Patagonia travel guide

Patagonia travel guide

2 minute summary

A Patagonia vacation stirs the heart of every red-blooded adventurer. The promise of calving glaciers, of penguin-peppered ice fields, of remote island expeditions and noble volcanoes is enough to lure them here, while the southern hospitality and cosy lodges, the grilled meats and full-bodied wines are enough to make them want to stay – for a very long time. And stay you should.

Multi-day hikes are one of the best ways to really appreciate the scale and power of this epic wilderness, with its whales and seals, giant flightless birds and well-hidden pumas. Spending time with the locals during your Patagonia vacation provides another perspective on this vast landscape; as you disconnect from city life and discover what it means to live at the end of the world.

What we rate & what we don't

Our guide to the best & worst of Patagonia


Unusual wildlife Hot food for a cold climate Unexpected cultures Aysén & Marble Cathedral

Unusual wildlife

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.

Hot food for a cold climate

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.

Unexpected cultures

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.

Aysén & Marble Cathedral

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.


Not your average cruise Hike at the end of the world Torres del Paine Calving glaciers

Not your average cruise

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.

Hike at the end of the world

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.

Torres del Paine

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.

Calving glaciers

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.


Seeing it all Patagonian cities Train at End of the World Cape Horn

Seeing it all

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.

Patagonian cities

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.

Train at End of the World

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.

Cape Horn

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.

Food, shopping & people

Travel like a local with our Patagonia travel guide

Eating & drinking

Patagonia offers the best of Argentinian and Chilean cuisine – including the famous asado – barbecued steak or ribs.
Coastal regions specialise in seafood, including king crab, abalone, octopus and clams.
Patagonian lamb lives on a diet of local herbs. Its rich flavour is enhanced by grilling it on an open fire for several hours.
Keep warm in your cabin with an excellent New World wine, or a cup of mate – strong, green tea sipped through a metal straw.
The rich and famous jostle to buy land here. Owners include Sylvester Stallone and the Benetton family – although controversy has risen over the loss of native Mapuche territory.

People & culture

The Patagonian patchwork of cultures is somewhat unexpected – there are Welsh-speaking settlers, a chocolate-making Swiss colony, the reserved, romantic gauchos and warm-hearted fishing communities scattered in stilted homes along the chilly Chilean coast. There are still some indigenous Mapuche communities, who speak Mapudungun, although their traditional customs have been eroded over time.
The name "Patagonia" may have come from a description of the original inhabitants as "patagones" – meaning "big feet".

Gifts & shopping

Tourism has revived many traditional crafts in the region, particularly handwoven textiles from sought-after guanaco wool (similar to alpaca) – which is finer than cashmere and warmer than wool.

Patagonia’s unusual berries have inspired a thriving jam industry – pick up a jar of the local preserve as an unusual gift.

Cowboy country = abundant, leather. You can find luxuriously soft belts, bags and boots.

Gateway towns stock all manner of outdoor clothing and equipment – but be aware that they are horrendously expensive, so don’t leave it to the last minute.

Fast facts

Did you know there are 50,000 Welsh Patagonians? Known as Y Wladfa, the colony began in 1865, mainly along the Argentinian coast. 5,000 of them are Welsh speakers.

How much does it cost?

Bottle of best Gran Reserva wine: £7

Slow-cooked lamb: £15

Plate of curanto in Chiloé: £5.50

Torres del Paine Refugio with breakfast: £60

Entry to Torres del Paine: £24
Photo credits: [Eating and drinking: Nils Rinaldi] [People and culture: Raul Urzua de la Sotta] [Gifts and shopping: Oleg Sidorenko] [How much does it cost: Rob & Dani] [Unusual wildlife: Christian Jimenez] [Hot food for a cold climate: Juan Pablo Olmo] [Unexpected cultures: Alexander Torrenegra] [Hiking in the far South: David] [Marble cathedral: Steffen Sauder] [Not your average cruise: Tanenhaus] [Hiking at the end of the world: Rick McCharles] [Torres del Paine: Miguel Vieira] [Calving glaciers: Tanenhaus] [Seeing it all: Evelyn Proimos] [Seeing it all: Evelyn Proimos] [Patagonian cities: Christopher Michel] [Train at the End of the World: Eugene Regis] [Cape Horn: Eugene Regis]
Written by Vicki Brown
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