Patagonia is a destination that has reached almost mythical status for travel junkies looking to explore one of the wildest and most beautiful regions in the world. Caught up in the magic of Patagonia, most travellers forget that this region spanning southern Argentina and Chile is simply massive. The logistics of travelling here can be tricky, and a certain amount of planning needs to happen before you pack and go. Before you book your tickets, here are some tips on how to plan the perfect Patagonia travel itinerary.
Plan the trip of a lifetime to Patagonia / Photo by Daytours4u
1. Be realistic about your time frame
Unless you have put aside a number of months to travel, you will not be able to see everything in Patagonia. The area is huge, stretching from the Lake District across both Chile and Argentina all the way down to the southern tip of Ushuaia. You will have to be ruthless in picking what destinations you can realistically fit into your timeframe.
There are endless places to explore across Patagonia’s vast expanse / Photo by Daytours4u
2. Choose which region to explore
Since time and distance is a big factor, be fussy when it comes to choosing where to go. Patagonia is diverse, which makes it harder but also allows you to hone in on a place based on your interests. If you only have a few days, it is better to choose one area and explore it more thoroughly rather than trying to fit in too many distant destinations.
To help you choose, here is a guide to the most popular regions in Patagonia:
Discover the rich marine life of Argentina’s Atlantic coast / Photo by Daytours4u
If you’re a wildlife lover, consider heading to Argentina’s East Coast to the town of Puerto Madryn. Peninsula Valdes and the nearby coastline is teeming with marine wildlife from whales, orcas, dolphins and sea lions, to elephant seals, penguins and a diverse array of birds. If the chance of once-in-a-lifetime animal encounters isn’t enough to tempt you, the region has a pre-historic appeal with a fascinating dinosaur museum and a history of Welsh immigration which has had a fascinating impact on the local culture and customs.
When to visit: Depends on which wildlife you want to see. Whale season is from May to December. Check out the full maritime wildlife calendar here.
Top activities: whale watching; snorkelling with sea lions; excursions to see penguins, sea lions, dolphins and other wildlife; or a tour of the Welsh towns.
Explore the lakes, forests and mountains of picturesque Bariloche / Photo by Daytours4u
Bariloche is known as the Switzerland of Argentina. You can expect pristine lakes, snowy mountain peaks, green forests, log cabins, craft beer and delicious chocolate in Bariloche and its surrounding areas. A ski haven in winter, Argentina’s Lake District is magical all year round with great hikes, cycle routes, and leisurely boat trips. For a more German influence, and the thrill of being surrounded by active volcanoes, cross the lakes to the other side of the border to explore the stunning towns of the Chilean Lake District such as idyllic Puerto Varas and adventure capital Pucon.
When to visit: Depends on what activities you enjoy. Ski season runs between June and September.
Top activities: Sightseeing, beer and chocolate tasting, hiking, cycling, lake cruises, skiing.
Perito Moreno Glacier in the Patagonian Ice Field is a true bucket list attraction / Photo by Daytours4u
EL CALAFATE & EL CHALTÈN
If you’re looking for a real wow factor in Patagonia, make a beeline for El Calafate, a city situated close to the Los Glaciares National Park. Here you’ll find not only one of the world’s largest ice fields, but also the spectacular Perito Moreno Glacier. Since it is one of the few non-receding glaciers in the world it is a breathtaking sight that can be enjoyed by land, boat, or by an adventurous ice trek. 3 hours away is the tiny trekking town of El Chaltén where you’ll find the famous peaks of Mount Fitz Roy. There are many incredible walks here to suit all levels of fitness and experience.
When to visit: Popular all year round, although services are more reliable outside of the harsh winter season. For trekking in El Chalten, summer months are best, as most of the town shuts down in winter and conditions are harsh.
Top activities: Visiting the glaciers, boat cruises, ice trekking, 4×4 tours, hiking, mountain biking.
The towers of Torres del Paine are well worth the hike / Photo by Daytours4u
TORRES DEL PAINE
The Torres del Paine National Park has cemented itself as one of the premier hiking destinations in the world. But it’s not just trekkers who love coming here to do the famous ‘W’ Trek or one of the other scenic walks in the Chilean park. Its location close to the border with Argentina means you can do a day trip from El Calafate to see some of the highlights. Those staying to trek can explore the nearby Chilean town of Puerto Natales, or venture down south to Punta Arenas.
When to visit: Summer. January and February are peak season due to the milder weather. Many trails are closed in winter as the weather is too extreme.
Top activities: Trekking and sightseeing in the park.
Visit the city of Ushuaia, perched on the famed Beagle Channel / Photo by Daytours4u
TIERRA DEL FUEGO
On the other side of the Strait of Magellan is the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego. The most visited place on the island is the city of Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. Situated on the legendary Beagle Channel, the landscapes here are wild and the places straight from the pages of Darwin and Chatwin.
When to visit: Year round. Summer months are best for sightseeing, but winter offers an extended ski season.
Top activities: Cruises on the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego National Park, wildlife watching, hiking, 4×4, kayaking, skiing, visiting the Old Prison Museum.
The peaks of Mount Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre in El Chaltén are waiting for you / Photo by Daytours4u
3. Decide how you want to get around Patagonia
The biggest factor in planning your transport between destinations will be your budget and time constraints. Bear in mind that flying is expensive and most flights in Argentina go via Buenos Aires. We recommend flying to Ushuaia from Buenos Aires as the bus journey is more than 50 hours. There is also a good connection between Ushuaia and El Calafate – a preferable option that doesn’t involve ferries and border crossings.
Don’t write off bus transport between other destinations. Long distance buses are excellent with full sleeper options. While they take longer, they offer you a chance to see more of the Patagonian scenery as well as save some precious pennies that you can instead spend on memorable activities.
If you want to hire a car, keep in mind that many roads, particularly along the Andes, are not in good condition. Moreover, there are steep costs involved if your drop off location is different to the pick up, or you’re crossing borders.
Chile’s Lake District has an enticing mix of volcanoes, lakes, and architecture / Photo by Daytours4u
4. Popular itineraries to get you started
Once you’ve narrowed down your must-see destinations and your time frame, it’s time to fit them together in an itinerary. Some popular combinations are:
Ushuaia & El Calafate: Perfect for those short on time, spend two nights in El Calafate, and 3 nights in Ushuaia to see the highlights.
El Calafate, El Chalten & Torres del Paine: Ideal for trekkers, this combines some of the best walking in Patagonia with the incredible Perito Moreno. Take a day trip to Torres del Paine or commit to a longer itinerary including a multi-day trek in the park.
Bariloche & Puerto Madryn: While situated on opposite sides of Argentina, the multiple transport options makes these two easy to combine without having to travel to the extreme south of the country.
Lake District of Argentina & Chile: Spend a few days on either side of the Andes, enjoying either a lake crossing between Bariloche and Puerto Varas, or taking an overland crossing.
. . .
Wherever you decide to spend your time in Patagonia, you are sure to be blown away by its never-ending landscapes, and intoxicating mix of wild scenery, hospitable locals and unique activities. To make your trip even more unforgettable, contact Argentina4u for the most memorable tours and activities in Patagonia.
By: Nicole Eberhard, travel writer and avid explorer, with a Masters in English Literature.