Coastal treasures, ancient forests, dazzling glaciers and incredible wildlife – Patagonia's captured your imagination, but where do you begin? We've cherrypicked a few Patagonian delights to get you started.
1. Watch glaciers at Parque National los Glaciares (Argentina)
Glaciar Perito Moreno is the stunning centerpiece of the southern sector of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Locally referred to as Glaciar Moreno, it measures 30km long, 5km wide and 60m high, but what makes it exceptional in the world of ice is its constant advance – it creeps forward up to 2m per day, causing building-sized icebergs to calve from its face. In some ways, watching the glacier is a very sedentary park experience, but it manages to nonetheless be thrilling. The main gateway town to the park’s southern sector, El Calafate is 80km east of the glacier by road. This is where you’ll find all the operators for tours and activities too.
2. Spot the wildlife of Parque Nacional Patagonia (Chile)
Dubbed as the Serengeti of the Southern Cone, the 690-sq-km Parque Nacional Patagonia features Patagonian steppe, forests, mountains, lakes and lagoons. Located 18km north of Cochrane, this new national park was an overgrazed estancia. Tompkins Conservation began its restoration in 2004. Now it's home to flamingo, guanaco, huemul (endangered Andean deer), puma, viscacha and fox. The park stretches from the Río Baker to the Argentine border, which can be crossed in a private vehicle at Paso Roballos.
3. Outdoor adventures in El Chaltén (Argentina)
El Chaltén's surrounding mountains are prime hiking, rock climbing and horseback riding territory so if you're into outdoor adventure, this is the spot for you. Think mountain traverses, mountain ascents and rock-climbing classes. You can go horse-riding to the pretty valley of Río de las Vueltas or take a more challenging ride up the Vizcacha hill followed by a barbecue on a traditional ranch. There are also ice-climbing courses and ice treks available.
4. Trek in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine (Chile)
Some rites of passage never lose their appeal, so strap on that heavy pack and hike through howling steppe and winding forests to behold these holiest-of-holy granite mountain spires. Las Torres may be the main attraction of its namesake park, but this vast wilderness has much more to offer. Ice-trek the sculpted surface of Glacier Grey, explore the quiet backside of the circuit, kayak the calm Río Serrano or ascend Paso John Gardner for gaping views of the southern ice field.
5. Whale-watch in Puerto Madryn (Argentina)
Patagonia offers some of the world's best whale-watching and Puerto Madryn is the place to glimpse them. Its warm, more enclosed waters along the Golfo Nuevo, Golfo San José and the coastline near Caleta Valdés are prime breeding zones for southern right whales between June and mid-December. A standard whale-watching trip lasts an hour and a half, but longer excursions are available too.
6. Learn about Patagonia's history at Parque del Estrecho de Magallanes (Chile)
The historic sites of Puerto Hambre (Port Hunger) and Fuerte Bulnes are the centerpiece of this privately managed park, an excellent introduction to regional history. The museum is Patagonia's best. Hourly presentations, sometimes in English, create a vivid picture of the lives of indigenous inhabitants and intrepid settlers. There's a restored wooden fort, where a fence of sharpened stakes surrounds the blockhouse, barracks and chapel. A 6km trail network offers lookouts on the Strait of Magellan with views to Tierra del Fuego.
7. Explore Cueva de las Manos (Argentina)
The incredible rock art of Cueva de las Manos (Cave of the Hands) was proclaimed a Unesco World Heritage site in 1999. Dating from about 7370 BC, these polychrome rock paintings cover recesses in the near-vertical walls with imprints of human hands, drawings of guanacos and, from a later period, abstract designs. Free guided walks are given every hour by knowledgeable staff. There’s an information centre and a basic confitería, but it’s best to bring your own food.
8. Stay at a remote estancia (Argentina & Chile)
Estancias are a wonderful way to spend time in remote areas of the country – and wine, horses and asados (traditional barbecues) are almost always involved. Some are very basic in their amenities, particularly if they are faithful to their roots as rustic country estates. Estancias are a sustainable tourism option, helping to preserve part of the country’s past while providing an impressive guest-to-tree ratio.
9. Escape from it all in Camarones (Argentina)
Camarones takes home the gold for Patagonia’s sleepiest coastal village. Empty beaches are perfect for strolling and the sociable townsfolk are masters of the art of shooting the breeze. It is also the closest hub to the lesser-known Cabo Dos Bahías nature reserve, where you can visit 25,000 penguin couples and their fuzzy chicks. The very helpful oceanfront tourist office offers maps, good tips on scenic outings and lodging information.
10. Dive into watersports
With interesting shipwrecks and sea life nearby, Madryn and the Península Valdés have become Argentina’s diving capitals. Newcomer 'baptism' dives run around AR$800; some agencies also offer courses, night dives and multiday excursions. More into windsurfing or kayaking ?In high season, a hut next to Bistro de Mar Nautico offers lessons and rents out regular and wide boards and kayaks by the hour. South of Muelle Piedra Buena, Playa Tomás Curti is a popular windsurfing spot.
This article was originally published in March 2011 and was updated May 2019.