Patagonia Tours and Travel Guide
Patagonia Attractions & Landmarks Guide
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.
Why Take a Tour of Patagonia?
The way that the Patagonian region has worked to preserve its national parks is evident in the ways they are protected. While it might be easy to take this natural beauty for granted, travelers should consider the future of it as they plan tours in Patagonia.
With glaciers and deserts, cities and small towns, Patagonia is a region that offers much more than just hiking for travelers. Those who wish to see not only endangered animals and plants but also the stunning landscapes that they populate will find tours of Patagonia to provide just that.
Travelers who enjoy the idea of hiking a mountain peak one day and relaxing at the beach on another will find the opportunities to do so in Patagonia. Similarly, travelers who wish to access both the continent of South America and Antarctica on the same guided tours will be able to do so in Patagonia. It is highly apparent that Patagonia is unique for its array of natural attractions and cities, all of which continue to appeal to travelers today.
Is Patagonia Only for Camping and Trekking?
No, far from it! While Patagonia is known internationally for its challenging (yet rewarding) hiking opportunities and pristine campsites, the region also has various cultural attractions. From the nautical museums found at Ushuaia, the paleontology one in Trelew City, and the mysterious Cueva de los Manos, Patagonia offers travelers many opportunities to explore the past.
Similarly, travelers can look ahead towards the future with guided tours of Antarctica research centers, which explore the recent negative impacts on the surrounding ice and other parts of the world.
Travelers should not be deterred from visiting popular hiking or camp-sites, as Patagonia’s unforgettable national parks may still be toured in a more leisurely fashion with tour groups. For travelers who are able to rent a car, Patagonia is also beautiful to drive through.
From the coastlines, travelers can partake in guided tours which include whale-watching or interactions with penguins. While these tours may require more planning to ensure availability, they are just as satisfying as a hike through the mountains or campsite beneath the stars.
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.
Given the austere beauty which the Patagonian region is known for, it is no surprise that most guided tours center around hiking or exploring natural attractions. This means that tours to Patagonia’s national parks are abundant with groups or privately, as tour operators work to provide the most options possible to travelers.
Hiking through Torres del Paine National Park is a wildly popular activity in Patagonia, as the granite slabs which it is named for are both impressive and unique. Viewing Perito Moreno Glacier in Los Glaciares National Park from afar or up-close in a boat is another popular guided tour in Patagonia.
For the more adventurous travelers, Patagonia National Park is a challenging tour through an array of biomes. The unforgettable views found in this national park are only improved by the countless plants and animals that make this protected landscape their home.
For travelers who wish to get even closer to Patagonia’s wildlife, Puerto Madryn hosts whale-watching tours and walks through penguin colonies.
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.
Packing List for Patagonia Travel
Travelers who are interested in Patagonia may be surprised to find just how much the weather tends to change, no matter where they are exploring. Therefore, it is crucial to pack layers, with the outermost one being a wind-proof jacket.
Similarly, travelers who wish to hike or travel through the more rural areas of Patagonia may consider investing in waterproof hiking boots. This helps increase preparedness for unexpected rains or muddy trails, which Patagonia is notorious for within its national parks. By bringing sunscreen and insect repellent, travelers can minimize the potential for bothersome issues that can be easily prevented.
Sunglasses, hats, and thick socks are other accessories that can prove very useful, whether or not travelers are on a guided hike through Patagonia. Those who wish to document their trip through cameras or phones may consider bringing them on tours but are also cautioned to bring a dry-bag, waterproof cases, and solar-powered battery packs for cameras.
Patagonia Hiking Tips
Travelers in Patagonia are usually excited at the prospect of being able to traverse some of the most famous national parks in the world. However, given the altitude which certain peaks reach, it is important to bring sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat that will not blow off in high-speed winds.
Similarly, sturdy, waterproof hiking boots and thick socks prevent painful blisters and wet feet. Travelers are cautioned against buying hiking supplies within Patagonia, as prices tend to be inflated, especially in the small towns that serve as entrances into the parks. By bringing along a camp-stove, travelers can eat more than tuna-cans every day and still abide by the prohibition against any open fires in all national parks in Patagonia.
Those who invest in a strong, solar-powered portable battery will also be able to obtain footage of their trip and communicate with others should the need arise. Preparation for hiking in Patagonia may require more forethought than other locations, but it will be worth it at the end of a trip well-spent within some of the most impressive places on Earth.
Things to Know Before You Go
Getting to Patagonia
Given the sheer size of the Patagonian landscape, car rides or flights are the best modes of transportation for travelers. To begin a trip through the region, most travelers fly into Buenos Aires Ezeiza International Airport. From there, smaller planes can be chartered to reach a chosen Patagonian city while still in the comfort and speed which air travel provides. Travelers on a budget may opt to rent a car to drive to the region on their own or take busses.
Those who wish to enjoy the Patagonian landscape without worrying about flat tires or uncomfortable seats on shared transportation can also hire “remis.” These private cars come with drivers who will take the wheel as you sit back and relax. While more inexpensive than air-travel, traveling by ground to Argentina’s side of Patagonia will likely take an entire day to accomplish.
Should travelers choose to access Patagonia from the Chilean side, they can fly into Punta Arenas Airport and traverse the region from its southern point. Busses into Patagonia are also available from this airport but are known to be quite full during peak visiting seasons.
Who Will Enjoy Traveling in Patagonia?
Although Patagonia is well-known for its wildlife and natural attractions excursions, hiking is heavily emphasized and can be expected with most tours. While this may appeal to adventurous travelers who enjoy the thought of challenging Mount Fitz Roy or camping amidst glacial lakes, travelers with special accommodations requirements may find these tours to be difficult.
Even without being able to see all of the peaks and valleys which Patagonia is known for, travelers can still have unique and personal experiences with wildlife. Travelers who make their way to the coast can charter boats to see whales or simply walk through Puerto Madryn to interact with penguin colonies.
Similarly, Ushuaia, the city at the “end of the world” is small and quaint, but also accessible by train, allowing all travelers to experience its mystery when visiting Patagonia. For travelers looking to specifically see the cultural heritage of Patagonia, the region offers many natural and organized chances to do so, should travelers be willing to find tours to get them there.
It is important to note that not all locations in Patagonia, especially remote ones, have equal accessibility to lookout points at natural landmarks.
What is the Weather Like in Patagonia?
As any Patagonian local will tell you, the weather in the region can be unpredictable at best, freezing at worst. For most the year, travelers are advised to dress in heavy layers, as protection from coastal and mountain winds is crucial in order to fully enjoy excursions.
Travelers who book tours in advance for the summer months (December to February) will be able to enjoy the warmest weather which the season offers (40-60 degrees Fahrenheit).
These months are the most popular for a reason, as the temperate weather allows for the maximum number of tours through blooming natural landscapes teeming with wildlife.
Springtime (October to November) is also popular time for travelers to visit a Patagonian landscape with cooler temperatures and stunning backdrops for glaciers or waterfalls.
Common Patagonia Tour Routes
Since Patagonia is accessible by both plane and car, common tour routes tend to differ based on which mode of transportation is chosen. For those who travel by plane, they usually begin by landing at Argentina’s Buenos Aires Ezeiza International Airport. From there, smaller planes may be charted to reach the small town El Calafate, which serves as the entry point into the famous Los Glaciares National Park.
Perito Moreno Glacier should not be missed while there, as the massive natural landmark and piercing blue lake which it resides in are stunning. From there, many travelers head to Puerto Natales. While the seaside town is not big, it hosts the entryway into Torres del Paine National Park. This national park is famous for its impressive granite slabs and a wide variety of endangered species.
Heading further south, travelers will encounter the city at the “end of the world,” Ushuaia. With a train that runs through the surrounding landscape, it is possible to spend a day here before opting to go even further south. This town serves as the first stop for nearly all cruises to Antarctica.
It is important to note that these Antarctic cruises are not available all year, as the ice becomes nearly impenetrable during winter months. A short plane ride back to Buenos Aires will allow travelers to head home after a long, but rewarding, tour of Patagonia.
Travelers who wish to emphasize Patagonia and Antarctica can fly into Chile’s Punta Arenas Airport and continue onward to Ushuaia for Antarctic tours. From there, they can backtrack to Puerto Natales to access Torres del Paine and go even further north to see Perito Moreno Glacier. From the nearby town of El Calafate, travelers can finalize their trip home from Buenos Aires Ezeiza International Airport in Argentina.
When is the best time to visit Patagonia?
While Patagonia is naturally beautiful the whole year through, some seasons prove better than others for sight-seeing. It is important to note that the following seasons, while considered to be the “best” times to travel to Patagonia, are subject to change.
As the southern hemisphere’s spring, October through November can provide travelers with stunning views of wildlife that are prospering among landscapes in full bloom.
Natural landmarks, such as waterfalls and lakes, are at their highest points during this season, providing travelers with the ability to see them in their entirety.
When it comes to summer months in Patagonia (December through February), travelers can expect some of the warmest temperatures and optimal hiking conditions. Therefore, travelers who wish to participate in guided camping tours or wildlife excursions should plan far in advance, as this season is one of the busiest in the region.
The months of March, April, and May are not to be discounted, as travelers who can brave their slightly colder temperatures will be rewarded with deals on lodging and excursions.
Preparing for Hiking in Patagonia
The immense peaks and valleys which Patagonia is known for are matched by similarly drastic fluctuations in temperature. This means that travelers should be prepared for paths that may be difficult to find, muddy or rocky terrains, and high altitudes.
Hiking boots are crucial, especially waterproof ones. This allows travelers to access as much of their hike as possible, since certain areas may be impossible to get through without getting wet. That being said, thick socks prevent blisters, another almost unavoidable aspect of hiking that can have devastating consequences on the rest of the trip.
Patagonia is a challenging region, but packing layers helps prepare travelers for high-speed winds, unrelenting heat and anything in between. Despite how cold it may feel, sunscreen, a hat that will not be easily blown away, and other forms of sun protection are crucial to bring to Patagonia.
Unfortunately, bugs are not deterred by the weather either, making repellant an important addition to hiking supplies. Travelers should also consider the ban against open fires of any kind in all national parks in Patagonia, which means that any cooking needs to be done on camp-stoves.
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