The best things to do on your first trip to visit Patagonia

Patagonia landscapes

Patagonia has a way of getting under your skin before you even set foot in this extraordinary part of the world.   It usually starts with photos that wowed you—wide swathes of rugged fields on a road to nowhere, the windswept landscape barren yet beautifully intoxicating. Or maybe you’re lured to this corner of the Earth by images the spiky mountains of the Fitz Roy Range and Torres del Paine National Park, the immensity of 30 km (19 mi) long Perito Moreno Glacier or the abundant wild guanacas roaming across the Patagonian steppe. Whatever motivates you to visit Patagonia, exploring this region brings with it the promise of freedom and adventure.

But it’s tough to know how to plan a trip to such a vast area, especially if this is your first visit to the region. Here’s our roundup of a few key tips and top experiences to consider when you plan your visit to Patagonia. Keen to go exploring? Check out our some of our trips to Patagonia, and beyond, here.

Trek in Patagonia

Trek into the wild
Patagonia is full of spectacular hiking trail and multi-day trekking trips, and all options offer the chance to experience magnificent wildlife watching: think condors and guanacos (similar to a llama or alpaca) and if you’re really lucky, the elusive Patagonian puma. And with most treks sitting firmly below 11,482 (3500 meters), you don’t have to worry about altitude sickness.

Torres del Paine National Park

By far the most popular are the trails in mountain-filled Torres del Paine National Park, named after the granite, jagged spires (the torres, or ‘towers’) that glow orange at sunrise. The park also features magnificent flora, fauna and wildlife, as well as glacial lakes that glow in hues of metallic blues and greys. The two most common treks here are the four to five day W Trek and the eight to nine day O Circuit. The O Circuit goes all the way around the front and back side of the mountain, whereas the W Trek only tackles the front side. Both can be done on your own carrying your own gear or with an organized tour. If you are willing to spend more on overnight lodging, the W trek can be completed without camping at all—the trail includes several refugios (simple mountain huts) peppered along the way, though there are far more campsite options. The O Circuit requires camping and more preparation; there are fewer facilities and options to stock up on supplies along the back side of the mountain.  Whatever option you choose, booking a bed in the refugios or reserving a space at the campsite is essential.

Most people heading to trek in the park head to Puerto Natales, Chile, the unofficial pre-trek HQ. Many tour operators are located here and if you’re embarking on a multi-day excursion, most hotels offer luggage storage. It’s also full of outdoor stores to pick up last minute supplies.

Town of El Chalten, Argentina

A bit further north is the quirky town of El Chalten, Argentina, which sits in the shadow of the Fitz Roy range. The small town has a rugged, pioneer-town vibe and is a handy base for day trips around glacial valleys and lakes with views of the Cerro Torres and Mount Fitz Roy, which at 11,070 feet (3,375m) is the highest point in Los Glaciares National Park.  Several two-and three day treks meander around the Fitz Roy, and most experienced trekkers can aim to summit the Fitz Roy and explore the southern ice fields. El Chalten is also a popular base for ice hiking on the Viedma glacier—several tours offer guided treks and crampons for a day on the great big ice.

Bariloche, ArgentinaBariloche, Argentina is another popular base for summer trekking and hiking (it morphs into a ski resort in winter). It’s in the middle of the lake district and offers a variety of day hikes from easy to challenging. Hiking here is gentler, and a bit less wild than Torres del Paine or the Fitz Roy. It’s also the chocolate capital of Argentina, so you can end your day with a piece of sweet bliss.

Perito Moreno Glacier

The 30 km-long glacier that will blow your mind
The insane size of 30 km (19 mi) long Perito Moreno Glacier is tough to explain. It goes on and on and on, and disappears into the horizon. And it continues to grow! It’s also one of the most popular attractions in Patagonia, so expect crowds. And as always in this region, the weather can be unpredictable. But whether you hit it in the pouring rain or under bright blue skies, this thing will wow you. Sunny days allow you to see its extraordinary length and the blinding white expanse dramatically juxtaposed against the azure sky. Cloudy or rainy days bring out the deep, cold blues in the glacier’s crevasses.

The glacier’s edge sits on a turquoise lake and rises an average of rises an average 250 feet (76m) above the water. Boats take you right up to the colossal ice where you can peer into the blue cracks, listen to the grumble of ice shifting and watch pieces of the giant blocks tumble into the water with a roar.  The glacier is often accessed via a long day trip from El Calafate, Argentina, a lively town with a handy airport and a large variety of hotels and restaurants as well as some excellent outdoor stores and craft markets. It’s named after the El Calafate Berry and according to legend, if you eat the berry you will return to Patagonia.

Ushuaia, Argentina

Travel to the end of the earth
Ushuaia, Argentina is the southernmost city in South America and sits adjacent to Tierra del Fuego National Park. The park is filled beautiful landscapes and waterways, including the black lagoon a midnight blue lake with a high peat content that gives in its color. The area also offers excursions to Escondido and Fagnano Lakes; both are surrounded by virgin forest and views of the surrounding mountain peaks. It’s also the jumping off point for sailing trips along the Beagle Channel and to the wild archipelagos where colonies of sea lions and indigenous birds reside, including Magellan cormorants and Antarctic giant petrels.
The city of Ushuaia is a raw, fascinating town and gives you the chance to learn about the history of the city, from the missionaries who settled here and the famous jail (now home to the Maritime Museum) to the indigenous cultures native to the area who survived under harsh weather conditions in this isolated area known as the End of the Earth.

Southern Chile and ArgentinaBe prepared for four seasons in one day

Patagonia is enormous–the entire area covers roughly 1 million square km across southern Chile and Argentina.  In general, the region has four distinct seasons, but the most popular time to visit is from December to February during the Southern Hemisphere’s late spring and summer. Daytime temperatures are around 14-16° C, though this is highly variable and the region is known for its fast-changing weather. When I tackled a December hike on Torres del Paine National Park’s popular W Trek, we experience hot sun, hold-on-to-the-trees winds, snow flurries and rain in the span of one day. And while it’s the warmest time of year it’s also the windiest: Patagonia’s infamous winds sometimes reach 160 km per hour (100 mph).  Bringing layers, a good sense of humor and your adventurous streak. And if the wind nearly knocks you down? It’s all part of the Patagonian adventure.

Patagonia

Caroline Sieg

Caroline Sieg is a half-Swiss, half-American writer, editor and content marketer focusing on travel, food, art, design & the outdoors. She's traveled throughout Latin America, is addicted to empanadas and tacos, and loves outdoor adventure, from trekking in Patagonia to zip lining in Costa Rica.