222km (138 miles) N of El Calafate

El Chaltén is a rugged village of about 700 residents whose lifeblood, like El Calafate's, is the throng of visitors who come each summer. Visitors here, however, are generally more active and adventurous than those who stay only in El Calafate; they include some of the world's greatest mountaineers as well as avid trekkers. This is the second-most-visited region of Argentina's Los Glaciares National Park. It's quite possibly the most exquisite, as well, due to the singular nature of the granite spires that shoot up, torpedo-like, above massive tongues of ice that descend from the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. In the world of mountaineering, the sheer and ice-encrusted peaks of Mt. FitzRoy, Cerro Torre, and their neighbors are considered some of the most formidable challenges on the planet, and they draw hundreds of elite climbers here every year. The valleys beneath them provide absolutely world-class trekking trails that any hiker can enjoy. Besides trekking, there are also interesting new options for kayaking, bird-watching, and mountain biking here.

El Chaltén is known as the "trekking capital of Argentina," and it ranks up there with the best trekking destinations in the world. What it offers -- excellent trails in spectacularly wild scenery, mixed with cozy inns and bistros that you can return to at night -- is quite rare. Another bonus is that the hiking here doesn't require any serious uphill (or downhill for that matter) climbs, as most trails follow valley floors. Finally, altitude is not a concern, meaning that your lungs should have no problem taking in some of the cleanest air on the planet.

Little more than 10 years ago, El Chaltén counted just a dozen houses and a hostal or two, but FitzRoy's rugged beauty and great hiking opportunities have created somewhat of a boomtown. The town sits nestled in a circular rock outcrop at the base of FitzRoy, and it's fronted by the vast, dry Patagonian Steppe. It's a wild and windy setting, and the town has a ramshackle feel, although recent street paving has helped clean things up a lot. Visitors use El Chaltén either as a base from which to take day hikes or as an overnight stop before setting off for a multiday backpacking trip. This area is also remarkably rich in human history, from its hardy early settlers and courageous alpinists, to more recent political border disputes with Chile.

El Chaltén has definitely taken a turn upscale over the past few years, first with the Los Cerros hotel, and now with the planned arrival of two more luxury lodges -- run by the same folks behind Explora in Torres del Paine and by Eolo outside El Calafate. Both are just in early stages, and will be located on the road north from El Chaltén toward Lago del Desierto.

Populated by folk with a pioneering spirit, El Chaltén has a cool, young vibe.

Most visitors come here for 4 days, with 2 travel days on each end. If you take the early morning bus from El Calafate, you'll be here with time for a good half-day hike. Most hotels offer a catering service that prepares box lunches you can take with you on the trail. Don't hit the trail without food!

The town's layout is somewhat haphazard, but a new bus terminal at the entrance to town, scheduled to open in 2009, will help orient tourists when they hop off the bus from El Calafate. Güemes and San Martín are the main drags; most hotels and restaurants don't have street numbers.