Patagonia is vast, covering the southern third of Argentina and Chile. One could spend months in the region and still be left with more to see. This blog focuses on El Calafate, El Chaltén, and Torres del Paine, located in Southern Patagonia.
- Visit this region for the stunning landscapes, especially the southern Andes and Torres del Paine range, as well as the glaciers (13) of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field.
- Outdoor adventure is the name of the game; mountain climbing for the experienced folks, hiking (senderismo or trekking), horseback riding (cabalgatas), kayaking, birdwatching, and much more is on offer.
- Wildlife: You'll see guanácos (a member of the camelid family, related to the llama) and numerous bird species. You may even spot a puma or huemul (South Andean Deer).
Note: I can’t comment on the extensive hiking and camping options available in this region. The shorter hikes we did take provided stunning views and contact with nature – but we are not serious backwoods trekkers.
For those arriving by plane, El Calafate, Argentina, will most likely be your hub. Río Gallegos, on the Atlantic Coast is another option, but there are relatively few flights and little to see in the immediate area. Some travelers will include Ushuaia, located further south in Tierra del Fuego, in an itinerary as there are direct flights to/from El Calafate. You can also drive or take a bus from destinations in the north (Bariloche or Neuquén), or cross the Patagonian grasslands (pampa) from Trelew. Just keep in mind that distances are great and road conditions vary widely.
From the south you can arrive by boat or plane in Punta Arenas, Chile, and travel through Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine and beyond into Argentina. You can drive or take a bus from Ushuaia as well (minimum of 17 hours with a stop in Rio Gallegos, or via Punta Arenas). Another option is to cruise between Ushuaia and Punta Arenas – Australis Cruises is the high-end sailing, but there are other options (see tips below).
El Calafate (kah-lah-FAH-teh) sprawls along the shores of Lago Argentino and includes a small touristy commercial center. Don't plan to spend much time there unless you have specific things you want to do in the immediate area. The town is named after the calafate berry, a wild blueberry plentiful in the region. Be sure to try one of the many calafate products. The main attraction is the very accessible Perito Moreno glacier, located 80 kms west of town in the southern sector of Glaciers National Park (Parque Nacional los Glaciares). You’ll need almost an entire day to visit the glacier and take in the beauty and spectacle as it grinds forward (thus the term glacial pace). Reasonably priced day tours on mini buses are available from El Calafate ($30-50 per person). To save a bit you can take a public bus from the main station ($18 round trip), but the schedule is limited.
Although accessible paths along the shore opposite the glacier offer stunning views, I recommend one of the optional activities to get a bit closer to the glacier. We took a boat tour, but there are also kayaking options, as well as "minitrekking" which takes you alongside and onto the glacier. The "big ice" tour is a different level of effort and has a maximum age limit of 55.
There are numerous accommodation options in El Calafate. It's best to stay close to the center of town, but taxis are plentiful and inexpensive. We stayed at Design Suites Hotel, which offers views of the mountains and lake, but is relatively isolated. There are estancias (farms) and luxury properties further outside of town, which are good options if you want to feel more like a gaucho.
Because there is so much to see outside of El Calafate, I recommend a stay of no more than two nights, enough for a day trip to the glacier. In theory you could arrive in the evening, take a glacier tour the next day, and continue three hours north to El Chaltén in the late afternoon.
You can rent a car to get to El Chaltén, but there are also frequent bus connections. The town, which was literally an empty field in 1986, is dedicated to mountain climbing and hiking and as such proclaims itself as the world trekking capital.
Located in the northern sector of the national park, El Chaltén’s setting is spectacular. As you approach town, you’ll be skirting Viedma Lake, with its eerie aquamarine color and translucent icebergs thanks to the Viedma Glacier. Then the spikey peaks of Mount Fitz Roy (called chaltén, or"smoking mountain" by the indigenous inhabitants) and Cerro Torre (Tower Hill) come into view and you understand why this is such a special place. These are often called the most photogenic mountains in the world.
While there are numerous micro breweries in town offering pub grub for hungry hikers, we found a few very good spots to eat. Do not miss Ruca Mahuida for the food or the experience. The second house constructed in town offers a rustic alpine feel and fantastic goulash. We also enjoyed a delicious lunch at Cerveceria Artesanal Chaltén, a French microbrewery.
Accommodations in El Chaltén range from camping and hostels to higher end hotels. We enjoyed our stay at Hotel Destino Sur, a new, very clean hotel with very friendly staff. We had the good fortune of visiting in the off season, as the town can be fairly busy during the peak summer months (December through February), which also takes a toll on the hiking trails and park services. Between May and September, services are limited in El Chaltén.
As the crow flies, Torres del Paine National Park in Chile is not far from El Calafate or El Chaltén, but to get there you will take the famous Route 40 south into the open steppe, up over a high plateau, and north again to cross the border into Chile. You'll see hundreds of guanácos grazing alongside (and crossing!) the road - stay alert!. Your map may also show a shortcut via route 7 - avoid that option due to hazardous road conditions! Whether you take a bus or rental car, you will continue south to the ironically named outpost of La Esperanza (hope) before turning back north. La Esperanza is also your best (only) bet for gasoline.
The border crossing is at Carrera Cancha, literally a dirt road with a small administrative building on the Argentine side, and significantly more modern infrastructure on the Chilean side. Since this is a remote border crossing, waits can reach up to two hours during peak season. If you have a rental car make sure that you have the appropriate paperwork to cross the border. This can be arranged by your rental agency but they will require advance notice to secure the documents.
At the time of our visit, a paved road from the border into Torres del Paine (pie-nay) was under construction. Once completed, access to the national park will be greatly improved, which unfortunately may lead to additional strain on park infrastructure and the fragile environment contained in what can only be described as an awe inspiring natural treasure.
Paine means “blue” in the native Tehuelche (tay-well-chay) language, which could not be more appropriate given the amazing blue green color of the glacier-fed rivers and lakes in the area. There are several accommodation options, but don’t expect anything like a town. This is a remote area. The park offers a few camping spots with services, Pehue (pay-whey) Lodge (the first lodge in the park), various options in the Villa Serrano area, and the luxury property Explora. Just outside the park are Awasi, Patagonia Camp, and a few others. In any case, you need to make reservations well in advance, preferably 6 months to one year.
Patagonia Camp is a special experience; an all-inclusive stay in a luxury yurt in a truly stunning setting. You won’t regret the splurge. The staff are extremely friendly and knowledgeable, while every detail is taken care of. The experience is about the views of Lago Toro (Bull Lake) and the mountains, daily excursions into the park, walks in the immediate vicinity of the property, or simply relaxing. Before and during your visit staff work hard to customize your experience, arrange transportation as needed, etc. Upon arrival you will be welcomed as if you were an old friend.
Many serious hikers come to the park to hike the multi-day W or Circuit Trails around the Paine Range. However, there are numerous spectacular day trails or short excursions in the park, including the Lago Grey boat and glacier tour. However, be flexible with your plans, as the weather here is extremely changeable. Your options may be limited due to high winds or rain – but that is part of the experience.
You can then return to El Calafate or continue on to Punta Arenas for your flight. This itinerary can also be done in reverse, or as part of an extended trip.
Suggested Southern Patagonia Sampler itinerary:
A minimum visit of one week to ten days is required to experience this amazing region.
El Calafate... Arrival and/or departure point. A stay of 1-2 nights. Must do: Perito Moreno Glacier
El Chaltén.... 3-4 nights. You need at least two full days to hike.
Transfer from El Chaltén to Torres del Paine – A full day with stops along the way and a border crossing.
Torres del Paine... 3-4 nights. Ideally plan for three full days to enjoy the area and to allow for adjustments due to weather.
- No matter what time of year you visit be prepared for all four seasons. In winter (June - September) many tourist facilities shut down and hiking options are severely limited.
- Pack appropriately: Layers of warm outdoor (wicking) garments, hats, gloves, sunglasses, sunscreen, water repellent pants, and proper hiking footwear.
- If you are planning to hike, think about preparing with leg and endurance exercises well in advance. Some of the trails involve significant elevation changes.
- Book your accommodations and surface transport in advance. This region is growing rapidly in popularity.
- If you have time and read Spanish visit the charming Intendencia Parque Nacional de los Glaciares in El Calafate. Entrance is free and the content is much more informative than the highly commercial Glaciarium outside of town.
- I’m not promoting specific tour companies, but I found Swoop Patagonia to be a great source for information, tour packages, and accommodations.
Rainbow rating: You’ll be warmly welcomed in this region. Four out of five rainbows: 🌈🌈🌈🌈