The region known as Patagonia straddles the southern reaches of South America. Argentines more or less agree that "their" Patagonia runs south from Río Colorado, on the 36th Parallel South. Chileans are less certain: The most common definition begins south of Puerto Montt (at 42°S) to the scattering of islands clustered around the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego. (The area comprises regions X, XI, and XII of Chile's 15 designated regions.) Bounded by the Andean cordillera to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, this strip is one of the world's last near-virgin wildernesses, an untamed swath of temperate jungle, glacier-cut valleys, melt-water lakes, volcanic cones, tumultuous rivers, and fearsome icy peaks covering over 1,000-plus-miles.
WHEN TO GO
Summer outdoor activities, such as hiking, kayaking, and climbing, are possible between November and April in Chilean Patagonia; heavy snow often closes trails for the rest of the year. The ski season peaks between June and September. Daytime temperatures during the austral summer (DecemberFebruary) in the Magallanes and Tierra del Fuego regions average a relatively balmy 52 degrees. This is the peak local vacation period, though, when accommodation and transport can become heavily booked. January is also the most active month for the tenacious tábano horsefly, which irritates hikers. Fall (MarchApril) brings relatively stable weather, long daylight hours, and russet-and-gold autumnal foliage. Gales and storms can occur even in summer, so bring plenty of warm, waterproof mountain gear, including thermal layers, a hat, gloves, and good boots. Average winter temperatures are a reasonable 39 degrees.
HOW TO GET THERE
Getting to Chilean Patagonia from the U.S. involves an exhausting combination of long-haul and internal flights followed by overland travel. International flights land first in Santiago; onward legs can be made to Puerto Montt, Balmaceda (20 miles from Coihaique), Puerto Natales, or Punta Arenas, or to a host of tiny airports scattered throughout the deep south. Well-run and competent local airlines include LAN (866-435-9526; www.lan.com), Coihaique-based Transportes Aéreos Don Carlos (56-67-231-981; www.doncarlos.cl), and Punta Arenasbased Aerovías DAP (56-61-223-340; www.aeroviasdap.cl).
Regular internal flights connect even small Chilean settlements in Patagonia; estancias and top hotels will help arrange internal travel. Chilean airlines are efficiently run, but Patagonia's changeable weather can play havoc with schedules.
On self-drive trips, a 4WD vehicle is essential, they can be rented in all major population centers, but extra demand in the high season can limit availability. Rental costs rarely fall below $100 a day for a fully equipped SUV, in addition to hefty deposits and deductibles. Budget offers fully comprehensive insurance with no deductible, but can charge as much as $200 per day (www.budget.cl). Drop-off fees are exorbitant: It can cost as much as $500 to leave a vehicle in a remote location.
As far as roads themselves, Chilean Patagonia's lifeline is the Carretera Austral, a gravel highway begun on General Pinochet's orders in 1976 at Puerto Montt. It now ends just north of the ice fields at Villa O'Higgins, about 800 miles to the south in southern Aisén province (Region XI). A 4x4 is essential to drive the Carretera: Asphalt is rare, and most places of interest lie down dirt tracks that snake off the main highway. It also requires several ferry crossings.
Taking a ferry through the hundreds of islands that line the Pacific coast will bring you in close contact with western Patagonia's bountiful marine life, along with dramatic seascapes. Companies such as Navimag (www.navimag.com) and Transmarchilay (www.transmarchilay.com) run large boats for foot passengers and vehicles connecting Puerto Montt with Chaitén, Puerto Chacabuco, Laguna San Rafael, and Puerto Natales; berths are inexpensive but comfort is nonexistent. Catamaranes del Sur offers more luxury and a speedier crossing from Puerto Chacabuco to San Rafael (www.catamaranesdelsur.cl).
The Chilean military sells the best maps of Patagonia, including large-scale, 1:25,000 topographic maps (www.igm.cl). Chile's Turistel produces informative local guides, but they are Spanish-language only (www.turistel.cl). Lonely Planet's Trekking in the Patagonian Andes includes detailed trail guides to 31 hikes in both Chilean and Argentine Patagonia (www.lonelyplanet.com).
Stock up on cash from ATM machines in Chile's larger towns, which dispense local currency 24/7, as few small towns have a bank. Coihaique is the most southerly settlement on the Carretera Austral where ATM machines accept foreign-issued cards. If you intend to cross into Argentina from Villa O'Higgins, make a generous withdrawal in Coihaique and use the excess to buy Argentine currency in El Chaltén, as there is no way to access an Argentine ATM before El Calafate. If caught short in El Chaltén, Albergue Rancho Grande (54-2962-493-005) accepts credit cards for the bus out of town.
Chilean Tourism Promotion Corporation
Av. 11 de Setiembre 2353, Office 1501
Tel: 56 2 431 0530
From the U.S.: 866 937 2445