South American wildlife fans obsess over the Amazon – but the curious creatures that inhabit the fragmented land of Patagonia are well worth looking out for. Lucky mountain trekkers may glimpse elusive pumas or condors, while the Valdés Peninsula has more abundant inhabitants – with whales, penguins and elephant seals. Keep an eye out for furry guanacos and giant, ostrich-like rheas, too.
You don’t voyage all the way on vacation to Patagonia for its restaurants – but after an epic day hiking, you’ll be glad of a hearty meal. And what a meal it is. Argentina is of course renowned for its barbecued meat, and you’ll have worked up enough of an appetite to truly enjoy it. Chile’s cuisine is less revered – but in the south, the seafood is abundant, especially the stews of Chiloé, cooked in the earth.
Patagonia’s “tribes” are not the exotic clichés of the Amazon, but its cultures are just as fascinating and far more unexpected. Swiss-German colonies run chocolate factories and microbreweries in picturesque, Alpine-style towns, while a hack with a gaucho (cowboy) is a peek into another way of life. For the truly unusual, meet the Welsh settlers of the Argentinian coast.
Chile’s most sparsely populated region is a crush of islands, fjords, glaciers, ice fields and South America’s second largest lake – which contains the phenomenal “Marble Cathedral” – swirling, natural caves into which you can kayak. Queulat National Park protects the “Enchanted Forest” – a myth-ridden cold climate “rainforest” with glacial waterfalls and – apparently – fairies. It’s an incredible spot for rafting and hiking – but shhh! – no one else seems to know.
Put aside your clichéd cruise concepts while on your Patagonia vacation. Boat tours here are expedition-style voyages, allowing you to reach areas that would otherwise be out of bounds: ice fields, glaciers and remote islands, with regular ventures onto land to delve further into this savage landscape. Travel around Cape Horn or up the Beagle Channel, and watch Antarctic wildlife scenes along the way.
The best way to appreciate Patagonia’s size and breathtaking beauty is on foot. The region is well set up for hikers, with trailheads starting just outside the towns, well-marked paths and an abundance of expert local guides to share the natural and human history. Treks can last a couple of hours or a couple of weeks – no matter how long you go for, you’ll always feel like you could walk for longer.
Patagonia’s most iconic backdrop is the jewel in its crown. No matter how many photos you’ve poured over, the immense, granite towers are stunning in real life. The classic “W” circuit takes you up to the base of the towers, past the bright turquoise Nordenskjöld Lake and into the gorgeous French Valley, with well-equipped refugios along the way – or campsites for the truly rugged.
The ultimate experience during any Patagonia vacation is to witness a glacier “calving” – when a colossal chunk of ice crashes from its face into the lake below. Perito Moreno calves just once every few years – but you may get lucky at some of the lesser known glaciers, whose constant creaking and groaning build anticipation up to unbearable levels.
Patagonia spans an absolutely vast region, from mountains and forests to glaciers and ice fields – if you speed through it, you’ll end up seeing nothing. The beauty of this region is its slow pace and disconnection from fast city life; so learn from the locals, pick an area or two and spend several days hiking through a single national park. Then you really will have discovered Patagonia.
Larger towns such as Puerto Montt, Punta Arenas and Ushuaia are included in itineraries to break up journeys and sometimes reduce costs – but as port cities, they have little to add to your Patagonia vacation. If you’re flying in, try and see if you can get a midday flight so that you can travel straight out to the parks and small villages – and wake up straight in the wilderness the next morning.
The world’s southernmost train steams its way from the “End of the World” station into Tierra del Fuego National Park, but stops a long way short of the park’s main attractions. You’ll need a car, therefore, to get to the station from Ushuaia, and into the park at the other end, making the 40-minute journey seem rather overpriced and gimmicky – especially as the park entrance fee is not included.
The Cape’s almost mythical status as the southern tip of the great continent, the last stop before Antarctica and the defeater of ships for centuries, has moved it dangerously into bucket-list territory. You can disembark here during Austral cruises – but it’s just one small part of a multi-day expedition, so you need to get more involved in your voyage than just ticking a box.