My time in Chile has come to an end. I’m gutted I didn’t get a chance to visit more, especially the deepest south. It’s not safe to travel to most of South America yet, but put Patagonia on your post corona bucket list for when it is. And to help you plan your trip, I got in touch with some of the country’s top travel experts for their recommendations of the best things to do in Patagonia.
Off the beaten track hikes, unique wildlife tours, family camping and once in a lifetime ‘wow’ experiences, they’re all here in this round up of the best things to do in Patagonia, in Chile and Argentina…
1. The remotest trek on earth, by Patagonian explorer Timothy
Before I hiked the Dientes de Navarino Circuit, I knew little about it. I only knew this was the southernmost trek on earth.
The trek starts in Puerto Williams, the southernmost city on earth in Chile’s Patagonia (Navarino Island). You need to fly from Punta Arenas or sail from Ushuaia, Argentina’s southernmost city. It’s a very remote destination. There are few people, and you hike through pristine wilderness.
I travelled there with a great Chilean tour operator, so luckily I had the assistance of an local guide and a porter. The overall distance is pretty short (36 km / 22 miles) but you need previous hiking experience due to the rugged terrain and hazardous weather conditions. It’s common for the trail to disappear under the snow within minutes, so it might take a full day to hike just five kilometres.
Dientes de Navarino Circuit offers some of the most spectacular, otherworldly landscapes in the world – jagged rock pinnacles and remote lakes. I have seen the end – or the beginning – of the Americas. I experienced how fragile and small we humans are in the immensity of nature. I camped in the cold and met some badass hikers.
It’s not for everyone, but if you’re in good shape, you’d be wrong not to travel to the world’s end to experience Dientes de Navarino.
Photo: Timothy Dhalleine. Timothy booked the Dientes de Navarino Circuit hike with Cascada Expediciones, a tour operator specializing in adventure tours with an eco-friendly focus. The 6-day hike costs around $1,400 USD per person.
2. Adventure sports on the Carretera Austral, by Florence at Travel Coach Chile
Carretera Austral, in northern Patagonia, is my favorite destination when it comes to adventure travel.
Here, rafting on the rapids of Baker river is an absolute must. The turquoise color of the river, plus the incredible views of the surrounding mountains make the experience amongst the greatest in Patagonia. It’s perfect for beginners and suitable for the whole family. Meanwhile, experienced adults and adrenaline junkies can head to Futeleufu for bigger rapids.
I’d also recommend hiking on a glacier. The most famous is the Exploradores Glacier, near Puerto Tranquilo. The tour starts with the toughest part, as you have to clamber around the moraine before getting to the glacier. Then get your crampons and get ready to explore! A less touristy option would be Calluqueo, near Cochrane, which you can reach by boat.
I’d also urge visitors to kayak to the marble caves, if they feel up to it. In my opinion it’s a much better option as you have the opportunity to explore the caves at your own leisure, away from any crowds.
It’s a unique, tranquil experience on the bluest waters of the Lake General Carrera.
Florence is founder of Travel Coach Chile, a tour agency offering tailor made trips across Chile, in French, Spanish & English.
3. A family adventure, by Maike at Latinspirations
Patagonia is a wonderful destination for outdoor-oriented families. And Torres del Paine is great for children of all ages.
If your kids are small, or you haven’t done a lot of trekking with your children before, then a hiking trip might not be the best choice for you. But you still can enjoy Torres del Paine without long hikes. There are shorter walks, appropriate for children of any age. The route from Grey Lake to the glaciar walls is wonderful for kids and big kids alike.
There is also a lot to do in the surrounding area. On Magdalena Island kids can get up close to adorable penguins. Meanwhile, visiting a traditional sheep farm is interesting way to learn about the local culture.
I’d recommend staying at Riverside Camp in Torres del Paine. It’s the perfect place for families to connect with nature while not compromising on creature comforts. Children can burn off steam in the playground and then snuggle up in a deluxe tent with luxury down bedding.
Surrounded by mountains, glaciers, and crystal blue rivers, there’s no better place to fly fish than in Patagonia. Rio Penitente is one of the most pristine rivers in Patagonia, and perhaps the world.
Located in between Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas, Rio Penitente is a rich river of wild brown trout giving opportunities of fishing sea-run brown trout later in the season. The best season for fly fishing in Rio Penitente is from October to April.
I’d advise visitors to stay at Puerto Natales or Punta Arenas, and from there travel to Rio Penitente. You could hop on a Punta Arenas – Puerto Natales bus and get off halfway at Rio Penitente, or you can rent a car and drive yourself. We sort all this for our clients, as well as professional tutors for the fly fishing itself.
We’d recommend spending two days fly fishing in the Rio Penitente. Along with superbly tranquil surroundings and the purest air for your lungs and soul, you’d also learn a lot. We teach how to cast, make knots, read the water currents, safely release fish and even stream entomology (the science of insects).
Fly fishing is an activity suitable for older children and adults, for the fit and less sporty too. It’s great for all types.
Wading in pristine waters where few other anglers venture is an experience of a lifetime that you’d always remember. Go off the beaten path to fly fish at Rio Penitente and discover one of Patagonia’s best-kept secrets!
Nili is founder of Armadillo Expeditions, a tour company specialising in tailormade adventure travel in Patagonia.
5. Patagonian village culture, by Florence at Travel Coach Chile
One reason I love the Austral Road, Carretera Austral, is the small villages, such as Puerto Bertrand and Puerto Puyuhuapi. Here you have the chance to meet locals and understand more of the local culture. In these villages, you can get a taste of the real Patagonian lifestyle.
Visit a traditional estancia (there’s a fabulous one at Villa Cerro Castillo), and take a horse ride with a gaucho. Order Cordero al Palo, roast lamb on the spit, for a hearty evening meal.
Another fascinating place is Caleta Tortel, near the end of the austral road.
This village is located in the middle of a fjord and surrounded by forests. Houses are connected by wooden bridges and walkways. In fact it’s off limits to most vehicles and you’ll have to park the car out of town and climb down many steps to reach the village.
The secluded village is tricky to reach and might be off limits if you have a knee condition, but it’s definitely worth a look if you’re in good shape. If you’re looking for a change of scene, you’re certainly at the right place!
To get there, take a flight from Santiago to Balmaceda with Latam, Sky Airline or Jetsmart. From Balmaceda you can rent a car. We can organise all this for you. Depending on the accommodation and activities you chose, I’d estimate costs around 135 USD per day per person for a family of four.
Florence is founder of Travel Coach Chile, an agency offering tailored trips in Patagonia & across Chile.
North Patagonia in an underestimated gem, especially Carretera Austral. This is a 1240 km road between and Puerto Montt and Villa O’Higgins. It’s a beautiful journey in itself. I’d especially recommend a stop at Puerto Rio Tranquilo. From here, you simply must try the full day adventure cruise to the San Rafael Glacier.
For sure, it’s not an easy place to get to. If the weather is too windy, the cruise won’t go ahead due to safety. For this reason, add a couple of days onto your itinerary, just in case.
After an early morning start you’ll be driven two hours along beautiful, windy and very, very bumpy roads. Then you’ll board a small boat where the guide will explain more about the local nature, and serve you a warming breakfast.
Then the show begins. You’ll spot floating ice, then larger chunk of ice until you finally reach dramatic icebergs and the truly majestic Glaciar San Rafael.
It’s the most impressive thing I ever seen in my life! I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but let’s just say it’s a rare chance to witness nature living, moving, and sadly, dying. With conscience, caution and respect for the environment, go visit this amazing place and enjoy its greatness!
In terms of my tips, I’d say pack warm layers. Even in summer, the boat trip can get very cold, wet and windy. It’s best to book with an agency as organising a boat and navigation permits is complicated and expensive. For this day trip expect to pay 200-350 USD per person. Sure, it’s not cheap, but it’s worth every penny.
Alex is editor of My Little Santiago, a newsletter for foreigners with insider tips on Santiago
7. The iconic Marble Caves, by Sarah-Lee, blogger at comefromaway.blog
In Chile’s Northern Patagonia the ‘Capillas de Marmol’, or Marble Caves, offer a once in a lifetime experience.
Over time, water has eroded away marble cliffs to create beautiful caverns of intense stained glass colours of turquoise, aquamarine and emerald.
Located on the coastline of General Carrera Lake, access is by kayak or boat from the town of Puerto Rio Tranquilo.
Rows of tour operator huts line the main beach. Check the weather and book a tour for the sunniest, calmest day. Go in the morning if you can, when the light on the caves is at its most dramatic. The wind picks up in the afternoon which can make for a rocking boat ride. The weather is variable so dress in layers, bring wind/rain gear and a sealed plastic bag for valuables. My final tip is to ensure your operator has good life jackets. Some offer rain ponchos, too.
Prices range from $10,000 – $20,000 CLP per person. Some operators will offer a child entry for free.
Read more about the marble caves on Sarah-Lee’s Chile travel blog, comefromaway.blog
8. Visiting the fjords by boat and horseback, Dolores at The Singular Hotel Patagonia
For me, one of the most exciting things to do in Patagonia is the navigation through fjords and glaciers. The Singular Hotel is a luxury hotel and we take care of every aspect of this full day trip, so that guests can enjoy a wonderful experience.
We board The Singular boat very early in morning, departing around 7am from the hotel dock. Our journey takes guests to Balmaceda and Serrano glaciers, with an opportunity to spot native wildlife, including sea lion colonies, on the way. After an hour and a half of cruising through the majestic fjords, we disembark at Bernardo O’Higgins national park.
Then it’s a short trek to the glacier’s viewpoint for some of the most impressive panoramas in the world. After this we return to our boat for a gentle cruise onwards to Balmaceda glacier. Next we take guests to an ‘estancia’ (a traditional country house) for an authentic Patagonian lunch.
Finally we spend the afternoon horseback riding, breathing in the incredible natural beauty of the wilderness.
The Singular Hotel Patagonia is a luxury hotel and a national heritage monument, near Puerto Natales. Rates start from $295 USD per twin or king room, per night.
9. A cemetery with a view, by Sarah-Lee, blogger at comefromaway.blog
Not far from the Marble Caves, the Bahía Murta Cemetery offers beautiful views and is definitely worth a visit.
The cemetery is about 30 minutes drive out of Puerto Rio Tranquilo town (heading towards Coyahaique). High on the hill, it’s almost a village with graves marked by small wood-shingled, tin roofed houses. The views of Rio Engaño and Rio Murta as they flow into Lago General Carrera are spectacular.
It’s a cemetery, so of course it’s important to show respect. While you can take photos, needless to say picnics would be inappropriate.
For food, craft brewery Cerveceria Rio Tranquilo and Casa Bruja are both great options.
There is a range of accommodation in and around Puerto Rio Tranquilo. Top of my list is Chelenko Lodge. Here cabins with private wood-fired hot tubs sit right by the lake. Meanwhile, in nearby Puerto Guadal, the Lodge Mirador Guadal is absolutely lovely, with incredible views and attentive owners.
To get to there, fly into Coyhaique or Balmaceda Airports. Then rent a car and drive south on the Carretera Austral. There are frequent buses out of Coyhaique.
Read more about the Puerto Rio Tranquilo Cemetery on Sarah-Lee’s Chile travel blog, comefromaway.blog
10. Train to the end of the world, by Pam, blogger at The Directionally Challenged Traveler
Ushuaia, in neighbouring Argentina is considered the southernmost city in the world. It’s also home to a unique attraction: The Southern Fuegian Railway, more commonly referred to as “El Tren del Fin del Mundo” or “train at the end of the world”
Most travellers visit Ushuaia before a cruise to Antarctica. However, it’s more than just a stopover city.
Ushuaia was created as a penal colony in the late 19th century. The prisoners were tasked with building their own prison, and a railway to assist with the transport of materials. The line soon became an essential route for bringing in wood, and as more of the trees was chopped down, the railway line extended into the forest.
The line was blocked by an earthquake in 1949 and remained closed until 1994, when it was rebuilt in luxury with champagne and dinner services.
Today, even if you’re not indulging in the luxury cuisine, the views of the Pico Valley offer a feast for the eyes. You can go for a small hike to a waterfall during your stop at Cascada La Macarena Station. Continuing on the journey, you’ll pass the Cemetery of Trees where tree stumps remain from the early 1900s. Finally, the National Park Station is the last stop which you can explore on your own or take a return trip back to Ushuaia.
A round trip ticket costs around $75 USD and includes an audio guide.
Read more about the train to the end of the world on Pam’s blog, The Directionally Challenged Traveler
11. Walk with Penguins, by Lora, blogger at explorewithlora.com
One of the best wildlife experiences in Patagonia is to walk with penguins near Ushuaia, Argentina. The penguins live on Martillo Island, which is only accessible to the public via organized day tours that leave from Ushuaia.
I did a full-day tour, which included walking with the penguins, as well an afternoon boat ride back through the Beagle Channel. We saw whales, sea lions, and various birds. As a wildlife lover, the entire day was a dream come true!
After a beautiful two-hour drive through the gorgeous landscapes of Patagonia and a short boat ride, we arrived on Martillo Island. As soon as we got off the boat, hundreds of Magellanic penguins came to greet us. Walking around the island, we also saw a small colony of Gentoo penguins and one lone king penguin. I loved this tour because it’s an eco-friendly way to see three different penguin species up close in their natural habitat.
This tour is suited to both families and solo adventurers. I went solo and ended up making friends on the tour. It does require some walking on the island, but nothing strenuous. There are hundreds of penguins, and they only allow 20 people max at a time on the island, so it’s easy to get great photos of the penguins without any people in them.
There are various tour packages which cost between 100-200$ USD.
Read more about walking with penguins on Lora’s travel blog.
12. A road trip to the end of the world, Alicia at Chile Nativo Travel
Tierra del Fuego means ‘Land of Fire’ and it’s like nowhere else on earth. The archipelago is only accessible by crossing the Strait of Magellan. It’s a road trip like no other!
You’ll pass vast stretches of wild pampas grasslands, endemic forests, pristine glaciers and rugged mountain peaks.
Thrill seekers can travel around by horseback, mountain bike or foot. Meanwhile families and those seeking a gentler pace can cruise to the glaciers, with some sea lion spotting along the way.
By day, you drive across sweeping landscapes, discovering the diverse scenery and landmarks of this moody land; by night you’ll stay in cosy remote lodges and historic estancias (ranches) for a truly authentic and unforgettable experience.
Traveling to South America’s southernmost tip is best during summer and fall (October – April) since winter can be harsh and inhospitable. Whenever you travel, bring waterproof boots and wind/waterproof pants and a jacket. The weather can get as wild as the scenery!
The 7-day Chile Nativo Travel Overland Excursion to Tierra del Fuego departs from Puerto Natales.