In Patagonia it’s the silence that hits you first. Then the landscapes – the snow-dusted mountains rising up like dollops of whipped cream; the shimmering lakes; the aquamarine icebergs that float past giant, jagged glaciers, crashing and calving their way into the milky blue water below.
Hikers enjoy sunset at Roca Lake near El Calafate © Guillermo Palavecino / 500px
These landscapes have been luring in explorers and mountaineers for centuries, but they aren't just for hardcore trekkers. Patagonia offers a softer side, too: horse rides in lush green estancias, strolls through pine-carpeted forests, cultural explorations in tiny rural villages, boat trips around staggering ice fields.
In fact this sprawling, diverse region is ideal for anyone wanting to chill out and tune in to vast, untouched wilderness, seasoned hiker or not. For those who fall into the latter group – or those who just want some down-time in between treks – we’ve put together a guide to some of the best alternative experiences to enjoy in and around the Argentine towns of Bariloche and El Calafate.
Sail to Isla Victoria
Reached via boat from Puerto Pañuelo (just outside Bariloche), this verdant, 20km-long island is a hotspot for peaceful strolls in scenic surrounds, with walking trails scattered among soaring cypress trees and secluded beaches flanking the blue waters of Lake Nahuel Huapi.
Among the island’s highlights is the Bosque de Arrayanes, a myrtle forest filled with giant, orange-colored tree trunks bent into novel shapes, and Playa del Toro, a volcanic sand beach near a cliff covered with ancient cave paintings. Turisur offer excursions to its key spots, and the boat journey is spectacular – expect vistas of tree-covered islands and mystical cloud-capped mountains.
Taste a delicious spread in the forests of Nahuel Huapi National Park with Constellations © Laura French / Lonely Planet
Picnic at the ‘hidden lake’
Back on the mainland you’ll find plenty of other forested trails. Standouts include the path to Lago Escondido, a ‘hidden lake’ peeping out from the trees and framed by snow-glazed mountains, and Bahía de Los Troncos, a totally deserted, rocky bay set close by. Both are part of the Nahuel Huapi National Park.
You can easily explore the area independently but for a walk with a twist try Constellations, who offer guided tours with unexpected surprises along the way - from mate tasting in the depths of the forest to a surprise picnic laid out beneath the trees, whisky tasting by the water’s edge to a local Argentine playing the bagpipes in a kilt. Enough said.
Ride a Rambla 'round scenic Bariloche
Cruising the roads in a mint-green American Rambla from the 1960s probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Patagonia, but Constellations gives you the chance to do just that. They offer classic car tours round the mountainous, Switzerland-esque outskirts with a driver and guide, complete with ‘60s tunes playing softly from the stereo as you amble past the glimmering shores of Lake Nahuel Huapi and the foothills of the Andes, windows down, breeze in your hair, stopping at various scenic viewpoints along the way.
Explore Patagonia's green hillsides on horseback © Chris Bladon / 500px
Find a rural retreat
Elsewhere in the national park you’ll find Estancia Peuma Hue, a cosy eco-lodge offering the likes of horse riding, kayaking, wine tasting, cooking, rafting, yoga and even tango lessons across 500 acres of nigh-on untouched land. The owner welcomes you with open arms – and a delightfully warm log fire – and the food is excellent; think pea soup followed by fresh, deliciously light trout, all served with vegetables organically grown in the gardens. You can stay overnight in one of several guest lodges, and it’s easy to get to at a 25-minute drive from the town.
Bariloche is known for its chocolate heritage thanks to the Swiss, German and other European settlers who came in the mid-20th century following the war. Today chocolate shops scatter the area, including VanWynsberghe Chocolates, a family-run, Belgian chocolatier who offer tasting workshops from a quaint, wood-panelled chalet a short drive from the town (Av. Bustillo).
Here you’ll get a fascinating insight into the history and production process while gorging on smooth, creamy produce from different regions, before indulging in their most-prized delicacies; chocolate spiced with pepper and cardamom, and metallic-colored truffles flavored with forest fruits and lavender.
An aerial view of the Perito Moreno Glacier in Los Glaciares National Park © Gable Denims / 500px
Visit the Perito Moreno Glacier
Most come this far south for the glaciers, of course, and no visit would be complete without witnessing the mammoth, jagged ice formation that is the Perito Moreno Glacier, located just outside El Calafate (around a two-hour flight south of Bariloche).
Spanning 250-square-kilometers, this mass of ice shards is an architectural feat of nature – all bright white turrets stretching into seeming infinity, jutting out over a pool of jade-colored water. There’s a series of stepped footpaths you can follow to see it all from above, but the best way of exploring it is from the water.
Hielo y Aventura offer hour-long boat trips which take you to admire the glacier's intricate, marble-like surface up close; blocks of blue-white ice tumble into the water below as aquamarine icebergs float past, so solid and bright they look like giant chunks of polystyrene.
The mountains reflect off the glassy surface of Lake Argentino © Laura French / Lonely Planet
Glide past icebergs in Los Glaciares National Park
Yet even bigger is the Upsala Glacier, a sprawling ice field currently three times the size of Buenos Aires that’s been receding since the ice age. Estancia Cristina, offers 2.5-hour boat trips across Lake Argentino to glimpse it and the journey alone is spectacular, with humongous icebergs colored bright, glaring white floating on a bed of melt-water so thick it looks like it’s been painted with turquoise emulsion.
Once you get to the other side you’re taken on a bumpy, jump-off-your-seat 4x4 ride to reach the Upsala viewpoint, where an impressive panorama of mountains and the just-visible glacier unfolds. The viewing is followed up with a hearty lunch back at the ranch featuring empanadas and tender lamb stew, served with a side of emerald scenery – Patagonia at its most quintessential.
Laura French travelled to Patagonia with support from Latin Routes. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.