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Patagonia See And Do

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Comarca Andina (Andean region)
Argentina

This less-traveled district, falling broadly along the 42nd parallel south, is a gently rolling, cypress-forested mountain region where fruit, berry, and hop farms fuel a strong tradition of locally manufactured beer, liquors, and preserves. The only air access is to Esquel in the south (Aerolineas Argentinas operates three flights a week from Buenos Aires, see Fact Sheet), where a narrow-gauge steam railway, La Trochita, still puffs gamely across the Patagonian steppe; the 3.5-hour Esquel–Nahuel Pan excursion departs once a week in winter, daily in summer (54-2945-451403; www.latrochita.org.ar; $16 per person). Welsh settler culture thrives in nearby Trevelin, but most visitors to Esquel come to hike in Los Alerces National Park (pictured), set up to protect ancient stands of alerce trees, some of which are more than 3,000 years old. Esquel offers few real hotels. Hostería Cumbres Blancas, the best of the bunch, offers a competent restaurant specializing in locally caught trout and game, a modest spa, and 20 cozy, light-filled rooms (54-2945-455100; www.cumbresblancas.com.ar). Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid favored the bucolic Cholila Valley, just north of the park, where in 1901 they built a cabin and settled down as law-abiding ranchers—until Pinkerton detectives caught up with them four years later. Cassidy was enthralled by Cholila's benign climate and lush pasture; a century later, Argentine winemaker Bodegas Weinert cited the same qualities when it set up a vineyard in the nearby Epuyén valley, becoming the most southerly winery in the Americas. The valleys around El Bolsón, the northernmost town in Comarca Andina, provided protection of a different sort in the 1970s, when hundreds of hippies fled Argentina's fiery urban politics to live on communes.

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Fishing and Marine Life in Argentine Patagonia
Argentina

Introduced from Europe nearly a century ago, trout and salmon thrive in Patagonia's unpolluted water courses. Many grow to record weights: Rainbow trout are routinely landed at 22 pounds, and brown trout can reach an astonishing 33 pounds. Both species are notoriously difficult to catch. Serious anglers with enough cash have snapped up tracts of Patagonian land in order to guarantee permanent access to some of the world's most stimulating fishing spots. At a price, visitors can troll, fly-fish, and spin in the transparent lakes and rivers fed by meltwater from the snow-capped peaks of the Patagonian Andes. Landowners sell a small number of permits each year via local outfitters. Fees can be steep: Expect to pay $600–$1,000 per day at a leading fishing lodge, including permits, guides, boats, equipment, local transport, food, and unlimited alcohol. Among the best are Estancia Tipiliuke (54-2972-429466; www.tipiliuke.com), Estancia Arroyo Verde (54-11-4801-7448; www.estanciaarroyoverde.com.ar), and Estancia Río Quillén (www.quillen.com.ar), all in Argentina's Lake District. Alternatively, Bariloche-based Travel Ideas arranges inexpensive fishing trips with clients staying in Bariloche hotels (54-2944-424659; www.travelideas.com.ar). Argentina's Atlantic waters are also bursting with wildlife, including bottlenose dolphins, killer whales, Magellanic penguins, and sea lions. Unlike Chile, Argentina has no scheduled sea voyages, although Antarctica-bound cruise ships regularly dock at Ushuaia. Shorter expeditions by yacht or sea kayak offer the only practicable way to explore Argentina's coast.

Fishing and Marine Life in Chilean Patagonia
Chile

The native salmon and introduced trout in Patagonia's rivers and lakes draw the world's most renowned and avid anglers. Dozens of exclusive estancias offer visitors the chance to troll, fly-fish, and spin in transparent, ice-cold water. Some of the best lodges, including Yelcho en la Patagonia (www.yelcho.cl), Isla Monita Fishing Lodge (www.islamonita.cl), and El Yungue Lodge (www.burcoadventure.com/elyungue_en.html), are mostly clustered around Lago Yelcho and its tributaries, where anglers have landed record-breaking salmon. Chile's Pacific coastal waters are also bursting with life: Bottlenose dolphins, killer whales, Magellanic penguins, and sea lions are all to be found. Sea voyages, including the four-day Navimag ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales (www.navimag.com), offer an excellent way to commune with nature while getting around; shorter expeditions by yacht or sea kayak offer the only practicable way to explore Chile's southern archipelago.

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Hiking and Climbing in Argentine Patagonia
Argentina

Argentine Patagonia rivals its Chilean counterpart for the sheer number of trails that wind among Andean peaks, valleys, fjords, and glaciers. Covering a huge variety of terrain, routes range from half-day strolls to ten-day hauls requiring advanced wilderness skills. Spectacular, well-marked trails traverse Lanín, Nahuel Huapi, Los Alerces, Los Glaciares, and Tierra del Fuego national parks, although most official trails are limited to one or two days' duration. For demanding cross-country forays through rugged backcountry, it's best to look beyond park boundaries. Hikes are best attempted between November and April—heavy snow can close trails the rest of the year—although snowshoe-equipped hikers find winter trails blissfully empty. Even in summer, full-length waterproofs, warm underclothes, and sturdy hiking boots are required. Hiking poles are strongly advised. With myriad crystal-clear lakes and streams, Patagonia has plenty of potable water sources. Official campsites are all situated near water, but remember that refugios, or mountain huts, are usually uninhabited. Much of Patagonia is still true wilderness, with little human settlement, so don't expect clusters of villagers offering portering services; discard any thought, too, of airborne medical evacuation in emergencies. Given Argentina's woeful lack of topographical maps, even hard-core outdoors enthusiasts should consider using a local outfitter. Check in with one of the services found within Condé Nast Traveler's Travel Agent Finder; alternatively, contact Bariloche-based outfitter Meridies (54-2944-462675; www.meridies.com.ar) or, in Ushuaia, Compañía de Guías de Patagonia (54-2901-437753; www.companiadeguias.com.ar).

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Hiking and Climbing in Chilean Patagonia
Chile

With so many peaks, valleys, fjords, and glaciers, Chilean Patagonia is a paradise for climbers and hikers. Dozens of national parks are found around the region, most accessible from the main road, the Carretera Austral. Park trails and those in the government-run Ruta Patrimonial series (www.bienes.gob.cl/terra/rutas.htm) are well-marked and well-maintained; others are so remote that bushwhacking, river crossings, and orienteering through unmapped valleys are required. Trails range in difficulty from easy one-day strolls to demanding ten-day hauls across the Continental Ice Field. Hikers rarely encounter altitude problems, but adequate protection against rain, snow, and wind is essential: Fickle weather can turn a casual stroll into a dangerous gamble, and sunny days can transform glacier-fed streams into roaring torrents. Even independent spirits should think seriously about using a guide employed by one of Patagonia's many outfitters. We strongly urge at least checking in with one of the services found within Condé Nast Traveler's Travel Agent Finder. Another excellent option is to sign up for wilderness survival and guiding courses run by U.S.-owned National Outdoor Leadership School, which operates from Coihaique (www.nols.cl).

 

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Horseback Riding in Argentine Patagonia

Argentines admit they're obsessed with horses—every estancia will offer guests the chance to saddle up. The horse still remains the preferred mode of transport for the country's gauchos (pictured), the hard-living cowboys and workhands of the pampas and the steppe. Riding the gauchos' trails is a great way for visitors to explore Patagonia's landscape, too. Most outfitters arrange one-day cabalgatas excursions on well-trained steeds close to towns, estancias, or lodges; cross-country routes are best planned ahead of time. Buenos Aires-based tailor-made travel firm Mai10 can help plan more-complex cross-country trips (54-11-4314-3390; www.mai10.com.ar).

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Horseback Riding in Chilean Patagonia
Chile

Settlers in the austere geography of the Aisén and Magallanes provinces depended on horses to venture beyond village boundaries, and even today the horse is the standard mode of transport for huasos, Chilean cowboys. Riding their trails is a great way for visitors to explore Patagonia's landscape, too. Estancias such as Bahía Mala on the Aisén coast maintain their own stables; others contract out to local farmers. Outstanding routes include guided, multiday sallies in the Futaleufú River valley (Expediciones Chile; 888-488-9082; www.exchile.com), a 14-day traverse of the legendary settlers' route from Cochrane to Villa O'Higgins (Adventure Patagonia; 56-67-219-894; www.adventurepatagonia.com), and a five-day exploration of Torres del Paine (Cascada Expediciones; 800-901-6987; www.cascada.travel).

 

Lake District and Northern Aisén Province
Aisén
Chile

South of Puerto Montt is the turnoff to Alerce Andino National Park, named after its 4,000-year-old alerce trees, which look like redwoods. You'll find an easily hiked volcano, thermal springs, and prime fishing rivers. The village of Chaitén is a useful base for exploring the Volcán Corcovado, whose flanks are cut with glaciers and covered in lush trees. Farther south, a spur from the Carretera leads east to the Futaleufú gorge, with its Class V rapids and national reserve. A second spur connects to the Río Palena Valley, ideal for horse riding (it's a bum-busting five days to isolated but trout-rich Lago Palena), hiking (options include a three-day saunter to Valle California), and rafting or kayaking down the Río Palena toward the Pacific. The region has plenty of luxury estancias and lodges such as the Alerce Mountain Lodge. Alternatively, stay at the quaint hamlet of Puerto Cisnes to marvel at the hanging glaciers in Queulat National Park, where chunks of ice regularly break off, falling hundreds of feet to the rocks below.

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Lake District of Argentina
Argentina

Argentine Patagonia's most-visited region was formed when pre–Ice Age glaciers punched jagged holes through the Andean cordillera, leaving a network of forested valleys and emerald lakes. Now Neuquén, Río Negro, and Chubut provinces provide excellent opportunities for hiking, fly-fishing, kayaking, horseback riding, and skiing. Serious climbers focus on 12,500-foot Volcán Lanín, a dormant volcanic cone that dominates the horizon. Higher rainfall around San Martín de los Andes supports large stands of lenga, a high-altitude southern beech tree, which carpet 7,900-foot Cerro Chapelco, where the Nieves del Chapelco ski resort's 31 pistes wind prettily through the woods (54-2972-427845; www.chapelco.com.ar). Snaking southward, the Ruta de los Siete Lagos (Seven Lakes Drive) connects San Martín de los Andes with Villa La Angostura, a charming, tourist-oriented village on Lake Nahuel Huapi's northern shore. Villa La Angostura is favored by winter visitors to the exclusive Cerro Bayo ski center and summer fishermen intent on staking out the mouth of 300-yard-long Río Correntoso, a renowned spawning site for trout (54-2944-494189; www.cerrobayoweb.com). Bariloche, the region's main city, is the jumping-off point for multiday hikes through Nahuel Huapi National Park (contact Bariloche-based outdoors outfitter Meridies; 54-2944-462675; www.meridies.com.ar) and for 54-piste Catedral Alta Patagonia, Argentina's largest ski resort (54-2944-409000; www.catedralaltapatagonia.com).

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Los Glaciares National Park
Santa Cruz
Argentina

Los Glaciares National Park is one of South America's most compelling natural spectacles. It is here that the 250-mile-long Southern Patagonian Ice Cap—the largest expanse of permanent ice outside Antarctica and Greenland—spills over into 13 glaciers that cascade through sheer-sided fjords to milky-turquoise meltwater lakes. The most viewed is the three-mile-wide Perito Moreno glacier (pictured), which regularly calves huge columns of ice that collapse spectacularly into Lake Argentina. Drive the 50 miles yourself or take a taxi from El Calafate; alternatively, from September to March, local bus companies Interlagos Turismo (54-2902-491179) and Taqsa (54-2902-491843; www.taqsa.com.ar) run day trips from town. Hielo & Aventura offers guided hikes onto the glacier itself, crampons included (54-2902-492205; www.hieloyaventura.com). Topography and transport conspire to funnel all visitors through fast-growing tourist trap El Calafate, where poor service and unjustifiably high prices have long gone unpunished. The village of El Chaltén, at the northern end of the national park, once a rustic cluster of chalets and huts inhabited by climbers and nature lovers, is now connected by paved road to El Calafate airport. It has become a bustling outdoor-activity center, favored as much by hikers doing the day trails around the park as serious alpinists intent on tackling 11,073-foot Cerro Chaltén (also known as Cerro Fitz Roy) or 10,278-foot Cerro Torre, twin peaks of unparalleled beauty, renowned as among the toughest ascents in South America.

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Peninsula Valdés
Chubut
Argentina

Peninsula Valdés, in the northeast of the southern Chubut Province, appears at first to be a near desert, a sliver of windswept Patagonian steppe that juts out into the choppy Atlantic waters. Patience reveals much more: Large populations of guanaco, rhea, gray fox, and mara, a large Patagonian hare, thrive among the thorny, parched scrub. The peninsula's real strength, however, lies beneath the waves and along the rocky, cliff-lined shore, where bottlenose dolphins, elephant and leopard seals, Magellanic penguins, and Southern Right whales live, breed, and hunt in large pods. Day trips depart from the Welsh-populated settlements of Trelew and Puerto Madryn (Argentina Vision; 54-2965-455888; www.argentinavision.com; or Flamenco Tour; 54-2965-455505; www.flamencotour.com). Up-close contact is maximized by staying on the peninsula itself, though, either at Puerto Pirámides (the peninsula's only village and the departure point for June–December whale-watching tours), or at isolated estancias along the coast, such as El Pedral Lodge. Punta Delgado, the peninsula's southernmost point, and Caleta Valdés, a sheltered cove farther north, are popular spots for observing penguins, elephant seals, and sea lions, while Punta Norte, at the peninsula's northern end, is renowned for killer whales, which launch dramatic beach raids on slow-moving seal pups in October and November.

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Rafting and Kayaking in Chilean Patagonia
Chile

Rafting aficionados who know little else about Patagonia have heard of the "Fu"—Chile's Río Futaleufú, whose adrenaline-pumping Class V rapids have become the embodiment of Patagonia's extreme outdoor challenges. The rapids themselves, with technically demanding "wave trains" that were long considered too dangerous to navigate, were conquered in 1990 by Earth River Expeditions. Today the company runs multiday expeditions linking five camps set on private stretches of river. (The camps are somewhat rustic and include lodgings in caves and tree houses—however, they do have flush toilets and showers.) Not for beginners or the faint of heart (800-643-2784; www.earthriver.com). Other Patagonian rivers offer less-stomach-churning adventures: The Lake District's Río Petrohué affords classic Class III runs through old-growth forests, while even sections of the roaring Palena and Baker rivers in Aisén province can be tackled with comparative ease. Increasingly, outfitters combine river rafting with sea kayaking in the fjords among sea lions and dolphins.

 

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Southern Aisén Province
Aisén
Chile

Traveling south from the Lake Region, travelers will come upon this remote, sparsely inhabited area of southern Aisén (also spelled Aysén), which encompasses some of Chilean Patagonia's most fearsome topography. Accommodations are rustic and the driving gets progressively tougher as you head south, but the rewards include raging melt-water rivers, majestic glaciers, temperate rain forests, and one of the largest expanses of permanent ice outside Antarctica. (Bring your rain gear: The coast here gets up to 200 inches per year.) The main hub is the town of Coihaique, a good base for exploring several nearby areas, including Cerro Castillo National Reserve, an insane jumble of basalt peaks. At Puerto Guadal, a lateral spur leads west to 13,200-foot Mount San Valentín, the highest peak in Patagonia, and the northern Continental Ice Field. Cochrane, a rough-hewn gaucho settlement on the surging Río Baker, is the last real town on the Carretera. The final section of road is long and bumpy (and, of course, gorgeous) and ends with a whimper at Villa O'Higgins (population: 400), a huddle of weathered cabins and base camp for expeditions to the southern Continental Ice Field.

Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn
Chile

Chile's Region XII, beginning around 49°S, includes the western half of Tierra del Fuego and hundreds of largely uninhabited islands running down the Pacific coast as far as Cape Horn (it's not technically within Patagonia). Hammered by near-constant westerly winds and frequent rain and snow, even in summer, the terrain is hostile but compelling. The community of Porvenir, with 5,000 inhabitants largely descended from Croatian gold prospectors, forms the largest human presence. As far as activities, hiking and glacier-climbing in the remote Cordillera Darwin range are growing in popularity among the hard-core contingent.

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Tierra del Fuego and Ushuaia
Argentina

Argentina and Chile share ownership of the archipelago dubbed the "land of fire," their border bisecting Isla Grande, the largest island, in a north–south line. Separated from the continent by the Magellan Strait, Tierra del Fuego draws summer hikers and winter skiers in equal measure; Antarctica-bound passengers, too, disembark at Argentine town Ushuaia on cruise ships heading for Cape Horn and beyond. A ruggedly charming frontier town, Ushuaia provides a natural base for forays into the island's glacier-scoured interior, to scale Mount Olivia's distinctive peak, ascend the Martial or Vinciguerra glaciers, or cast for trout on fast-flowing rivers. Chartered yachts and 150-berth catamarans ferry visitors along the Beagle Channel (pictured), the boats followed in the air by giant petrels, black-browed albatrosses, and rock cormorants, and in the water by sea lions and Magellanic penguins. Dramatic Tierra del Fuego National Park lies ten miles west of Ushuaia, with fauna that includes Andean condors, gray fox, and guanaco, along with a destructive population of introduced beavers. The island's oldest farm, Estancia Harberton, lies 53 miles east of Ushuaia, where English missionary Thomas Bridges settled in 1886 in his bid to convert Fireland's now-extinct Yamana, Aush, and Ona tribes. Bridges' son, Lucas, who grew up among the Yamana, vividly described his childhood in Uttermost Part of the Earth, the best-known account of early pioneer life in Patagonia.

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Torres del Paine National Park
Magallanes
Chile

The jewel of Patagonia, Torres del Paine is isolated from the rest of northern Chile by the Continental Ice Fields and deep fjords. As the main road from the north dead-ends at Villa O'Higgins, you'll have to travel on the legendary Ruta 40 in neighboring Argentina. To skip the border-crossing hassle, fly directly to Puerto Natales, or consider a voyage by sea: From Puerto Montt, the converted transport ship run by Navimag chugs weekly through remote fjords, canals, and inlets, and you'll likely spy dolphins and albatrosses (four days; www.navimag.com). The Torres del Paine National Park, 93 miles to the northwest of Natales, is dominated by three ice-carved peaks that rise 10,000 feet above a glacier-riven landscape of lush valleys, high-altitude lakes, sheer-sided fjords, and a ring of 8,500-foot granite-and-basalt skewers known as the Cuernos del Paine. The park is laced with some of the best hiking trails in the world: Andean condors glide above paths that wind through birch groves. The most popular route is the seven-to-ten-day Paine Circuit, but its trails are now so well-trodden in the January–February high season that shorter, out-of-the-way sections can be more rewarding. If you want guidance in this rough region (or any part of Patagonia), go to Condé Nast Traveler's Travel Agent Finder for help.

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Water Sports in Argentine Patagonia
Argentina

Despite its frigid waters, Argentine Patagonia offers unlimited opportunities for most water sports, offering both thrilling white-water descents in inflatable rafts and placid sea-kayak paddles across still lakes. If the Atlantic swell is up, breakers can be surfed at the resort of Las Grutas in northern Chubut province, while there are plenty of dive sites and shipwrecks along the Atlantic coast, particularly around Peninsula Valdés, where the rich marine life adds an extra dimension. Dives can also be made in inland waters such as Lake Nahuel Huapi or Lake Traful, near Villa La Angostura, where a submerged forest, 100 feet down, draws both the curious and the expert (contact diving outfit Buceo de los Andes; 54-2972-425522; www.buceodelosandes.com.ar). White-water adrenaline junkies should head for the hills: While Argentina cannot compete with Chile's Río Futaleufú, whose adrenaline-pumping Class V rapids have become the embodiment of Patagonia's extreme outdoor challenges, fast-flowing meltwater rivers such as the Aluminé and Manso that run off Andean peaks come close. Bariloche-based Patagonia Rafting has a good list of options (54-2944-522438; www.patagoniarafting.com). For a more relaxed alternative, consider kayaking or canoeing the lakes and rivers around El Bolsón or Bariloche, the Beagle Channel, or along Patagonia's 1,900 miles of Atlantic coastline.

Information may have changed since the date of publication. Please confirm details with individual establishments before planning your trip.