Patagonia. Just saying the word gets me excited. Call me weird, but I like just saying it out loud, under my breath. I like the way it sounds – PA-TA-GO-NIA. Even thinking about it now, I can feel the endorphins rushing through my blood again. After a year and a half living in South America, and travelling all over the continent, this is number one. Here are some of the reasons why.
Highlights of Patagonia: Cruising along Route 40 – Argentina
I grew up on a tiny island in the Caribbean, where you can drive the entire length of the country in just over an hour. For me, until now, endless horizons were only out at sea. Of course I know that South America is huge (yes I’ve looked at the map), but you really can’t comprehend the vastness of these countries until you sit on a bus for 24 hours, watching the landscape slowly and imperceptibly change.
Argentina’s Ruta 40 stretches the entire length of the country. You go hours and hours without passing a single sign of civilisation, just fleeting glimpses of herds of guanaco and rhea. Deserts slowly change to open plains, to arid highlands, to snow-capped mountains. I planned to read and sleep, but honestly spent so much of the journey just staring out the window in wonder.
How we did it: We took a 24-hour bus along a segment of Route 40, from Bariloche to El Chalten with Chalten Travel. But good luck figuring out bus schedules or trying to book online – it took us several hours on a wild goose chase around Bariloche to get our tickets sorted! Of course you could fly to nearby El Calafate, a two hour flight, but that’s missing half the fun, and is three times the price.
Highlights of Patagonia – Hiking to Fitz Roy – Argentina
Our first taste of mountain air, and the end of our Route 40 bus trip, was our arrival to El Chalten. A small Argentinian frontier town, it’s a great base for exploring the outdoors of Patagonia, with great hiking routes, lakes and glaciers nearby.
We loved that many amazing sites are accessible as day trips, with the main trail-heads leading off from the town’s high street, meaning we could return to civilisation (hot showers, restaurants and a bed) each night instead of camping.
Our day hike to Laguna de los Tres for the view of Fitz Roy Peak was one of the best days of the whole trip (20km, 9 hours). We had glorious weather (I was in shorts!), enjoyed a picnic lunch with the most unbelievable view, and this was my first up close encounter with a glacier – the kind of day you never forget.
How we did it: Very easily! After stopping at the visitors’ centre for a map of the trails, advice and the weather forecast for the day, we grabbed a packed lunch from one of the many cafes and delis and off we went. There isn’t even a national park fee.
Highlights of Patagonia – Ice Trek on Viedma Glacier – Argentina
Another great day trip from El Chalten was an ice trek excursion on nearby Viedma glacier which we did with local company Patagonia Aventura. With helmets and crampons we had an incredible day walking on what is part of the South American ice field, which unbelievably contains a third of the world’s fresh water reserves. The deep, pure colours of dense blue ice were mesmerising, contrasted with the white oxygenated surface ice. The terrain was fascinating with fissures, huge sheer drops, tunnels and streams. We also got to try ice climbing with picks, and had a surprise toast at the end of the excursion with Tia Maria, chilled with glacier ice of course!
How we did it: Most people do an ice trek on Perito Moreno glacier (see below). I did a lot of research, and we decided on the lesser-trodden Viedma. On Perito Moreno there are hundreds of people on the ice at once, whereas we were the only group of about 20 on Viedma that day. So while we can’t compare the two, I’d highly recommend Viedma to escape the crowds and have a more intimate experience on the ice.
Highlights of Patagonia – Marvelling at Perito Moreno Glacier – Argentina
Easily accessible by bus from El Calafate, and with no hiking involved, Perito Moreno is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Patagonia. For us, this was a much needed chill day. We sat on a bench in the sun in front of the glacier, literally all day, with a picnic lunch and our books. Every time the glacier ‘calved’, with huge chunks of ice crashing into the water, we’d look up, grab the camera, and then return to reading. Unforgettable.
How we did it: Instead of joining the hoards of tourists on the bus tours, we rented a car for the day from nearby El Calafate (only slightly more expensive than two tickets on the tour bus) which meant we could beat the crowds. We were the second vehicle to enter the national park that day, and got to enjoy the beautiful glacier in the morning light for about an hour before the crowds arrived.
Highlights of Patagonia: Serious Trekking in Torres del Paine National Park – Chile
We continued our Patagonia adventure, crossing into Chile. To explore the vast Torres del Paine National Park, we took on the challenging five day W-trek. This was hardcore and one of the most physically challenging things I’ve ever done. When you have to carry your belongings all day for five days, you learn to prioritise.
The weather is extreme. From driving rain with gale-force winds and hail, to beautiful sunshine, we experienced all four seasons in near-constant rotation. But the toil was worth it – it was a fantastic journey, and I’m actually quite proud of myself for getting through it, and carrying 12kg for five days! Highlights for me were kayaking alongside Grey Gacier, and of course getting to the summit of the famous Torres, pictured above.
How we did it: Instead of the popular east to west route, we started in the west, leaving the summit to the ‘Torres’ as the highlight for our last day. We chose to sleep in the lodges in the park, and only camped one night because the lodge was full. I was so thankful to be indoors at the end of the day with a hot meal and snug bunk.
Highlights of Patagonia: 60,000 Penguins on Isla Magdalena – Chile
Our Patagonian oddessey ended near the southern tip of Chile, in Punta Arenas – the gateway to Antartica for many cruises. It really felt like we were at the end of the world! We ventured this far south for one reason – penguins!
We took a ferry out to Isla Magdalena, home to Chile’s largest colony of penguins and I was thrilled to be surrounded by approximately 60,000 Magellanic penguins, busily walking from the shore to their nests with eggs and furry little chicks inside. Steven had fun using the zoom lens of our camera, and caught some great pingu moments, while I was just giddy with excitement – ending our trip on a real high.
What we did: I love to have a pre-planned schedule (preferably on a colour-coded spreadsheet) for our travelling adventures. A recurrent theme in Patagonia, and in South America generally, is that it’s near impossible to find up-to-date information on schedules and prices online, and nearly just as bad in real life. After asking around, the owner of our hostel making some futile phone calls, and me getting worried that we’d leave Patagonia without seeing penguins, we finally found out when and where to catch the ferry!
Persistence eventually pays off in Patagonia.