Patagonia is a place that evokes images of remote mountains, endless plains, and a few weather-worn locals who’ve adapted to this harsh region hidden away in at the bottom of the world. Though now linked to the rest of the world by flights to Santiago and Buenos Aires, this 260,000 square mile region across southern Argentina and Chile, reaching down into Antarctica, is still difficult to access and tricky to navigate. To help you make sense of this wild expanse, here are 3 cities in Patagonia to consider basing yourself out of during your South American vacation.
El Calafate: Glaciers Galore
The Patagonian city of El Calafate is the entry point to Glacier National Park and its famous Perito Moreno Glacier, one of the most accessible glacier fields in the world.
Located along the shores of Lago Argentino, El Calafate enjoys a mild microclimate where temperatures tend to range between 40-60°F. This lets visitors take trips into the chilly Patagonian interior during the day and return to a refuge of relative warmth at night. Within the city itself, by far the best attraction is the Glaciarum, Patagonia’s Ice Museum. Opened in 2011, the museum utilizes state-of-the-art technology and interactive displays to explain glacial formation with a focus on enhancing public awareness of climate change. There are also tons of great photographs and historic displays.
On the outskirts of El Calafate, surrounded by sweeping Patagonia landscape and little else, are several estancias. At these rural retreats guests tackle the last frontier with activities such as horseback riding, fishing, and hiking, and then settle down for a cozy evening of home-cooked dishes and Patagonia pampering.
El Chalten: Hiking Hotspot
For the true outdoor enthusiasts, El Chalten is unbeatable. Rightfully called Argentina’s Trekking Capital, this tiny town is located in the northern part of Glacier National Park (Parque Nacional Los Glaciares) and is the launching point for excursions into the rugged Fitz Roy Mountain Range. The park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, covers over 2,770 square miles and completely dominates El Chalten, which is a remote and rustic town of less than 1,000 fulltime residents.
Nestled in a valley ringed by soaring granite peaks, ice fields, and Patagonian steppe, El Chalten draws elite climbers and trekkers from around the globe. The peaks of FitzRoy and Cerro Torre offer some of the most complicated climbing challenges in world, but luckily for the rest of us, the valley floor below is crisscrossed with relatively flat hiking trails with some of best views in all of South America.
When your hiking pallet is sated, try some of El Chalten’s other exquisite adventure offerings, such as kayaking, horseback riding, mountain biking, bird watching, and if you’re feeling especially active, even ice climbing. Part of El Chalten’s charm is that although its tourist infrastructure is limited, the town is surrounded by small lodges, cozy inns, and rustic retreats impressively blended into the wild landscape.
Many of the lodges incorporate natural design elements and feature gourmet dining areas so once you finish a long day on the trail, there is no need to head back out again.
Puerto Natales: Trekking in Torres del Paine
Windswept and remote, Puerto Natales is a shore-side city connected to the Patagonian fjords by Last Hope Sound (Seno Ultima Esperanza) and used primarily as a launching point for excursions into Torres del Paine National Park, one of the most popular parks on the continent. Having withstood strong winds and harsh winters, the tin and wood buildings of Puerto Natales look a bit worse for the wear, but scattered among these modest structures are cozy cafes, charming inns, and plenty of spectacular scenery.
Established in 1911, Puerto Natales used to be a simple fishing village. Today, Patagonia cruise ships navigate the watery passageways, connecting the town to Puerto Montt in the north and Ushuaia in the south. Whether visitors arrive by sea or by land from neighboring Punta Arenas (where you’re likely to start if arriving by air), many are drawn to Puerto Natales purely for its proximity to Torres del Paine, which is only an hour from town. The park’s nearness makes Puerto Natales a convenient base for day trips, or simply a good staging center for those heading to luxury lodges within the park.
But you don’t have to leave town to appreciate the Patagonia scenery. From Puerto Natales you can admire imposing glacier-capped mountains, grassy Patagonian plains, and clear skies endlessly reflected in the piercingly blue frigid fjord waters.
Other cities in southern Patagonia
Punta Arenas: Location of Chile’s Patagonia airport. Stay the night for easy access to penguin colonies or for early or late flight departures. Three hours by car to Puerto Natales.
Ushuaia: Commonly called the southernmost city, though the title technically goes to the much small Puerto Williams, a port town with roughly 3,000 residents. Visit Ushuaia for bragging rights and catching Patagonian or Antarctic cruises.
Puerto Madryn: Located on the Golfo Nuevo that opens into the southern Atlantic Ocean, Puerto Madryn is visited for its access to the Valdes Peninsula, a wildlife refuge. In addition to numerous land mammals and marine birds, this is an excellent place to spot orcas and southern right whales.