10 Days Self-Exploring Patagonia

The journey on your first day on Ruta 40 in Patagonia will end with an ache on one of your shoulders if you are the driver, depending on which direction you are driving or which direction the wind is blowing, as you will constantly try to steer the vehicle straight, against the gushing Puelche winds. It is an exclusive journey through some of the most amazing landscapes on earth: smooth pink granite mountain-tops jutting out where even ice cannot keep a grip, blue glacier lakes so thick that nothing reflects, snow peaks with the mouth of a thick glacier tongue visible in far-off distances, perfect single lane black tar roads with yellow markers keeping a safe distance from the mountains, all sprinkled with arid Pampas grasslands, Andean Conifers and Nothofagus (beech) trees. If you drive slow, you may be lucky enough to see mammals and birds of all kinds in abundance, including Guachos (cowboys) wearing bombachas, herding their cattle with sheep dogs in their Estancias (rural estates) or Guanaco posing at the perfect spot to take that perfect Patagonian picture. So, drive slow, stop at every point and immerse into Patagonia, the land at the end of our earth, the land of Tehuelche and Mapuche aborigine Indians, mapped by explorer Fernando de Magallanes in 16th century for Charles Darwin and his captain Fitz Roy of Beagle to navigate through the late 1820’s.

Ruta 40 Patagonia Argentina

Ruta 40 starts in northern Argentina and goes all the way south, where one part crosses over into Chile and becomes Ruta 9 and the other ends in Rio Gallegos on the eastern seaboard as Ruta 40. Typically, most visitors to Patagonia drive on Ruta 40 and head further south on to Ruta 9 to Chile, covering Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina and Torres del Paine in Chile. The distance is not much, but the route is time consuming as there are many mandatory and obligatory stops on the way. The total trip will take about 10 days, driving approximately 700 miles (1100 KM), from El Chalten, Argentina to Punta Arenas, Chile and back, exploring vast majority of Patagonia and covering the best of it, safely and at steady pace.

TIP: Car rental companies do not allow one way rentals between Argentina and Chile, vise versa, so plan on doing a round trip if renting a car.

El Chalten

Land into El Calafate airport, mid afternoon, and rent a car at the airport, drive straight to El Chalten, to visit Fitz Roy and Los Glaciares National Park. It is about 3 hours journey north, arrive there before sundown, the journey to El Chalten from El Calafate will be the first glimpse of Patagonia. Avoid all temptations to stop on the way and reach El Chalten in time. It is the base town for hikers and rock climbers, a decent beer and food scene with number of outfitters (shops and guides). This is a great place to stock-up on anything forgotten or intentionally left behind back home, as the next big (or small) town is 3 days out in the itinerary, all the way in Chilean side.

Hiking Los Glaciares NATIONAL PARK (The Glacier National Park)

There are number of hikes in and around El Chalten; one of the best ones is – Laguna Torre route, a full day event to Mt. Fitz Roy base camp and back, with other important peaks – Cerro Torre, Poincenot and Torre Egger in view as well. It is moderate yet elegant with minor difficulty towards the end due to last 3000 ft. (1 KM) of steep climb, but its all worth it. Maps are available every where in town, including online. Get back to the town; sun sets around 10pm in summer months, and pleasure yourself with good Patagonian meat and beer at any of the parrilla (BBQ).

The following day, visit Viedma glacier by road; there are hiking trails around but avoid any boat rides to Viedma glacier as Puerto Moreno glacier is a more majestic experience, towards the end of these 10 days. Also, add in a short half day hike to Mirador del Torre, an easy hike of about 4 hours round trip, on the bank of the river. Keep this day as buffer to switch Laguna Torre hike as weather is very unpredictable in this part of the world.

TIP: It is very important to keep an extra day in Patagonia at the national parks, because weather is extremely unpredictable, therefore keep 1 day as a buffer and do not make any tour reservations in advance, as you may end up swapping your tours based upon the weather.

Journey on to Puerto Natales on Ruta 40

Leave extremely early in the morning, around 8am (which is early for me!) south to Puerto Natales, Chile on Ruta 40, passing through amazing landscape with Torres del Paine in the west, often in the front, and pampas grassland in the east often in the front as well, the road winds through rolling Patagonian shrub steppe with majestic beauty at every turn. Stop as frequently as desired. Look out for Llamas and Guanacos. Once orange faced, white beaked, dark headed Falcons appear sitting on the fence poles, dotted all across Ruta 40 will mark the region of Torres del Paine, although Torres del Paine national park entrance is few hours away. This Southern Crested Caracara is the largest species of Falcon and very common in Torres del Paine, they are beauty to watch just sitting on these poles. Also there are plenty of prey animals to watch for – From Humboldt’s hog-nosed skunk, various cats (no Pumas yet) to Andean Fox, they are easy to spot and they are all over, although camouflaged with perfect mix of typical Patagonian shrub steppe. Hardly anyone will be on the road, so park and take pictures, patience will bring great experience of watching these Caracara preying on Patagonian Hare in the steppes.

Allocate about 30 to 45 mins for border crossing. After crossing the border it will be Ruta 9 to Puerto Natales (or to hotels in TdP direct). Puerto Natales is a frontier town overlooking the fjords of Senoret Channel with gray ocean reflecting gray clouds, with black cormorants juxtaposed on the shores; with many fresh seafood restaurants and numerous tour operators.

Tip: In the last 1 mile before arriving at the border crossing on either sides, pass (overtake) any tour buses on the road, this will save big amount of time otherwise a longer line will await.

There are 2 options – either stay at hotels in or near Torres del Paine or stay in Puerto Natales and take daily 45 mins to an hour drive into the national park. It all depends on the budget and how far in advance reservations are made for lodging. Recommendation is to stay in Puerto Natales as it is convenient especially with self driving capabilities. There are also many tour operators in Puerto Natales to do Puma sighting, Glacier tours, Penguin and Condor colony, etc.

hiking Torres del Paine

Lot of planning is required to thoroughly enjoy Torres del Paine and it starts about 9 to 10 months in advance, especially to book hotels and campsites, inside or outside the national park. 

Hike a section of The W trail, the entire trail is about 50 miles (80km) from west to east of Torres del Paine and takes up to 5 days, rather hike until the French Valley and return the same day (night falls after 10pm in summer), approximately 12 miles (20km) of hike. French Valley is the key spot of Torres del Paine and its a must. Extending the hike will require a night camping and there are number of campsites and cabins along the way, permits are available at the park entrance upon availability and equipment can be rented from Puerto Natales, although cabins should be secured way in advance as they are owned by private companies and gets booked real early in the year.

Take a boat ride on the Lago Gray and visit the Glacier Gray as well as self drive the national park and stop at various points including a 7 mile hike in the forest surrounding the Lago Gray. The boat ride to Lago Gray will pass through some amazing fjords.

During mid-day, visit an Estancia (estate ranch) for a traditional quincho (bbq) filled with empanadas and roasted lamb. Reservations can be easily made via the hotel concierge desk.

Find a reliable Puma Spotting tour and venture into the inner parts of Patagonia to spot Pumas and if, weather is right and luck is on both sides, then Pumas are abound and sighting will be mutually.

Keep Penguin and Condor colony visits as a last option, buffer day activity or if there is an extra day; the drives are long, although with an extra day, a Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) visit is possible to larger – King Penguin colony – rather than smaller Magallanes Penguin colony. The King penguins are very close relatives to Emperor Penguin of Antarctica and they are endemic to Tierra del Fuego. The vast majority are found in the islands surrounding the Antarctica continent, but there are few that are resident to Tierra del Fuego in Provenir Colony (a.k.a Parque Pinguino Rey). A visit to see King Penguin is a full day event from Puerto Natales via Punta Arenas, and most of the time will be passed in driving, including a car ferry across bumpy Magallanes strait amid southern dolphins (Peale’s Dolphin), cormorants and Austral seagulls,

Back to El Calafate 

Driving back will be a breeze, mountains in the back and grasslands in the front, same principle apply while cross the border back into Argentina, pass any tour bus a mile away from the border crossing to avoid long lines. 

Visit the Lago Argentino in the evening, full of shore birds and flamingos, great spot to experience some local culture and eat some street food.

Stay in town, near the main tourist street – Av. del Libertador, all food and souvenir shops are along this road with some amazing food. El Calafate has some of the best roasted lambs outside of New Zealand, at Parilla, one of the famous restaurants is La Tablita (reservation required for dinner). 

Visiting Perito Moreno Glacier

Half day (full day if hiking the glacier); it is about an hour west of El Calafate; catch a ferry to visit the glacier up close. It is worth it and a wonderful spectacle of ice shelf breaking off of the glacier that is 3 miles (5km) wide and 240ft (75mt) high. Hiking on the glacier will require crampons and the outfitters will rent them out and they usually have a full-time guide and semi acting glaciologist in the team to talk about geology and glaciology of the Perito Moreno and Patagonia in general.

TIP: Visit the Perito Moreno boardwalk, get to the farthest point, put the camera on tripod with remote control and set it to Multiple Shots with Auto Focus pointing towards the entire mouth of the glacier. Wait till an ice shelf starts to break from the glacier (a cracking sound will warn you) and fire the shots in the camera with remote. Each step of ice breaking and falling in the Lago Argentino will be captured with detail accuracy.

Fly out of El Calafate

Next day, return the car and start the journey back with memories full of – total 40 or more miles of hike, amazing landscape pictures, close to 700 miles of driving among the best scenic routes in the world and enjoying local culture with epicureanism at it’s raw best. 

Pointers to Travel to Patagonia

Renting a Vehicle in Patagonia

It all depends on the type of adventure and activities in order to decide on the type of vehicle to rent. 90% of Ruta 40 is extremely well paved and marked. Unless going off-road, a 4X4 is not necessary. Although, some parts of Chilean roads and inner park roads are gravel, so stick shift is preferred over automatic. Roads inside the national parks are gravel but a nice stick shift can handle it very well.

Numerous buses from multiple operators run between all the above routes, although it will add more days to the trip and if self-driving is not an option then tourist transportation is also very convenient.

Where to stay in Patagonia

Eco Domes in El Chalten (inside Los Glaciares National Park), the domes are transparent at the top and sides overlooking the Fitz Roy. Book way in advance.

Explora Patagonia (inside Torres del Paine) or Costaustralis or Singular Patagonia in Puerto Natales

When to go TO Patagonia

Late summer – December end to February mid.

What to carry in Patagonia

Dry bag, ski type warm clothing (no matter which season), DSLR Camera with a tripod and a remote, head-lamp and hiking shoes. 

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