Patagonia stretches from the midlands in Chile and Argentina all the way down to the southern tip of South America. Often referred to as ‘the end of the world’, this region is as close as 800km (500 miles) from Antarctica. The list of natural wonders is infinite: rugged, snow-capped mountain peaks; rivers and lakes in ‘50 shades of blue’; sprawling glaciers; endless idyllic steppes; and picturesque villages. The scenic landscapes are what make this region South America’s mecca for hiking, climbing, biking, camping and any other outdoor activity you could imagine. The splendid nature is protected within the confines of various national parks, which creates some restrictions and challenges. This article provides information on the must-see destinations in Patagonia, how to get there (don’t underestimate the distances!), and how to plan and budget for your visit to the national parks.
Punta Arenas & Isla Magdalena
My first stop in Patagonia was to the city of Punta Arenas, which is also the southernmost point I reached. I flew from the north of Chile (with an inevitable stopover in Santiago de Chile) to Punta Arenas, as this was the cheapest destination to fly to in Patagonia. My first impression was a mix of astonishment and excitement. Everything looks distinctly different than the rest of South America! The climate is significantly colder, the flora and fauna is unique, and the architecture resembles a European style.
Punta Arenas is a coastal city on the edge of the Strait of Magellan, mostly known as a base for excursions to the surrounding wilderness and Antarctica. At first glance, the city may not seem like much of an enticing destination but if you have a little time to walk around you’ll discover the charm of Punta Arenas. The main plaza reflects the post-colonial wealth of the city with a statue of the explorer Ferdinand Magellan in the middle, impressive stone mansions encircling, and historic museums like the Museo Nao Victoria. There are also many cozy coffee shops and restaurants around where you can snuggle up by the fireplace after a walk along the waterfront.
Nonetheless, the most fascinating reason to stop here is to visit the Magallanes penguin colony of Chile on nearby Magdalena Island. This remote island has an interesting ecosystem, with thousands of penguins coming during the summer to reproduce, and other kinds of birds like the tuxedo clads and cormorants. The only way of exploring this penguin community is to embark on a guided tour that leaves from Punta Arenas. The navigation will take about 40mins one-way and allows you to walk around and take pictures for an hour or so. Due to extreme weather conditions, this island is only accessible from October through April. I recommend to book the excursion in advance as they are extremely popular with tourists and only offered through a limited amount of tour operators. The price will vary, but fluctuates around 63,000 Chilean Pesos (around € 80).
Puerto Natales & Torres del Paine
The charming, colourful town of Puerto Natales is located 3 hours north of Punta Arenas. It can be easily reached by bus, with various direct departures from Punta Arenas per day. This town is the ultimate gateway to the magnificent Torres del Paine National Park, which sits 120 km to the north-west. Puerto Natales itself doesn’t have a lot to offer, but it is the ideal place to buy or rent your adventure and trekking gear before heading off to Torres del Paine. The streets of the city are filled with adventure stores offering the latest and greatest equipment for trekking, camping, climbing, and so on.
After gearing up, it is time to explore one of the most superb National Parks you will ever encounter in your life. The Torres del Paine National Park was declared the eighth wonder of the world in 2013 by UNESCO. And I totally agree… This well-preserved National Park is a world-class tourist attraction of exceptional beauty with its majestic massifs, turquoise lakes, vast glaciers, fresh rivers, emerald forests, and vast open pampas wandered by guanacos and pumas. One thing is sure: the ever-changing panoramas will continue to fascinate you and make you forget about your sore legs!
There are different ways of exploring the Torres del Paine National Park. For the less active soul, there are several day tours that depart from Puerto Natales. However, I don’t recommend these as they are rushed and only allow you to explore a tiny part of the park (usually just the Base de las Torres). For the adventurous spirit, I recommend hiking either the W-Circuit or O-Circuit. I made the W-trek, which can be done in either 4 or 5 days (the O-trek takes at least 8-day to complete). This trek was an extraordinary experience as it takes you along the most scenic sites of the park, including the Base de Las Torres, the French Valley, the Grey Glacier, and Nordenskjöld Lake. Just remember to plan your visit in time (months in advance when going in January or February) with the routes you want to do, accommodation or camp sites booked, and transportation to and from the park. You can also opt to book your visit via a travel agency, which does all this planning for you. This is what I did and I highly recommend it if you don’t want to carry a heavy backpack. With the tents set up on each site and the meals provided, I was only equipped with light and waterproof clothing and good company! Of course for this extra comfort you will also pay a price. I paid about €500 for the fully equipped and self-guided 4-day trek. This “package” was the ideal combination of having the flexibility and freedom to hike at your own pace, with everything else being arranged. Considering the general high price of the campsites and entrance fee, this package was good value for money.
El Calafate & Perito Moreno Glacier
After an exhilarating visit to the Torres del Paine, it is time to cross the border to explore the Argentinian part of the region. Board the morning bus from the terminal in Puerto Natales to El Calafate, which will take you about 5 hours including the border crossing. El Calafate is a pleasant small town that is shaped by the booming tourism industry. The main street of the town is filled with travel agencies, restaurants, bars and shops catering to the tourists. It is the perfect place to unwind for a day and plan your trip to the main attraction of the area, the Perito Moreno Glacier!
You cannot miss the Perito Moreno Glacier located in the nearby Los Glaciares National Park when in El Calafate. The magnificent Perito Moreno is one of the most remarkable glaciers in South America with its ice chunks reaching heights of 70m (230 ft) above the lake over a surface of 250 square kilometers. This being said, it does not come as a surprise that the glacier is part of the third largest ice field in the world. What is even more exciting is the activity of the glacier. A constant cracking and crashing of ice chunks in the frigid water constantly echoes across the lake. Contrary to popular belief, this happens because of the enormous pressure within the glacier caused by glacial expansion, not because of the effects of global warming. The park’s well-established viewing platforms and trails allow you to see the glacier up close. You can also take a boat excursion on the lake to get closer to the actual glacier. However, I do not recommend this as those tours are overcrowded and you can’t get too close because of the ice cracking off. I would rather spend more time walking around along the many paths while enjoying the different views and facts displayed on the boards.
Accessing Perito Moreno from El Calafate is fairly easy. There are daily buses to Los Glaciares National Park that depart from the bus terminal around 8:30 or 9:00am. The ticket costs around 800 Argentinian Pesos (around €20), while the entry fee for Los Glaciares National Park is 700 Argentinian Peso. Even though this may sound pricy, it is significantly cheaper than organized tours and probably the most suitable alternative. The buses return from the Perito Moreno Glacier around 4:00pm, which allows you sufficient time to explore.
Known as the National Capital of trekking, El Chalten is one of the most popular adventure and outdoor destinations in Argentina. A three-hour bus ride brings you from the local hub of El Calafate to this tiny town in the middle of nowhere. With its fresh, crisp air, breathtaking landscapes, and unique mountain peaks, El Chalten is a call of the wild. Being in the foothills of the mountains, you have multiple options for day hiking, climbing, and going on excursions. I stayed 4 days in this cozy town, and used it as a base for going on multiple day hikes. These are the sites you absolutely cannot miss, and also entirely FREE!
Cerro Fitz Roy and Laguna de los Tres
The Cerro Fitz Roy, a recognized symbol of Patagonia and inspiration for the logo of the outdoor clothing brand Patagonia, can be observed from the town below and even miles away. Towering above scenic lakes and offering magnificent viewpoints, the Mount Fitz Roy is an absolute highlight in the area. The hike to the magnificent Laguna de los Tres, which sits at the base of the towers, can be done as a day hike. The trails are clearly marked, well-maintained, and relatively easy. However, the last 1.5km of the hike is steep and occasionally icy. Some people decide to spread this hike over two days to watch the sunrise over the mountain. However, given the reasonable distance (20 km round trip) of the hike, I would not necessarily suggest that.
Cerro Torre & Laguna Torre
Once you have conquered the Mount Fitz Roy, you might want to embark on a new day-adventure to another brilliant mountain peak and scenic lake. The Cerro Torre and Laguna Torre make an incredible site, with the granite towers reflected in the waters below. The nine-hour round trip to the base of the Mount Torre make for a beautiful hike passing along streams, forests, other mountain ranges, and even small icebergs in the glacial lakes. These trails are also well-marked with a rather gradual inclination.
If you have more than just a couple of days to visit El Chalten, you have numerous other outdoor opportunities. During my visit, I also hiked to the waterfall of Salto de Chorillo and Mirador de los Condores which offers an amazing view over the town. Not surprisingly, there is much more…
Hike to the Glacier Huemel;
Raft on the Las Vueltas River Canyon;
Take a boat tour on the glacial lake;
Go ice climbing on Viedma glacier;
Go fly fishing or horseback riding;
Or simply enjoy a good craft beer and dinner in the town!
Bariloche & Nahuel Huapi National Park
As if I hadn’t discovered enough sheer beauty in Patagonia… I fell in love with the next destinations: Bariloche and the Nahuel Huapi National Park. A 17-hour bus ride (!!) from El Chalten brought us to this alpine village in northern Patagonia surrounded by beautiful forests, mountains, and azure lakes in the Argentinian Lake District. This bus ride was exhausting, only stopping occasionally for food and a toilet break, but was also the cheapest mode of transportation. Cheap is a relative term in this case as the bus tickets amounted to almost €100.
San Carlos de Bariloche, or simply Bariloche, is the only true year-round destination in Patagonia, offering a range of both winter and summer activities. Tourists flock to the area during the winter time to go skiing and snow-shoeing at the Cerro Catedral. In the summer they enjoy trekking, kayaking, cycling, paragliding, mountain climbing, and rafting in the nearby Nahuel Huapi National Park. The town itself is home to many chocolate stores, boutiques, craft breweries, and some neo-gothic European architecture. As such, it comes as no surprise that Bariloche is considered “the Switzerland of Argentina”.
I spent almost a week in Bariloche during the summer months, using it as a base to explore the nearby nature. A week allows sufficient time to explore the town and its surrounding beauty.
One of the must-visit places is the Llao Llao peninsula that runs along the lake shore near the city. The peninsula can be reached by local transportation from the city, taking approximately 30 minutes. The peninsula itself is lined with elegant houses, emerald lakes, pebble-stone beaches, beautiful parks, luxury hotels, and stunning panoramic viewpoints. I recommend spending at least two days on the peninsula, exploring the area while engaging in outdoor activities, such as biking, hiking and kayaking. You definitely can’t miss visiting the Cerro Campanario (hiking up or riding the cable car) to get a superb view of the Andean Lake District, biking or driving the scenic 60km long Circuito Chico with many photo stops along the way, sipping a beer at the outdoor patio of the rustic brewery ‘Cerveceria Patagonia’, and taking a break at the historic Llao Llao hotel.
Another highlight includes Argentina’s oldest and largest national park, the Nahuel Huapi National Park. Established in 1943 and comprising nearly two million acres, this massive park is home to countless snow-clad mountains, crystal clear lakes, exquisite glaciers, rapid rivers, majestic waterfalls, lush forests and wildlife. Due to its immensity, it is recommended to rent a car to visit the park. In just a day you could drive up to Villa de la Angostura, a cozy little town with gorgeous lakes and beaches. If you have multiple days to explore the park, you can drive to San Martin de los Andes. The flourishing beauty of the sites along the way will leave you breathless!
Now one final burning question remains… How much money do you need to visit Patagonia?
The answer is as simple as:
"It significantly varies from person to person."
Travelling on a cheap budget like I did, you could probably survive on €50 per day. This includes staying in dorm-style accommodation, taking public transport, and often self-catering. I found the Chilean part in particular very expensive as the currency is strong and thus reflected in their prices. On the other hand, many of the parks and tourist attractions are free in Argentina, which partly compensates for that. The biggest “investment” I made was undoubtedly towards the W-trek in the Torres del Paine National Park. However, looking back at the experience and value we received, it was totally worth it. Unfortunately, the cost is what halts many visitors to travel to Patagonia.
Just ask yourself…
“How much do I actually spend on activities at home?”
Or “how much would I be spending if I was travelling around Europe or North America instead?”
It’s all relative… right?