I just returned from my scouting trip to Patagonia and couldn't wait to share some of the highlights. If you have been thinking about planning an adventure to Patagonia, now is the time and here is why!
There are many animals unique to the Andes and to Southern Patagonia. While not always seen as a wildlife destination like Africa or the Galapagos, Patagonia offers some great chances to spot some of the more iconic creatures in the area like guanaco, rhea, huemul (Andean deer), condor, and even the elusive puma.
On my hike through the "puma hunting grounds" from Laguna Amarga to Lago Sarmiento, in Torres del Paine, the goal was to stretch the legs a bit on my first hike in the park and maybe see a puma. As my guide and I walked through the grassland valleys, we spotted dozens of guanaco on the hillsides lazily looking at us as we passed. Long-tailed meadowlarks flitted in the brush and a grey fox peaked out from some grass and raced across the trail in search of breakfast.
Further down the valley, something buff-colored lay in the grass, barely visible with the tufted grass around it. We saw a paw move and an ear twitch. We found a puma. snoozing in the grass! Maybe she had just eaten and was taking a mid-morning nap? We sat and watched for awhile until her head popped up, another puma was walking towards her and possibly her kill. She stalked toward the newcomer, it didn't seem with much urgency, so perhaps this was a yearling cub. The two disappeared into the rocks and grass, perfect camouflage.
While puma sightings are never a guarantee, now is a great time to try since their numbers are quite high in the 900-square-mile Torres del Paine, mainly due to the abundant prey (hares and guanacos), few human inhabitants, and they have been kept safe in the park's boundaries from hunting for the past 60 years. You will have a better chance of seeing them in the fall months and winter, when the park is less busy. Check out our blog on Patagonia's Iconic Creatures, when, how, and where to see them!
I visited all the top camps and lodges we use in both Torres del Paine and Los Glaciares National Parks and there's something for everyone, from yurts to luxury lodge retreats. On the Chilean side in Torres del Paine we have Eco Camp yurts in the heart of the Torres del Paine to the luxury lodges like Explora Lodge, Tierra Patagonia, and Patagonia Camp. Check out our blog on the Best Hotels in Torres del Paine to learn more about each of the lodges.
On the other side of the Andes in Argentina, EOLO and Estancia Cristina offer unparalleled access to their slices of Patagonia. Twenty minutes from El Calafate in the stunning La Anita Valley, EOLO is designed as a classic Patagonian estancia with modern comforts including a wine bar, hot tub, sauna, mountain bikes, and horses on site for guests to use. Estancia Cristina is a remote estancia accessible only by boat. This estancia offers the chance to see the impressive Upsala glacier from the water and from land, trek in an otherworldly canyon, and ride horses through the steppe. See our Estancia Cristina blog to find out more.
I was fortunate to spend some time in Patagonia Camp and Estancia Cristina and fell in love with the remoteness that each offered, which allowed me to explore parts of Patagonia on my own without the crowds, hiking and even kayaking at Patagonia Camp, right from the lodges. The staff at both lodges were impeccable, personable and accommodating. They made sure I was happy, had food, and even a drink in hand at the end of a day of hiking. All of these hotels and lodges are highly sought after, so we recommend planning your trip as far in advance as you can to secure the best accommodations!
So much of the spectacular landscape in Patagonia was created by glaciers in the massive U-shaped valleys and towering spires of granite. To this day, it is still being shaped by glaciers as they pour from the South Patagonian Ice Cap, tumbling over cliff walls, sweeping down valleys and calving into turquoise blue lagoons. With the changing climate, there is no better time to get out there and see these glaciers.
These amazing geological features can be explored on boat trips, ice hikes, or kayak trips throughout Patagonia. In Torres del Paine, many of the lodges offer boat navigation or kayaking to Grey Glacier, as well as hikes through glacier carved valleys like the French Valley with hanging glaciers perched high above. If you want to keep your feet on the ground, a little more off the beaten path adventure to see glaciers is the Aventura hike. I joined a small group for a boat ride across the South Arm of Lago Argentino, to hike about 8 miles round trip through lovely lenga forest and an old glacial valley to a lake full of icebergs from Dickson, Cubo, and Grande glaciers.
Perhaps the most famous of the Patagonian glaciers is Perito Moreno, at over 3 miles (5 km) in width, the glacier reaches heights of 240 feet above the surface of Lago Argentino, and descends 558 feet below the water's surface. The glacier covers an area of 97 square miles, a fact that won't surprise you when you see the ice fading away into the horizon. Considered an 8th natural wonder of the world, there are few glaciers this large and this active that people can get close to.
I chose to explore Perito Moreno on foot, or rather by crampon. The trip starts with a boat ride across the lake where you get a view of the glacier wall from the water. You might even be lucky enough to see some ice calve from the wall into the water. On the other side of the shore we broke into groups and donned our crampons to head out on the ice, walking up snowy slopes, hopping over crevasses, and even spelunking in an ice cave on the glacier's edge. Learn more about exploring Perito Moreno in our Guide to El Calafate.
Located 3 hours from El Calafate, El Chalten is the perfect location to include on your itinerary if you like hiking, relaxed mountain towns, and getting slightly off the beaten path. Near Argentina's border with Chile, in the heart of Los Glaciares National Park, you can start any of the main trails from town even from your hotel front door. The main streets are lined with quaint restaurants selling craft beer and empanadas. The two peaks that have brought El Chalten to the world stage are Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. Views of these spires are best seen from the hikes to Lago Torre and Laguna de Los Tres (respectively) and are highlights for many people visiting Patagonia. These two hikes did not disappoint when I hit the trail in late April with clear skies, low winds and an amazing array of leaves changing color in the forest, a bonus of coming to Patagonia in the Fall.
While the hikes were of moderate difficulty, they never felt like a slog and there was always a beautiful landscape or amazing peak to motivate me to keep hiking. For those less inclined for the long hike, there are ways to shorten them both and still feel like you got to experience these majestic peaks. For more information check out our Guide to El Chalten.
A few other highlights of my trip included the Atacama desert in Chile and Iguazu Falls in Argentina. While not considered part of the Patagonia region, many travelers visit them as well since both make spectacular extensions to a Patagonia vacation. To learn more about those areas you can read The Complete Guide to Iguazú Falls and Our Favorite Lodges in the Atacama, Chile. Ready to plan your trip to Patagonia? Check out our Patagonia itineraries or ask us!
Keeping it wild,