The south of Chile and Argentina is a hiker’s dream. The melange of craggy mountains crowned with glaciers and glistening with waterfalls, scrubland dotted with pale glacial lakes, flowering meadows, marshlands, and windblown cliffs that skirt the Magellan Strait present countless opportunities for exploration on foot.
From day hikes to a week-long trek around Tierra Del Fuego’s most inhospitable mountain range, here are our five favourite hikes in the region.
Torres del Paine
Named after its dominant feature – three 2000m granite towers – Chile’s most popular national park attracts thousands of backpackers every year with its spectacular mountain scenery, herds of grazing guanacos and the occasional puma sighting. Most hikers opt for one of two classic treks in the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine: the 'W' or the 'Circuit'. The shape of the W route resembles that letter, and is best hiked from west to east – for better views of the Los Cuernos peaks and to save the toughest sections for when your backpack is lightest. The first leg is a straightforward four-hour hike alongside Lago Grey, from Lodge Paine Grande to Refugio Lago Grey, with killer views of Glacier Grey along the way. The middle section is a steep ascent of glacier- and waterfall-clad Valle Francés for a close-up look at Los Cuernos and Las Torres (five hours return), while the final leg (four hours one way) is a moderate ascent followed by an hour-long boulder scramble to the Miradór Las Torres – the lakeside viewpoint right beneath the three towers.
The Circuit takes in the W, as well as the back side of the park. It’s best to go anticlockwise from Refugio Las Torres for the unparalleled Glacier Grey vista opening below you as you cross the highest point of the trek – Paso John Gardner (1241m). While the W takes four days or so, the Circuit requires seven to nine days, allowing for extra time to loiter at the campsite below Paso John Gardner, as it’s too dangerous to cross during high winds. Both trails are well signposted and well maintained. Hikers stay overnight either at designated campsites or in pricey dorm beds in refugios.
Day hikes around El Chaltén
Tiny El Chaltén makes an ideal base for day hikes in the surrounding Fitz Roy Range, part of the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Trails are well marked and there are designated campsites for those wishing to combine several day hikes. Laguna Torre (12 km; three hours one way) is a gentle day hike that leads to its namesake lake at the base of the dramatic 3128m rock spire of Cerro Torre, which looms above Glaciers Torre and Grande.
A more challenging day hike takes you up to the Laguna de los Tres (15km; four hours one way), with great views of Fitz Roy en route and a lunch stop by Laguna Capri. If it’s windy, the steep final 1.5km section won't be safe to ascend, but otherwise you’ll make it to the icy, cobalt-blue lagoon and be able to walk to the cliff viewpoint overlooking the misnamed Laguna Sucia (Dirty Lagoon).
An easy four-hour hike southwest of town to Laguna Toro is a great way to check out the twin peaks of Cerro Torre and Cerro Fitz Roy from a distance, and there are also short hikes to viewpoints behind the national park office and a 4km stroll to the Chorillo El Salto waterfall.
El Chaltén to Villa O’Higgins
This cross-border trek from Argentina into Chile involves two lake crossings and a 20km hike that a handful of hikers and cyclists do every year. It can technically be done in one day. Several daily ferries cross Lago del Desierto, 37km from El Chaltén, in peak season; take the earliest ferry and get stamped out by the Argentinian border guards near the dock. From there, a steep, uneven and sometimes muddy trail snakes up and down through the woods. After a couple of hours, you'll pass a sign welcoming you into Chile, from where it’s a level slog along a wide dirt road, a barefoot crossing of a glacial stream and a long walk down to the glacial Lago Argentino/Lago O’Higgins. Near the shore you'll get stamped into Chile at the Candelario Mancilla border post. Ferries to Villa O’Higgins in Chile technically run daily in peak season, but are weather dependent, so bring plenty of food and a tent, as the campsite above the boat dock is the only accommodation.
The trek to the southernmost point of the South American continent is a wilderness challenge best attempted with other hikers or as part of a group trek with Erratic Rock (www.erraticrock.com). The trail is well marked but still wild and hikers traverse diverse terrain, from isolated coves and dense forests to wind-buffeted cliffs and tundra, and there are two major river crossings – Río Genes and Río Nodoles – that have to be timed to coincide with low tides. Have your gear in a waterproof canoe bag that can be used as a flotation device if need be. Cabo Froward is 90km south of Punta Arenas, on the Strait of Magellan, and takes two to three days to reach. You camp by night near deserted whaling stations and in the forest, and then hike all the way back unless prior arrangements have been made to get picked up by fishing boats.
Dientes de Navarino
Considered to be one of South America’s toughest treks, this five-day, 54km circuit in the jagged, inhospitable mountains of Navarino Island presents a challenge even to experienced trekkers, as the trail is poorly marked and there’s no infrastructure. Still, the rewards are ample, in the form of untamed rocky wilderness, secluded lakes and all-encompassing views of the Beagle Channel and the Cape Horn archipelago. The circuit can also be extended with a number of side trips.
The trail climbs from a statue of the Virgin, past the Cerro Bandera lookout point, to Laguna del Salto, where most people camp for the first night. From there it’s a difficult climb over exposed ground to Paso Primero. Paso Australis and Paso de los Dientes also have to be overcome before breaking camp at Laguna Escondida. Day three sees the crossing of Paso Ventarron and a descent to Laguna Martillo, while day four presents the biggest challenge: an ascent to Paso Virginia (the highest point of the hike, at 859m), followed by a particularly steep and treacherous descent to Laguna Los Guanacos. The final day is a straightforward descent through dense woodland.
The weather in Patagonia and Tierra Del Fuego is notoriously changeable so even if you’re just going for a day hike, take warm and waterproof clothing, food, water and a torch. Sturdy footwear with a good grip is a must. Water from glacial streams in Patagonia is pure and drinkable; water on Tierra Del Fuego is not, since resident beavers infect it with giardia.
If camping, make sure you have a strong tent that can withstand Patagonian winds, and bring plenty of fuel for your portable camping stove as well as lightweight food supplies. Make sure that your clothing, sleeping bag and supplies are in sealed waterproof bags to protect them from rain and river crossings.
SIG Patagon produce good digital maps of Torres del Paine and Cabo Froward for iPhone and Android, found at www.maps.com and www.pdf-maps.com, respectively. Good maps and a GPS are necessary for Cabo Froward and Dientes de Navarino; these treks are not recommended for solo hikers, since you’ll be completely on your own if anything goes wrong.