Growing up in the mountains, tall peaks and dramatic landscapes have always called to me, but none beckoned louder than Patagonia. Stretching across Chile and Argentina, Patagonia covers a landmass over twice the size of France. Undoubtedly, this region represents one of the largest undeveloped wilderness areas remaining in the world, complete with towering peaks, expansive glaciers, deep fjords, ancient volcanoes and jagged coastlines.
I firmly believe the best way to travel and truly experience any destination is to immerse yourself in every nook and cranny of the landscape and local culture. For Patagonia, this means adventuring beyond the few urban centers, skipping the rigid group tours and gearing up for your very own road trip to explore the region by car and on foot. In directional order, here are five must-see places from our bucket list road trip through Patagonia.
Arriving in San Carlos de Bariloche
Bariloche is not only a great hub for exploring Patagonia, it’s a destination itself. Located in northern Patagonia, this charming mountain town sits on the cobalt blue shores of Lake Nahuel Huapi, the largest of the Seven Lakes district. Complete with vast forests, glaciers, lakes and snowy peaks, Bariloche plays home to multiple ski resorts and some of the best fishing in the world with a small town European flare.
We set up “base camp” here for a couple days to get acquainted and plan our two-week road trip, using old school paper maps to plan the route of paved roads, dirt roads, gas stops, trailheads and border crossings. If you are keen to take on this road trip in Patagonia, this is important to remember, because where you’re going, there’s no GPS and no phone service for a majority of the trip.
Mt. Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre
Your next major destination is 860 miles due south. After a couple days of driving and exploring, you will roll into El Chaltén, widely heralded as the hiking capital of the world and home to the famous Mt. Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre mountains. Usually inhabited only during peak tourism seasons, this small town offers a couple of restaurants (stock up on the fresh empanadas at the local bakery), outdoor gear shops and a few hostels for accommodations.
From town, the surrounding landscape offers a playground for weeks, if the weather cooperates. In one day, we trekked 26.7 miles through the famous peaks and valleys, scaling 1,300 feet in the dark to Laguna Capri to watch the sunrise on Aguja Poincenot and Mt Fitz Roy, continued along the Rio del Salto through a snowstorm to the Poincenot Base Camp, marveled at the Piedras Blancas Glacier from above, traversed below the Fitz Roy Range along Laguna Madre e Hija, hiked through the rain up the Rio Fitz Roy past the Agostini Base Camp to Laguna Torre, took a bite out of the Glacier Grande and descended back through the Mirador Cerro Torre and along the Margarita waterfalls back into town.
Perito Merino Glacier & Los Glaciares National Park
Technically speaking, El Chaltén sits on the northern section of Los Glaciares National Park. However, this national park is most known for the incredible Perito Moreno glacier — and rightfully so. Famous for the loud cracking of icebergs dramatically breaking of the front face into Lago Argentino, just standing in front of this giant and listening to the ice move is an absolutely surreal experience. For the more adventurous, you can actually trek out onto the glacier itself or take a boat tour through Lago Argentino to visit several of the more remote glaciers that wind themselves down from the Ice Caps. With few better opportunities on the planet, this is where you come to explore these frozen marvels, and El Calafate offers a great hub for touring and setting up camp in either budget accommodations or more ritzy abodes.
Trek the Mirador Las Torres (Torres del Paine National Park)
The other advantage of El Calafate is that it offers a great staging point for leaving Argentina and entering Chile — venturing into what is probably the crown jewel of the entire region … Torres del Paine National Park. Like Chaltén, there are numerous routes and a variety of activities you can undertake from short day hikes to full-week backcountry treks across the park. One of the most famous day hikes is the Mirador Las Torres trail. The final destination provides one of the most iconic views in Patagonia — that of the three famous granite towers from which the national park takes its name (the trail name directly translates to the “View of the Towers”).
Lake Pehoe and Cordillera Paine (Torres del Paine National Park)
After you recover from the Mirador Las Torres, which you will definitely feel afterwards, Torres del Paine is just getting started with you. With over 700 square miles of terrain, there is much more to explore and at least one more must-see before you leave. Unlike an 11-mile hike with serious vertical, Lake Pehoe is accessible by car and offers sweeping panoramic views of the Cordillera Paine, the iconic mountain range you’ve seen on the cover of National Geographic. The milky glacial waters of the lake produce one of the bluest blues you’ll ever see and create an amazing foreground for the jagged peaks that tower out of the sea. If you can plan far enough in advance, try to snag a room at Hosteria Pehoe or the Explora for an experience you’ll never forget.
It seems blasphemous to pick only five sights to see in such an incredible region, so I have to give some honorable mentions to other notable sights like the Cueva de Los Manos, Parque Patagonia, Puerto Natales, Tierra del Fuego, Punta Tombo, Puerto Madryn and the Valdés Peninsula. Overall, we drove 4,392 miles, consumed 559 liters of fuel, completed two border crossings over a 14-day period for an absolutely epic road trip. If you don’t have two weeks to enjoy such a large plot of land, skip Bariloche, the northern regions and the eastern coast of Patagonia by flying into El Calafate and using it as a hub to explore Los Glaciares National Park, El Chalten and Torres del Paine. Make no mistake, this trip will alter your global perspective and leave a lasting imprint that will mostly likely call you back for another adventure.
Words and Photos By Austin Chow