El Chalten or Torres del Paine, which one to choose?
Patagonia is synonymous with adventure, mountaineering and wallpaper-like landscapes. If you love trekking, this should be high up on your bucket list of places to visit.
We love our trekking adventures, having spent ample time discovering the Himalayas during our Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, trekking to the Rinjani volcano crater, the 4 days Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and trekking to Ella Rock in Sri Lanka.
Patagonia has two trekking highlights to add to our list: Torres del Paine in Chile and El Chaltén in Argentina. Both offer stunning vistas, images to decorate your Instagram gallery and satisfying trekking adventures you'll never forget. If however your time is limited, we compare the two to give you an idea of which is best to choose.
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Trekking in Torres del Paine: Chile
Torres del Paine is one of the highlights of anyone's Patagonia itinerary. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was voted one of the 8 Wonders of the World by VirtualTourist.com in 2013 beating off 300 entries from 50 countries.
The most popular trail is the famous W Circuit, so named because the trail on the map is in the shape of a W. This is normally done in 5-7 days. The climax is reaching the base of the famous Paine towers.
If you don't like camping, you can instead stay in a nearby hotel and still visit the highlights of the W Circuit as part of day trips. Popular day trip treks include Glacier Gray, the French Valley (Valle del Frances), Mirador Los Cuernos, Mirador Condor, trails around the picturesque Pehoe Lake and the big one, the Base Torres trek.
The entrance fee for Torres del Paine is 21,000 Chilean pesos ($32/£25) during high season (October-April) and 11,000 Chilean pesos ($17/£13) during low season (May-September).
The scenery of Torres del Paine
The scenery is dominated by dramatic mountain ranges, glaciers, waterfalls, grasslands and of course the 3 granite Paine towers from which the park takes its name.
Sadly, popularity comes with a high price. The immense tourism has led to careless people causing fires in the Park from cigarette butts or BBQs. The worst was caused by a backpacker in 2011, which led to the destruction of thousands of acres of forest. It will take decades for these to re-grow and as a result, a large chunk of the scenery has been ruined.
The wildlife at Torres del Paine
There are 26 species of mammal in the Torres del Paine National Park. The deer-like guanaco are the most common. You can also find pumas if you're lucky, as well as the South Andean Deer, flamingos, hares, eagles and condors.
Where to stay in Torres del Paine
Most will be camping whilst doing the W Circuit. If you're not into that and prefer a more glamping luxurious experience, we recommend staying in a yurt at the luxurious Chile Patagonia Camp located near the entrance of the National Park.
The yurts are extremely comfortable, with private bathroom, terrace, large king sized beds and central heating. They offer guided tours for guests, including our favourite, the 7 hours trek to the base of the spectacular granite Paine towers.
The daily rate per person for a 3 nights all inclusive package is $463/£362 during low season and $633/£495 in high season. You can read more about Patagonia Chile Camp on Tripadvisor.
Trekking in El Chaltén: Argentina
El Chaltén lies in the Santa Cruz region of Argentina, close to the Chilean border. It is a small town that caters to the trekking community, with many hotels, camping grounds, restaurants and shops. But no ATMs, so remember to bring plenty of cash with you!
There are many trails around El Chalten of varying levels of difficulty, all starting from the centre of town. You can find a useful summary of them on the El Chalten Tourism board's website.
We trekked to the Los Condores and Auilas viewpoints on our first day, which took 1.5 hours each way. Here you get beautiful panoramic views of El Chaltén and the surrounding mountain range. This is an easy trail and perfect at sunset if the weather is clear.
On our second day we did the more intense full day trek to Laguna de Los Tres. This was our highlight from all our trekking experiences in Patagonia. If you have the time, we strongly advise this trek. The climax point is when you reach the lake and you have this delicious view with the Fitz Roy mountain in the background. Read more hiking to Laguna de Los Tres here.
There are no entrance fees to pay in El Chaltén.
The scenery in El Chaltén
Fitz Roy mountain (3,405m/11,171ft) is the iconic landscape in El Chaltén together with other mountain ranges including Torre Mountain (3,102m/10,177ft). There are many unspoilt forests, waterfalls and streams, as well as some spectacular views.
The wildlife in El Chaltén
The most famous inhabitant in El Chalten is the elusive huemel deer-like animal, which is an endangered species. Other mammals you may find include pumas, foxes and guanacos.
Along our trails, we also spotted many different species of birds, like condors, woodpeckers and parakeets.
Where to stay in El Chaltén
You can do camping with many sites to pitch your tent scattered throughout the town and along the trails. But if like us you're not too keen on staying in a tent, we recommend Destino Sur, a boutique hotel, located 10 minutes walking distance to the tourist centre of El Chalten.
Rooms at Destino Sur are comfortable with very large king sized bed. The best part? The spa! You can book the entire spa area for an hour. It has two Jacuzzis, sauna, steam room and even a mini gym – perfect to relax sore muscles after a long day trekking to Laguna de los Tres.
Rooms at Destino Sur start from $238/£185 a night. You can read more about it on Tripadvisor.
El Chaltén or Torres del Paine?
For us, we prefer El Chaltén because you can walk out of your hotel and you can start any trail you want, for free. In Torres del Paine, either you do the entire W Circuit, or you do organised day trips with a guide from the hotel you're based at. Also, Torres del Paine National Park has an entrance fee to pay.
Both offer amazing treks, probably the best you will ever do. If you have time, definitely try both. We personally preferred Fitz Roy because we think it has the edge on the scenery, especially as a large chunk of Torres del Paine has been destroyed by fires.
Whichever you choose, you are guaranteed to be spoilt rotten in terms of trekking memories and beautiful landscapes.