Patagonia Off the Beaten Path
Encompassing more than 648,000 square miles, Patagonia is gigantic. There's more to see and do than a visitor could ever do on a single trip, so most travelers focus on a handful of key destinations, like Torres del Paine National Park in Chile and Los Glaciares National Park on the Argentine side. But if you have time for a detour or two, you'll appreciate the region's beauty even more.
Note that while flights are useful for arriving in Patagonia, you'll mostly be traveling overland once you're there — including border crossings over the Andes. Whether you rely on buses, rent a car, or try a combination of both, it's best to do your homework ahead of time, as travel logistics can be complicated. Find out more about border crossings between Chile and Argentina by reading this article.
For more on planning your trip, check out the Best Time to Visit Patagonia.
Explore the Marble Caves of Lago General Carrera
Maybe you've seen them on Instagram: Chile's majestic Capillas de Mármol (Marble Caves) are one of the country's most photographed natural wonders. But thanks to their remote location in the region of Aysén, most travelers miss the chance to view them in person. Over thousands of years, wind and erosion have shaped this series of blue and white cave formations on Lago General Carrera, the second-largest lake in South America. And the lake itself is striking: fed by glacial runoff, it practically glows in bright turquoise.
Today, you can access the caves on a short boat excursion leaving from the lakeside town of Puerto Río Tranquilo. Sunrise is the best time for photo ops, so it's best to stay overnight in town and get an early start. The detour isn't short: Puerto Río Tranquilo is a five-hour drive or a six-hour drive from the city of Coyhaique. But the experience of exploring the ethereal caves at dawn is worth the effort.
Experience Welsh Culture in Chubut
Basic Spanish skills only take you so far in this region of Argentinian Patagonia. Look around in the towns of Gaiman and Trevelin, both located in the province of Chubut, and you'll notice that street signs, advertisements, and restaurant menus are all written in Welsh.
In 1865, a boat full of Welsh explorers set sail for South America, eager to settle on a wide-open section of land far from any city. They found it here, in a coastal section of northern Patagonia—and while they weren't able to replicate the favorable agricultural conditions they were accustomed to in their native land, they established a Welsh settlement. Note the traditional teahouses and the Welsh water wheels (and in Trevelin’s Molino Andes Regional Museum, Welsh stoves, dishes, and farming equipment, all brought over on a boat) and you'll see just how diligently the early settlers tried to recreate the feeling of home in a foreign land.
Argentina's Welsh towns are an easy hour-long drive or bus ride from Puerto Madryn, the base for popular whale-watching tours from June through December. See the Ultimate Guide to Puerto Madryn for more.
See Ancient Cave Art at Cueva de las Manos
You'll have to go way off the beaten path to see the incredible cave paintings at Cueva de las Manos (Cave of the Hands). The UNESCO World Heritage Site, which dates from approximately 7370 BCE, features cave walls adorned with 800 images, including human handprints (one with six fingers instead of five) and drawings of local flora and fauna.
The site is notoriously difficult to access—and, of course, that's part of the appeal for travelers who'd like to break from the crowds. Since this remote area of Argentinian Patagonia isn't exactly set up for tourism in terms of signage or other facilities, you'll want to go with a guide who can lead you directly to the cave paintings. From Perito Moreno or Los Antiguos, both rather remote destinations in their own right, you can organize a day trip with a local guide. The rocky ride from either town takes between three and four hours. Note that trekking circuits to the cave are in the works as part of the plans for the future Patagonia National Park.
Soak in the Hot Springs at Puyuhuapi
The remote Chilean village of Puyuhuapi, located on a fjord of the same name, is a Patagonian gem. It's a point of access into the relatively little-known Queulat National Park, an expanse of wilderness dotted with glaciers and evergreen forest.
The region is also known for hot springs. Several resorts and spa complexes built around them take advantage of the naturally occurring volcanic springs: cascades of warm and cool water flow into the man-made pools, offering weary travelers the chance to unwind after hiking. Whether you stay at one of the resorts or just visit a spa for the day, it's a great way to relax before continuing onto active adventures in the area.
Puyuhuapi is located on the Carretera Austral. Get on a bus that runs between Coyhaique and Chaitén, and ask the driver to drop you in Puyuhuapi—make sure to book a round-trip ticket in summer. Alternatively, you could drive: just be sure to have a spare tire and patience for road closures.
Looking to go off the beaten path in Chile beyond Patagonia? Take a look at this article.
Glacier Views at Cerro Tronador
Most travelers get up close with Patagonian glaciers by boat, or in the case of the famous Perito Moreno Glacier in Los Glaciares National Park, via man-made walkways to a lookout point. Other glaciers aren't as easy to reach — and the journey there is part of the adventure. Cerro Tronador Glacier, located outside of Bariloche, Argentina, is one of these. You can't drive to the glacier or take a bus: it's only accessible by an 11-mile hike.
You'll start the hike at Pampa Linda in Nahuel Huapi National Park, accessible by shuttle bus or tour from Bariloche. After trekking for hours with views of the Andes, you'll see the glittery surface of the glacier appearing in the distance: on a sunny day, light reflects off the pools formed by glacial melt. Camping is free here (there's also a refugio, or shelter, where you can sleep), and waking up to sweeping views of the glacier is an unforgettable experience.