Seven Ways to Experience Patagonia
Shared between Argentina and Chile and stretching all the way down to the end of the world, Patagonia is a wild land of unyielding winds, vast skies and endless scrub plains. It is populated by proud local communities and hardy wildlife, both of which have adapted over many years to the demands of this tough environment. But it is also a highly accessible region, luring travellers who are keen to see for themselves its immense glaciers, glistening lakes, and icy fjords and experience its singular way of life, centred around local traditions and with a strong connection to the land.
This mythical place is thought to have got its name from the 16th century explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who labelled the large indigenous Tehuelche people he found here “Patagones”, in reference to their big feet. It was, however, once home to much bigger creatures, when the world’s biggest dinosaurs roamed the landscape and whose remains continue to be discovered today. It has been the destination of epic voyages by intrepid explorers, welcomed settlers fleeing from Europe and later provided a haven to the famous outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. More recently Patagonia has attracted writers, painters and wildlife documentary makers and has inspired beautifully shot films, set against a backdrop of magnificent terrain and lonely roads cutting poignantly through the empty expanses.
Journeying through Patagonia is a treat for all the senses; the crashing sound of icebergs detaching from glaciers, the herby aroma of freshly brewed yerba mate, the succulent taste of tender barbecued lamb and the awesome sight of some of the world’s most spectacular scenery unfolding before your eyes. The evocative names alone are enough to stir up thoughts of epic adventure into the unknown; Land of Fire, Beagle Channel, Cape Horn, Glacier Alley.
To help you plan your perfect trip, we offer our seven step guide to Patagonia, taking you on a tour of its varied landscapes, fascinating wildlife and rich cultural traditions, whilst serving up a feast from its broad menu of local specialities.
1. Cross the Andes in the dazzling Lake District
Formed by the melting of mammoth glaciers many centuries ago, the resulting Lake District is one of the most spectacular places on earth, where snow-capped volcanoes, thick verdant forests and alpine towns stand watch over shimmering deep blue lakes. Once populated by the indigenous Mapuche people, who fiercely defended their area against outsiders, the towns have since attracted a number of German speaking settlers, giving the Lake District a distinctly European feel.
The region is intersected by the powerful Andes mountain chain, forming a natural border between Chile and Argentina, the crossing of which is just about the most spectacular way to travel from one country into another. The journey between the Argentine town of Bariloche and Puerto Varas, on the Chilean side, takes you on a memorable ride through a series of dramatic mountain pases and across three magnificent lakes, with breathtaking views throughout.
The Lake District can be visited as part of an organised tour or on a self-drive basis and offers excellent hiking, horse-riding, fly fishing and mountain biking opportunities, as well as a number of excursions. On the Argentine side, these include the charming village of Villa de la Angostura, on the banks of Lake Nahuel Huapi and the town of San Martín de los Andes, gateway to the glacial lakes and mountain scenery of the Lanín National Park.
The main base on the Chilean side is the town of Puerto Varas, to which Lake Llanquihue and the Osorno Volcano provide a stunning backdrop. From here you can visit the awesome Petrohué Waterfalls, the adventure hub of Pucón and the colourful fishing island of Chiloé, with its 16 UNESCO heritage wooden churches.
2 - Live the gaucho life at a traditional cattle farm
There is no better way to understand the gaucho lifestyle than to live it for yourself at a traditional country estancia. Nestled in the foothills of the Andes in northern Patagonia is Estancia Huechahue, a working cattle farm, which actively encourages guests to get involved with gaucho life.
The estancia offers authentic horse-riding experiences, undertaking multi-day rides through some of the 6,000 hectares of the estate. Going at your own pace, you traverse the varied countryside, taking in panoramic views of the vast Patagonian steppe, visiting ancient Indian petroglyphs, at caves created by lava flows, and looking out for guanaco, red deer and wild boar, as well as soaring eagles and condors.
One highlight of the itinerary is the chance to help out (or just watch in amazement) as the local herdsmen go to work, rounding up the prized cattle and you can even learn to throw a lasso. In the evening, watch the sun set in the huge skies and enjoy dinner cooked on an open fire, before camping out under the stars.
It’s not just about horse-riding here though, visitors can trout fish or raft in the many rivers within the estate or partake in bird-watching, with some 172 species of birds living within the limits of the estancia, which boasts its own wetlands, clifftop condor nesting sites and expert ornithologist.
3. See Mother Nature at her most powerful
Nowhere is the raw power of Patagonia better demonstrated than by the Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina. The numbers alone are mind-boggling; 3 miles wide, 19 miles long, up to 700 metres deep and with a surface area of around 97 miles. But these figures are not what brings so many visitors to this remote part of the world, they don’t even begin to explain the unique attraction of this huge wall of ice.
One of only three glaciers in Patagonia that are not retreating, the Perito Moreno is set amongst towering snow-capped mountains and verdant forests, in the immense Lake Argentina - the third largest reserve of freshwater in the world. Wooden walkways and viewing platforms afford you sweeping panoramic vistas across the glacier, whilst unforgettable boat trips and glacier-trekking expeditions allow you to get up close and even on top of it.
Whichever vantage point you observe the glacier from, the defining memory of your trip is likely to be the visual and audio spectacle created when a huge chunk of ice slowly detaches itself from the great mass, before crashing with a thunderous roar into the icy waters below. It is a hair-raising moment that draws gasps of awe and excitement from anyone experiencing it for the first time.
The Perito Moreno glacier is best accessed on day trips from the ramshackle town of El Calafate, 50 miles away, and can be easily combined with a stay at El Chalten. Nearby is El Calafate's Balcony, one of the best places in South America to see the Andean Condor.
4. Hike through extraordinary landscapes
The first thing you need to pack when heading for Patagonia is a good set of walking boots, because the hiking opportunities here are amongst the best in the world.
The remote and unspolit wilderness of the Torres del Paine national park in Chile, with its 150 miles of walking trails, is a spectacular collection of turquoise lakes, snow-capped mountains and enormous electric-blue glaciers. The enduring image of the park is of the majestic horn-shaped peaks of los cuernos rising out of dense Patagonian forest, whilst Lake Pehoé shimmers in the foreground.
There are a multitude of hikes to undertake here, of varying lengths and difficulties. These range from one day trails, up to the famous self-guided five night W Towers trek. Whichever path you follow, you will be rewarded with panoramic views and close-up encounters with the extraordinary features of the Patagonian landscape, as well as possible sightings of the various wildlife that live here, including guanacos, foxes, pumas and numerous bird species.
When visiting Torres del Paine, it is preferable to stay inside, or close to, the park itself, so as to allow more time to explore. There are a number of interesting options here, including luxury yurts, villas, a former estancia or a lodge on the edge of a lake, overlooking the Glacier Grey.
Over the Andes is the small Argentine town of El Chalten, an alternative to Torres del Paine, from where you can head out on a series of trails through ever-changing scenery to remote lagoons, lakes and glaciers, in the shadows of the magnificent peaks of Cerro Torre and Mount Fitz Roy.
5. Watch giant whales in action
Journeying around Patagonia, you are always liable to spot guanacos, 80% of which live in Patagonia, as well as foxes, deer, skunks, armadillos and perhaps the occasional puma. Up above might be a soaring Andean condor or a buzzard eagle, whilst thousands of magellanic and king penguins live in colonies in Tierra del Fuego.
However, the best place to see wildlife in Patagonia is the Peninsula Valdes, a rugged nature reserve on the Atlantic coast of Argentina and a perfect habitat for a range of fascinating marine and birdlife.
The highlight is undoubtedly the chance to venture out into the sea to watch endangered southern right whales, as they return to the sheltered bays of the peninsula to breed. The whales swim peacefully in the presence of boats and so are seen frequently between the months of June and December, before they continue south towards Antarctica. You may also be lucky enough to spot a giant killer whale here and witness their extraordinary and unique hunting method, driving forward powerfully and beaching themselves spectacularly, in the hope of catching a sea lion pup unawares.
The peninsula also provides a home to penguins, flamingos, sea lions and elephant seals, whilst in-land live armadillos, guanacos, maras, burrowing owls and the Patagonian cavy. The skies above are brought to life by various seabirds, including albatrosses, cormorants and petrels.
6. Cruise the icy waters of Tierra del Fuego
Diced up by a myriad of straits, channels, bays and lakes at the end of the world, Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) is a largely inhospitable and mysterious frontier. However, specialist expedition cruises depart the frontier towns of Punta Arenas in Chile and Ushuaia in Argentina, carrying small groups of adventurous travellers on voyages of discovery to some of the most inaccessible parts of the continent, seen by relatively few.
Just north of Punta Arenas is the small Magdalena Island, where a remote Magellanic penguin colony breeds in their thousands, but most of the action actually takes place further south in the archipelago. One of the highlights is sailing through the Glacier Alley in the Beagle Channel, where sheets of compacted snow come tumbling down the steep mountainsides, to form huge masses of ice, each named after a European country; Espana, Italia, Holanda and Francia.
Much of the southern part of Tierra del Fuego is dominated by the Darwin mountain range - the last vestiges of the Andes before it breaks up and disappears into the sea. It is also here where we find some of the region's most dramatic glaciers; Garibaldi, Águila, Marinelli and Pia, perhaps the most impressive of all. In the middle of the windswept Magellanic forest is the astonishing sight of a beaver dam, whilst a colony of giant lumbering elephant seals also lives nearby.
In the extreme south of Tierra del Fuego lies Wulaia Bay, where visitors can hike through the forest to a lookout point over the bay. There is also an archaeological site here, thought to date back some 10,000 years when the indigenous Yaghan people settled in the area.
At the very end of South America is the legendary Cape Horn - the meeting point of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. A visit here is a rare privilege for those who come and brave the strong winds, choppy waters and freezing temperatures. This is about as remote as travel gets, a million miles away from the cosier confines of the Lake District in the north of Patagonia, and an expedition cruise to see the lonely lighthouses, jagged rocks and crashing waves of Cape Horn is a truly once in a lifetime experience. The only thing that lies beyond here is Antarctica.
7. Sample traditional Patagonian cuisine
Wherever you are in Patagonia, one of the undoubted highlights of your time here will be the access you have to its hearty cuisine.
A local favourite here is spit roast lamb, cooked slowly al asado in a traditional Patagonian barbecue to produce some of the most tender, succulent and flavoursome meat imaginable. As well as the cooking technique, one of the principle reasons attributed to the quality of the meat here is that the lambs live free range and enjoy an all you can eat buffet of green grass and nothing more. That is something equally true of the cows which roam the wide open pampas, just to the north of Patagonia and it is from these that the world renowned cuts of Argentine beef come. For something a little different, you will also find guanaco on menus throughout the region and the standard of both Chilean and Argentine wine also ensures that you’ll be spoilt for choice for the right red to accompany your meal.
Given its long coastline, it’s no surprise that Chile offers some must-try seafood dishes, not least the Patagonian king crab. Its sweet flavour owes much to the nutrient-rich rivers, fed by the region’s glaciers, which run into the seas around Tierra del Fuego. It is often cooked in a stew or pie, though can be eaten with salads or in a sandwich.
Yerba mate forms an important part of the local culture and is an interesting initiation for visitors here. Loose dried leaves are put into a special gourd and filled with hot water from a thermal flask. It is then sipped, sometimes communally, through a metal straw with a filter on the other end, called a bombilla. If that’s not to your taste, British visitors might be more at home with one of the more curious social customs in Patagonia - the taking of Welsh afternoon tea in the area close to the Peninsula Valdes.
Finally, the town of El Calafate is so named for the distinctive dark blue berries which grow en mass in Patagonia and which have come to be a symbol of the region. These sweet berries are added to coulis, jams, juices, ice cream and the traditional calafate sour cocktail. The local legend here states that once tasted, you are destined to return one day to Patagonia.
And with so much on offer, why wouldn’t you?
Better with experts
Travelling in Patagonia can sometimes be a challenging and unpredictable undertaking for even the most well-versed globetrotters. With our vast experience and expertise, Veloso Tours will carefully create the perfect itinerary for you, handling all the tricky logistics, negotiating the best prices, liaising with local suppliers and ensuring everything flows perfectly during your time here. All you have to do is decide where to go! Our collection of local guides will help bring these wonderful places to life, giving you their inside knowledge and offering an authentic and personal perspective, that will leave you both informed and inspired.
The Veloso Tours website has all the ideas and inspiration you'll need to get you started on your Patagonian adventure. Our expert staff would be delighted to work with you to craft an unforgettable journey, full of memories that last a lifetime. Get in touch today and start planning your dream trip to Patagonia with Veloso Tours.