Los Huemules Reserve, Chalten
Los Huemules is a private 5,800 hectare reserve some 20km north of the village of El Chalten, sandwiched between the Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina and the vast Bernardo O'Higgins National Park in Chile. It is named after the huemul, the south Andean deer that is Chile's national animal and is considered an endangered species.
The reserve is a primarily a conservation project, but in order to help fund this there is a low impact residential zone with 92 house plots and 1 hotel plot, where the Explora Lodge is due to open in 2020 (as of December 2018 nothing has been built). However, only a small handful of houses have been completed, and they are hidden amongst the trees and built to ultra strict environmental guidelines, so they blend in well. Moreover, the residential project comprises less than 5% of the total reserve, concentrated at the front around the visitor centre, so it doesn't impact on the trekking experience at Los Huemules. The visitor centre, which has a small museum, is where all hikers must register before and after their trek with the ranger.
Behind the centre, stretching up two forested valleys towards the Andes, there are over 5000 hectares of protected and pristine Patagonian landscape, containing over 25km of excellent hiking trails and an abundance of fresh water and wildlife, including torrent ducks, the Magellanic woodpecker, condors, south Andean deer, red foxes and pumas.
The reserve is bordered by the Río Eléctrico in the south; in east by the Provincial Route 23 (RP 23) that goes from El Chaltén to Lago del Desierto; and in the west by the border with Chile (there is no official crossing here though, it is just ice on the Chilean side!)
From the Los Huemules reserve there are views of the most famous attraction of the region, the Cerro Fitz Roy, and the Gorra Blanca and Marconi glaciers also both pass through.
Hiking In Los Huemules
The trails are very well maintained and signposted. A guide is really not necessary for experienced hikers, though of course one of our guides offers much more than just someone to point the way, so having a guide is still recommended for anyone other than the most experienced and/or independent walkers.
The clear advantage of hiking here, as opposed to the more famous trails out of El Chaltén (Laguna de los Tres, Cerro Torre etc) is that Los Huemules has a very small number of visitors - it is still our little secret! On the day that H&T hiked in early December 2018 - high but not peak season - we saw 4 other walkers - two at the entrance that hiked another trail, and two at the end of the day on the Laguna Verde trail. On the same day, it is estimated that several hundred people hiked the Laguna de los Tres trail, and in January this number easily gets into the thousands. Clearly Los Huemules will gradually become better known, so get there now and enjoy it all to yourself!
There are four main hikes in Los Huemules.
Laguna del Diablo
Our recommended full day hike. It is an easy 5-6 hour round trip up to the Laguna del Diablo, through old lenga and ñire forests. A lovely hike, suitable for all ages (my 10 year old boy handled it easily), rewarded with amazing views of the Cagliero Glacier at the end.
There is a modern trekking refuge by Laguna del Diablo, called the Puesto Cagliero, where guests can get some lunch or a drink, or have a rest, or even stay the night (reservation required).
It is a lineal hike, but you have the option of adding the loop around Laguna Azul and Laguna Verde on the way up or the way back, adding some variety.
Laguna Azul and Laguna Verde Loop:
A wonderful short (2hr) hike that loops around just behind the visitor centre and offers fantastic views of the Fitz Roy Mountain, and borders two small lakes, one a startling green colour (Laguna Verde) and one transparent blue (Laguna Azul). Walking this loop anti-clockwise gives you a continuous view of Fitz Roy as walk towards it, skirting Laguna Azul. However, in terms of seeing the wonderful blue colour of the Laguna Azul at its best moment, the light is better in the morning - so if combining this "laguna loop" with the Laguna del Diablo hike, our recommendation is to do the "laguna loop" first, which would mean going clockwise, before joining the path up to Laguna del Diablo.
There is a cute wooden suspension bridge.. a nervous crossing for anyone who suffers from vertigo (but perfectly safe of course)!
For us at H&T, this Laguna Azul/Verde loop is the number 1 option in El Chaltén for anyone wanting a gentle half day hike with excellent views. The alternative and traditional half day walk is to Laguna Capri from El Chaltén, which is a tough uphill hike on a VERY busy trail (as it is the walk that the day trippers from El Calafate do).
Loma del Diablo
The most difficult of the hikes. The Loma del Diablo is the mountain on the RHS in the above image. This hike doesn't make it up to the peak of Loma del Diablo, as that is outside Los Huemules and there is no path, but does make it up the ridge up to the edge of the reserve, and offers excellent views. It is a lineal walk, so there and back on the same path, if you make it to the end it is a 7-8 hour round trip.
Electric River / Río Eléctrico
The Electric River borders the reserve on the south side, and there is actually a trail on both sides of the river, as there is a popular refuge called Piedra del Fraile on the other side of the river, outside Los Huemules. So whilst you won't see other hikers, you may hear groups heading up the other side of the river. This is an easy walk that takes around 5 hours round trip and offers views of the Lago Eléctrico and Marconi Pass, and can also be combined with the Laguna Azul/Verde walk.
There is also a fifth trail - the Laguna Condor trail -that leaves from the visitor centre and follows the Ruta 23 north, ending by the Refugio Laguna Condor, so this is an option for anyone staying there and has the energy to walk back to the hotel rather than be collected by car. It takes around 90 minutes, and it is vital to let the ranger know that you are leaving on that path.
Other activities - Ice trekking on the Cagliero Glacier:
There is a company in El Chaltén that offers an ice trekking excursion on the Cagliero Glacier. This is not organised by Los Huemules but they have a special permit to hike through the reserve on the Laguna del Diablo trail to get to the Cagliero Glacier. This is a small group tour, but has no minimum numbers and can depart everyday. The hike initially is the same as the hike to Laguna del Diablo, but then heads around the stony northern edge of the laguna, and up over the scree using a series of metal cables to reach the foot of the glacier. Here, on go the ice shoes - which do not have to be carried on the trek as they are kept in a rigid tent that the company has by the glacier - and the ice trekking begins. The way back down follows the same path. This is a demanding day, guests must have a good fitness level as it is tiring. The technical element is not hard, there are cables to clip into and no climbing is required, just some scrambling, only those with severe vertigo should maybe twice.
The park is open from 9am to 6pm, all trekkers must be back by then, unless staying at the Cagliero Refuge. Entrance fee as of December 2018: 300 pesos per person, approx USD $7.- Cash only. Ice trekking tour must be bought in advance. There is abundant clean glacial drinking water, please bring refillable bottles and no single use plastic bottles. Packed lunch essential unless hiking to Puesto Cagliero for lunch (reservation required). If not self driving, transfers are required from El Chaltén.