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How to Explore Patagonia off the Beaten Track

By Stacey McKenna

11.07.19

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Patagonia is way more than mountains; Adventure & Landscape brings travelers to the region’s Chilean coast to see Magellanic penguins. 

Courtesy of Adventure & Landscape

Patagonia is way more than mountains; Adventure & Landscape brings travelers to the region’s Chilean coast to see Magellanic penguins. 

The three jagged peaks towering over a turqouise lake in Torres del Paine may be one of the most iconic images associated with Patagonia, but there’s so much more to the region.

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There are 310,000 square miles of steppes, forests, glacial fjords, and mountains in Patagonia. The region encompasses the southern cone of South America, which spans both Chile and Argentina and contains 27 national parks and another 30-plus local and provincial nature and cultural reserves. But most visitors beeline to Torres del Paine National Park for a firsthand look at its famous glaciated pinnacles, potentially missing out on the diverse wilderness and wildlife that the whole area has to offer.

Tourism in Torres del Paine National Park has been on the rise for decades, growing from about 6,000 annual visitors in the 1980s to more than 250,000 thrill-seekers and nature lovers in 2017. These numbers risk overwhelming nearby towns, which weren’t built to accommodate such droves. And for many, the crowds also detract from the appeal of isolation in such a physically humbling locale.

“Visiting Torres del Paine National Park is visiting one of the many highlights of this region,” says Ana Inés Figueroa, owner of Argentina-based operator Adventure & Landscape. “But [you will not] feel the soul and spirit of Patagonia and the forces that build it.” For that, it’s best to get away from the crowds. Fortunately, Patagonia’s size (roughly as large as France and Spain combined) and ecological diversity mean it has plenty to offer beyond its best-known park.

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Additionally, a push to spread the impact of tourism while protecting and showcasing the landscape has opened more of the region. New national parks have been established in recent years, and local operators in both Chile and Argentina have expanded their offerings, taking visitors beyond Torres del Paine to wild coastlines, off-the-beaten-path treks, and remote lodges. For most experiences, the best time to visit is Austral spring through fall (roughly September through April), although accommodations and some itineraries can be arranged during the colder months. Here are a few must-see places beyond Torres del Paine and the tour operators and lodges that will immerse you in them:

Guests on Destino Patagonia’s trips can get up close to San Rafael Glacier.


Laguna San Rafael National Park

The tour operator: Destino Patagonia

Since 2011, Destino Patagonia has been connecting scientists and intrepid travelers with the remote Pacific coast of northern Patagonia’s Aysén region. It regularly works with researchers to organize expeditions to remote parts of Laguna San Rafael National Park, such as the scarcely visited Isthmus of Ofqui. Tourists can explore the park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve known for its ice fields and namesake glacier, on Destino Patagonia’s small-boat excursions to the base of San Rafael Glacier. The trip can be done in as few as 10 hours, but to get the most out of the remote region, opt for something longer. On the two-day sailing and trekking trip, sleep overnight in the park and add on a two- to four-hour kayaking  experience to get close to the icebergs in Laguna San Rafael. And on three- and four-day exploration itineraries, guests cross to the Isthmus of Ofqui to hike the marshes and stroll beaches looking for whale bones or animal tracks.

Explore Patagonia’s coastal regions, including Bahía Bustamante, with Adventure & Landscape.

The Atlantic Coast and Ushuaia

The tour operator: Adventure & Landscape

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Argentina-based Adventure & Landscape customizes itineraries that deliberately slow travelers down, giving them the opportunity to engage more deeply with locals and the landscape. Ask about the “Insider Patagonia” trip to trace the footsteps of the first European settlers in the region, from the Atlantic coast to the base of Fitz Roy Mountain, which towers over the Andes along the border between Chile and Argentina just north of Torres del Paine. Travelers move between main locations by plane or car, but once there, they have time to explore on foot, horseback, or kayak. Guests can also add on a hike in the lush forests of Lago del Desierto, a stay at a working estancia, or a visit to Ushuaia, the town on the southernmost tip of Argentina known as the “End of the World.” Tours run from October to April: October and November are best for wildlife enthusiasts, and March and April are ideal for photographers.

Named after the region’s five famous animals—puma, huemul deer, Andean condor, Darwin’s rhea, and guanaco—Patagonia Big Five is the choice for many wildlife enthusiasts.

Patagonia National Park

The tour operator: Patagonia Big Five

From November to April, Patagonia Big Five’s teams of local experts—ecologists, veterinarians, and cultural specialists—lead small-group photo safaris in Chile’s Patagonia National Park. At 750,000 acres, the park is the continent’s largest wildlife refuge for puma, huemul deer, Andean condor, Darwin’s rhea, and llama-like guanaco, or the “Patagonia Big Five.” The company’s typical itinerary runs six days and gives guests the opportunity to track animals through the steppe, forest, and mountains, but the details are customized to the season and travelers’ preferences.

Mallin Colorado Ecolodge is surrounded by four national parks and ice fields.

Lago General Carrera

The lodge: Mallin Colorado Ecolodge

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Overlooking Lake General Carrera and surrounded by four national parks and Aysén’s Northern Ice Fields, Mallin Colorado Ecolodge is a luxury escape and an ideal base camp for a range of alternative Patagonian adventures. The six-room lodge, together with its four private cabins, has a maximum capacity of 32 people, and guests enjoy exclusive access to the wilderness along private trails to Cordón Contreras and Lake Bertrand. Mallin Colorado also partners with local operators to offer further exploration of the region, whether that’s a five-hour hike (crampons included) on the ice plateau of Glacier Exploradores or a boat tour of the nearby Marble Caves.

Walk Patagonia brings trekkers to less-traveled areas around El Chaltén.

Los Glaciares National Park

The tour operator: Walk Patagonia

Based at a key launch point for Patagonia hikers, Walk Patagonia taps into its staff’s extensive knowledge of the region to customize itineraries that avoid busy trails, even in popular destinations. For example, while its Classic Trek visits two of the region’s most famous hikes—Laguna de los Tres and Laguna Torre in Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park—the trip can be tweaked to include visits to small towns, archaeological sites, and lesser-known national parks. Alternatively, the four-day Huemul Circuit veers farther afield, cutting through mature forests, across alpine meadows, and over glaciers and moraines to the Continental Ice Field and the source of the Viedma Glacier.

>>Next: California’s Best National Parks and Monuments

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