On many folks’ bucket list is the dream of hiking or exploring Patagonia. However, it might help to get specific, especially if your time is more limited. Patagonia actually refers to an area in the southern region of South America. Two countries, Chile and Argentina, claim this region and both have unique experiences to enjoy.
In this article, I will be sharing about my time exploring Argentine Patagonia. After finishing up my teaching in Santiago, Chile, I took an epic road trip south (albeit by bus and one rather scary puddle jumper plane, my first of many). My ultimate destination was the continent that would be my last of the seven to explore, Antarctica. I had to get to Ushuaia, Argentina, first though.
Along the way, I had many adventures zigzagging in and out of Chile and Argentina. (I had to add extra pages to my passport!) Bussing my way south on the Carretera Austral, or Southern Highway, I was able to visit many Argentine Patagonia hot spots.
Its full name is San Carlos de Bariloche, but few ever call it that. Beyond simply calling it Bariloche, this town has a handful of names or titles. It’s been called the “Switzerland of South America” and a quick glimpse around town tells you why. It’s set in the lake district, has unique architecture — the highlight of which is the many wooden chalets — and has chocolate to die for. It’s also been named the “Argentine Capital of Adventure Tourism.” There is something to do every season of the year, from skiing in the winter to hiking and lakeside fun in the summer. Another name this town boasts is that of the “Argentine Capital of Chocolate.”
Whatever you choose to call it, get yourself there and spend a handful of days soaking it all in. Often considered the gateway to Argentine Patagonia, this town will likely be on any itinerary for exploring the region. In fact, it’s actually set inside the Nahuel Huapi National Park.
This is a town I’ve strongly considered moving to; I loved it that much. Some highlights for me were exploring all the different chocolate shops and just generally strolling the streets, soaking up the scenery and the lively atmosphere.
I also enjoyed visiting Lake Nahuel Huapi — one of the only lakes in the region warm enough to swim in during the summertime (mid-December to mid-March.) When I say warm, I mean not as cold as all of the glacier and mountain runoff-fed lakes in Patagonia.
You can take a chairlift to the top of Cerro Campanario, a hill about 3,400 feet tall in the heart of Bariloche. The short 7-minute ride will give you spectacular views of the lakes (both Nahuel Huapi and Perito Moreno) and the town of Bariloche. From the top, I chose to hike my way down after exploring the views at the top. You can do this the other way around, hike up and chairlift down, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
2. Perito Moreno Glacier
No visit to Patagonia (either side) is complete without a visit to a glacier. And no glacier visit is complete without a cocktail made with its ice. This is actually a thing and I love it!
Perito Moreno Glacier is a highlight on any Argentine Patagonia adventure. Located about 50 miles from the town of El Calafate, in Los Glaciares National Park, Perito Moreno is an advancing glacier, unlike most that are retreating.
Often considered the eighth natural wonder, this glacier is huge at over 200 feet tall and spanning 3 miles. It is truly a sight to see and experience. There are a couple of ways to experience this wonder.
You can pay the entrance fee to the park which is about $20. Inside the park, there are plenty of well-marked colored pathways. Yellow takes you to an overlook of the center of the glacier. This is where you want to be to watch parts of the giant wall break off and splash into the water. Blue takes you to the right side of the glacier, while red takes you to the left side.
Or, you could take a boat tour to get up close and personal with this amazing wonder. I highly recommend this. Tours usually last about an hour and take you all around the glacier. Some will also include a stop at the park, so your ticket might also include the entrance fee.
If you’re lucky, you might get to watch pieces of the glacier calve into the water. You will not only see this but hear and feel it on the boat. On the way back to the dock, you will get to enjoy a wonderful cocktail made from the ice of Perito Moreno, a perfect ending to a perfect adventure.
Pro Tip: Mostly all of these tours can be arranged from the town of El Calafate, including the bus ride. It’s important to note that while there is a town called Perito Moreno, this is not where you want to be to visit the glacier.
Ushuaia is located on the southernmost tip of Argentina and is often called el fin del mundo, or “The End of the World.” This was my final destination on my road trip from Santiago because, from Ushuaia, icebreaker ships embark to the continent of Antarctica. However, this town at the end of the world is more than just a port town. With over a week to wait until my ship would sail, I found plenty to do and explore.
First off was the food. Ever heard of tenedor libre restaurants? You can find these all over South America, yet my first experience with them was in Ushuaia. Translated to “free fork,” these are buffet-style, all-you-can-eat restaurants. Except, think all sorts of amazing Argentine grilled meats, parrilla-style, along with all the usual Argentine fixings. For this budget traveler, the price was right to get my fill and then some.
From Ushuaia, it is easy to arrange all sorts of tours. My favorite was on Isla Martillo where I visited a Gentoo penguin colony. This was a nice day tour to walk among the used-to-humans penguins and watch their funny antics.
4. Tierra Del Fuego National Park
The highlight of my time in Ushuaia was absolutely my week-long pass to Tierra del Fuego National Park. It was the perfect way to spend my time while waiting for my Antarctic adventure. There are so many trails that I never hiked the same one twice.
My favorite was a trail that had a tiny marker indicating that I had left Argentina and wandered into Chile. On the sign were coins of either country left by hikers. It was, without a doubt, the easiest border crossing I’ve ever made.
Within Tierra del Fuego, there are a handful of lakes. My favorite was Lago Escondido (“Hidden Lake”). I was able to fulfill my traveling motto, “You never regret a swim,” coincidently stolen and established while in my hostel in Ushuaia.
There are so many different adventures you can find in Patagonia, on either side. These are just the not-to-miss highlights I would recommend if you’re exploring the Argentine side. Keep in mind that even during a South American summer, the further south you go, the colder it will get. Bring layers, yes, even that bulky alpaca sweater you bought in Buenos Aires.