Traveling Solo in Patagonia: El Chalten & Fitz Roy / by Mark Andre

After leaving El Calafate and Perito Moreno Glacier behind the three-and-a-half hour drive to El Chalten was shrouded in clouds and intense rain. After turning off Ruta Nacional 40 the final two hours of the drive were supposed to be approaching with the magnificent view of Fitz Roy. I was quite disappointed to find that the clouds still dominated the sky. Just a few breaks in the clouds revealed the mountains I was driving between.

Driving the road to El Ehalten. Mountains breaking through the clouds

Upon arriving in the small town of El Chalten, I found the rain I had been driving through all day had been falling as snow. The small town at the base of Fitz Roy seems positioned as a town for travelers visiting one of the most iconic peaks in the world. While not as well know as the W-Trek around Torres Del Paine, there are numerous multi-day treks hikers can do around the mountain. After jumping from town to town from Punta Arenas, I was looking forward to getting back into a hint of civilization. El Chalten was a welcome break. No cell service and very slow internet was a wonderful forced break from the rest of the world for three days.

On my first full day in El Chalten, I took a look out of my hotel room window at 5:30 in the morning and saw stars. My heart leapt and I gathered my gear for a pre-dawn hike up to an overlook to catch my first glimpse of Fitz Roy.

The hike was no easy task. The route to the overlook I was thinking of was only two miles, but the first mile-and-a-half shot up nearly 1,200 feet. Doing this in the pitch black darkness only lit by my headlamp and the bouncing head lamps of the other hikers made for an amazing feeling of intimacy with the landscape. Only being aware of the landscape to the fringes of the beam of my headlamp made me excited for the hike back down when I would see it in the daylight. A few breaks in the forest allow me some broken views of the surrounding mountains as the sky began to glow before dawn.

As I grew close to the overlook around 8:00 I caught my first glimpse of Fitz Roy. It stopped my in my tracks. After my brief moment of joy that the mountain wasn’t shrouded in clouds and that I had a shot at catching alpenglow lighting up the face of the dramatic peak, I immediately got to work searching for a composition. It was more difficult than I thought, but I was able to find the image above and catch it just as the light began to strike the clouds above the peak.

As the wonderful glow of sunrise faded, I took off to continue around the trails in the area. The short, scrubby trees were sometimes so thick that it was barley wide enough for my to walk the trail.

I was searching for a waterfall that promised an amazing photograph, but the light was just to harsh and the rocks too slick to allow me to get to the vantage point I was looking for. Continuing around the trail, heading back along a different spur than the one I hiked up Lago Capri was almost perfectly still. The reflection of Fitz Roy in the lake was irresistible.

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I spent the next hour returning back down to town. The snow turned the trail to mud in the intense Patagonian sun. This hike took more out of me than I thought it would. My initial plan was to repeat it the next morning to catch the waterfall at sunrise. My legs had other plans. The following morning I headed out to the to road into town to catch the view I missed because of all the clouds.

Heading out along the road in the dark, I planned two spots the night before. the first was the iconic shot with the straight road heading to the mountain. As I was waiting for the sunrise, I kept an eye on a small cloud that was hover over a different peak far in the distance. Luckily, I was able to capture both images at the perfect time for the morning light.

As the color began to fade, I headed for the second spot. There was a singular s-curve that lead straight to Fitz Roy. luckily I caught this as the first full ray of the sun struck the mountain. The light in both of these spots lasted just for minutes. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to catch both in the same morning. Especially as my final morning in El Chalten was an absolute dud for sunrise.

I spent the rest of the day exploring some of the other sites around town. I didn’t initially plan to visit Chorrillo del Salto because I assumed the ease of access would mean it would be swamped with people taking the easy 1km hike. I couldn’t have been more wrong,

When I made my way down the dirt road from El Chalten I found the parking lot empty and had the falls all to myself. It took some searching, but sneaking down a small path led me right to the edge of the river and a wonderful composition including one of the dead trees. The spray from the waterfall made my usual process a bit more complex, constantly covering and uncovering my lens and filters.

This waterfall was a complete surprise. I was not expecting to get anything here. All the scouting and planning I did indicated that it was going to be a tough place to shoot. It’s a great lesson is always taking the camera with you, even when there might be nothing to shoot.

Instead of turning right down the gravel road that led back to El Chalten, I turned left. I knew that an hour and a half away there was an amazing lake, but I had no intention of going that far. However, the same river I had just photographed crossed the road several times and I was hoping there would be a cool bridge to see. I didn’t expect to see a completely different view of Fitz Roy.

After spending almost an hour out and back being shaken along a very rough dirt road, I turned back to El Chalten.

I was enjoying a great meal at one of the great restaurants in in El Chalten when I came out to a sight I didn’t expect to see. I had almost entirely written off sunset shots because the entire view of Fitz Roy was looking to the west, into the setting sun with the mountains back lit. The lenticular clouds that occupied the sky begged me to head out quickly to find a shot that I might be able to capture the extraordinary clouds.

I was flabbergasted by the sky on this evening. Even as everything was backlit, the mountains were a beautiful sight to take in. It almost looked like flying saucers descended on the town. Many of these clouds seemed to hover in place longer than I thought they would.

On my last morning in El Chalten, I woke up in time to catch the sunrise on my way to Torres Del Paine National park in Chile. The 8-hour drive ahead of me was rather daunting, but I was hoping for one last morning of amazing light. It wasn’t to be, but I was able to capture a moody, black and white image from the road.

I cannot say enough good things about this place. I could have spent my whole trip here and not finished everything I had on my list. The dramatic landscape transition from flat, scrubby steppe to hearty forest to mountain in such a small distance was something to behold. If you’re going to be in this part of the world, make the detour!

Check out the other blog posts from the rest of my trip:

Glacier Perito Moreno

Torres Del Paine