The South American region of Patagonia is a prime vacation destination for those with adventure in their hearts. Travel to Patagonia will leave you and your companions with both a sense of accomplishment and a greater understanding of the great natural diversity of planet Earth. You will be delighted at the spectrum of activities in Patagonia, whether you choose to remain in Argentina or cross the border into Chile.
One of the most popular activities in Patagonia is a glacial excursion to the majestic Perito Moreno Glacier, the centerpiece of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Tours depart from El Calafate, and the boat will get you quite close to the action, while maintaining a safe distance. Catch the last boat of the day for some quiet contemplation, but don’t forget your rain gear.
The sea offers many Patagonia adventures, such as kayaking, canoeing, and even whale-watching. Sports fishing season begins in November and ends in early July. On dry land, many travelers find adventure by exploring Patagonia’s gorgeous parks and preserves. Activities include hiking, rock-climbing, and mountain biking. In fact, both biking and horseback riding are among the best ways to see the Patagonian countryside. Stargazing with telescopes is another activity not to be missed as there are celestial sights which cannot be seen elsewhere.
Travelers who have a yearning for adventure are quickly discovering just how much there is to do in this South American region. Activities can range from physically demanding to utterly relaxing. Patagonia’s stunning geography supplies so many opportunities for adventure that you will be planning your next trip before you have even left.
The Hulks of Patagonia
Hundreds of Patagonia cruises pass through the ports of Punta Arenas and Ushuaia every year. Not so long ago, though, only merchant shipping and local vessels sailed the Strait of Magellan and the Beagle Channel where, today, picturesque hulks still lie along the shoreline. For the most part, they’re not along the Cape Horn cruise route between Punta Arenas and Ushuaia, but they’re easy to see on overland excursions.
The most striking site is Estancia San Gregorio, on the Strait of Magellan about 125 km north of Punta Arenas, where the faded but imposing buildings of a sheep station line both sides of a smoothly paved highway (it’s a worthwhile detour for travelers, especially photographers, bound for Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine). Along the beach, a short walk from the road, the Ambassador is a British clipper (launched in 1869) whose weathering wooden hull and rusting iron skeleton once hauled tea from China to England. It’s withstood more than a century of Patagonian winters and, in 1973, Chile declared it a national historical monument.
Almost alongside the Ambassador, another national historical monument also built in Britain, the Amadeo was a company steamer that operated from the 1890s until 1932 before being grounded here. Visitors can enter the wreckage of both vessels, but be careful when doing so – they’re not likely to collapse, but slipping and falling could have serious consequences.
At the Argentine end of the itinerary, it’s even easier to see a historic shipwreck – but not so easy to reach it. In downtown Ushuaia, offshore near the Club Naútico but not accessible on foot, the Maine-built rescue tug St. Christopher was originally a US Navy vessel that became the Royal Navy’s HMS Justice and may have served during the D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1944.
Purchased by an Argentine company after the war, she served in salvage operation along the Beagle Channel before being scuttled in the mid-1950s.
Food Trucks of Patagonia
Perhaps my favorite Patagonia navigation route in southernmost South America – one I always recommend to visitors on an adventure in Patagonia – is Chile’s Carretera Austral, which runs through a region as wild as the Alaska Panhandle and the Canadian Yukon. Its downside, though, is the paucity of services – there is only one city, the regional capital of Coyhaique, and except for scattered resorts, there are few places to grab a bite along the highway.
That’s changing, though, even in some of the smaller settlements as the highway improves and road trips become more common. One intriguing aspect is the arrival of food trucks such as Coyhaique’s Kawescar, just a block off the pentagonal Plaza de Armas, but also in out of the way places such as Villa Cerro Castillo, where La Cocina de Sole occupies two parked buses where the southbound pavement ends (though preparations for paving the next segment are well underway).
Sole’s is essentially a roadside sandwich shop, with quality versions of Chilean comfort food such as the Barros Luco (beef and grilled cheese) or ave palta (chicken with avocado) on homemade pan frica.
It’s comfortable inside, prices are modest, and it gets plenty of motorists and cyclists passing through town (or staying in town, for that matter). For me, it’s the best of the bunch.
On the way north, though, I found another appealing food truck (a bus, really, like Sole’s) in the town of Chaitén, which is making an admirable comeback after a major volcanic eruption forced its complete evacuation in May of 2008. I still wouldn’t buy property in Chaitén, but I’m happy to stay there and, in a town that hasn’t completely recovered what was always a limited restaurant scene, the new Natour food bus is a welcome development.
That said, the region’s food truck scene remains in its infancy compared to more northerly destinations.
The resort town of Puerto Varas, outside the ferry port of Puerto Montt, Chile, is Chile’s food truck capital, with the most diverse scene along its lakeshore. There are also many options for fine dining when I visit Puerto Varas, but the food trucks (and buses) – with Chilean, French, German and even Mexican choices – are a welcome change of pace.
Patagonia’s Marble Caves
Several months ago, on this blog, I briefly described the Carretera Austral road trip that’s one of my top recommendations for a Patagonia travel vacation. I’m fortunate enough to revisit the area almost every year, but I haven’t yet described many of its attractions – which, despite the wild country, are close to the highway.
At the town of Puerto Río Tranquilo, about 220 km south of the Aisén regional capital of Coyhaique via a mostly paved route, a cluster of roadside trailers, tents and containers advertise tours to the Capilla de Mármol, a string of swirling marble grottos at the west end of Lago General Carrera. It’s a huge lake, covering nearly 2,000 square kilometers in Chile and Argentina (where it goes by the name Lago Buenos Aires), but motorboat excursions to the caverns take only a couple hours – wind permitting. Trips are usually on a first-come, first-served basis.
Boatmen from Río Tranquilo carry half a dozen passengers or so to the grottos, gradually exposed to view by wave action over several thousand years. Marble is physically strong but chemically weak, accounting for the smooth surfaces.
Some of the grottos are small islands, but most of them hug the shore where, in good weather, the boats can enter. In some cases, passengers can leave the boat to explore the caverns, but walking even short distances on slippery marble entails a risk. The Patagonia travel excursion is best in late summer or early autumn, when lake levels are at their lowest and boats can approach more closely and enter more deeply.
Puerto Río Tranquilo’s just a village with only about 500 residents but, returning from the boat ride, there’s a new brewpub restaurant, Cervecería Río Tranquilo, just across the two-lane road. There’s also an improving accommodations scene, led by Refugio El Puesto.
Unforgettable Tours of Patagonia with Navimag
Patagonia tours have a distinct natural beauty that is recognized around the world, so it comes as no surprise that in 2011, the BBC named Navimag’s ferry tours one of the most beautiful in the world.
The Patagonian fjords reach into the Chilean Andes Mountains with a breathtaking splendor and Navimag offers a special tour like none other. A ferry ride through the national parks will put guests in the view of some of the most beautiful mountains, sea, fjords, and glaciers in the world. Get an up-close look at the largest expanse of continental ice in the world after Antarctica and Greenland, the largest non-polar ice field in the world and the largest ice field accessible by land. It is situated in the Patagonian Andes on the border between Argentina and Chile and Navimag Ferries brings guests to the face of this mammoth glacier, where passengers can relax while taking in the calm natural beauty of the ice formation.
Local wildlife helps to make a Patagonia tour with Navimag unforgettable. The sparkling blue waters are teeming with natural beauty and guests could catch glimpses of dolphins, sea lions and even humpback whales in the Patagonian fjords.
During the day, the staff will give talks on local plants and wildlife and guests will learn about glacier formation in order to understand the rare geological phenomenon. Activities, games, and food will also give guests plenty to do between soaking in the awe-inspiring sights. Dance the night away and play bingo with travelers from all over the world in the bright light of the stars, far away from city lights. A rest in the cozy cabins prepares guests for the next day of adventure on the Navimag Patagonia tour.
Patagonia Roadside Saints
A short distance outside the city of Ushuaia, on the northbound highway that goes all the way to Buenos Aires, passengers traveling Patagonian navigation routes may notice a wide turnoff in the road where bright red flags waving in the wind outside a red concrete block structure. Like similar sites in many other parts of Patagonia, it’s not some nostalgic relic tribute to Cold War communism, but rather a shrine to the folk saint known as Gaucho Antonio Gil.
In the mid-19th century, legend says, Gil was an army deserter and Robin Hood figure who took from the rich and gave to the poor in northern Argentina’s Corrientes province – before being lynched by the police. He’s always been popular among Argentina’s dispossessed, but his visibility skyrocketed after the country’s economic meltdown of 2001, when many Argentines lost their savings. His largest shrine is near the northern city of Mercedes, but roadside shrines like this, with quasi-religious imagery that compares him to Jesus, range from mailbox-sized improvisations to substantial chapels.
Almost alongside the Gaucho’s shrine, another ramshackle hut holds artifacts dedicated to the Difunta Correa, a folk saint from Argentina’s arid northwest. According to this legend, while a young woman named Deolinda Correa trailed her conscript husband through the desert in the early 19th century, she died for lack of water but, miraculously, her suckling baby remained alive – deemed a miracle by passing muleteers. In the province of San Juan, upwards of 100,000 pilgrims visit the supposed site of her death every Easter. Imagery at her shrines always include a prostrate body with a baby at her breast.
The official Catholic Church does not recognize either the Gaucho or the Difunta, but millions of the faithful do. Their adoration has even crossed over to the Chilean side where, outside the city of Puerto Natales, Chile, pilgrims – many of them Argentines, of course – have left hundreds of water-filled bottles to satisfy the Difunta’s thirst.
Road Trip Patagonia
Almost every Patagonia vacation includes stunning sights like Argentina’s Moreno Glacier and the granitic spires of Chile’s Torres del Paine, but the region has plenty of lesser-known areas that can be equally rewarding. One of those is Chile’s Aisén region, a thinly populated area that resembles the Alaska Panhandle in its rugged terrain, dense forests and stunning glaciers – some of which reach the sea.
Arguably, the best way to see this region is a road trip via the Carretera Austral, the discontinuous “Southern Highway” – requiring several short ferry crossings – between the mainland city of Puerto Montt and the end-of-the-road settlement of Villa O’Higgins. I’ve driven most or all of its 1,200 kilometers many times since the days when it was nearly all gravel to the present – even as I’m writing this – when the northern half is rapidly being paved. There’s also a Navimag ferry to Puerto Chacabuco, Chile, the gateway to the midpoint regional capital of Coyhaique.In a scenic setting, Coyhaique is the approximate midpoint and the only city of any size. The sights, though, include the remarkable San Rafael Glacier – a day trip requiring a catamaran detour – but also the dense alerce (false larch) forests and volcanic cones of Parque Pumalín, the creation of environmental philanthropist Doug Tompkins. Among other attractions there’s also the world-class whitewater of the Río Futaleufú, the marble grottoes of Lago General Carrera, and the picturesque boardwalk village of Caleta Tortel.
A rental car is the way to go, but this requires planning. Coyhaique, which has an airport, has a relatively small fleet of vehicles, but Puerto Montt has many more. It would be possible to drive the highway from Punta Arenas back to Puerto Montt via parts of Argentina, but drop-off charges can be high – except in late summer when companies need to get their vehicles back north.
This is just an introduction. Before the next southern summer, I’ll be posting more details on what is, unquestionably, Chile’s top road trip.