Legend has it that when Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan set foot on the shores of Patagonia in 1520, he made a curious discovery. The land, he insisted, was inhabited by a race of 10-foot-tall giants he called Patagons, or “big feet.” Desperate to share his findings with the world, he abducted two men and held them captive on his return passage to Spain. (Unfortunately for him—and, of course, for the native men—both hostages fell ill and died before reaching land.) Subsequent voyages eventually debunked the rumor of this gargantuan race, but the name “Patagonia”—“Land of the Big Feet”—remained.
Patagonia’s early inhabitants may not have been giant, but the landscape certainly was. Since Magellan’s voyage, the far-flung wilds of Patagonia have beckoned and bewitched travelers from across the globe. From its glacial fjords and grasslands to its dramatic crags and deserts, this region in southern Chile and Argentina stuns and humbles all who visit. In the spring the terrain erupts in color, as waterfall plants unfurl their deep-red petals and porcelain orchids stretch their white limbs toward the sun. Autumn brings a transformation of another kind, when fiery leaves create a magnificent flaming mosaic across the region. It’s no wonder that Patagonia is a mecca for those in pursuit of the ultimate nature experience.
Whether you’re planning a trip or just need a few moments to sigh wistfully, go-today has compiled a list of 10 reasons to pack your bags for Patagonia. The winds can be fierce and the weather unpredictable (fluctuating between 5 and 70 degrees in a single day!), but don’t let that stand in your way. Just pack wisely and prepare for anything. Adventure awaits!
1. Los Glaciares National Park
Los Glaciares National Park is a colossal frozen kingdom in Argentina’s Austral Andes. Its 2,400 square miles boast an array of milky turquoise glacial lakes, while the granite spires of the northern Fitz Roy Range attract hikers and seasoned climbers alike. Among the approximately 250 glaciers is the mighty Glaciar Perito Moreno. At 19 miles long, three miles wide, and 200 feet high, this frozen ice-blue river can move up to six feet in a single day!
2. Los Alerces National Park
Not to be outdone by its frigid southerly neighbor, Los Alerces National Park attracts a devoted following all its own. Its wild tableau includes hanging valleys, temperate forests, and lakes so clear you can see straight through them. The park’s globally threatened alerce trees are among the oldest trees alive, with some specimens nearly 3,600 years old. Various endemic and threatened species of fauna lay claim to this habitat, including the elusive huemul, or south Andean deer.
3. Península Valdés
Sea lions, elephant seals, and Magellanic penguins—oh my! Add some llama-like guanacos, ostrich-like rheas, Patagonian maras, and more than 1,500 other animal species and you’ve got the ingredients for one fascinating zoological experience. Conservation efforts on the peninsula have been vital to the ongoing recovery of the threatened southern right whales, who use the protected waters as a breeding ground. Rocky cliffs and beaches define the peninsula’s 250 miles of coastline, as do coastal lagoons, sand dunes, and mudflats.
4. Torres del Paine National Park
Forget swings and slides and sandboxes—Chile’s Torres del Paine is all the playground you’ll ever need! With over 700 square miles of ancient forests, glaciers, golden grasslands, and imposing granite peaks, your eyes are in for quite the banquet. Hiking trails like the Paine Circuit and W Trek offer the perfect opportunity to capture the beauty on foot. Kayakers can paddle through the reflections of snow-capped torres in the glassy surface of a glacial lake. A UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 1978, the park protects such majestic avian species as condors, flamingoes, and Magellan ostriches.
5. National Route 40
Buckle your seatbelts for the ultimate road trip across inland Patagonia! At over 3,100 miles long, this mother of all scenic routes crosses 18 major rivers and passes through 20 national parks and 11 provinces. Spectacular views unfold along the entire length of the road, which reaches heights of up to 16,400 feet. These vistas come at a cost, though, as the roads can be treacherous. Pack plenty of food, water, and extra clothes, and be alert for any signs of trouble with your car.
6. Cave of Hands
Tucked away in the valley of Argentina’s Pinturas River is a collection of cave art dating back 13,000 years. Hundreds of stenciled human hands cover the cave walls in a process that archaeologists believe involved blowing mineral pigments through pipes made of bone. Other drawings depict hunting scenes, geometric shapes, and abstract representations of humans and animals. Archaeological investigations suggest that the cave was last inhabited around 700 AD, possibly by ancestors of the Tehuelche people of Patagonia.
7. Marble Caves of Chile Chico
For six centuries, wave erosion has sculpted what many refer to as the Marble Cathedral—an iridescent treasure in the middle of General Carrera Lake. Your neck will likely rebel against all the craning, but the smooth, ethereal, swirling blue caverns are only half of the experience. Tilt your head down for a glimpse of the extraordinary underwater rock formations. In the crystalline glacial water, they appear to extend downward indefinitely.
8. Tierra del Fuego
Located at the southernmost tip of South America, the mountains, peat bogs, and dwarf lenga forests of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago are as close as you can get to Antarctica without setting sail. This secluded spot provides visitors edge-of-the-world views and a whole host of adventure opportunities. Take in the landscape of Argentina’s first coastal national park or head into the town of Ushuaia for a lesson in dogsledding. Those swashbucklers looking to get in touch with their inner Charles Darwin can take a whale-watching tour through the Beagle Channel, where Darwin traveled on an expedition in 1833.
At this clifftop museum in Puerto Madryn, Argentina, visitors can learn about area’s marine ecosystem while keeping an eye out for whales breaching in the sheltered waters of Golfo Nuevo. Exhibits include a tide pool and a full-sized right whale skeleton. The building also features a lighthouse-like tower with walls of windows and couches for soaking in the view.
10. Chiloé Island
You’ve traversed the wild landscapes of Patagonia and adventured your heart just short of bursting—now what? Chiloé Island! This quiet community of fishermen, craftsmen, and subsistence farmers is shaped by traditional cuisine, folklores, and music. To the west lie beaches, dunes, and temperate rainforests; to the east the scattered islands of Chiloé’s archipelago enjoy protection from howling Pacific storms. Noteworthy among the island’s attractions are nearly 70 wooden churches acclaimed for their architectural design and coloring. Crafted by Jesuit missionaries in the 17th and 18th centuries, today 16 of these churches are UNESCO-listed. These structures represent a successful fusion of European and indigenous cultural traditions.
Champing at the bit for your own Patagonian experience? Check out go-today’s Santiago to Buenos Aires with Lake Crossing package and be on your way!