Lay of the Land
Embracing the southern portions of Chile and Argentina, Patagonia is a vast, underpopulated land embracing temperate jungle, glacier-cut valleys, meltwater lakes, volcanic cones, and seemingly endless steppe. Argentina's portion—delimited to the north by the Río Colorado at the 36th parallel south, to the west by the Andean cordillera, and to the east by the Atlantic Ocean—encompasses three broadly distinct regions. A westward strip, carpeted by bio-diverse forests riven with glaciers, creeks, and lakes, parallels the Andean massif, stretching for more than 1,200 miles from Neuquén province's araucaria forests and volcanoes south to the Beagle Channel. The eastern extreme follows Argentina's Atlantic seaboard, with its 1,900 miles of fossil-rich cliffs and azure coastal waters that teem with dolphins, seals, penguins, and whales. Between these two strips lies the arid steppe, caught in the rain shadow of the Andes, a region so flat that even the evening sun fails to cast a shadow.
WHEN TO GO
Patagonian weather is notoriously fickle. Gales, storms, and blizzards can occur year-round, making a multilayered kit of warm, wind-proof clothing essential at all times. Average temperatures range from an icy 5°F (-15°C) in midwinter to uncomfortable midsummer highs of 105°F (40°C). Patagonia's warmest period lasts from November to April, when summer outdoor activities are at their most accessible. Flights, rental cars, and hotels can become congested during the peak travel months of January and February, however, when Argentina's schools close for summer and much of the population is on the move. Veteran Patagonia hands prefer the March–April fall for vigorous activity, when daytime temperatures have dipped below their midsummer height, yet days are still gloriously long. The ski season peaks between June and September. Whales can be observed at Peninsula Valdés from June to November; the migratory peak comes in September and October.
HOW TO GET THERE
Argentine Patagonia lies at the uttermost part of the earth—and getting there from North America will certainly make it feel that way. Unless you're planning to enter Argentina overland from Chile, take a long-haul flight to Buenos Aires, followed by a domestic flight. LAN Chile's well-run Argentine subsidiary, LAN Argentina, is slowly increasing its route network and now serves half a dozen popular Patagonian destinations (www.lan.com). Many smaller regional airports are served only by Aerolineas Argentinas, which was renationalized by the Argentine government in 2008 after several turbulent years in private hands (www.aerolineas.com.ar).
The near-impossibility of flying between Patagonian cities—almost all internal flights in Argentina are routed via Buenos Aires—can add considerable time and expense to travel within the region, obliging some visitors to opt instead for a long overland trek. (Despite their proximity to Chile, few southern Argentine cities are connected to their Chilean counterparts by air.) Only the main highways in Argentine Patagonia are paved; provincial roads, or rutas provinciales, are generally surfaced in ripio, or consolidated dirt topped with gravel. While a 4x4 is safer and more comfortable than a regular car, it is only essential for remote areas or the Andes. In winter, whatever the vehicle, consider investing in a set of snow chains, available from large service stations. Cars and 4WD vehicles can be rented in all major towns, but even multinational agencies operate via a network of local franchises; sky-high drop-off fees usually oblige renters to return a vehicle to where they rented it. If you intend to drive into Chile, make sure the agency knows ahead of time, as few fleet vehicles carry the required paperwork.
Long-distance buses are surprisingly comfortable: many companies now operate vehicles with generous legroom and fully reclining seats; some even serve meals. Cross-border routes are still complicated by the lack of a comprehensive agreement with Chile over public-transport insurance, meaning Argentine-registered buses usually drive only to the border, where passengers change to a Chilean-registered bus for the rest of the journey (Taqsa links most of the main cities; 54-2902-491843; www.taqsa.com.ar).
A perennial problem dogging backcountry travel in Argentine Patagonia is the absence of topographical maps. The Argentine military sells photocopies of decades-old aerial surveys, but they're so out-of-date it's rarely worth the trip to the Buenos Aires headquarters, the only outlet (www.igm.gov.ar). Lonely Planet's Trekking in the Patagonian Andes includes detailed trail guides to 31 hikes on both sides of the border (www.lonelyplanet.com), but a local guide is often the only solution for real out-there wilderness travel. For road trips, maps produced by the Argentine Automobile Club can be found in bookstores, newspaper kiosks, and service stations in major towns (www.aca.org.ar).
ATMs in Argentina can be found in all but the smallest settlements; Banelco and Link, the largest networks, dispense local currency on any card with a Cirrus or Visa symbol. The upper limit permitted on individual withdrawals can vary by bank, by network, and even by province; most will allow repeated withdrawals, but if your bank charges for every withdrawal, it may be worth searching for a bank with a higher permitted limit. Major credit cards are widely accepted in hotels, but a surprising number of restaurants and stores will accept only cash. Most visitors find it convenient to bring a generous amount of U.S. dollars from outside Argentina.
Argentina Secretariat of Tourism
883 Santa Fe
Tel: 800 555 0016 (toll-free)
Tel: 54 11 4312 2232