When people ask me what’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen in my life, Patagonia always comes to mind. Ladakh is also up there, and so are the Faroe Islands, but Patagonia has to be the winner. The southernmost tip of South America, first of all, is stunning – a land of granite mountains, seemingly impregnable; pristine green blue lakes and mighty glaciers, that will make your jaw drop with their sheer beauty and power.
Patagonia is also a haven for adventurers. If you love hiking, you can just walk out of any town or village to find yourself in stunning surroundings. Or you can choose to head to Torres del Paine in Chilean Patagonia and hike the 4-day long W Trail, with views of Grey Glacier. Adventure opportunities are endless in Patagonia – from rock climbing to glacier walking, wildlife viewing to cruising to the edge of glaciers, Patagonia truly is a place you will never forget.
Here are our 7 favorite things to do in Patagonia for nature and adventure lovers, including both Chile and Argentina.
1. HIKE IN TORRES DEL PAINE NATIONAL PARK
Torres del Paine National Park offers the best hiking in Chilean Patagonia. The most famous trail is the W, named after its shape, as it weaves in and out of valleys allowing you to get close to glaciers and mountains. The highlights of the W are Grey Glacier, Valle Francés and – naturally – the granite peaks of the Torres del Paine, reached after a strenuous ascent on a sandy moraine.
Most people just hike the W when visiting the National Park, even though there’s a lot more to see and do – like a visit to the Fauna Trail, allowing you to get close to Chilean wildlife like guanacos and condors, and a visit to prehistoric Milodon Cave.
2. VISIT PERITO MORENO GLACIER
If you’re going to do one thing in Argentinian Patagonia, make it a visit to Perito Moreno. Standing in front of the glacier, watching chunks of massive blue ice fall into the waters of the lake below was an experience that moved me to tears – and one of the times when I experienced the force of nature in its powerful, mighty and resilient best.
Perito Moreno is one of the few ice fields that withstood global warming – as a result, it is not retreating, it’s actually advancing. Glaciers are dynamic entities, pushing their way through the mountains. Calving (ice falling into the lake) is a totally normal phenomenon.
There are various ways to get close to Perito Moreno – walking on the glacier, sailing or simply watching in from viewing platforms.
3. WALK ON VIEDMA GLACIER
In Patagonia, you can’t miss a glacier hike. Strap crampons on, grab a harness and an ice axe and follow your guides as they make their way up the glacier’s edge, around deep-blue crevasses and pinnacles. Perito Moreno is the most famous glacier, but it tends to be pricey and quite crowded.
For a glacier hike we recommend heading to Viedma, not far from El Chalten. It is just as spectacular as Perito Moreno, with only a handful of people – on the glacier you may be able to try your hand at ice climbing, and enjoy a scotch or Baileys with the purest ice you’ll ever have.
4. HIKE AROUND EL CHALTEN
If Torres del Paine is the hiking capital of Chilean Patagonia, El Chalten is the go-to place on the Argentinian side. Everything around El Chalten seems to be made to cater to adventure tourists, with loads of hiking maps and shops selling mountaineering and outdoors attire, and several hotels including a spa to relax those weary limbs.
We recommend two hikes specifically. The first one is Laguna de los Tres, a day long hike weaving down a valley and then up to the laguna, where it’s possible to enjoy a great view of Cerro Fitzroy, one of the iconic Patagonian mountains. The hike is strenuous, but doable by everyone with a reasonable fitness level, the trail is popular and well marked and if you get thirsty, you can just fill your water bottle at one of many streams running parallel to the trail.
The second hike is Laguna Torre, shorter than the hike to Laguna de los Tres but no less beautiful, ending at a lake with a great view over the saw-toothed profile of Cerro Torre.
5. GO WHALE WATCHING AROUND PENINSULA VALDÉS
Peninsula Valdes is the main sight on the Atlantic side of Argentinian Patagonia, and it is a must for wildlife lovers. Between May and November, the coastal area off Puerto Madryn is a breeding ground for Southern Right whales, and seeing them is practically guaranteed.
Orcas also travel these waters, and often get close to the shore to hunt for sea lions and seals on the beach – a sight that you may be lucky to experience on a whale-watching tour.
However, in Peninsula Valdes wildlife can also be seen away from the coast – you’ll be able to spot iconic Patagonian wildlife such as guanacos, rheas (a small ostrich-like bird), maras (a cross between a large guinea pig and a hare) and dwarf armadillos.
6. VISIT TIERRA DEL FUEGO
The southernmost reach of the South American continent is the island of Tierra del Fuego, beyond which there is only Antarctica. Tierra del Fuego is a wild, windswept land, with dwarf lenga forests and some plants that don’t exist anywhere else on Earth. Ushuaia is the so-called ‘Fin del Mundo’, the main town in Tierra del Fuego and jump-off point for Antarctic cruises and adventures in the region.
Sadly, our budget didn’t stretch far enough to go to Antarctica, or even to take the three-day cruise to Cape Horn, the tip where South America truly ends. We took an afternoon cruise of the Beagle Channel, where we saw a variety of penguins and seabirds, and a day trip to Estancia Harberton, where we explored more Fuegian nature and learnt about the life of Patagonian pioneers.
7. DRIVE THE RUTA 40 OR CARRETERA AUSTRAL
The Ruta 40 stretches all through Argentina, over 3000 miles from the Bolivian border at la Quiaca to Rio Gallegos in Santa Cruz province. It travels all across Patagonian Argentina, including the mountain and lake paradises of Bariloche and El Bolson and the Perito Moreno. The Ruta 40 isn’t the quickest way to travel Patagonia – it’s a long and winding road, mostly unpaved, but it offers beautiful mountain views and a true feel of adventure.
The Chilean counterpart is the Carretera Austral, a very scenic road running 770 miles from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins in rural Patagonia. The road was built by Pinochet to connect remote communities, and travels through thick forests, past fjords, glaciers and mountains. Some points of interest along the Carretera Austral include Queulat National Park, home to stunning glaciers, and the unlucky town of Chaiten, close to glaciers and the Futaleufu River, one of the best white-water rafting locations in South America.