Hiking in Los Glaciares National Park North
The sun filtering through the half-drawn curtains of our bus was a good omen. More than ever, Tony and I needed the weather gods to be on our side. We had traveled hundreds of kilometers just to go hiking in Los Glaciares National Park North and catch a view of Argentina’s most famous and picturesque granite peaks, Mount Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. As we drove along Viedma Lake toward the tiny town of El Chaltén, the fluffy clouds above started drifting apart revealing circular patches of blue sky and, to our excitement, bits and pieces of the Fitz Roy Mountain Range ahead.
Hiking in Los Glaciares National Park North: Viewing Mt. Fitz Roy from Laguna Capri
Was this going to be our lucky day? It seemed like Patagonia’s notorious weather was taking a nap – at least for now. We dropped off our luggage at the Lunajuim Hotel in El Chaltén, quietly sneaked out of town as to not awaken the bad weather gods, and rushed up the trail for Laguna Capri. It was only a few hours until sundown, but we were determined to reach the lagoon from where we hoped to see Mount Fitz Roy in all its glory. We knew it was a bit of a gamble – wispy clouds still covered the highest peak as we climbed the steep trail and entered a fairy-tale forest of gnarled southern beech decorated with moss and lichens.
As we walked along the wooded path, we caught flashes of the still shrouded peak through the swaying branches and leaves. But we had yet to see the full view. After a couple of hours working our way up the mountainside, the forest suddenly opened up and the trail gently sloped down to Laguna Capri, where twenty or so people sat in little groups along the shores. What a stunning sight!
The peaceful turquoise lagoon, framed by bright-green ñire shrubs and trees, momentarily reflected the Fitz Roy massif in its calm waters. And, as luck would have it, the 3,375-meter peak was just clearing. Tony snapped picture after picture as the granite giant came into full view. Wow! We quickly headed to an elevated viewpoint twenty minutes up the trail and found a sunny late-afternoon lunch spot. While nibbling on müsli bars, we took in the gorgeous views of Mt. Fitz Roy’s dramatic skyline. (If the jagged peaks seem strangely familiar, you may be the proud owner of Patagonia clothing, which uses the Fitz Roy massif on its logo.)
Hiking in Los Glaciares National Park North: The Good and the Challenging
Considering how little effort it took us to get to the lookouts while hiking in Los Glaciares National Park North, the experience was incredibly rewarding. We came to this UNESCO World Heritage Site for mountain views, and that’s exactly what we got. But while the scenery is unquestionably a highlight, the area around El Chaltén offers more than just great views. With its giant granite peaks and lush river valleys, Los Glaciares National Park North boasts many top-notch outdoor activities. Adventure sports aficionados come here to go bouldering, camping, multiple-day trekking, rock climbing, fishing, ice climbing on the Viedma Glacier, horseback riding, and the list goes on.
We were extremely impressed by the park’s diversity AND quality; we especially liked the well-maintained and easy-to-follow trails and signposts. What amazed us even more was the lack of entry fees. Unlike the southern section of the park, where the Perito Moreno Glacier is located, the northern section is completely free. This also extends to the scenic campgrounds, all of them are FREE. Compare that to the overrun and somewhat neglected campsites in the Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, which is often compared to the Fitz Roy Range, and you wonder why El Chaltén and Los Glaciares National Park North aren’t completely packed with people.
So what’s the catch? You’ve got an amazing trail system, world-class climbing and jaw-dropping scenery… when the fog lifts and clouds clear, that is. Extreme weather is definitely an issue in this region, and even on sunny days, mountain views are often obscured. El Chaltén is also an expensive destination. Founded in 1985 to help secure the disputed border region with Chile, the tiny town tries hard to please the modern traveler. Artisanal bakeries, Internet cafes and tapas bars – all in the middle of nowhere – come at a price. The combination of unpredictable weather and costly living make El Chaltén a challenge for luxury and budget travelers alike. While high-end travelers may have the necessary cash to sit out bad weather, they usually don’t have the time. For budget travelers, the opposite is true: they have the time, but not the money.
If you’ve got your heart set on seeing Mt. Fitz Roy without the cloud cover, you’d better bring some time and carry plenty of cash. You can’t expect to swoop in for a day and have the perfect view. There’s a reason why the native Tehuelche people called Mt. Fitz Roy “Chaltén,” the smoking mountain. Sometimes, you’ll simply have to wait for that “smoke” to clear – just like the poor Australian tour group in our hotel. After seven days of waiting, they were finally able see Mt. Fitz Roy the day we arrived. Again, how lucky were we? (Another bow to the good weather gods.)
Hiking in Los Glaciares National Park North: Viewing Cerro Torre from Laguna Torre
Unfortunately, the window of opportunity was short. When we got up the next morning, it was pouring. When we went out for lunch, it was pouring. And when we headed out to explore dinner options, it was still pouring. When the rain finally stopped on the following day, we grabbed our trekking poles and immediately hit the trails for Laguna Torre despite the fact that is was completely clouded over.
Walking quietly under the tall Nothofagus trees, we scanned the forest for endangered huemul, a south Andean deer native to the area. But no sight of the shy animal. As far as we could see, there were only fallen trunks and uprooted trees beckoning us to take a rest. And so we sat and enjoyed the solitude. After a few minutes, we quickly pushed ahead wondering about the weather. The dark-grey clouds above seemed to tease us, slowly moving up and down the mountain slopes but never revealing their actual peaks. Just as we made our way over the sprawling river flats and up a rocky moraine to Laguna Torre, the weather went from bad to worse. Cerro Torre was nowhere to be seen, and just as we sat down for a little rest, it started to drizzle. Darn! I guess, you can’t have it all!
Los Glaciares National Park North is a fantastic destination, but weather will make or break your experience. Although Cerro Torre was not in the cards for us, we count ourselves lucky. We had one spectacular day (out of three) with killer views of Mount Fitz Roy, the highest peak in the park. According to some locals, we were fortunate. And I agree. (Weather gods, no hard feelings, there’s always a next time, right?)
Plan your Trip to Los Glaciares National Park North
When to Go – Best time to visit is October through March when days in Patagonia are warm, dry and famously windy. But don’t shrug off the shoulder months September and April; the weather can be quite pleasant with less wind, and the trails are usually less crowded. One special highlight in April (and into May) is the colorful bright-red fall foliage which stands in stark contrast to the blues and greens of this region.
Accommodation – While the small town of El Chaltén is almost completely deserted during the Patagonian winter, the town bursts to life in summer when hikers and adventurers from around the world flock in. Prices during high season can be steep, so booking in advance is advised. We stayed in the lovely Lunajuim Hotel (read our review further down), but there are plenty of other options. We recommend searching for great El Chaltén deals on HotelsCombined.com, a site which finds the best deals for you across numerous top hotel booking sites.
Tours – El Chaltén, which is located within Los Glaciares National Park, is a great base for doing independent hiking and adventure sports. If you are on a tight schedule and/or prefer group activities, you may want to consider a tour. The town is home to many tour companies, but you can also book online in advance. Check out tours on Viator including day hikes and multi-day treks, rock and ice climbing, and rafting. REI also offers various 2-week Patagonia hiking trips that combine Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina with Torres del Paine National Park in Chile.
Guidebooks – We often travel with a Lonely Planet. During our travels in Argentina, we used the Lonely Planet Argentina. The guide is great for cultural and historical info, maps, hiking tours, itineraries, and includes highlights such as Los Glaciares National Park North and South, Península Valdés and Punta Tombo, Iguazú Falls, Mendoza, Esteros del Iberá, Tierra del Fuego, and even Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. Another useful guide for hiking in Los Glaciares National Park is the Patagonia South Icefield trekking guide. If you prefer a more visual guidebook, we recommend the DK Eyewitness Travel Argentina. These guidebooks can be conveniently purchased on Amazon.
Travel Insurance – Overseas medical insurance is probably THE most important thing to have for outdoor adventurers. WorldNomads’ travel insurance covers travelers for overseas medical, evacuation, baggage and a range of activities and adventure sports. You can buy and claim the insurance online, even after you’ve left home.
Travel Gear – There’s a long packing list for Patagonia, but there are a few essential things everyone should have. A good pair of hiking boots, a windbreaker, and trekking poles; they will be one of your best investments for your knees and back. We also recommend an action camera such as the GoPro to capture your adventure on film.
Lunajuim Hotel Review
We want to thank the Lunajuim Hotel in El Chaltén for hosting us while we explored Parque Nacional Los Glaciares Norte. Our quiet double room at the back of the building was ideal for relaxing after a day of hiking. We also loved the bathtub and the very cozy bed. Artsy touches such as the colorful paintings and carpets definitely gave our room some extra character, which we always appreciate.
In additions to our comfortable room, we also enjoyed the large dining-living area where we had a chance to chat with fellow travelers around the fireplace. We also appreciated the library and the satellite Internet, especially on our second day when it was raining. Finally, a huge thanks to Roxana from the front desk who made our stay at the Lunajuim Hotel very enjoyable. Roxana was extremely helpful and provided plenty of tips, information and a daily weather update, all in perfect English. Thank you again, Roxana.