NOTE: This post is thorough because there are REAL technical challenges on this hike you must be aware of. I’ve made it VERY comprehensive to where hopefully even beginner/intermediate hikers can grasp how to tackle such a challenging trek. I don’t make it descriptive (you can read my post here for that). This is ALL stuff I would have wanted to know before / during the hike. I recommend saving this webpage via your phone’s web browser if you want to access it while on the circuit where you won’t have internet reception.
If you’re just making the trip to Paso del Viento and not the full Circuit trail, you can read up until that point in my post, though I definitely recommend doing the full circuit trail.
What is the Huemul Circuit?
The Huemul Circuit is quite possibly the best hike in Patagonia, and in my opinion easily one of the top 5 hikes in the world. It is extremely challenging and one of the most technical Patagonian treks since half the trail is unmarked and you have to rent equipment to cross two Tyrolia ziplines over rivers. Given its unpredictable weather and technical nature, it’s rarely trafficked, sometimes seeing anywhere from zero to 5-10 parties on the trail at a time. This short video summarizes the trek very well.
What makes it one of the top 5 treks in the world is that it enables you to see the South Patagonian Ice Fields, the 3rd largest reserve of fresh water in the world behind Antarctica and Greenland. While you may commonly see glaciers in Patagonia, all these glaciers come from the Ice Field, which you usually can’t see since they’re hidden behind mountain peaks like Fitz Roy and Huemul.
You can catch glimpses of it in Torres del Paine National Park, but this is one of only 5 treks in Patagonia that enable you to see a 180 degree panoramic view of the ice fields (of those 5, the Huemul is the easiest).
Should I hire a guide?
A guided tour is probably at least $900/person or so, depending on how many people you do the tour with. I would STRONGLY recommend AGAINST this because of the weather, which is very unpredictable given its exposure to the colossal winds from the Patagonian Ice Fields. If you book a tour but the weather is bad, the trekking agency can cancel the trek (or you do like 25% of the trek) and you won’t get a refund. Use this money to buy hiking/camping gear which you can use for years to come.
You should wait until you get to town, assess the weather, and then decide to start the trek in good conditions. If you’re by yourself, it’s worth the extra effort to find people in town to go with. However, if you have the money and really want to get a guide, you can take a little bit of risk.
Where is the Huemul Circuit?
The Huemul Circuit is located near El Chalten, Argentina in El Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. This is the trekking capital of Argentina. It is a 4 day trek (40 miles/70km), but you can do it in 3 days too (or 17 hours if you’re trying to break a speed record).
Before you can set off, you must register with the park rangers at their office. It is free, but if they catch you on the trek without a permit, there’s a 100 USD fine. They do this so that if you don’t return around your estimated finish date, they send a search and rescue for you.
They don’t really advertise the Huemul compared to other famous hikes in El Chalten since it’s more technical. You have to actually approach them about it, and they will also be keen to emphasize the dangers of the hike to you. The two Tyrolia ziplines act as gate-keepers to the trek, ensuring only those who take its technical nature seriously attempt it.
They make you watch a small video on it at their office. I recommend taking pictures of each slide as it provides useful navigation information.
The rangers office opens at 9 AM. If you want a permit to leave at like 7 AM the next day, get your permit and equipment the day prior. Usually the stores you rent equipment from won’t charge you for the day before you start a hike, but make sure you ask them about this. Otherwise, rent your equipment the day before and then head to the rangers office at 9 AM before starting the hike where they will show you how to use it.
How do I navigate when much of the trail is unmarked?
A good bit of the hike is unmarked, making GPS crucial to have. You don’t need any special device though. What you should do is download the maps.me app on your smart phone (iPhone or Android), and then download the whole map of Argentina (~300MB). The Argentina map actually has the Huemul circuit labeled on it (search for it near El Chalten). Keep in mind, this trail isn’t official. Maps.me is peer-reviewed, so don’t follow it religiously, but use your best judgment when you need help finding the trail.
With your phone in airplane mode, turn on the GPS. Even though you have no mobile data, your phone will still locate you on the maps.me map as long as you have the Argentina map downloaded, though it will take longer compared to if you have cellular data. This also works with Google Maps if you pre-download a section of the map while you have internet, but the Huemul Circuit is not labeled on Google maps. As long as your phone is in airplane mode, even with the GPS on, this does not use cellular data and you should not be charged anything.
You can use this not just when backpacking a route, but even traveling anywhere in the world really. It has almost everything Google Maps has (restaurants, hostels), and it’s awesome to use if you’re trying to find your way around town. Even if you’re good with navigation, having this app is an absolute must on the trek incase you need help finding your way or if the weather gets tricky.
You don’t want your battery running dry on the circuit if you plan to use your phone for navigation, and photos as well. You should DEFINITELY buy an external battery charger (I like Anker products on Amazon). I would not go on this circuit unless I had an external battery charger.
It’s okay to use maps.me to look at the map, but don’t use the GPS function itself constantly since it does use drain your battery pretty quickly (though not as quickly as if you have mobile data enabled). Sometimes it may not find you, requiring you to reboot the phone. In either case, EVERYONE in a hiking party should have the app on their phone incase one app doesn’t work.
GPS is not absolutely necessary to do the hike. Regardless, you should also buy a $10 waterproof/tearproof map of the Ice Field in El Chalten, which includes the Huemul Circuit. I think you need it for the rangers to give you a permit. And it’ll be nice to have if your GPS doesn’t work for some reason.
What is the best time of year to do the hike?
With Patagonia being in the Southern hemisphere, December – February is the best time to do the Huemul Circuit (the Patagonian summer). The temperature will be better and you shouldn’t see much snow (if at all) on the trail, but the winds can be stronger and there will be far more crowds. Importantly, there will be ample daylight (5 am – 11 pm will still give you decent daylight).
October-November and March-April will be colder, but you will see less crowds and wind. Notably, you may see more snow on the trail, and rarely it can make passage on the trail difficult. During April, you will see Fall colors; if you can catch it at the right time, I think one can argue this is one of the best times to do the Circuit, even if it is colder and with more snow.
I would absolutely recommend against doing this trek in the Patagonian winter (May – August). The town of El Chalten practically shuts down during this time period. You may not even find hostels open (I’ve heard that only a handful remain open, especially during the coldest months). There’s considerably less daylight, and there would be far less support from the park rangers should you need help.
What equipment do I need?
The Huemul is a multi-day hike, so you need to carry all your own backpacking and camping gear. But for equipment you need SPECIFICALLY for this trek, there are a couple of parts where you probably will need to cross a Tyrolean Traverse across a river (basically a zipline). In order to secure a permit, you will need to rent:
- 1 harness (per person),
- 2 carabiners (per person, usually one steel and one aluminum),
- 1 safety line / sling per person,
- 1 thin cord / rope of 20 meters (to recover the pulley);
- You need to buy this at a hardware store in town, you can’t usually get it from normal hiking stores, but you can still ask
- A $10 topographic map of the circuit (bought in town)
The park rangers will tell you exactly what you need, and can also show you how to use the equipment to use the zipline. If you want to get a rough idea of what using a zipline is like, you can watch this short video. But make sure you fully understand how to use the equipment when you bring it to the rangers to get your permit.
You can choose to bring your own zip-line and harness equipment in advance. It would probably be ~100USD. It may be useful since you’ll know how to use it before you go, but it may not be practical if you’re backpacking for many months and then have to carry it with you all the time.
There are a few places in El Chalten where you can rent this equipment from (the park rangers can show you on the map of the city, one of them being Patagonia Hikes; and as this trek becomes more popular I anticipate more places will carry them). Rarely, if the trek is relatively crowded, these 3 places may have run out of this equipment, but usually not.
I didn’t end up using this equipment at all on the trek, funny enough. Both rivers can usually be crossed by foot, most of the time, but the park rangers won’t give you a permit unless you have the equipment.
Below I lay out hiking and camping gear you should get, with some links to personal recommendations on Amazon. I’d recommend buying this gear in advance in your home country. Even if some of it is pricey, hiking gear is a great investment that you use for years.
If you don’t have some of this equipment, you can easily rent it in El Chalten. This is what I did. Don’t let this turn you off though; the trek is free to do and it’s an experience of a lifetime.
- Long sleeve synthetic base layer as your hiking shirt; there’s a hole in the ozone layer in Patagonia, so this protects your arms. Short sleeve is also fine, but make sure it’s SYNTHETIC (absorbs sweat well)
- Hiking pants (they don’t have to be waterproof). I would NOT wear shorts even if you feel hot so that you protect your skin from thorns / ranches.
- Trekking poles (I cannot recommend these enough)
- Hiking hat (it’s oftentimes sunny; DEFINITELY bring one!)
- Hiking socks (I HIGHLY recommend investing in a few pairs, not just regular socks)
- Underwear / boxers (ideally ones made for hiking / sports, not just cotton)
- Sunscreen (especially for your face / hands)
- Polarized sunglasses (ABSOLUTELY bring these; polarized, not just UVA+UVB)
- Water bottle with filter (I suggest one like this). You can bring your own water bottle since the rangers say the water is safe to drink, but it’s nice to have filters still (not necessary though).
- Hiking shoes (hiking boots also). I would advise against running shoes. Also make sure your shoes aren’t too small to decrease the risk of blisters. But if your shoes are the right size, it actually really helps to make them very tight (tying the laces as tight as possible). This lets the frame of the shoe give you as much support as possible.
- Smartphone (with maps.me installed and the Argentina map downloaded)
- External battery charger
- Misc electronics, cameras
- 3 or 4 season tent, ideally for 1-2 people
- Large backpack (60-80L; 70L is probably a good balance)
- Sleeping bag rated for freezing temperatures, preferably -9C (-15F)
- Sleeping pad (to put the sleeping bag on)
- Jet Boil or stove to boil water (former being more expensive; latter is fine too)
- Cooking pot
- Gas canister (purchased in El Calafate or El Chalten)
- Collapsible bowl and utensils (fork, knife, spoon, etc). You may not need the bowl if you just eat straight out of the cooking pot.
- Garbage bags (to put your hiking gear into in your large backpack; you can bring multiple bags for each item. From my experience it’s better to put all your gear in waterproof bags inside your backpack, rather than covering your backpack with a rain-cover which inevitably becomes a parachute when it’s windy).
- Crocs or hiking sandals (these are nice to walk with at camp when you don’t want to walk around in your hiking shoes
- Toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, contact lens solution, glasses, SOAP BAR)
- Toilet paper (don’t forget this. Technically the rangers will tell you to keep it with you even after you use it, but if you don’t intend on doing this, at least bury your waste and toilet paper DEEP in some hole AWAY from water).
- Baby wipes (you can use these to clean up and as toilet paper, rather than showering)
- Basic first aid kit (alcohol wipes, band-aids, athletic tape (incase you sprain an ankle), topical anti-bacterial cream).
- Headlamp ; this is preferred over flashlights since flashlights occupy one of your two hands. Trust me on this.
- A winter hat
- Neck cover (when it’s windy, you’ll want your neck covered just as much as your head/ears. Trust me)
- Journal + pen
- Medium thickness long sleeve base layer. Ideally merino wool, which is best at keeping you warm.
- Waterproof rain jacket (it can be really thin and layer up on your thicker jacket, but should be waterproof). It’s best to get 3 layers (sweater, down jacket, waterproof shell) rather than one giant jacket.
- Down jacket. This will keep you warm at camp. Any will do.
- Leggings / tights/ thermal pants; these take up VERY little space in your bag and keep you warm at camp, w/o wearing your hiking pants
- Thick wool socks (ideally merino wool which will keep you warmest) to wear at camp
Food / Nutrition:
El Chalten doesn’t have many quality grocery stores, though it’s still adequate for what you minimally need. Unless you’re bringing it from El Calafate or Buenos Aires, I’d recommend bringing your favorite food with you in advance.
Whether you do the trek in 3 or 4 days, I would bring at extra day of food for two reasons: 1) You burn so many calories and you won’t regret having extra food 2) if the weather changes suddenly while you’re on the Ice Fields, or you need to wait out the weather at Laguna Toro before attempting the first mountain pass, you may end up staying another day or two than expected until the weather improves (not a high chance of it happening, but it can). If you’re just going to Paso del Viento (2 days / 1 night), then bring 3 days of food.
Breakfast: Instant oatmeal (first get the water to a boil, then pour it in). I recommend mixing with milk powder. Can then mix with peanut butter, nutella, jelly, cinnamon powder.
Lunch: I recommend tortillas. They don’t get smushed like bread does and are small. You can put peanut butter and jelly in them, or whatever else you want to put (nutella). Bring cheese as well! Maybe some diced cucumbers, peppers as wel.
Dinner: for carbs, I recommend couscous (with some sauce). Pasta is also good, but couscous is in my opinion better in terms of weight. If you can plan in advance, I recommend getting dried meals in a bag (where you pour it into boiling water and it’s ready). Like this one from REI. They’re lightweight and easy to cook.
Snacks: dried nuts (almonds, cashews), protein bars, boiled eggs (they weight a good bit but have great protein). Soup packets (for when you’re cold). CHOCOLATE!!! You need to treat yourself. Hiking is a great excuse to eat anything.
Ideally, one should consume at least 3,000 calories a day when hiking all day. It sounds like a lot, but trust me, you’re burning A LOT more than that. However, if you think weight will be a big issue, you can pack less, or pack very caloric-dense food. Food will be the heaviest part of your bag, but it gets lighter each day of the trek.
Remember, 1g carbs = 4 calories, 1g fat = 9 calories, 1g protein = 4 calories. Carbs are physiologically the best source of energy for your body, but fats will give you more calories per gram. And your food will stay somewhat refrigerated since it is cold in Patagonia most of the time.
From a health perspective you ideally eat at least 50g fat/day. And you should consume a good amount of protein in your diet (ideally .8g/kg/day, or about 50-60g protein/day). If you don’t consume enough protein, you’ll likely end up losing more muscle mass than you’d like. You’ll definitely lose some weight when hiking, but try to minimize your muscle loss by eating an adequate amount of protein.
If you’re traveling from abroad, it’s good to pack some protein bars, or even bring some whey protein powder with you; protein powder is super light weight and you can just mix it with water). If you’re a serious lifter and trying to maintain muscle mass while hiking, you really need like 100-120g/day.
I’d also suggest bringing a large jar (26oz) of peanut butter; (natural peanut butter, not the one where they add palm oil or other artificial sugars). It’s heavy(ish) but it’s ~5,000 calories and almost 200g protein. That can fulfill almost half your total nutritional needs on the whole trek. And it tastes amazing. Unfortunately I don’t think El Chalten always has this, so bring it in advance if you can!
I’d also suggest bringing a multivitamin (just one for each day of the trek; it’s just 4 small pills). You can’t always get all necessary vitamins/minerals with food you bring on treks. And sometimes even when backpacking for months. It will make subtle but important differences in your nutrition.
Do I need to bring water with me?
You do not need to bring water with you on the trek; the park authorities say that the water is safe to drink in the national park (preferentially from running water). It comes directly from glaciers (which is fresh water) and tastes AMAZING.
Still, I would DEFINITELY buy a water filter in advance. You can also get iodine tablets in town, but they don’t protect against all diarrheal illnesses like Giardia (unlike the filter), which I haven’t heard being so common in Patagonian water sources. And then the glaciar water doesn’t taste as good.
I would avoid getting water in areas of the trek where you see a lot of cows since they can easily contaminate it (not pervasive, but they populate some areas).
Also, I suggest doing this in general (not just for hiking): when you wake up, the first thing you should do is drink 700-1000mL of water. Don’t do it quickly, but definitely consume it all before breakfast. The water absorbs into your body very quickly on an empty stomach. Your body has been without water for 8+ hours while you sleep and is actually very thirsty, but you don’t realize it. Doing this in the morning helps IMMENSELY with keeping you hydrated throughout the day.
Footwear and Hiking Sticks
I also recommend light croc sandals (see picture below) or some sort of hiking sandals if you need to ford a river (big or small) by foot and don’t want to get your shoes wet, as well as to use at campsites.
Hiking sticks are also extremely helpful; I can’t emphasize that enough, especially for one challenging descent on Day 3. Even if you’re super fit, I advocate for hiking sticks to help your knees. A couple of people who did this trek in 17 hours used hiking sticks.
As for optimal length of hiking sticks, when you’re gripping the top of the hiking sticks, the angle between your forearm and arm (or angle of elbow) should be 90 degrees. And if the hiking sticks have straps attached to them, these straps should wrap around near where your wrists / forearms are so that you can put more of your weight on the sticks.
Also, the park rangers told us before the trek that we should have shoes that have ankle support given that you walk on a glacier at some point. We walked with regular hiking shoes and were fine. If you’re a serious hiker, I think it’s nice to invest in a good pair of solid, waterproof hiking boots. But at minimum, have good hiking shoes.
The trek is easily to be found in good weather, but can get difficult. Weather in Patagonia in general is unpredictable because of the influence of the massive ice masses. In a span of 20 minutes, it can literally go from sunny, to rain/snow, and back to sunny.
Because much of the trek is directly exposed to the Patagonian Ice Field, wind speeds can get quite high (hence why they call the first mountain pass Paso del Viento). When I did it, I saw wind gusts up to 100kmh when ascending the 2nd mountain pass, Paso Huemul (per my video below).
Make sure you ask the park rangers about the weather beforehand as they post this info at the office. Doing the hike in good weather is essential, especially when you climb both mountain passes and descend from Paso Huemul to Lago Viedma. You can check the wind speeds for the Paso del Viento on windguru once you’re in town.
I defer to the park rangers on weather. If the weather is bad, you can potentially get stuck on the ice field side below Paso Huemul if the winds are too high (i.e., do you feel comfortable ascending a mountain pass with winds like this?). Interestingly, one of my friends somehow ascended Paso Huemul a week after me in 120 kmh wind gusts; it’s not impossible, but it’s not heavily recommended as well.
What if I want to do this hike by myself?
This trek is nothing like the O circuit on Torres del Paine where it’s mostly non-technical trekking and you have park rangers at every campsite. Here, you’re on your own.
If you do this alone, you should be fit, have good orientation skills, and some outdoor experience. You should know how to cross rivers if necessary, navigate in loose terrain (e.g., some very rocky parts), and not be afraid of heights. Some parts of the trek do get exposed. There’s no mobile reception out there, so you’re mostly on your own. The park rangers have radio frequencies that you can contact should something happen (you can ask them about this), but I don’t know how many people carry a radio with them.
I HIGHLY recommend going with someone else. If I were to repeat this hike, I would still try to do it with someone else. If you’re a backpacker, you can keep asking around town until you find some people to go with. But make sure whoever you go with is physically able to do the trek and knows what they’re getting themselves into.
The park rangers told me that in the past there have been people who have sustained serious leg/ankle injuries on the hike. That can happen on any trek (like Torres del Paine), for that matter. I write this not to scare you, but to ensure that you really take safety on this trek seriously since it is far more technical than most hikes in Patagonia.
What if I just want to see the ice fields from Paso del Viento?
Many people do this without continuing on the rest of the circuit trail. It is a great option if you’re short on time. It would be a minimum 2 day / 1 night trek.
You could trek to Laguna Toro for day 1 and then head up to Paso del Viento on Day 2 before heading back to El Chalten. The benefit of this option is you can leave most of your camping gear at Laguna Toro. You can then just go up to Paso del Viento with a daypack (or minimal gear), making it very easy.
Or, you can make a push to Laguna Ferrari from El Chalten on day 1 (see my Day 2 section below), and then back to Chalten on Day 2. The benefit is you get to see the Ice fields an extra day, but then you have to carry your gear up the mountain pass.
From Paso del Viento you see the most beautiful part of the ice fields, but the rest of the circuit trail gets you additional and sensational views of the field and the Viedma Glacier. I would definitely recommend it if you have the time.
Should I do the trek in 3 or 4 days?
My personal advice: aim for the usual 4 days, but if you’re fit and up for it, consider doing Days 1+2 together if the weather window is good for the Day 2 part. You might like spending two nights at the Paso del Viento Refugio or Laguna Ferrari to have an extra day to admire the ice fields.
Day 1 is from El Chalten to Laguna Toro (16km). You have the option of doing a 5 mile side trip to Loma del Pligue Tombado to get a 360 degree panorama of the whole park. You can always do this as a separate day trek, which I did.
Day 2 is from Laguna Toro to the Paso del Viento Refugio or Laguna Ferrari (including an ascent up to the mountain pass, Paso del Viento. Sometimes people just make a day trip here from Lago Toro and then back to El Chalten)
Day 3 is from the Paso del Viento Refugio to a campsite near Lago Viedma (18km) where you ascend up the 2nd mountain pass, Paso Huemul
Day 4 is from Lago Viedma to Bahia el Tempanos boat terminal (18km) where you can usually catch a ride back to El Chalten.
Usually this trail is done counter-clockwise. Rarely, it can be clockwise, though I wouldn’t recommend that because of the challenging Day 3 descent that is hard enough downhill (I can’t imagine doing it uphill). People have done it before, though.
Normally people do it in 4 days. There are options to do it in 3. We saw a French guy do Days 1+2 in one day. He left El Chalten at 7 AM and got to Lago Toro at noon, and then just did the mountain pass (done in the 2nd day) because the weather was good. If you get to Laguna Toro early enough and the weather is good, it could be to your benefit to just do the mountain pass since this is the most steep and treacherous part of the circuit. You never know if the weather will be unforgiving the next day on the pass. This is Patagonia after all.
In that case, you should leave El Chalten very early in the morning (ideally 7 AM). Just be mindful of how much daylight you have (usually enough daylight until 10-11pm in Patagonian summer, less so in Fall / Spring).
On the other hand, my friend and I did Days 3+4 in one day because we had reasons to be back in El Chalten earlier. This is a tough day; it’s 22 miles/36km!!! I would never repeat this and would only do Days 1+2 together. I also met a Brazilian who did this same thing, but it’s not easy b/c you’ll have just finished a killer descent that day. And you won’t get to the boat terminal early enough to get a ride (we got there at like 9:30pm, but got ridiculously lucky with a ride; you probably have to get there by 3pm to get a ride).
If you do decide to do this trek in 2 days/1 night, on Day 1 you’d leave Chalten early in the morning and hike all to the Paso del Viento hut. On Day 2 you’d also wake up very early and hike directly back to El Chalten. You’ll get to the boat terminal late so don’t expect a ride; meaning you’ll walk about 8km to Chalten (or La Quinta hotel and call for a taxi)
General hiking tips
If you are not familiar with rock cairns (highlighted circle below) make sure to familiarize yourself with them (for all hikes in general). These are essentially piles of rocks neatly stacked on top of each other, usually meaning a human purposelly being placed them there for a reason, either to signify someone was there, or that it’s the trail. This is different from just a normal pile of rocks which nature frequently creates b/c these take some careful balancing to make, and are not easily toppled over since they weigh so much.
This picture is from Backpacker Steve’s video of the Huemul Circuit where he uses them throughout the trail. If you see a rock cairn, you should generally follow it as it means that’s where the trail likely is (another human being purposefully put it there to guide others), but also make sure to use common sense.
Also, DO NOT leave trash at campsites; this is an early lesson in trekking. Take it with you. The rangers will underscore this too; bring a separate garbag bag with you. Now regarding soiled toilet paper specifically, technically one should, though most people won’t. If you intend on burying it at campsites with your waste, PLEASE bury it DEEP in a hole FAR AWAY from water sites.
And when you’re washing things at campsites, be mindful to not contaminate water. For instance, rather than washing your dirty utensils/bowls directly in a stream, take water in a clean bottle and pour it in your dirty utensils AWAY from the water source. It’s extra work, but if you clean stuff directly in the water sources, you contaminate it and risk other people getting sick.
Be BOLD, start COLD. You generate so much body heat when hiking. If you layer up too much, you’ll end up taking it off on the trail after about 20 mins or so.
As I mentioned above, bring waterproof garbage bags to put all your hiking gear into your bag (one for electronics, one for your tent, sleeping bag, etc). It keeps everything separated and waterproof. This is better than using a giant rain-cover for your bag which just becomes a parachute in windy conditions. Any bag will have some built-in water-resistance, but the waterproof bags will keep everything dry.
Before the trek
Personally I recommend getting breakfast at Chalten Suites hotel ($12/person for a legit buffet full of eggs, fruits, nuts, cereal; you’ll want to eat AS MUCH as you can given how expensive food is in Argentina and how much energy you expend on this hike). If you’re looking for a good hostel, I can’t recommend Hostel Aylen Aike enough. Sebastian (the owner) is awesome.
Day #1: El Chalten to Laguna Toro. 10 miles / 16 km.
You ascend ~2500 feet and descend 2100 feet. Usually takes about 5 hours if you’re continuously moving, and about 7 if you’re taking breaks to relax and enjoy the view.
There’s nothing super technical about this walk at all. If you have time, you can also make a side trip to Loma del Pligue Tombado to get a 360 degree panorama of the park, or do it a separate day hike later (which is what I did).
The only salient things to mention are this
- There is one part towards the end where the terrain may be super marshy and your shoes can get wet pretty easily. It’s nice if you have water-proof boots, but they’re not necessary. If I were to do the hike again, I’d just deal with it if I had regular hiking shoes, but if you’re out in Patagonia doing this type of hiking, maybe just invest in some waterproof boots with good ankle support. It’ll make your life so much easier.
- There is also one part where you may have to cross a small stream but there’s no log or bridge over it. This is where I highly recommend having croc-type sandals with you (like I talked about above with the picture). These are good to have even at camp when you don’t want to walk around in your shoes after a whole day of hiking. They help tremendously at stream crossings because they don’t come off easily like other sandals.
On this day, you go up a bit of elevation before reaching a plateau and descending into the valley. When you reach the plateau, you’ll see Mount Huemul in front of you, Lago Viedma to your left, and the Paso del Viento mountain pass on the right side of Mount Huemul. You’ll eventually be at the shores of Lago Viedma on day #3 and 4.
IMPORTANTLY, when you set up camp, be very aware that mice frequent this area. Wrap all your food in MULTIPLE bags (i.e., put one bag in another, and in another) and seal them TIGHT to avoid any odor from the food reaching outside. Otherwise the mice can easily bite through your tents and backpacks to try and get to the food.
Day #2: Laguna Toro to Paso del Viento refuge hut or Laguna Ferrari:
8 miles (15km), you ascend 3000 feet, descend about 2200 feet. This part can take about anywhere from 5-8 hours.
From Laguna Toro to Paso del Viento is the most technical part of the trek. This is why it’s the longest part of the guide. Importantly, if the weather is bad, you should have a low threshold to NOT attempt the mountain pass, even if that means waiting one more day at Laguna Toro (again, bring an extra day of food with you).
I remember when I did it, the whole mountain pass was completely shrouded in clouds, which was deceiving b/c it wasn’t raining or snowing at all, making it very safe to attempt. If it’s raining, it will be quite risky as there are lots of loose rocks you have to scramble through. You can always advance on the trail to assess conditions and turn back.
Navigation after the lake might sometimes be a bit unclear, but you can either just look at maps.me app or follows any rock cairns you see. You can either use the Tyrolia zipline or ford the river by foot.
If the river level is low (ESPECIALLY if it’s like this), you can certainly consider fording with your shoes (without socks) or hiking sandals (and have a small risk of falling over), compared to using the zipline (and be dry) but have a very small risk of getting seriously injured.
Use your best judgment; most people use the zipline, and many say it’s a highlight of the trek. It is maintained by the park authorities during the trekking season, but it’s the one option where you have absolutely no margin for error.
What if I just want to use the zipline?
You can watch lots of Youtube videos of people crossing it. Below is a raging river. By this point you should have asked and learned from the park rangers how to use it. Take your time and be careful as you set up your harness to the rope. It’s good to get to the traverse as early as possible in the morning so that you don’t get stuck waiting behind a super long line incase the trek is crowded that day.
I’ve never heard of anything going seriously wrong here before. But if you fall into the rocks and river below, you will either get seriously injured or die. The risk of anything happening is low, but you have no margin for error.
One VERY important thing to mention about the zipline: on the opposite side of the traverse rope, it is really steep as you get off the zipline to step on the rock. We actually saw a British couple accidentally drop one of their bags into the river as the guy was sending the bags across to his girlfriend on the opposite side. When the girl tried to unclip the bags off the zipline, she couldn’t get a good grip b/c of the awkwardly steep position she was in on the receiving end.
They eventually got their bags back (they were VERY lucky, lol). It’s unlikely to happen if you’re careful, but it is a risk. So if you do the zipline, do be mindful of that steep slope as you step off or send your bags across to someone on the opposite side. Whoever is receiving the bags on the opposite side should be extremely careful and well positioned so as to not lose balance.
Some people go across the zipline with their bags on. Others recommend moving it with the pulley afterwards or clipping it on and moving it behind you. Also, make sure a return line is attached if you’re sharing carabiners or rope. And it’s also a good idea to use gloves here given the thick cord.
What if I just want to ford the river and not use the zipline?
Interestingly, you do not always HAVE to use the traverse to cross the river. No matter where you cross the river, you can find your way back on the mountain pass trail. My friend and I actually forded the river by foot just slightly upstream of the traverse, but you can also do downstream. But this isn’t always possible. It entirely depends on the water level that day, which you have to assess.
Bear in mind, if you only plan on fording the river, and if you’re just making a day trip to Paso del Viento, the water level is usually lower in the morning and higher in the afternoon / evening (more sun = more ice melts = more water in the river). I don’t know by how much as I didn’t come back the opposite way. You can ask the park rangers. But this is why you should still have a harness with you just incase the water level is too high on your way back.
If you cross where the maps.me route recommends to ford (i.e., right before Rio Tunel empties into Laguna Toro), I’ve heard it can be about shin / knee deep, though I’ve also heard other ppl say it’s the shallowest part. This is what it can look like. Where my friend and I crossed was just upstream of the traverse (the red arrow below), where it was just about our ankles (see my video below). But it may be different day to day. If I were to repeat, I’d probably first assess where the maps.me route recommends, and if that was too deep, I’d try the same part I did in Dec 2016 as per the picture below.
Above, you can see my friend wading about ankle deep through the waters. Honestly, it doesn’t look so bad, but you still have to be careful. You’re stepping on some uneven rocks. This is why having ankle support from your shoes (and taking off your socks) helps a ton.
You can also try with your crocs or hiking sandals to keep your shoes dry, and there’s a good chance you’ll be fine, but you’ll still have a risk of falling over since you won’t have the type of ankle support from your shoes. I would honestly not consider doing this unless I had legit hiking sticks or a stick; even then, there is risk.
Approaching the Glacier Tunel Inferior
Next, you go to the beginning of Glacier Tunel Inferior. This part can get quite rocky and uneven. Getting on and off from the scree to the glacier is VERY LOOSE, and I’d definitely recommend having hiking poles. I myself lost balance here a couple of times; you might too, so be CAREFUL!!
You can see the maps.me route below which minimizes the amount of walking spent on the glacier. Sometimes walking on the glacier is actually safer than scrambling on the loose moraine; use your best judgment based on the conditions that day.
Don’t follow the maps.me route religiously for every step. Use it to know where your general sense of direction should be and where to get off of the glacier. You can also follow the rock cairns where-ever you see them. It’s okay to walk on the glacier, which can also be fun!! Normally you have to pay hundreds of dollars to have a guided expedition on a glacier in Patagonia.
But now don’t go exploring the whole damn thing, b/c there are risks. Specifically, there are cracks (or crevasses) scattered throughout the glacier. If you’re out there alone and you slip into a deep crevasse and can’t get out, you can die of hypothermia. I am not exaggerating. That’s probably the worst thing that can happen to you on this trek, other than falling from the first zipline. Be very mindful where you’re walking on the glacier.
If you’re careful with where you’re walking, the odds of anything happening are extremely low. You only walk on it for like 10 minutes. But, if someone does fall into a crevasse for any reason, use the rope you brought with you for the zipline to help them out (again, this is not likely to happen, but just important to think about).
Next comes a very important part. At some point, you have to exit off the glacier and get onto the mountain pass trail. Where you do this is EXTREMELY important and I cannot emphasize this enough.
See the picture above? This comes from a Youtube video where the individual combined data from his GPS data with Google Earth. LOOK AT IT CAREFULLY WHEN YOU’RE ON THE GLACIER; I’d recommend following this route. Or even using the maps.me route, which is what I’d personally look at. And know that as you’re reaching the end of the Tunel Inferior Glacier, you should be climbing upwards.
I’ve also heard people say to exit the glacier on a path where the river at the far end of the glacier carves a tunnel through the glacier, as per the picture below.
You’ll also eventually come across an old campsite, Camp Rio Tunel (I personally wouldn’t recommend camping here). This is sometimes a nice place to have a lunch break where you get great views of the glacier.
See where these people are in relation to the lake (both the actual picture above and then the Google Earth picture of that lake near the 2nd glacier). This is where you should aim to head to in order to find the path after reaching the Campamento Rio Tunel. The picture above also has a rock cairn.
Ascending up the mountain pass
Next you start ascending up the mountain pass. At some point there’s a clear bifurcation point where you can either go left on a clearly guided trail up the mountain (a bit more steep), or right on another part that is clearly marked as a trail (a bit lower than the trail on the left). Both will get you up there. I would just take the one that went left, I think it gets you up the mountain a bit quicker. Or if you don’t see what I’m talking about, don’t worry.
You’ll reach the top of the pass, Paso del Viento. Absorb the spectacular view of the South Patagonian Ice Field. If you wanted to propose to someone, and especially if you had it all to yourself, this would be the best place in Patagonia to do it from. Trust me. This Ice Field is the 3rd largest reserve of fresh water in the world; what you’re seeing from up there is the black box below. Can you believe how big it is?
To advance onwards, as you’re looking straight at the Ice Fields from the viewpoint, look down and towards your left. The slope down looks steep, but it is taken by many people. There’s also another route on maps.me where you take an alternate route down that might be less steep. Up to you. I’d probably just take the first route that I mentioned since that’s what I did.
As you’re looking towards the ice fields, the hut is towards your left (south). You can also go to a hut in the north near Laguna Ferrari (as per picture above, North), which usually sees people coming from an ice field trek from the north.
You may find it to have more solitude. If I did this trek a 2nd time, this is probably where I’d go for solitude and maybe even getting better views of the ice fields. More importantly, it appears that the rock circles at the Ferrari campsite give your tent far more protection from the wind than the Hut area. It may not seem like it shields, but having even a 1-2 feet vertical wall gives your tent good protection. You may not get this at the hut area.
Indeed, the benefit of the Hut area is that can you can enter the hut if the wind gets bad, though if the trek is super crowded on any particular day there’s only so many people that can pitch their sleeping bags in that hut), and it’s far more comfy to be in your own tent than in a hut which frequently see mice eat scraps of food.
Sometimes the way to the Paso del Viento hut can be nebulous with inconsistent cairns, but as long as you’re headed in the general direction of the valley between the mountain wall and moraine, you’re fine.
At the Paso del Viento campsite, I recommend camping right next to the shelter so that you can quickly access it with your sleeping bag if the weather gets bad, but be careful not to pitch your tent in areas where water may collect.
Also, make sure you get your water from RUNNING streams, and not the actual lake. I’ve read blog posts where trekkers found some other people literally swimming in the lake. They’re not supposed to because it contaminates it, making it unsafe for everyone else. If you get it from a running water, you won’t be drinking this same contaminated water.
And if you intend on leaving soiled toilet paper here, PLEASE make sure you bury it DEEP with your waste FAR AWAY from any water source. Nothing worse than coming across other people’s trash.
Remember, make sure your food is sealed tight so that mice don’t eat through your tent / backpack. I’ve heard of people hanging their food in bags in the hut (i.e., if it’s hanging from the right spot, mice shouldn’t be able to access it). Just a thought.
On a side note, sometimes guided tours will have you leave from this campsite to go explore the Viedma Glacier and Patagonian Ice Field (usually done as a separate day). If you look at the moraine hill above the campsite, you can sometimes access the ice fields from here. Or elsewhere on the trek.
This sounds super exciting and all, but remember the risks. Most expeditions on glaciers are guided for a reason. You need cramp-ons, and the danger of falling into crevasses is real. I would not trek on a glacier by myself or even with other people unless I had mountaineering equipment (ice axes, cramp-ons, etc). But, you can certainly go exploring near the ice field to get some additional views if you have enough daylight and energy.
Paso del Viento Refuge Hut to the Lago Viedma campsites: 11 miles / 18 km, you ascend 2100 feet and descend 4400 feet.
The next day you continue on the trail towards Paso Huemul (mountain pass). For much of it there’s a trail. Sometimes there’s not and you can use the maps.me app; it’s not uncommon to try asking where the trail is on this part. I would also recommend referencing the navigation pictures from the rangers’ presentation when you need to.
You’ll see blue berries (Calafate berries) throughout this day. In Backpacker Steve’s video of the Huemul Circuit, they ate them. I’ve read on numerous blog posts that they are edible and super sweet. You can do whatever you want. I’d also ask the park rangers beforehand but I myself would probably be fine eating them. And there are supposedly some other fruits which are edible on the way too.
Eventually the trail gets narrow as you’re on the mountain wall ascending towards the pass; the Viedma glacier will be on your right side. If there’s no wind, don’t worry. But if there is wind, then you have to BE EXTREMELY CAREFUL as there is a real danger of getting blown off a cliff. Bend your knees to maintain your center of gravity, or even make sure that your left hand is always touching the mountain wall.
See the narrow trail and cliff above? When I did this part, the wind gusts were as high as 100-120kmh. Per the park rangers, the winds come from the same Westerly direction from the Ice Fields. It will be pushing you into the mountain wall to your left (like in this video), not towards the cliff and Patagonian Ice Fields on your right, but it can still throw you off balance. If the wind is high, there exists a very real danger of losing your ground if you are not extremely cautious.
Eventually you get to a point where you’re just ascending up the mountain pass and the wind will actually give you a little boost up from the back.
When you get to the top, you don’t have to continue onwards immediately. Take some pictures and absorb the view. This will be the last time you see the ice fields for potentially years and it’s one of the most fascinating pieces of nature on planet Earth. If you’re careful, you can try leaning into the ice winds to get some awesome video footage (per below; it looks like a cliff, but it’s not).
Moving onwards from the pass, the park rangers will tell you in their presentation to turn left, not right (again, TAKE PICTURES of the presentation!). I think my friend and I initially turned right and couldn’t find a way off the mountain. Go left. And you can also use the maps.me app if necessary. Your objective is to get down to the lake.
There’s a campsite up here which is now closed, though some people still use it. You can take a break and get some water, but you should be descending. It’d kind of suck to do this descent on the last day b/c you’ll be extra tired for the 18km walk to town AND you might not get to the boat terminal in time to hitch a ride.
Also, per the picture below, there is a small mini-trail near an old-campsite where you can get excellent views of the actual Viedma Glacier terminus. You’ll see the glacier from the lake as well, but cool to see it from here too!
Next, you start an 700m vertical descent over 1200 horizontal meters. It is the toughest part of the hike (in terms of how much it just sucks, not technically challenging). My main advice here is to just go down as safely and slowly as possible. Two people that did this entire circuit in 17 hours said this part in particular completely drained them. When I did it, it took away a lot of my stamina; there’s also a very real risk of developing blisters if you go too quickly.
It’s highly advised to really take your time with this section (even if you spend an extra hour or two). This will help your knees tremendously. One false step can mean serious injury. Don’t hesitate sliding on your butt or bag. It’s helpful if you have some cheap pair of gloves to grab onto branches and trees with, rather than hands. And it absolutely helps to have hiking sticks for this descent.
There’s a point where there’s a rope put in by the rangers to descend 20-30m. Be very careful on this part. It’s best to have your feet push off of solid rock rather than dirt as you’re going down on the rope. I’ve heard some people say the rope isn’t 100% necessary to go down, but I don’t see why one wouldn’t use it.
Eventually you get to the bottom, next to the lake. This scenery is super idyllic. Take some time to rest, relax and enjoy the scenery. Use the maps.me whenever necessary if you can’t find the trail.
The 3rd campsite is near here (use pictures below as reference; either you camp at the end of the descent, or on the peninsula. I’ve heard say they prefer either one (Bahia de los Tempanos compared to the one on Peninsula Ventisquero called Bahia de Hornos, and vice versa).
On the peninsula, you can always just get your water from Lago Viedma, but remember, cows graze this area (and could do so in the streams), so just be mindful where you’re getting your water from. I’d probably just camp at the peninsula if it were me and get water from Lago Viedma. I think from many of the videos I’ve seen on the Huemul Circuit, this is where many people end up camping b/c of the views you get.
On the picture above of the peninsula, see the red pin at the very top? This is a spot my friend and I relaxed on for about 30 mins. There are lots of good places to sit and relax, but I like this one in particular as you get sensational views of Viedma glacier, the surrounding mountains, and the lake (as per picture below)
Lastly, as you go to bed, I would HIGHLY suggest waking up for sunrise, even if it’s Patagonian summer where sunrise is SUPER early. And definitely take pictures of the sunset. These are absolutely magical experiences. Yes, you’re dead tired, but years from now you’ll remember the awesome view of the sunrise you saw, not the sleep you lost.
Lago Viedma to the boat terminal (11 miles, 18km; you ascend and descend about 1400 feet). Can take anywhere from 4-5 hours.
TWO IMPORTANT THINGS:
FIRST, It’s 18 km to the boat terminal. If you get there too late in the afternoon, you might lose your window of opportunity to hitchhike a ride back to town. If this happens, you can just walk 8km back to town or 5km to a hotel on the way back and call a taxi back from there. Look at the maps.me route to find where the trail goes north from the boat terminal. There are two boat tours at 10 am and 3 pm, so you want to be at the boat terminal by 3 pm at the latest so you can ensure you get a ride. I think this part can take anywhere from 4-6 hours if you go at a good pace, so just keep that in mind when you wake up in the morning.
SECOND, there’s a long stretch of maybe 10km or so from the 3rd campsite to El Chalten where you won’t find much running water. Make sure you’re adequately hydrated before you start going through all the rolling hills (drink a liter before eating breakfast). And even if you do find water, make sure that it’s ONLY running water and you’re not near cows or their poop. Absolutely do not get water that is stagnant in these rolling hills since it may not be coming from glacier sources. You’ll eventually find running water about 1-2km before the next river crossing, but not for a while.
The rangers have put in a lot of red sticks along the trail for you to follow through all the rolling hills. You can also use maps.me if you have trouble, but it’s not hard from here; you’re essentially following the coastline to your right (picture below). Shortly after the peninsula though, your start to veer inland into rolling hills.
Eventually you’ll reach a sign where you can go left to reach the 2nd traverse, or straight/right to ford the river. When I did the circuit, we couldn’t use the pulley since it was on the opposite side, so we had to ford the river downstream, though it’s been fixed by now.
Personally I would just use the tyrolia here as fording the river downstream is a massive undertaking. The Tyrolia isn’t so bad; you can practically touch the water so an accidental fall here wouldn’t guarantee your demise unlike the first one. Also, this is the same exact river from the first Tyrolia: Rio Tunel!
If you ford the river downstream, there’s a larger amount of water to cover, and you have to walk a good ways downstream (like 100m or so) to find a good place to ford. Make sure you cross it at its shallow-est portion (and I think also its widest portion). And you have to be careful if you’re crossing it later in the day since more ice will have melted, making the water level deeper. I took off my socks and crossed with my shoes; my hiking partner crossed with his crocs (again, more risk of slipping, but you don’t wet your shoes).
In the picture below, I forded the river at almost 9 pm after 20 miles / 34 km.
Reaching the boat terminal
You will soon reach the Boat Terminal. Congratulations! You’ve officially finished the Circuit Trail, but now you’ve gotta get back to El Chalten.
You have a few options here to get back to town. There are buses and cars coming throughout the day. You have to get lucky and try and hitchhike from here back to town. If you get there too late in the day, you won’t have many options to get back to town (especially after 3 pm). Even if you have to pay, remember that doing the trek was essentially free, and you deserve a break after doing one of the best hikes you’ll ever do in your life. Just pay the money for the incoming hot shower, food, and bed!
If you can’t get a ride back, you can walk like 3miles/5km to a hotel (Estancia La Quinta) which you’ll see on the maps.me route that leads back to El Chalten. From that hotel, you can enter the lobby and have them call a taxi to take you back to town (like 10-12USD). Otherwise, you can walk 6-10km back to town from the hotel. Personally I’d recommend just calling the cab if you’re tired.
DO NOT FORGET: the registration copy that the park rangers gave you, you MUST return it to the office to let them know you’ve returned. They have a box outside which you can put it in if they’re closed. If you don’t return it, they’ll send a search and rescue for you.
Food after the hike + Recovery
One back in town, I recommend eating as much food as possible now. Your body needs some serious calorie load after that hike. And protein as well. I liked the restaurant Patagonicus as they have good pizzas. Domo Blanco has some of the best ice cream I’ve had (try Super Domo flavor). Otherwise even if you go to the grocery store and stuff your mouth with a bunch of carbs and cook up some eggs, that works too.
One thing I can definitely recommend is the breakfast buffet at El Chalten Suites hotel. I think it’s like $10-12, which might be expensive for a backpacker, but if you’re a serious hiker and go in there with an empty stomach, you can get an enormous amount of calories as they serve fruits, nuts, cereal, unlimited omelettes, tons of pastries. Each time I ate there, I spent at least 45 mins actually eating (until my stomach was as full as it could be, haha). I got some weird looks from hotel staff b/c of how much I was eating, but with all this hiking and how expensive the food is in Argentina, why wouldn’t you take advantage of a super legit breakfast buffet =P
You probably need those calories as well. Especially if you’re about to do a big day hike to Fitz Roy or Cerro Torre (or even before starting the Huemul), you should probably just eat as much as you can at that buffet before setting off.
FINAL IMPRESSIONS: this trek is getting more popular each year, but it is still somewhat of a hidden-gem. The sheer beauty of it is incredible. It is very difficult even if you don’t account for the Tyrolia ziplines. Eventually I think the park authorities might build bridges over the rivers, though as one other blogger said, the Tyrolia act as gatekeepers to the trek, ensuring that only those willing to do the zipline (i.e., serious trekkers) do such a technical and challenging trek. I wonder if this trek will ever become like Torres del Paine given the weather situation on the opposite side of Mount Huemul.
FULL DISCLAIMER: This is all my own personal advice, but you should follow it at your own risk and take all my advice with a grain of salt. You should be aware of what you’re getting yourself into, and if you’ve read this post you should be aware of all the dangers on this hike. This hike has its own set of challenges and you should not do it unless you are fit and competent enough to do it. Hiking is fun, and is all about calculated risks. The Huemul Circuit is a trek worth doing even with all its risks, in my opinion, but there definitely exists very real dangers if you do not know what you’re doing.
Comment below if you found this guide helpful and share it too!
Also, my post uses a combination of my own photos as well as other blogger’s photos (to ensure I can show all parts of the trek where I otherwise couldn’t take photos). Credit for select photos goes to BackpackerSteve, 2driftingcocounts, fromcanyons2clouds, katieandkay, Richard Pattison, and bemytravelmuse.