Patagonia is the region at the southern end of South America, shared by Chile and Argentina, comprising of the southern section of the Andes Mountains and the deserts, pampas, and grasslands to the east. It is one of the few regions that shares a coastline with three oceans, with the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Atlantic Ocean to the east, and the Southern Ocean to the south.
Both Argentinian and Chilean Patagonia boast abundant wildlife, from soaring Andean Condor, to the meandering herds of the llama’s close cousin – the Guanaco, and for the very lucky, the elusive Puma. Fill your days, hiking, horse trekking, rafting, all the while soaking in the jaw dropping views.
Typically, adventure travellers who are looking for an active holiday. Whilst you can go hardcore and embark on intense treks, there are plenty of softer adventure activities on offer too. Travellers generally spend more on experience than accommodation, so often they take advantage of the luxury properties in the area for part of their journey but spending the bulk of their money on excursions. Demographically, travellers tend to be older couples or families (i.e. with adult children) and groups of friends. However, there is certainly great appeal for the younger market too with all the adventure activities on offer. Australia sees a good number of participants in the Patagonia International Marathon each year which is a great spectacle for the region.
The best time to visit Patagonia also depends on the region; it is huge, and there are great variations, not just from north-south. Coastal regions are wetter and milder, while the inland steppe is chillier and arid. December through to February bring warmth and longer days, with southern nights lasting a scant six hours, though night frosts and sleet can occur in the highlands even in summer. Mid November to med December are less crowded, with beautiful spring blooms. Mid-March to late April also allow you to avoid the tourist hordes, and photographers should come prepared to capture the wonderful autumn colours and spectacular sunsets.
How to get to and around Patagonia
Unless you have oodles of time, you’ll find it difficult to travel in Patagonia without flying. International flights arrive at Buenos Aires or Santiago, from where you’ll need to connect to a domestic airport in Patagonia – usually El Calafate and Ushuaia in Argentina or Punta Arenas in Chile. These flights take around 3.5 hours and use reputable airlines.
To give you a sense of scale, travelling by bus from Buenos Aires to El Calafate would take at least two days, depending on where you stopped along the way. For this reason, tours which cover decent ground usually use a combination of domestic flights and hire cars, public buses or private transfers to keep overland travel times to a minimum. Internal flights are usually included in the cost of a tour.
If you’d prefer to limit flights during your holiday you’ll need to pick one region of Patagonia and stay there. But don’t feel you’re missing out; slowing down is the best way to experience the real power of the Patagonian landscape, A popular – and convenient – option is to focus your trip around El Calafate, Los Glaciares National Park and Torres del Paine, all of which are within a few hours’ drive of each other and include some of Patagonia’s most classic landscapes.
Driving in Patagonia is as much about the journey as the destination; the roads you will take across the steppe cut through some of the most spectacular scenery in South America. So, pack your camera and a picnic; while buses ply the same routes, being in charge behind the wheel means you can leave when you want and stop, loiter and soak up those Patagonian vistas as you wish. Allow plenty of extra time if you’re driving within Torres del Paine National Park – the 60km trip between Las Torres and Lago Grey is utterly spellbinding.
For most self-drive holidays you’ll pick your hire car up from Punta Arenas – Chile’s main Patagonian hub, or El Calafate – the Argentine equivalent. Both Patagonian towns play host to several quality car rental services and have excellent road links to both Puerto Natales (for Torres del Paine National Park) and Los Glaciares National Park.
Argentina’s excellent bus network makes getting around in Patagonia a relative breeze, with trips focussed on Los Glaciares National Park and Torres del Paine National Park particularly accessible by public transport. More budget-friendly than taxis or private transfers, but still affording you the flexibility that comes with a tailor made tour, taking the public bus is an ideal alternative to hiring a car. Buses are clean, comfortable and of good quality – and they have to be; this is a country with very limited rail services, so for long journeys buses rule the roost.
Given the fjord-like nature of the southern Chile, the vast glacial lakes and the iconic Beagle Channel lining the edge of Tierra del Fuego, boat trips, catamarans and ferry rides will, by necessity, form part of your Patagonia holiday.
In the northern Lake District, the almost all-day journey from Puerto Varas in Chile to Bariloche in Argentina, traversing the Andes by catamaran (and a few short sections by bus), is nothing short of spectacular. You could skirt around the lakes it crosses – Llanquihue, Todos los Santos, Frias, and Nahuel Huapi – by car, but you’d be missing out on views of towering, snow-capped volcanoes. This really is one of the most beautiful journeys in Patagonia.
No visit to Torres de Paine National Park is complete without the journey by catamaran across Lake Pehoé. Not only does this afford breathtaking views of the Cuernos del Paine peaks but is also one of the only way to access trails into the beautiful Valle Francés from the lodges and camps around the Hotel Las Torres.
Top 10 things to do in Patagonia
- Trek Torres del Paine
- Visit the Perito Moreno glacier
- Cruise the Fjords of Tierra del Fuego
- Hike from El Chalten to see the impressive Mount Fitz Roy and other lofty peaks tower above you.
- Explore the stunning lakeside town of Pucon for spectacular volcano views and activities for adventurers of all tastes
- Sample chocolate and craft beer in Bariloche to get a taste of how Argentine Patagonia differs from the Chilean side; enjoy the mountain scenery and embark on the iconic lakes crossing
- Pamper yourself with a stay at luxurious Explora, Tierra, Singular or Awasi properties
- Watch Orcas beach themselves on the Valdes Peninsula
- Travel the stunning Carretera Austral and see the hanging glacier at Queulat and marble caves at Puerto Rio Tranquilo
- Ride horses with a real-life gaucho
For more on Patagonia visit www.chile.travel/en/where-to-go/patagonia-and-antartica
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