How big is Patagonia?
Bigger than most realize. It isn't simply a region of South America; it takes up the entire southern cone of that continent, which includes portions of both Argentina and Chile. All told it's a whopping 402,000 square miles of untamed wild mixed with protected natural beauty. Upon witnessing Patagonia for the first time, Charles described it aptly as "rock, ice, snow, wind, and water, all warring with each other yet combined against man."
The Patagonian region officially begins in the southern two-thirds of both Argentina and Chile, in an area known as the Lake District. Indeed this area is regarded as the "gateway to Patagonia," and it straddles both the Argentine and Chilean border. On the Argentine side, you'll find the popular lakeside cities of Bariloche and Villa la Angostura, whereas on the Chilean side are the cities (and nearby volcanoes) of Pucón, Villarrica, Valdivia, and Puerto Montt.
Where should I go in Patagonia?
The most famous area in Argentine Patagonia is Los Glaciares National Park, which is home to major hubs of El Calafate and El Chalten (near to Mt. Fitz Roy). El Calafate is the main city and jumping off point for excursions into the Southern Patagonian Ice Field and to glaciers like Perito Moreno.
On the east coast of Argentine Patagonia you'll find Puerto Madryn and Peninsula Valdés (a haven for marine life), and in the far south lies the southernmost reaches, known as Tierra del Fuego, and Ushuaia, which is nicknamed the "End of the World," as it's the last city before the end of the continent and the jumping off point to Antarctica.
The most famous area in Chilean Patagonia has to be Torres del Paine National Park. This 700-square-mile protected area, part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, averages about 250,000 visitors each year, most coming to take advantage of its multi-day nature hikes.
However, in between Chile's Lake District and Torres del Paine is the Aysén region, which is one of the lesser visited areas in all of Patagonia. It encompasses 48,890 square miles, a good portion of it protected. An example of this can be found at Parque Patagonia, which includes 640,000 acres of unspoiled Patagonian steppe, glaciers, mountains, and valleys.
When should I go to Patagonia?
You can visit Patagonia year round, but know that a lot changes here depending on the season. Summer is the high tourist season, and because the region is located in the southern hemisphere, that means summer lasts from mid-November through mid-March.
If you come in summer you're going to enjoy (likely) great weather and conditions ideal for hiking, rafting, mountain climbing—all of it. The temps typically range from highs in the mid-60s/low 70s (Fahrenheit) and lows in the 30s. The drawback to coming here during this time, of course, is that prices for both flights and hotels will be higher, so make sure to book as far in advance as possible.
The shoulder seasons of spring and fall are good times to visit as there are fewer tourists, prices are typically lower, and the weather is still nice. The days are usually warm, with highs in the low 60s and lows in the 30s. One benefit to visiting during spring (September-October) is that this is whale-watching season on Argentina's Atlantic coast. If you come to the coastal city of Puerto Madryn during this time you'll have ample opportunity to spot the southern right whale.
The crowds are thinner and the prices are lowest in winter (June-August) for a reason. Temperatures are lower (they can dip to the 20s at night), and you face the prospect of more snowstorms and harsher winds. Also, some businesses close after the summer season, so you might find certain hotels and restaurants closed for business if you do decide to visit during this time.
What do I need to pack?
Regardless of the time you visit, you'll want to pack all-weather and cold-weather clothing as well as a good pair of hiking boots. If you intend to spend multiple days camping or hiking in national parks, you should pack many layers as well as thermal underwear and any necessary camping equipment.
If you're going to spend time mountain trekking, then trekking poles are recommended as well. If you're planning a glacier hike over Perito Moreno, you won't need crampons as any tour company will provide those for you. However, if you plan on mountain climbing outside of an organized group, such as climbing Mt. Fitz Roy, you'll want to pack your own crampons and an ice ax. And no matter the time of year, be sure to pack sunscreen and sunglasses.
How do I get to/around Patagonia?
The most efficient way is to fly. Even if you do decide to embark on a Patagonian road trip (more on this below), you'll want to first fly from Buenos Aires, Argentina, or Santiago, Chile to one of the major hubs in Patagonia. This will save time and ensure you spend the majority of your itinerary within Patagonia rather than merely traveling to it. Once at your Patagonian destination you can choose between buses, rental cars, and even boats to move within the region.
There are direct flights from Ezeiza International Airport (located 22 km/13 miles southwest of Buenos Aires), and Aeroparque Internacional Jorge Newbery Airport (located near Buenos Aires' city center) to various destinations in Patagonia. Destinations include El Calafate (3.15 hours), Puerto Madryn (1.55 hours), Bariloche (2.20 hours) and Ushuaia (3.35 hours).
In Chile, there are direct flights from Santiago International Airport (located 15 km/9 miles) to the Lake District hubs of Temuco (1.20 hours) and Puerto Montt (1.40 hours), then further south to Balmaceda (2.20 hours) Punta Arenas (3.20 hours) Puerto Natales (3.15 hours). Puerto Natales is the city closest to Torres del Paine National Park, but flights here from Santiago are infrequent (just a couple times a week). Most travelers to Torres del Paine fly from Santiago to Punta Arenas, then travel overland to Puerto Natales.
Those with time to spare and who want to see as much of Patagonia as possible would do well to rent a car. For those who enjoy desert landscapes, it's possible to travel down Argentine Patagonia's famed Ruta 40, famous for its long stretches of barren desert with vast expanses of rugged Patagonian steppe running out to the horizon.
On the Chilean side, drive the Carretera Austral. Officially called Ruta 40 (Highway Route 7), This 1,240-km (770-mile) highway runs south from Puerto Montt to the remote town of Villa O'Higgins, located near the Argentine border and close to El Chalten. Along the way, it passes through the aforementioned Aysén region and some stunning lenga forests, rivers, waterfalls, and more.
There are frequent bus routes between major destinations, such as El Calafate to Los Glaciares National Park, or Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine National Park. However, the more remote you are in Patagonia, the less frequent the bus services. And in some places, such as along the more remote areas of the Carretera Austral, you won't find any buses and only sporadic mini-bus services.
A unique adventure is to take the Navimag ferry from Chile's Lake District south to Punta Arenas. This is a four-day/three-night trip that leaves once a week from either location. It's the most scenic way to travel, because along the way it passes nearby to the coastal fjords of Patagonia' Aysen region, affording some unforgettable views.
There are also many white-water rafting excursions throughout Patagonia. You can find organized tours in the Lake District of either country and the Aysén region of Chile.
Beside the trekking opportunities in the mountains and national parks within Patagonia, it's possible to hitchhike your way through the area. This is relatively safe, but the real risk lies once you enter the more remote areas, such as on the Carretera Austral south of the city of Coyhaique, or in the deserts south of the city of El Calafate and the wilds of Tierra del Fuego outside the city of Ushuaia. These areas are very remote and much time can pass before you see a vehicle.
Are there any travel restrictions?
Restrictions within Patagonia are typically the result of weather conditions. For example, some routes on the W Circuit trek of Torres del Paine might be closed in winter if the wind conditions become too extreme or there are heavy storms. We recommend always checking with the national parks office and/or tourist information point in whatever Patagonian hub you happen to be in to make sure all park trails are open.
Is Patagonia safe?
Theft and robbery are nearly unheard of in Patagonia. Most visitors find that the locals are pleasant and friendly almost everywhere in the region, so much so that it's even possible to hitchhike around Patagonia without incident. And while as a traveler you should always be vigilant about guarding your valuables against petty theft, know that there is almost no risk of this in most cities and towns here.
The real dangers lie in the elements. As mentioned above, the weather conditions can be extreme in the colder months. So if you're planning any outdoor trekking excursions, make sure to properly guard against hypothermia, and always check the most recent national park updates to be sure of which hiking/skiing routes are closed due to weather conditions.
Do I need a visa?
Citizens of the UK, EU, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa need only to have a passport to enter Argentina and obtain a visa, which is valid for 90 days. The same goes for visitors to Chile, with the exception that Australians must pay a reciprocity tax of US$117 to enter the country. Also in Chile, there is an airport departure tax (US$26 for international flights; less for local) but this should be included in the cost of your airline ticket.
Can I bring my children to Patagonia?
Of course. It would be an experience they would never forget.
Depending on their age, it may not be ideal to bring young kids on some of the harder multi-day treks, such as the W Circuit in Torres del Paine. These journeys often include long uphill hikes and hard scrambles over rocky moraines, which can test the endurance of even fit adults. That said, many children around 8+ would probably enjoy day hikes, such as to the viewpoint at Base Torres in Torres del Paine National Park or hiking to Glacier Martial in Ushuaia.
Activities in Patagonia that are ideal for the whole family include wildlife spotting and boat tours on Peninsula Valdés, camping in Tierra del Fuego National Park, riding the Southern Fuegian Railway tourist train in Ushuaia, guided tours of Los Glaciares National Park, visiting the Lake District in Chile and Argentina, and boat tours to the penguin colony at Isla Magdalena, in Punta Arenas.
Do I need to speak Spanish?
Spanish will certainly come in handy, although in the major tourist areas (El Calafate, El Chalten, Torres del Paine, etc.), there is much English spoken as well as many tourist information points with English-speaking staff. However, if you are planning excursions into the more remote areas of Patagonia, such as the Aysén region, you'll find English almost non-existent in the smaller towns. Best to brush up on your Spanish before arrival and at least know some of the basic phrases to help you along during your time in Patagonia.
What currency do they use in Patagonia?
On both the Chilean and Argentine side they use pesos. As of this writing the Argentine peso traded at 39.14 to the US dollar, whereas the Chilean peso traded at 655.30 pesos to the US dollar. Know that while in all cities in Patagonia you are likely to find ATMs and currency exchange houses, these become much more infrequent (and sometimes non-existent) in the smaller towns. The same can be said for credit cards—they are readily accepted in the bigger cities, but might not be in the smaller towns.
And if you are planning an extensive road trip through the most remote parts of Patagonia, be sure to stock up on enough cash before you embark to see you through any potential emergency situation.
What inoculations do I need?
The CDC recommends travelers to both Argentina and Chile to be up to date on routine inoculations such as Hepatitis A and Typhoid. And while the risk of rabies is negligible, if you plan on any multi-day hiking in Patagonia, it could put you in close proximity to wild animals. It's for this reason that the CDC recommends getting a rabies inoculation before arriving in Argentina/Chile.