The village of El Chalten is a service settlement. Located in the Parque Nacional los Glaciares in Patagonia, southern Argentina, the village is a four-hour walk to a network of ancient blue-white glaciers and the sharp, serrated peaks of Fitz Roy, Cerro Torre and Cerro Chalten. Thousands of tourists come to El Chalten each year, in search of small-scale adventures. Most stay for no more than a day or two: wholesome, firm-thighed hiking couples and gap year kids in search of a personality. They bring with them enormous rucksacks, a smattering of Spanish, and money.
Unsurprisingly, the economy of El Chalten is based around this tourism: the village is a loosely gridded cluster of restaurants, youth hostels, cafés, several surprisingly excellent bookshops, and outdoor stores, offering boots and hiking poles and gaudy nylon jackets for sale or rent. There is also another side: a church – demarcated by a small white cross atop its roof – a primary school, and a local library. All serve the needs of a community that has risen rapidly in the past 10 years.
And there is a third population, aside from the tourists and the locals: dogs. Dozens of dogs, with their own borders and relationships and languages. Strays of indeterminate lineage potter through the streets, play on grassy banks, sneak into shops behind tourists, requisition passers-by for snacks and/or affection. A large, smart, fearsome Alsation guards a well-appointed house of corrugated iron and timber. Two small black terries harry any canine that comes too close to their owner’s garden. A pointer-cross barks out a warning from behind a chain-link fence.
Each day, hikers journey into the mountains in search of the wild: armadillos or pumas, eagles, condors, and a plethora of smaller birds, flitting through the forests, taking cover in the scrubland. At the start of each walk, the signs are clear: “NO MASCOTAS. NO PETS.” There are no gates or styles or cattle grids; no physical barriers between human settlement and the nature of the mountains. But the dogs all stay in the village. I wonder if they can read the signs.