If Patagonia has been on your bucket list forever, you're not alone. However, as we've already told you, the region is massive and exploring it all on a standard-length vacation is nearly impossible. Given the cost and time associated with traveling in Patagonia, it essentially comes down to a choice between Chile or Argentina. A variety of factors are worth considering, including how much time you have, the size of your budget, and your particular interests, both cultural and natural. It's certainly possible to work both sides of Patagonia into any itinerary, but you'll need to shell out for expensive flights in most instances. Plus, most of those will involve routing back through the two nations' capitals. With that in mind, we put the two sides of this fascinating place head to head to help you plan the trip of a lifetime.
Let’s make one thing clear right away: Argentine Patagonia is far larger than Chilean Patagonia. That said, it’s no surprise that the bulk of Patagonia’s big-ticket destinations are found in Argentina. Landscapes in Argentina range from Andean fjords to mountain lakes to the seemingly desolate plains that make up Argentina’s pampas. Despite being larger than Chilean Patagonia, the Argentine side is also a bit easier to navigate, as small airports service Argentina’s most prized Patagonian destinations, like Perito Moreno glacier, the Tierra del Fuego, Peninsula Valdes, and Bariloche. Chilean Patagonia — like Chile itself — is a long and narrow strip of land that’s almost entirely mountainous with some coastal plains. While there are a few airports within the Chile’s Patagonian region, travel is mainly handled over land and by water. That being said, Chile is home to some of Patagonia’s most popular sights, like its crown jewel: Torres del Paine National Park.
How much time do you have?
The most important question that you need to answer before you head this far south on the globe is how much time your limited vacation days will permit. It’s entirely possible to see many of the major sights in Argentine Patagonia in around 10 days, if you’re willing to shell out money for flights between destinations. Bariloche, El Calafate, and Ushuaia are all linked by direct and relatively short flights. You can add other destinations like Peninsula Valdes with direct flights, too. All easily link with Buenos Aires as well. Keep in mind that some routes are seasonal or only offered on select days of the week. Additionally, prices for most of these routes are definitely not a bargain.
In Chile, transit is a bit more slow-going. Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas are the only towns with sizable and reliably served airports in the region. Adding to that, drives from these two towns to the major Chilean sights are long. It’s five hours by road from Punta Arenas to Torres del Paine National Park, and an overwater (and overland) trek to the Tierra del Fuego. The Futaleufu River — a major whitewater rafting destination surrounded by pristine forests — is best accessed from Argentina, as the trip from Puerto Montt (in Chile) involves both long drives and a lengthy ferry ride.
That being said, for travelers who have more flexible schedules and more significant chunks of free time, wandering through Chile by car, bus, and/or boat is an experience you’re unlikely to ever forget.
What's your travel style?
Both sides of Patagonia offer nearly endless opportunities for outdoorsy types, as well as a wide range of lodging options and amenities for travelers with all tastes. As much of Chilean Patagonia is harder to access, it’s certainly the better option for travelers with more intrepid leanings. Additionally, many of the best sights in Chile will require a certain degree of enthusiasm for the outdoors. Torres del Paine — the most-visited national park in South America — is most famous for its W Trek, a four- to seven-day circuit that takes in stunning lakes and iconic mountain peaks. Refugios and campsites make up the bulk of the accommodations within the park, though there is a hotel at the starting point.
Argentina is a little more varied. To be clear, there are plenty of outdoor opportunities here as well — treks crisscross the Tierra del Fuego, and many depart from the city of Ushuaia. Additional hikes into the Andes are available from any of the major towns that sit along the mountain chain’s spine in Argentina as well. However, trips can be a bit more mannered in Argentina, as there are viable home bases from which to plot your journeys. Bariloche, which sits under Cerro Catedral, is a short drive from major skiing, while waterborne summer activities can be found just off the town’s lakeshore. El Calafate is only a one-hour drive from the famous Perito Moreno glacier. And in the Tierra del Fuego, the stunning national park of the same name takes only 15 to 20 minutes to reach by car from Ushuaia.
Which city appeals to you more — Buenos Aires or Santiago?
Reaching Patagonia requires a long haul for most travelers, so you’re likely going to need a stop on your way there or back — or both. With that in mind, it’s worth considering which country’s capital appeals to you more as a traveler. Buenos Aires, in Argentina, is one of the world’s most recognizable tourist destinations. It’s the birthplace of the tango, has stunningly preserved colonial architecture, a buzzing nightlife scene, and one of the world’s trendiest neighborhoods — Palermo. You can easily spend several days to a week in Buenos Aires and still not run out of things to do.
Santiago, in Chile, is a bit more low-key, and while it’s not exactly high on most international travel radars, that reputation has been changing in recent years. Like Buenos Aires, art plays a continually evolving role in the city’s cultural ecology. You’ll find everything from official museums to swish galleries to under-the-radar performance spaces and cultural centers here. The city also sits close to the Andes, and Cerro San Cristobal is a popular day trip for everyone visiting the city (and locals as well). Easy day trips are also an option from Santiago. Valparaiso — considered the academic heart of the country — has a bohemian vibe and deep cultural roots, and sits along Chile’s dramatic Pacific coast.
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