At the southern tip of South America, you’ll find a large swath of rugged landscape famous for its jagged snow-capped mountain peaks, bright blue glacier-fed lakes and steppe-like plains. Patagonia spans over 400,000 square miles across Chile and Argentina, touching three oceans - the Pacific in the West, the Atlantic in the East and the Southern to the south - and it is the closest you’ll come to the South Pole without stepping foot on Antarctica. Most of you may be familiar with Torres Del Paine, the national park on the Chilean side of Patagonia, but the slightly lesser known Argentinian side is equally worth a visit. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to trek through parts of this region on an epic 10-day adventure.
There are two main travel hubs for southern Patagonia in Argentina - El Calafate and Ushuaia; the latter being the furthest south and the primary gateway to Antarctica. For this blog, I am going to focus on the area I visited myself - El Calafate and its surrounding areas.
El Calafate is a small city on the southern border of Lake Argentino that welcomes regular flights from Buenos Aires. Travelers coming from the States can (and should!) spend a couple of days in the country’s capital before hopping on the 3 hour Aerolineas Argentinas flight south. While El Calafate has plenty to offer in terms of hotels, restaurants and day trips to well known sites, true explorers should continue a few hours north to El Chalten, an outdoor enthusiast paradise at the base of Los Glaciares National Park. There are several options to make the trip from El Calafate to El Chalten - from bus and van shuttle services, to car rentals and private transfers.
When to Visit
Since we’re talking about the Southern Hemisphere here, the best time to visit Patagonia is November through early March when the weather will be most temperate. Yet be warned, the weather can still be unpredictable day-to-day, and is often quite windy. Layers are key and you should invest in a good windbreaker.
What to see and do
While the whole area is full of stunning hikes and picture-perfect vistas, there are two main sites that should be on every visitor’s list:
1. Monte Fitz Roy. In the northern part of Los Glaciares National Park sits Fitz Roy, a famous peak reaching an elevation of 11,000 feet. Along with its neighbor, Cerro Torre, Fitz Roy is popular in the climbing community. But this mountain can also be accessed by moderate to advanced hikers from a trailhead just on the outskirts of El Chalten. The round-trip day hike from El Chalten to the top of Fitz Roy will definitely take all day and will add up to about 13 miles, but the views at the top are nothing short of spectacular.
2. Perito Moreno Glacier. Slightly more accessible and as a result, a bit more touristy, is the Perito Moreno Glacier. Located a couple hours’ drive from El Calafate, this massive glacier covers 97 square miles and is worthy of a day trip. A large visitor center at the mouth of the glacier provides the opportunity to learn about the ice field and its history. Several viewing platforms and a boat trip offer visitors the chance to watch as the massive glacier calves ice chunks into the waters - resulting in deafening splashes. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this glacier is particularly fascinating in that it is one of only three glaciers in the world that are advancing, rather than retreating.
Beyond hiking and glacier hunting, there are plenty of adventurous activities to take advantage of on your trip to Patagonia.
1. Rock Climbing. I mentioned El Chalten is a rock climber’s paradise, but you don’t need to be a pro to go. Numerous guides and tour operators offer half and full day mountaineering and climbing trips in the region, ranging from beginner to advanced.
2. Fishing. Though not the main attraction, sport and fly fishing are popular activities here. Travelers can choose between several nearby lakes and rivers and spend a half day hunting for trout or salmon.
3. Horseback Riding. You’ll feel like a true gaucho as you traverse surrounding valleys and cross riverbeds and streams on your Argentinean steed.
4. Mountain Biking. Another great alternative to hiking, visitors can opt for a tour or just rent a bike in town and explore the local trails on their own.
You can also find kayaking, ATVs, whitewater rafting and birding. Needless to say, you will not be bored in Argentina’s southern playground!
Where to Stay
This region is remote, and the options for luxury accommodations aren’t necessarily plentiful. That said, there are a few properties I would recommend for unique stays:
1. Eolo Patagonia. Located halfway between El Calafate and Los Glaciares National Park, this Relais & Chateaux property has just 17 rooms and is set on 10,000 acres of land. The rooms have large picture windows, allowing guests to soak up the landscape. In true Relais & Chateaux fashion, the on-site restaurant features top-notch cuisine and award-winning Argentinean wines. This is a great option for those searching for a secluded setting and 5-star luxury. Rates are inclusive of full board and airport transfers.
2. Los Cerros Boutique Hotel & Spa. The closest you’ll find to a larger, luxury hotel in the heart of El Chalten, Los Cerros is ideally situated atop a hillside, offering stunning views of the El Chalten valley and surrounding mountains. The 44-room property has a log cabin vibe that matches the ambiance of the town. While there is a restaurant and spa on-site, a nice perk of this hotel is its proximity to the main thoroughfare in this small town.
3. Estancia Nibepo Aike. Those searching for an authentic Argentinian estancia experience, should look no further than this boutique property, with just 10 rooms. Guests receive full-board and get to experience Argentinian farm life. Those who opt for the “Plus” experience will also be assigned a personal guide who will curate their daily schedule.
4. Posada Los Alamos. Just blocks from the main street in El Calafate, this 144-room hotel is a comfortable option for those looking for a home base in El Calafate. The property’s traditional decor feels homey and rustic, yet the hotel has plentiful amenities, including a restaurant & bar, heated pool and a spa.
Food & Drink
1. La Cerveceria. After a long day of hiking or mountain biking, what sounds better than beer and pizza? La Cerveceria is El Chalten’s own microbrewery serving homemade pilsners and bocks alongside casual and modern Argentinean cuisine, including a variety of pizzas.
2. La Vineria. Wine bar may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the typical Patagonia crowd, but this is Argentina after all - home of the Malbec. La Vineria features 250 wines from around the country along with 50+ local craft beers and traditional Argentine appetizers.
3. La Tablita. Back in El Calafate, you’ll find a lot more options for dining. La Tablita is a traditional Asador Parillo focusing on the star of Argentine cuisine - meat. Beyond beef, you’ll find veal, lamb, chicken and sausage on the menu at this mainstay.
4. La Posta. Located in Posada los Alomos (mentioned above), this El Calafate restaurant has a variety of meats, pastas and seafood on the menu, but the specialty dish here is the Patagonian lamb cooked in a traditional asador.
There are so many incredible provinces to visit throughout Argentina - from the food and wine in Mendoza to the culture of the capital city, but Patagonia should also rank high on your list. This region invokes a sense of traveling to the “ends of the earth.” In this day and age when we’re constantly looking for a way to slow down and unplug, Patagonia may just be the perfect option.