Crossing from Villa O’Higgins to El Chalten

Sunrise on Fitz Roy

If you’ve come as far as the end of the Carretera in Villa O’Higgins, it’s unlikely you’re going to turn tail and head north to take the easier route via Chile Chico and Los Antiguos. In which case, you’re in for a treat. The crossing this way is definitely the path less trodden and has some real surprises in store for you.

The first thing to do is book your boat across Lago O’Higgins/San Martin (the border runs precisely down the middle of the lake, so Chile – O’Higgins and Argentina – San Martin), which you can do either with Robinson Crusoe in their small yurt/office building just over the road from the excellent El Mosco hostel, or alternatively with Turismo Altavista, also conveniently close to El Mosco. This will cost you CP$38,000pp if you just want to be dropped off at the farm Candelario Mancilla on the other side of the lake. The journey is around 2.5 hours. There is a more expensive option to also visit the O’Higgins Glacier, but this requires a minimum of 20 people and as we were doing the crossing in low season this wasn’t an option.

View across Lago O'Higgins
View across Lago O’Higgins

Should you want to do something a little different, there is the chance to fly over the glacier with the local company Wings. Vincent, from Alaska, will fly you on an hour’s scenic flight over the glacier and Southern Ice Field for US$270pp and needs a minimum of 5 people to do it. Alternatively, he will fly you to the airport near the Argentinian border on the other side of the lake, for CP$70,000pp and can take up to three bikes. You can reach him on +5691625137.

Once you’ve made your decision about the boat and it’s confirmed, then you have a choice ahead. If you’re not too heavily laden and are prepared, you can walk from the Candelario to the Argentinian passport control on the edge of the Lago del Desierto, which is 21km from the farm and involves a short stop at the Chilean border control and then a good walk on 16km of decent track to the Argentinian border, where it changes immediately to much less well kept hiking territory for the remaining 5.5km. Alternatively, you can do what we did and pay a huaso called Ricardo to take your bags across to the other side of the Argentinian border on his horses. It’s basically CP$30,000 per horse, which can take the equivalent of one person’s weight worth of bags, so probably about 3 people’s backpacks. You do have to pay for the guide’s horse too, though, so it’s a minimum of CP$60,000, but split between two, it’s not so bad and totally worth doing. We organised this through our hostel in advance, which we would recommend doing, but he did seem to be there waiting for people too.

The Chilean border post
The Chilean border post

If you are walking from the farm, it is advisable to aim for the 5pm ferry across the lake, if you do want to take the boat. If you’re not fussed, you can take your time and camp by the passport control in one of the best spots we’ve camped in thus far, with a spectacular view of Mount Fitz Roy at the other end of the lake. It’s definitely worth getting up to see the sunrise if you decide to do this.

View of Fitz Roy on the trek across Lago del Desierto
View of Fitz Roy on the trek across Lago del Desierto

Should you decide you want to get the ferry, it is supposed to go at 5pm, but on the day we did it, decided not to come. We weren’t given a reason, or any explanation, it just didn’t. So, be prepared for that. If you’re not travelling with a tent and camping gear, which we’d strongly recommend you do for this section, there is a refugio, used by the staff of the passport control, but which you can stay in for CP$12,000pp for the night. There aren’t, however, any shops, so, again, we’d strongly recommend bringing your own food just in case something goes wrong.

All that said, if you do get there and the boat does go as it is supposed to at 5pm, then it should cost around CP$30,000pp, or AP$650pp. The journey is only half an hour and drops your off at the road head to El Chalten, where there is more camping, an extremely overpriced small shop and parrilla and bus service to El Chalten.

View of Fitz Roy from the mirador
View of Fitz Roy from the mirador

We walked the length of the lake, which is 12km along the eastern shore of the lake through more tough, but pleasant walking through forest and over the various headlands along the lake’s edge. The path starts from just by the campsite and first goes along the beach, before heading up inland. It is marked at fairly irregular points by yellow dots on rocks and trees, but is pretty clear from the use of the path and the direction you should be heading.

Having opted not to wait for the 11am ferry from the passport control and walking, we arrived at the other side of the lake in time to get a bus into town. There are services at 4pm, 5pm and 7pm, with prices starting from AP$250, depending on the bus. It’s 1.5 hours into El Chalten and there your journey on the Carretera has truly come to an end.

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