The OZY Top 25: Each week we share an irresistible vacation hideaway, chosen by OZY staff.
A group of strangers gathers one night in a dark room of wooden tables and melting cheese, lit only by candles, to trade stories. Did you see the valley where everything looked dead? How long did it take you to get to the second glacial lake? Did you drink the river water?
Just another night in El Chaltén, Argentina’s outpost town deep in the country’s southern Patagonia region, embedded in Los Glaciares National Park. Here, the air is thin and fresh, and the people are bearded and backpacked. Wedged into an Andean valley, the town is the set off point for the iconic hike to the magnificent Fitz Roy, a rock formation that rises above the clouds like an arrow tearing at the sky. At its feet, a surreal, brilliantly turquoise lake of melted glacial waters. To get there, of course, you’ve gotta hike. But El Chaltén is the perfect place to stretch your legs. “This is a place of fresh air and clean water,” promises Caterina Dzugala, a representative of Los Glaciares.
Though the surroundings have been there for millennia, the town has only existed since 1985, when it was founded as a flag in the ground of Argentina’s disputed Patagonian border with Chile. Today the town, officially Argentina’s Trekking Capital, counts 1,500 year-round habitants, almost all of whom work within the tourism industry. But while the surrounding area is astonishingly beautiful, El Chaltén is not a beautiful town; the small grid of slick black asphalt and clapboard houses might seem like a place you pass through to get to the mountains.
Still, it’s here where a spirit of community happens: Trekkers gather in bars and restaurants each night, lending a ski lodge air to the entire town, which has blissfully spotty cell service. It’s simple to make friends at the only grocery store, bumping into someone getting the salami and cheese for tomorrow’s trek sandwich, or when curled up by the fireplace in one of the hostels, each brimming with adventurous souls far from home. Life in the valley is relatively cheap. The hostels run about $20 a night, and a bottle of wine and a trek sandwich is less than that. To get there, you’ve got to take a lonely route, usually via a three-hour flight from Buenos Aires to El Calafate (about $400 round trip), and then via a three-hour bus up to El Chaltén (about $100 round trip).
One important note for any El Chaltén planning: Watch your seasons. Show up too late in the fall, and you could end up socked in by brutal weather and iced roads. Show up during the prime-time months of December to February, though, and your solitary hikes might be supplemented by the background chatter of fellow voyagers. Plus, you might not find a bed at all among the limited options — a very real risk during high season.
Against warnings of being too late in the season, I voyaged down there in April. What I found was a quiet town packing up for the winter, and a surrounding environment highlighted by the blasts of season-changing colors: valleys of red-leaved trees, mountains of graying greens, riverbanks of golden grasses, all enhanced by a perfect blue autumn sky and total silence. I couldn’t wait to tell new friends about it over wine and fondue.