Covering 648,090 sq miles of southern Chile and Argentina, Patagonia offers more than any person can explore in one lifetime. 

This vast, sparsely populated and simply astonishing region encompassing virgin forests; snow-tipped Andean crags that serve as a dividing line between the two countries; myriad glacial lakes; and immense stretches of pampas (grasslands). Most of Patagonia’s biggest attractions are outdoorsy – from epic road trips and multi-day treks, to glaciers, prehistoric art and penguin colonies – and therefore weather- and season-dependent, so you have to pick the best time to go depending on your interests. 

Here are some of Patagonia’s unmissable experiences.

Why now is the best time to go penguin-spotting in Patagonia (and other great times to visit)

Hike in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile 

Arguably South America’s finest national park, Chile’s 1124-sq-mile Torres del Paine is defined by the characteristic bell-shaped Los Cuernos and the trident peaks of Las Torres themselves. Puma, guanaco and condor sightings are frequent, and well-developed infrastructure lets trekkers experience the mountains, lakes, vast glaciers and dense forest along the park’s two long-distance hikes in relative comfort. Whether you’re hiking the four-day, 43-mile-long “W” that takes in the park’s main highlights (Glacier Grey, the French Valley and Las Torres), or the 70-mile, 7-to-10-day “Circuit” that encompasses a backcountry half-loop as well as the highlights, you can either camp all the way, hike from refugio to refugio, or a mix of the two.  

Note that since hiking permits and accommodations are limited, you have to make arrangements months in advance for the high season (December to February). 

Go wildlife spotting on Península Valdés, Argentina

An easy day trip from Puerto Madryn in southern Argentina, this 2236-sq-mile UNESCO World Heritage site is renowned for its wildlife, including over 180 species of seabirds. Highlights include taking a boat trip from the village of Puerto Pirámides in search of the endangered ballena franca austral (southern right whale) that comes here to breed from June onward and can be spotted – sometimes even from shore – until mid-December. If you stay land-bound, cross the narrow isthmus and follow the gravel roads along the coastline to spot a massive colony of sea lions from the cliffs at Punta Delgada, elephant seals on the gravel beach at Punta Cantor, and a mix of the two at the remote Punta Norte.

Drive the Carretera Austral, Chile

The so-called “Southern Highway” is Chile’s most iconic drive, which cuts a 745-mile path across the remote Aysén region and its barely touched landscape of dense forest, snow-peaked mountains, volcanoes, isolated pioneer settlements, glacial rivers and misty fjords. Much of the southern section is still not paved; this – along with such other challenges as the lack of phone signal between towns, occasional landslides, inclement weather and waiting for car ferries connecting sections of the road – means you’ll need at least two weeks to do the route justice.   

Departing from the busy port of Puerto Montt, you traverse the temperate rainforests of Pumalín and Queulat national parks, pass the volcano-wrecked town of Chaitén and the hot springs and fly-fishing lodges around the wood-shingled town of Puyuhuapi. Coyhaique, the region’s largest town, is the place to stock up on supplies before pressing on south to Lago General Carrera, where you can hike on glaciers and kayak to the marble caves near Puerto Río Tranquilo. Farther south, the wildlife-rich valleys and mountains of Parque Nacional Patagonia beckon, while Caleta Tortel – a village of cypress boardwalks instead of streets overlooking a pearly-green fjord – makes for a unique stay before you reach Villa O’Higgins, the end of the road. You then have three options: retrace your steps, connect with Argentina’s Ruta 40 via Chile Chico, or take a car ferry south to Puerto Natales from nearby Puerto Yungay.

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Bone up on dinosaurs at Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio, Argentina

Some 40 miles south of Puerto Madryn, the 19th century Welsh-Argentine town of Trelew is renowned for its one family-friendly attraction: an outstanding paleontological museum that showcases Patagonia’s most important fossil finds. Apart from over 1700 fossils, the museum displays local dinosaur skeletons, such as the patagosaurus, tehuelchesaurus, and Brachytrachelopan mesai, an unusual short-necked sauropod. The star exhibit here? The remains, unearthed as recently as 2012, of Patagotitan mayorum, the largest dinosaur believed ever to have walked the earth. The museum can organize guided tours to the local badlands, where you can walk among 40-million-year-old fossils. 

Take a Navimag “cruise,” Chile

If you have time to spare and need to get to Puerto Natales in southern Patagonia from Chile’s Lake District, consider taking the four-day Navimag ferry from Puerto Montt. Think of the Navimag as a cruise ship of sorts – albeit a downmarket one, with cows on the car deck and rather basic accommodations that range from thimble-sized private cabins to a backpacker dorm with privacy curtains for bunks. If you’re lucky with the weather, you’ll enjoy a remarkably scenic experience at you pass through the maze of tiny islands, pristine fjords and glaciers. Marine life abounds, with dolphins, penguins and whales often sighted en route. If you’re unlucky, you’ll spend much of your time in the communal lounge, unable to see much through the fog and swaying because of rough seas while whiling away the time with your fellow passengers. Either way, you’ll disembark with a memorable experience to remember.  

A wide-angle shot of visitors on a platform overlooking the blue and white Perito Moreno Glacier
Visitors are quickly awed by the majestic Perito Moreno Glacier © saiko3p/Shutterstock

Gaze at Glaciar Perito Moreno, Argentina

The star of the southern half of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, this blue-white monolith is one of the world’s few advancing glaciers, moving forward at a rate of around six feet per day. Every few years, the advancing ice dams part of Lago Argentino; if you’re supremely lucky, you’ll be there to witness the spectacle when the water eventually breaks through the icy dam. Over 196 feet high, 19 miles long and three miles wide, Perito Moreno looms over the Canal de los Témpanos (Iceberg Channel) some 50 miles east of the southern Argentinian town of El Calafate. You make your way along a series of steel catwalks to scenic viewpoints that allow you to contemplate this immense wall of ice, with dull booms alerting you to the calving of house-sized icebergs as they collapse into the channel.

If you want to get even closer to the glacier, take a boat tour, or partake in ice trekking across part of the glacier, arranged with tour companies in El Calafate. If you’re driving yourself, visit in the afternoon to avoid the slew of morning tour buses.

Go whitewater rafting on the Futaleufú, Chile

Every southern summer, the sunny mountain town of Futaleufú in Chile’s Aysén region attracts scores of adventurers who come for the watery thrills of its namesake river. The Futaleufú is one of the world’s best rivers for white-water rafting, with Class VI and V rapids challenging enough for any river junkie. But you don’t have to be an expert to get drenched head to foot with the spray that speck the turquoise waters with white: professional outfits such as Bochinche Expediciones and Patagonia Elements organize safety-conscious rafting and cata-rafting trips that make the roller-coaster-like river accessible even to novices. Rafting takes place between December and March.

Two Magellanic penguins touch beaks near a nest on Magdalena Island, Argentina
You won’t have to look far to spot Magellanic penguins at Punta Tombo, mainland South America’s largest penguin colony ©NadyaRa/Shutterstock

Spot penguins at Punta Tombo, Argentina

Some 110km south of Trelew, on the gravel RP 1, Punta Tombo is continental South America’s largest penguin colony. Around half a million Magellanic penguins come here to nest between November and March, and keen bird-watchers may also spot other feathered life in the form of black oystercatchers, giant petrels, kelp gulls and flightless steamer ducks. After getting an excellent introduction to the local fauna at the interpretive visitor centre, follow the well-marked trails and boardwalks around the reserve. If seeing baby penguins is a deal-breaker for you or your kids, try to come here in January.

Explore historic Punta Arenas, Chile

Chile’s southern port city offers a patchwork of gleaming tin roofs, stately stone mansions, colorful houses huddled along the shores of the Magellan Strait and wide avenues lined with cypresses. Before the opening of the Panama Canal, this remote outpost grew wealthy from trade and sheep farming in centuries past, as all ships sailing between Europe to America’s West Coast had to call here for supplies.

It’s well worth exploring the Cementerio Municipal, where the elaborate Italian-marble tombs of the city’s wool barons – Menéndez, Braun and Nogueira – sit alongside the humble final resting places of Croatian, Scandinavian and Scottish immigrants: an accumulation of names reflecting the nationalities that shaped the city. Museo Regional Braun Menéndez gives a glimpse into the wealthy lifestyle of the city’s early-20th-century residents; if you want to see its antithesis, head out of town to the desolate site of Puerto Hambre, marked with a plaque, where most of its 16th-century Spanish colonists starved to death. At Nao Victoria, on the outskirts of town, check out the life-size replicas of Magellan’s namesake ship, Darwin’s HMS Beagle and the lifeboat that saved the lives of Ernest Shackleton and his crew in the Antarctic Ocean.

Go trekking around El Chaltén, Argentina

Hemmed in between the Rio Fitz Roy and the rugged Fitz Roy mountain range, this picturesque village is Argentina’s trekking and rock-climbing capital. With an excellent dining scene and numerous hotels, hostels and boutique guesthouses, El Chaltén is a terrific place to base yourself if you’re looking for numerous hiking options to suit all abilities in the northern half of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Whether you’re ambling gently though southern beech forest in the hopes of spotting a huemul (endangered deer); scrambling up an exposed, steep mountainside to the glacial Laguna de Los Tres; or camping directly on the Southern Icefield as part of a grueling multi-day trek that crosses the Marconi Glacier, this is your starting point. 

Sail to Cape Horn, Chile 

If you already happen to be in Puerto Williams on Isla Navarino, why not go a step farther and sail to Cabo de Hornos, that notorious ship graveyard of the turbulent southern ocean? SIM Expeditions can organize a sailing trip to this cluster of uninhabited islands. At the largest one, you may disembark and admire the automated white lighthouse – the southernmost beacon in the world. Overhead is an abstract sculpture of an albatross, made of steel plates; nearby, a stone monument honors seafarers who’ve made it through these treacherous waters successfully (over 800 ships did not).

Drive Ruta 40, Argentina

Stretching the entire length of Argentina along the spiky mountain chain of the Andes, from Cabo Vírgenes in southeast Patagonia to the border with Bolivia, the legendary La Cuarenta (RN40) is Argentina’s ultimate road trip. The El Calafate–to–Bariloche stretch (910 miles), from southern Patagonia to the Lake District, is south Argentina’s most scenic drive and warrants at least 10 days of your time, stopping to see Patagonia’s biggest attractions en route.

Though mostly paved now, it still feels wild, with small settlements, gas stations and even fellow drivers few and far between. The boundless sky, and the monotony of the pampas stretching all the way to the horizon is broken up by occasional sightings of wandering guanaco and ñandú (rhea) and glimpses of distant, snow-covered mountain peaks. Come in search of adventure, with a spare tire and plenty of food – and be prepared for lack of cell phone coverage in between remote towns. If driving a hired car, be aware that one-way trips incur hefty drop-off fees, so plan your journey accordingly.  

Soak in the Termas del Ventisquero, Chile 

If you’re driving or cycling Chile’s Carretera Austral, the historic town of Puyuhuapi, founded in the 1930s by a handful of enterprising German settlers, makes for excellent stopover – if only to soak your sore muscles. While thermal springs are common elsewhere in the “land of ice and fire,” Puyuhuapi is the only Patagonian town where you can take the waters. The rustic Termas del Ventisquero are four miles south of the town, with a large pool and three smaller ones overlooking a mist-shrouded fjord. Alternatively, arrange to stay at the plush Termas de Puyuhuapi Hotel & Spa, accessed via speedboat across the fjord, to soak in a fern-shaded thermal lagoon outdoors and indoor spa with jet pools and waterfall. 

Admire prehistoric rock art at the Cueva de Las Manos, Argentina

A scenic valley detour from Argentina’s legendary Ruta 40 in between the nondescript towns of Perito Moreno and Bajo Caracoles, this UNESCO World Heritage site features Argentina’s most incredible rock art, dating from around 7370 BCE.  A 45-minute guided tour leads you along the vertical cliff walls, decorated with over 800 well-preserved images in reds and ochres. Most are outlines or imprints of human hands (particularly the left hand), as well as drawings of guanacos and hunting scenes, as well as abstract rock art from a later period. Look out for the one handprint with six fingers, as well as puma paw prints and prints of a ñandú (rhea) foot.

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Kayak or sail to Capilla de Mármol, Chile

Departing from the Bahía Manso dock near Puerto Río Tranquillo, small boats take you up the northern arm of Lago General Carrera to the sculpted marble caves, the sinuous gray-and-white rock formations that are particularly striking against the brilliant turquoise of the lake. Kayaking to the caves is also possible, but only if it’s not too windy.

Partake in Welsh culture and high tea, Argentina

Two of several Welsh settlements founded in Argentina’s Chubut province circa 1860, Trevelin (28 miles roundtrip from Esquel) and Gaiman, 12 miles west of Trelew, are two of the few places in Argentina where you’re as likely to hear Welsh spoken as Spanish – albeit both with Patagonian inflections. Both villages attract visitors with an abundance of teahouses at which you can sit down for a cup of tea; some toast with butter and jam; and a spread of cakes, including the dense, rich torta negra (fruitcake). Diana, Princess of Wales, visited Gaiman in 1995 – and locals are still talking about it. Trevelin’s most atmospheric teahouse is Nain Maggie.

Be a gaucho for a day

Covering a vast swath of Patagonia, the pampas let you play cowboy if you’ve come all the way here nurturing hopes of equestrian adventure. Numerous estancias (ranches) – some mainly aimed at tourist stays, others working farms – welcome visitors and offer various activities, from horseback riding to traditional asados (spit-roasted lamb barbecues) as well as overnight stays. Estancias around El Calafate in Argentina include Estancia Cristina, Estancia 25 de Mayo and Estancia Nibepo Aike, while Chile’s Puerto Natales is a good jumping-off point for Estancia La Peninsula and Estancia Bahía Esperanza, among others.

Boats in the harbor of Ushuaia, Argentina, with snow-capped peaks in the distance
Visit Ushuaia, Argentina, and you can claim to have visited the end of the world – unless you hop a Zodiac and cross the rough Beagle Channel to Puerto Williams, Chile © saiko3p/Shutterstock

Visit the end of the world  

Every traveler who makes it down to Argentina’s southernmost city, Ushuaia, earns automatic bragging rights for reaching the end of the world. Sort of. After all, since the port is the jumping-off point for Antarctic cruises, there’s no where farther south to go than the seventh continent, right? Every Southern Hemisphere summer, Antarctica-bound voyagers congregate here, waiting to board one of the giant icebreakers in the harbor for the turbulent trip across stormy Drake’s Passage to the world’s (truly) remotest place. And Ushuaia’s setting is pretty special, too: an amphitheater of steep streets against a backdrop of snowy peaks and the deep blue of the Beagle Channel. If you’re here during the southern winter, hit the world’s southernmost ski resort at Cerro Castor.

And yet...Puerto Williams, the tiny “capital” of Chile’s Isla Navarino across the channel, beats out Argentina’s Ushuaia for the title of southernmost permanently inhabited place on earth. So brave a bouncy crossing on an inflatable Zodiac boat, hang out with centolla (king crab) fishermen, and hike Isla Navarino’s tough, multi-day Dientes de Navarino trek for extra bragging rights.

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