Patagonia Travel Guide
After three trips, I can give some solid advice for others wanting to travel to this area for the first time, especially for those who want to see Torres del Paine National Park in Chile and Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina.
Just say the word Patagonia and it conjures up images of majestic mountain peaks, gigantic glaciers and enormous landscapes. But ask most people where Patagonia is and few know. Some even respond – isn’t it a country?
Patagonia – Where is it?
It’s a vast region of over a million square kilometers. To give perspective, it would take two Californias to equal one Patagonia.
While most of the region is dominated by steppe plains, the Andes Mountain range also stretches its southern end into Patagonia.
It is here on the southern end of the Andes Mountain range where the most famous parts of Patagonia are:
- Torres del Paine National Park in Chile
- Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina
When is the best time to visit Patagonia?
If your goal is to see the glaciers or the national parks they are open year around. There is so much wind that snow rarely accumulates to deep depths — even in the winter. The strongest winds are during the summer season. And we are talking strong winds of up to 120 kilometers per hour (74 mph). The strong winds can sometimes be an advantage as they can help clear the mountain peaks of clouds.
There’s no perfect season. Summer (December through March) has the highest number of visitors and also the best chance for warmer weather and clearer days. But don’t be surprised if you get blanketed out by clouds on your trip. It’s happened to me on at least a portion of all three of my trips, and I visited at or close to the peak times for good weather.
Some people also consider Bariloche to be part of Patagonia. This is an area most famous for its ski areas & lakes. If you want to go for skiing/snowboarding, the best time is July to September.
If you are hoping to see Orcas, go in late February to late April.
Los Glacieres National Park (Argentina)
There are two main reasons visitors come to this park:
#1 Perito Moreno Glacier
#2 The famous peaks of Mount Fitz Roy & Cerro Torre in El Chalten
The main base for visiting Los Glaciares National Park is the town of El Calafate, Argentina. You can fly in from connecting flights through Buenos Aires (Argentina) as well as Santiago, Chile. From El Calafate, you can drive north about 75 km and arrive in approximately 80 minutes to Perito Moreno Glacier. The fantastic trekking town of El Chalten is about a 2.5 hour drive from El Calafate.
El Chalten, Argentina – an Amazing Town for Hikers
If El Chalten had high speed internet and better weather, I would probably live there. I love to hike, and it boasts a half-dozen trails that start right from the town itself.
For mountain climbers, it holds two of the most difficult peaks in the world to summit – beautiful peaks Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre.
Speaking of Cerro Torre, it’s a mountain I’ve never been able to get a nice photograph of. In each of my three trips, the peak was hidden behind clouds. And you can’t photograph what you can’t see. Very frustrating! So again I’m mentioning it here – if you go to Patagonia with the idea of seeing all the famous mountain peaks in just a few days, you might want to prepare yourself for disappointment. You might get lucky, but the norm is clouds.
When you arrive to El Chalten there is a visitor center at the start of town. There you can get local info on trails and campsites.
One of the cool things about hiking and camping in the area is you do not need any kind of reservation or permit. You just go. The downside is you might not get your favorite campsite if you don’t arrive early, especially during the high season (December to February).
You won’t see Guanacos around El Chalten or on the trails. If you are hoping for that, go to Torres del Paine in Chile.
The internet barely functions in El Chalten. It’s better in El Calafate but that puts you 2-3 hours away by car. When weather was bad on my trips, I kept myself in El Calafate. And when I thought there was a chance for good weather, I stuck it out in El Chalten waiting for the perfect moments. Patagonia requires patience and longer itineraries. Or luck!
Perito Moreno Glacier:
Perito Moreno is the most famous glacier in South America and maybe the world. It’s one of the very few glaciers that is still growing in size. You can go there by car or bus. Most people go by one of the many tour buses leaving from El Calafate. You can also get an up-close view of the glaciers crashing into the water by boat tour. Many people go to Patagonia just to see this beautiful glacier. For more info see this: http://www.alongdustyroads.com/posts/2015/11/29/perito-moreno-transport-entry-costs-bus-el-calafate
Also sticking to our theme of clouds in Patagonia, Perito Moreno is normally clouded over but in this case it’s a good thing! The cloud cover makes the amazing colors of the lake and glacier pop out. On sunny days, the colors are much more bland. So plan to go Perito Moreno when the weather is bad.
Torres del Paine National Park (Chile)
An amazing place for hikers and photographers. You can get to the park from Puerto Natales, Chile in two hours by car. The advantage a car gives is you can pick which spots you want to stop for photos. Most visitors go by one of the many tour buses leaving each morning from Puerto Natales.
Day trips on a perfect day might give the casual visitors enough of the park. But there’s so many great things to see that you could easily spend a week or more.
Torres del Paine is arguably the best place in the world to see Guanacos in the wild. And with the abundance of Guanacos, it is also naturally one of best places in South America to see Pumas. The Pumas of Torres del Paine are known for being the biggest in the world. But seeing a Puma is very rare! I came across their hairs and scat on hikes but never got the chance to see one.
If you like to hike this is easily one of the top ten places in the world to do it. The “W” trail is a multi-day trail usually done in 5 days (100 km). More info here: http://www.back-packer.org/trekking-guide-how-to-hike-the-w-in-torres-del-paine-patagonia/
You can also stay in the park itself and elect to do small trails rather than an overnight. But as a warning, the hotels inside the park are not cheap. And they fill up fast during the high season.
There is internet available at some of park hotels but expect speeds that will barely open emails. Do all of your researching before you arrive to the park as you’ll be very frustrated if you hope to use the internet while in the park.
The most famous part of the park are the three towers themselves for which the park is named: Torres del Paine (Paine Towers in English)
There are some okay views of the Torres that don’t require any trails. But the absolute best way is to view them from the official viewpoint that requires a hike up to get to. The best time to see the “torres” are early morning at sunrise. We started our hike at 2:30 a.m. to arrive before sunrise. The image here shows the towers on a clear day just before sunrise. I think sunrise was around 5:30 a.m. So we booked it up 3500′ or 1000 meters in less than 3 hours!
You can see some of the most amazing blue colored icebergs floating at Lago Grey (Grey Lake). Kayaking is a popular way to get an up-close look. A boat tour operates during the high season that takes visitors near the icebergs, and they also offer day trips to Lago Glacier.
There are even wild horses that roam the park. Here is some great information about the horses: https://www.cascada.travel/en/News/Wild-Horses-Patagonia-Interview-Victor-Moraga
The main base for visiting Torres del Paine National Park is Puerto Natales, Chile. It’s about a two-hour drive to the park from Puerto Natales. Most visitors go by bus and do an all day tour. A rental car gives you the freedom to pick your favorite spots on your own schedule. Again, I’d recommend staying in the park for at least a few days. And keep in mind if bad weather rolls through, as it often does, you might get a stretch of clouds hiding the parks mountains for your whole trip. Patagonia is a love/hate relationship!
How to get between the parks in Patagonia
You can get from El Calafate, Argentina to Puerto Natales, Chile by bus. The trip will be around 4 hours.
Or you you can drive yourself in about 3 hours. You’ll need to cross the border and show identification as well as the legal papers for your rental car. The drive is a bit boring but occasionally you might see Guanacos, Flamingos or other wildlife so keep a close eye on your surroundings. Also keep in mind there are few places to stop for gas. And sometimes the gas stations themselves are without gas for stretch of days. Start with a full tank!
I found that rental cars in Chile are slightly cheaper than renting one from Argentina.
El Calafate versus Puerto Natales:
These are the base towns for exploring the two main parks in Patagonia. If you plan to visit both parks, it’s likely you’ll base at least part of your trip in each town. But if you are planning to visit only one town, my own experience is that El Calafate offers a little more than Puerto Natales. My reasons for that are the food is a little better, the shopping is a little better, and the vibe is a little better. I’m not trying to make any enemies here and some people might prefer Puerto Natales! 🙂
Where to Start?
To get to Patagonia you’ll most likely connect through either Santiago (capital of Chile) or Buenos Aires (capital of Argentina). Either city makes a fun stop for a few days. From either spot you can fly into El Calafate, Argentina. Alternatively, you could fly to Punta Arenas and then drive or bus up to Puerto Natales, Chile. I personally think El Calafate is a lot more fun, and you save yourself the drive from Punta Arenas. But there’s a lot of variables. If you are coming from North America and don’t want to see Buenos Aires, then Santiago is going to be the best connecting city. From there you can easily connect to Punta Arenas and then drive or bus up to Puerto Natales. I’ve always gone to Patagonia from Brazil and hence Buenos Aires was more convenient. Also, having spent enough time in both cities, I’ll give Buenos Aires a slight edge for culture. Both cities make a worthwhile stop if you have the time.
How to see Orca Whales in Patagonia:
Ever see Orcas snatching seals off a beach? Yes Patagonia is where it happens. The area where you can see this, Valdez Peninsula, is nowhere near the parks I was interested in seeing. Patagonia is huge! And the logistics of seeing the Orcas never worked out. But I hope to do it someday. I do know the best time to go is between end of February till end of April. More info here: http://eco-lodge-en.blogspot.com.br/p/orca-season-in-punta-norte-peinsula.html
Ushuaia: The End of the World
Many people go to Patagonia to get to the furthest reaches of South America. For that, Ushuaia is the unofficial capital dubbed famously as “The End of the World.” It’s an interesting area that many people go to. For more info: https://www.outsideonline.com/1857106/ushuaia-end-world
Bariloche – is it really Patagonia?
I’m not even sure. Some say it is. Whether it is or not, I can only say I have never been to Bariloche. But I’m not discounting it. There’s mountains & lakes and it looks beautiful. Not beautiful like the southern part of Patagonia, but still ok. If you want to ski/snowboard, it’s the place to go. If you want to hike or see beautiful landscapes, the national parks in Southern Patagonia are much better.
After 3 Trips Would I go Back to Patagonia?
I never did get a great photo of Cerro Torre and with it being one of the most beautiful mountain peaks in the world, it’s a great desire of mine to get that photo.
Plus I’d love the chance to see the Orcas in Valdez.
It’s never easy to visit Patagonia. It requires more money and more time than many places you could visit. The weather can be terrible and often requires longer trips and patience to get the right weather. The hotels, food and everything else is only ok at best — especially compared to other places you could visit. If you go to Patagonia, it’s to see nature. Few places in the world can match the beauty of this area. And yes I would definitely make another trip and hope to soon!