What you see and do when travelling to Patagonia depends entirely on how much time you want to spend there, how adventurous you're feeling and how much cash you have to spend. Here are a few of my top things to do in both Argentine and Chilean Patagonia.
1. Torres del Paine National Park, Puerto Natales, Chile
This is one of the most beautiful hikes in the world. If you like walking, camping and spectacular mountain scenery, this one’s for you. Torres del Paine is a massive network of trails around and up into the Paine Massif – a spectacular geological formation that protrudes from the surface of Patagonia like the head of a giant demon. I wrote another blog post about it here.
If time is short you can do the very popular three or four-day ‘W’ circuit, which leads you around the highlights of the southern bit of the park. The benefits of this trail are that it’s easily accessible, relatively straightforward and you can do it on your own, but you should pre-book spots at the campsites.
You get great views of the mountains and spectacular scenery, but it’s a very popular route and there will be quite a few other people on the trail.
Highlights include walking up into the French Valley with spectacular views of the ‘Cuernos’, catching a glimpse of Glacier Grey in the distance and storming up to the base of the ‘Torres’ themselves.
The other option is to do a circuit of the entire park. This requires more time (seven or eight days) more fitness (a lot) and, as of a few years ago, an official guide, which probably isn’t cheap.
The bonus is that for four or five days, you wont see that many people, and you’ll get to experience some of the lesser-known corners of the park: valleys covered in wildflowers, lakes of every shade of blue, and some of Patagonia’s unique wildlife.
It’s a tough walk but well worth the effort. You’ll walk past glacial lakes, frozen forests and cross a high mountain pass, before descending back down to Glacier Grey and filling up your thermos with frozen glacier water at the foot of a mountain of ice.
Plan your trip from Puerto Natales in Chilean Patagonia, which is full of adventure tour outfitters. Get there by bus from El Calafate in Argentina, or a flight from Santiago, Chile.
If you're feeling flush, spend a few nights at the incredible Tierra Patagonia luxury lodge before or after your hike.
2. Perito Moreno, El Calafate, Argentina
If you’re heading to Patagonia, you can't miss Perito Moreno, one of the world’s few advancing glaciers. Huge pieces of ice as big as a four-storey building break off from the glacier every now and again, crashing down into the frozen water below with an apocalyptic roar.
Almost every shop in El Calafate advertises tours of the glacier. Book a tour where you also get to walk on the glacier itself. You get to spend a bit more time there and you’ll ride on a ferry across the lake, then strap on crampons and spend a few hours trekking on the ice, which is an amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s not cheap, but it's well worth it. I did it with a company called Hielo Y Aventura.
Alternatively, you can visit independently by catching a local bus (book ahead if possible). The glacier is unpredictable and sometimes it’s quiet for hours (i.e. no bits falling off) so it’s nice to be able to linger there for as long as you like and wait for a big one. If you’re on a tour, it might be rushed.
If you want more hiking in the area, consider doing a shorter (two or three-day) trek up to the base camp of Mount Fitz-Roy in Los Glaciares National Park, which can also be arranged from El Calafate or nearby El Chalten, which is another adventure hub.
3. Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina
Welcome to the end of the world. Ushuaia itself is a fairly non-descript little port town, but it’s worth spending a couple of nights there to soak up the final frontier vibes.
Take a trip out to Tierra del Fuego National Park, where you’ll walk through ancient primeval forests and drive to the end of the road – the end of the PanAmerican Highway. The ribbon of tarmac starts up in Alaska and comes to an abrupt and undignified end at the end of the world, here in Tierra del Fuego.
If you have time, take a trip up to Estancia Haberton and try to figure out how they managed to transport his massive cabin all the way from Wales to this lonely outcrop.
If you have lots of time and lots of money, you might want to consider a trip over to Antarctica, or perhaps a slightly more affordable day trip through the Beagle Channel up to Port William. There are plenty of fishing trips and other fun to be had around here – look out for penguins.
4. Peninsula Valdes, Argentina
Depending on how you plan to get to Patagonia from Buenos Aires, you may want to stop off in Perto Madryn to visit the Peninsula Valdes, a little nubbin of land that sticks out into the Atlantic halfway down the eastern coast of Argentina.
It’s famous for whale-watching, but it’s also home to a couple of varieties of penguin, sea lions, seals, orcas, dolphins and all manner of bird life.
Whale season usually ends in early March, but check with other travellers and local tour companies. I was told the season was over but had an amazing morning watching gigantic right whales prancing in the water and performing for our boat.
5. Road trip: Ruta 40, Argentina
If you love Patagonia, you might want to follow Ruta 40 all the way up to Bariloche, stopping off at places like Esquel to ride The Old Patagonian Express (La Trochita) into Mapuche Indian territory, El Bolson to stock up on craft beer and hippie vibes, or Trevelin, a Welsh settlement in the middle of Patagonia, complete with tea rooms and Welsh street signs.
Bariloche itself is another adventure hub, with amazing hiking, biking, kayaking, rafting and everything else an outdoor enthusiast could dream of, all set to the backdrop of the magnificent Lake Nahuel Huapi.
Stay here for a few days and take day trips to Llao Llao National Park, Villa Angostura and Los Arrayanes National Park.
Hire a car and keep going north to San Martin de los Andes via the spectacular Ruta de los Siete Lagos (Seven Lakes Road) and then on to Junin de los Andes.
After all that you’re going to need a glass of wine, so prepare yourself for a series of long bus rides to take you up to Mendoza, just in time for the grape harvest in spring. Read more about what to do in Mendoza here.