a travel guide to patagonia
During my senior year of college, I saw the movie 180 Degrees South for the first time. A friend recommended it to me, so on a drizzly, gray winter day my roommates and I sat down to watch.
“The film emulates the 1968 trip made by Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins to Patagonia, but rather than by land, Jeff Johnson travels by sea from Mexico and south along the west coast of Chile. The film opens with original home movie footage as taken by Chouinard and Tompkins, and then continues with Johnson's own footage, in which he includes surfing, sailing and climbing as the film follows Johnson signing on with a small boat heading for Chile... The film concludes with his attempt to climb Cerro Corcovado (the Corcovado volcano), an attempt that was halted 200 feet from the summit out of concerns for safety” (Wikipedia)
When the documentary shows the parts when Johnson gets to Chile and Patagonia, I fell in love. I wanted to get up immediately take off. Just the stunning images of lakes and mountains and glaciers seemed so dreamlike. Mile after mile of pristine, perfect nature. It looked like paradise, a place I could hike and explore and lose myself in nature and beauty and wonder. It seemed so wild, spectacular, but most of all, unobtainable.
I didn’t think I would ever get to Patagonia. Or at least get to Patagonia this soon. I thought I wouldn’t go to Patagonia for many years, and then only briefly: it was too far away and certainly too much money. But it stayed on my mind. My number one travel destination. Over the past few years, I rewatched 180 Degrees South several times. I’d look at pictures of Torres Del Paine and Tierra Del Fuego, always wondering when would I get my chance to go?
Then, I made a tough decision. I had a good job and was making good money, but I felt like I was missing out, like there was something more. So last September I decided to quit my job to travel for a year. I may have gone to Australia first, but getting to Patagonia was still the first priority. After some research, I realized Patagonia was completely possible and much more obtainable than I had imagined.
So in January of this year I flew to South America, landing in Buenos Aires. I was so excited and anxious to get to Patagonia I had a hard time enjoying Buenos Aires, which is a great place in its own right (if you’re in San Telmo, make sure you eat at Banco Rojo. One of my favorite spots in the whole world. Great vibe with affordable, delicious food). I remember sitting in my hostel in Buenos Aires, rewatching 180 Degrees South yet again. As I watched, my mind was flooded with memories of that winter day three years ago: a poor college kid falling with a place and a dream to somehow, someway, someday get there.
Little did I know, I soon would be going on the craziest adventure of my life and challenging myself in ways I never would have imagined.
Read: South America on a Shoestring. While it is a comprehensive guide to all of South America, there are in depth descriptions on where to stay, where to go, how to get around, and other tips and tricks for successful travel in Patagonia.
When To Go: Summer in South America is from December to February, which coincides with the high tourist season. I was there during January and February and the crowds were bearable, but I’ve heard many different experiences. During summer, the sun sets incredibly late (often as late as 10 or 11 pm) and the weather is milder. I use the term loosely, because each day you are equally likely to encounter rain, sun, clouds, wind, and occasionally snow. The shoulder months of November and March are much less crowded and often cheaper, but the weather gets even more unpredictable. Outside of November-March, it’s hard to recommend going unless you are there to ski. The weather gets crazy.
How To Get There: To get to Patagonia, people either fly into Santiago in Chile or Buenos Aires in Argentina. From there, you can either choose to bus south (a cheaper option if you have the time) or fly. People usually fly to Punta Arenas in Chile or Ushuaia in Argentina. I chose to bus.
How To Get Around: The vast majority of people get around via bus. However, because Patagonia is so vast, you will miss out on many of the smaller towns. Renting a car allows you more flexibility, but driving in South America is hectic and the roads are often in poor condition once you leave cities. I know many people who successfully hitchhiked (especially the Carretera Austral, more on that later), although I did not.
Fitness: Patagonia is no joke. It’s an outdoors adventurer’s paradise. There are countless trails to hike, mountains to climb, fjords to kayak, and more. That being said, it’s tough. Be honest with yourself about your physical condition, especially if you are doing multi-day tours, treks or expeditions. You will often be carrying a heavy pack for 6+ hours a day.
Health & Safety: Fortunately, you don’t have to worry about animals or mosquitos. Also, there aren’t any necessary vaccinations. Your most likely concerns will be fatigue and joint stress. Do watch your stuff. Gringos are easy targets for thieves and pickpockets. It’s nothing to stress about, but do be aware.
Where To Go
If there’s only one place you can go in Patagonia, go to Torres Del Paine, a national park in Chilean southern Patagonia. While there are numerous hiking options, we took part in the 130 km full circuit. There’s no two ways about it: this was absolutely the coolest, most beautiful place I have ever seen.
The trek takes anywhere from 6-10 days depending on your pace and how many rest days you take. We took 8 with one rest day. A fellow full circuiter put it best in his description of the trail: “And my spirit there I did find. The circuit broke me and healed me in ways I barely have words to describe.You must go. I insist. Even if you’re not at a crossroads in your life, it is impossible not to make the journey and find new and juicy caverns of your heart to explore.”
Every day was an adventure, and every day was different. One day we would be walking along endless fields of wildflowers, one along an ice field another through a mountain pass, another spent staring at an avalanching mountain range, and yet another through forests and along lakes.
If you are looking for something a little less touristy and definitely off the beaten path, head south to Navarino Island. It’s about as far south as you can go before hitting Antarctica and totally remote. Great hiking can be found throughout the island, either Dientes de Navarino or to Lake Windhond. Be warned, it’s difficult terrain and tough going, and the trails can be difficult to follow (so invest in a topographic map). But if you go, you will be rewarded with complete serenity, plentiful salmon fishing, and some crazy wetlands.
Another great stop is at El Chalten in Argentina. Completely remote (the closest city is 220 km away), it’s the trekking capital of Argentina. If you are looking for great day hikes, this is your spot. I spent 4 days there and loved every bit of it. The town essentially exists to support hiking. The park rangers are tremendously helpful and the trails are all clearly marked. Plus, the trails are all doable for nearly everyone.
Close to El Chalten is El Calafate. The city itself doesn’t have too much to offer, but it’s a transit hub primarily to get to Chalten and the Perito Moreno glacier. The glacier is an absolute must see. It is one of only three Patagonian glaciers that is growing and it’s completely breathtaking. It’s 97 square miles, and the sight of massive chunks of ice, some bigger than a car, crashing over a hundred feet is one of the coolest things I’ve ever witnessed.
Bariloche and El Bolson are two cities in the Lakes District of Argentinian Patagonia that are only two hours apart. El Bolson has quite a hippy vibe to it, and the town is definitely relaxed. Great hiking (I recommend a day trip to Cajon del Azul), fly fishing, and rafting can all be found in the nearby mountains and lakes. You also should visit the outdoor artisan market for crafts, trinkets, and best of all, delicious food and craft beers. Meanwhile, Bariloche was one of my favorite cities during my travels. It’s one of the bigger cities in Patagonia (the population is a little over 100,000) and is a major ski destination during the winter. But it also serves as a source for hiking, biking, kayaking, and stand up paddleboarding. Bariloche is surrounded by a number of lakes, all gorgeous and worth exploring. Bonus tip: if you are there during February or March, you can find ripe blackberries along the side of the road. I’m not kidding, it took me 15 minutes to walk 100 feet because I was picking and eating so many.
On long term treks (i.e. Torres Del Paine) bring more food than you think. You will be carrying your pack for hours on end and doing some strenuous hiking. You burn countless calories, and you quickly develop the appetite of a teenage boy. I thought I brought plenty of food and I was still going to the general stores along the route for overpriced snacks.
Invest in good equipment and gear. I learned this the hard way. We were hiking through Navarino Island for six days and much of the time through muddy wetlands. So the first night I set my shoes (a cheap $30 pair) out to dry by the fire. Well, the shoes were poorly made and part of the shoe melted. And I had to hike five more days. Fortunately they lasted. Unfortunately, South Americans are tiny and consequently don’t sell shoes in sizes bigger than 11. So I had to take my shoes to a shoe repair and make them last for two more months. Pay the extra money and invest in good shoes, tents, cooking equipment, and so forth. You will be thankful later.
You can drink the tap water in Chile and Argentina. Even better, you can drink from any river. The water is that pure. But use common sense. You obviously can’t drink it if there’s a dead cow 15 feet upstream.
Always carry with you a roll of toilet paper. You may find yourself far removed from a public toilet or even if you find one, they often do not provide toilet paper.
Patagonia was an absolutely wild adventure and one of, if not the coolest places I’ve ever visited. My jaw was constantly dropping at the sheer beauty surrounding me. I loved the glaciers, the late sunsets (often as late as 11 pm), the lakes, the mountains, the flowers, the vastness, the brilliant colors, the hikes, the camping, and the fishing. I tolerated the wind, the cold, and the rain...I’m from Southern California. But ultimately, it was a way to challenge myself in ways I never foresaw, get away from civilization, and enjoy the peace and serenity of nature. It was a time of constant exploration. Bruce Chatwin may have written the following over 40 years ago, but it applies today and could describe almost any day in Patagonia. And it’s why you should absolutely book the ticket and go. “I climbed a path and from the top looked up-stream towards Chile. I could see the river, glinting and sliding through the bone-white cliffs with strips of emerald cultivation either side. Away from the cliffs was the desert. There was no sound but the wind, whirring through thorns and whistling through dead grass, and no other sign of life but a hawk, and a black beetle easing over white stones.”