This article is part of the Complete Guide to Photography in Patagonia
El Chaltén is the gateway to Argentina's Los Glaciares National Park and one of the most popular hiking destinations in the world. As a photography destination, this area can be both exciting and gruelling, with some of the best photography spots in Patagonia relatively nearby but still a tough 3-hour hike away.
My favourite thing about the landscape around El Chaltén is that it forces you to be creative with your images. This isn't an area with a set of fixed landscape photography compositions to collect like a treasure hunt; the environment and conditions change frequently, and some of the best photographs involve small features which won't be the same the next time you visit.
However, it is hard to know how to approach the landscape in the area. You will probably be used to considering the light and weather conditions when choosing a photography spot, but you'll also have to factor in the hiking or camping required to get there from the town. It's not enough to research the photography locations which can give you the best angles or views; you also have to understand how to reach them.
Landscape Photography Around El Chaltén
This is a guide to practising landscape photography in the complicated terrain around El Chaltén. I've split the landscape into six main areas; all are great for photography, but you'll need different levels of effort to reach them. These six areas can be arranged into three categories:
Easy: The Road and Vueltas River Valley. You enter El Chaltén from the southeast, where a main road connects the village to the rest of Patagonia and runs along a flat valley. North of El Chaltén is a gravel road heading towards other points in the valleys below the mountains. These two areas are in the flat land around El Chaltén and are so easy to reach you can drive to them.
Medium: The area around Laguna Capri (Easier Hikes) is much closer to Mount Fitz Roy, and you can reach it with a 90-minute hike from El Chaltén. The Laguna Torre Hike is longer (but flatter) and leads to the lagoon at the base of Cerro Torre. Most people visit these locations on a hiking day trip, and it is possible to reach them for sunrise if you begin the hike early enough. You can also camp near these spots to make it easier to be on location for the best light.
Hard: The area closest to Fitz Roy (difficult hikes) has some steep terrain closer to the mountains and is far enough from El Chaltén that it's best to camp in this area for the best light. In the south, a hike to Lomo del Pliegue Tumbado takes you up a very steep hill for one of the most impressive views in the area.
The Road Shot
At a parking spot 6km outside of El Chaltén, you'll find one of the most photographed locations in the area. Its popularity is driven by how easy it is to reach, as it's a great place to park a van of tour group participants exhausted from hiking in the hills. There are some beautiful compositions here, but it's best saved for rest days when you are not up for trekking to a more challenging location.
There are two main foreground elements here: the road leading towards the mountains and a nearby river valley. This is a great place to get back a little from the peaks and get a sense of the wider landscape. Surrounded by flat terrain, it's also a beautiful spot to capture the incredible skies of Patagonia.
The road leads neatly towards the mountains here, making it perfect for a leading line in your compositions. You'll find plenty of photographers experimenting with how to feature the road, standing in different places and positioning their camera at different heights; a brilliant location for practice and simple fun with the camera.
A short walk from the road is another popular spot for tour groups. This river valley has become a famous scene from the landscape around El Chaltén, and the overlooking hill is often quite busy around sunrise.
There are many spots along the river to capture compositions with the mountains, and the point closest to the parking area is not the best (only the easiest to reach, which is why it is the most popular). Spend some time here and follow the river downstream for better photography options.
When to go: Any time. At sunrise, the light catches the mountains face-on, and the landscape is at its best. However, the barren features also suit moodier images in the middle of an overcast day, and the sun drops right behind the mountain for sunset. The best thing about this spot is its accessibility, so make the most of its versatility and visit whenever you have some free time.
To get here: It's easiest to drive out of town and stop at the parking area to reach the river. The closest spot is the most popular, but you can walk across the landscape downstream to find better ones. You can hike from town if you don't have your own transport, though it's a long and very dull hike along the road.
Vueltas River Valley
The highlight of the river valley running north out of El Chaltén is the waterfall Chorrillo del Salto. This scene is 3km out of town, with a hiking trail and a gravel road leading there, making it one of the easiest places to reach from El Chaltén.
This makes it a busy spot. You can drive a bus here with enough determination, so it's popular with all tourists in the area, not just the photography groups resting in the valley. However, it's an incredible sight in the autumn: a 20-metre waterfall dropping right into the colourful fall trees. You can get lost in photography for several hours here, exploring the different patterns, colours and shapes of the leaves and water.
From Chorrillo del Salto, you can also explore the banks of the Vueltas River, where you'll find more trees and patterns in the landscape. You can't see the peaks from this part of the valley, and there are no grand vistas to be photographed here, but it's another good spot where you can rest from hiking but still enjoy some photography.
When to go: Woodland and waterfalls can be such versatile subjects that you don't need any particular light or conditions to get the most out of them, so it's possible to get great photographs here at any time of day. However, the most noticeable feature of your visit to Chorrillo del Salto will be other guests. Arriving as early as possible or coming very late in the day will give you a better chance to capture the scene without any other visitors in your shot.
To get here: Drive out of town on the north road for about 3km, and you'll find a parking area with a public toilet and plenty of room to stop. Chorrillo del Salto is a short walk from the parking area, and the river valley is across the road and through the trees. You can also hike to the waterfall on an easy, flat trail which runs mostly through the woods and leaves from the trailhead just north of El Chaltén.
Photography Around Laguna Capri
The most iconic images from El Chaltén often feature autumn trees leading up to Mount Fitz Roy in the distance, and the area around Laguna Capri is a great place to start searching for these compositions. The trail leading north out of El Chaltén levels off after about an hour of climbing, and the landscape turns into one of rolling hills set out before the mountains.
There's no particular spot to visit here because compositions change with the seasons as different features grow and change colour. Instead, the best approach is to explore the hiking trails north and east of Laguna Capri, looking for clear areas to capture the mountains in a frame, along with foliage in the foreground.
North of Laguna Capri is a small river flowing down from the mountains, which eventually becomes Chorillo del Salto when it reaches the valley below. There are cascades and small waterfalls along the length of this river, many of which line up perfectly for images of the falling water in front of Fitz Roy.
The most famous of these cascades is the ironically named 'secret waterfall', which has become well known in recent years as a great place to photograph the mountains. This spot is the closest thing to a fixed composition in this area and a beautiful place to capture sunrise. If you leave early enough, you can even hike from El Chaltén to this spot before dawn, and it's possible to get here in under 2 hours.
When to go: This area is best at sunrise, and many people camp at the sites around Laguna Capri to be in position for the first light of the day. However, it's a great place to spend the whole day, with the light and conditions opening up new possibilities as you explore.
To get here: Hike up the hill from the north trailhead out of El Chaltén, and you'll find a network of hiking trails to explore around the hillside. The secret waterfall is here, and a good area of woodland to start exploring is here.
Hike to Laguna Torre
One of the most exhilarating hikes I have ever done was to Laguna Torre in the dead of night, so early that I arrived in time to capture the Milky Way. This is a great location, not to be missed in El Chaltén, and even the hike is a pleasant experience, surrounded by landscape which rapidly changes as you walk.
Cerro Torre is the 'other' mountain around El Chaltén, slightly less photographed than Fitz Roy but no less photogenic and with many advantages over its larger neighbour. This mountain sits above a large glacier lagoon, often containing chunks of ice which you can use as foregrounds in compositions.
The hike here from El Chaltén is a little under 10km, but mostly flat after the initial 2km gentle climb, so it is possible to make the journey in around 2.5 hours. There's a campsite nearby if you want to make the morning a little easier, but it's possible to hike from town before sunrise if you prefer not to camp.
The photography options around the lagoon are endless, with the ice constantly shifting to form new foregrounds and compositions. In the autumn, the alpenglow and sunrise light catches the face of Cerro Torre, creating the ideal subject for scenes of the lagoon.
The route to the lagoon is also full of beautiful landscape. You can see Cerro Torre from about 3km into the hike, and it becomes possible to include it in compositions with foregrounds along the route from about halfway into the journey.
Near the trail, there are plenty of puddles and small ponds where you might catch reflections on a still day. Remember that you only need a tiny patch of water to create a reflection scene: get low enough to the surface with a wide lens, and you can create dramatic vistas in little more than a puddle.
When to go: Laguna Cerro Torre is best at sunrise. If you leave early enough, it's possible to hike from El Chaltén and reach the lagoon by dawn. Alternatively, there is a campsite near the lagoon if you want an earlier start on location, and this would also give you the best opportunity to capture the Milky Way.
If you are going to hike from town, you'll leave very early and walk for hours to shoot dawn at the lagoon, only to find that the best light lasts barely more than an hour. I recommend using the rest of the morning to walk back towards El Chaltén but keep checking over your shoulder for more compositions of Cerro Torre behind you on the route.
To get here: Two trailheads (here and here) leave El Chaltén for Laguna Cerro Torre, both from the east town and not the same location as the trailhead for hikes up to Mount Fitz Roy. The trailheads merge very soon after leaving town and it doesn't matter which one you take. There is more parking at the one to the north.
Longer Hikes to Fitz Roy
The hiking routes which lead up to Fitz Roy all follow the same path until they reach the woods near Laguna Capri. Beyond this point, your photography will need a little more planning.
Hikes to Laguna de los Tres and Piedras Blancas Glacier are popular day trips among more serious hikers visiting El Chaltén, and it's certainly possible to get there and back in a day with some fitness. However, you would struggle to reach this area from town in time for sunrise, so making the journey for photography would mean a long hike in both directions, only to be limited to harsh midday light for making images.
Many photographers camp in this area, and you can rent camping equipment from the shops in El Chaltén. The images from Laguna de los Tres and Laguna Sucia (the most common long-hike destinations) are (in my view) not as striking as the photographs from some of the places that are easier to reach. However, camping does open up new possibilities for exploring the hills and finding new compositions closer to the mountains, where some of the best shots of Fitz Roy can be made.
When to go: I don't recommend attempting the extremely early hike required to reach points close to Fitz Roy in time for sunrise. Instead, either make the journey primarily as a hiking adventure (but with lower expectations for photography) or plan to camp for a few nights near the mountains and head up the trail in time for sunset. If you can be flexible about when you go camping, you'll want to check the weather and plan for a clear sunrise when the peaks will be at their best.
To get here: These longer hikes start in El Chaltén from the north trailhead, and the start of the journey takes you along the same route as the shorter hikes to Laguna Capri. Many sources recommend hiking from the north of Piedras Blancas Glacier, where you can take a taxi from El Chaltén to a bridge on Ruta 23 for a shorter route to this area. However, the first part of this route is on private property, and some recent information indicates that hikers may no longer be allowed to go this way - make up-to-date enquiries before attempting this route.
Loma del Pliegue Tumbado
When researching photography in Patagonia, you'll find spectacular images of Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy sitting above a river valley leading into the mountains, taken from a point very high up and to the southeast of the mountains. Those images are made on a hike to La Loma del Pliegue Tumbado, a set of peaks south of El Chaltén. I have never completed the hike, because bad weather has always disrupted my opportunities in El Chaltén. However, plenty of images online show just how spectacular this location is, and any guide to photography in El Chaltén wouldn't be complete without it.
The hike is long (almost 20km round trip) and very steep, but the lookout is one of the best places to watch sunrise around El Chaltén. You don’t need to get to the absolute peak of the mountain to find the best views and, at the right angle, it’s possible to look down and into Laguna Torre from above, the scene framed by the valley below and the mountains of Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy above.
When to go: You need to be high up and at the lookout for sunrise, which means an incredibly early start and a very difficult, long, and steep hike to begin your day. However, this is one of the best sunrise locations anywhere in Patagonia, and the hill is just as high at any time of day. It's a difficult journey but well worth the effort.
To get here: The trail starts behind the Visitors’ Centre on the south-eastern edge of El Chaltén and is a very exposed and high trail for which you’ll need to be well prepared. It enters a forest about halfway up. Close to the point where you exit the trees, you’ll find the best compositions of the valley below.
Landscape Photography Locations in El Chalten
El Chaltén must be one of the most challenging places in the world for landscape photography. There are spectacular images to be made here, but you'll have to be creative, energetic, and willing to endure some discomfort to reach them. The disadvantage of El Chaltén is just how few accessible set-piece photography locations there are: you'll have to work hard for anything you get. However, this is more than offset by the incredible landscape images you can make with a little hiking and some creativity in your foregrounds.
To get the most from the area, you'll need a complete hiking guide to navigate the terrain safely. However, thinking of the landscape in these six areas will help you plan for the photography you can achieve on the hikes and help you to get in the best position for the light.