Growing up in the mountains, tall peaks and dramatic landscapes have always called to me, but none beckoned louder than Patagonia. Stretching across the southern reaches of Chile and Argentina, Patagonia covers a land mass over twice the size of France while playing home to a lower population density than the Western Sahara. Undoubtedly, this region represents one of the largest undeveloped wilderness areas remaining in the world complete with towering (literally) peaks, expansive glaciers, deep fjords, ancient volcanoes, and jagged coastlines.
Why Road Trip?
I firmly believe the best way to travel and truly experience any destination is to immerse yourself in every nook and cranny of the landscape and local culture. For Patagonia, this means adventuring beyond the few urban centers, skipping the rigid group tours, and gearing up for your very own road trip to explore the region by car and on foot. Upon arriving into Bariloche, a small mountain town located in the northern Argentinean Lake District of Patagonia, we set out on the open road to make this long time dream come true. In directional order, here are six must see places from our bucket list road trip through Patagonia:
Arriving in San Carlos de Bariloche
Bariloche is not only a great hub for exploring Patagonia, but it is a destination in itself. Located in northern Patagonia, this charming mountain town sits on the cobalt blue shores of Lake Nahuel Huapi, the largest of the Seven Lakes district. Complete with vast forests, glaciers, lakes and snowy peaks, Bariloche plays home to multiple ski resorts and some of the best fishing in the world with a small town European flare. It felt like Lake Tahoe and Switzerland had a baby, especially when you account for the exceptional chocolatiers lining the seemingly Bavarian streets.
We set up “base camp” here for a couple days to get acquainted and plan our two week road trip, using old school paper maps to plan the route of paved roads, dirt roads, gas stops, trailheads and border crossings. If you are keen to take on this road trip in Patagonia, this is important to remember because where you are going, there is no GPS, no Google maps, and no phone service for the large majority of the trip.
In Bariloche, you can enjoy accommodations from budget hostels to chic resorts and an amazing variety of fresh produce and local cooking with the homemade chocolates being an everyday must-have. Once you’ve had your fill, only thousands of miles of open road lay between you and the southern tip of the Americas.
After leaving Bariloche, you’ll have the opportunity for many sights and detours that are deserved of honorable mentions including Conservacion Patagonica (now Parque Patagonia), the Cueva de los Manos (hand paintings dated back to possibly 13,000 years ago), and experiencing the life of real gauchos as they herd massive heads of cattle across the steppe.
Enjoy these pitstops along the way and stop into small town local bakeries for delicious empanadas when you have the chance - your next major destination is 860 miles due south on Ruta 40.
Mt. Fitz Roy & Cero Torre
Now, it is a little strange when you can drive for 400 miles at a time without seeing another living soul, but that is also what makes this region so unique – it’s like traveling through a completely undeveloped Colorado, Wyoming and Utah all at once. After a couple days of driving and exploring, you will roll into El Chaltén, widely heralded as the hiking capital of the world and home to the famous Mt. Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre mountains.
Usually inhabited only during peak tourism seasons, this small town offers a couple restaurants (stock up on the fresh empanadas at the local bakery), outdoor gear shops, and a few hostels for accommodations as most traffic relies on camping. If you do want a roof over your head, make sure to book well in advance as these beds fill up quickly.
From town, the surrounding landscape offers a playground for weeks, if the weather cooperates. In one day, we trekked 40.5km (26.7 mi) through the famous peaks and valleys, scaling 1300 vertical feet in the dark to Laguna Capri to watch the sunrise on Aguja Poincenot and Mt Fitz Roy, continued along the Rio del Salto through a snowstorm to the Poincenot Base Camp, marveled at the Piedras Blancas Glacier from above, traversed below the Fitz Roy Range along Laguna Madre e Hija, hiked through the rain up the Rio Fitz Roy past the Agostini Base Camp to Laguna Torre, took a bite out of the Glacier Grande, and descended back through the Mirador Cerro Torre and along the Margarita waterfalls back into town.
With some of the most unpredictable weather on earth, untimely clouds can block some of the most remarkable views and freak storms can make route finding difficult, but when the weather clears this is one of the most beautiful and wild places on earth to experience.
Perito Merino Glacier & Los Glaciares National Park
Technically speaking, El Chaltén sits on the northern section of Los Glaciares National Park. However, this national park is most known for the incredible Perito Merino glacier – and rightfully so. Before I visited here, I thought glaciers were interesting, but had no particular affinity to them. When I left, I wanted to board a ship to Antarctica straightaway.
Famous for the loud cracking of icebergs dramatically breaking of the front face into Lago Argentino, just standing in front of this giant and listening to the ice move – yes, I said listening to ice – is an absolutely surreal experience.
For the more adventurous, you can actually trek out onto the glacier itself (only on a guided tour) or take a boat tour through Lago Argentino to visit several of the more remote glaciers that wind themselves down from the Ice Caps, with 47 major glaciers and 200 smaller ones located within the park.
With few better opportunities on the planet, this is where you come to explore these frozen marvels, and El Calafate offers a great hub for touring and setting up camp in either budget accommodations or more ritzy abodes.
Trek the Mirador Las Torres (Torres del Paine National Park)
The other advantage of El Calafate is that it offers a great staging point for leaving Argentina and entering Chile. To do so in a rental car, you need to make sure you notify the rental company in advance to prep the border crossing paperwork and permits, or else you will find yourself shit out of luck for venturing into what is probably the crown jewel of the entire region – Torres del Paine National Park.
These border crossing are also subject to a little more volatility than one might expect so it’s best to be overly prepared and be flexible schedule wise to accommodate any last-minute issues. For example, the Chilean border officials went on strike the day we arrived in El Calafate and all the bus transit and tours across the border were canceled. Luckily, they reopened for private vehicle transit just in time for us to make a run for it, and we were able to cross into Chile without any issues. After making it into Chile, you can head to Puerto Natales to stock up or you can head directly into Torres del Paine National Park.
Like Chaltén, there are numerous routes and a variety of activities you can undertake from short day hikes to full week backcountry treks across the park. One of the most famous day hikes is the Mirador Las Torres trail – an 11.2 mile round trip hike with over 3,000 feet of elevation gain. To access this trail, park your car at the Hotel Las Torres where you will clearly find the trailhead and be able to set off on your journey, up hill the entire route in and downhill the whole way out. The route can be completed in one day or you can opt to camp at a couple refugios along the trail to break it up. Either way, the final destination provides one of the most iconic views in Patagonia – that of the three famous granite towers from which the national park takes its name (the trail name directly translates to the “View of the Towers” and the peak of Cerro Paine Grande is the highest in the park at 9,462 ft.) – and the hotel offers a great restaurant to reward you after a long round trip journey. Ps. Keep your eyes open for guanacos – they are the largest of the camelid family and Patagonia is the only place they are found in the world.
Lake Pehoe and Cordillera Paine (Torres del Paine National Park)
After you recover from the Mirador Las Torres, which you will definitely feel afterwards, Torres del Paine is just getting started with you. With over 700 square miles of terrain, there is much more to explore and at least one more must-see before you leave.
Unlike an 11 mile hike with serious vertical, Lake Pehoe is accessible by car and offers sweeping panoramic views of the Cordillera Paine, the iconic mountain range you’ve seen on the cover of National Geographic.
The milky glacial waters of the lake produce one of the bluest blues you’ll ever see and create an amazing foreground for the jagged peaks that tower out of the sea. If you can plan far enough in advance, try to snag a room at Hosteria Pehoe or the Explora for an experience you’ll never forget.
Returning North on the East Coast via Ruta 3 (Punta Tombo, Peninsula Valdes)
Leaving Torres del Paine National Park will not be easy. Undoubtedly you will think about cranking that steering wheel for a hard u-turn to attempt never leaving at all, though the show must go on and you will find peace in knowing that this is a place you will eventually return to.
As you continue to head South via Puerto Natales, only Punta Arenas and Ushuaia of the Tierra del Fuego remain between you and Antarctica. As you explore the southern most archipelago of the Americas, you will play witness to where the Pacific meets the Atlantic, and sit on a line of latitude south of all six major continents.
After starring across the sea looking for Antarctica (which we would have loved to visit but it was unfortunately the wrong time of year for passenger ferrying), you’ll turn the corner to head back North via Ruta 3 on Patagonia’s eastern coast. While not as dramatic as the Andes and western coast, you’ll find beautiful beaches, expansive coastlines and an amazing sanctuaries of wildlife. Using Rio Gallegos, Comodoro Rivadavia and Puerto Madryn as your main coastal hubs, the highlights were definitely witnessing the mating migration of thousands of Magellanic penguins at Punta Tombo and the crossroads of whales (Valdes, Doradillo), elephant seals (Isla Escondida) and sea lions (Punta Lomo) around Peninsula Valdes National Park.
You'll then head due west through the canyons and ever-changing landscape of the region to return to Bariloche, completing your magical tour of Patagonia.
In hindsight, it seems blasphemous to pick only six sights to highlight in such an incredible region, so I have to give some honorable mention shout outs to other notable sights like the Cueva de Los Manos, Parque Patagonia, Puerto Natales, Tierra del Fuego, Punta Tombo, Puerto Madryn and the Valdés Peninsula which are all amazing places that you can enjoy on your Patagonia road trip. Overall, we drove 4392 miles, consumed 559 liters of fuel, completed 2 border crossings over a 14 day period for an absolutely epic road trip. If you don’t have two weeks to enjoy such a large plot of land, skip Bariloche, the northern regions, and the eastern coast of Patagonia by flying into El Calafate and using it as a hub to explore Los Glaciares National Park, El Chalten and Torres del Paine. You can still enjoy a long weekend trip by making that adjustment to your itinerary, though the longer the better especially if you are planning some longer treks that make this region world renowned. Make no mistake, this trip will alter your global perspective and leave a lasting imprint that will mostly likely call you back for another adventure. Here’s to the wide open spaces, the in-between places and letting the journey teach us about the destination – enjoy!
How to Explore Patagonia: The Cliff Note Checklist
Head south from Buenos Aires. Splash in the mountain lakes of Bariloche. Pass through the quaint towns of Bolson and Esquel. Brave the blizzarding Andes passes around Lago Buenos Aires. High-five the ancient cave art of Las Cuevas de Las Manos. Trek the many trails of El Chaltén and the Mt. Fitz Roy range. Wonder at the crackling blue ice of The Perito Moreno Glacier. Tour the massive glaciers of El Calafate and Los Glaciares National Park. Cross the border to the southern Chilean point or Puerto Natales. Explore the massive towers and turquoise lakes of Torres del Paine. Have a staring contest with a wild guanaco. Look for Antarctica across the Strait of Magellan. Watch the sunrise over the Atlantic in Comodoro Rivadavia. Waddle with the penguins of Punta Tombo. Search for whales and sea lions in the sanctuary of Puerto Madryn. Sleep in the canyons of middle Patagonia. Return your rental car in Bariloche.