On the road, what to visit between El Calafate and El Chaltén

by 27 Jun, 2021Patagonia

😷  COVID-19 NOTICE: You can check out the latest information about travel restrictions and bans in Patagonia due to the coronavirus HERE for Chile and HERE for Argentina.

🗺️  ITINERARY: 
This post is based on our experience following a 10-day itinerary in Patagonia that you can check out HERE.

If you decide to go to El Chaltén from El Calafate by car as we did (learn about how to get around in Patagonia here), you may wonder what you can do in between El Calafate and El Chaltén.

The drive mainly through Ruta 40 takes 3h30 and if you plan to do a hike from El Chaltén to see the Fritz Roy from closer the next day, then you want to make the most of your day on the road!

Below you will find a few suggestions of things you can do in this one-day road trip. In our map of recommendations, we have also marked the main petrol stations for this journey.

View of Punta Walichu (travelling between El Calafate and El Chalten)

🎨 Punta Walichu – cave paintings by Tehuelche people

This archaeological site, Punta Walichu, is located right next to the exit of El Calafate, where Aónikenk (or Tehuelche) people found a shelter near Lago Argentino protected from the wind given its location among rocks, and where they drew paintings on sandstone approximately 4’000 years ago.

Paintings in this complex represent the practice of hunting and animals from the region, but also includes painted hands and a sort of labyrinth that is believed to have a spiritual meaning. Walichu (or Gualicho) is the name of a Tehuelche deity, after which this open-air museum has been named.

Lago Argentino from Punta Walichu (travelling between El Calafate and El Chalten)
There are only a few original paintings and some replicas, but we found this place to be special and worth visiting given its location by Lago Argentino and its views, and in addition you were given an audio guide explaining how Tehuelche people would live thousands of years ago in this remote area of the planet!

There was an entry fee that I cannot recall the price for… but it was very reasonable, and it normally opens from 10h to 18h.

Patagonia itinerary - Hotel La Leona (between El Calafate and El Chalten)

🍲 Parador La Leona, a must stop to eat (and learn)!

Parador La Leona is the only civilization you will see in Ruta 40 between El Calafate and El Chaltén. Located within 1h15-drive from El Calafate and 2h15-drive from El Chaltén, this lodging complex dates back from 1894, and is located by the river La Leona.

The name of both, the place and river, are believed to come from the fact that Francisco Moreno (a.k.a. Perito Moreno) was attacked and injured by a female puma (“leona”) close by.

This place was established next to a raft that would allow farmers, their herds and belongings to cross the river until a bridge was built in 1974. The lodging would accommodate them until all their animals were able to cross.

Over the years, this place also serving delicious meals (or snacks, in case not too hungry!) has hosted bank robbers, other bandits and climbers ready to conquer the South Andes.

When we stopped there, we had a delicious lunch (an omelette and empanadas!), and enjoyed the little museum they have in one of the rooms, featuring old pictures of La Leona decades ago, ancestral tools, and fossils from dinosaurs and prehistoric trees.

🪨 The million-year-old petrified forest of La Leona

This petrified “forest” located very close from Parador La Leona is something we would have loved to visit and were planning on doing so, until we were told it was not possible to go to Bosque Petrificado La Leona on our own when we asked about it at Parador La Leona, surprise!

Apparently this “forest” is within private property and therefore only accessible via an organised trip. As explained previously, independent travel is not always possible in Patagonia, and we learnt it the hard way! For us, it was too late to see whether we could join an excursion to the petrified forest with our own car… But if we would have known this in advance, I would have absolutely tried to join such an excursion.

This paleontological site is in the middle of nowhere. From what we could read and see in pictures, it looks like a desert of clay-like soil. Among ravines and hills, you can see petrified tree trunks, which can have a diameter up to 1.2 metres, and fossilised broken or whole bones of dinosaurs.

These million-old fossils have been exposed (and continue to be exposed) as the wind and water erode this land. If there are no clouds, this place also offers beautiful views of mountains from the National Park Los Glaciares, including mount Fitz Roy.

The excursion entails 3 hours of walking across this “forest” although with bus transfers and breaks, it seems to take the whole day. Worth checking if you can go on your own car, so you can head straight to El Chaltén after visiting the “forest”.

You can ask for information and book here.

Our car in Patagonia, it was a small but resistant one! (between El Calafate and El Chalten)

😍 Admiring both Lago Argentino and Lago Viedma

As you have probably deduced by now, when taking Ruta 40 towards El Chaltén from El Calafate, you will be riding along the river La Leona, which connects Lago Argentino (close to El Calafate) with Lago Viedma (close to El Chaltén).

On the road, you will see plenty of viewpoint spots where you can park your car and admire these beautiful lakes. But beware you may have some company as we did… 🦊

A fox seen from the road in Patagonia

And it will be very windy, as indicated oftenly…

Patagonia is windy, things to know about Patagonia
As explained in our itinerary for Patagonia, these lakes have something very special… They feature a unique bright turquoise colour that is due to the “rock flour” released by the glaciers (see this picture from NASA!).

🏞️ Viewpoints arriving to El Chaltén

One last thing that can be nice to do (but that we didn’t do as it was cloudy, although we had a full sunny day for our hike the next day 🙌 ) is hiking up to one of the viewpoints right before arriving at El Chaltén.

You have Mirador de las Águilas and Mirador de los Cóndores. The latter is named that way because there are many condors usually flying over or close by. They both offer views of the Fritz Roy and Lago Viedma after some elevation gain (120-180 metres) worth the effort!

You can check these routes out here.

📍Map of recommendations

Did you find this post useful and have other recommendations for this particular journey?

If you like what you read, please feel free to share this post, leave a comment and/or find out more about travelling in Patagonia 👇👇👇👇👇

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