Best Hiking in Patagonia: Torres del Paine in Chile vs El Chalten in Argentina?
Bunny is an avid hiker, always looking for new hiking destinations. Earlier this year, she was super excited to be able to do some hiking in Patagonia.
Patagonia boasts some of the most striking landscapes in the world. This true wilderness destination is located in the southern tip of South America, moulded by ice, water, wind and tectonic forces over millions of years. Today, the Patagonia region is shared between Argentina and Chile. Both countries boast some amazing corners of this extraordinary area.
Bunny was not able to choose between the lure of the Argentinean or Chilean Patagonia so she decided to do both. Despite the long distances and sometimes complicated travel arrangements, she managed to sample two of the greatest national parks in the region: Torres del Paine in Chile and Parque Nacional Los Glaciares (El Chalten) in Argentina.
Read below about Bunny’s experience in hiking in Torres del Paine vs El Chalten. Bunny has also prepared a handy table comparing both hiking destinations side-by-side at a glance.
Bunny likes to hike in style. She is a fair-weather hiker who prefers her hikes in day-sized chunks, ending each day with a hot shower, great dinner and a glass of red wine (a cold beer will do too). A good night’s sleep in a comfortable bed with clean sheets is another necessity for Bunny. If you’re the type who’d rather trek for days, camp in the woods and prepare your own meals with a propane cooker, Bunny’s advice might not be for you…
Torres del Paine, Chile
Torres del Paine has everything you’d expect from truly wonderful Patagonian scenery. Jagged mountain peaks? Check. Turquoise glacial lakes? Check. Endless plains with expansive skies? Check. Azure glaciers? Check. Raging rivers? Check.
It is one of the world’s premium hiking destinations, suitable for hikers of all abilities, Bunny says.
Bunny’s hiking experience in Torres del Paine was organised through Cascada Expediciones. Although Bunny is usually a very independent traveller, she opted for a tour this time for two reasons: 1) She had set her sights on Eco Camp Patagonia and staying in these award-winning sustainable geodesic domes are organised through Cascada and 2) she wanted an uncomplicated transfer from Argentina to Chile and that’s what the Cascada option offered.
Where to Stay
Bunny cannot resist cool, unusual and expensive (Mr. Bunny would hasten to add) places to stay. Eco Camp Patagonia in Torres del Paine fit the bill perfectly: it was remote, gorgeous and outrageously expensive.
Environmentally friendly and luxurious is not an easy combination to pull off, but EcoCamp Patagonia manages to deliver on that promise.
Bunny’s all-inclusive deal with Cascade Expediciones included all travel, accommodation, meals, most of the drinks (including delicious Chilean red wine at dinner), guided hikes (a number of different hikes were offered every day) and park fees.
The accommodation was in the world's first geodesic hotel room domes. Bunny had a great view of the famous Torres directly from her bed. How’s that for a great Patagonian experience?
How to Get There
The nearest airport is in Punta Arenas. There are regular busses from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales (the distance is approximately 250 kilometres) which is the closest city to Torres del Paine. From Puerto Natales, you will have to take another bus for approximately 2,5 hours to arrive in Torres del Paine.
Since Bunny arrived from Argentina, she first had to take a long bus journey from El Chalten to Puerto Natales (approximately 5 hours) and cross the border in the process, then continue by minivan from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine. As much as Bunny was prepared for the long travel day and very much enjoyed the scenery along the way, in general, she would recommend reaching Torres del Paine straight from Chile, instead of Argentina.
Hikes Bunny Did in Torres del Paine
Lazo Weber Hike
Bunny’s first hike in Patagonia included an early morning minivan transfer from EcoCamp to Lazo Weber Estancia (an almost 2-hour drive) where the hike began. Approximately 20 minutes into the journey, the van stopped abruptly and Bunny soon learned why: there were two pumas by the road!
Bunny had not seen pumas in the wild before and was duly excited, even if she didn’t manage to snap any good photos. Her excitement was further enhanced when she learned that some guides can spend a whole season in Torres del Paine without seeing any pumas. So it was a rare treat indeed.
More wildlife soon followed: there were lots of local llamas (called guanaco), Chilean flamingos and funny ostrich-like birds (rhea) along the way.
The actual hiking started at 11am. The beginning was extremely windy. Bunny was wearing something like 17 different layers of clothing but felt chilly nevertheless. Thankfully, the winds soon subsided and the scenery enthralled Bunny so much that she forgot about the bone-chilling cold even though it was April.
The hike itself was quite easy and flat, with fantastic scenery towards the mountainous Paine range and lots of native flora and wildlife to admire. Hiking through quiet forests with beautiful fall colours was a particular delight for Bunny.
After lunch at a sheltered place, the hike went up to El Toro Lookout with spectacular 360
Afterwards, a very steep decent of approximately one hour followed, with more great views of Lake Toro and its surroundings. Bunny reached the van at 4:30pm, making it a 5,5h hike in total. This was a perfect start to her Patagonian adventure.
Back at the camp, the Bunnies enjoyed hot showers, a great dinner with local red wine and a good night’s sleep in their warm and comfortable dome. This was definitely hiking to Bunny’s liking!
Base of the Towers Hike
8h (missing the final lookout)
The Base of the Towers hike is one of the most iconic in the park. The three Towers are granite monoliths eroded by glacial ice, a striking and easily recognizable feature in the park.
The hike requires an early start. The Bunnies, among a small group of five hikers in total, left the Eco Camp at 8am sharp. There was no need for transportation as they headed towards the Towers directly from camp.
A beautiful sunrise greeted the Bunnies at the beginning of the hike. They also saw a team of galloping horses being herded to pasture just outside Hosteria Las Torres. It was a magnificent sight in the early morning sun.
Afterwards, the group crossed an old suspension bridge across the Ascencio River and joined the uphill path to Ascencio Valley on the Tower's eastern face. It was a tough but scenic climb with views to the valley, beech forests and rivers along the way.
After 10am, Bunny’s group crossed the river again and stopped for some heavenly hot chocolate at Refugio Chileno. Bunny appreciated the short break and clean toilet facilities inside the refuge.
The next segment took the Bunnies past some more wooded areas. The going was rather slow and Bunny was starting to suspect that they would not make it to the base of the Towers. The weather was also taking a turn for the worse and Bunny’s guide advised the group to aim for the “false lookout” instead of trying the final, gruelling climb to the base of the Towers. The guide explained that visibility at the base of the Towers was likely to be very bad due to the falling snow.
The Bunnies and the rest of the group agreed and enjoyed a nice picnic lunch at the false lookout, which you are only allowed to enter with a certified guide. The view of the Towers was magnificent, but Bunny was a bit disappointed about having missed the actual base with the view of the lagoon at the foot of the Towers.
Going back was easier than climbing up but it turned out to be quite a demanding hike nevertheless. When the Bunnies finally returned to EcoCamp after 4pm, they felt like their drink at the bar dome was well-deserved indeed.
French Valley Hike
5,5h (slow pace)
After breakfast, the Bunnies and the rest of their group were driven to the shores of Lake Pehoe where a 30-minute catamaran ride (Hielos Patagonicos) to the north-western sector of the lake followed. Bunny didn't feel particularly safe in the packed catamaran, so she positioned herself right next to the exits just in case…
Despite Bunny’s initial fears, the ride was rather smooth, although the wind created some interesting waves, particularly half-way through the journey. The scenery around the lake was so enticing that Bunny even ventured outside for some pictures.
Upon arrival, Bunny made use of the handy facilities at Refugio Paine Grande. The hiking started at noon at quite a brisk pace. Bunny was told that the length of the hike depended on the speed of the group, and naturally the further they ventured, the better the scenery would be.
However, there were some slower walkers in Bunny’s group so it was decided to adopt a more leisurely pace, enjoy the scenery and take longer breaks instead of trying to hike as far as possible. Bunny is a sucker for great views but was she secretly happy with a slower pace. Plus, the scenery was amazing as it was!
The hike on an undulating path, climbing the slopes of Paine Grande, was not too demanding and the valley’s geological formations were certainly impressive.
At 1:30pm the group had a short break for lunch before eventually continuing until just past the Italian Camp. This was also the turnaround point as the group had to make it back in time for the last catamaran of the day. On the way back, Bunny had to frequently stop for photos as the views of the Cuernos mountains were particularly alluring in the afternoon sun.
Once back at the Refugio Paine Grande, Bunny had a well-deserved Chilean beer (for the steep price of 7 dollars per bottle). The ferry back to the other shore of Lake Pehoe left at 6:30pm. The journey was even smoother than in the morning, and the nascent sunset was simply beautiful. During the ride, Mr. Bunny noted that the clouds in Patagonia were different from anywhere else in the world. Bunny had to agree.
After the ferry, it was another car ride back, this time in the darkness. The Bunnies didn’t get back to EcoCamp Patagonia until after 8pm but It had been a very rewarding, albeit long day.
Bunny’s Lessons Learned for Torres del Paine
Weather forecasts for the park are useless. The weather can be strikingly different in different parts of the park during the course of the same day. Change is constant and often instant. “Four seasons in one day” - as the saying here goes - is not an exaggeration.
Bunny was most surprised by the strong winds although she was told that the April winds, which she experienced, were nothing compared to the summer winds…
Bearing all this in mind, definitely bring proper rain gear. Bunny didn’t.
As for the independent hikers out there, Bunny observed that the signs along the hiking paths were very poor, almost non-existent. Without her guides, Bunny would have gotten lost a dozen times each day.
Parque Nacional Los Glaciares
Los Glaciares National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the largest national park in Argentina. It is known for its extraordinary scenery and numerous glaciers, the most famous of them Perito Moreno. Visiting Perito Moreno was one of the highlights of Bunny’s five-week trip to Argentina.
The highest peaks and most diverse granite mountains, forests, lakes and glaciers are located in the northern section of Los Glaciares National Park. This is where the small village of El Chalten, the unofficial hiking capital of Argentina, is located.
El Chalten has a chilled vibe, with a little bit of a hippy feeling, and lots of great restaurants. Bunny loved the place! You had the feeling of being somewhere remote and special, but could still enjoy all the comforts of modern life at the same time.
The best thing was that superb, well-signposted, hiking trials start literally at the doorstep of El Chalten! There was no need to get transfers anywhere or hire a guide to accompany you on any of the hikes. Bravo!
Amazingly, the hiking around El Chalten is also completely free.
Where to Stay
El Chalten has a number of accommodation options, suitable for all budgets. Bunny decided on a boutique hotel right next to the bus station: Hosteria Senderos. She was able to snag a great deal for the suite on the second floor, which had a nice view of the mountain range on clear days.
In addition to great rooms, Hosteria Senderos had very friendly staff, a nice fireplace in the lounge, reasonably-priced laundry services, and a decent breakfast buffet. The Wi-Fi connection was a bit of hit and miss, and you did have to walk a bit for most of the restaurants in town, but Bunny was very happy with her choice in El Chalten.
How to Get There
The closest airport is in El Calafate. There are a number of daily buses from El Calafate to El Chalten. The journey takes about three hours.
ses are frequent, comfortable and inexpensive. The scenery along the way is excellent and all the buses make a short stop at the tourist information centre just outside El Chalten. This is an excellent opportunity to receive updated, useful information about hiking in the area as well as some free, handy maps and the latest weather information.
Hikes Bunny Did from El Chalten
Laguna Torre (Cerro Torre)
7h (with lots of photo stops)
This is perhaps the most popular day hike in El Chalten. It is a beautiful hike with lots of different scenery. Following the pretty Fitz Roy river upstream, the hike takes you to the glacial lake of Laguna Torre. You will see mountain peaks, glaciers, small rivers and waterfalls along the way. Bunny went in April and enjoyed amazing fall colours all around.
The terrain is pretty flat, except for the first part which takes you to Mirador Torre and your first views of the impressive Cerro Torre (3,102m) and the Adela mountain range. The path is well-marked (there are signposts every kilometre) and easy for most of the hike.
There are also some toilet facilities along the way. And no rubbish, which Bunny was particularly impressed by. The path was not crowded at all when the Bunnies were on the hike but it can, apparently, get quite busy at popular times.
Depending on the weather, Cerro Torre will be visible for most of the hike.
Upon approaching the lagoon, there is a fork in the path, with not much signposting to guide you. Bunny decided to go to the right, which meant a tougher ascent through some woods before reaching a high viewing point on the lagoon. Going left on the fork (Bunny returned this way), is an easier path along the river which takes you directly to the famous (lower) viewing point on the lagoon. It is best to experience both viewing points, Bunny says, so mix up your routes coming and going.
After reaching the lagoon, you can continue along the lake’s northern shore up to Mirador Maestri. Bunny skipped this extension as she was doing the hike with a pretty bad hangover and the weather was starting to look nasty by the time she had reached the lagoon. She did, however, enjoy quite some time just hanging out at the lagoon, taking in the majestic scenery around her.
Hiking back to El Chalten is very straightforward. You just follow the same path, trying not to turn around to admire the view behind you too much…
Bunny is a reasonably fast hiker but she does have one weakness: photography. Sometimes she is compelled to stop every 10 metres to take a picture which slows down her average pace quite a bit.
Laguna de los Tres
9h (plus 40min break on top)
This was Bunny’s favourite hike in El Chalten. It had snowed (the first snow of the year!) overnight and early morning on the day of the hike, so the Bunnies' planned transportation to El Pilar (Hosteria Pilar) was cancelled. It’s common to take a minivan to El Pilar to start the hike and do the trail as a loop ending in El Chalten, avoiding any overlap in your route.
The Bunnies were not discouraged by the setback and trampled half an hour in the snow to the far end of El Chalten to start the hike. They were among the first ones on the trail and it was an utter winter wonderland. Bunny was in heaven!
As with the Laguna Torre hike, the whole trail was well-marked with signposts every kilometre, so there was no chance of getting lost. Bunny couldn’t believe her luck when they arrived at Mirador del Fitz Roy, with lots of pristine snow, perfect clear skies and amazing visibility to the majestic Fitz Roy (3405m). It was all achingly beautiful.
It took the Bunnies three hours of walking to reach the camping place Campamento Poincenot. At this point, the clouds were starting to gather and it was beginning to look like the visibility up on the lagoon was not going to be great. Bunny was determined to go up nevertheless. Mr. Bunny less so. So up they went.
Just before the ascent starts there is a warning sign advising you should be in good physical condition to tackle the steep path and avoid it altogether if there is wind, rain, snow or ice. The Bunnies had wind, rain, snow and ice galore but somehow survived.
The last hour of the hike was brutal though. There was an altitude gain of 400 metres over one kilometre. Bunny was completely flustered by the time they reached the top. Mr. Bunny was toddling up the mountain particularly slowly and broke his walking stick in frustration when the lagoon kept eluding him. There was always another plateau just when you thought you would finally arrive…
Eventually the Bunnies did reach the lagoon and enjoyed a lovely break and a picnic by the glacial lake. The weather gods were not cooperating, so the pictures taken did not do the place any justice but the feeling of achievement was palpable.
Then there was, of course, the way down and back to the hotel… At this point, the snow had started to melt quite rapidly and the winter wonderland from the morning had turned into a sloshy muddy mess. The Bunnies fought these 10 kilometres of muddy trails with surprising grace, with no major fights or (much) talk about divorce. Kudos to them!
It was 6pm when the Bunnies reached the parking lot marking the official beginning of the hike. It started raining quite heavily at this point so the last 30-minute crawl back to the hotel was not exactly glorious. But after a hot shower, an excellent tapas meal and a couple of glasses of red wine, the Bunnies felt on top of the world again. It had been an amazing day.
Bunny’s Lessons Learned for El Chalten
Many restaurants and services are closed in both the shoulder and off-season in El Chalten. More than once, the Bunnies set off for a restaurant only to find it closed or with different opening times than posted online.
Don’t overdo it with the wine, as delicious as it is, Bunny says. She had a hard time in the beginning of the Laguna Torre hike due to a hangover.
Visit the tourist information office for some helpful maps and friendly advice. You do not need any guides for the hikes, Bunny says. She is not what you would call a great map reader by any stretch but did just fine on her own, with a little help from Mr. Bunny (who is pretty useless with maps as well).
Quick Comparison: Torres del Paine vs El Chalten
Both parks offer superb scenery and excellent hiking. El Chalten is more accessible and has a wider choice of accommodation. Torres del Paine is better for hardcore hikers, but can also be done in style, as amply demonstrated by Bunny’s experience.
Type of Hiking
Torres del Paine
Expensive hotels or camping
Great variety of hikes, guide needed
El Chalten (Parque Nacional Los Glaciares)
Variety of options
Day hikes, no guides needed
Bunny’s Final Word
This is world class hiking, whichever park you decide to go to (hopefully both!).
Be prepared, both physically and mentally, for some tough going but also for some of the most amazing scenery in the world. Wear enough layers and bring plenty of food and drink (next time, Bunny will bring a thermos with hot chocolate), a fully charged camera battery and an empty memory card, a rubbish bag, a little bit of adventurous spirit and dry socks. You will love it.