South Argentina Travel and Tourism Information
The immense region of Patagonia, representing almost 30% of the nation’s territory, is world famous for its untouched nature with deep valleys, volcanoes, lakes, forests and glaciers.
It embraces partially territory in Argentina and Chile. Two third of the region belongs to Argentina and one third to Chile. In Chile it extends from the “Tierra del Fuego” to the VIII region in the north. In Argentina it begins south of Buenos Aires and stretches to the southern end of the country, ranging from the western Andes to the Atlantic ocean in the east.
Being the second most-visited region of Argentina’s, it is especially famous for its magnificence and singularity of the region.
Patagonia can be divided in three sections:
- Neuquen Provinces and Rio Negro in the west (via Bariloche);
- Chubut Province in the east (Los Alerces National Park and Comodoro Rivadavia)
- Santa Cruz Province in the south (Rio Gallegos and Glaciers National Park).
Temperatures range from mild to subzero and terrain varies from pastoral river valleys, where fruit and vegetable agriculture can be found, to snow-capped mountains and hundreds of glaciers. Patagonia is characterized by vast, open pampa with a never ending wind. It reaches from the gigantic Ice Fields to the rough peaks of the Andes, passing beautiful bright green fjords and lovely sand beaches and forests of monkey trees. “El Calafate”, a tiny touristy village is the best place to visit the terrific wall of ice of the “Perito Moreno Glacier”.
This massive region covers nearly half the total area of Argentina, and includes the three provinces to the south of Buenos Aires province: Rio Negro, Chubut, and Santa Cruz. Patagonian towns don’t have a great deal of aesthetic architectural beauty, but many exude a rustic rural charm reminiscent of Alaskan frontier towns, complete with small, functional wooden houses, wood stoves, and large friendly furry dogs. The region is tremendously isolated, but many of the towns have small, modern airports with regular flights to and from Buenos Aires and other major cities.
The slogans that appear on tourist brochures (“La naturaleza te llama” and “Naturaleza muy cerca”) capture the essence of Patagonia’s allure, since it is the majestic surroundings, rather than the towns themselves, that are the real points of interest.
a) “Glaciers National Park”
Having an extra-ordinary ecological value the Glaciers National Park was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1981. It possesses many glaciers that formerly belonged to southern Patagonia’s Ice Cap, the most important is the Perito Moreno Glacier, with an incredible height of 80 meters (300 ft) and an extension of 5 kilometers (3 miles). The variety of different colors and shapes of the icebergs makes the park one of the most spectacular sights in the country.
Other famous and impressive glaciers are “Onelli”, “Upsala” and “Spegazzini”, surrounded by the mountain peaks “Onelli” and “Bertrand”.
About 80 kilometers (50 miles) away from the park is the city El Calafate with good tourist infrastructure which offers various excursions to the Glacier and the surrounding area.
The area covers more than six hundred thousand hectares and is formed by large blocks of ice, which never do stop moving. The national park also includes “Lake Argentino”, “Lake Viedma”, and the “Fitz Roy” mountain, with many options of climbing and wildlife watching, including rare animals like the southern river otter, pumas and condors.
b) Península Valdés, Purto Madryn, Rawson and Trelew
The Península Valdés has an extension of 63 km (40 miles) and a width of 97 kilometer (20 miles). The Península Valdés is a real paradise for ecologists as it possesses an extraordinary natural beauty combining desert and ocean and an abundant marine life. People from all over the world come to visit the peninsula to see marine mammals as orcas, sea lions or sea elephants. It is also possible to observe other species of animals like various kinds of marine birds, penguins, lhamas or emas. The Península Valdés has a global significance in the world as it offers home to various breeding population of endangered species of marine animals. Every year whales as well as elephant seals and sea lions search protection in the calm and clear water of the peninsula. The nearby destination of “Puerto Madryn” is a recommendable and comfortable base for exploring the peninsula. Accommodations are available at “Faro Punta Delgada”, a base for marine research that offers various facilities like food, lectures, hikes and horseback riding.
Puerto Madryn is a small, pleasant seaside town on the Atlantic coast approximately 1000 km from Buenos Aires. The town was founded by Welsh immigrants, and is about halfway between Buenos Aires and Ushuaia, making it a convenient stopover for those who are traveling from the capital to Tierra del Fuego.
Like all other Patagonian towns, Puerto Madryn is easily negotiated on foot. There are friendly tourist information kiosks at the bus terminal and along the seafront. In addition, don’t miss “Cantina El Nautico” (located at Avenida Roca and Lugones), an excellent family restaurant that specializes in succulent Argentine beef and Italian trattoria fare.
Although there are several beautiful coastal walks and two “Protected Areas” near Puerto Madryn, including El Doradillo to the North and Punta Loma to the South, the real attraction is the Peninsula Valdes Natural Protected Area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site 100 km north of the city that is home to one of the largest communities of Right Whales in the world. Sea birds and large sea mammals such as Elephant seals, Sea lions, and Commerson’s dolphins may be viewed year-round, but the best time for whale watching is from July to December. Orcas and dolphins are also frequently sighted, particularly from October to March. Be sure to check on seasonal migrations with local authorities prior to planning your trip, since the best viewing times often vary year-to-year. Farther to the south lie Rawson and Trelew, the two access points for Punta Tombo, where large colonies of penguins are present, usually from October to February.
Full tours of Peninsula Valdes usually include visits to several sea life viewing areas and salt flats. However, the full journey is nearly 400 km, so most visitors opt for a whale-tour in the Golfo Nuevo bay at Puerto Piramides instead.
Whale-watchers may stay in Puerto Piramides or may arrange to take a day-trip from Puerto Madryn, either by private tour or by catching a public bus. There are at least half a dozen whale-watching tour companies that leave from the harbor of Puerto Piramides in alternating 15-30 minute intervals. All of the companies offer comparable prices and boats, so your choice should be based on departure time and number of additional passengers booked for the tours.
The boats are sturdy, secure, and perfectly adapted for whale watching, with two long bench seats in the middle of the boat and a central stand for elevated views. During the expedition, passengers and crew scan the bay for jumping whales or telltale spouts, and then approach for a closer look. The whales seem to feel comfortable swimming to the very edge of the boats, even with their young in tow.
Keep in mind that you will arrive in Puerto Madryn too late for a tour of the peninsula on your first day, and that the tours of the peninsula will return back in town too late for you to leave on the same day, so plan your visit accordingly.
If you have some time to kill, there are also the Oceanagraphic and Modern Art Museums in town, and the Ecocenter just south of town on the way to Punta Loma.
c) “Tierra del Fuego”
The world famous “Fireland” is actually an archipelago at the southern extremity of South America. It includes the main island “Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego” which Argentina and Chile own together and other smaller islands. This unique region is one of the must see attraction in Argentina fascinating visitors with its desolated landscape, beautiful lakes and snowcapped mountain peaks.
The Northern “Isla Grande” consists of a similar shape as the Patagonia’s plains, while the mountainous area in the south is filled with amazing forests and extraordinary glaciers.
Storms are usual, however its climate is normally mild during the whole year.
Ushuaia, main town of the “Tierra del Fuego” is the southernmost city in the world and usual a jumping-off point for sailing trips around the Cape Horn or trips to Antarctica.
The city of Ushuaia, like most Patagonian cities, has little aesthetic appeal, but the spectacular mountain panoramas and coastal vistas more than compensate for the lack of architectural sophistication. In fact, the rustic city dwellings provide a perfect complement to the wild mountainscape, and a spectacular contrast to the urban sophistication of Argentina’s large cities. In addition, Ushuaia is a city with a long and colorful history.
The principal attraction in Ushuaia is the Prison and Maritime Museum, which portrays the city’s colorful cultural and natural history, and chronicles the attempts of many generations to establish a civilized existence among the harsh surroundings. The museum also provides historical details of the daily life in the prison and some of its most famous inmates. The main structure has five wings, each with two floors: one entire wing is dedicated to the prison museum, two others house the gift shop and the library, and one is closed. The remaining wing has not yet been renovated, but is accessible to visitors who wish to observe the original prison’s primitive and frigid conditions. Free, guided tours of the prison museum are offered at 11:30 am and 6:30 pm. The tours are popular and informative; however, crowd-averse visitors should opt for the morning tour, which is much less crowded. In the prison yard, visitors may also view a life-size model of the interior of the “Lighthouse at the end of the world”, which was the southernmost outpost in the World for many years. The first floor of the prison museum also contains 19 rooms dedicated to exhibitions of the Antarctic museum and the maritime museum, which has many exquisitely crafted ship models and replicas, including Charles Darwin’s ‘Beagle’.
Dining options are more limited than one would expect from a city the size of Ushuaia, but there are several pleasant restaurants, offering mainly grilled meats and seafood, concentrated along the waterfront and the main street one block up, Avenida San Martin.
Interesting day trips that may be taken from Ushuaia include:
- the Martial Glacier, which is accessible by chair-lift (“aerosilla”) at the far end of the city, approximately 7 km from the center by taxi. From the base of the chairlift, visitors can take in unforgettable views of Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel. After you visit the glacier, there are several lovely guest and teahouses at the base of the chairlift, with nice hot chocolate and pies to warm you up. There is also a trail (with hiker short-cuts) leading back into town that allows you to savor the great views on your way back. The trail passes the Hotel del Glacier and Hotel Las Hayas along the way, both of which offer sophisticated and comfortable restaurants for relaxing and warming up.
- Parque Nacional de Tierra del Fuego has lovely walks along Lapataia Bay and Lago Roca, up Cerro Guanaco, and to beaver dams. There are also camping facilities for visitors who wish to spend more than one day in the park without returning to town.
- Visitors may also ski at Cerro Castor, one of Argentina’s best ski areas, or choose from several other “winter sports centers” that are located within 30 km of Ushuaia. These centers, such as the famous “Tierra Maior”, offer hiking, cross country skiing, dog sled rides, snowshoeing, and other winter sports activities.
- Several companies offer bay cruises along the Beagle Channel to visit penguin and Sea Lion colonies on the many islands in the bay, as well as the “Lighthouse at the End of the World”, and the famous Estancia Haberton. The tours leave twice daily (at 9:30 am and 3 pm) from the tourist pier (“muelle turistico”). Boat sizes and capacities vary considerably, so check them all before making your selection.
- Lake-viewing outside of Ushuaia is also an unforgettable experience. The most popular destinations are the lovely Escondido and Fagnano lakes, located approximately 30 miles from Ushuaia. There is a wonderful, European-style mountain lodge at the lake’s edge with delicious lunches, hot drinks, and fantastic views.
e) Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine, Chile
This is part of the Patagonia that is in the territory of the country of Chile.
Puerto Natales is a quaint outpost along the Seno Ultima Esperanza (Last Hope Sound), ensconced in one of Patagonia’s most dramatic settings. Like most other Patagonian towns, services and amenities in Puerto Natales are limited to the bare essentials, but the friendly local residents lend a pleasant small-town feel, and the city is the perfect base for visiting Parque Torres del Paine (one of South America’s most scenic national parks), as well as excursions further afield to El Calafate, El Chalten, Punta Arenas and Ushuaia. It is also the embarkation and terminus point for the NAVIMAG ferries that travel the magnificent Chilean fjords between Puerto Natales and Puerto Montt.
Like all other Patagonian towns, Puerto Natales is easily negotiated on foot. There is a tourist office located near the town entrance, and there are plenty of agencies in the town center for those who wish to plan their own excursions.
The best local restaurants are located around the central plaza and along the seafront. Also, be sure to visit the town’s fantastic chocolate shop for the perfect early morning wake up or late afternoon tea. The charming little cafe is located about halfway between the central plaza and the waterfront, and offers a variety of cakes, sweets, cookies, and hot chocolate drinks. If you have some extra time on your hands before heading off to Torres del Paine, visit the municipal museum or stroll around the city center to take in the pleasant small-town ambiance.
The four-hour cruise up the Seno Ultima Esperanza to the Balmaceda and Serrano glaciers is one of the most beautiful and popular excursions from Puerto Natales. Along the way, you will pass an old meat freezer (frigorifico), as well as waterfalls, several estancias, and colonies of sea lions, cormorants and other birds.
Another popular point of interest is the “Cueva del Milodon”. A visit to this immense cave, located about 25 km Northwest of Puerto Natales on the way to Parque Torres del Paine, is included in most of the organized tours to the park. It was here, in the late 1800’s, that Captain Hermann Eberhard discovered a well-preserved ground sloth nearly four meters high that had become extinct in the early Pleistocene Age. The site has a small visitor center with exhibits on the natural history of the area and a full-size replica of the animal in the cave.
f) Parque Torres del Paine
This magnificent national park was created in 1959, and was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1978. Most visitors will see only a small fraction of this enormous park, which has an area of approximately 242,141 hectares. In addition to the unbelievable geological formations and natural scenery, visitors will have the opportunity to witness many species of flora and fauna that inhabit the park: llamas, guanacos, foxes, pumas, condors, ñandú, geese and a wide variety of other birds.
The park is located about 100 km from Puerto Natales along a scenic route that passes lakes, mountains, villages and farms. The most popular options for visiting the park include passenger van tours, day trips from within the park, and backpacking. Several agencies in Puerto Natales can help arrange passenger-van day trips that cover the park’s main sites in a single day. The three majestic “Towers” (Torres) for which the park is named are sighted as the tours near the park entrance alongside Lago Sarmiento. After entering park, the tours then proceed to the scenic Mirador Cuernos overlook near Salto Grande that afford beautiful views of “the Horns” (“Cuernos”), with their spectacular hanging glaciers. You will then pass beautiful Lago Pehoe on route to lunch at Hosteria Lago Grey, with its gorgeous views of the lake and Glacier Grey. After a filling lunch and a visit to the black-sands at the edge of brilliant, electric-blue Lago Grey, the vans return to Puerto Natales.
Those who wish to spend several days in the park for a closer look at the many spectacular formations may elect to stay at one or more of the hosterias, refugios (also called albergues), or campsites scattered throughout the park. Hosterias offer the highest level of comfort, with restaurants, guides, and organized daytime excursions and evening activities, while refugios offer only the most basic necessities: a roof over your head, bunk lodging, a kitchen, showers, toilets, and a drying rack for wet clothes. The principal campsites typically have toilets and showers, and sometimes grill stands for cooking.
The most common trajectory for backpackers follows a W-shaped route that transits between Glacier Grey and the Torres, and typically takes 3-5 days to complete. In addition, more adventurous hikers may attempt to complete the entire circuit around the Cordillera del Paine, the central mountain range that encompasses the Towers and Horns and passes alongside Glacier Grey. The “W” and the complete circuit may be hiked in either direction, but hikers must begin at one of the road-accessible trailheads: Hosteria Las Torres (located at the east edge of the “W”, closest to the Torres), Posada Rio Serrano, or Hosteria Lago Grey (at the west edge of the “W”). From Hosteria Las Torres, the trail rises steeply and follows the east edge of Almirante Nieto peak into a gorgeous canyon high above the Rio Ascencio.
The steep trail then descends to the river’s edge at the Chilean camp, and follows the river for about an hour through a pleasant forest before heading straight up along a stream through boulders and scree for another hour to the base of the Torres. Hikers typically return to the Hosteria or Chilean Camp at the end of the first day, hike to the French Valley on the second day, and continue on to Glacier Grey on the third or fourth day. There is also an adventurous hike from Hosteria Lago Grey to Mirador Zapata, Glacier Zapata and the Southern Patagonian ice field, and from the entrance guard station to Laguna Azul.
Choose your visiting time carefully, since there are dramatic differences in the number of visitors during high and low season. In low season (Chilean winter, from about July to November), it is possible to hike all day and only encounter a handful of other hikers, but visitors will have fewer daylight hours for hiking and are more likely to encounter inclement weather conditions. Weather conditions and daylight hours are considerably more favorable in high season (December to April); however, hundreds or thousands of visitors usually crowd the trail.
g) El Calafate, Argentina
Like most other Patagonian towns, El Calafate offers only the bare essentials. However, what El Calafate lacks in urban sophistication, it more than makes up with small-town charm, and its many family-run shops and restaurants provide a quaint complement to the spectacular surroundings. Situated along the beautiful Lago Argentino, an electric blue glacial lake complete with small icebergs, El Calafate offers incomparable scenery and easy access to the incredible natural wonders of Argentina’s Glaciers National Park, less than 100 km from the town. There are also a lot of great shopping and souvenir shops along the main street (Avenida Libertador) and a host of tour agencies that offer unlimited options for outdoor activities: glacier visits, boating, kayaking, hiking, fishing, horseback riding, and plane flights. A few of these tour companies cater to special outdoor or interests, such as Transpatagonia expeditions (plane), Estancia Travel (horses and kayaks), Chalten Travel (hiking and adventures in nearby El Chalten).
The “Centro de Interpretacion Historica” (Av. Brown and Bonarelli) has exhibits on the natural and cultural history of the region, and provides a convenient starting point for learning about the impressive natural and cultural history of the region.
There are several family-style and upscale restaurants along Avenida Libertador that are popular with the cosmopolitan visitors from Buenos Aires, Europe and North America. There are only a few upscale hotels, but many comfortable ones.
Visitors may also wish to try Estancias, or ranches, many of which offer comfortable lodging and great daytime activities.
At the top of the list for all visitors is a visit to the famous Perito Moreno Glacier located approximately 80 km from El Calafate. This magnificent glacier, which is one of the World’s only advancing glaciers, is the central fixture of Argentina’s Glacier National Park, and is easily accessible by public bus or private tour. A series of viewing platforms offer breathtaking views of the glacier from all angles – the highest platform provides views all the way back to the Patagonian ice field, while the lowest allows full appreciation of the impressive height and fractured details of this marvelous ice form. Catamaran tours depart several times each hour from the pier, and set off for the North face of the glacier, which calves regularly into Lago Argentino. The brisk wind, icy blue waters, and jagged peaks above the glacier leading back to the Patagonian ice sheet create an unforgettable experience.
Other popular excursions include boat tours of Lago Argentino up to the Upsala Glacier and Bahia Cristina. The lake has black-neck swans, flamingos, and a variety of ducks and geese.
h) El Chalten
El Chalten is nestled in one of the most striking settings in the world, with Mount Fitzroy and Cerro Torre rising majestically into the cold Patagonian sky just a few miles from the center of town. The ubiquitous smell of earth, pines, and Matte (the strong tea that is emblematic of Argentinean culture) mingle freely with the mist that frequently refreshes the valley, and complements the almost unbelievable natural beauty.
This tiny village is also one of the most isolated and rustic towns in all of Patagonia, and has very few year-round inhabitants. There are no paved roads, few stores, and almost no formal tourist infrastructure to speak of beyond the hotels, so the atmosphere is much more “independent” than other Patagonian destinations. As a result, visitors who wish to book formal tours usually do so in El Calafate. However, because it is so firmly embedded in the natural landscape, El Chalten’s many options for outdoor activities (e.g. hiking, biking, camping, climbing, etc) take place just a stone’s throw from the village, and are far more accessible than in any other place in Patagonia. For this reason, visitors may easily plan and organize their own outings.
The splendorous hikes to base of Mount Fitzroy and/or Cerro Torre are perhaps the most popular tourist activities, and are indeed unforgettable experiences. Those who have less time or interest in mountaineering can opt for shorter hikes to lookouts that provide spectacular views of the peaks from a distance, while those in search of a more hearty workout will want to try the longer, more strenuous hikes that reach the base of the mountains. Along the way, hikers are rewarded with spectacular vistas of river valleys, hanging glaciers, roaring mountain streams, picturesque forests, and tranquil wetlands. Further afield, but still within hiking distance of the village, there are several trails that provide access to the massive and expansive Patagonian ice field.
Those who have more time to spend in Chalten should also consider visiting Lake Viedma, and the majestic Lago del Desierto.
Choose your visiting time carefully, since there are dramatic differences in the number of visitors during high and low season. There are very few visitors in low season (June to October), but there are also fewer daylight hours for hiking and weather conditions are more uncertain. Weather conditions and daylight hours are considerably more favorable in high season (November to March); however, hundreds or thousands of visitors usually crowd the trail.
A large portion of this text was written by Traveler – Writer Craig Milroy.