Patagonia is one of the most spectacular places on the planet and high on any list of South America highlights. Rocky, snow-capped mountain peaks, dense forests, cool blue glaciers, captivating wildlife and some of the best hiking anywhere in the world. There are so many Patagonia highlights to choose from and very few places can match it for truly breath-taking experiences. But with so many options it can be difficult to decide where to stop on your Patagonia itinerary. To help guide you here are some of the best places in Patagonia and how to visit each one.
Torres del Paine National Park
The ultimate in Patagonia highlights, Torres del Paine National Park in Chile offers the chance to see some remarkable scenery combined with tough but highly rewarding hiking experiences. There are plenty of options when it comes to hiking in Torres del Paine, with many routes on offer. You also have plenty of choice regarding the number of days you want to spend in the park. From five or ten-day treks to solitary day hikes in Torres del Paine. The most popular hiking route is the five-day W-hike, which either starts or ends at the famous Las Torres viewpoint. Some routes close earlier in season than others due to the weather, such as the taxing 10-day Torres del Paine O Circuit.
You’re not confined to camping in Torres del Paine as there are lodges at most campsites around the national park. However, not all have this option, so you’ll need to plan your stops carefully if you hope to sleep in the comfort of a lodge or shared dorm. During the busy season between December and February all campsites and lodges have to be booked in advance. The majority of campsites have a restaurant and bar available too, although they are a little expensive due to their remote location. Camping prices range from free to £15 a night, with each varying in terms of facilities.
How to get to Torres del Paine
The nearest town is Puerto Natales, around two hours from the national park. A return bus ticket cost 15,000 Chilean Pesos (roughly £15). Puerto Natales is easily reachable by bus from other towns within Patagonia. It’s also the location to stock up before venturing into the wilderness, ensuring you’re fully prepared for Torres del Paine. Whether it’s food, equipment or a good night’s rest. You’ll find everything you need in Puerto Natales, with many reasonably priced rental stores throughout the town. Make sure to stop by Erratic Rock Hostel for their daily 3pm seminar filled with lots of useful tips.
San Carlos de Bariloche
Referred to as “Little Switzerland”, it’s easy to see why this town in northern Patagonia is compared to the Alpine villages of Europe. And not just because of the array of chocolate shops scattered around. Many people start their tour of Patagonia highlights here and the surrounding area offers some truly stunning scenery. Beautiful mountains and lakes are in every direction and you’ll find many options for trekking in Bariloche. From multi-day hikes to easy strolls through the beautiful scenery in places such as Cerro Llao Llao or Refugio Frey. Just outside Bariloche is the Swiss community of Colonia Suiza founded over 100 years ago and an easy bus ride from the town centre. It’s a good idea to rent a car in Bariloche. Giving you freedom to explore not only the surrounding area but further afield as you begin your adventure in Patagonia.
How to get to Bariloche
You can fly direct to Bariloche from Buenos Aires, which takes about an hour and 20 minutes. Alternatively, if your budget restricts the speed and comfort of a flight, or you have more time available, overnight buses will take you cross-country to the north of Patagonia where you can begin your adventure.
In the North-East of Patagonia is the small town of Puerto Madryn. It’s an unusual mix of cultures as aside from the typical Latin Spanish there’s also a lot of Welsh influence. Whilst the town itself is small it’s handily situated just an hour’s drive from Peninsula Valdes. Here you can see an abundance of wildlife including birds, sea mammals, guanacos, lizards and others. The highlights of the area are the massive penguin populations inhabiting both the peninsula and Punta Tombo, a little further south from Puerto Madryn. Many people also visit Puerto Madryn to go whale watching. Between June and December is the best time of year to look for the massive sea mammals just off the coast, with the enormous Southern Right Whale the most common.
How to get to Puerto Madryn
A bus south from Bariloche takes approximately 20 hours, while the nearby town of Trelew has an airport with regular flights from Buenos Aires. The trip takes two hours one way with three flights scheduled each day.
Perito Moreno Glacier
Don’t get confused with the town of the same name, which is over 600km north of the glacier. Perito Moreno Glacier is located around 90 minutes from the town of El Calafate in the South of Argentine Patagonia. There are three main options to enjoy the glacier; either the walkways and viewing platforms, a helicopter ride and hike on the glacier or a boat tour which takes you all the way to the face of the glacier as you watch gigantic chunks of ice crashing down around you. The walkways option is included in the entrance price whereas the boat tour and helicopter are both additional costs.
How to get to Perito Moreno Glacier
El Calafate is the best stop in order to reach the Perito Moreno Glacier. Deep in the south of Patagonia, it’s a long drive from any of the other popular locations in the region. Buses taking around 11 hours from Puerto Natales, 19 hours from Ushuaia and 23 hours from Bariloche. Alternatively, you can fly direct from Buenos Aires for around £150 return which takes three hours each way. Aside from a visit to the glacier, you’ll find many things to do in El Calafate and it’s a nice place to stop for a couple of days to enjoy the scenery.
Isolated in the south of Patagonia is the small town of El Chaltén. However, the town itself is not the main attraction here with many visitors intending to take advantage of the incredible hikes in El Chaltén. From excursions lasting several days to shorter walks for those with less time. Destinations such as Mount Fitzroy and Laguna de los Tres are among the most popular. The surrounding area presents snow-covered mountains, glaciers, and dense forests that are stunningly beautiful year-round as the colours change with the season. The views are breath-taking, with the Laguna de los Tres hike, a 21km round trip, one of the best one-day treks anywhere in the world.
Accommodation and restaurant options in El Chaltén are plentiful. However, local supermarkets have limited supplies and are only stocked up every few days. It’s a good idea to take cash out before you travel to El Chaltén as ATMs are limited and don’t have a deep supply.
How to get to El Chaltén
This small town in the mountains is best reached by road from El Calafate. Buses take three hours to travel the 215km between the two towns on what is a relatively straightforward route.
“El Culo Del Mundo”; the end of the world and Patagonia. Ushuaia is the final stop on the continent before tourists take a cruise to Antarctica. But there’s much more than just a stopping point before following in the footsteps of Scott and Amundsen. National parks, boat tours, an abundance of marine life, plus several museums documenting the area and the history of Antarctica are all to be found in Ushuaia.
Sailing through the Beagle Channel to see the lighthouse and the islands filled with sea lions is one of the most popular activities, and there is no shortage of boat tour companies to choose from. Tiera del Fuego National Park offers opportunities for canoeing, hiking, camping and more, all in spectacular Patagonian scenery. You can even take a ride on the train at the end of the world. Ushuaia itself is a busy mountain town with plenty of restaurants offering freshly caught seafood and good local beer.
How to get to Ushuaia
Flights are direct from Buenos Aires, but if travelling by road within Patagonia it’s a little more complicated. Depending on your starting point you may have to enter Chile before crossing the border again back into Argentina. Be aware that border procedures can be tedious and slow with a bus load of people to deal with. The final stretch of the journey from Rio Grande is tight and twisty, making it more difficult. Particularly in the snowy conditions typically found late in the season.
A quieter alternative to Chile’s adventure capital of Pucón, Puerto Varas includes many similar attractions. There are several picturesque hikes in the area and stunning views across the lake towards the two volcanoes. You’ll also find other outdoor activities such as kayaking and rafting. Buses run regularly from Puerto Varas to nearby Petrohué on the other side of the lake around an hour and 40 minutes away. There you’ll find yourself up close to Volcán Osorno with plenty of hikes in the area and Petrohué Waterfalls. The town itself is also a nice place with friendly locals and plenty of sites to try the local food. There are some remarkably interesting houses in the Patrimonial District of Puerto Varas, featuring a heavy German influence following the arrival of colonists in the late nineteenth century.
How to get to Puerto Varas
I had one of my shortest ever journeys while travelling between stops as I took the local bus from nearby Puerto Montt (see below). Not only was the journey over in less than 30 minutes but the whole trip cost me around 20 pence!
Puerto Montt and Chiloé
Puerto Montt is not the greatest tourist destination in Patagonia, but if you have the time it’s worth stopping by. You’ll find life more typical here than elsewhere in the region and there is some interesting architecture around the town. From Puerto Montt you can also visit the nearby island of Chiloé, just a 25-minute ferry ride from the mainland and an opportunity to get well and truly off the beaten track. Something not always easy to do in one of the most tourist heavy areas of South America.
How to get to Puerto Montt
There are regular flights throughout the day from Santiago taking around an hour and 45 minutes from Chile’s capital city. If travelling from the south and wanting to avoid the long arduous journey through the Andes mountains, you can fly direct from Punta Arenas in a little over two hours for less than £40. Buses also travel daily for a similar price but take over a day to navigate the long, winding route north.
Scene of the biggest earthquakes ever recorded in 1960, Valdivia is another typical town and a nice place to spend a day or two. Situated on the banks of three rivers, there are plenty of options for getting out and exploring the scenery. The town itself has plenty in terms of parks and gardens, with a popular daily market on the shores of the river selling fresh fish and other food. The local sea lion population are frequent visitors to the market before they spend the afternoons further upriver deciding between lazily soaking up the sun or arguing over the best spot on the viewing platforms. For anyone looking for a bit of culture, Valdivia has plenty of museums around including the Naval museum and a disused submarine anchored a little further down the river from the market.
How to get to Valdivia
A stop in Valdivia breaks up the journey between the similar towns of Puerto Varas and Pucón. Buses to Valdivia take around three hours from Puerto Varas, with Pucon five hours further north. Direct flights from Santiago happen daily and tickets can be bought for just £13, one and a half hours each way.
Boat tours are a popular attraction in Punta Arenas and it’s one of the best places to see the impressive King Penguins in Patagonia. Many companies in town offer trips to Tierra del Fuego and Magdalena islands, both inhabited by large numbers of penguins. You’ll also find plenty of museums and monuments dedicated to the history and exploration of Antarctica. High above the city is Mirador Cerro de la Cruz, an impressive panoramic viewpoint overlooking Punta Arenas all the way down to the Magellan Strait.
How to get to Punta Arenas
Buses from Ushuaia in the south take around 11 hours. Expect a potentially long stop at the border as the journey involves crossing from Argentina into Chile. If you’re travelling down from Puerto Natales after trekking Torres del Paine the bus is a much shorter three hours. Flights from Santiago are a little over three hours with trips throughout the day, costing less than £50 for a return ticket. Puerto Montt also offer direct flights for a similar price and a two hour journey each way.
Best time to go to Patagonia
Before planning your tour of the best Patagonia highlights you’ll need to know when to go. Due to its location at the very tip of South America and the extreme weather conditions you can sometimes expect, knowing the best time to travel to Patagonia can be tricky. Summer months of December to March will see better weather but also much bigger crowds. Temperatures generally peak at around 22°C, which may not be ideal for hiking long distances, and drop to 0°C once the sun goes down.
During the winter (June to early September) the most extreme of Patagonia’s weather hits. However, there are still reasons to visit at this time of year. While many of the hiking trails and national parks close for the season, sites such as Bariloche offer the opportunity to go skiing. Shoulder seasons of March to early May or September to November generally see cooler temperature and less visitors. Making it a better (and sometimes cheaper) time to visit Patagonia.