Patagonia is one of the wonders of the world that you don’t want to miss; a region in South America at the most southern tip of the world before reaching Antarctica. Southern Patagonia, stretching across Chile and Argentina, has long lured travelers to what is very nearly the end of the world.
There are many options and routes that you can choose from when planning your trip depending on where you’re starting and how much time you have.
Torres del Paine National Park in Chile and Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park are the region’s top highlights. For a complete journey through Patagonia, combine visits to both halves of the region; crossing the border from Argentina over to Chile.
There is a fair amount of research you must do in order to make your experience run smoothly, but I’ve provided some very useful tips and tricks that will be sure to make your planning a heck of a lot easier!
When To Go
The first thing you need to plan around is what time of year you’re looking to go. The weather in Patagonia can be extremely temperamental at any time of the year, but will be especially unpleasant during the winter months of the southern hemisphere; June – August being the coldest months.
The best time to visit Patagonia is during the spring and summer months when the weather is warmer, drier, and more predictable than the cooler months.
A lot of people enjoy hiking in the snow, but I found the summer to be a very enjoyable time to hike and camp. This also means less “warm” gear that you’ll have to lug with you if you go during the summer months, i.e. December – March.
Planning Your Route Through Patagonia
The first thing you need to figure out is how much time you have, and what hikes/places you want to see in order to create your itinerary.
If you don’t know where to begin, there are a few major destinations in Patagonia – starting in Bariloche; the furthest north part of Argentinian Patagonia and the closest city to Mendoza and Buenos Aires; both of which have international airports.
LATAM and Sky Airlines are the two major low-cost airlines flying to Southern Patagonia, with flights ranging from $50-$130 depending on the distance and the season; December – March being more expensive.
I spent two weeks in Buenos Aires before beginning my journey through Patagonia, wandering around the city, exploring the Argentinian capital and preparing for the upcoming weeks of adventures.
Bariloche, on the banks of the immense Nahuel Huapi lake, is a major town, and a base for trekking and mountain biking. Bariloche offers everything from short walks to waterfalls to one-day hikes to excruciating multi-day treks.
While Bariloche is famous for the lake in the summer, it is also famous for winter sports. Every July – September tourists travel here from both hemispheres looking for their “endless winter”. At any time of year, this laid-back mountain town is the perfect start to your Patagonian journey.
Most people start off from Bariloche which is where the majority of buses arrive from Buenos Aires. You can also fly into Bariloche, which is slightly more expensive ($220 vs $110), but will get you there much quicker.
The flight from Buenos Aires to Bariloche takes about an hour and a half, whereas the bus takes 20 – 22 hours. The bus is a unique way to see the countryside through Argentina, but it depends on your preferences, budget, and time constraints. I personally chose to fly, but every traveler is different!
What To Do
Apurabici rents bikes for $15 a day and organizes half-day guided rides along mountain trails for $50pp. I recommend staying in Bariloche for at least a couple of nights so you can do a few different activities.
Bariloche is known for the Route of the Seven Lakes, which is one of the most popular hikes/drives to do while visiting Patagonia.
The trail goes from Bariloche to San Martin de Los Andes and is roughly 100 km. This route can be done by car, bus, bike or in parts by hiking. It can take a couple of days or a week depending on how much time you have. There are a number of hiking routes to choose from as well as boat tours.
One of the best things about going to Patagonia in the summer months is that if it’s warm enough (or you work up enough of a sweat) you can jump in the glacial water. This water is the clearest, sparkling turquoise water that I’ve ever seen, but don’t be fooled by the warm temperature in the air – the water is freezing! However also a nice, refreshing pick-me-up after a long hike or bike ride around the lake.
Camping or Accommodation
Where to stay while doing the trail will depend on your budget and sense of adventure. Hostels are abundant as well as camping spots, either free or of charge.
If you’re simply exploring the town, Bonita Lake House and Perikos are very affordable ($45/night) options if you’re looking for a relaxed hostel on the lake. Gran Hotel Panamericano is a charming hotel in the countryside, a short distance from the center of Bariloche with rates starting at $59/night.
During the summer months, aka peak season from December – March, I would recommend booking all accommodation in advance.
Los Glaciares National Park
Continuing south, you arrive – eventually – in the extraordinarily beautiful Los Glaciares, the largest protected area in Argentina composed of glaciers, mountains, lakes, and forests, including a vast portion of the Andes mountain range.
The main attractions are the towering Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre peaks at its northern end, and the huge, turquoise-coloured Lago Argentino to the south.
El Calafate is a funky, small town right on Lago Argentino, the largest freshwater lake in the country. With a range of traveler services such as biking, kayaking, and organized tours to Perito Moreno Glacier, it’s a fun place to be with all the ideal tourist facilities.
Its strategic location between El Chaltén and Torres del Paine (Chile) makes it an inevitable stop for those in transit. I immediately sensed that El Calafate had the feel of a ski-resort village with its colorful, timber buildings; boasting a ton of restaurants and bars.
For dinner be sure to check out Pura Vida – offering Argentine “home cooking”, or for a more decadent and intimate experience at a slightly higher price, Mi Rancho. Fuel up on fresh donuts, croque monsieurs, and Colombian espresso for breakfast at Olivia, an adorable cafe in a loungy setting.
What To Do
Many travelers come to El Calafate to see the lake’s world famous glacier, Perito Moreno; it’s world-famous because the ice expands until the warmer waters beneath undermine it, causing an explosion and sending tsunami-like waves out into the surrounding water.
Perito Moreno Glacier is an hour drive from El Calafate. You can easily book transportation through a tour agency or through your hostel/hotel. These tours cost around $24 roundtrip with an entrance fee cost of $20 (CASH ONLY.)
**Make sure that you have an ample amount of cash before traveling through Patagonia. ATMs can be finicky and sometimes won’t dispense cash. There are plenty of money exchanges around so you can pay in the local currency.
If you have a extra day, or just don’t feel like doing a full day excursion, you can rent a bike in town and ride around the lake. (I say around, but realistically you won’t get too far as the lake is massive.) I rented a bike for two hours ($8), but I recommend renting for at least three so you won’t be in a rush to get back.
From the center of town, you can bike along the road to a point that separates the inlet where the many different species of birds hang out (a cool place to bird watch, yet a place you don’t want to swim) from the main part of the lake where you can swim… if you dare jump in the glacial water! Disclaimer: not for the faint of heart.
Another popular destination in this region is the trekking mecca El Chaltén, a three-hour drive from El Calafate Airport. El Chalten is a small hiking village located directly in Los Glaciares National Park at the base of the mountains.
Although there is no airport here, the closest airport is in El Calafate. Frequent minibuses connect El Chaltén to El Calafate, a three-hour journey through the sprawling national park. There are a few different companies, but you might want to plan your flight time around the shuttle times if you’re planning to head to El Chalten from the airport.
The shuttle company I booked at the airport was called Las Lengas and left El Calafate at 1 pm, arriving to El Chalten at 4 pm; (I booked an early flight out of Bariloche to arrive in El Calafate by 12:30 pm.)
The shuttle dropped me off at the bed & breakfast, and picked me back up 4 days later to bring me back to the hotel in El Calafate.
Roundtrip this semi-private shuttle cost $50 pp, and stopped at a cool river-side hotel/café/shop halfway through the trip for 20 mins so you could get out, stretch your legs, and grab a souvenir or coffee.
**You don’t have to book the roundtrip option, but it is easiest considering you’ll have to come back to El Calafate to fly out to your next destination.
What To Do
El Chalten is the home of the esteemed Fitz Roy – a towering peak with a number of hiking, climbing, and rafting adventures to choose from. There is another main attraction in Los Glaciares National Park called Cerro Torre, the second largest peak to hike (following Fitz Roy) with a number of trails, and a sparkling glacial lake with turquoise icebergs.
At the north end of the National Park these are the two highest peaks of the mountain range, which together with forests, glaciers and lakes, create one of the most extraordinary sights to see in our country. The two major hikes to see these peaks are called Laguna Torre and Laguna de Los Tres.
Most people do a hike of some sort, but it’s not for everyone. Alternatively, you can relax in this picturesque backpacker town, admiring the views, the condors and the craft beers.
Despite the size, there are a surprising number of cafes, restaurants, and bars of all types of cuisine. I spent 4 nights here and tried a handful of amazing places ranging from burgers and beers, to traditional Patagonian cuisine loaded with hearty portions of meat and potatoes, to a vegan café with fresh salads and juices.
La Vineria has a great selection of ales and Patagonian wines. Across the street, enjoy traditional Argentinian cuisine in a cozy log cabin at La Senyara. For a vegetarian/vegan meal, Curcuma.
Crossing The Border: Argentina – Chile
Traveling between Chile and Argentina can be done easily by land or sea. Unfortunately, there are no flights between Puerto Natales (the base of Torres del Paine) to El Calafate. For an overland trip, you’ll need to organize a private transfer or catch a bus.
The drive takes approximately six hours cross the border between Argentina and Chile. Buy your bus ticket to Puerto Natales through your hostel in El Calafate, or head straight to the bus station and buy it through one of the tour companies.
There are several reputable bus companies that connect Puerto Natales and El Calafate, including Buses Fernandez, Buses Sur, Buses Pacheco, Turismo Zaahj, and Cootra. They run daily services that depart between 7:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m.
The transfer takes five-seven hours – depending on the time spent at customs – and the cost of the ticket is $20 one way. These buses are pretty spacious and equipped with a bathroom, so as long as you have some water and snacks, you should be good to go for your journey across the border!
Puerto Natales is the home of Torres del Paine, a huge mountain range famous for its “three peaks”, rising high at 3,500 meters, and another stop on the journey south through Patagonia.
This park is very different from the parks I hiked in Argentina. Unlike in Los Glaciares, you must drive to the park or take a bus (public or tour shuttle.) The drive from Puerto Natales to the entrance of the park takes 1.5 hours.
There is an entrance fee to get into the park of 21,000 Chilean pesos, about $32. You must bring this amount IN CASH to the park the day of your hike, or you will not be permitted entry.
This park is a huge, protected national forest – such is Los Glaciares National Park – but has experienced many more natural disasters due to human caused forest fires over the years destroying the land, and is therefore more strictly protected.
The most popular day hike that people do is called Base Torres, which takes you to the lake at the base of the three peaks. The hike is about 18 km roundtrip to the lake and back. You can take a bus from Puerto Natales in the morning, which will then give you a time to meet back at the starting point later in the afternoon.
**MAKE sure you plan your time accordingly so that you don’t miss your return bus back to town.
There are larger hikes such as the “W Circuit” or the “O Circuit” that usually take people three to four days, with a few options for camping sites along the way. Make sure you take a map with you and know where you’re going ahead of time.
You can also book a full tour of the park through a few different agencies in Puerto Natales near the main plaza. This tour costs about $45 and is a full 12-hour guided tour on a shuttle through the entire park.
This option is great because you get to see so much more than you would from the one day hike. There are 10 viewpoints along the tour, with a two hour stop for lunch and exploring at Lago Grey; an amazing lake with glaciers right up along the beach.
I booked this full day tour through Go Calafate. I was picked up at my hostel at 7:45 am, and dropped back off at the main plaza in Puerto Natales at 7:30 pm, so plan accordingly with your meals of the day!
Ushuaia is a resort town in Argentina located on the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, the southernmost tip of South America, nicknamed the “End of the World” and is the last stop of the Patagonian journey.
Apart from being the gateway to Tierra del Fuego National Park, Ushuaia is also the port to sail across Drake’s Passage into Antarctica, an unforgettable adventure that I hope to experience someday! These tours range from $5,000 – $10,000 for a cruise ship to the white continent.
The walk to the glacier is quite long; many people prefer to get an inexpensive taxi from the town to the base, and then hike or get the chairlift (often only running in summer) from there.
Tierra del Fuego
Tierra del Fuego National Park, 11 miles (18km) from Ushuaia, is the final must-see of Patagonia for nature and outdoor lovers.
Buses leave from Ushuaia roughly every hour, although it is recommended to depart early in the morning if you are planning on hiking in the park. Visitors must pay an entrance fee of $14 USD.
There are many well-marked trails and short hikes for those wishing to spend the day exploring the park independently.
For those who want to see a bit more, longer trails and hikes are available; Sheep’s Pass takes two days, whereas a longer trek of four days can be done on the Sierra Valdivieso Circuit. The park also has two beautiful lakes and some waterfalls.