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A land shrouded by staggering mountain peaks so iconic they founded an outdoor clothing brand, Patagonia is the true adventurers' paradise. Divided between Chile and Argentina, the park spans over 260,000 square miles. The Chilean side is home to Torres del Paine, a rugged stretch of land home to the Grey Glacier and challenging W circuit trek. Argentina is most famed for Los Glaciares National Park and Mt. Fitz Roy, the breathtaking peak that’s fame for mountaineering, ice-climbing, and hiking.
Attracting hundreds of thousands of travelers a year, the vast beauty of Patagonia has quickly become one of the top destinations to visit, not only for intrepid hikers, photographers, and climbers, but for leisure travelers, too. However, despite the popularity of the region, one looking to get off-the-beaten-path can find refuge easily in much of the park’s lesser-known trails, tributaries, and mountain peaks, thanks to the sparse population and sheer expansiveness of the park.
How to Travel
Since the area that encompasses Patagonia is so vast, to fully experience the breadth of it, you need to opt for a road trip or overland safari. With hundreds of miles between the tip of Torres del Paine and the staggering 11,171-foot Fitz Roy sierra, it can’t all be seen in one (or even a handful) of days. So, opt for at least seven days to see the highlights of the park, since getting there is no easy feat. Quasar Expeditions, a company based out of Ecuador and Chile, offers overland safaris for this very reason—giving you everything you need to explore, from the car to the itinerary to the guides.
Flying to and from Patagonia can be more than a 36-hour adventure, so plan at least two travel days to get there. Both countries have an in to Patagonia, whether you’re flying from Santiago, Chile into Punta Arenas or Puerto Natales or flying from Buenos Aires, Argentina into El Calafate or Ushuaia. It takes about three hours to get into Torres del Paine National Park from Punta Arenas via car, however, most of the park’s lodging facilities are another hour or two past that point. The ride from El Calafate to Los Glaciares National Park (home to the famed Perito Moreno Glacier), is just an hour, however, to get to El Chaltan (home to the Fitz Roy mountain), is another three hours from there.
Where to stay
Chile, Torres del Paine
Patagonia Tented Camp: Home to yurt-like private tents throughout a native tree forest on the banks of the turquoise-hued Lake Toro, Patagonia Tented Camp is the first luxury camp in South America. With a chef, all-inclusive meals and guides at your disposal, this camp allows for a truly immersive stay inside Torres del Paine’s breathtaking forest.
Explora: One of the leaders in luxury, experiential travel, Explora, an American Express Fine Hotel & Resort property, is the only five-star hotel located inside Torres del Paine. Beyond the five-star luxuries, the view is what astounds most—thanks to its location on a private lake with a clear, pristine view of the park’s famed Base of the Towers (or Base de las Torres) mountain range. Included in your stay are full- and half-day tours of the park—including a multiple-day trek through the famed 50-mile W loop trail and all meals, which are prepared by a gourmet chef.
Singular Patagonia: Although it’s located two hours outside of the park, a stay in Singular Patagonia is worth it. Constantly rated as one of the world’s best hotels, this century’s old hotel sits on the picturesque coast of the Last Hope Sound in the colorful fishing village of Puerto Natales. Many of the rooms boast floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking the cerulean blue waters of the sound.
Argentina, El Calafate
Estancia Nibepo Aike: You won’t get more authentic than an Argentinian estancia, or a working cattle-farm. Estancia Nibepo Aike is a true working cattle-farm outside of El Calafate. Touting truly untouched mountainous landscapes, this farm offers incredible hospitality—including a living room outfitted with games and books, authentic meals (including the country’s famed beef), and ample opportunities for hikes and horseback rides. Plus, you might even get a chance to watch the working farmers sheer a sheep.
Destino Sur Hotel & Spa de Montaña: Just steps from the base of the trail leading up to Fitz Roy, Destino Sur Hotel offers the perfect locale for busy hikers and trekkers. Not only is it easy to get to the trails, it offers a much-needed refuge for those who have tackled the rugged and steep summit, with a jacuzzi spa, restaurant and bar, and cozy rooms with modern amenities.
Patagonia Eco Domes: More eco than luxe, but as about authentic as you can get, Patagonia Eco Domes offer private and padded domes outside of El Chaltan that sit right outside of the Fitz Roy trail. Plus, each dome comes with floor-to-ceiling windows showcasing the lush tree-lined scape and the towering mountains.
Because the park is so far-reaching, we’ve put together an itinerary that gives you the best of each park—from the base of the tower hike to the majestic Fitz Roy massif. We’re starting off in Chile and driving to Argentina, but you can follow the itinerary backward if you fly into Argentina, first.
Day 1: Arrive in Chile
Depending on where you’re flying from, you’ll likely arrive into Puerto Arenas in the morning or the early afternoon. So, you can either find local lodging to get settled for a day or, if you’re up for a park adventure right off the bat, grab your rental car (from a number of agencies—like Alama, Avis, Hertz, and more), and hit the road. We opted for an all-terrain vehicle booked through Quasar, a luxury touring company based out of Ecuador. The car came equipped with all-terrain tires and a heavy-duty car phone that works even without cell phone service (a necessity throughout the park’s vast and unpopulated terrain).
The drive from the Punta Arenas airport to the entrance of the park is just shy of three and a half hours. However, deeper into the park—where the luxury lodges of Explora and Patagonia Tented Camp sit—is another hour or two from the entrance. If you’re hungry, make a pit stop in Puerto Natales, and check out one of the many restaurants at this particular checkpoint. Café Artimana, Lenga Restaurant, and La Guanaca Pizzeria are crowd favorites for those driving through to the park. Note, it costs $38 to enter the park, but once you’re in, you don’t have to pay again. If you’re there before sunset, head to Explora—which offers one of the most beautiful spots to watch the sun go down over the private lagoon (with the famed three granite peaks of the Paine Mountain Range in pure view).
Days 2 & 3: Torres del Paine
You’ll spend the next two days exploring the sheer magnitude of this spectacular park. Our first day was spent hiking to the base of the towers. With a guide—which you can book yourself here, or, with one provided by your luxury camp), you’ll trek up to 460 feet above sea level to reach the base of the towers, which sits at 3,222 feet. The trail weaves through the park’s native old-growth forests, weaving tributaries, and waterfalls. The hike can take anywhere from 12 to 16 hours (depending on your fitness level), but offers ample opportunities for incredible photos. Note, the weather is incredibly ever-changing, meaning it could be sunny one hour and snowing the next.
Another popular day hike goes to the Frances Valley. This 12-mile trail is one of the most difficult on the W-circuit trek. Starting with a catamaran over the breathtaking mint-colored Lake Peho, the trail weaves through valleys rich with trees and local flora, and ends with a stunning view of the glacier at the end. Depending on your fitness level, the hike will take anywhere from seven to eight hours with a guide, and is one of the most physically demanding in the park.
Your third day can be spent hiking the far more mellow Lago Grey Trail, which spans just 6.7 miles, a far cry from the Valle del Frances. This more leisurely walk takes you to the park’s beautiful Grey Glacier, which flows south into the lake bearing the same name, which is home to translucent icebergs. Although considered more of a moderate hike, the trail still ends with a 3,000-foot climb to the top, which allows for some of the most beautiful photos in the park.
Day 4: Travel
You’ll need to plan for an entire day to venture from Chile to Argentina, with a border stop that can take anywhere from 10 minutes to three hours, depending on the guards. You’ll have to show your passport and immigration forms when crossing the border, so have those documents handy. The trip takes about six and a half hours in total, and there’s just one place to stop for lunch, called Le Leona. This little truck stop meets restaurant offers local specialties and treats. The landscape is rather dull, that is until you make it to El Chalten, where the staggering mountain peaks of Fitz Roy welcome you like a Southern hug.
Day 5: El Chaltan
Overlooking the breathtaking northern half of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, this colorful town is a trekker’s oasis—outfitted with local restaurants, outdoor shops, and ample trails leading up to the famed Fitz Roy. The town, still looks as it did when it was founded back in 1985, so don’t expect too many modern amenities (like a working ATM machine). Beyond the frontier charm of the town, the highlight of your visit is none other than Fitz Roy.
The hike up to Fitz Roy isn’t for the faint of heart, and a guide is wholly recommended. Tour guides with Fitz Roy Expeditions are some of the best in the business. Not only do the guides speak English, but they’re also extremely knowledgeable on both the terrain and colorful local myths. The hike, which can take anywhere from eight to 12 hours and reaches 11,073 feet, is the most popular treks in the park. With views of the peak to guide your entire trek, the walk weaves up and throughout the area’s thick brush and past bumbling streams and thick trees. Once you reach the summit, you'll be treated to views of the mountain flanked by granite peaks and the glacial-fed Laguna de los Tres.
The slope is quite steep during the first hour until you reach Del Salto stream valley. Approximately an hour and a half into the hike down you'll reach a well-marked natural viewpoint. There you will find a sign that interprets the whole landscape right in front of you. The trail continues up along the Del Salto stream until reaching the drainage of the Lagunas Madre e Hija. Four hours into the hike you'll arrive at Poincenot base camp and after crossing the Río Blanco you will arrive at Río Blanco base camp. Continuing on, you'll come across Laguna de los Tres. Going down the moraine, you can take a trail that surrounds the lagoon until its outfall, where you can appreciate the emerald waters of the Laguna Sucia and its hanging glaciers.
Days 6 & 7: El
After a leisurely breakfast, head out to El Calafate, one of the area’s largest towns located about 134 miles to the north of El Chalten. The drive only takes about three and a half hours and offers plenty of sightseeing stops along the way. Once you arrive in town, make sure to stop at an ATM. The next stop—the Perito Moreno Glacier—is located inside a portion of the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares that requires a cash payment to enter. Note that the glacier is about an hour and a half from the center of town, so be sure to plan for that accordingly.
The glacier is easily one of the park’s most famous landmarks. One of the world’s only advancing glaciers, this 19-mile-long ice formation is 1.9 miles wide at its terminus and boasts a total ice depth of 558 feet. The glacier sits at the end of a multi-level boardwalk and the views are astounding. The thundering glacier calves several times a day and the different viewpoints offered by the boardwalk allow for some spectacular photos. Once you’re done exploring the glacier, head to your accommodations. If you’re not staying at Nibepo Aike, carve enough time in your evening to head there.
One of the few still-working cattle ranches in this part of Argentina, Nibepo Aike is a stunning oasis flanked by the rolling mountain peaks of the national park. Most famous for its horseback riding, you’d be remiss not to go for a ride through the picturesque landscape. Not only will you get to explore more of the rural and mountainous landscape, you’ll do it alongside a traditional gaucho, or cowboy. Plus, the ranch boasts some of the best asado (steak barbecue), a perfect fill after a long day of riding or driving. The next morning, hop back on a horse and head to the hidden and astonishing glaciers of Gorra, Frias, and Dickson.