Patagonia, it is not just a name for a popular clothing brand. Patagonia is an expansive area of land that lies between the countries of Chile and Argentina. It is filled with nature, beautiful mountains, and landscapes which has relatively been unaltered by humans. This was another destination (Chile) that people would question me about why I would want to go to, and Patagonia was my response. Aside from the clothing brand, which features Mount Fitz Roy (Argentina portion of Patagonia) as its logo, Patagonia is an region which still flies under the radar for many people in the tourist world.
Patagonia is a mecca for anyone who enjoys hiking, camping, nature, and pretty much anything outdoors. Outdoor enthusiasts from around the world flock to this location to hike the expansive beauty located around the southern region of the Andes Mountain Range. The owner of the Patagonia clothing brand, as well as one of the former owners of The North Face found much of their inspiration from this location, and have worked together in buying land in this region to preserve for future generations of adventure seekers. The former founder of The North Face actually died while on a kayaking trip in the Patagonia region in 2015. Talks are in progress to donate the land to the Chilean government, with hopes of the land turning into more national parks which will be accessible for all visitors. For more information on the preservation of this amazing land, please go to this website. Conservacion Patagonica is a great organization, and they have interest in only protecting this special place for the future.
Back to talking about traveling to Patagonia. It's not a region that is easy to access. Its going to require some effort. It won't be a laid back vacation on a beach, but you already know that! My journey started by flying into Santiago airport in Chile. From there, you have a couple options to reach Torres del Paine National Park in the Patagonia region. Driving or taking a bus are two great options, though you are unable to reach the very southern region and Torres del Paine without crossing into Argentina, which will require some prearrangement, and a reciprocity fee ($160) for entrance to the country. I have recently read that the Argentinean government has suspended this fee, in attempt to strengthen relations with the US government. Driving from Santiago to Torres del Paine would be a lengthy drive, but in no way would you regret it. Unfortunately, I did not have time to make this trip during my stay in southern Patagonia. Most of this post will provide information about what I did specifically, though I will try to mention things that I had hoped to do, or would be helpful to know for future trips! If you were to drive from Santiago, you would be able to experience all of Patagonia, rather than just the southern part where Torres del Paine is.
In order to efficiently use my time that I spent in Chile, I along with some friends decided to fly down to one of the southern most airports and cities in the world, Punta Arenas. Punta Arenas is a spectacular city based on the Brunswick peninsula with a population of around 125,000. It is a port city, from which many Antarctic expeditions begin and end at. The city itself has a both a rustic and modern vibe about it, and is a great starting point for many adventures at the very southern tip of South America. The airport itself is rather tiny, housing only 3 gates for airplanes. Several car rental agencies are located right inside the airport. During popular travel months, shuttle buses are available to Torres del Paine, but I always recommend doing it by driving on your own! The Chilean roadways are very similar to the roadways in the United States.
My time spent in Punta Arenas was brief, and the weather was terrible. It is not an area known for its great weather. I found the culture in this city to be rather inviting. People were very friendly, and are used to a constant influx of visitors from all over the world. Many of the restaurants in this area were quite good as well. In fact, the best restaurant I went to while in Chile was located here. If you find yourself in Punta Arenas, do yourself a favor and visit the quirky green building which La Marmita is established in. It is a unique restaurant, with lots of flare. It serves traditional Chilean meals and it does a great job of preparing them.
There is a lot of things to see and do in the immediate Punta Arenas area, one of the more recommended activities, given the right time of year, would be to take a ferry out to Magdalena Island to experience the Magellan penguins which inhabit the area from October to April. These penguins are known for being very curious and interactive. It is one of the largest penguin colonies in southern Chile. It is a unique experience, and one would not regret the decision to visit this island colony of penguins!
Punta Arenas is a good location to rent camping and adventure equipment if you need it, though worry not, there is one more stop prior to heading to Torres del Paine. Though options may be more limited at the next and final of stop Puerto Natales.
After heading straight north on the only highway going north from Punta Arenas you will eventually run into Puerto Natales. Puerto Natales is a smaller community which gets much of its popularity due to Torres del Paine. It is a fun and interesting city. It has a good diversity of restaurants and bars. My favorite and most recommended location in this city was the microbrewery Baguales. The beer and hamburgers at this brewpub are superb. Take your time in this city or Punta Arenas, because after that, things begin to get more primitive.
Torres del Paine, Chile's most famous and popular national park is located just north of Puerto Natales by about a hours drive. This is truly the crown jewel of Chile's national parks. It is a stunning area, which is relatively undeveloped by civilization. If you are not a fan of roughing it on the trails, there are several hotels and cabins throughout the park. Be warned, it is not cheap, and often times, rooms may be booked well in advanced, so plan ahead. The hotels in this region are quite luxurious. All with perfect locations for unforgettable views of the park.
Torres del Paine is a mecca for hiking and outdoors enthusiasts. There is a endless amount of trails to hike, and sights to see. The three days I had planned for this location was not enough by any means! Hikes and horseback riding in the mountains, an abundance of wildlife, spectacular views, glaciers, iceberg filled lakes, ferry rides, and more await you here.
Upon arrival to the park area, we were greeted by a lone waterfall located just outside the park. It is a cool area to stop to move your legs around if you have been in the car for awhile.
Before entering the park grounds, there will be a park fee that is required to enter. It is a low fee for what you will get in return for sight seeing! It is a one time fee, and it does not matter on the length of the stay.
After checking in with the park service, you are given maps of the area, and brochures of attractions to see and do. It would be wise to know in advance of what hikes interest you most, or what activities you may want to do. There is a lot to do, and you probably will not have enough time unless you plan on staying for over a week!
Overall, this park is not developed by civilization, but you will find a few very nice hotels around the perimeter of the park, and campgrounds as mentioned earlier. Depending on the time of year, it may be important to book reservations in advance for hotels and campgrounds. If you intend on doing a longer term hike, or camping, you can either find primitive lodges or refugios along the hiking trails W circuit and O circuit, which one can be seen pictured below. Or also there are some campgrounds established near these refugios as well. If you do intend on camping, remember to maintain a no traces left behind policy, and that campfires are not allowed. The laws are very strict in this area regarding campfires.
The first day/night at Torres del Paine National Park involved hiking a portion of the W Circuit, up to the actual granite towers of Torres del Paine. This is about a 4-5 hour hike. It isn't a difficult hike, but the last portion up to the towers of Torres del Paine can be a bit exhausting as you literally will be climbing up boulders and other large rocks. The hike specifically to go to the towers can be done easily in a day, but for the entire W Circuit, 4-5 days are recommended. The trail to the towers can be located from the position on the map below that says Start. One side note about this trail, there is a option to take this trail by horseback for a portion of its length , or on the way back if you are tired, you can ride them back.
The month that I had visited this park, it was just the beginning of spring and weather is very unpredictable and rainy. Unfortunately, when I had reached the towers, they were covered by clouds the entire time, leaving no real good views of them. I will include a photo below this paragraph of the towers, but it is not a photograph I took. I just want readers to be able to see what the end destination is.
Unfortunately, I did not have enough time to complete the entire W circuit, or any other hikes. But I did spend one other day exploring the Lago Gray area by going on a ferry tour up to the point where the glacier meets the lake. If you ever have the opportunity to explore a glacial melt lake similar to this, do it. It is such a unique, and overall rare thing to see. Its not very often that you see massive icebergs floating around in a lake.
The experience was made even better by a friendly Chilean ship captain who allowed me to navigate the ferry through the lake for a little while. If you get seasick easily avoid going on the ferry if the weather is poor. Don't worry though the ship does carry vomit bags for those who need it though! Also included in the price of the ferry is a Pisco Sour, which is a common Chilean drink. Its tough to beat boating and drinking in a glacial lake in Patagonia!
Before leaving this area, I highly recommend going to a restaurant just south of the park called Quincho Pampa Lodge. The view of the park from the dining area in this restaurant is incredible, and the food is just as good too. It would be a well deserved lunch or dinner after a long day or multiple day hike.
There is a lot to do in this national park of Chile and Argentina. Don't make the same mistake I did and not schedule enough days to adequately see everything the park as to offer. Also, keep in mind that weather in this region is very volatile. Be prepared for warm and cold weather, extremely windy weather, snow, and rain.
Patagonia is a surreal environment. It is an area in the world that has had the rare ability to escape human development and destruction. There still remains a battle with the government of Chile to develop the region to this day. Hopefully it remains a preserved region for generations to come.
For those who like to find escape in nature's beauty, and like to get out and explore it first hand, Patagonia and Torres del Paine falls high on my list of destinations to see. It takes some time to get to, but it is worth the extra effort. This is the crown jewel of Chile's diverse national parks. If you do go to Chile, make sure Torres del Paine is on the top of your itinerary. There is a endless amount of things to do and see in Chile aside from this region too!
Be sure to allow for plenty of time to explore, hike, and do other various activities. One should be prepared for adverse weather, poor hiking conditions, and have plenty of water. Dehydration can happen pretty quickly in this region. When traveling around Patagonia, remember to keep a no trace style of camping. Don't ruin this area's beauty by littering.
As far as the best time of year to go would likely be late September through April. These months are the Spring, Summer, and Fall months in Chile. If you want to beat the crowds, shoot for late September-November, and late February through April.
Chile is also one of the best places in the world to view the night sky. There is a number of things that contribute to it being a great area for astronomy. Make sure to set some time aside to wake up late at night, ideally on a clear night with minimal moonlight. The amount of stars, and the outline of the Milky Way galaxy will take your breath away. This was the clearest I have ever seen the night sky with my naked eyes. This was one of the first successful night sky images I ever took. It was a breathtaking moment when I first looked down and discovered this image on my camera.
I should warn those that do decide to travel down to this region. You will fall in love with the area, and the unreal beauty that exists here. It will forever be etched in your mind, and you will want to come back again and again. I can't wait for my next visit here!
Here are some other photos of Patagonia, and Torres del Paine National Park.