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.