It was almost 5:35 in the morning when we finally caught the first sight of the lake. The scene was still dark, and I let out a sigh of relief. We hiked through the night from El Chaltén to see the sunrise at Laguna Torre, and we made it.
The wind has died, and nothing troubled the mirror-like surface of the water. The magnificent Cerro Torre loomed behind, ever-present, but shrouded in fog. The clouds swirling above it were slowly starting to catch the light. It was gorgeous.
I hurried down to the water. The sunrise spectacle at Laguna Torre was about to begin and I didn’t want to miss it.
The Capital of Trekking
Our story begins in the sleepy Argentinean town of El Chaltén. Located on the riverside of Rio de las Vueltas, hundreds of kilometers from the nearest settlement, El Chaltén didn’t even exist just 40 years ago. There were only infinite pampas, forests, and wilderness here.
Even now, decades later, El Chaltén has merely 2000 inhabitants, only 400 of which stay here throughout the year. And yet, this small village in the middle of nowhere is an incredibly bustling tourist destination.
In 2015, El Chaltén came second on Lonely Planet’s best cities to visit list. Even more impressive is the town’s official title of Argentina’s National Capital of Trekking. All that is thanks to the fabulous mountain scenery that attracts hikers and climbers from all over the world.
El Chaltén is situated at the foot of one of the most famous peaks in Patagonia – the majestic Fitzroy. Just a little further, but still walking distance from town, are the towering cliffs of Cerro Torre and Torre Egger. Beyond lies the vast emptiness of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field.
As if that wasn’t enough, there are countless lakes, rivers, and waterfalls around. The nature around El Chaltén is so awe-inspiring that I include it in my personal rating of the best landscape photography locations in Patagonia.
Naturally, a beautiful area like this is home to all sorts of hiking trails of varying difficulty. Among them, one of the most noteworthy is undeniably a hike to Laguna Torre.
An Early Start
My alarm went off at 2.30 am. It was our last day in El Chaltén. By noon we had to pack our things, check out and start the long drive back to Torres del Paine. But we couldn’t just leave Argentinean Patagonia without experiencing one of its most famous sights – the spectacular Laguna Torre.
Laguna Torre is a charming glacial lake at the foot of one of Patagonia’s most recognizable mountains – Cerro Torre. Granted, it is a popular hiking destination from El Chaltén.
The route starts in town and terminates on the western shore of Laguna Torre. From here, the visitors are treated to a stunning view of both the lake and the Alpine ridge behind.
Why the rush? Of course, we could do the hike later in the day, but as a photographer, I wanted to see the famous peak at its grandest – at dawn.
At sunrise, the east faces of Cerro Torre and the surrounding mountains are splendidly illuminated with lovely morning light. The rich red and orange hues turn the scene into something truly otherworldly.
Here is the tricky part though. Laguna Torre is 9 km away from El Chaltén. To witness the sunrise here, you either need to sleep at the nearby De Agostini camping ground or be ready for an excruciatingly early start. We opted for the latter.
Sunset Obsession Photography Guide to Patagonia
To learn about other fantastic landscape photography locations in Patagonia, check out my Landscape Photography Guide to Patagonia. With dozens of spots and detailed advice, it has everything you need to capture stunning images of this incredible region.
A Hike Through the Night
I’d be lying if I said that dragging myself out of bed in the middle of the night was easy. Still, by 3:30 we were outside, sleep-deprived, but full of coffee and determined to see it through.
I have never done the hike to Laguna Torre before, so heading out in the darkness was a little unnerving. Luckily, my wife was fully on board with the idea. Otherwise, I would have probably bailed. So, here’s a power tip – having a partner who will hold you accountable really helps!
Fortunately, the hike to Laguna Torre is not overly demanding. It starts off with a steep ascent, followed by an easier section and then another strenuous part. However, after an initial couple of kilometers, it evens out and becomes pretty straightforward all the way to the end.
The total elevation of the trail is around 220 m. This is very manageable for most anybody in a decent physical shape. This is certainly far less than on the neighboring hike to Laguna de Los Tres. Take your time and watch your step (especially in the darkness!), and you’ll be fine.
To that end, walking through the night turned out to be more relaxed than I anticipated. All you need is a decent headlamp and an overall sense of direction. The trail is well marked and easy to follow, and we breezed through most of it.
The only difficulty we encountered was a couple of flooded sections towards the end of the route. Navigating through mud and fallen trees was somewhat hectic and slow. The good thing is that these areas were short and didn’t hinder our progress much.
Sunrise at Laguna Torre
It was almost 5.35 am when we finally caught the first sight of Laguna Torre. Even covered in clouds, the towering shape of Cerro Torre was clearly distinguishable. With only 15 minutes remaining before the sunrise, I scrambled for a place to set up the tripod.
As the first light hit the mountain range, the landscape changed rapidly. The grey granite walls caught the glow. The drama in the sky reflected beautifully in the calm waters of Laguna Torre. The scene was suddenly vivid and alive. Patagonia was waking up in front of our very eyes.
Only Cerro Torre remained shy, clouds coming and going but never actually revealing the rugged peak. I waited for a while, but it was not to be.
I later learned that Cerro Torre is notorious for its stormy weather. The pacific winds coming from the west are constantly bashing the mountain with snow and rime. Catching it fully exposed against the blue Patagonian sky is rare luck indeed.
Honestly, though, there is little reason to complain. The sunrise at Laguna Torre was fabulous as it was. We lost track of hours watching the morning unfold. With only a handful of hikers present at the lake this early, Laguna Torre was unbelievably calm and serene.
The sun was already high in the sky when I took the last image and packed the camera away. By that point, the heat of Patagonian summer was becoming noticeable. It was time to head back.
Laguna Torre Packing List
Laguna Torre is a definite must-see location in El Chaltén. Whether you are a landscape photographer or simply enjoy being in nature, you owe it to yourself to witness it with your own eyes.
And to help you plan the visit, here is what you need to know when heading to Laguna Torre for sunrise:
- Total distance: 18 km
- Total time required: 5 – 7 hours. A common estimate at daytime is 3 hours one way. In the darkness, without stopping to enjoy the views, we made it in 2. We aren’t particularly fast hikers either, but we kept a consistent pace.
- Difficulty: moderate. It is a long route, but only a couple of sections are relatively steep.
- Clothes: standard hiking attire. The temperatures in Patagonia can differ starkly during the day and night. When aiming for sunrise, put on layers of clothing and adjust as needed.
- Shoes: I recommend mountain boots.
- Other items to consider: sunscreen and sunglasses, a hat, the (optional) hiking poles
- Provisions: light snacks and water
- For landscape photographers – at Laguna Torre, you want to both capture the entire scene and zoom way in on its more intimate elements. Therefore, an all-around versatile zoom such as 24-105 mm is a good choice unless you prefer to carry more lenses. Tripod is a must, especially so when shooting at sunrise.
The sunrise at Laguna Torre is without a doubt one of my most vivid memories from Patagonia.
Yes, waking up at crazy hours was difficult. And yes, hiking through the night could be unsettling. Was it worth it though? Would I do it again? Absolutely!
The details tend to fade as the months go by. But the experience of being there and witnessing nature awakening, however, is there to stay.
I hope you enjoyed the article and if so, have a look at my other posts about Patagonia. If you plan a trip to Patagonia and want to bring back excellent images, check out my Landscape Photography Guide to Patagonia.