Revealed Travel’s Katie Aston has recently returned from Argentina where she explored the vast region of Patagonia.
It’s the question that as a travel specialist, I get asked the most… So where is your favourite place to travel? As someone who has been fortunate to live in Chile and return on many occasions, it has always been an easy answer…the Torres del Paine National Park, right in the heart of Chilean Patagonia. Once you’ve seen those gnarly granite towers and spires surrounded by blustery wilderness, there’s nothing that can compare.
So how is it, that in 35 years of travelling to South America I have never made it across the border to Argentine Patagonia? Well, last year’s resolution was to quit procrastinating and break old habits, so I organised what I hoped would be the perfect Patagonia trip – except this time all on Argentine soil.
Patagonia, which extends from ocean to ocean across Argentina & Chile is largely considered to start south of the Colorado River in Argentina, ending at Tierra del Fuego in the south. In easy terms, that’s pretty much half of Argentine territory. A lot of it is featureless, flat, scrubby steppe but you’ll find the same destinations cropping up in guide books and travel itineraries and for good reason: On the eastern coast, jutting out into the Atlantic is the wildlife rich Peninsula Valdes. Sitting alongside the Andes to the west you have the Lake District where you find lakes of every conceivable hue but it’s further south, where me the real drama happens: the southern icefields, mountains, lakes and glaciers in the Los Glaciares National Park. To top (or bottom) it off, is the southernmost city of Ushuaia, the legendary beagle channel and for many it’s the ‘End of the World’.
The reality is that even by using the good network of flights that operate in the region, you need time on your hands to explore because distances between the destinations are vast and there is a whole lot of nothingness in between. I had two weeks and wanted to pack as much scenery, wildlife, adventure and research in and here’s a taster of what I managed to experience.
A 2 hour flight to Buenos Aires takes you to Trelew – a small city whose surrounding region is steeped in Welsh history thanks to Welsh settlers who arrived in the mid 1800s in search of new opportunities. It’s also for many the starting point for the Peninsula Valdes, one of the best places in South America for marine wildlife and considered to be one of the most reliable places to encounter Southern Right whales which come to the protected waters to give birth and raise their young. The Peninsula is a natural protected area, so there are limited places to stay on the peninsula itself so most visitors tend to stay in Puerto Madryn or Puerto Piramides. Madryn is a thriving port town because other than tourism, the region has some important aluminium mines and rich fishing waters. It’s a town famous for its barbequed Patagonian lamb but I hadn’t bargained on having some of my best-ever seafood here or being stumped over the choice of icecream flavours.
From Puerto Madryn you can hire a car and self-drive around the Peninsula but be aware that it’s monotonous driving on mainly unpaved, dusty roads or, take the easier option of a private guide and car or book one of the regular small-group tours. Whichever option you take, it usually involves a full day (12 hours) on the road. Most trips either follow a southern or northern circuit around the peninsula and typically include a couple of stops at sealion, elephant seal or penguin colonies as well as impromptu stops whenever you see wildlife from the road (nandus, armadillos, falcons, guanacos, maras, skunks, owls, penguins to name a few). During the season when the Southern Right Whales come to give birth (May until 15th December) you stop in Puerto Piramides where all of the whale-viewing boats depart from. The boats vary in size from small RIBs to boats taking about 70 visitors but are restricted to no more than six being out at any one time.
In the 90 minutes that we were out in the bay, we saw eight Southern Right whales (pairs of mothers and babies) and were taken up close to a colony of sealions and seabirds. Weather does play its part in the boat trips so a tip is to allow extra time just in case the boat trip needs to be reschedule.
For penguin lovers, a visit to Estancia San Lorenzo is a real treat. Magallanic penguin numbers have been increasing rapidly over the past few years and although you’re told that up to 600,000 birds nest there at the height of the season, you can’t quite believe it until you’re having to pick your way carefully along the path to avoid stumbling into the nests which are everywhere.
From Trelew, you can fly to Ushuaia (2 hours) and El Calafate (1 hr 45 minutes). I didn’t have time to visit Ushuaia this time so it was off to El Calafate for me. I’m not generally a fan of flying but this was one of those flights when the view out of the window was so distracting that I forgot my anxieties. Tip – on the flight south, sit on the right-hand side! Snow sprinkled mountains, lakes and the southern ice cap stretched out down below as we started the decent into El Calafate airport.The town of El Calafate is synonymous with the Perito Moreno Glacier and only exists thanks to tourism. It’s a good base to explore the Los Glaciares National Park and is the gateway to El Chalten, Argentina’s hiking mecca. It reminded me of Banff in Canada and Queenstown in New Zealand with the addition of friendly mutts chancing their luck on every corner and the weird Donald-duck squawking of black-faced Ibis.
I’ve recommended visits to Perito Moreno for years so was it really going to live up to the hype and would I have to push through crowds of visitors to get a glimpse of the glacier? The drive from El Calafate takes 90 minutes and the anticipation builds when you stop at the first viewpoint, but it’s not until you board one of the catamarans which sail to the face of the glacier that you really appreciate the scale and beauty of the glacier. The people who had chosen the glacier ice-treks looked ants crawling over the ice.From the port we were driven to the main visitor’s centre – I’d brought a packed lunch (you can also eat at the café) because I wanted to maximise the time on the walkways. There are several circuits, depending on your fitness levels, and I was amazed at how quickly the numbers of visitors diminished the further I walked. The walkways have been well designed with plenty of railings and sitting areas and I found a quiet spot where apart from a cheeky little bird I felt alone with the glacier, mesmerised by the blue transparency of sections of the ice and listening out for the creaks in anticipation of the mighty crash caused by sections of the ice carving off into the lake. So no, it did not disappoint!
Other attractions from El Calfate are the educational Glacinarium exhibit, 4 x 4 or horseback trips into the surrounding hills and for bird lovers, the Laguna Nimez, which is a 20 minute stroll from the town, is a must.
One of the other fascinations of Patagonia is the human history – how and why people from Europe were persuaded to up-sticks and travel to the inhospitable ends of the earth to make it their home? One such family were the Masters from the UK who came to Argentina in 1900 to farm sheep for wool production and boy did they choose a challenging location for their farm at the far side of Lago Argentino, which, even today, is only accessible by boat. Today you can get combine an insight into this brave and pioneering family by visiting Estancia Cristina on a day or overnight trip from El Calafate. The Masters chose one of the most incredibly beautiful spots for their farm and as a visitor today you travel in the comfort of Estancia Cristina’s own catamaran. She powers quietly across the lake and though the fjord-like Upsala channel where enormous glistening icebergs float and condors circle above with the Upsala glacier in the background.
From there you are taken to the Estancia which sits on the lake shore, with the mountains looming behind. Here you are guided around the museum which tells the Masters incredible story and, if you’re there for the day, choose from one of the activities – whether a short walk to a waterfall, horseback ride, 4 x 4 trip to the Upsala Glacier viewpoint or for the keen hiker, a 14 km hike through Fossil Canyon.
I was lucky to spend the night, which means that you can usually fit a horseback ride and hike into 24 hours and I honestly think that with weather on my side, the hike through fossil canyon was the most beautiful hike I have ever done for the combination of ever-changing other worldly scenery, the feeling of solitude and silence, the pristine surroundings, enormity of the mountains, pair of soaring Condors and the lovely guides.
A 3 hour drive from El Calafate takes you to the small town of El Chalten, which is one of South America’s best known hiking and climbing destinations, thanks to the spectacular Fitz Roy Massif – a craggy range of granite spires and towers to rival that of Torres del Paine and the Dolomites.
El Chalten is a charming town with the air of a small ski resort, buzzing with microbreweries & burger joints, wine bars, cafes, hiking equipment shops. Despite being in the National Park, hiking is free (unless you hire a hiking guide) and with excellent, well-marked and on-the-whole moderate trails, is a safe place to hike independently. You need to be prepared for the infamous Patagonian weather, which can change in an instant and can mean that you’re hiking in a t-shirt one minute and then in all-weather gear the next, but even so, the scenery is gorgeous whatever the weather. El Chalten is justifiably popular and accommodation gets booked months in advance so plan well ahead to avoid disappointment!
When you fly into San Carlos de Bariloche, particularly if you’re arriving from Southern Patagonia, your first impression is how green and lush it is compared to the dry steppe. Bariloche, which sits on the shores of Lago Nahuel Huapi, is a funny place – part university town, part ski resort, part summer playground, with alpine-inspired architecture and food and a huge concentration of breweries and pubs. The attraction of the Lake Nahuel Huapi and enveloping mountains are undeniable and there is a wide choice of hotels in the city or snaking around the lake shores all the way to the infamous Llao Llao resort about 40 minutes away. For anyone with an active streak there are mountain bike trails down the ski runs and a range of water-sports in summer (although be warned the lake many look tempting but I’m told that even with the high summer temperature, the water is still a brain-numbing 15 degrees) as well as rafting, fishing and horseback riding. You can also take a more relaxed approached and this is one region where having a car to explore is advantageous.
From Bariloche up to San Martin de Los Andes, 200km to the north, is the route which is often referred to as the Seven-Lakes route. From Bariloche its an hour’s drive north to the charming town of Villa La Angostura which is a ski resort in the winter and multi-activity centre in the summer, with some of Argentina’s most exclusive hideaways vying for best lakeside resort. From here to the north you are in some of Argentina’s best horseback riding and fishing territory. If you aren’t staying in Villa La Angostura then you should definitely stop for lunch at one of the excellent little restaurants.
From Villa La Angostura as far as San Martin de Los Andes, you are within National Park boundaries and what’s notably different compared to the Chilean Lake District is the lack of development and small towns in the region with the local Mapuche Indians being the only people permitted to build within the parks. Luck was not on my side on the day that we drove the Seven lake route and had the familiarity of an overcast, damp UK winter day so the famous lake viewpoints were not at their finest, however once the sun emerged in San Martin, the splendours of Lago Lacar were revealed and the mountains had gained a new dusting of snow. San Martin is a little gem and if you are hiring a car in Bariloche you can drop the hire car at San Martin airport. San Martin feels gentrified with its beautiful plazas and public gardens and good choice of restaurants but the lively university students and indoor food hall where you can sample a wide choice of food from different stalls keep it modern.
So you might ask, where is my favourite place to travel now? That’s easy: simply Patagonia.
Revealed Travel arranges tailor-made itineraries to Argentine Patagonia with prices starting at £1,968 per person for a 10-night holiday which includes: Buenos Aires, Puerto Madryn, Ushuaia & El Calafate.
The price includes domestic flights but excludes international flights. Revealed Travel also creates bespoke trips which combine Chile and Argentina.
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