Patagonia Hiking: The Ultimate Guide
UPDATED JANUARY 2020
A world-famous hiking destination, Patagonia is a stunning place to ‘stretch your legs’ amongst some of the most astonishing landscapes on earth. From the most famous trails to the best time of year to visit, what to take along to this glorious but unforgiving part of the world, and the many options to get off the beaten path – your ultimate guide to Patagonia hiking is your first step to the trekking adventure of a lifetime.
What makes trekking in Patagonia so amazing?
A jaw-dropping corner of Alpine and glacial wilderness covering over one million square kilometres, tucked into the southernmost corner of South America – Patagonia is, without a doubt, one of the most enticing places on earth. It also happens to be one of the most unpredictable. The climate this far south is a little nuts, yet the magnificent visual spectacles are so abundant that everyone who’s ever been, agrees: putting up with crazy is wholeheartedly worthwhile.
Peppered with villages that seem to thrive in the harsh terrain, Patagonia feels empty and inaccessible even at the height of tourist season. It helps that the region is so enormous: as much as you may find crowds in the most famous highlights, there are countless more corners you can visit that barely get any visitors at all. There are more trekking trails in Patagonia than any guide could ever list and more hidden secrets than world-renowned sites.
Alongside glaciers and glaciated lakes, nearly-vertical granite peaks, snow-drenched mountains and rolling hills, Patagonia boasts national parks speckled with wildlife and wildflowers in summer. Despite its seemingly overwhelming size, Patagonia is a region whose stark beauty needs to be seen close-up. To be overwhelmed by the mountains, you must stand in their shadow. To understand how eye-popping those lakes really are, you must stand on their shores.
Trekking, in Patagonia, is the best way to experience its raw beauty.
When is the best time of year to visit?
The trekking season in Patagonia runs from November until the end of April, although yearly climate fluctuations mean the tail-ends of the season are always unpredictable. If you’re a bit wary of extremely cold temperatures, your best bet is to visit in January, February or March – months that have traditionally offered the best chances of good hiking conditions.
In Patagonia, this means clear blue skies, great daytime temps and bearable night-time temps most of the time. This is the height of the southern Summer although, at this kind of latitude, you should expect the unexpected, at any time. Book your eco-camp experience way ahead of time to beat the tourist rush and get out there!
Argentina VS Chile – which side is best?
Patagonia is unevenly shared between Argentina and Chile, with the former claiming a much bigger chunk of the region and the latter boasting its most famous trekking destination – Torres del Paine. The borderline between the two countries was established back in 1881 and although some sections are still contested between the two, visitors barely notice when they hop from one side to the other – something almost every visitor will do at some point on their journey. Both sides are home to spellbinding highlights.
Although we field this question so often, we’ve struggled to find an answer to the question ‘which side of Patagonia is best for trekking?’ simply because there isn’t one – the ideal trekking side of Patagonia for you will depend on external factors, such as how many days you have to spend here, what kind of trekking you’d like to do and where you’re flying in from.
Sometimes, it’ll come down to sheer logistics: if you fly into South America through Santiago, it’s best (and cheapest) to reach Chilean Patagonia first. If you’re flying into Buenos Aires, then best (and cheapest) you head to the Argentinian side first. Once there, however, hopping between the two sides is easy and something we recommend you do if you have the time. Trekking trails in Patagonia are in abundance on both sides – both Argentina and Chile boast treks to the base of astonishing mountains, sparkling lakes and arresting glaciers.
There’s simply no playing favourites here…
What are the best trekking trails in Patagonia?
Finding the most famous and popular trekking trails is easy enough – see our Top 5 Patagonia Treks below. However, we find that the most useful first-question to ask our guests is what kind of trekking they enjoy. No point sending someone off on the challenging 5-day W-Trek in Torres del Paine, for example, if they’re after a rewarding but less challenging hike instead.
To this end, we thought we’d rate the best Patagonian trekking destinations for beginner, intermediate and experienced hikers, this way you’ll get a much better idea of which corner of this fantastic place you’d enjoy exploring. Please keep in mind that is a general guide, however.
No matter where you head to in Patagonia, you will find challenging, moderate and much easier trails to hike – this is the very essence of Patagonia and the reason it’s so well-loved.
Trekking for experienced hikers – Torres del Paine National Park – CHILE
Torres del Paine = towers of pain. Coincidence? We say not! Chile and Patagonia’s most visited park is a hard-core hiker’s true paradise, with options for multi-day adventures that’ll leave you breathless even before you head off anywhere. Although this spectacular park, home to guanacos, Patagonian foxes, wolves and Andean condors offers plenty of softer adventures, there’s no denying it is primarily the playground for those who love a great challenge. The most arduous trekking trails are found right here, alongside a handful of eye-popping valleys, lakes, waterfalls and peaks – we’re talking the world-famous W-trek as well as the brutal but unforgettable 8-day O-Trek,
Given this is the Patagonia of all the postcards and is a perfect place to see Patagonian wildlife, a visit is just about unmissable.
Trekking for intermediate hikers – Los Glaciares National Park – ARGENTINA
Walking on a glacier that’s part of the second-largest ice-field on earth is as astounding as it sounds – a soul-stirring experience for so many visitors who head to Los Glaciares. This magnificent icy playground is home to Perito Moreno, the most famous glacier in Patagonia, but not the only one. You don’t need to be an intermediate-level hiker to enjoy this unique experience, although the town of El Chalten, the base for visits to the glaciers, is the undisputed king of Argentina’s mid-range trekking trails. We adore this place because it (literally) provides trails for every kind of trekker, and for the fact that so many trails shoot off right from the edge of the town. From El Chalten, you can trek to mountains and lagoons, you can head off for a week, overnight or just for one, utterly unforgettable day of trekking. Your trail will be framed by vertiginous peaks at all times and you’ll be bowled over by views at every turn. Want to visit Patagonia with that one travel partner who swears they’ll never trek? Bring them to In El Chalten, and we bet they will.
The pull is simply that great.
Trekking for beginners – EVERYWHERE
Gotcha! Patagonia is famous for turning everyone into an avid hiker and even if you’ve never bagged a true-blue trek in your entire life, you can bag your first here. No matter where in Patagonia you visit, you will find an array of easier trails that take just a few hours to complete. Our favourite ‘easy’ treks that are even considered family-friendly are Cerro Llao Llao Trail in Bariloche (Argentina), Mirador Las Torres, the Fauna Trail and Grey Glacier treks (ALL in Torres del Paine), the Condor Lookout Trail (from El Chalten, it’s an easy 1hr walk to the viewpoint and back – a great intro trek) and the Emerald Lagoon Trek in Tierra del Fuego, at the very southern end of the region.
Our 6-day Buenos Aires to the End of the World is ideal for solo travellers who’d love to do some hiking in Patagonia but also want cultural experiences to boot
Our Top 5 Patagonia Treks
1. Torres del Paine – for hard-core trekkers
Declared a protected UNESCO site in 1978, this is Patagonia at its most awe-inspiring.
In Torres, you can choose from the 7-day W Trek or 10-day Circuit which encompasses the W plus the rear of the national park. On the last day’s bouldering to Mirador Las Torres – the magnificent lakeside viewpoint just below the three 2,000m high granite towers after which the park is named – you’ll cast your eyes on arguably the best vistas in all of Patagonia. If you’re looking for that postcard-perfect scenery, this is where you’ll find it.
2. El Chalten – for incidental trekkers
You could visit beautiful El Chalten even if you’ve never trekked a day in your life. Framed between the Los Glaciares National Park and the Fitzroy Mountain range, El Chalten is a stunning little town surrounded by Mother Nature’s most colourful painter’s palette.
The day-long trek to Laguna Torre guides you to a viewpoint dead in the heart of granite tower central, where imposing Cerro Torre overlooks the Grande and Torre glaciers. If you’re feeling particularly fit you may wish to tackle the harder Laguna de los Tres trek for jaw-dropping closer views of Fitzroy. And, if you really want to go hell-for-leather, then best you start training for the trek from el Chalten to Lago O’Higgins in Chile.
3. Parque Patagonia – for intrepid explorers
Park Patagonia is the brainchild of a billionaire US couple and former owners of the North Face outerwear brand. In 2015, the passing of avid conservationist Doug Tompkins on a kayaking expedition in Patagonia, not only hit the international headline news but also spearheaded his wife Kristine McDivitt Tompkins’s resolve to turn the extensive Patagonian land they purchased over the years, into a most coveted 650,000-acre nature reserve.
On a multi-day trek through Patagonia Park you’ll cross dozens of icy rivers – sometimes waist-deep – surmount innumerable hills, visit local cattle farms, camp around a bonfire by a river and wake up to the sight of a snow-capped mountain.
4. Aysén Glacier Trail – for serious trekkers
Small on fame but HUGE on adrenalin-packed adventure, the Aysén Glacier Trail is a hardcore 115km trek, which crosses three glacial valleys and takes about 8 days to complete. If you’re looking for ‘out there’, challenging treks, then this is the one for you. On this trail, you’ll be guided through some of the most remote areas of the northern Patagonian ice cap, home of the 3rd largest reservoir of fresh water on earth, and one of the least inhabited corners of Patagonia. The infrastructure here is minimal and this, coupled with the harsh terrain, makes for one very challenging – but immensely rewarding – expedition.
The trail runs from Lago Bertrand to Lago Colonia, and boasts half a dozen rudimentary campsites along the way. More of a true-blue expedition rather than a simple ‘trek’, the Aysén Glacier Trail is rated one of the world’s greatest, where elusive wildlife, splendid glacial waterfalls, ice-trekking and utterly imposing landscapes are part of your everyday life.
5. Jeinimeni Lake National Reserve – for sportsmen…or women
Jeinimeni (pronounced ‘haynee-meynee’), on the northern reaches of Patagonia, boasts 3 large lakes, 13 snowdrifts, 18 rivers, 30 lagoons, and even ancient archaeological sites. Easy to reach and a pleasure to explore at leisure for a few days, Jeinimeni also offers options for fly-fishing, horseback riding, cycling, and rowing.
What we love about this area is that it’s accessible all-year-round, so when things get too chilly down south you can always find a spot up here in which to trek without needing a heated thermal suit. Plus, options abound, so it is particularly ideal for groups of friends/family travelling together. You can venture on a 2-day hike over to the Chacabuco Valley, enjoy a half-day trek to Lago Verde, or full-day outing to visit the mysterious cave paintings at Cueva de las manos. Jeinimeni is set to eventually become a part of Parque Patagonia.
What you should keep in mind
Patagonia is unlike any other trekking destination
When it comes to redefining trekking semantics, Patagonia is unsurpassed: ‘flat’ trails here are never really flat, a ‘gorgeous summer day’ may not be what you envisage and ‘easy trekking trail’ becomes infinitely subjective. Everything about trekking in Patagonia is relative – this is, after all, a land of harsh extremes; breathtakingly beautiful one minute and brutally inhospitable the next. It’s this very harshness and unpredictability that keeps the wilderness so stark and that makes every single visit a thrilling adventure that’s never forgotten.
If you aren’t very active at home, it’ll pay off to undertake some form of exercise for a few months before visiting. Trekking here can be tough due to the conditions, so you may as well start off in peak form.
Know your limits
Patagonia may be the best place to trek in the world but it’s not the best place to test yourself. Enjoy, admire, soak up the wonders and come have the time of your life but keep your trekking limits in mind when planning your itinerary. This also applies to experienced hikers who may well be able to churn out 25km a day but may not be used to doing this day in, day out. Given the sheer number of stunning (and easy to reach) viewpoints just about everywhere, fight the urge to plan treks on consecutive days unless you are experienced. You’ll love those rest days and will have plenty of adventures with which to fill them if you wake up well-rested.
The sun is as brutal as the wind
Patagonian wind can cut through to your bones as much as its sun can burn your face – windproof outer gear and sunscreen are arguably the most essential items to pack, as well as comfortable and worn-in hiking boots.
Take your camera. Everywhere.
Spend just a few days in Patagonia and you’ll soon get into the habit of taking your camera everywhere you go. Seriously, we’ve had guests absentmindedly take their camera to a restaurant’s restroom because they became so photo-obsessed. No-one can help it here – Patagonia is a stunner, every moment of every day. Pack plenty of spare batteries and camera cards.
Always have waterproof gear with you when trekking
No matter how sunny it looks as you set off, expect it to not stay like that and pack accordingly.
Dress in layers
There really is only one way to deal with the unpredictable climate of Patagonia and that’s to dress in layers. When trekking, you’ll be peeling those layers off in a jiffy yet, the moment you stop, you must (almost immediately) put them back on again. The southern summer is also the windiest season down here and that’s what makes it feel colder than it is.
For every famous trail, there’s a lesser-known yet equally spellbinding one nearby
This goes for national parks, mountains, lakes and glaciers too. Patagonia is home to over a dozen national parks yet almost every guide (including ours) mentions the top three, without fail. There’s a ton of sensational wilderness to be found here, amazing bird-watching parks, reserves with hanging glaciers and coastal hubs, like the Valdes Peninsula, where pods of whales and dolphins visit, every year. There are penguin colonies, wine-growing valleys and glacial lakes that simply never made it to the front page of guide-books so are blissfully uncrowded. Want to take the less-travelled path?
In Patagonia, you can.
Patagonia is for every hiker
The fact that Patagonia is often named ‘the best trekking destination on earth’ leads many potential visitors to assume they should boast athletic fitness levels to even get a look-in. But not so. Patagonia is, primarily, for nature lovers who love to explore under the steam of their own legs. That includes leisurely walkers as much as it does hard-core hikers and mountaineers.
There are plenty of 2-3hr walking trails to out-of-this-world viewpoints (and even a few that can be reached with wheelchairs!) and that’s primarily why we love the place so much. Patagonia is an overwhelming wilderness everybody can enjoy.
Everyone’s who’s ever been to this magical corner of South America leaves absolutely awe-struck. The enjoyment of Patagonia isn’t determined by how much your legs burn at the end of the day – leave the charming villages behind, immerse yourself in its startling nature and you will be mesmerised by its indescribable beauty, whether you trek for four hours or four days.
Simple as that.