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Patagonia truly is one of the earth’s greatest natural wonders. Spanning the southern tip of South America, these wild and sparsely inhabited lands are full of pristine crystalline lakes, lush temperate rain forests, majestic snow-capped mountain peaks, awe-inspiring glacial fjords and an abundance of intriguing wildlife. Chile lays claim to a sizeable portion of Patagonia, so read our guide on everything you need to know on how to discover its beauty.
Unless you’re up for a ski holiday, plan to go in summer. The best months are between November and April when the weather is warm and the sun is shining. During the winter it can get bitterly cold and heavy snowfall often renders many hiking trails inaccessible.
Unfortunately, Chile’s Patagonia is among the most expensive regions in South America. Due to the vast distances and rugged terrain involved, prices are considerably higher than the north. As a benchmark figure, a backpacker staying in cheap accommodation or camping, in addition to cooking their own meals, will spend around 33,000 CLP (US$50) per day. Those traveling in more luxury and taking organized tours could expect to spend 67,000-134,000 CLP (US$100-200) per day.
Amazing sights abound all throughout Patagonia, so when time is limited it’s understandably difficult to decide where to go. While it really comes down to budget, time frame and personal preference, the following highlights should help you form a tentative itinerary.
A tranquil country town built along a pristine lake and perched under an ominous volcano, Pucon has predictably been a favorite of travelers for decades. Popular activities include hiking, kayaking and white water rafting, although the crème de la crème is a climb up Villarica, the imposing active volcano that overlooks the city.
A trendy student town with a vibrant and youthful population, Valdivia is a pleasant place to relax for a day or two and get to know another side of Chile. Check out the fish market on the river’s edge to watch sea lions and pelicans squabble over scraps, or jump on a half-day boat tour to visit the area’s numerous 17th century Spanish fortresses.
A quaint little German settlement that feels more like Switzerland than Chile, Puerto Varas never fails to put on the charm. Nearby attractions include volcano hikes, shimmering lakes and a wonderful series of waterfalls that roar through lush forested terrain.
Chile’s quirkiest archipelago, Chiloé is popular for its unique character, quaint countryside landscapes and local superstitions. This permanently wet-or-raining island features curious UNESCO listed churches, gorgeous traditional fishing villages and enough top-quality seafood to last a lifetime.
Puerto Montt and the fjords
There isn’t much to do in Puerto Montt other than hop on a ship and take a luxury cruise down through Chile’s world famous fjords. The trip lasts several days and passes through breathtaking scenery of an isolated landscape that feels like it belongs to another world.
The Carretera Austral
Stretching from Puerto Montt all the way down to Villa O’Higgins is the epic Carretera Austral, a semi-paved scarcely traveled highway that passes through some of the most remote wilderness on earth. Along the way are countless places to pull over and trek through spectacular landscapes, including Pumalín Park, Parque Queulat, Bosque Encantado, Cerro Castillo National Park and Patagonia Park, just to name a few.
The city itself is nothing to write home about, but a quick boat ride out to Magdalena Island will have you joyfully meandering amongst a colony of some 120,000 ridiculously cute little penguins. If fuzzy little animals aren’t your thing, rent a kayak and check out some of the stunning fjords around the region.
Torres del Paine
Saving the best ’til last, Torres del Paine is Chile’s claim to fame and the number one place to visit in Patagonia. This world famous national park is a natural wonderland of breathtaking glaciers, jagged snowy mountain peaks, luscious forest valleys and eerily desolate windy grassland. Torres del Paine represents the real Patagonia, a special place that is not to be missed.
It’s important not to underestimate the sheer size of Patagonia and plan accordingly. After all, it covers more than four times the area of the UK.
Getting around by bus is the most common way to explore Patagonia. A huge number of companies offer frequent services nearby Chilean and Argentine destinations. Chilean buses tend to be of very high quality, with spacious cama (sleeper) seats on offer for a comfortable overnight trip. On average, expect to pay around US$3 per hour of travel on a semicama (half-bed) bus, although this can vary greatly. Many companies offer considerable discounts on tickets purchased in advance, so book ahead whenever possible either at the bus station or this website (website does not include all services).
There that aren’t many flights within Patagonia, but those coming up from the north should seriously consider traveling by air. Flights from Santiago to Punta Arenas are often comparable in cost to the bus and save about 40 hours of overland travel.
A great option for budget travelers and keen adventurers, hitchhiking in Patagonia is relatively safe and a great way to meet some locals while saving a dime. Hitching short-haul rides between neighboring towns is a breeze, but long distance travel can be problematic and may require a wait of several days. Remember that it’s never advisable to hitchhike alone, particularly for females, and a decent knowledge of Spanish makes everything so much easier.
Sleeping in Patagonia can be as rustic or luxurious as as your budget allows.
Chileans absolutely love to camp, so there are plenty of well equipped campgrounds all throughout Patagonia with an average price of around 3,500 CLP (US$5) per night. In fact, a keen camper could spend their entire Patagonian adventure without ever stepping foot in a hotel. The best campgrounds have showers and cooking facilites, although there is plenty of facility-free wild camping around too. Travelers thinking of camping a lot should bring their own gear from home or pick some up for cheap at the duty-free zone in Punta Arenas.
Plenty of backpacker-friendly hostels can be found throughout Chile’s Patagonia, offering comfortable beds in shared rooms that are a great way to meet other travelers. Prices are considerably more expensive than the rest of the country, but many backpackers are happy to pay the premium after roughing it in the wilderness for days on end. 13,000 CLP (US$20) per night is a ballpark figure of what most hostels charge for dorm beds in the region.
Alojamientos and cabañas
Local families regularly take advantage of Patagonia’s lucrative tourism industry by offering spare rooms to tourists in high season. When in a group, these work out much cheaper than a backpacker hostel with the added advantage of not having to share a room with eight smelly strangers. Look for signs on houses stating ‘hospedajes‘ or ‘alojamientos’, and seek out the owner to negotiate a price. Cabañas and refugios, on the other hand, are found right out in the wilderness and vary greatly in amenities and price.
Southern Chile has a number of great hotels, some affording incredibly scenic views. Like everything else, prices are higher here than elsewhere in the country.
The quintessential Patagonian meal is the asado (barbecue) and in Southern Chile they have mastered the art. Restaurants are fairly pricey, so try to team up with a group of travelers and organize one yourself, preferably with input from an experienced local. Maté (a type of herbal tea) is drunk by pretty much everyone, while a local wine is the best bet for the evening’s entertainment.
As amazing as Chile’s Patagonia is, it would be a crime to neglect the Argentinian side of this incredible region. Places like Perito Moreno Glacier and Fitzroy National Park are a must, and it’s really easy to hop across the border on one of the many bus services connecting the two countries.