From the tops of its highest peaks to the rocky, wind-battered shores, Patagonia is a place that’s full of adventure and wonder. Whether your goal is to see spectacular landscapes or to experience a place whose culture was forged in adversity and resourcefulness, you’ll find it here. But as a region, Patagonia covers hundreds of square miles: too much to see and do in any one trip. What are the top things to do in Patagonia? Here are our recommendations!
1. Do the base of the Torres Hike – It’s not a trip to Torres del Paine if you don’t make the hike to the base of the park’s famous Torres (Towers). A roughly eight hour round-trip hike that ranges from intermediate to advanced level of difficulty, anyone in good physical condition can make this iconic trek. Starting from near the Las Torres Hotel at the base of the Paine Massif, you hike up and through the Pass of the Winds and then descend into the Ascencio Valley. After hiking along the base of the valley through forests and over streams, you reach the bottom of a giant jumble of rocks, the remains of a glacial moraine. Hiking to the top is the most difficult part of the hike, but it’s well worth the effort because then you can enjoy your lunch and a drink of water with a view of the three granite pillars for which the park is named.
As the most popular hike in Torres del Paine, the trail and viewpoint are frequently busy, which is why some visitors choose to spend the night at the Chileno Camp and Refugio Cabins in the Ascencio Valley and then get up early to hike to the lookout and watch the sunrise over the Towers and lake. The rising sun paints the spires the most amazing shades of red, orange, and pink, and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
2. Sail to the Grey Glacier – Located on the western end of the Paine Massif alongside the final leg of the W Trek, the Grey Glacier covers over 100 square miles from its origins in the Southern Patagonia Ice Field, funneling down valleys to finally spill into Grey Lake. The front wall towers nearly a hundred feet over the lake’s waters, and if you’re lucky, you can see icebergs of all different shapes and icy blue shades crashing into the lake.
While from the W trail you have a better vantage point to appreciate the sheer scale of the glacier, nothing can compare to sailing right up close to the front wall itself. At the far end of Grey Lake near the Lago Grey Hotel, you can board a giant catamaran that will take you right up to the glacier itself. And then, on the return trip, you can enjoy a pisco sour served with glacial ice taken from calved icebergs!
3. Go puma tracking – Seeing a puma in the wild is an incredibly rare experience, but Torres del Paine is actually one of the few places where you’re the most likely to get to see one of these majestic cats in their natural habitat. After fires in 2011 and 2012 destroyed large areas of lenga forest, the local guanaco population moved to better grazing grounds on the pampas, which are closer to many of the park’s roads and tourist infrastructure. And when the guanacos moved, their natural predator, the puma, followed. As such, it’s now easier than ever to see these wild cats either from the road while driving or while out hiking on the pampas. If you want to increase your chances of seeing them, go puma tracking with a local expert, who, based on knowledge of the land and animal behavior, knows exactly when and where to look to increase the chances of seeing a puma.
4. Attend a traditional asado – Before Patagonia was known for its trekking, it was a place of vast estancias and South American cowboys, all working in service of the millions of sheep that brought prosperity to the region through their wool. It’s said that Patagonia was built on the back of a sheep, and one of its most iconic culinary traditions, the asado, involves a young sheep as well. A slaughtered and skinned lamb is butterfly-strapped to a special spit, angled over a fire of hot coals, and then left to cook in the rising heat for hours. The result is the most delicious lamb you’ll ever have, with crispy skin but succulent and tender meat. The roasted lamb is usually served with sides of potatoes, pebre (a topping similar to pico de gallo), and plenty of red wine.
Nowadays, asados are mainly held for special occasions, and some estancias perform them for visitors so they can experience this most Patagonian of meals for themselves and learn about the estancia lifestyle. So during your Patagonia adventure, be sure to pay a visit to an estancia and enjoy a delicious asado!
5. Go for a horseback ride at an estancia – In addition to the asados, living the estancia life for a day offers a unique glimpse into the culture that helped colonize this region. Many estancias near Torres del Paine and Los Glaciares, while still working as sheep ranches, have now opened their doors to visitors so they can experience this lifestyle for themselves. One example is Estancia La Peninsula, an estancia located on the far side of Last Hope Sound from Puerto Natales, the gateway town to Torres del Paine. Here, you can go on horseback rides through forests and fields and along coastlines to epic lookouts showcasing the majesty of the region’s fjords. Then, at the end of the ride, you can watch sheep-shearing and sheep-herding demonstrations to see how these ranches are run and operated. But going for a horseback ride across the pampas is just about the most Patagonia activity ever and is a great way to see and appreciate the landscapes, so be sure to sign up for one!
6. Ice hike on Perito Moreno – The grand dame of Patagonia’s most accessible glaciers, the 240-foot-tall Perito Moreno Glacier in Los Glaciares National Park is always swamped with visitors. But anyone can take a picture from a lookout or go for a boat ride close to the front wall: the ultimate way to experience the Perito Moreno Glacier is to walk on it! Even though the glacier is famous for its frequent calvings, it’s actually very stable and safe so you can go for guided ice-treks along the glacier’s surface, traversing iced-over crevasses that cut deep into the heart of the glacier, passing ice caves, and crossing streams of meltwater. And you don’t even need any prior experience to do so; that’s how safe it is! Then, before returning to the nearby town of El Calafate, stop for a celebratory drink at GlacioBar, an ice bar that’s the first bar in the world to be made out of glacial ice!
7. See the king penguins of Tierra del Fuego – Second only in size to emperor penguins, the king penguin can stand up to three feet tall and reach almost forty pounds as adults. Sporting sleek black and white feathers and orange markings, king penguins are normally only found on the Antarctica’s more temperate outer islands like South Georgia. This is what makes the king penguin colony in King Penguin Park near Porvenir, Tierra del Fuego so special: it’s the only known breeding colony outside of the species’ normal breeding grounds. To reach the main island of Tierra del Fuego requires a ferry crossing from Punta Arenas and a car ride to Inutil Bay where the colony is located; here, visitors can walk around the park on designated paths and walkways that allow them to observe the penguins and their nesting areas from a safe distance. While the colony can be visited year round, visiting from September to March offers the best chance of seeing the most penguins.