This extraordinary remote and diverse region is a favourite for those looking for wilderness adventure; hikers, nature lovers and Antarctic-bound explorers. Welcome to Patagonia.
Surface Area: 1,043,076 sq km (402,734 miles)
Highest Point: Monte San Valentin (4,058 m/ 13,313 ft), Chile.
Location: The southern tip of South America, Argentina and Chile.
INTRODUCTION TO PATAGONIA.
The southern tip of the South American continent is a sparsely populated region known as Patagonia. It is “the farthest place to which man walked from his place of origin”, as travel writer Bruce Chatwin famously stated of our most distant ancestors.
Jump to Hiking and Climbing in Patagonia.
Covering over 1 million sq km, this region includes mountains, glacial fjords, deserts and rainforests. The eastern area is more populated but is a barren steppe-like landscape of semi-deserts and shrublands. To the west, the mountains rise from icefields to overlook the tempestuous Pacific coast.
PATAGONIAN NAME AND PEOPLES.
The name Patagonia comes from the term patagón, used by the 16th Century Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan to describe the tall natives. He believed them giants, most probably describing the Tehuelche tribe who tend to be taller than Europeans.
The indigenous peoples include: the Mapuche, Selknam, Puelche, Tehuelche, Alacaluf, Yaghan and Haush people. Mapuche and Tehuelche are terms often used as generic terms to describe any Patagonian indigenous population, though this is often an inaccuracy
While the official language of the region is Spanish, many indigenous populations continue to speak their traditional languages. Extraordinarily, some western dialects reflect some unusual elements of the colonial past, These include Y Wladfa, a dialect of Welsh spoken in a Welsh settlement set up in southern Patagonia in 1865 and maintained today.
GEOGRAPHY OF PATAGONIA.
Divided by the long range of the Andes Mountains, Patagonia is divided into Argentine and Chilean Patagonia. Each side covers around half of each country (two-thirds of Patagonia is in Argentina, but Chile is a smaller country).
Patagonia covers an enormous area, 1,043,076 sq km (402,6734 sq miles) in fact. That is over four times the surface area of the United Kingdom, perhaps putting the enormity of this region into perspective.
Yet, despite this size, less than 2 million people live in Patagonia. The majority of these people live in Argentina, where the steppe-like plains and glacier-fed rivers provide land that can be cultivated and is, generally, more easily accessible.
The 900 km (559 miles) of the Patagonian Andes Mountains, stretching from Puerto Aileen to Punta Arenas, are mainly jagged, jutting towers encased in expanses of ice. Rising from the ice fields, these mountains are often surrounded by glacial lakes and provide a primary motivation for many visitors to the region.
The Patagonian Andes Mountains include 52 peaks with ultra-prominence (more than 1,500 m/ 4,921 ft). This represents around 3.5% of all the world’s ultra-prominent peaks, a similarly impressive density also found in British Columbia and Alaska.
Yet they are not as high as the Andes Mountains further north. With an average elevation in the surrounding area of 1,500 m (4,921 ft), much of which is ice covered, many mountains also appear shorter than they actually are. What makes them memorably dominating tends to be their angular shape and impressively steep slopes rather than their sheer height when viewed from below.
The highest peak is Monte San Valentin (4,058 m/ 13,314 ft), found in Chile. It is also the most prominent at 3,696 m (12,126 ft), the 42nd highest in the world. It’s located in the north-west of Patagonia, at the northern end of the North Patagonian Icefield.
Known for offering challenging ice climbing, the ascent of this peak is long and dangerous, with a high fatality rate.
The highest peak in Argentina is Cerro Fitz Roy (3,405 m/ 11,171 ft), one of several jutting, granite towers in Los Glaciares National Park. Surrounded by glacial lakes, it is part of the Southern Icecap and is also a popular hiking desination.
Tierra del Fuego is an archipelago in the southernmost region of Patagonia. It consists of a number of islands, the largest being Isla Grande.
Along with the Cabo de Hornos, Tierra del Fuego is the southernmost point of the Americas. As such, it is the closest significant landmass to Antarctica. Given this location, there is an irony in its name, which translates as ‘Land of Fire’.
As with the rest of Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego is divided between Argentina and Chile, with the argentine side being both more developed and a designated national park.
In total, there are six national parks in Patagonia: Torres del Paine, Laguna San Rafael and Alberto de Agostini (Chile); Los Glaciares, Nahuel Huapi and Tierra del Fuego (Argentina).
Site of one of South America’s best long distance hikes, Torres del Paine lost 17,000 hectares of forest in 2011 with a summer fire. Still, it remains one of Patagonia’s most popular national parks, particularly with hikers, with a range of hiking options offered among the glacial and mountainous landscape.
Rivers and Glaciers
The Colorado and Barrancas rivers mark the northern edge of Argentine Patagonia. The Reloncavi Estuary, a fjord surrounded by numerous national parks and fed by the Puelo river, marks the Chilean northern border of Patagonia.
Numerous rivers flow down from the watershed line of the Andes Mountains across Patagonia. Most are fed by the melting of mountain glaciers, ice fields and springtime snowmelt.
Of the numerous glaciers that line the Andes Mountains and make up the Patagonian ice fields, the Perito Moreno glacier is one of the most visited and fastest moving. Motoring forward by 2 m (6.5 ft) every year, it is a rarity among glaciers, currently growing in size while most are receding. Today it measures 30 km (18.5 miles) long and 5 km (3 miles) wide.
WILDLIFE OF PATAGONIA.
As most of Patagonia, particularly the Argentine side, is a series of barren steppe-like plains surrounded by vast ice fields, you might suspect that the flora is somewhat limited. But with 2,500 species of plants found in this region ranging from lichens to large trees and many native to the unique environment, Patagonia proves this assumption entirely wrong.
Along the Chilean coast, deciduous forests dominate, graduating east into grass steppes, scrublands, mountainous steppes and semi deserts. In the north-east, the flat steppes with sudden elevation changes mainly consist of scrubland and montane grassland, while in the south semi-deserts predominate.
Many trees found in the region are native, including the tall, deciduous lenga, or Nothofagus pumilio. These are found in the warmer, northern stretches along the west coast of Chile. In the mountains, coihue and the giant Fitroya trees are found, the latter being South America’s largest tree reaching up to 60 m (197 ft) high.
The animal perhaps most synonymous with this region is the guanaco, a light brown, four-legged and long-necked creature that is a camelid relative of the llama. Its thick, warm coat make it a useful winter ally, with its wool being in great demand among indigenous and tourist populations alike.
The largest land carnivore is the Patagonia puma. Thanks to their protection in recent years, this creature is now recovering from dwindling numbers and can be spotted stalking prey across the region, though most are found in the northern national park areas.
The endemic south Andean deer is an endangered species found among the Andes Mountains. Its short, often fur covered, horns and slim black colouring on its face make it distinctive. It even features on Chile’s national coat of arms. Since 2006, the species has been a National Natural Monument, though its viability is a serious concern of conservationists.
Above, the jewel the 400 flying species has to be the Andean condor.
Its world-leading wingspan of 3.2 m (10.5 ft) will cast quite a shadow as it swoops looking for carrion (already dead animals) to feast on. The Ñandú is the other notable endemic bird. Similar to the ostrich, this flightless bird can reach speeds of 60 km/h (37 mph), and is seen as blur across the Patagonian steppe.
Penguin and whale spotting is also popular on the Valdez Peninsula and Puerto Madryn respectively (both southern Patagonia). Patagonia is considered one of the finest places in the world to see these creatures up-close, and visits are most popular during migration periods.
WALKING AND CLIMBING IN PATAGONIA.
One of the main points to consider when planning an adventure in Patagonia is the weather. Good planning allows for a number of bad weather days during the trip, as high winds and sudden storms are best sheltered from, and the intense sun that can arrive throughout the year is also best avoided.
- Browse a list of books and guidebooks on the Andes.
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The best times to hike are the summer months, namely November-March. That said, given a landscape that is never completely devoid of ice, make sure you are well-prepared for the range of terrain you’ll encounter during any particular hike.
Key Climbing Mountains
Patagonia proposes some serious climbing challenges. Given that Chilean Patagonia contains more and higher peaks, much of the really exceptional climbing is found to the west. See more on this in Summiting In Patagonia below.
Some key Patagonian climbing mountains are:
• Chaltén Massif (which contains Cerro Fitz Roy (3,359 m/ 11,020 ft).
• Cerro Catedral (2,100 m/ 6,890 ft), near Bariloche (also a ski hub).
• Cerro San Lorenzo (3,706 m/ 12,159 ft)
Key Trekking Routes
In the north-west of Patagonia are two of the more famous treks, located around the Torres del Paine.
The W-Trail and Paine Circuit around Torres del Paine are five- and nine-day adventures respectively. They wind in and out of the huge massif, bordered on the western edge by the Grey glacier, as well as numerous glacial lakes. The other main highlight is the three towers of Torres del Paine, the highest being Torre Sur (2,850 m/ 9,350 ft).
One of South America’s toughest treks is Dientes de Navarino, or the ‘teeth of Navarino’, found in the very south of Patagonia.
At 54 km (33.5 miles), this trek through the inhospitable mountains of Navarino Island is an off-the-beaten-track challenge for even the most experienced of wilderness hikers. Over five days, this trek will take you into that rarest of hiking prizes: the genuinely untamed wilderness.
Around the Chaltén Massif, or El Chaltén, within the Los Glaciares National Park, well-marked trails offer a series of day-hikes around glacial lakes, mountain peaks and across glaciers. Many are named after the glacial lakes they pass, the most popular being Laguna Torre (24 km/ 15 mile return) or the more challenging Laguna de los Tres (30 km/ 18.5 mile return).
Of course, for a more long distance option, it’s hard to get more epic than the Greater Patagonian Trail (GPT).
Stretching north-south from Randal (Chile) to Villa Rivaderia (Argentina) over 1,407 km (874 miles) this trek follows an unofficial route through the spine of the Andes Mountains. Over half the walking is on paths maintained by herders. As you take in the stunning views the hike offers, these locals and their livestock may often be your only company.
SUMMITING IN PATAGONIA.
With their jagged appearance, carved to sheer slopes by the action of huge glaciers over millions of years, summiting in the Patagonian Andes is often far more climbing than hiking, and few peaks are easy to stand on top of. This is the case with the countries’ two highest peaks: Monte San Valentin (Chile) and Cerro Fitz Roy (Argentina).
Monte San Valentin’s summit ascent is regularly compared to Denali. The total climb exceeds the ascent from Everest Base Camp to the summit, and the hike to the foot of the mountain is also a hugely challenging part of this adventure. In fact, some accounts say crossing this ice field is the hardest part of the journey.
Then on the mountain, the main reason for there being so few successful ascents is the weather and particularly the violent wind. Blowing in off the nearby Pacific Ocean, it can reach 161 km/h (100 mph) bringing icy storms of sleet and snow.
There are three routes available to the summit, each climbing up from the ice field that encases the peak. These routes are known as: the South-west Ridge Intégral, the South Face and a winding route that takes you from the South-west Ridge, across the South Face to summit via the South-east Ridge. None are easy, all requiring significant ice climbing expertise.
Cerro Fitz Roy has at least 15 ascent routes, with the most popular being routes up the South-east Ridge. They are all technical, rated up to Grade VII, the equivalent to 5.11 in US grading.
Nearby Cerro Electrico (2,257 m/ 7,405 ft) is a non-technical ascent, so may be a more appropriate goal for those of us not experienced enough to safely attempt the technical demands of Cherry Fitz Roy.
Another mountaineering adventure is Cordón Mariano Moreno (3,500m/ 11,483 ft), found 25 km (15.5 miles) west of the Cerro Torre group in the middle of a vast ice field. Many ascents and descents are actually done on skis, offering a much faster way off the mountain!
OTHER ADVENTURE SPORTS IN PATAGONIA.
From white-water rafting down a mountain river, mountain biking through the Andes Mountains or going diving in a glacial lake or the Southern Seas, Patagonia is a popular destination for all manner of adventure sports.
Some highlights include:
• Diving in Lake Traful to discover underwater caves and a mysterious underwater forest, carried there by an enormous landslide many years ago. The lake is found in northern Argentine Patagonia.
• Skiing in a resort on the slopes of the Casablanca volcano, near Osorno, Chile. Once known as ‘Jewel of the Sun’, this resort has you winding amongst coniferous forests down 14 different runs. There are ski resorts along the Patagonian Andes, on either side.
• Paragliding at El Bolsón, soaring among the mountains and the Rio Negro in northern Argentine Patagonia, close to the border.
• Rafting down the Puy river, whose churning white appearance offers the guarantee of a summer adrenalin rush. The mountain rivers along the Andes provide a range of rafting possibilities, from white-water to more serene canoeing and kayaking.
• Mountain bike ascent of Cerro Catedral, Basiloche. An intense uphill climb is followed by an exhillerating downhill. Other, flatter and more sustained rides take you passed many landscape and wildlife highlights of Patagonia, but, of the ascents, this is one of the more accessible and enjoyable options.
GETTING TO PATAGONIA.
The four main cities that act as gateways to Patagonia are Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales in Chile, El Calafate in mainland Argentina and Ushuaia on the Argentinian island Tierra del Fuego.
The main airlines flying to Patagonia are those of the LAN Alliance group. These fly from Europe and across the Americas, often with a stop-over in northern Argentina or Chile. The primary Patagonian airport is Punta Arena.
Ushuaia is the world’s southernmost city and a busy port, in part because of the numerous tours to Antarctica that launch from here.
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