Patagonia Travel Guide: Overview
Expansive, rugged and beautiful, Patagonia is a region at the southern tip of South America shared between Argentina and Chile. In Argentine Patagonia, expect to see expansive steppes, deserts and grassland; Chilean Patagonia offers glacial fjords and even temperate rainforests. Taken together, it’s every outdoor adventurer’s dream—400,000 square miles of some of the most rugged landscapes Mother Nature has to offer.
Human habitation of this region dates back to as early as the 13th millennium BC, with continuous habitation since 10,000 BC.
Full European exploration of the region is attributed to Ferdinand Magellan in 1520, and this kind of exploration continued sporadically for several hundred more years. One of the most notable explorations came from 1832 to 1836, when the Beagle brought Robert FitzRoy and naturalist Charles Darwin to the region.
In the early 19th century, many Mapuches, a group indigenous to south-central Chile, moved south to Patagonia for a nomadic life of cattle raising. Around the same time, Chile and Argentina, now independent nations, were aggressively expanding southward as well and consequently came into frequent conflict with these indigenous peoples.
Complicating the matter, European missionaries and settlers arrived from the 19th to the 20th century, and the British crown officially mediated the border between Chilean and Argentine Patagonia in the early 1900s.
Conflicts over the specifics of that border continued for many years. As recently as 1994, an arbitral tribunal granted Argentina sovereignty over Cerro Fitz Roy, Laguna del Desierto and more.
Patagonia has predominantly European roots, so many Westerners find little trouble fitting in (apart from adjusting to late dining hours). Maté, a traditional caffeine-infused drink, is ubiquitous throughout Patagonia and comes with a litany of drinking rules, but visitors are given lots of leeway here. Drinking it “wrong” is often a source of amusement to locals—not genuine offense.
Driving culture—and the seeming disregard for speed limits or safety—might shock US travelers at first, as will the lack of barriers and other safety implements so commonly seen in US-based hiking spots. Use caution and common sense, especially around cliffs or other precarious hiking spots.
Bureaucracy can be particularly messy and complicated during Patagonia travel. Border crossings, for example, are notoriously confusing. Keep a cool head (and an extra dose of patience), and you’ll get to where you’re going…eventually.
When greeting a local or saying your good-byes, one kiss on the right cheek is traditional. Handshakes can be viewed as quite formal, but, again, tourists are given a lot of leniency on compliance with these kinds of local customs.
On the literature front, Chile is fiercely proud of its exports—namely Pablo Neruda and Isabel Allende—while Jorge Luis Borges hails from Argentina.
Good to Know
When traveling in Patagonia, keep some of the following in mind:
Argentina uses the Argentinean Peso, while Chile uses the Chilean Peso. ATMs are common in banks, shopping areas and malls, but if you’re planning to hit more remote areas for trekking, make sure you stock up on cash beforehand. You might be able to get away with US dollars (and increasingly the Euro), but it’s still a good idea to exchange into and use local currency.
Note, bank hours can be frustratingly short (expect 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in the summer and 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the winter), and lines tend to be long. You’ll generally have better luck dealing with ATMs.
Tipping’s not obligatory but appreciated. In restaurants, 10 percent is standard, if service isn’t already included. It’s also common to give small tips to people such as hotel porters, people unloading your luggage from long-distance buses and the like.
Patagonia is a land of natural beauty and scenic marvels. To keep it that way, you should respect all signage and hiking-related rules. In the cities, moderate drinking is common, especially at meals, but public drunkenness is frowned upon. Smoking, while still common here, is illegal in enclosed spaces.
Current in Patagonia is 220 volts, and travelers can expect to find a mixture of several different plug types, depending on location. (This includes two round prongs, two flat prongs and three angled flat prongs.) A universal adapter and a converter for 110-volt devices are recommended.
Public bathrooms are generally available, but toilet paper is rarely provided. Stashing a roll of your own in your backpack will inevitably come in handy. Patagonian plumbing tends to be fragile, and toilet paper should not be flushed down the toilet. There’s usually a wastebasket to deposit your used paper. Especially for Western travelers who haven’t experienced this before, this practice can be a bit of a shock. Restrooms sometimes require a small fee to use, so keep a pocketful of change at the ready.
Many travelers do drink the tap water in Patagonia without any significant issues, but cautious world wanderers can also readily find bottled water. Trekkers often drink from glacial-fed streams, but purification tablets, water filters or other purification tactics could be used for peace of mind.
Regions and Cities
Known for its concentration of Welsh settlers, Chubut is also home to Peninsula Valdés, a hotbed of marine wildlife, such as seals and whales.
Constituting the northern border of Patagonia, this Argentine region is home to wineries, stunning vistas and strong winds.
San Carlos de Bariloche: Located within the Nahuel Huapi National Park, Bariloche is known for its skiing, hiking and mountaineering opportunities. A favorite among tourists, it’s also a hot spot for restaurants, cafes and even chocolate shops.
Perhaps the best known of the Patagonian regions, Santa Cruz boasts larger-than-life glaciers, impossibly jagged mountains and stunning lagunas.
El Calafate: Charming in its own right, El Calafate is a popular base for nearby Perito Moreno Glacier. Don’t forget to also keep an eye out for the flamingos that congregate in Lago Argentino.
El Chaltén: Nestled at the foot of Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, El Chaltén is a popular base for single-day or multiday hikes. While you’re here, don’t forget to visit the stunning blue waters of Laguna Capri.
Tierra del Fuego
Notoriously windy and foggy, Tierra del Fuego is equal parts rugged and beautiful. It’s easy to imagine you’re at the bottom of the world when you’re here, and that’s exactly what inspires such ardor among those who venture this far.
Ushuaia: The world’s southernmost city, Ushuaia is modern and tourist-friendly but expensive. It’s also the main jumping off point for cruises to the Antarctic mainland and home to various penguin colonies.
Worth a Visit
Los Glaciares National Park
This stunning portion of Patagonia houses some of its can’t-miss sites, including Lake Argentino, Lake Viedma, Cerro Fitz Roy, Cerro Torre and Perito Moreno Glacier. Hike to stunning viewpoints one day, and then watch as building-size chunks of ice calve from Perito Moreno the next.
Squint, and you could easily mistake snow-capped Osorno Volcano for iconic Mount Fuji, but picturesque Osorno is a marvel in its own right. It’s also one of the most active volcanoes within the southern Chilean Andes.
Hugging the Andes mountains, this expansive stretch of road takes you south through Argentine Patagonia. Keep your eyes open for abundant wildlife: guanacos, armadillos, flamingos, rheas and more. (Guanacos are particularly fond of dashing into the road, so keep your eyes open when behind the wheel!)
Torres del Paine National Park
One of the most visited parts of Patagonia, Torres del Paine National Park offers mountains, lakes, rivers, glaciers and, of course, the world-famous three granite peaks known as Torres del Paine. A hiker’s paradise, you can traverse the “W” route in around five days or the full “O” in eight or nine.
Things to See and to Do
Full Article Coming Soon!
How to Get to Patagonia
US citizens can enter Chile without a visa for up to ninety days. A visa is also not required for Argentina. Also, as of August 23, 2016, US citizens are no longer required to pay a reciprocity fee to enter Argentina, and the fee was waived for Canadian citizens on January 1, 2018.
Many travelers entering by air will fly into a major hub—Buenos Aires (Ministro Pistarini International Airport, or Ezeiza) or Santiago (Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport)—and then take domestic flights, rental cars or buses into the heart of Patagonia.
If you’re short on time and don’t mind the extra cost, you can also fly more directly into Patagonia. In northern Patagonia, this is usually into Bariloche or El Calafate in the south. If you’re traveling as far south as Tierra del Fuego, consider hitting the airport in Ushuaia.
Domestic flights are a common means of getting around and can even be cheaper than long-distance buses. The bus network throughout Chile and Argentina is popular among tourists and can get you to most national parks, as well as cities.
Especially if you’re short on time, renting a car is a great way to cover large distances and get to remote areas without a lot of downtime at bus stations or airports. Don’t forget your international driving permit as some car rental agencies require this.
Biking is great for day trips, but you’ll want to select a mountain bike (todo terreno) to tackle the terrain. Weather is always going to be a hurdle in Patagonia, so make sure you’re prepared for anything when outdoor adventuring here.
Spanish is spoken in both Chilean and Argentine Patagonia, and non–Spanish speaking travelers can expect a bit of a language barrier—especially if you’re looking to get off the beaten tourist path. Chilean Spanish is notorious for being fast and filled with region-specific idioms. (Some native Spanish speakers even have trouble understanding Chileans!) Don’t worry, though. Patagonia is a major destination for travelers, and most people in the tourism industry will speak at least enough English to get you where you’re going.
It’s still useful, though, to have some basic Spanish phrases:
- Hello: Hola
- My name is…: Me llamo…
- Yes: Sí
- No: No
- Thank you: Gracias
- You’re welcome: De nada/Por nada
- I’m sorry: Lo siento
- Please: Por favor
- Please help me: Por favor, ayúdame
- I don’t understand: No entiendo
- Do you speak English: Habla inglés
- Where’s the bathroom: Dónde está el baño
Backroads Pro Tip
As many seasoned travelers know, locals often appreciate any attempt to speak the native language, and Patagonia’s no exception. Your Spanish might be shaky, but the open, friendly people of Chile and Argentina offer the perfect opportunity to practice.
Food and Drink
Food and drink are an essential part of the Patagonian experience.
On the Chilean side, enjoy fresh seafood in many different forms, including soups, stews and ceviche, as well as baked casseroles known as pasteles. To wash it down, enjoy a pisco sour, a potent grape brandy mixed with lemon juice and sugar, or any number of renowned Chilean wines. (Go for their bold, rich reds.)
In Argentina, splurge on their smoky, salted steaks, and then indulge in their numerous wine offerings. And, of course, no Patagonian travel guide would be complete without mentioning maté, a grassy tea that’s undeniably bitter to first-time drinkers but an important facet of Argentine social customs.
Food in Patagonia: What to Know and to Eat—Full Article Coming Soon!
Compared to other South American regions, Patagonia is quite safe. That doesn’t mean common sense should go out the window, though. Petty theft’s still a possibility—especially in cities, transportation hubs and shared accommodations—so keep an eye on your belongings. Violent crime is not common here.
It’s become much more common in recent years for women to travel alone in this region, but solo females might still be the object of unwanted attention or chatting up. This attention is rarely hostile or physical, though. Make your disinterest known, and you’ll typically be left in peace.
If you need emergency services in Argentina, the general emergency number is 101. In Chile, it’s 133.
As with most hiking meccas, most of the safety dangers are inherent to the landscape. Unpredictable weather, high winds and rough terrain can pose real risks to any unprepared hiker. Always pack appropriate clothing and enough food and water when venturing into the Patagonian wild.
WHAT IS BACKROADS
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. We hope this guide will be enlightening to you as you plan your next great Patagonian adventure!