Trek to Laguna de los Tres
With only one full day in El Chalten, trekking the Fitz Roy trail to Laguna de los Tres was a must. A small glacial lake tucked away, high up in the Andes of Los Glaciares National Park, Laguna de los Tres is a hidden treasure and worth every step it takes to get there.
Before heading out onto the trails, it is required to first check-in with the National Park office at the entrance of El Chalten. There they provided us with trail maps that have distances and estimated trekking times, information about wildlife, and rules about properly packing out trash. You need to register for a permit for some of the more challenging treks that go up to the South Patagonia Ice Field and cross the Chile border.
National Park rangers sit at the trail heads to check that you have visited the National Park office and are properly prepared for your trek. A subtle reminder that you are indeed venturing off into the wilderness.
After checking-in at the National Park office, we picked up a better trail map in one of the gift shops and stopped into a tour operator’s office to get a sense of how to best plan our trek to Laguna de los Tres. For a mere $120 pesos, the guide suggested taking a shuttle an hour up the road to Hosteria Pilar, a higher elevation where we could start our trek. This would save us 4-5 hours of hiking up the initial incline of the Fitz Roy trail, which we would eventually hike down at the end of the day anyway. It also gave us the added benefit of seeing Piedras Blancas Glacier and laguna. We paid for the 8 AM shuttle pick-up and spent the rest of the afternoon familiarizing ourselves with the trail maps preparing for the day ahead. Our trek would be 19.6 km (12 miles) estimated to take us 7 hours.
We woke before sunrise so that we could eat breakfast, get our boxed lunches from the hosteria and pack our daypacks. I was relieved to see some cloud cover as the day before was very hot. I knew the clouds would give us relief throughout our long day in the mountains, provided the clouds didn’t burn off.
First stop, Piedras Blancas
The shuttle dropped us off at Hosteria Pilar where we found the trailhead along the valley floor. Off in the distance the peaks of Mount Fitz Roy played peekaboo as we headed out onto the trail winding up and along Rio Blanco. Jaw-dropping glaciers wrapped around what seemed like every mountaintop. It felt as if we had been transported to a prehistoric time on earth and I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a dinosaur walk by. I kept pinching myself to believe I was actually walking amongst glaciers through the Andes of Southern Patagonia.
After hiking about two kilometers we arrived at the viewpoint of the Piedras Blancas Glacier and laguna. From this lookout we peered down through the trees to see a small valley formed by the glacier during the last glaciation period 10,000 years ago. Tiny waterfalls sprung from the bottom of the glacier pouring down the side of the rocks into the small laguna of glacier melt.
We could have stayed at Piedras Blancas all day, but we had a long trek ahead so after a short stop for pictures and water, we got back to the trail. As we cut back further into the mountains, the trail lead us through thick forests and brush and then opened up into a huge valley. Here the Fitz Roy range was not so far in the distance, and we knew we were getting closer.
We reapplied sunscreen and eyed our water bottles that were almost empty. The water in the streams and lakes are all glacier melt so pure you can drink directly from them. But we had been hiking for a few hours and had yet to cross a stream or lake. Some of the cloud cover had burned off leaving us squinting in the hot, bright Patagonian sun.
We trekked on through the valley and back into a shady wooded area. We started to catch the scent of campfire and food as the trail lead us to Poincenot Campsite. We followed the trail through the colorful colony of tents popped up around the campsite, delighted to hear the sound of water flowing nearby.
We stopped at the stream to quench our thirst and fill our water bottles. It was around noon and the sun was hot. We continued along coming to a junction in the trail where we picked up the Fitz Roy trail, hiking a bit further to a refugio at the 9 km mark. There people rested in the shade of the refugio before and after climbing the final leg of the trail to the hidden lake.
Summiting the Fitz Roy trail
The last kilometer of the Fitz Roy trail up to Laguna de los Tres is challenging for even experienced trekkers. We weren’t exactly physically prepared for what we were about to endure. A tight switchback trail cuts up the side of the mountain, above the tree line. A sign with falling rocks warns that the trail is badly decomposed and unstable. Now with no shade, we climbed the vertical trail hoisting ourselves up over rocks, trying not to lose our balance from exertion, altitude and vertigo. I wished we had brought trekking poles.
We climbed slowly, taking breaks to catch our breath and rest our legs. As we reached higher altitudes, Lake Viedma came into view in the far distance and you could see how the glaciers had shaped the valleys.
Every person on the trail was in the midst of their own personal battle with the mountain. As we passed one another we would share an empathetic look or sigh. At just the right time, an English man coming down the mountain looked at us and said, “You’re almost there! Only about 15 minutes more, just over that ridge.” His encouragement injected us with a burst of energy that propelled us up the last stretch to the summit.
The trail started to give way and the rocks slipped out from underneath us as we scrambled over the crumbly top of the mountain. Our legs were shaking from the climb and the wind coming off the ice field swirled around us as we reached the summit. We peered down at our reward. The deep turquoise blue of Laguna de los Tres, Glaciar de los Tres that feeds the lake, and the majestic spires of Mount Fitz Roy, now front and center, towering overhead.
Laguna de los Tres
We wobbled down to the shore of Laguna de los Tres where we sat down for the first time all day to rest our legs. We took off our hiking boots and stretched out our feet. The temperature was cooler down by the water. We filled our water bottles from the lake and watched a small group climbing the glacier as we ate our lunch. At that particular moment, feeling completely exhausted, I wasn’t sure if we were going to be able to get up again. It’s amazing how the body will restore though.
We stayed at Laguna de los Tres for over an hour, watching the clouds gather and swirl around the peaks of Mount Fitz Roy like smoke coming out of a volcano. After finally regaining the energy to stand, we laced up our boots and explored the surrounding area.
We wandered over to the far side of Laguna de los Tres, opposite the glacier, where a small stream flowed out of the lake and down the mountainside. Huge boulders formed a ridge around the area. We climbed to the edge to see the electric blue Laguna Sucia nestled deep below the granite spires.
That’s the thing about El Chalten and Los Glaciares National Park. Around every turn is another sight so spectacular and dramatic that you can’t imagine anything could be more astounding. And then you turn around another bend and its better than the last.
We were reluctant to leave Laguna de los Tres, but the 10 km trail back to town would take us about four hours. It was 2:30 PM and even with the longer summer days I knew we would need most of our remaining daylight to get back.
The hike down the mountain was just as difficult as it was going up. Rocks slid out from underfoot, and the uneven trail made for large, irregular steps that were hard to traverse with our tired legs. We made it back to the refugio, then the campground. We stopped at the bridge crossing Rio Blanco to rest and refill our water bottles one last time. I ate my second sandwich for energy.
We followed the Fitz Roy trail through the meadows of the wide valley, in and out of more forests, and past the trail to Laguna Capri. Our energy was much lower now. The excited chatter of our morning hike had turned to quiet inner reflection as we continued along the trail listening to our thoughts and Arroyo del Salto babbling in the background. We counted down as we passed the kilometer markers….7,6,5.
Around the fourth kilometer from town, we crossed two Canadian men hiking the same direction. One of the men was a good pace ahead of his friend who was exhausted and losing steam. The tired man struck up conversation as his friend went ahead, and we all chatted to distract ourselves from our tired legs. He was a retired journalist and conversation about the world, politics and travel kept our minds busy while we made our way down the mountain. At the bottom we found ourselves at the Senda Fitz Roy trailhead on the edge of town where his friend was waiting.
Isabel restaurant was one of the first restaurants along the road on that side of town. Given our wonderful experience with Isabel restaurant in El Calafate, we recommended the restaurant to the gentlemen. They insisted we have a beer with them and we couldn’t refuse. We sat down at one of the tables outside and ordered cold Quilmes toasting to new friends and the triumph of our Fitz Roy trek.