Trek to O’Higgins and El Chico glaciers – Patagonia, Chile

El Chico glacier, Patagonia, Chile
El Chico glacier, Patagonia, Chile

If you like to explore off the beaten path destinations, hike in the areas with no other people both hikes – O’Higgins glacier and El Chico glacier will be a great option for you. Prepare yourself for amazing views of turquoise O’Higgins and El Chico lake, massive glaciers, snow peak mountains and indigenous forest. Just imagine to have all these for yourself and being able to camp, walk and stop wherever you want.

Both hikes are quite demanding due to difficult weather conditions, badly marked path and remote location. They can be easily combined (as we did it) with O’Higgins – El Chalten walk, just bring enough food – there is nowhere to buy food on the way.

More information on different hikes in Patagonia you can find in our post 35 Amazing hikes in Patagonia.

How to get to the starting point of the hike

Hike to the both glaciers O’Higgins and El Chico is a return route you go to and back the same way.

From Villa O’Higgins, Chile

  • From Villa O’Higgins take a bus to Bahamondez pier – 7 km.
  • There take one of the boats to Candelario Mancilla.
  • Once at the Candelario go to the carabineros (Chilean immigration office), register for the hike, it’s compulsory – the hike is very remote, in case you’re not back on the expected day rangers can start looking for you. If you have some extra luggage you can leave it at the rangers’ office. 
  • Start walking on the road towards Laguna del Desierto, about  7 km till you see a sign marking the starting point.

From El Chalten, Argentina

  • Take a bus El Chalten – Laguna del Desierto.
  • From the Laguna take a ferry to Punta Norte de Laguna del Desierto, as an option you can walk – 12 km along the lake.
  • Once there go to Argentinian immigration office and get an exit stamp from Argentina.
  • Then walk to Candelario Mancilla (Chilean immigration office) – 22 km, get a Chile entry stamp and register for the hike. If you have some extra lugger you can leave it there for the period of the hike. Chilean rangers will explain you how to get to the starting point. To get there you’ll have to walk back a little bit.
The starting point of O'Higgins hike
Starting point of the O’Higgins/El Chico hike. Turn off from the gravel road towards Peninsula

Don’t forget about travel insurance!

Hikes to both glaciers are very remote with no villages nearby or road access, it’s possible you won’t see a single person in days. Hiking like any outdoor activity involves risk of getting injury or losing some of the gear due to unpredictable weather conditions e.g. very strong wind that Patagonia is famous for. It’s always advisable to have travel insurance especially if you’re going on an adventure outside your own country. World Nomads insurance company operates all over the world, they have special packages for outdoor and hiking lovers, let your insurance company worry about yo while you enjoy hiking in the wild. It doesn’t matter where you live or where you are at the moment, it takes less than 2 minutes to get a quote and you can buy it online even if you are already traveling. We advise always to read the small print and be sure you buy the correct policy. Be properly covered for injury, evacuation, gear loss, trip cancellation and trip delays. Want to know what other travelers say about World Nomads? Check out this post!

Cost of hiking to the glacier O’Higgins and El Chico 

  • Transport; from Villa O’Higgins – bus Villa O’Higgins to Bahamondez pier –  CLP 2500/$4;  boat Bahamondez  – Candelario Mancilla – CLP 34000/US$54. From El Chalten bus El Chalten – Punta Sur de Laguna del Desierto – ARS 850/US$25; ferry to Punta Norte de Laguna del Desierto – ARS 1360/US$40. For O’Higgins glacier hike add CLP 20 000/US$30 – it includes a return boat trip across the lake and one night of camping on the island.
  • Food; from CLP 15000/US$22 pp. 
  • Camping; on the hike to El Chico glacier – free, on O’Higgins glacier hike – one night on the private land, included in the boat crossing price. Before/after the hike – at Candelario Mancilla – CLP 3000/US$4 pp., at Argentinian immigration – free.

Where to stay in Villa O’Higgins

Villa O’Higgins is a tiny town with a few restaurants, shops and a couple of hotels and campsites. What can you find in Villa O’Higgins;

  • Hotels
  • Hostels
  • Campsites
  • Restaurants
  • Shops
  • Pharmacy

Note! There is no ATM in the town – make sure to bring enough cash, some shops and hotels accept credit cards.

There are several place to stay in Villa O’Higgins for different budget;

Budget optionRuedas de la Patagonia – a cozy chalets in Villa O’Higgins with private bathroom, wi-fi, heating, flat-screen TV, satellite channels, small kitchenette.

Middle price rangeCabañas San Gabriel – private chalets a bit bigger than the previous place with bathroom, heating, TV, satellite channels, small kitchen, wi-fi. Located in the town, close to the shops and restaurants.

If you’re looking for more of a comfort stayRobinson Crusoe Deep Patagonia is the best place in the town; spacious rooms with big windows, comfortable beds, private bathroom, cozy common area/restaurant with a fire place, big continental breakfast.

Hiking and camping gear for the trek

Good tent, during the hike we had all seasons weather: pouring rain, stormy wind, hail, sun and snow, so be sure your tent want fall apart or leak. Drinking water is not a problem, you can find it everywhere. More details on hiking and camping gear for Patagonia you’ll find in this post ↓↓↓

O’Higgins/El Chico glacier hike

Treks to the both glaciers; O’Higgins and El Chico start at the same place and for the first two day follow the same route. The split is at the Peninsula; for El Chico glacier you keep walking on the same side along Chico lake. For O’Higgins glacier you go to the tip of the peninsula and cross the lake by boat. Both routes require 4 days to complete. The O’Higgins glacier viewpoint is more impressive than El Chico but it’s more expensive as you have to pay for the boat to cross the lake (both ways+camping) – CLP 20 000/US$30. If you have enough time you can combine both treks; go first to O’Higgins glacier viewpoint and on the way back to El Chico.

O’Higgins/El Chico glacier trek facts

  • Distance – 82 km
  • Starting/finishing point – Candelario Mancilla
  • Required number of days – 4 days
  • Difficulty – moderate/challenging, depending on weather conditions

Day 1. Candelario Mancilla – Campsite #1, 23km, 7 hours

The starting point of both hikes is 7km away from the Chilean rangers office, it’s easy to follow – every km is marked with a sign. After 7km on your right you’ll see a sign “Peninsula”, it’s the start of the treks. Here you turn off the road and go into the forest. 

Follow the path, after 30min. you’ll get to the river, cross it in the most shallow place, on the other side the path is not very clear, right after crossing go to the right towards the hill, you’ll see broken bridge, the path goes up to the pass.

River crossing, O'Higgins glacier hike, Patagonia, Chile
River crossing in the beginning of the trail. Don’t lose the trail on the other side! Look for a mark on the tree.

The ascend is sometimes quite steep, it takes between 1,5-2 hours to get to the top.

Once at the top we walked about 3 hours more – it was flat all the way with some rivers and creeks to go through. We found a flat hidden from the wind spot for camping, just before the down starts. It gets  very windy and cold at night make sure you have proper camping gear.

O'Higgins glacier hike
First night camping on the top of the pass, O’Higgins glacier hike

Day 2. Campsite #1 – campsite El Chico, 17km, 6 hours

The day starts with a steep long down to the peninsula, 2km, 1,5-2 hours, once at the bottom you’ll see the split; one path goes to the left (there is a big sign Sendero Glaciar Chico) along the lake and the other one goes straight to the peninsula (O’Higgins glacier hike). Here you mus decide where you want to go wither way is beautiful. 

We were planning to go to O’Higgins glacier, we walked to the tip of the peninsula where you have to cross a lake. On the other side there is a house – a local family lives there, here you have to shout till they notice you and someone comes in a boat to pick you up. As I already mentioned it costs CLP 20 000/US$30 to cross the lake (return) and to camp next to the family’s house. 

If you decide to take the offer you camp next to their house right across the lake and next day early go to the viewpoint of O’Higgins glacier. They will explain you the way. You can buy a cooked meal at the campsite for additional cost.

We didn’t know that and didn’t have enough cash so we had to turn around. Luckily on the way back across the peninsula we remembered about El Chico glacier and decided to go there. From the split to a designated camping spot is about 15km, mostly up, sometimes difficult to find the path don’t worry if you lose it just keep going along the lake towards the glacier. The campsite itself is just a flat piece of land with some kind of fence for wind protection, don’t expect too much.

O'Higgins lake, Patagonia, Chile
O’Higgins lake, stunning beauty!

Day 3. Campsite El Chico – Glacier El Chico – Campsite #1, 20km, 9 hours

Next morning we left our tent in the campsite (make sure it’s well attached in case of strong wind) and went to the glacier. The whole time we saw nobody around except for cows – no need to worry about your stuff. 

We walked about 1,5-2 hours to the viewpoint – a big standing out rock. If the weather is good and you have time you can go closer to the glacier, there is no path to follow just walk towards the glacier and don’t come too close to the edge.

Unfortunately for us the weather wasn’t great; strong wind and rain. As a result after the viewpoint we had to return. We walked to our tent, packed everything and started walking back, towards the peninsula  – about 2,5 hours. From there all the way up to the pass and camped at Campsite #1 – the same spot we camped on the way to. The ascend back to the pass is quite long and steep it took us about 4 hours to get to the top.

El Chico glacier, Patagonia, Chile
Amazing view on El Chico glacier from the trail.

Day 4. Campsite #1 – Candelario Mancilla, 22km, 5,5 hours

It was the easiest day – flat in the beginning on the pass, then a little bit downhill back to the river crossing and back to the road. Once back on the road you walk 7km, mostly downhill, to the Candelario Mancilla, about 1,5 hour.

You can camp at Candelario Mancilla to rest a little bit before you start walking to El Chalten. If you’re going to O’Higgins check with the rangers boat departure as often due to strong wind boats get cancelled. Camping at Candelario costs CLP 3000/US$4 pp. If you run out of food after the hike you can buy some bread or cooked meal at the campsite.

Laes O'Higgins and El Chico
Two lakes; O’Higgins (blue) and El Chico (grey). O’Higgins glacier hike

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