Make the most of your time
When it comes to planning a Patagonian vacation, it’s best to look to the Patagonians themselves, and just... slow... down
. Unless you’re planning to stay a month or more, pick a couple of regions and stay put. The area is more colossal than it looks – and your time is much better spent getting around on foot, horseback or boat than in a car or plane. The north and south are vastly different, so our highlights below should help you decide on your perfect Patagonia itinerary.
Here are three of our top Patagonia itineraries, incorporating our favourite Patagonian highlights. Click on the map points below for more information about each location.
The tangle of fjords, inlets, weather-beaten islands and slender channels rounding from Cape Horn around the tip of South America harbour immense glaciers, ice fields, playful penguins and the Darwin mountain range. Follow in the footsteps of fearless explorers with a boat cruise along the Australis route, including daily landings, icy treks and talks about the wild nature and geography of this inaccessible region.
You’ll wonder if you’re still in South America when you arrive in this postcard-pretty alpine town, built by the original German and Swiss inhabitants. Chocolate shops line the streets, so you can get your sugar fix before heading into the mountains for biking, hiking, or horseback rides. Keep an eye out for the mythical Nahuelito – a strange creature which the Mapuches believe inhabits the lake.
Redefine your image of a cruise with a boat ride down the Beagle Channel, taking in huge colonies of seals, as well as sea birds and penguins when they come here to breed and rear young. You’ll get a sense of how vast the “tip” of South America truly is, with a backdrop of ice-coated mountains and splintered islets. Commentaries delve deeper into the human and natural history of the region.
The inhabitants of windswept Chiloé still tell stories of mysterious ghost ships and seductive mermaids, and upon arriving at this splintered isle with its otherworldly fauna and aroma of wood smoke, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped into a scene from folklore. Life depends on the sea here – and the seafood and meat curanto stew, prepared in a hole in the ground, is a treat not to be missed.
This is the gateway to Los Glaciares National Park, which can be visited on a daytrip by bus or boat. Visit the nearby Glaciarum Museum to better understand these icy giants, or go hiking or cycling around the ice blue Lago Argentino. Alternatively, stay at a nearby ranch – where you can hang with the cowboys and ride horses. Over 40 species of migratory birds can be spotted in the region.
Remote lagoons, cracking miradors and glacier-top hikes seal El Chaltén’s reputation as a trekking Mecca, while those less keen on walking can enjoy horseback rides with gauchos and boat rides across Lago Viedma to a glacier. The famous Cerros Fitz Roy and Torre both soar over 3,000m, with beautiful, shard-like forms; well-marked trails round the base of each.
Chile’s answer to the Swiss Alps is chocolate-box beautiful, with slivers of lake between snow-tipped volcanoes and verdant valleys. The German settlers brought their beer and bakeries, but this is also the centre of native Mapuche culture, adding a whiff of magic and mystery to this idyllic region. Head out of the cities for outstanding outdoor pursuits, including kayaking, whitewater rafting, volcano hikes and hot springs.
Los Glaciares National Park
Over a third of this immense park is covered in ice, which slides down into more than 40 glaciers. The most famous is, of course, Perito Moreno, which towers up to 60m in a sheer wall of blue ice, 5km long. It is one of the world’s few advancing glaciers, and the loud creaking is constant. Full glacier cruises on Lake Argentino take in four glaciers – giving a true sense of the scale and importance of the park.
Presided over by the perfectly conical Volcán Villarica, Pucón is a one-stop-shop for adrenaline fiends and nature fans. Climb the 2,840m volcano, ski or snowboard in winter, ride horses out to Mapuche villages, raft the grade three rapids, fish for trout, trek with llamas… then soak your aching limbs in a natural hot spring, surrounded by the glorious alpine scenery.
Though somewhat lacking in charm, Puerto Natales is a necessary stop-off on your Patagonia itinerary if you’re heading into its most iconic park: Torres del Paine. It has places to pick up any last-minute trekking supplies - though don’t expect to find any bargains. A nearby attraction is the Cueva del Milodón – a 200m long cave in which which the remains of a gigantic, 12-foot sloth were discovered.
This frontier town is an important port on the Magellan Strait and an important hub for travelers on their way to Tierra del Fuego or a cruise. Punta Arenas sadly has little charm, so you’re best off getting out as soon as possible, after taking advantage of the duty free Zona Franca area and taking a peek at the nearby penguin colony and their babies at Otway Inlet from October to March.
Tierra del Fuego
The island at the end of the world, reaching Tierra del Fuego is a highlight for any traveler, though it’s not as harsh and uninviting as its reputation as the “Land of Fire” may suggest. Its marine climate tempers the cold, and the walking trails through the forests of its national park are easy-going and scenic. You can paddle inflatable canes on its lagoons and rivers, and look out for seabirds.
Torres del Paine National Park
Hiking here is a highlight of any Patagonia itinerary, with its backdrop of glaciers, snow-capped mountains and lakes, along with foxes, skunks, flamingos, condors and guanacos. A demanding trek/scramble takes you to the base of the immense granite towers that give park its name. You can also take boat rides past Grey Glacier, and camping expeditions give you chance to get deeper into the pristine terrain.
Trelew would be a rather unremarkable little town were it not for the fact that it is largely Welsh, and many of its inhabitants still speak Welsh. The Museo Histórico Regional Galés provides more information. Flights land here for onward travel to Peninsula Valdés, and dolphin and whale watching tours depart from the nearby port at Rawson.
Ushuaia is the world’s most southerly city, sandwiched between the Martial Mountains and the Beagle Channel. While the city itself offers few tourist attractions, it gives access to cruises as well as the Tierra del Fuego National Park. It’s worth visiting the Presidio – the former prison – one wing is now an art gallery; or try kayaking off the coast. Wildlife is abundant here – with birdlife, penguins, seals and orcas.
Valdés Peninsula and Puerto Madryn
This UNESCO World Heritage Site and its bays are Patagonia’s wildlife capital. Its steppe landscape hosts hardy guanacos, foxes and armadillos, but the real show is along the coast, where you can spot blubbery elephant seals, sea lions, nesting penguins, southern right whales and orcas. The truly brave can dive – the water is surprisingly clear. Puerto Madryn has pleasant beaches, and is the departure point for peninsula tours.
Patagonia overland – 21 days
(Santiago) ► Pucón ► Lake District ► Bariloche ► Los Glaciares National Park ► El Chaltén ► El Calafate ► Puerto Natales ► Torres del Paine NP ► Grey Glacier ► Punta Arenas ► Ushuaia ► Beagle Channel ► Tierra del Fuego ►
Patagonia Highlights – 9 days
Los Glaciares National Park ► El Chaltén ► Mount Fitz Roy ► El Calafate ► Torres del Paine NP ► Puerto Natales ►
Patagonian Wildlife – 17 days
(Buenos Aires) ► Valdés Peninsula ► Trelew ► El Calafate ► Los Glaciares National Park ► Torres del Paine NP ► Ushuaia ► Tierra del Fuego NP ► Beagle Channel ►
Patagonia travel times
The following times give you a rough idea of the driving times between the main attractions on your Patagonia itinerary.
- Calafate – Torres del Paine National Park: 3 hours 30 mins by car
- Calafate – Puerto Natales: 6 hours by car
- Puerto Natales – Punta Arenas: 3 hours by car
- Puerto Madryn – Bariloche: 13 hours 30 mins by car