Patagonia swept me off my feet – literally. One moment I was planting my hiking poles as I trekked the “the W” route in Torres del Paine, and the next, whoosh, I was lying flat on my back – stirred, but not too badly shaken.
It’s the wind. It blows up from Antarctica through the craggy mountain passes, fueled to a furious and chilling blast as it travels over miles of frictionless ice fields. In fact, second to the soaring Andean mountain peaks, wind is the defining characteristic of Patagonia, the stretch of land that dips from an undetermined point on the pampas around the Rio Negro to Cape Horn at the tip of Chile and Argentina – the literal bottom of the world.
We came to Patagonia to celebrate my husband’s 50th birthday, in the South American December summer, with a five-week trip that took us from Buenos Aires to the Argentine and Chilean lake districts, to Ushuaia on Tierra del Fuego, to hiking among the iconic peaks of Torres del Paine and the FitzRoys, and trekking the great glacier of Perito Mereno. December is the start of the South American summer and a great time to visit before the season gets fully underway in January and February.
Photo Credit: Geoff Livingston
Beginning in Buenos Aires
We chose the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires to begin our trip, because it sounded like (and indeed was) a great walking city. In Plaza Dorrego in the old colonial San Telmo neighborhood, we explored the flea market with its dozens of vendors, buskers, mimes, and quite incredible tango dancers. We sauntered Palermo Viejo, the city’s most charming neighborhood, with two-story residential buildings, leafy sidewalks, occasional cobbled streets -and some of the best, trend-setting restaurants. And we explored the ritzy Recoleta, which boasts an historical cemetery of elaborate sarcophagi, including one that houses the remains Evita Peron.
A feast of grilled steak or Carne Asada (the best in the world, and fed only on grasses) and a bottle of superb Argentine wine will set you back only $10. One of the beauties of Buenos Aries is that with the exchange rate, even the budget traveler can feel like a jet setter. We never once bothered to look at prices on menus (a little different than Paris!). And everyone we encountered was friendly and patient with our terrible Spanish.
Photo Credit: Hernán Piñera
Imagine 5th Avenue-quality wares priced at one-third of what you’d pay in America and you can see why shoppers find Buenos Aires irresistible. However, if you’re headed off to Patagonia, don’t succumb too soon. Save your shopping until the end of your trip, when you can stock up on Argentine leather jackets, handbags and shoes, the best deals of all.
A great day trip is the short train ride from the Estacion Retiro to the Tigre, the tranquil Paraná Delta suburb where porteños (residents of Buenos Aires) escape for the weekend. A ferry ride along the latté-colored waters – rich with iron from the jungle streams that flow from inland Argentina -offers views of the colorful stilt houses (raised high to escape storm waters and tides) and colonial mansions. Disembarking at one of the many stops, we wandered along some peaceful footpaths by the canals, had a superb lunch of carne asada and green beans in the shaded patio of a riverside restaurant, and, later in the day, sauntered by the grand maritime museums and Belle Époque mansions.
Photo Credit: Diego Torres Silvestre
The Road Not Taken
Iguaço Falls. Any trip involves some missed opportunities, especially when you’re exploring countries as large as Argentina and Chile (a landmass bigger than India). We decided not to head to Iguaçu Falls, situated on the border of Brazil and Argentina north of Buenos Aires. Some 275 separate falls plunge 269 feet, along 2.5 miles of the Iguaçu River. After friends came back ecstatic, having stayed at the on-site hotel, we tried not to feel too envious.
We flew from Buenos Aires to Bariloche (the Argentine Lake District) – a flight of two and a half hours. It rained relentlessly in Bariloche, unusual for November-December, and we needed tip-to-toe waterproof gear just to saunter through town. Fortunately, Bariloche serves up the best chocolate in the world (sorry Switzerland). And the rare and endangered arayanes forests, with their thick tangle of branches and caramel colored trunks, and the great sprays of golden yellow lily-like amancays along the side of the roads, were wonderful to behold even in the wet. When the sun finally emerged, we drove the 160-mile Road of the Seven Lakes reveling in the great scooped out Nahuel Huapi Lake with its majestic snow-covered peaks, exploding waterfalls and wildflowers, and the profusion of birds, such as austral parrots, ibis, and upland geese.
Photo Credit: She Paused 4 Thought
Chilean Lake District
We had planned to take the Cruce de Lagos, the bus-ferry-bus-ferry-bus-ferry-bus across the Andes, but were stopped by bad weather. For a taste of the journey (and the bad weather) watch the movie the Motor Cycles Diaries. Instead we held onto our rental car and drove to Puerto Varas.
From there, we took two spectacular day hikes. The first, in the Parque Nacional Vincent Pérez Rosales, trailed above The Lago Todos los Santos under the shadow of the active snow-capped volcano Osorno, and at times took us through incredibly dense temperate rainforest. As we drove back that night, we watched the setting sun turn the tops of the volcanoes candy-pink. The next day, we wandered the forest of Alerce Andino National Park. Driving there allowed us to experience the beginning of the legendary Carretera Austral, which goes 770 miles through rugged fiord and steep hanging valleys until it runs out at Villa O’Higgins. Bumping along pot-holed roads through lush green scenery was exhilarating, but our bones were grateful that we weren’t going the whole route.
From Puerto Montt we flew to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world on the Argentine island of Tierra del Fuego, and the embarkation point for Antarctica. We thought of getting a lower priced cabin on one of the ships when we arrived, if the weather looked promising, but March of the Penguins had just played across the country and everything was booked.
We arranged for an organized canoe trip to Gable Island through the Beagle channel, so named for Darwin’s ship that famously explored these waters. From there we took a short boat ride to see colonies of Magellanic and less common Gentoo penguins. Hiking across the length of the island in the afternoon, we spotted gray fox, King Penguin, and the environmental damage caused by beavers (brought in by the British to feed the demand for beaver hats in the 1900s).
During the day we discovered the energizing benefits of mate – the Argentine national tea drink that is shared through a silver straw from a hollow gourd. (Everywhere in the country you see people adding hot water to their mate gourds from their thermoses.)
Ushuaia also introduced us to the culinary wonders of the Tenedor Libre, literally Free Fork. The Argentine version of all you can eat – it includes unbelievably tasty salads, stews, soups, vegetable dishes, and then all the lamb you want. Spit-roasted over great fires, and cut off into crisp savory hunks, the meat melts in your mouth.
Photo Credit: Liam Quinn
The Museo de Marguetas Munod Yamana – is the one must-see museum. It does a great job of showing Tierra del Fuego’s indigenous heritage through skillfully assembled dioramas of life along the Beagle Channel prior to the European presence, and most especially of the life of the Yamana people. A visit to the prison museum, Museo Marîtimo, can easily be missed unless you love looking at empty prison cells. Instead, take a local bus and head for the Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego a short distance west of town to enjoy some spectacular scenery.
From Ushuaia we flew to Punta Arenas and took a bus ride to Puerto Natales, the gateway for the highlight of our trip: trekking Parque National Torres del Paine. The magnificent granite needles that rise above the Patagonian plains, Chile’s most southerly region, have acquired international fame. Howeer you go about it, book early. Your options are to go with a tour, or book into one of the few big (and expensive) hotels like Explora and do day hikes, or, as we did, try and do the famous “W” circuit it by yourself – which demands endless patience. Each refugio (mountain hut) is run by a different concessionaire – tours get first dibs and it’s often hard to reserve a place for just two people.
And this brings me back to the wind. This is wild country: beautiful, empty, windswept. Here, some of the Andes youngest and most dramatic peaks splinter the skies above glacial lakes the color of milky jade. The endangered guanaco, llama look-alikes, gambol in the pampas grasses and the Andean condor circles overhead. For the avid hiker, the “W” circuit with day hikes as long as 23 kilometers take you scrambling over granite boulders and up steep slopes, where rushing water from glacial melt is so clean you can dip your water bottles in and drink it down straight.
Even if you’re not a multi-mile day walker, you can still soak in the atmosphere by taking short saunters, like the Sendero Mirador Nordenskjöld to a panoramic viewpoint opposite the Cuernos or horns, or simply savor the ferry ride across Lago Pehoé to Lodge Paine Grande and be dazzled at the colors of glacial waters and the clarity of the light as it strikes the ice-carved cirques. The Refugio Chileno (which was basic, overcrowded, and filled with partying youth at one end and enthusiastic pre-dawn trekkers the other) wasn’t our favorite. But the hike that day, up to the see the Torres del Paine – the iconic cirque consisting of three granite needles above a glacial lake – made up for it. Especially as we lucked out with a clear day that allowed us full view of the stately peaks – which isn’t always the case.
Many visitors to Patagonia end their trip at Torres del Paine, but if you can squeeze out a few extra days of vacation, you won’t want to miss these next two stops.
Photo Credit: Gonzalo Baeza
El Calafate is a five-hour bus drive (you stop to go through passport control) from Puerto Natales. It’s the Argentine’s president’s home region and the taking off place for a tour of the Perito Mereno glacier. No picture in the world can do justice to this glacier. A river of ice, compressed into a narrow fiord, it creaks and groans as it inches forwards, great slabs searing off with a massive roar as they plunge into Lago Argentino. In town, we signed up for a mini-trek of the glacier with Hielo & Aventura. After crossing the lake by ferry, we strapped on crampons and stepped into a world of cool blue ice caverns and snowy white splendor. We ended the trip by toasting our adventure with shots of whisky served up on the glacier.
From El Calafate, it was a 220 kilometer (5 hour) bus ride to El Chaltén, which bills itself as the “Capital Nacional del Trekking” or Argentina’s national trekking capital. Dominated by the jagged FitzRoy peaks, depicted in the logo of the Patagonia clothing company, we discovered some leg-wobbling, mind-blowing hikes. And the laid-back, cowboy-town feel of El Chaltén, coupled with superb restaurants, including The Pizzeria Patagonicus which serves up lamb pizza to die for, was a lovely break from the overcrowded Torres del Paine.
Exceptional hikes include the trek up to Laguna Torre (2 hours each way) which culminates at a glacial mountain lake, a perfect spot to picnic. And the Laguna de los Tres (4 hours each way) that ends in a steep scramble up boulders to a mountain cirque where the winds blew so hard I had to hug the rocks to stay planted!
Photo Credit: Douglas Scortegagna
After we got our fill of hiking, exploring and experiencing everything we set out to do, we began our long journey home. Patagonia was truly a bucket list adventure filled with majestic natural beauty. I highly recommend it to adventure travelers and novice hikers alike.
About the Author
Mary Reynolds Thompson is a lifelong writer and traveler. Born in London, England, Mary fell in love with Positano, Italy at age three on a family vacation and hasn’t stopped exploring since. From the cobblestone lanes of Ljubljana to the wild, windy tip of Tierra del Fuego, Mary’s diverse range of travel experiences provide the insights for our destination features.