Patagonia on a Silver Platter: Luxury Trips to South America's Rugged Jewel

Magellan's crew named the South American region "Patagon" after the monster in a romantic Spanish tale, and the name remains apposite today; an aura of mystery and adventure cloaks the dramatic peaks, carving glaciers, and eerily green lakes. The landscape is at points a threatening mass of icy whiteness, at others a pastiche of serene valleys lush with evergreens. Understandably, executing a trip in Patagonia can be challenging. With 20 protected parks of alpine and coastal wilderness, cool rainforests, volcanic cones, and glacial lakes—all scattered along the spine of the Andes—months can be spent without fully tapping the region's attractions.
Patagonia stretches the full length of the Chile-Argentine border, covering the southeastern portion of South America. The northern half includes the Lake District, accessible via Puerto Montt and Temuco on the Chilean side, and from San Martín de Los Andes and Bariloche in Argentina. However, most first-time Patagonia-goers target the southern end of the region, where the world-renowned glaciers and the oft-photographed granite spires reside.

Start off in the Argentine city of El Calafate, the gateway to Los Glaciares National Park. The sounds echoing around El Calafate are nearly as impressive as the views; thunderous cannonball cracks of ice dropping from the ten-mile-wide Perito Moreno Glacier into Lago Argentino dare you to enter the park. Mammoth ice fields cover 40 percent of the park, with 13 of the 47 major glaciers flowing east into Lago Viedma and Lago Argentino, which then feed into the Río Santa Cruz, southern Patagonia's largest river. The neon blue Perito Moreno Glacier is the park's most visited feature—and with good reason. With a frontal width of three miles and a height of over 200 feet, it's one of the planet's few forward-moving glaciers and one of Argentina's most astounding natural features.

The Chilean side, meanwhile, boasts South America's most popular national park: Torres del Paine, just 62 miles north of Puerto Natales. Stark, snow-covered granite spires soar upwards, the most impressive monuments to nature imaginable. As you head further south through the Patagonian steppe, you will arrive at the Chilean city of Punta Arenas. Directly across the Strait of Magellan, Tierra del Fuego unfolds. This archipelago is dappled with glaciers, evergreen forests, and rocky spires that plummet down to the sea. The Pan-American Highway winds through Tierra del Fuego until it reaches Ushuaia, the southernmost point on Earth accessible by road.

Patagonian itineraries are as varied as its landscape. Your budget and time will largely dictate your experience—the region has long been a magnet to trekkers and independent travelers. For high-end exposure, the outfitter Blue Parallel showcases Patagonia at its most adventurous: boat and hiking excursions alongside Perito Moreno (along with stays at Los Notros Lodge), horseback riding and ice climbing, four-wheel-drives across the Patagonian steppes, regional asado (BBQ) feasts, and the best in Chilean and Argentine cuisine.

Published: 9 Dec 2002 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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