Deciding which part of Patagonia to visit depends on a number of factors—what outdoor activities you're interested in, the geography and major sights that interest you most, and what you're hoping to get out of this corner of the world. In this guide, we break down both Argentine and Chilean Patagonia to help you decide which is right for you.
|When to go:
|December-mid April. Skip January to avoid crowds.
|Who should go:
|Travelers who want to visit Patagonia's most well-known places and/or prioritize efficient in-country transportation
|Intrepid travelers with plenty of time and flexibility, who want to get off the beaten path in the great outdoors
|Ideal trip length:
|Santiago de Chile
|Trekking, wildlife viewing, glaciers
|Trekking, road trips, luxury lodging
|Perito Moreno glacier, Tierra del Fuego, Peninsula Valdes, Bariloche
|Torres del Paine, Carretera Austral
|Things to consider:
|The Argentine side is huge, and it's best to fly from place to place
|Circuit treks of Chile's national park's are often multi-day affairs, so plan accordingly and ensure you have all the necessary trekking equipment
When to Go
If you're interested in trekking, an ideal time to visit Patagonia is during the summer months from December through mid-April. You can still trek Patagonia in the colder winter months of mid-April to mid-November, just know that this is considered the off-season and some hotels and restaurants in various Patagonian cities and towns often shut down. To this end, some national parks in Patagonia also restrict services, and all treks during the winter months must be done with a guide. There are no self-guided treks allowed in national parks during this time because temperatures in the coldest areas, like Tierra del Fuego, often dip to below 0. Having said that, some folks prefer visiting in the winter, as there are fewer crowds at the main attractions. Just know it takes more planning to visit during these months.
Also, know that January is the most crowded month of the year for Argentine Patagonia, as this is the main holiday period for Argentines. Many of them flock to the most sites, like El Chaltén, El Calafate, and Tierra del Fuego, and many hotels are fully booked. If you would like to visit this region during January, be sure to plan a few more months ahead and you should be fine.
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.
Anyone who's a fan of the world's natural wonders is going to love Argentine Patagonia. There are some incredible glaciers in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, and Perito Moreno particularly stands out as eliciting the same kind of awe as other epic sights like the Grand Canyon, Niagra Falls, the Great Barrier Reef, and Mt. Everest, among others. The Argentine side is also larger geographically than Chilean Patagonia, so there are more varied regions to explore. All in all, a visit here is ideal for road trippers (on the famed Ruta 40 in the Patagonian desert), campers, hikers/mountain climbers, skiers/snowboarders, and nature and wildlife enthusiasts.
Argentina's portion of Patagonia takes up the nation's entire southern area. So if you do end up selecting different destinations in Argentine Patagonia for your excursions, know that you'll mostly be taking flights between them to make your itinerary manageable.
This southern city is part of Argentina's Lake District, which is known as the jumping off point to Patagonia. Bariloche makes for a nice intro to Patagonia, as this region marks the end of the Pampas flatlands around Buenos Aires and the start of the mountainous wilderness that defines much of the southern cone. Located on the southern shore of Lago Nahuel Huapi (in the national park of the same name), Bariloche was founded in 1903 as a winter destination for Argentina's well-heeled. It wasn't long before its reputation for great ski conditions reached the ears of the international community, and now it's a global destination. People flock here season after season from around the world to hit the slopes of Bariloche's most famous mountain, Cerro Catedral. First-time visitors will right away notice a Swiss influence in the charming alpine architecture. This is a direct result of the immigrants who founded Bariloche, and you'll find plenty of chocolate shops and fondue restaurants around town.
Puerto Madryn/Península Valdés
Puerto Madryn is an ideal Patagonian travel destination for anyone with an interest in marine biology and exotic animals. It's a charming seaside town of about 70,000 and is located on Argentina's Atlantic Coast. Moreover, it's the principal base of operations for excursions to the adjacent Península Valdés, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and haven for various types of marine mammals and birds.
The best way to visit the area is on an organized boat tour, as the peninsula is privately owned. These tours are incredible because they pass by the rugged shores of the Golfo Nuevo north to the white cliffs of the peninsula. Here great populations of seals and penguins come to breed on the secluded shores, and in the spring months, southern right whales pass by during their migration. Dolphins and orcas are common sites here as well. Some typical Patagonian mammals you'll likely see on land are rheas, guanacos, and armadillos.
The season for whale-spotting on Península Valdés is between September and November.
Los Glaciers National Park
There is likely no region in Patagonia with as much tourism infrastructure as Los Glaciers National Park. Folks come from all over the world to this region, and they come to witness the awe-inspiring glaciers and to embark on some epic trekking excursions.
First, though, a geographic overview. This 7,269 square-km (2,806 square-mile) park is situated in Argentina's southern Patagonia region, with 170 km (105 miles) of it stretching along the border with Chile. Also, almost half the park is covered in the 370-km-long (105 miles) Southern Ice Cap. Born from this cap are 13 major glaciers (47 total), which feed the two largest lakes in the park: Lago Argentino in the southeast and Lago Viedma to the northeast.
Within all of this space, there are two primary destinations for travelers: El Calafate and El Chaltén. El Calafate is a city and embarking point for excursions to glaciers Upsala, Moreno, Spegazzini, and the daddy of them all, Perito Moreno. This 250-sq-km (96-sq-mile) mass of ice is one of the most impressive sites in the country, not least of which due to its massive ice walls that rise on average 74 meters (242 feet) over the water. Seeing giant chunks of ice break off this great wall (an action known as "calving") and plummet hundreds of feet to the lake below before crashing into the water is an unforgettable sight (and sound).
El Chaltén, on the other hand, is a small tourist town that serves as a base for hiking, trekking, and camping excursions to nearby Mt. Fitz Roy (3,405 meters/11,171 feet). You can't miss the impressive Fitz Roy Massif, the top jagged peaks that protrude out of the mountain like giant arrowheads. There are day treks from town to Laguna Capri and Mirador Laguna Torre, both of which offer panoramic views. Other incredible day treks pass by glacial lakes, ice caps, and rivers. You can also climb Fitz Roy (weather permitting), and the best time to do this is between mid-February to the end of March. Note that this is for experienced climbers only, as fatalities have been common in the past.
The best reasons to visit this region are for glacier spotting, glacial hikes (yes, you can hike along the surface of glaciers) mountain climbing, camping, and trekking. Around this area, you'll also be able to travel the famed Ruta 40, that great lonely highway that cuts from Argentina down into Chile and is surrounded by nothing but dry Patagonian steppe. The panoramic landscapes on Ruta 40 drives are absolutely unforgettable.
Tierra del Fuego/Ushuaia
This is as close as you can get to the end of the world before Antarctica. Perhaps that's why the region known as Tierra del Fuego ("land of fire") draws so many visitors year in and year out. Even in rugged Patagonia, this is the most rugged. Charles Darwin himself had this to say when he was riding the HMS Beagle through Tierra del Fuego: “Rock, ice, snow, wind, and water, all warring with each other yet combined against man, here reigned in absolute sovereignty.” And the famous naturalist wasn't wrong: from the jagged peaks of the Dientes de Navarino mountain range to the choppy waters of the Beagle Channel (so named after the famous ship), the elements here are indeed extreme.
Tierra del Fuego is comprised of an archipelago at the southernmost mainland point on the continent. Here you'll also find the southernmost city in the world: Ushuaia, an interesting port city of about 60,000 people. There's a rich indigenous influence here—the Yaghan people call this region home—and there's excellent seafood, particularly centolla (king crab). Aside from enjoying the city, most come here for nature excursions into Tierra Del Fuego National Park, and you can also trek up to various glaciers, like Martial and Marinelli.
Overall Tierra del Fuego makes a good one-off destination, as it offers many of the "hits" of Patagonia, including glaciers, national parks, lakes, camping, and wildlife spotting.
There are two principal reasons to visit Chilean Patagonia: its national parks and its great portions of off-the-beaten-path nature. Sure, many are familiar with the famous destinations in the far south, like Torres del Pain National Park. However, between that Mecca of trekking and the northernmost reaches of Chilean Patagonia, near the Lake District city of Puerto Montt, there are thousands of kilometers of virtually unexplored, unspoiled wilderness. The mountains and native lenga forests are humbling in their natural beauty, and the rivers you find here are like nowhere else in the world.
Therefore the main activities for which this region is ideal are trekking, camping, fishing, river rafting, and long-distance cycling trips. Really, the main reason to come to many parts of Chilean Patagonia is to leave the tourist crowds behind and lose yourself in the pure natural beauty of the region.
Chilean Patagonia is both familiar to its Argentine counterpart and yet a world apart. Often overlooked due to its narrow land mass and smaller size, Chile's portion nonetheless boasts 17 national parks between the start of the region at the Carretera Austral highway, and the Beagle Channel, located in the far south. Here are some highlights of the area.
"The lakes" area of Chile sits beside Argentina's Lake District (technically they are part of one geographic region). Like its Argentine counterpart, there are a number of beautiful lakes here, including Llanquihue, Todos los Santos, Villarica, and many others. What's more fascinating are the myriad snow-capped volcanoes that overlook the shores of these bodies of water. The most famous include volcanoes Osorno and Villarica, the of which had a major eruption as recently as 2015. Even so, you can still book hiking excursions up these monoliths on guided trekking tours.
There are also many throwback villages on the shores of the aforementioned lakes that make great destinations to relax for a few days. In places like Puerto Varas and Pucón, there's a slow pace of life and you can see in the architecture of the churches and buildings the influence of early German immigrants to Chile. Then there's the nearby island of Chiloé, a small stretch of hilly green land that boasts its own cuisine (lots of seafood) and culture heavy on myths, like the witches that supposedly roam the coastline after dark.
Los Lagos is also where Puerto Montt is located. This city is noteworthy as nearby you'll find the beginning of the Carretera Austral, an all-weather highway that runs for 1,240 km (770 miles) south deep into Patagonia. It makes for a great cycling trip.
Torres del Paine National Park
If there's one destination that symbolizes the difference between "hiking" and "trekking," it's Torres del Paine National Park, a protected area on the Southern Patagonian Ice Field near the border with Argentina. This 1,814-square-km (700-square-mile) park is a trekking destination, period. To take an excursion here on foot is to embark on a rugged adventure through wild landscapes, often for days at a time.
This is the prime reason it's one of the most popular destinations for multi-day excursions. Trekkers flock here from across the globe to partake in the adventure, and there are many different ways to experience the park. Torres is a grab bag of trekking routes, and the most famous one is the W circuit. This multi-day adventure is so named because it traverses a good portion of the park in a "W" formation. The most common W circuit trek lasts about five days (but it can be completed in as little as three days) and runs from the southwest of the park to the northeast.
A variation of the W circuit is the O circuit. Like its name would imply, the O trek follows a circular path through the park rather than just in the shape of a W (although it does include the W trail). More specifically, it's a 130 km (80-mile) loop around that takes the average trekker eight days/seven nights to complete. It starts at the Hotel Las Torres and runs counterclockwise around the back of the back park before meeting the W circuit route and finishing up at the hotel where it started. Needless to say, this trek is geared more for experienced hikers and those with a good level of physical fitness.
The highlights are too many and too vast to list all of them here. That said, some major sites include the French Valley and its hanging glacier, lakes Nordenskjold, Pehoé, and the glacially fed Lago Grey. The glacier here of the same name is a sweeping mass of ice that flows out into the sea, portions of its jagged walls calving off its facade and crashing into the deep grey waters below.
The most impressive site, by far, is the Paine Massif—three granite peaks that rise straight into the sky like broken horns. Indeed, this is how they earned their local name, the Cuernos del Paine ("horns of Paine"). The good news is that you don't have to embark on the entire W Circuit to reach this site. The most popular day hike in the park is an excursion up into the Ascencio Valley and to the base of the massif, where you're greeted with a silver lagoon at the foot of the giant horns. Know that this is a vigorous hike (about 8-9 hours over 17 km/10.5 miles) that requires a decent level of physical fitness.
In the final analysis, Torres del Paine is for those who like to experience nature on foot.
If Torres del Paine is the famous celebrity of Chilean Patagonia, then the Aysén region is its undiscovered gem. While more and more travelers are venturing to this Pacific coastal area, it remains remote and little accessible, so you can count on much fewer tourists here than elsewhere.
Located in the northern Patagonian region of Chile, between the city of Puerto Montt and the southern outpost town Villa O'Higgins, the Aysén Region lies in the Northern Patagonian Ice Fields. The landscapes here are not only as vivid and evocative as they are in the south and Tierra del Fuego, but they're totally distinct. This is where you'll find the fjords and the crystalline rivers, the volcanoes with their smoky peaks and the golden poplars blooming in spring. Like in other areas, you can trek through rocky valleys up to expansive glaciers, most notably Glaciar Exploradara. You can raft some of the most incredible rivers, like Río Futaleufu.
Other highlights of the region include Lago General Carrera, with its bright azure waters and the unique Capillas de Mármol—towering marble caves that shine iridescent in the light. A newer addition to Aysén is Parque Patagonia. This grassland restoration project was created in 2000 by the Tompkins Conservation group (started by former businessman/conservationist Douglas Tompkins) with the express goal of conserving 640,000 acres of the unspoiled Patagonian steppe, grasslands, glaciated peaks, and the local wildlife in Aysén's fertile Valle Chacabuco. Visitors are more than welcome here, as there's a network of hiking trails and campsites throughout the park.
This region also makes for one of the best road trips on the continent in the form of Ruta 7, or the Carretera Austral as its commonly known. This highway runs through some of the most remote and wild wilderness in South America 1,240 km (770 miles) all the way from Puerto Montt down to its terminus at the last Chilean town in northern Patagonia, Villa O'Higgins. From there it's possible to cross the border into Argentina and El Chaltén on horseback, by bicycle, or on a trekking excursion.
Ready to visit Patagonia? Check out these itineraries.
Best of Patagonia - 9 Days. Go to a trekker's paradise and explore some of the best landscapes in Argentina and Chile. Flexible and suitable for all experience levels, this itinerary will take you across two national parks and one of the most famous mountain ranges in all of South America.
Lake District & Patagonia - 9 Days. In nine days you can experience many highlights of both Chile's Lake District and Chilean Patagonia. Head straight to Puerto Varas and the Lake District for waterfalls, volcanoes, and more. Finish in Patagonia, with penguin-watching and excursions into Torres del Paine National Park.
Los Glaciares & Fitz Roy - 8 Days. Experience the heart of Argentine Patagonia in Los Glaciers National Park, home to 47 glaciers and iconic Mt. Fitz Roy. From Buenos Aires, travel to El Calafate and visit the region's most famous glacier: Perito Moreno. Then on to El Chaltén for hiking around the famous Mt. Fitz Roy.