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There is mysticism about Patagonia, the vast, remote region that straddles Chile and Argentina at the end of the earth. Patagonia is associated with the otherworldly natural beauty of snowcapped mountains rising out of wide-open steppes, turquoise rivers filled with king salmon, and aquamarine glaciers towering in jagged wonder. It brings to mind serious adventure: hiking, climbing, and mountaineering. It’s known for its harsh climate, which has tested larger-than-life legends like explorer Ferdinand Magellan, naturalist Charles Darwin, and outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. People fantasize about traveling to Patagonia to chase grandeur, to face the unknown, and to take on Mother Nature. Patagonia, in other words, has a spiritual pull because it tests the limits of what it means to be human.
Traditionally, a trip has involved starting in Santiago, Chile, then flying four hours south to Punta Arenas, followed by driving five hours to Torres del Paine National Park. From here, travelers drive at least six hours into Argentine Patagonia to the Perito Moreno Glacier near El Calafate, drive another four and a half hours to Mount Fitz Roy, and then drive four hours back to El Calafate to catch a three-hour flight to Buenos Aires. (The trip can be reversed, flying into Buenos Aires first.) But a spate of recently finished high-end lodges and hotels, especially in Chilean Patagonia, has upended the travel circuit, opening up new regions and upping the ante in the more established areas.
Still, the trip isn’t for everyone. Before going, it’s helpful to learn exactly what a trip entails. Something as seemingly straightforward as where Patagonia is can confuse American travelers. The first thing to know is that Chile is narrow and Argentina is wide, but both are long: They share a 3,500-mile border, about 1,000 miles longer than the distance between New York City and Los Angeles. Patagonia is probably best defined as anything below Buenos Aires and anything below Puerto Montt (570 miles south of Santiago) in Chile. This means Patagonia is about two-thirds of Argentina and one-third of Chile.
Even in Patagonia, there is no consensus as to the region’s boundaries. I was snowshoeing up a volcano in Pucón, Chile, 160 miles north of Puerto Montt, when I heard the best definition of all. My guide Mario from Vira Vira hotel said, “Patagonia is not a place; it’s not a clothing brand. Patagonia is a connection to the land, water, and air. It’s a clearing of the mind and an opening of the soul. Patagonia is your heart pounding in your chest, sweat dripping down your neck, and your body gasping for breath. Patagonia is a way of life.”
So if you, dear reader, want to have a soul-awakening experience, if you want to feel the wind rattle your bones, then read on for all the advice you need for doing Patagonia now, as luxuriously as appropriately possible.