Patagonia Visitors Guide
How does this sound to you?...beautiful turquoise-blue lagoons set underneath sharp pillars of granite that you can only reach by mesmerizing hiking trails; colonies of chitter-chattering King and Magellanic penguins; mystical boat journeys that slowly take you through natural and untamed waters; and glaciers that rise higher than an apartment building that break the smaller glaciers below into the icy waters. If all of these incredible sights sound amazing, then Patagonia awaits you.
Patagonia has become internationally famous in recent years as a must-see “beyond-the-beaten path” travel location that is making it onto many-a-bucket list. Below we explain why that has come to be so.
Where is Patagonia?
The Patagonians have a saying; we live at the “end of the world”. While not exactly the end of the world, Patagonia is a remotely populated region on the southernmost tip of South America that encompasses two countries, Chile and Argentina, while divided by the Andes Mountains. It is an extremely isolated but vast area – 260, 000 square miles of terrain - with just under 2 million people living there. On the Chilean side you will find deep, unreachable glacial fjords and rainforests that cover the land in beautiful greens and blues, and on the Argentinean side, expansive golden grasslands (called pampas) and arid tundras. And in the middle, massive glaciers that crash through the knotted pinnacles of the Andes.
Why Travel To Patagonia
Patagonia is considered one of the last great wildernesses of the world with landscapes so remote and dramatic, it is almost on a Himalayan scale of wonder. It is truly untouched and pristine. The ultimate beauty of visiting the region is that there is almost nothing you can’t see or do. You can literally choose your own adventure – from hiking, skiing and biking to whitewater rafting and kayaking. Or horseback riding, scuba diving and windsurfing – it’s truly a magical place for those seeking adventure.
If you are a hiker, Patagonia is a dream destination as there are so many options for exploration on foot. For those day hikers, amazing sunrise views of Mount Fitz Roy can be viewed from the Mirador de los Condores trail (0.9 miles) in the town of El Chaltén, as well as the Lakes District from Cerro Lopez (2.7 miles). For the tougher long-distance hikers, there is the “hike of all hikes” going through Torres de Paine, a one-way 31 mile “W” route, or the grueling Huemel Circuit.– a 37.7 mile hike - which meanders through the core of Los Glaciares National Park.
However Patagonia is not only hiking trails. One can choose to make their way through by biking along the Carretera Austral (771 miles) via the wildernesses of Tierra del Fuego (both in Chile), or down Ruta 40 (3,227 miles) in Argentina. Though the roads are primitive and unpaved, they offer scenery that few ever get to witness. If budget is an issue, then hitchhiking can be the way to go. It is cost effective and an excellent way to meet the locals.
Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire), the southern finale, is for those adventurers who want to go the extra…hundreds of miles. You will come across incredible wildlife; like penguins and sea lions while kayaking through the Beagle Channel, you can ski down the slopes of the southernmost ski resort in the world, Cerro Castor, or hike to catch sight of the emerald waters and snow-clad landscape of Laguna Esmeralda (6 miles).
Then there is a trip to the coastal side of Patagonia to view the protected nature reserve along the Valdes Peninsula in Argentina, a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is the best place to see the endangered southern white right whale, as well orcas, sea lions, and elephant seals. And if you visit Punta Tomba, you will witness the largest population of Magellanic penguins in the world.
Planning is Everything
Before heading into Patagonia, there are some things to take note of. The first thing to never forget is that Patagonia is massive. It compares to the size of 3 Germanys and 2 Spains– or the entire west coast of the United States. Much of the territory is lacking civilization so it is quite hard to get around and very time consuming. You can’t just get in a car and drive on big, multi-lane highways to get places, and though you can take domestic flights within each country, flying between Chilean and Argentinean Patagonian airports is not possible. Therefore bus travel is the only option for longer distances, which is slow. That being said, unless you have months of travel time available, you will have to choose an area of Patagonia to focus on. There is a local saying which sums it all up: “he who rushes in Patagonia, loses time”.
Also, be sure to book in advance. The number one attraction is the Torres del Paine National Park on the Chilean side of Patagonia because of the striking surroundings and the host of hiking trails, like the W-trek (5 days) and the O-circuit (8 days). If your goal is to hike through the park, whether you plan to stay in lodges or camp out, it is a must to reserve your stay in advance. You will not be allowed to begin a hike on any trail if there is nothing booked. During the high season, everything gets booked very early so “early bird gets the worm”.
As for when to visit Patagonia, one definitely wants to go when it’s warmer – from late November to March. Don’t forget that the seasons are reversed in the southern hemisphere. Our winter is their summer. Even if you wanted to get a head start, most tour operators and hostels are not open, and the trails are closed. There are the shoulder months of October to April/May that offer better prices and fewer tourists but again not everything will be accessible.
It might be a cliché but the weather in Patagonia can be unpredictable. You can literally experience all 4 seasons in one day, so packing layers is a must. Then there is the sun. Since the ozone layer is somewhat thinner over Patagonia, sunscreen with an extra high UV index, wearing clothes with UV-protective material, and a hat are a must.