How to Travel to Patagonia

Here's everything you need to know about visiting Patagonia, including the best treks and places to stay.

Alpacas grazing in the shadow of Patagonia mountains
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Stretching across Chile and Argentina, Patagonia has long lured travelers with storied peaks and spellbinding landscapes to what is very nearly the end of the world. Here, in the countries' national parks, are snow-capped mountains, cobalt fjords, and old-growth forests. At the southernmost tip of the Americas, icebergs rupture with a dramatic roar from ancient, massive glaciers.

Torres del Paine National Park in Chile and Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina are two of the region’s top highlights, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors per year. For a complete Patagonian travel journey, consider visiting both. Of course, doing so requires a lot of logistical planning — especially during the high season. Here’s a comprehensive guide to help you maximize your travels in this wonderfully remote corner of the planet.

High-angle view of Patagonia mountains and glaciers
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When to Go

Though most hotels in the region remain open year-round, you might find that amenities and activities that make tourists comfortable and entertained throughout the busy season are unavailable during winter in the Southern Hemisphere, which is from April to September.

To avoid the crowds and still experience good weather, visit during the spring when the flowers are in bloom, or fall when the leaves are a fiery mosaic of red, orange, and yellow. The summer months (December to February) have the mildest weather, but keep in mind that temperatures average below 70 degrees and that winds are strong.

Travelers should be aware that the weather in Patagonia is highly unpredictable, particularly in spring and early summer. Weather and temperatures can fluctuate without warning, and violent storms can sweep in from the Pacific. It’s helpful to pad your schedule with additional days in case you encounter inclement weather.

How to Get to Patagonia

Because distances are quite long in Chile and Argentina, you will probably want to fly to Patagonia (unless you have several days to spare for a road trip from Buenos Aires or Santiago). Airline seats fill up quickly during peak season (December to February), so you should purchase tickets as far in advance as possible: Six months is ideal. For other months in the high season (October until early May), book at least three months ahead to avoid steep fares and limited options.

In Chile, LATAM Airlines serves southern Chilean Patagonia year-round with daily flights between Santiago and Punta Arenas, a common jumping-off point for Patagonia travel, with a flight time of three and a half hours.

Buildings along the water in Puerto Natales
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Sky Airlines, Chile’s low-cost provider, also flies between Santiago and both Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales — another jumping-off point to Punta Arenas' south — often stopping at Puerto Montt, though passengers usually get to stay on the plane. Sky Airlines generally offers lower fares than LATAM.

Puerto Natales fares are cheaper the earlier you book. And as for driving time: It's three hours between Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas, two hours between Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine National Park, and four to five hours between Punta Arenas and the park.

In Argentina, Calafate and Ushuaia are the primary entryways, both less than a four-hour flight from Buenos Aires. These destinations are serviced by LATAM Airlines and Aerolineas Argentinas. Los Glaciares National Park, home to the famous Perito Moreno Glacier, is an hour's drive from El Calafate Airport. Another popular destination in this region is the trekking mecca El Chaltén, a three-hour drive from El Calafate Airport, from which you can rent a car.

How to Get Around

Many of Patagonia's luxury hotels include transfers to and from the airport, as well as transportation for daily excursions. Traveling between Chile and Argentina can be done easily by land or sea. Unfortunately, there are no flights from Puerto Natales or Punta Arenas to El Calafate or Ushuaia.

By sea, Australis cruises run from the end of September to the beginning of April connecting Punta Arenas and Ushuaia. Expeditions lasting four to eight nights navigate fjords, the Avenue of the Glaciers, the Strait of Magellan, Beagle Channel, and Cape Horn. Daily Zodiac rides get passengers up close to the ice and wildlife including penguin colonies and elephant seals.

For an overland trip, you can rent a car, organize a private transfer, or catch a bus. The bus company Bus-Sur connects Puerto Natales, Chile, and El Calafate, Argentina, daily during the tourist season and several times a week during the low season. The transfer takes five hours or longer, depending on how long it takes to clear customs. Book online at least a month in advance to guarantee a seat, especially during the high season.

Traveling by bus or organized tour is the most convenient way to cross the border because guides and drivers handle many of the logistics, but self-driving tourists travel between Chile and Argentina in private vehicles all the time. Do your research on the process before attempting a border crossing on your own.

What to Pack

In Patagonia, travelers will need to be ready for all kinds of weather. Since temperatures can go from freezing to 70 degrees over the course of a single day, it’s crucial that travelers pack layers. A waterproof jacket and trekking boots are highly essential, as is sunscreen and a pair of quality sunglasses (the sun can be extremely bright).

If you’re staying in upscale lodges, a suitcase is fine to bring, but a backpack is needed for multi-day trekking. Smaller backpacks are ideal for full or half-day excursions. Many upscale hotels provide personal water bottles and trekking poles.

Also don't forget:

  • Long thermal underwear that wicks perspiration
  • Waterproof pants
  • Light pullover or sweatshirt
  • Fleece or down liner
  • Waterproof parka or other weatherproof coat
  • Hat for sun protection
  • Wind-blocking gloves
  • Comfortable waterproof shoes
  • Long trekking socks
  • Neck gaiter
  • Bug spray
  • Headlamp

Chilean Patagonia Travel Tips

Chile's portion of Patagonia is smaller and more rugged — i.e., less touristy — than Argentina's. Head to the Chile side to get off the beaten path and go beyond the major highlights.

What to Do

Travelers flock to Patagonia to experience the otherworldly beauty of Torres del Paine National Park and spot Patagonia’s wildlife, including the Big Five: pumas, llama-like guanacos, South Andean deer known as huemul, Andean condors, and the ostrich-like rhea (or ñandú). There are also flamingos, foxes, penguins, and more than 100 species of birds. Several tour companies offer multi-day puma-tracking safaris through the park.

Visitors will also want to explore the park’s old-growth forests. In the canopies of primeval southern beech trees (lenga, coihue, ñire) you can spot Magellanic woodpeckers and Austral parakeets.

Full and half-day treks along the famous W Circuit (named for the shape of the route) offer one-of-a-kind vistas of sweeping freshwater lakes, teal lagoons, ice floes, and glimmering glaciers. The W Circuit is a roughly 50-mile trail that takes four or five days to walk and showcases major attractions. Trekkers settle into refugios (basic dorm-style shelters) or campsites for overnight stays.

Less remote, you can stroll through the colorful fishing town of Puerto Natales, or explore the region’s labyrinth of scenic fjords, where immense glaciers and marine life can be admired from the deck of a boat. On the shores of Punta Arenas, visit penguin colonies at Seno Otway or Magdalena Island and look out for sea lions and whales that populate the waters. You can also kayak the Strait of Magellan.

Where to Stay

Patagonia accommodation on the coast of Chile
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Patagonia's luxury lodges offer all-inclusive packages that include airport transfers, a wide range of full- and half-day excursions, and three gourmet meals per day with premium wine and cocktails. Explora is a pioneer in this category, offering dozens of expeditions led by experienced guides in Patagonia National Park and Torres del Paine. Besides that, 14 exclusive villas are the signature of Awasi, where guests have their own private guide and four-wheel drive vehicle to explore the scenery at their own pace.

Overlooking Lake Sarmiento and Paine Massif, Tierra Patagonia subscribes to an adventure spa philosophy. Guests are encouraged to unwind after jam-packed days of exploration with a massage or a session in the open-air hot tub.

For glampers, the sustainable EcoCamp is a geodesic dome hotel inside Torres del Paine. Accommodations range from basic to over-the-top, two-story heated tents that boast private terraces, bathrooms, and windows facing upward to the Patagonian sky. Assisted camping experiences on the trekking circuit are arranged by operators like Las Torres, Cascada Expediciones, MT Sobek, and Swoop Patagonia.

A number of upscale properties are located in and around the colorful fishing town of Puerto Natales, too. The Singular Patagonia, a property situated on the banks of the Last Hope Sound, is a century-old national monument that’s been refurbished with industrial-chic accents.

At Lakutaia Lodge, on Navarrino Island next to Cape Horn, guests are deeply immersed in the surrounding glaciers and fjords. But the real draw for adventurers is the opportunities to helifish and heliski.

What to Eat and Drink

Most of the lodges on private reserves offer full room and board, employing talented chefs who take advantage of locally sourced ingredients like white strawberries, rhubarb, seaweed, Patagonian honey, and gamier specialties like guanaco and Patagonian hare.

From the sea, try South American king crab, snook-and-hake ceviche, conger eel, choritos (mussels), and oysters. Wash it all down with a Chilean pisco sour or bottle of local wine.

Day Trips From Chile

Hotels in Chilean Patagonia offer a staggering array of full- and half-day excursions for just about any interest and fitness level: mountain trekking, horseback riding, cycling, kayaking, sailing scenic fjords, and glacier cruises, among others. For avid hikers, hiking to the base of Torres del Paine ("Mirador Las Torres") is a must-do. It’s a challenging, full-day out-and-back trip, but a clear view — weather depending — of the granite spires rising from the turquoise glacial lake is an ample reward.

You can take a Zodiac voyage to get up-close views of ancient, glistening glaciers. Grey Glacier is a popular destination, as are the Balmaceda and Serrano Glaciers, accessible from the wharf in Puerto Natales. Otherwise, spend the day with Chilean cowboys at the family-run Estancia Mercedes for horseback riding along fjords.

General Tips for Visiting Chile

  • When visiting during Chile’s summer months, beware of biting midges. Spray yourself with natural insect repellent at regular intervals and wear light-colored clothing and long sleeves, as these small flies are attracted to dark colors.
  • If you are an avid hiker, avoid heavy crowds of backpackers in Torres del Paine by traveling in November or April. ​ ​
  • On challenging treks, opt for two trekking poles. They will save your knees on the descent.

Argentine Patagonia Travel Tips

Tourists hiking on icy glaciers in Patagonia
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Argentina's portion of Patagonia is larger and more geographically diverse than Chile's portion. Another potential benefit is that the Andes Mountains leaves Argentina in a rain shadow, meaning it stays dry while the Chile side takes the rain that rolls in from the Pacific.

What to Do

The 97-square-mile Perito Moreno Glacier — a declared UNESCO World Heritage site in Los Glaciares National Park — attracts tens of thousands of visitors every year. Located near El Calafate, it’s one of the world’s most exceptional ice fields and a must-see on the Argentine side of Patagonia. Boat cruises on the lake will take you close enough to witness colossal icebergs spontaneously fragment from the Perito Moreno Glacier and into Lake Argentino below. Some tours give visitors a chance to hike out onto the glacier wearing metal crampons.

Visiting the area’s historic estancias offers travelers a glimpse into the rural life of Patagonian ranchers. The century-old Estancia Cristina on Lake Argentino and Nibepo Aike, a working cattle ranch near El Calafate, are destinations in their own right. Unspoiled landscapes and opportunities to hike, horseback ride, and visit the area’s stunning glaciers are abundant.

Three hours north by car from El Calafate is the laidback hiking hamlet of El Chaltén, famous for its towering Fitz Roy mountain peak. The tiny frontier town is dotted with picturesque chalets and a network of scenic trails that suit every skill level.

You’ll travel to the “end of the world” in Tierra del Fuego. Its capital city, Ushuaia, is a port of arrival or departure when traveling by sea between Argentina and Chile. Take a boat cruise or catamaran trip to see penguins, sea lions, and cormorants inhabiting the legendary Beagle Channel made famous by naturalist Charles Darwin on his Beagle voyage in 1831.

Tierra del Fuego National Park offers a lush sub-Antarctic rainforest shaded with beech trees, while Glacier Martial offers a panoramic view of Ushuaia and the channel. International anglers make pilgrimages to the banks of the Rio Grande in the hope of hooking its record brown trout.

Where to Stay

Two pleasant hotels offering relatively affordable accommodation right on the southern shore of Argentina's largest freshwater lake — Lake Argentino, extending from El Calafate up into the mountains — are Esplendor Calafate and Xelena.

EOLO, 30 minutes west of El Calafate, is built on 10,000 acres of arid steppe and pampas grass with lake views. Antiques, heavy wooden furniture, and mismatched dishware give the lodge a cozy country atmosphere. Nearby, guests can take guided treks, go horseback riding, mountain biking, and birdwatching. The hotel can also arrange excursions to the Perito Moreno and Upsala Glaciers. Book one of the corner suites for an especially good view.

Further out of town is Estancia Cristina, a 20th-century sheep ranch accessible only by the resort's boat across Lake Argentino. Set on 54,000 acres of wild Patagonian terra firma, the preserved estancia offers a menu of excursions including trekking, horseback riding, and sailing among icebergs near the Upsala Glacier.

Meanwhile, Estancia Nibepo Aike on the shore of Lake Roca is an authentic working ranch founded by a Croatian pioneer at the turn of the 20th century. The estancia still raises cattle and sheep, granting guests the unusual opportunity to see sheep be sheared, learn cowboy skills on horseback, and to sample a traditional prepared asado (barbecue) of Patagonian lamb. Guests can also take day trips from here to explore the lesser-visited glaciers Cubo, Frías, and Dickson.

Between El Chaltén and El Calafate, you can stay at Estancia Helsingfors, a rustic lodge set on the shores of Lake Viedma with great food and stunning mountain views. On Lake San Martin, several hours north of El Calafate, there's also the pristine private nature reserve that houses Estancia El Condor, named for the nearby condor nesting sites.

Los Cerros, located on a hilltop providing epic views of El Chaltén, is the most luxe option in a backpacking haven brimming with hostels. And the exclusive Aguas Arribas Lodge, about an hour's drive north of El Chaltén, is a secluded lakeside retreat looking upon the north face of Mount Fitz Roy.

In Ushuaia, luxury properties Los Cauquenes and Arakur Ushuaia Resort & Spa both overlook the Beagle Channel and offer guided wilderness hikes and excursions on the water.

What to Eat and Drink

Most estancias offer full board with three meals per day, but there are some local delicacies you must check off your list.

El Calafate gets its name from the calafate berry (barberry), and there is a local legend that says whoever eats a calafate berry will return to Patagonia. Try calafate gelato, calafate liqueur, and delicious jams made from chaura (prickly heath) and zarzaparrilla (wild currant).

Experiencing an authentic Patagonian asado is a must-do at one of the estancias. Watch the asadors cook local Patagonian lamb on an iron cross over a live fire and enjoy it with a glass of Patagonian pinot noir in hand. One of the best restaurants for grilled cuisine is La Tablita in El Calafate. In Ushuaia, dine on classic Argentine seafood at the restaurant Kaupé, considered one of the best in the country.

While you're in Argentina, don't forget to try Cerveceria Beagle, a beer brewed using meltwater from nearby glaciers. However, arguably the most important and culturally significant of all Argentine drinks is mate. Sipping mate tea is a long-held social ritual that consists of drinking yerba mate (a caffeine-rich blend of dried herbs) steeped in hot water inside a hollowed gourd or wooden mate cup through a bombilla (a traditional straw). Try adding a little sugar if the taste is too bitter for your palate.

Day Trips From Argentina

Icebergs in front of mountains in Patagonia

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A trip to Perito Moreno Glacier in Los Glaciares National Park is one of Patagonia’s most iconic excursions. Book an ice trekking adventure — big or small — with Hielo & Aventura.

Another guide company, Marpatag, takes guests on multi-day glacier adventure sailings along Lake Argentino, visiting the Upsala, Spegazzini, and Perito Moreno Glaciers.

A full-day excursion to Estancia Cristina includes a boat ride past glaciers and waterfalls, too. Cañadon de los Fosiles is a 4.5-hour trek from the estancia providing views of Lake Guillermo and the Upsala Glacier before descending through a valley of ancient fossils.

El Chaltén offers a variety of scenic day hikes including the Cerro Torre Trek, which takes about six hours, and the more challenging Monte Fitz Roy Trek, an eight-hour hike to Laguna de los Tres. You can also ice hike atop the Viedma Glacier.

In Tierra del Fuego, look for marine wildlife in the Beagle Channel or visit panoramic lookout points on hikes through Tierra del Fuego National Park.

General Tips for Visiting Argentina

  • Perito Moreno Glacier’s ice treks have strict age limits — typically from 18 to 65 years old — that differ by tour.
  • If you plan to spend a night at Estancia Cristina, you should overnight in Calafate before and after, as the boat departs early in the morning and returns in the late afternoon.
  • Avid hikers should visit El Chaltén in November or April to avoid heavy crowds.
  • Outdoor equipment is expensive in Argentina, so be certain you’re well equipped before traveling.

Do Americans Need a Visa to Visit Patagonia?

The capital cities Santiago, Chile, and Buenos Aires, Argentina, both serve as gateways to Patagonia. Americans do not need a visa or to pay a reciprocity fee to enter either country.

Which side to start on is a matter of personal preference. However, if you plan to visit both countries, you can start in one city and finish in the other, so you have the opportunity to experience both.

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