Its difficult to describe the beauty of Patagonia. This sprawling chunk of glaciers, mountains, rivers and coastline straddle one third of the land mass of Chile & Argentina. Dominated by the southern end of the mighty Andes mountain range, its a diverse array of icecaps, fiords, alpine plains, glaciers, glacial lakes and rivers, not to mention the not too insignificant matter of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
Surprisingly for me, it was not really a huge part of my initial plans. I thought that perhaps if I had time and money, I might tack it on towards the end of my journey. A chance bus meeting on the way into Bolivia however, introduced me to some people who’s major focus was Patagonia and my opinion soon started to change. The fact that they were looking to rent a car and explore it on a whim also appealed to me.
And so it came to pass, after crossing the border from Bolivia and into the Atacama desert of Chile, I decided to while away a few days in Santiago ( an amazing city and one worthy of its own blog post ), and then board a plane flight to Punta Arenas and away I went.
All up I spent the best part of 3 1/2 weeks in the southern end of Patagonia. The area is so vast that I simply did not have the time to see it all so the northern areas will have to wait for another time.
While there are so many options and things to explore in this wonderland, the main focus of the people I met was hiking. Most of the hikers were well prepared for overnight camping and hiking and many were exploring by a range of methods, cycling, walking and even rafting.
I would not admit to being the most hard core hiker, some strenuous day hikes and strolling around taking photos was more my scene. My travel buddies were right into it however, and left me behind as they undertook some of the famous overnight hikes that make Torres Del Paine in Chile, El Chalten and El Calafate in Argentina world famous.
Torres del Paine – Chile
Arguably, the most famous and desirable hiking destination in Patagonia is the Torres del Paine National Park. The roughly 600,000 acre park has many features but is most easily recognised by the Cordillera del Paine ( Towers of Paine ), 3 massive granite monoliths that dominate the skyline. The Grey Glacier, Los Cuernos and the French Valley are other attractions. Of course the major focus here is hiking and two particular treks are world renowned, the W trek which winds around the Torres and the O trek which basically winds its way the whole way around. I was not really prepared with equipment or accommodation for the big treks, so my buddies and I found a beautiful campsite on Lake Pehoe and I explored the area from there. Morning vistas of the Torres and visits from friendly armadillos, venturing up to the Condor viewpoint and standing directly under soaring condors was more than enough for me.
The Cordillera del Paine
The view across Lake Pehoe
The view from the campsite at Lake Pehoe
On the road in Patagonia
The view from Condor Point
A couple of tips –
If you are planning to visit Torres del Paine by car, you will most likely arrange most things in the nearby town of Puerto Natales. Despite some maps showing fuel stops on the way, there simply are none. We could not find petrol anywhere other than Puerto Natales, be sure to factor this in to your plans for exploring the park.
Also be aware that in recent years the Park has become exponentially popular. If you are planning on hiking the W or O trek in the high season of Jan / Feb independently, then be sure to book well ahead with the Park Authorities. The free camp sites were booked solid for 2 months beforehand when I visited. Another reason I left the hard core hiking to others.
Punta Arenas sits at the southern end of Chilean Patagonia and is generally the first point of entry for many who venture there by air ( though bear in mind that a new airport opened in Puerto Natales in 2016 so that may change the plans of some ).
Punta is a nice enough place although there are not an enormous amount of things to do from there, especially if you are on a budget. I enjoyed wandering the town with a camera as there is some interesting graffiti and an amazingly interesting cemetery, but for me, the highlight of visiting Punta is to visit the island of Magdalena in the Magellan Strait, home to over 60,000 pairs of breeding Magallenic Penguins. Day trips can be arranged in Punta and the sights and smells and these curious little creatures is incredible. I highly recommend it.
Magallenic penguins at Magdalena Island
The interesting cemetery in Punta Arenas
El Calafate is a quaint little town in the heart of Argentinian Patagonia. We arrived here by default. As mentioned earlier, as we could not find fuel at Torres del Paine, we decided to turn right and head to Argentina instead as there was a petrol station just over the border, the only time I have ever left a country to get fuel !!!!!! El Calafate is a hiking mecca and its most notable feature is the massive Perito Moreno Glacier. This extraordinary glacier is located about 1.5 hours by bus from El Calafate. We had by chance found a free campsite only 30 mins drive away and so were able to be at the glacier at 8am as the gates opened and before the bus hoards arrived.
To say that this place took my breathe away is an understatement. It is simply majestic and a definite must see.
A rainbow appears on Perito Moreno Glacier
The high alpine plains of Patagonia near El Calafate
A visitor at Perito Moreno Glacier.
The face here is 60 meters high and ice chunks regularly calve off into the lake in a massive spray. Perito Moreno is one of the few existing glaciers that is not shrinking.
El Chalten is a small town which has become the home of hiking and rock climbing in Southern Argentina. Climbers come here for months at a time during the season to clamber up the many peaks in close vicinity. The town is located by the Los Glaciares National Park and the nearby magnificent Fitzroy Ranges. There are any number of hiking options here from quick 1/2 day walks to multi day overnight hikes. Its an extraordinary place, with many other things to eat up your time. Flyfishing the azure blue glacial rivers is one as is cycling along the valleys.
The hiking, & rock climbing Mecca of Argentina, El Chalten.
The Fitzroy Ranges
You meet some amazing people while travelling. Luke and Jason were carrying inflatable rafts in their packs and had hiked and rafted down from Northern Patagonia.
You can follow their journey at http://www.13degreesofpatagonia.com
El Chalten township.
Home sweet home.
A tip – If you are heading to El Chalten, be sure to be cashed up first. There is only one ATM in the town and in the week I was there it was constantly out of action. Take plenty of cash, there are places to change currencies if needed.
I am more of a photographer than a writer and the stories above simply do not do justice to this huge and diverse place. You could easily write a book about each location. I did not manage to get to northern Patagonia and there is an enormous amount to see there as well. From grade 5 rapids and some of the worlds best white water rafting at Futaleufu to kayaking the many fiords. Maybe next time !!!!!
Patagonia can be explored in many ways, from organised trekking tour groups, to high end cruise ships from Santiago to Buenos Aries and Antarctic and Easter Island cruises. The world is your oyster here depending on your needs and budget. My method as usual, was to do it independently and pretty much on a whim. If you are planning on doing extended overnight hikes, my advice is to be prepared and pack lightweight, warm and dry clothes, tent, sleeping mat and cooking equipment. A lot of this equipment can be rented in the supporting towns if you are travelling long term and do not want to carry the kit when you leave. You can also stock up on food here as needed.
So there you have it, my small insight into Patagonia. This isolated wonderland at the southern end of the world will be one of the highlights of your life.