Travelers who venture to Patagonia have to be more mindful of seasonal changes than most visitors to South America. The region encompasses about one-quarter Chile and three-quarters Argentina, and is home to everything from barren plains to coastal regions to some of the world’s tallest mountains. In the winter (June and July), the average temperature drops down to 32 degrees Fahrenheit and many of the rugged mountain passes that typically draw hikers are covered in snow. In the summer (December to February), temps rise as high as 72 degrees, but the crowds are also at their largest and skiers won’t find the Andean slopes at their peak. The best time of year to visit Patagonia vary depending on what you want to see and do. Here are the optimal things to check out based on the season you choose to visit in.
At the height of winter, visitors will only get about eight hours of sunlight. However, those who appreciate the feeling of braving a wild frontier should consider a visit during this season, which extends from July to September. Torres del Paine National Park, in the southern tip of Chile, is a big attraction all year round. During the winter, the winds die down, the skies clear up, and the mountains and glaciers are primed for panoramic pictures. Granted, the weather can be temperamental, as it is all year, and the park’s services are limited, but on the right day, a hike on Glacier Grey or through Pingo Valley will feel like a heroic coup. Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park boasts the largest ice cap outside of Greenland and Antarctica.
To get a break from the cold, stop by the El Calafate Historical Interpretation Center, which is filled with towering dinosaur fossils and stories of indigenous civilizations that lived in the area when Magellan arrived in 1520. On the east coast of Argentina, Puerto Madryn offers excellent views of the southern right whales that swim to the area to breed from June to December. In the winter, they get so close to the coast of Golfo Nuevo and Golfo San Jose that going out on a sightseeing boat isn’t necessary.
Hardcore skiers have several options for world-class slopes with views of granite peaks and glaciers. Argentina’s Cerro Catedral is a great mountain option for snowboarders and freestyle skiers (One of its most impressive runs is five miles long.) While Cerro Catedral is arguably Argentine Patagonia’s most popular ski destination, La Hoya’s remote location in the northwest of the Chubut Province offers less crowded slopes and plenty of runs for expert and intermediate shredders. If you’re considering renting a car during this season, keep in mind that most of the highways are passable, but some areas on the Chilean part of the Tierra del Fuego islands are notoriously difficult for driving. It’s wise to check conditions for any major road trip.
Depending on the month, spring in Patagonia can bring 12 to 17 daylight hours. Many consider this season, which extends from September to December, to be the best time to visit the region. The ice and snow dissipate, making mountain trails passable again. Yes, there will still be a little chill in the air, particularly at night. Temperatures can range from 57 degrees in the day down to 36 degrees at night. Plus, popular spots like Cerro Fitz Roy, which lies on the Argentinian/Chilean border, become less crowded, particularly in early spring. The lack of visitors also makes it easier to spot hard-to-find animals, such as the huemul deer in places like Bernardo O’Higgins National Park, Chile’s largest reserve.
For skiers, springtime provides enough powder on the slopes to get in some primo runs. Adventurers who thrive on a combination of fire and ice can head to Nevados de Chillan, which has piste trails surrounded by three volcanoes. The curves of the trails are shaped by the area’s lava flow, and the plentiful snowfall averages 400 inches annually.
In September, Chileans celebrate their independence during Fiestas Patrias, which can last from two days to a week in some parts of the country. Party vittles include plenty of barbecue and empanadas packed with beef, hardboiled egg, and olives. Wash it all back with chicha, a sweet wine made from grapes or apples. Springtime in Patagonia is also easier on the wallet; hotels, flights, and tours all have lower price tags.
There’s a reason why summer is the season that brings crowds to Patagonia. The balmy temperatures range from 71 degrees in the day to 41 degrees at night. Similar to spring, the daylight lasts from 13 to 16 hours, changing slightly from the month to month. Yes, this is the high season, but keep in mind that Patagonia is over 400,000 square miles, so it won’t exactly feel like you’re waiting in a long line at Disneyland. Some of the wildlife that’s more active in the warmer months might be scared away by the large crowds, so travelers interested in seeing a puma may want to consider visiting in the spring or fall. For lovers of flora, flowers and forests are bursting during this time.
Many climbers make El Chalten in Argentina’s Santa Cruz province the starting point for hikes in Los Glaciares National Park and the Cerro Torre mountain. A laid-back atmosphere permeates the town, and plenty of accommodations for camping are available. On the east coast, Puerto Madryn is a major hub for scuba diving. Much farther south in Puerto Natales, kayakers can explore the majestic fjords that bewildered early European explorers. The first few months of the year are also the best for sailing through the Strait of Magellan and catching a close-up view of penguins on Magdalena Island.
The Semanas Musicales de Frutillar, which takes places in February, is one of the biggest music events in Chile, with concerts featuring classical music, chamber music, and big band. Not surprisingly, travel and accommodation prices are at their highest during this time of year.
Vacationers who want to witness Patagonia’s vibrant display of yellow, red, and orange should visit in the fall. Temperatures get colder from March to June (the average ranges between 64 and 36 degrees Fahrenheit). Daylight dwindles from about 11 hours in March to eight hours in June. Hiking in Torres del Paine National Park is particularly popular in the fall, thanks to its panoramic views of grasslands, glaciers, and mountains. You might even spot animals like guanacos (relatives of camels).
Autumn is also an excellent time for driving through the Road of the Seven Lakes. The 150-mile round-trip route usually begins in Bariloche or San Martin de los Andes. In addition to lakes, the day-long ride winds past forests and a waterfall. Those who start from Bariloche will want take in the town’s alpine-style architecture, much of which was built in the early 20th century to make the destination resemble a European ski village. Some refer to it as “Little Switzerland,” and like the European ski getaway, Bariloche has plenty of top-notch chocolate shops.
As for events in Chile, on the first Sunday after Easter, riders on horseback gather to bring communion to the sick. The horsemen wear elaborate costumes and escort the priest in the parade.
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