Argentine Patagonia

Patagonia needs little introduction – a vast swathe of grasslands, ice fields, towering mountain peaks and turquoise glacial lakes that speak eloquently for themselves. It straddles both Chile and Argentina, but Argentina’s share, encompassing almost all of the southern half of the country, is one of endless open steppe, towering walls of glacial ice and some of the most fairytale mountain landscapes in the southern hemisphere. Not to mention Tierra del Fuego, the island at end of the world – well, the end of South America anyway – where dense rocky forests give way to the Beagle Channel, once travelled by Darwin to round Cape Horn.

These landscapes are also a haven for some mighty wildlife. Southern right whales join resident orcas and elephant seals around the arid Peninsula Valdés, where whale watching from the land is some of the best in the world. Further south, Andean condors soar on mountain thermals on three metre-wide wings while herds of curious guanaco survey you as you pass.

Despite its size, this is a wilderness best explored on foot. So, whether you’re on a self-drive tour, a small group escorted trip or something in between, if you try to see too much, you’ll end up seeing nothing. Instead, lace up your walking boots and give yourself plenty of time to stop, stare and simply feel the raw power of Argentine Patagonia.

Argentine Patagonia highlights

Los Glaciares National Park

Home to some of the world’s only advancing glaciers, including Perito Moreno, Los Glaciares National Park offers some of Argentine Patagonia’s most dramatic mountain scenery. This is hiking heaven – strenuous multi-day trails lead to hidden hanging lakes and glorious miradors around Cerro Torre, while the nine-hour round trip on foot from El Chaltén to Laguna de los Tres offers breathtaking views of fairytale Mount Fitz Roy.

El Calafate

Unprepossessing but perfectly pleasant, El Calafate, sat on the edge of the Southern Patagonia Ice Field is an almost ubiquitous stop on holidays here. The town is within easy reach of the boardwalks, boat rides and ice hiking around Perito Moreno glacier with its 60m high wall of constantly calving turquoise ice. Alternatively, visit a nearby estancia for a taste of Patagonian gaucho life. El Calafate airport serves flights to and from Buenos Aires, Ushuaia and San Carlos de Bariloche, and is a convenient place to hire a car on self-drive trips.

El Chaltén

Argentina’s trekking capital, El Chaltén has a somewhat frontier, end-of-the-world feel that is countered by a plethora of epic hiking trails and smattering of welcoming micro-breweries. Some of these trails lead directly from the town into the heart of the enchanting Fitzroy Massif, making short, self-guided day walks to beautiful miradors as feasible as longer multi-day adventures to more remote glacial lakes and mountain viewpoints.

Tierra del Fuego

The island at the end of the world offers a stark contrast to the arid Patagonian Steppe, with dense forests lining a network of lagoons and rocky channels. Hikes here are scenic, and surprisingly gentle, while sailing trips along the Beagle Channel reveal colonies of Magellanic penguins, seals and a plethora of sea birds. Trips here begin in the frontier city of Ushuaia, the most southerly city in the world.

The Lake District

San Carlos de Bariloche is the pretty, Germanic-style gateway to the Argentine Lake District – Argentina’s answer to Switzerland. It’s a region of glorious alpine lakes, mountains and virgin forest in the northern Patagonian reaches. Hike, bike, horse ride or kayak your way around a string of deep-blue lakes before rewarding yourself with an ice-cream at one of Bariloche’s legendary heladerias. If you’re on a self-drive trip, the route north via the Seven Lakes to San Martin de los Andes is particularly beautiful.

Peninsula Valdés

Rugged and wild, UNESCO-listed Peninsula Valdés is Argentina’s wildlife Mecca, and one of the best places to go whale watching in the world – alongside visiting huge colonies of Magellanic penguins and elephant seals. Southern right whales are seasonal visitors to the coast – coming so close they can be seen easily from the shore as well as by boat – while resident orcas launch themselves out of the surf to snatch seals off the beach.

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How to travel around
Argentine Patagonia

Whether you’ll be stopping for few days in Buenos Aires at the start or end of your trip to Argentine Patagonia or not (and we recommend you do), your international long-haul flight is going to arrive and depart from here. While buses are plentiful, the day-long journey to Bariloche, or two-day journey to El Calafate isn’t particularly feasible in an annual-leave constrained holiday. Flying to the start point of your Patagonian adventure is likely going to be your only option.

If you want to limit the amount of flights you take – don’t underestimate the scale of this region – you’ll need to pick one area and stick to it. From El Calafate, for example, Perito Moreno glacier, the trails into the Fitzroy Massif from El Chaltén and Chile’s spectacular Torres del Paine National Park are all within a few short hours’ drive, either by car or public bus.
With well signposted, mostly paved roads, self-drive holidays are a popular option in Patagonia. Quality car rental services are available at all of the region’s major hubs, including Bariloche and El Calafate, and a holiday company organising your bespoke self-drive tour will provide you with detailed route maps and instructions to ease your journey. If your itinerary includes a few different Patagonian regions you’ll likely fly then pick up another hire car at your next destination.

For a similar sense of independence, but without the worry of driving yourself then Argentina’s excellent bus network offers reliable and high-quality services, between all of Patagonia’s highlights. And with services well used to tourists, buses will generally always stop for passengers to purchase entry permits, or to complete border formalities where needed.

If you prefer everything to be organised for you, and to have a local guide on hand all the time to lift the lid on Argentine culture, point out the best asado restaurants and point you in the direction of the most spectacular miradors then small group tours are an excellent, sociable way to explore this region. And given how well the more popular trails in the region are marked, you’re likely to still have some free time to hike independently on most small group tours to Argentine Patagonia as well.

Best time to visit Argentine Patagonia

For long days, mild temperatures and sunny skies – the perfect recipe for pleasurable hiking – visit Argentine Patagonia in the southern hemisphere’s summer between December and February. Nights during this time are as short as six hours in the far south, giving you plenty of time to comfortably complete long day treks in the mountains. However, this is also peak season, with busy trails and accommodation full to bursting. Book early, or instead travel in the November spring, when wildflowers are in bloom or the April and May autumn, when spectacular sunsets light up russet fall foliage.

In the far south, some accommodations and restaurants will close, and some hiking trails will be inaccessible during the Patagonian winter months of June to August. Tierra del Fuego is particularly cold and wet at this time but it is possible to ski in the Lake District around San Carlos de Bariloche.

If wildlife is your rasion d’être, Peninsula Valdés is surprisingly warm during the December to February high season. Visit between September and April and you might be lucky enough to spot a resident orca surging out of the surf to snatch a seal from the beach. From June to December pods of southern right whales arrive in the Golfo Nuovo to breed, bringing with them outstanding opportunities to watch them relax in the safe waters from the shoreline.
Written by Sarah Faith
Photo credits: [Page banner: 12019] [Intro: acuatro] [Los Glaciares National Park: Jorge Láscar] [Tierra del Fuego: Petr Meissner] [How to travel around Argentine Patagonia: Liam Quinn]
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