El Chaltén, Part 1
my first days in an adventurous town, march 2022
Flying over Patagonia feels like flying over Utah, if Utah had an ocean next door: an endless desolation of gullies, washes, ridges, and little roads to nowhere, pock-marked with mines, farms, and lonely outposts. The clouds cast shadows like lakes.
Descending toward the airport, a milky turquoise river cuts through brown rolling hills. The plane touches down in silence but as soon the pilot announces “Welcome to El Calafate,” the cabin erupts in applause, a South American tradition I adore.
Coming from Oregon to catch the tail end of Argentine summer, I’m dismayed by the rain, but at least it’s still bright at 7:30pm. Long days work wonders on my mind.
I grab the last bus to El Chaltén, two and a half hours through a vast, darkening emptiness. A twenty-something American woman sits behind me with her Argentine boyfriend, speaking academic Spanish with a California accent. He lovingly corrects her little mistakes. Earlier at Buenos Aires airport, I saw them holding hands and kissing at the airport cafe.
As we cut through tussocky hills with grazing horses, I’m reminded of Norway, Iceland, and the south island of New Zealand. The highway has no shoulder, just gravel tapering into desert. I make a mental note for future bicycle touring.
An island of light appears: El Chaltén. A light rain, cumbia beat, and row of campervans greet me as I bee-line four blocks to my hostel. 24 hours of travel makes slumber easy.
In the morning, I go for a walk and end up in the hills. Chaltén is tiny and surrounded by mountains—walk long enough, and you have no choice but to hike.
Returning to find coffee, I spy a woman with a mountain bike loaded with camping gear. Alfonsina rode here from Cordoba, following Argentina’s rugged Ruta 40. I tell her about my plan to return to Patagonia in December with my touring bicycle and ride north through the Chile and Argentina.
"Cycling Chile is much more beautiful than cycling Argentina. But it's difficult for us to get permission to go to Chile. It's easier for you."
I ask about water: a real concern for long stretches in Patagonia. She tells me that she carries up to six liters, but she only drinks two a day ("not enough"). “If you run out, just wave your bottle at passing trucks—they'll stop and give you more!"
She’s departing for Calafate, and we say goodbye. I head into the coffeeshop, but she follows a few minutes later and gives me the name of the Instagram she shares with her father, an accomplished motorcycle adventurer.
The same American-Argentine couple sits at the coffeeshop; they don’t recognize me. (A few days later, as I type these very words, the same couple walks into the same coffeeshop. Chaltén is tiny.)
For lunch I scour my hostel’s “free food” bin, assembling a decent bowl of buttered pasta with parmesan. An afternoon walk reveals signs of rapid expansion: new buildings, men pouring buckets of concrete by hand. Big dogs with healthy coats linger in yards, greeting me in the street to pilfer rump scratches.
Chaltén is windy. I watch a man chase his baseball cap for a full block. A tumbleweed literally tumbles through town.
Chaltén is outdoor-chic. A couple dressed in brand-new North Face leggings power-walks down the main drag, hiking poles tip-tapping the pavement.
Chaltén is filled with youthful vigor. Two British women, scarcely age 20, talk enthusiastically about what books they’re reading before departing the coffeeshop with piles of camping gear. Fresh faces abound, lined with big smiles.
Above all else, Chaltén is friendly. Everyone has chosen to be here; everyone is happy to be here.
I take a spontaneous jaunt down one of the main trails, and I’m befriended by an affable young couple from Buenos Aires. We quickly become comfortable enough to dive into deeper topics, like: "Why is the Argentine economy always in crisis?" "My dad says it just happens every 30 years,” the woman responds with confidence. “You just have to time the cycle right."
Her answer begs the question. For me, it’s all academic. My dollar buys 200 pesos. Everything is insanely affordable.
Argentines are happy to have North American and European travelers (and our inflation-resistant currencies) back after the government lifted pandemic restrictions in November, saving tourist-dependent places like Chaltén from utter ruin. But for domestic travelers like this young couple, coming to Chaltén is still an expensive splurge, perhaps like a middle-class American family vacationing in Aspen.
The couple and I take separate paths at a junction. Hiking back, I wait to pass a family of four on a narrow stretch of trail. I grin when the teenage boy says to his mother: “Che, dejá pasar el señor.” In Argentina, everyone is Che.
Back in town, it finally dawns upon me that my cell phone (and its global service plan) really, truly doesn’t receive any signal here. All my compulsive messaging, googling, and compulsive-checking must wait for wi-fi. What freedom.
The next day, I embark on the famous trail to Fitz Roy, the iconic mountain featured in the Patagonia brand logo. I am mildly embarrassed by the fact that I’m dressed fully in Patagonia above the ankles.
This otherwise lovely trek is scarred by popularity: the final ascent is clogged with foot traffic reminiscent of Half Dome, Angel’s Landing, or the Annapurna Circuit.
I tolerate the congestion for half an hour until I impulsively take a side path through the forest, following a sneaky, squishy path that parallels the main trail. I’m feeling quite clever, right until the moment I step on a fresh human turd, surrounded by tufts of toilet paper. I scowl, clean my shoe on a nearby bush, and ultimately rejoin the traffic jam behind the very same group of people I ditched 10 minutes ago. A lesson.
The hike ends with another chance partnership with another Buenos Aires couple, Pablo and Paula. Pablo is 34 and offers yet more insight into the tragicomedy which is the Argentine economy. I’m delighted to learn that, like me, he once had a serious love affair with the trading card game, Magic: the Gathering. Unlike me, he also invested in Magic cards as a hedge against inflation.
Pablo and Paula invite me to dinner at their place in Buenos Aires when I pass through next month. For now, we celebrate the hike with empanadas and beers.
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