Encompassing a vast 400,000 –square- mile region of southern Chile and Argentina at the tip of South America, Patagonia is a land of jagged peaks, sprawling glaciers, pristine lakes and rivers, thick forests, remote villages, uninhabited wilderness, wind-swept steppes, and bountiful marine and other wildlife.
One of the earth’s last true frontiers, a world away from the urbanity of Buenos Aires or Santiago, it’s both an adventure traveler’s dream – for trekking, glacier walks, horseback riding and much more -- and one that can be explored by less strenuous overland tours or small-ship cruises.
Even for most world travelers, Patagonia is a place that exists more in the imagination than reality. It’s remote, harbors immense swaths of wilderness (mountains, deserts, steppes, forests), and seems to defy easy categorization.
Yet if you’re fortunate enough to go there, you’ll encounter outstanding adventure travel opportunities, surprising cultural discoveries, and a remarkable variety of landscapes and natural wonders, including some of the world’s most spectacular scenery.
To start to make sense of it all, it helps to split the region up into two distinct sections, Chilean and Argentine Patagonia.
Chile has a much narrower and somewhat shorter slice of Patagonia than Argentina, but the Pacific Ocean coastal scenery is stunning, ranging from snow-capped peaks to snaky fjords and inlets, deep blue lakes to sparsely populated islands, ice fields to forbidding forests. The best way to see the length of it is via small ship cruising, but there are also plenty of opportunities to go trekking, kayaking, and rafting amid the region’s mountains, lakes, rivers, and national parks.
The best known recreational spot is mountainous Torres del Paine National Park, located about two-thirds of the way down Chile’s Patagonian coast. Besides mountains, the park features glaciers, icebergs, lakes, grasslands, and the chance to spot guanacos (similar to llamas) and condors. A four-day trekking circuit loops through the park. You can also take puma (cougar) tracking trips here and view the granite towers that gave the park its name.
To the north, Chiloé Island is a good place to view penguins and whales, as well as a number of 18th-century wooden churches built by Jesuit missionaries, some of them UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Small-ship cruises that explore the coast leave from the towns of Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas. You can sail through the Magellan Strait and Beagle Channel into Tierra del Fuego and possibly land at Cape Horn on the tip of the continent. Landings there are problematic because of the fierce winds and high waves that have confounded sailors for centuries, but if you can land you’ll find a remote Chilean military outpost occupying a gorgeous patch of hilltop greenery; souvenirs are sold.
While Argentine Patagonia dwarfs that of Chile, much of it is grassland and sheep and cattle country where you expect to see gauchos riding across the plains. Perhaps surprisingly, then, you’ll also encounter huge glaciers, lakes, wildlife sanctuaries, and even scattered communities where descendants of Welsh settlers run tea houses and B&Bs.
In Argentina’s northern section of Patagonia, the standout attraction is the wildlife reserve on the Valdés Peninsula, known for its massive Magellanic penguin colonies and marine life including right whales, elephant seals, orcas, fur seals, and sea lions. The peninsula – a UNESCO World Heritage Site -- is also home to guanacos and vast numbers of seabirds. The town of Puerto Madryn, he base for trips onto the peninsula, is one of several picturesque Welsh communities first settled here by emigrants from Wales in the mid-19th century.
Several towns are of note as you head south into Argentine Patagonia, either along the inland highway that skirts the Andes or the coastal routes.
Inland, Esquel serves as a gateway to the northern section of Parque National Los Glaciares, which attracts flocks of trekkers and mountain climbers annually. In Cholila, you can visit the ranch once occupied by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid after they escaped to South America following careers as colorful outlaws in the U.S. Old West.
Cholila is near Parque Nacional Los Alerces, named for a type of tree that survives as long as four millennia. Another natural site with a human twist is Cueva de Las Manos, a cave that features rock art nearly 10,000 years old depicting guanacos and human hands.
Along the Atlantic coast, Puerto San Julian was the site of explorer Ferdinand Magellan’s landing, when he encountered the indigenous Tehuelches and named Patagonia after them (they reminded him of a literary work).
The town of El Calafate in southern Patagonia serves as a base for trips to one of the world’s most famous glaciers, Perito Moreno. Located in the southern section of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, Perito Moreno is a comparatively rare glacier that’s actively growing, and which calves huge icebergs into Lake Argentino. Hiking on the glacier is a popular tour activity.
In the far south, the world’s southernmost city, Ushuaia, serves as the embarkation point for most Antarctica cruises and flights, as well as adventure trips into Argentina’s mountainous section of Tierra del Fuego.
Top Wildlife Sightings in Patagonia
Spotting the unique wildlife of Patagonia is one of the top travel highlights in this rugged region of the world. Due to its topography and often harsh climate, Patagonia’s wildlife is hearty and sometimes elusive, though the relative lack of human encroachment also means there are larger wildlife communities and better chances for us to observe them in their natural habitat.
Here are some classic Patagonian wildlife sightings to keep your eyes peeled for:
1. Guanaco - a common animal image used on tourist information for Patagonia, Guanaco are a cousin of the llama. They have an elegant shape, long eyelashes, and a light brown color. Mostly found in the Argentina portions of Patagonia.
2. Wild horses - Horseback riding is a popular activity in Patagonia. And while there are several ranches scattered throughout the region with a plethora of domesticated horses, Patagonia also has its fair share of wild horses - some of the last herds in the world. One of the best places to spot them is in Torres del Paine National Park.
3. Patagonia Puma - Probably the most elusive animal that Patagonia is famous for, the pumas in this area once were nearly extinct. Today they have made a wonderful comeback, and are a true delight to observe if you’re lucky enough to spot one. They are most commonly found in Torres del Paine or the Aysen region of Chile.
4. Foxes - There are two primary species of foxes you can find in Patagonia: the red Fueguian fox, and the Patagonia grey fox. Each have large populations, spread far and wide across Chile, and the odds of you catching a glimpse of one are pretty good. They can blend in to the environment though, so be sure to go with an experienced nature guide who can point them out!
5. Mara - If you love fluffy and adorable animals, then you better keep your eyes peeled for a Patagonian Mara. Among the largest rodents in the world, Mara’s closely resemble rabbits. For a double dose of cuteness, visit in September and October when Mara babies will be about.
6. Whales - Whale watching is an extremely popular Patagonia travel activity. And your odds of seeing one are increased due to the fact that Patagonia’s oceans attract 4 distinct species of whale, year round: Orcas, Humpbacks, Southern Right whales, and Blue whales. The best spot to see them is generally the Valdes Peninsula, though Humpbacks are best spotted in the Chilean Fjords and Strait of Magellan.
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Top Attractions & Activities in Patagonia
Patagonia is first and foremost considered an adventure travel destination, not the least of which because of its remote location. What you will see and do is closely tied to the landscape - from hiking, horseback riding, camping, and wildlife viewing.
Here are some top travel activities to not miss on your next tour to Patagonia:
1. Ushuaia - Among the most well known attractions in Patagonia, Ushuaia is the city at the end of the world, and the capital of Tierra del Fuego. Just being able to say you’ve been there is reason enough to visit. It is a meeting place for adventurous travelers from around the world, eager to check Ushuaia off their bucket list.
Ushuaia has taken its status as a tourism hotspot to heart - many Antarctica cruises stop here, and the city is a bonafide adventure capital. Many explorers have walked it’s streets over the centuries, and when you’re there you’ll feel their spirits all around.
2. Horseback Riding - One of the most popular activities for travelers in Patagonia, there are a number of horse treks and trails, suitable for most levels, through the Patagonian wilderness. If you’re interested in a more immersive experience you can even stay at old ranches, still in use today, scattered around the region.
3. Learn Some Prehistory - There was a lot of dinosaur activity in Patagonia and the Paleontology museum has an impressive exhibit of fossils discovered in the area. This is a great activity for kids and grown ups alike. You can also take an in depth “Dinosaur Walk” to learn more about the significance these fossils hold.
4. Whale Watching - Puerto Madryn offers some of the best whale watching in all of Patagonia and is a common activity included on Patagonia itineraries.
5. Penguin Watching - If weather permits, you can observe can the largest penguin colony in South America at Punta Tombo. They are in the area between September and April, and you can even walk among them! Be sure to book with reputable tour company for this activity, to ensure the animals are treated right.
6. El Chalten - This area of Patagonia is the perfect spot for travelers of all stripes. Everything from challenging multi-day treks to simple day walks are available from El Chalten. Though, the summits and rock climbing are really where it’s at, so if you have it in you, be sure to try the more strenuous hikes. The small town of the same name is also an essential Patagonia stop, with options to stay overnight - a popular itinerary item on Patagonia tours.