Trekking in Patagonia – El Chalten vs. Torres del Paine

Can’t Decide Between El Chalten and Torres del Paine?

So you want to do some trekking in southern Patagonia? Maybe you’ve done a little research, maybe you haven’t. You want to see some breathtaking snow-capped mountains, jagged peaks, and stunning glaciers. But you can’t decide between El Chalten, Argentina and Torres del Paine, Chile, the self-proclaimed “trekking capitals” of their respective countries…

French Valley, Torres del Paine National Park

French Valley, Torres del Paine National Park

Laguna de los Tres, El Chalten

Laguna de los Tres, El Chalten

The good news is you can’t go wrong with either El Chalten or Torres del Paine.

Both options provide incredible access to some of the most spectacular mountain scenery you’ll ever see. We can’t really recommend one over the other purely based on natural beauty as they are both equally stunning national parks. However, there are definitely distinct differences between the two trekking meccas that may push you toward one or the other. Here are some things to think about based on our experience in both locations that will help you decide (although the best decision is to do both!)

Do you prefer day hikes or multi-day treks?

El Chalten is all about day hikes. There are a few designated camp sites but they don’t really add much in the way of seeing more of the park. All the trailheads start right from town, making access extremely easy. Torres del Paine, on the other hand, requires multi-day treks ranging anywhere from 3-10 days to do it right, depending on if you are doing part of the “W”, the entire “W”, or the full circuit. It also takes at least 3 hours to get there from Puerto Natales, the launching point for access to the national park, so day hikes are pretty much out of the question.

Walking back to El Chalten with our friends Katy and Seamus after the Pliegue Tumbado hike

Walking back to El Chalten with our friends Katy and Seamus after the Pliegue Tumbado hike

How much do you like to rough it? And how much stuff do you want to carry?

If you want to have a rack of lamb and a glass of malbec before slipping into a nice comfy bed, El Chalten is your best bet. The beauty of El Chalten (besides the scenery, of course) is the ability to go on a world-class day hike and come back to some relative luxury.

There is also something to be said for becoming one with the elements, carrying all your gear, and sleeping underneath the stars. In Torres del Paine, you can have all that and more. The best option there is carrying all your food and gear with you (tents, sleeping bags, mattress pads, and stoves are all abundantly available for rent in Puerto Natales). There are some “glamping” options, including a few shelters with dorm beds or tents/ sleeping bags that are already set up for you (so you don’t have to carry them), but these fill up very quickly and are exorbitantly expensive.

Carrying all our stuff on the "W" trek. Note that it's really awkward trying to put your arm around someone with a huge pack on.

Carrying all our stuff on the “W” trek. Note that it’s really awkward trying to put your arm around someone with a huge pack on.

The good news about carry loads in both places? You don’t need to lug around water because the glacial runoff provides abundant fresh water sources.

Typical fresh water source

Typical fresh water source

How much time do you have?

You can see most parts of the national park in El Chalten with three day hikes. We did the Loma del Pliegue Tumbado, Laguna de los Tres, and Laguna Torre hikes and would rank them in that order. In Torres del Paine, you need 4-5 days for the “W” trek and at least a day of preparation to get all your stuff together. We did not have enough time to do the full 8-9 day circuit there but it sounds incredible and with that much time available should definitely be a consideration.

When you do the Laguna de los Tres hike in El Chalten, make sure you keep going past the big lake and check out the glacier tucked behind it

When you do the Laguna de los Tres hike, make sure you keep going past the big lake and check out the glacier tucked behind it

Pliegue Tumbado hike in El Chalten

Pliegue Tumbado hike in El Chalten

Pliegue Tumbado hike

Pliegue Tumbado hike

The famous "towers" in Torres del Paine.  My wife has a 40 inch vert.

The famous “towers” in Torres del Paine. My wife has a 40 inch vert.

French Valley, Torres del Paine.  No matter where you go, you have to be prepared for all kinds of weather in Patagonia.

French Valley, Torres del Paine. No matter where you go, you have to be prepared for all kinds of weather in Patagonia.

What about costs? Is one significantly more expensive than the other?

Generally, unless you have your own gear and are planning on spending over a week in Torres del Paine, El Chalten is going to be cheaper. There are no national park or camping fees there and you literally walk from town to all the trailheads. However, food and accommodation in town is a bit on the pricey side relative to the rest of Argentina. Remember to bring hard currency (preferably US dollars) into Argentina to maximize your exchange rate by using blue dollars. Expect $10US for a dorm bed or $30US for a private room.

No park fees for this?  Yes please.

No park fees for this? Yes please.

Puerto Natales, the launch point for Torres del Paine, is more expensive, $15-$20 for a dorm and $50 or so for a private room. The bus and park fee just to get into Torres del Paine will run about $50US and the catamaran most people take either starting or finishing the trek is another $30, so you’re looking at $80US per head just to get to the park and back. However, if you spend a week there eating your own food and sleeping in the free camp sites, it averages out pretty well. It’s worth noting that many camp sites in Torres del Paine are paid camp sites, but the free ones are actually better! We would also highly recommend bringing your own food regardless because the few options for ready-made meals in the park are extremely overpriced.

The W trek is worth every penny of the park fee, though

The W trek is worth every penny of the park fee.

Obviously also look into the reciprocity (“visa”) fees if you plan to cross a border. Argentina charges a $160 fee for US citizens, but Chile recently lifted the $160 reciprocity fee for Americans. Check the fee policies for your country’s citizens for Argentina and Chile before sprinting for the mountains.

I really just want to see a glacier up close. Where is the best place to do that?

Lucky for you, again you can’t really go wrong. Glacier Grey in Torres del Paine is awesome. And if you go to El Chalten, you are most likely travelling through Calafate, the launching point for the world famous Perito Moreno Glacier, an absolute must-do (set aside a full day for this experience). So with either option you’re going to see a really cool glacier up close.

Perito Moreno Glacier

Perito Moreno Glacier

It's a beast

It’s a beast

Both options sound great…I still can’t decide!

I would generally say if you have less time (2-3) days, definitely go with El Chalten. You’ll be able to get at least two awesome day hikes in and see most of the park. In Torres del Paine, you need at least 4 days (including one prep day) to do it right, preferably more. If you have more time (4+ days) it just comes down to how much you like to rough it. Do you want to be one with the elements or sleep in a warm bed? Are you okay with putting on a wet jacket and damp boots in the morning? Do you want to carry all your stuff?

I kind of preferred a steak meal and a bed in Chalten vs. eating watered-down soup and turkey sandwiches in our tent for four days, but I practically had to drag Alison out of the park in Torres del Paine. To each their own.

As mentioned several times before, you can’t go wrong here. The scenery and natural beauty in the Andes of southern Patagonia is unrivaled and should be on every traveler’s bucket list. I promise your jaw will drop when you reach the end of these trails, no matter where you are. It’s that spectacular.

Katy showing off her handstand skills

Katy showing off her handstand skills

Pliegue Tumbado, El Chalten.  Alison says this was the point at which she was most scared in the past year

Pliegue Tumbado, El Chalten. Alison says this was the point at which she was most scared in the past year

Seamus and Katy with us Laguna de los Tres

Seamus and Katy with us at Laguna de los Tres

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80 thoughts on “Trekking in Patagonia – El Chalten vs. Torres del Paine

  1. Hey guys,

    Such an awesome post! We’re going to be in Chile/Argentina in May next year. We’re dying to do the W trek, and we’d also love to see the Perito Moreno Glacier, Cerro Torre and Mt Fitz Roy.
    Would you recommend we fly into El Chaten (if that’s possible) spend a few days there, then catch a bus down to Puerto Natales to rent our gear for the W trek? Or would you say the other way around would be better?
    We’ve got a month in Chile and Argentina, but we’re prioritising Patagonia 🙂

    Cheers,
    Milly

  2. Pingback: The W circuit in Torres del Paine: notes from an amateur, part I – HOP STEP JUMP

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