Argentina is one of my favorite destinations. It’s a massive country, stretching from the Tropic of Capricorn to the southernmost town in the world, where cruise ships depart for Antarctica. After spending 12 weeks (over two trips) crossing the country from north to south and east to west, I still haven’t seen everything.
Patagonia is the name given to the southern part of both Argentina and Chile. In Argentina, this includes the Lake District in the northwest, all the way down to the island of Tierra del Fuego in the south. The blue lakes and forested mountains of the Lake District are spectacular, but the landscape becomes even more dramatic as one travels south.
This article focuses on the extreme south of Argentinean Patagonia, a remote area that feels far away from civilization. It’s a land of brown hills and blue lakes, of granite peaks covered in snow, and of gauchos watching their sheep graze in windswept fields of yellow grasses.
The “four seasons in one day” cliché applies here, even in summer (November to March), which is a particularly good time to visit.
50 years ago, the region saw only backpackers, but other visitors are increasingly stopping by to see what the fuss is about. And let me tell you the region’s well worth fussing about.
El Calafate is a tourist town located on the southern shore of Lake Argentino, an impossibly turquoise lake in the midst of parched hills.
The small municipality, founded as recently as 1927, features wooden chalet-type buildings along its main street, highlighted by splatters of colorful rose bushes. Enjoying lunch on a sunny patio is a very pleasant way to pass the time.
Go on an excursion to a sheep farm (estancia) to get a feel for the starkness of the countryside. And of course, visit the Perito Moreno glacier.
There isn’t much to do in Calafate itself, as it is mostly a gateway for visiting the surrounding region. However, if you like chocolate, you’ll be in heaven here.
Artisanal chocolate is a feature of Patagonia. In Calafate, chocolate wafers sandwich fillings of various flavors. Given how delicious and affordable they are, it’s easy to lose all restraint.
Perito Moreno Glacier
This glacier is unusual because it is advancing, while most glaciers are retreating. As it moves forward, it constantly sheds huge chunks of ice, which tumble with a crash into the turquoise lake below.
Even after going to Antarctica, I found Perito Moreno impressive. It’s a spiky wall of ice that extends as far as the eye can see, 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) long and 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) wide. Its total depth is 170 meters (558 feet), 74 meters (243 feet) of which are above water.
You can watch it from both an upper and lower platform, or take a boat trip for an even closer look at the blue-tinged ice. It’s possible to go trekking on top of the glacier as well.
While I observed from land, an enormous chunk split off, sank into the water, and then re-emerged in a slow vertical ascent before crashing into the glacier’s face, drawing cheers from the crowd.
Perito Moreno is located only 80 kilometers (48 miles) from Calafate in Los Glaciares National Park, and can easily be visited as a day trip.
El Chaltén and Mount Fitz Roy
Only 32 years old, this frontier town on the northern edge of Los Glaciares National Park is three hours by bus from El Calafate, and the remoteness is tangible.
If you want to go trekking, you’ll probably find yourself here at some point, to take advantage of the multiple hiking trails that start right from town.
A fairly easy walk to Lake Capri takes about 1.5 hour each way and affords stunning views of a row of serrated granite peaks skirted with snow, including 3359-meter (11020 feet) Mount Fitz Roy. There are many other trails and viewpoints as well.
El Chaltén’s colorful little houses have multiplied since my visit in 2005, but I suspect that the weather is still as temperamental: sun, clouds, and rain all in the same day. The wind can be so unrelenting that it feels like the air is going straight through your head. Dress in layers and wear a hat to cover your ears.
If the weather turns nasty, you can always hunker down in a brewpub, wine bar, or restaurant.
This “end of the world” town in Tierra del Fuego is where ships depart for Antarctica, but you don’t have to go to the icy continent to see penguins. Boat excursions take you to Martillo Island where you can observe colonies of thousands of Magellanic and Gentoo penguins.
Ushuaia itself is a lively town, with plenty of outdoor gear shops and restaurants serving the beef that Argentina is famous for, as well as fish and lamb.
You can also visit the Prison Museum – Ushuaia started out as a penal colony – and the “End of the World” Museum, focusing on natural and indigenous history.
The Tourist Office reminds you that you have reached the most southerly town in the world with a stamp in your passport and a certificate!
Just a few kilometers from the town center, a chairlift takes you to a trail that leads to the base of the Martial Glacier. Before you start walking, take in the view of Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel that spreads before you.
Tierra del Fuego National Park
Only 11 kilometers (7 miles) from Ushuaia is the entrance to Tierra del Fuego National Park, which offers well-marked trails through Andean-Patagonian forest. You will see rivers, waterfalls, lakes, glacial mountains, and stony beaches. This is one of the most stunning national parks in Argentina, and the only one with a marine coast.
The air is cool and damp due to frequent rains and average temperatures of only 10C (50F) in summer, making these forests quite green.
You may spot wildlife, since the park is home to 90 bird species (such as kelp goose, austral parakeet, diving petrel, and black-browed albatross to name a few) and 20 mammal species including Andean foxes, otters, and guanacos.
Although conservation is the main purpose of the park, a few thousand hectares remain open to visitors. Something, you’ll find, is exciting indeed.
Is Patagonia on your bucket list? Check out Peregrine’s range of small group tours there.
Hero image c/o Peregrine. All other images c/o Marie-France Roy.