the bus winds along the road.
All you need to know about the bus stations
The bus station in El Calafate is located in the outskirts of town. It takes approximately 20 minutes to walk there. You can opt to take a taxi, but make sure to arrange one in advance since you’ll be hard-pressed to come across a taxi that you can flag down in El Calafate. Taxi apps are non-existent there.
In El Chaltén, the bus station is located at the entrance of town. When your bus arrives, it will first stop at the El Chaltén Welcome Center. Here, everyone gets off the bus and is ushered into the English or Spanish room. You’ll then receive a briefing about safety and rules for visiting the park.
I was impressed by how passionate the park rangers were about the park and how seriously they took the rules. They’ll give you a map and point out how to get to the entrances to the most popular treks.
After this briefing, you’ll get back on the bus and drive a short distance to the bus station. Get off, grab one of the boxed lunches or huge sandwiches sold at so many stores, and get ready for a day of exploring!
National Park Rules
The park ranger briefing was very informative. Below are the key takeaways I got from it:
- You do not need to register, if you’ll be doing one of the marked treks. If you’ll be doing an unmarked trek, you’ll need to fill out some paperwork at the Welcome Center. This is for your own safety so that they know where to look for you if you don’t return.
- While they discourage smoking inside the park, if you need to do so, it must be done in an open space since the area is prone to fires.
- No trash cans are located along the paths. Everything you carry in you must carry out, including cigarette butts.
- Don’t urinate near, or do anything that could contaminate, the water. There are restrooms located near main points of interest for your use.
- Don’t pet the dogs in town because they’ll follow you up the trails and can introduce diseases in the area. This was a tough one for me!
Best way to approach your day trip to El Chaltén
Now that we’ve got transportation and rules under our belt, let’s get into all the activities that you can accomplish with a day trip to El Chaltén!
I didn’t have a firm plan about how I was going to approach the day until after listening to the briefing. Thanks to that, I got motivated to combine two recommendations they had for day trips into the same day. It worked great; logistically, that is…my legs felt differently!
Let’s break this down into three phases.
Phase 1: Hike to Laguna Capri
When you get off the bus, take a photo of the iconic “Welcome to El Chaltén” (Bienvenidos) sign and then head straight back to the end of town, veering towards the rightmost side. This will take you to the entrance of the Laguna de los Tres trek.
If you’ll be coming by bus, you’d have to have superhero trekking powers to hike to Laguna de los Tres and back before the 6:00pm bus leaves. However, you’ll have plenty of time to hike to Laguna Capri, which is almost half way.
The walk starts out with stunning scenery over Río de las Vueltas. Even if you hike just the first half hour of this trek, it’s more than worth it for these river views!
When looking at the map they gave you at the welcome center, keep in mind that the times listed are one way. That said, I found their timing generous for Laguna de los Tres. It took me under three hours round trip instead of the 3.5 they had allotted. This included visiting both Laguna Capri and the Fitz Roy viewpoint (Mirador del Fitz Roy).
Visiting the Mirador del Fitz Roy
As you near Laguna Capri, you’ll come to a fork in what is otherwise an easy path to navigate. The fork to the left will lead you to Laguna Capri and the free campsite that sits beside it. The fork to the right will take you to the Mirador del Fitz Roy viewpoint.
Start to the right or left, per your preference. But whatever you do, make sure to loop around and visit both places! It will only take you around 15 minutes to walk between Laguna Capri and the Fitz Roy viewpoint.
The best part is, the path is a loop. So, whichever way you go you’ll end at the fork…just as long as you don’t follow the signs leading up to Laguna de los Tres!
Travel Tip: If you’ll be taking a day trip to El Chaltén by car, you can follow this exact same itinerary but do the entire Laguna de los Tres trek. Or, you can choose from another full day trek such as Laguna Torre. Just make sure to plan around daylight!
Phase 2: Hike to Chorillo del Salto
When you hike back down to the entrance of the Laguna de los Tres trek, you’ll have time for another small trek; that is, if your legs are feeling up to it!
Chorillo del Salto is a waterfall located along a much flatter route that follows a portion of the Río de las Vueltas, although there are a few stairs. Ironically, although this hike was much easier, it took me the full 40 minutes each way, just like the map said. I suppose I was moving slower at that point!
The waterfall itself is fine, but if you’ve seen other waterfalls in your life, this one likely won’t be the most impressive. Also, since people can drive up close to the falls, the area was more crowded than the trekking paths. That said, I found the walk along the river enough to validate making the trek there!
Phase 3: Dinner or Walk to Mirador de los Cóndores
You’re going to be tired at this point. If you’re like me, you’ll be ready to head to one of the cute restaurants in town and settle in for a hearty Patagonian meal. Even after doing both the Laguna Capri and Chorillo del Salto treks, I had time for a sit down dinner and to take a peak in some of the boutique tourist shops.
However, if you’re still itching for more exploring, you can take a little trek out to Mirador de los Cóndores. The trek, in reality, is a flat walk. You’ll need to cross straight out of town, over the bridge for Río Fitz Roy and past the Welcome Center.
Mirador de los Cóndores offers a nice viewpoint of El Chaltén, with the mountains as a backdrop. That said, be mindful that if clouds are hanging over the mountains, it may not be worth the hike, compared to what you will have seen earlier in the day.
Miscellaneous items about El Chaltén
There are a few things worth mentioning that didn’t fit into a category. Below is a mishmash of items I hope you find useful!
- As is typical in Patagonia, weather can be hit and miss…multiple times a day. Wear layered clothes and bring sunscreen and a rain jacket.
- El Chaltén is only mildly on the credit card bandwagon. Plan on paying for food/drinks/etc. in cash. Remember, there aren’t any park entrance fees in El Chaltén and all hikes are free. There’s one ATM in town by the bus station.
- Almost all stores and restaurants offer some version of trekking friendly food. From homemade pre-wrapped sandwiches to full-on boxed lunches, you’ll have lots of options.
- There is absolutely no place to purchase food and drinks, once you’re on a trail. That said, they say that it’s safe to drink the water you encounter on your hike.
- The bus terminal has free WiFi. Just as good? The veggie empanadas at the Mirador bus terminal restaurant. The restaurant has lots of seating, in case the benches inside the terminal are full.
Phew! That’s quite a day. In my opinion, it’s totally worth the effort. However, you can easily opt for Phase 1 or 2 and have extra free time in town. You can also partially hike up a different trek like Laguna Torre.
Have you been to El Chaltén and have a favorite route you’d like to share? Are you going to take a day trip to El Chaltén and have questions? Leave a message in the comments section!
P.S.- Will you be traveling to or from Bariloche and El Calafate? If so, read about my experience taking the bus.