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A Beginner's Guide to Argentinian Patagonia

April 21, 2019
8 min read
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A vast and remote region in South America that 402,000 square miles across Argentina and Chile, Patagonia is naturally divided by the Andes, though most of it — about 90% — is Argentinian.

Five provinces (Neuquén, Río Negro, Chubut, Santa Cruz and Tierra del Fuego) make up Argentinian Patagonia, one of the country’s more popular destinations for wildlife such as the southern right whale and condor, and extreme outdoor pursuits such as skiing and glacier trekking.

Ready to plan your first trip to Argentinian Patagonia? Here's everything you need to know.

When to Go to Argentinian Patagonia

While hotel, activities and restaurant prices are elevated for local tourists, the Argentinian peso remains weak against the dollar at 43 to 1 following a 2018 devaluation, so it’s still a great value. Summer (January to March) and winter (June to August) are peak seasons.

Given that the most southerly point of Argentinian Patagonia is 620 miles from Antarctica, expect the unexpected on the weather front. While the mercury in Tierra del Fuego rarely rises above 60 degrees — where you can also experience four seasons in just a few hours — the Lake District enjoys a sunny summer with average 68 degree days. But always be prepared with extra layers.

Getting Around Argentinian Patagonia

As Argentinian Patagonia is much larger than its Chilean counterpart, at least 12 days are recommended to get a feel for the area. Or, you can fly into one region and enjoy it with a two-night stay. Long-distance buses that are very comfortable and designed for trips of 24 hours or more are a great way to travel between these small southern cities. Otherwise, you can rent a car or fly. There is no rail network.

Accommodation suits all budgets, from well-equipped campsites to five-star hotels. Budget-conscious travelers should check out Cabo Raso in Chubut and Hotel Tirol in Bariloche. For a more luxurious experience, consider staying at Océano Patagonia in Valdés, Correntoso — a participating member of Small Luxury Hotels where you can earn and redeem World of Hyatt points in the Lakes District — or Arakur Ushuaia, a member of Leading Hotels of the World, which has its own loyalty program called the Leaders Club.

Sea lions are a part of the wildlife seen in Argentina. (Photo by Grafissimo/Getty Images)

The Difference Between Argentinian and Chilean Patagonia

With a bout 90% — or 361,800 square miles — of Patagonia belonging to Argentina, the eastern side of the region offers a wide array of activities, such as mountaineering, kayaking, snow sports and fly fishing. Isolated small towns and ranches dot this enormous landmass between the Atlantic and Southern Oceans and the Andes; the reason outlaw Butch Cassidy pitched up in this remote region. From north to south, this is what to do in Argentinian Patagonia.

What to Do in the Lake District, Río Negro and Neuquén

Dramatic-looking Ruta de los Siete Lagos is picturesque with its crystalline waters and snow-capped peaks, so consider renting a car to appreciate the Seven Lakes Road. Fly into San Carlos de Bariloche to sample the craft beer route — part of the legendary 3,227-mile Ruta 40, which spans the length of Argentina — at pubs such as Microcervecería Patagonia, then work off the pints on a López Bay hike; Cerro Catedral ski resort opens between June and September.

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Drive north to Villa La Angostura’s two lakes, Correntoso and Espejo, where fly fishermen go crazy for trout. Stay at the luxurious Correntoso for doorstep casting and dine at Tinto Bistro — owned by Martin Zorreguieta, brother of Queen Máxima of the Netherlands — in town. Finish the Siete Lagos circuit enjoying Lake Lacar near San Martín de los Andes, gateway to Lanín National Park and Cerro Chapelco ski resort.

The Lake District packs out during July, Argentina and Chile’s winter holiday season; for quieter moments, try late August for powder, and December for spring weather and watersports such as kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding.

View of the lake and mountains in San Carlos De Bariloche, Argentina. (Photo by Irina Leyes / EyeEm / Getty Images)

What to Do in the Valdés Peninsula and Chubut

Ringside whale-watching seats are the main draw at Valdés Peninsula, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the Atlantic coast, and boats depart daily between June and November from Puerto Pirámides to spot the southern right. Known for their white callosities and so-called sailing technique (playfully raising fins in the air), this whale comes here to mate and calve. Wildlife fans can also observe seals, sea lions and orcas, while ostrich-like rhea and guanaco (a relative of the llama) roam the terrain.

Nearby are Welsh-founded settlements Puerto Madryn and Trelew. The latter is a small-town outpost harboring Hotel Touring Club, today a café, where you can see the room where Butch Cassidy holed up, and the MEF Paleontology Museum, which houses 17,000 fossils and remains of titanosaur, the world’s largest dinosaur. Argentina’s most-populated penguin colony, Punta Tombo, is also nearby, as is Gaiman, where the Welsh character remains strong and there are an array of teahouses.

Argentinians flock here for summer vacation in January and February, when average temperatures reach 80 degrees; visitors numbers also peak in July during whale-watching season.

A colony of sea lions on a beach south of Puerto Madryn, Argentina. (Photo by vale_t/Getty Images)

What to Do in Los Glaciares National Park, Santa Cruz

Watch it, snap it, patiently await for a rupture to fall, kayak near it, even scale it — there’s little doubt that the vast, electric-blue Perito Moreno Glacier in Los Glaciares National Park is breathtaking.

Many glaciers are retreating due to climate change, but Perito Moreno keeps advancing, its light-blue 240-foot-high face and three-mile-wide behind slowly feeding Lago Argentino. If a selfie with this frozen behemoth onboard a catamaran isn’t enough, consider taking an icy hike on top of it (crampons provided). The glacier has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1981 and is located near El Calafate.

Other glacial showstoppers in the national park include Spegazzini, Upsala and Viedma. Take a boat excursion to enjoy all four, disembarking at Onelli Bay for a short hike through the forest and a different perspective.

Summer (January to March) is peak season with average temperatures reaching 64 degrees. Daylight can last 17 hours. Spring and autumn mean cooler weather, but fewer selfie sticks.

Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina. (Photo by nicolamargaret/Getty Images)

What to Do in Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego

Flying over snowy, meringue-like peaks and down the Beagle Channel to arrive at Ushuaia — a 3.5-hour flight from Buenos Aires — is thrilling. This is, after all, the most southerly city on the planet, where four seasons in one day are the norm and you’re at the whim of Mother Nature. Nestled on the shores of the legendary strait, whose icy waters were traversed by the nomadic Yaghan indigenous people 10,000 years before Charles Darwin, modern-day Ushuaia (pronounced: Oohs-why-ah) offers wilderness and nature with a touch of contemporary trading outpost.

This is actually the end of the world, so the weather is usually chilly. Visiting in summer (January to March) is peak season and brings top day temperatures of 60 degrees, making it ideal for hiking in Tierra del Fuego national park and spotting guanaco and sheldgeese. To glimpse maritime fauna such as sea lions, imperial cormorants, dolphins and pygmy right whales, circumnavigate the red-and-white Les Eclaireurs lighthouse in the Beagle Channel. Between October and April, a visit to Isla Martillo provides plenty of wobbly, flightless comedy, when Magellanic and King penguins turn this island into a colony.

For an unforgettable sea-to-plate dining experience, book into Puerto Pirata, a tiny four-table eatery a 90-minute drive from Ushuaia, where you sail out into the Beagle Channel with fishermen to haul in centolla (king crab) before it’s prepared fresh just for you. Other great restaurants back in town include Kalma and Chez Manu for fine dining and Volver for seafood.

Ushuaia is a jumping off point for cruise ships on South America tours, but it’s also the jump-on point for ships navigating Cape Horn (September to April) and Antarctica expeditions, (November to February).

Featured image by Getty Images/iStockphoto