To call Patagonia a place of extremes is a cliche that's also an epic understatement. This wind-swept and wild region spans Argentina and Chile -- from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans -- and includes everything from barren plains to wildlife-packed coastal regions to some of the world's tallest mountains. Part of the reason that Patagonia has been enchanting travelers for so long is because, for centuries, it was inhospitable and nearly inaccessible. Despite the inevitable encroachment of technology and the ease of modern-day travel, there's still something incomparably magical about a trip here. However, since it's such a huge region, planning your travels here can require a bit of savvy and advice. There's a lot to see in Patagonia, so we've broken down some of the most famous sights and destinations that you shouldn't miss. From charming lakeside towns to jagged mountains peaks and massive colonies of penguins, there's something in Patagonia for every type of traveler.
Torres del Paine National Park, in Chilean Patagonia, is one of the world’s most stunning landscapes — and that’s saying something, since beauty exists everywhere in Patagonia. This is one of the most famous national parks on the planet, and one of Chile’s most popular destinations. That’s mostly due to the W Trek, which forms a ring around the stunning natural scenery that makes up the heart of the park. Travelers can complete the journey in four to seven days, depending on the number of side treks they undertake, but either way, the views are breathtaking. There’s wildlife galore, scenic high-mountain lakes, wildflower glades all around, and lodging that ranges from campsites to rustic refugios. There’s even a hotel at the starting/ending point. However, you’ll need reservations for all of these, and keep in mind that this is one of the most visited parks in all of Latin America. As such, you’ll need to plan your trip well in advance. The closest airport is in Punta Arenas, and it’s about a five-hour drive to the park. Additionally, some trails and lodging options are subject to closures, so check ahead. Weather in this region is unpredictable, though the W circuit is generally open year-round. Be prepared for all seasons, though, even if you’re visiting during Chile’s summer months.
While the rest of the world’s glaciers, ice caps, and snowpacks are melting at record paces due to climate change, Perito Moreno somehow manages to grow. The visually striking glacier is part of Los Glaciares National Park, in Argentina, and its turquoise-white hue and sheer size have made it one of the most-visited attractions in the entire country. Visits here can be particularly dramatic, especially when the glacier calves, as massive chunks of ice plummet into the water below. Viewing platforms are constructed along Lake Argentina, allowing visitors to get relatively close to the ever-growing behemoth. In addition, 45-minute lake cruises that cut even closer to the glacier are a popular option, and treks right across the ice can be booked. Regardless, no matter which way you approach the towering 250-foot-high slab of ice, it’s hard not to be impressed. Most travelers make their way here from El Calafate, the town that’s home to the closest airport. It’s about 90 minutes away by car.
Looking for a picture-perfect town that will make your friends envious of your Patagonian adventures? Then make a beeline for Bariloche, in the northern reaches of Argentina’s Andean Patagonia. This is a year-round outdoor-lovers haven, with everything from excellent skiing to plenty of hiking and extreme sports on offer. Bariloche has a definite Alps-by-way-of-the-Andes vibe, and its lakeside setting is beautiful. When you add the stunning peaks that ring the town — many of which soar above 7,000 feet — there’s a lot to see and do in the region. The most famous peak is Cerro Catedral, which is one of South America’s largest ski resorts. Bariloche itself sits within Nahuel Huapi National Park, putting all sorts of treks and trails right at your doorstep while staying here. As an added bonus, the region is also known for its chocolate, in case you need a post-hike pick-me-up.
Putting aside the Tierra del Fuego National Park for a moment — which sits just west of Ushuaia — there are plenty of other things to see and do in and around this little city. Depending on who you ask, Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world (though the Chilean villages across the channel are inhabited, they aren’t technically cities). It also serves as a major jumping-off point for exploring some of the world’s most historically inhospitable (and historically significant) regions. The Beagle Channel, which runs alongside Ushuaia, is named after Charles Darwin’s ship, which made its way through the region en route from Europe to the Galapagos Islands. These days, cruises to Antarctica depart from here. Additionally, you can opt for day trips to view Magellanic penguin and sea lion colonies along the Beagle Channel, or take a tour of Estancia Harberton, one of the oldest original ranches in the region. The town itself is pleasant for a few days, with an alpine vibe plus plenty of small cafes, restaurants, and shops. Even so, it’s the great outdoors and stunning scenery that make Ushuaia a must-visit in Patagonia.
While Ushuaia has its charms, the national park that sits next to it might be reason enough to come here. With a name like Tierra del Fuego, which translates to Land of Fire, mystic connotations might be expected. And they’re delivered upon if you spend any time in this fascinating national park. Wild horses hide amid impossibly green foliage while vicious wind makes eerie noises in the sharp mountain peaks that tower overhead. Many people visit the park on day trips from Ushuaia, and hikes range from easy to strenuous. Lakes, waterfalls, and stunning coastal scenery abound, but plan ahead as many treks require a full day. Thankfully, during high season (from late December through February), daylight hours are improbably long and the sun often sets after 11 p.m. Even so, like much of Patagonia, you should prepare for all seasons in one day on any hikes, as the weather can turn on a dime.
While Puerto Madryn and Peninsula Valdes aren’t the mountain- and snow-packed wonderlands that many visitors to Patagonia may expect, natural wonders of an entirely different stripe greet those willing to stop here on their way farther south. This is essentially ground zero for those interested in marine life, and serves as a natural habitat for a dizzying array of aquatic species. In fact, the wildlife here has even merited the region a designation as a UNESCO World Heritage area. Sea lions, elephant seals, and endangered southern right whales all call the waters home, as do pods of orcas. According to UNESCO, up to 1,500 southern right whales are found in the waters here in any given breeding season. This is to say nothing of the shorebirds that flock to the peninsula during different times of the year. Head this way in the winter and early spring for the highest chance of seeing the right whales. And with so many in a small area, you’re likely to get a perfect snapshot of these magnificent creatures. Just keep in mind that the region can host up to 300,000 tourists during peak times, so you’ll want to book your lodging in advance. Two-hour flights run to this part of Argentina from Buenos Aires, though are only offered on certain days of the week.
If you’re looking for some high-octane warm-weather action in Patagonia, then head to the Futaleufu River in Chilean Patagonia. But gird yourself, as this is no slow-paced stream, and getting here isn’t easy. Instead, the river is one of the mightiest and best whitewater rafting destinations in the entire world. Rapids range from Class II to V, and all sorts of rafting expeditions are available for a wide array of skill sets. There are over 120 miles of waterways to choose from, and the surrounding forests are blissfully undeveloped — multi-day rafting trips with stops at campsites are, in fact, the name of the game around here. You can access the region from Esquel in Argentina (which is reachable by flights from Buenos Aires) or from Puerto Montt in Chile, though a trip from the latter will involve an incredibly long ferry and overland journey of up to 12 hours. In any case, this is remote territory, but the reward for making your way here is pristine nature at its finest.
While the Tierra del Fuego feels like the end of the world, for travelers who really want to go to extremes, Cape Horn is the answer. Don’t come here expecting quaint towns, artisanal cafes, and creature comforts. Cape Horn is decidedly wild and undeveloped. The land mass — a rocky sweep of islands cut here and there by stormy seas — has served as the aquatic graveyard for more than one fleet of intrepid explorers in the olden days. Now, it’s far more accessible, but still requires some planning to reach. Several major Antarctica cruises swing past the Cape Horn islands during their itineraries, and smaller cruise boats make shorter excursions directly to the area. Keep in mind that treacherous sea conditions and high winds are common, meaning that smaller cruises, like Australis, won’t always be able to ferry its guests onshore. Once there, though, colonies of Magellanic penguins and elephant seals can be found in relative abundance. This only-in-Patagonia experience is well worth the effort (and expense). Australis cruises depart from Punta Arenas, in Chile, for short multi-day excursions that include Cape Horn.
You’ll Also Like:
- Places Where Climate Change is Already Impacting Your Travels
- 7 Incredible Hot Springs in South America
- Where to Go in South America: A Cheat Sheet to the Continent’s Territories and Countries