Sunday, 19 Jan 2020

The ultimate guide to hiking in Patagonia

South America is for everyone, but Patagonia is for hikers. Hiking in Patagonia is a dream come true for intrepid travellers, because it’s dominated by one of the world’s few forward-moving glaciers, snow-capped mountains and the sort of weather that you would expect to find in Narnia! Regardless of the season, the wind howls through remote towns like Punta Arenas and Ushuaia, shaking buildings to their foundations. But as long as you’re well prepared for whatever the best hikes in Patagonia have to throw at you, then you’ll love the idyllic scenery that hikers are rewarded with after a lung-busting couple of days on the O trek, or a steep climb up to the Three Towers.

Whatever your level, Patagonia offers something that can’t be replicated – an other-worldly landscape that changes regularly. Expect the unexpected! Read on for everything you need to know about hiking in Patagonia from practical tips to the best hiking trails.

hiking in patagonia, a wild guanaco in Patagonia, Chile.

@pabloheimplatz

When is the best time to visit Patagonia for hiking?

While there isn’t a bad time to visit Patagonia, there are two things that will affect your decision: the weather and the cost of flights. The Patagonian weather is a lot less severe in the spring and summer when the temperatures reach up to 25°C, so October through to February is when you’ll want to book flights if you hate the cold. However, the prices do rise in the summer. To save upwards of £100 per journey, a handy tip is to travel during the Southern Hemisphere spring and book at least two months in advance.

Where should you fly in for hiking in Patagonia?

Your adventure to the best hikes in Patagonia will start from wherever you land initially. It’s only possible to fly directly to the popular starting points of Puerto Natales (Chile) and Puerto Montt (Chile) from within Chile or Argentina, so if you’re travelling from further afield then Buenos Aires and Santiago are excellent layover spots. Plus, while there you can purchase any last-minute supplies – walking equipment, food, SIM cards etc. Do be warned that Puerto Montt is a 30+ hour bus ride away from key destinations like Punta Arenas (Chile), so it’s often better to fly internally and avoid public transport. Flights can be as cheap as buses if you’re organised early!

Although Bariloche (Argentina) is further north than Puerto Montt, it’s actually quicker to reach most of Patagonia from here, as the bus routes are better connected.

What should you wear for hiking in Patagonia?

hiking in patagonia, man hiking in the snow in el chalten

El Chalten, @dburka

Warm clothes are essential whatever the weather. Summer temps don’t exactly skyrocket, and you can always take layers off if you get warm, so gloves, a hat and a scarf should be on hand in case the weather turns. A lightweight waterproof jacket and pants combo is a must for when an obligatory shower pops up out of nowhere. Trust me, you’re almost certain to get wet!

The terrain means proper walking boots are necessary too – I recommend breaking them in as much as possible beforehand. What I also found useful was wearing clothes made from thin, breathable materials to avoid overheating, plus they’re brilliant at preventing sunburn compared to shorts and t-shirts (thank me later). Don’t forget high-factor sun cream, as the altitude means the rays are much stronger. If you’re going off-piste, hiking poles should be in your rucksack to counteract the windy conditions. Other than that, you’ll need a torch, batteries, a battery pack and small amounts of cash to top-up your water and food supplies.

How hard is hiking in Patagonia?

The difficulty in Patagonia hikes ranges from day trips to Refugio Frey and Cerro Castillo, to several days crossing lakes on your way from Villa O’Higgins to El Chaltain. The ‘O’ trail in Torres del Paine is around eight days long, which adds to the difficulty. Thankfully, you can pick and choose. If you want something easy, Refugio Frey is an excellent place to start as it requires a combination of walking and sitting back on the ski lift when your legs get tired. The Exploradores Glacier is a medium-level trek that lasts at least eight hours and includes elements of caving, for those who aren’t claustrophobic. If you’re looking for an advanced Patagonia hike, The Huemul Circuit is only for the most experienced trekkers. This lesser-known hike will push you to your limits, thanks to the lack of a defined trail and the fact you need to propel yourself across rivers.

Is hiking in Patagonia safe?

hiking in patagonia, selina hostel Bariloche common area with tables and sofas

Selina Bariloche

Yes, as long as you use common sense. Hiking in Patagonia alone is potentially risky, which may not be something solo travellers will want to hear, but it couldn’t be easier to buddy up. Firstly, book through an agency. The cost is higher, but you’re guaranteed safety in numbers as there are guides and fellow hikers. If you’re a solo female traveller, this is a great option to give yourself peace of mind. Alternatively, stay in a hostel for a couple of days before you plan on hiking and you’re guaranteed to meet a fellow wanderer or two. America del Sur Hostel in El Calafate and Selina in Bariloche are usually teeming with eagled-eyed travellers on the lookout for hiking buddies.

Other than travelling in a group, the key is to stick to the beaten path. Campsites in Torres del Paine and Parque Patagonia provide refuge from the elements and the comfiest places to relax. Visitor centres are where you’ll find maps, emergency park ranger numbers and helpful staff.

Never stay out after dark. Not only is it hard to navigate – GPS isn’t always reliable – there are also nocturnal predators on the prowl. The puma is native to this part of the world and hunts at night.

How much does it cost to hike in Patagonia?

While it isn’t cheap, hiking in Patagonia doesn’t have to be expensive. As I mentioned, you should travel out of season to save money on flights. This tactic will cut the cost of accommodation and tours, too. Although buses can be steep – Puerto Natales to Ushuaia is around £100 return – they are cheaper than last-minute flights. The hikes only tend to cost as much as the park entry fee, which is usually less than £20 in the high season, and there are free campsites available.

Depending where you’re flying from, £1,000 for ten days to two weeks is doable – as long as you’re proactive and strict with your budget. The more you save though the less you’ll have to worry – and it’s definitely worth putting aside some cash to splash in the tango clubs of Buenos Aires afterwards!

How to prepare for a trip to Patagonia

Proper training isn’t a must, but it is important to build a decent fitness base. Please don’t turn up without any supplies after not exercising for months and expect to be okay. Of course, you can acclimatise by visiting day trip destinations and getting an insight into the difficulty. If you don’t have the time, I recommend picking a beginner or intermediate route and using the most advanced hikes as excuses to revisit Patagonia! Taking the correct equipment will fill in some of the gaps and make the hikes less harsh.

The best hiking routes in Patagonia

Hiking in Patagonia: Chile

1. The ‘O’ Circuit

hiking in patagonia, hiker standing in Torres del Paine National Park covered in snow and mist

Torres del Paine National Park, @druso_

Torres del Paine is easily the most famous and popular destination for hikers in Patagonia, and the ‘O’ circuit is the reason why. On your week-long trek, you’ll pass over the highest point of the national park – Paso John Gardener – and get spectacular, close-up views of the breathtaking peaks of Los Cuernos. The Miradór Las Torres, a viewpoint underneath the Three Towers that sits by a lake, is the finishing point if you have the energy to climb it. However, the jewel in the crown is Glacier Grey, a magnificent ice river that feels as if you can touch it as you cross over Paso John Gardiner and look down from 1241m.

A top tip that most hikers follow is to start from Refugio Las Torres and go anticlockwise to visit Glacier Grey first, as strong winds sometimes close the trails. As a result, it’s best to put it at the top of your itinerary in case your trek gets cut short. Another suggestion from me is to book campsites in advance as the route is popular and spaces sell out fast. Refugios, dorm-style accommodations, are also available but twice as expensive. However, they are excellent backups if you have nowhere to stay or want to take it easy for a night.

To get to Torres del Paine, go to the bus stations at either Punta Arenas or Puerto Natales and catch a lift to the visitor centre.

Difficulty rating: Hard – the steep climbs are as long as 1 kilometre straight up in some parts and are tough on the body. The altitude and lack of shelter in specific places can be dangerous, especially at the John Gardner pass

Length: 7 to 9 days – leave time to mull around at campsites in case the weather messes up your schedule.

Find hostels in Punta Arenas

2. The ‘W’ Trail

hiking in patagonia, Glacier Grey

Glacier Grey, @ciprianmorar

Part of the ‘O’ circuit, the ‘W’ trail doesn’t take in all the spots of its lengthier cousin. Still, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t sample the delights it has to offer. Like the ‘O,’ the ‘W’ includes views of the Glacier Grey, but you walk along Lodge Paine Grande, taking in the stunning Lago Grey. Again, the finish is the scramble to the top of the Three Towers for an obligatory pic, if you’re brave enough to come out from the cover of the rocks! Another great photo opportunity is at Valle Francés, where it seems the waterfalls never end.

My tip is to start at the furthest western point of the W, as the steep climbs are in the middle and at the end. That way, your rucksack will be lighter by the time you finish.

Difficulty: Moderate to hard – it’s not the full ‘O’ circuit, but there are still steep climbs that need treating with respect

Length: 5 days – some people finish it in 3 or 4, but 5 is a respectable and safe target

Find hostels in Punta Arenas

3. Cabo Froward

hiking in patagonia, hiker standing on a ledge at Cabo Froward in the Magallanes Region

Magallanes Region, @philippesiguret

No, that’s not a typo! Located in the Magallanes Region of Chile, the remoteness of the southernmost part of the country makes Froward one of the most challenging adventures on the entire continent. Other than the unparalleled Dientes de Navarino, hiking in Patagonia doesn’t come as daunting. Like always however, the juice is worth the squeeze once you reach the highlights. In this case, the river crossings of Nodales and the thick forests coupled with unfathomably tall cliffs that offer amazing views of the desolate tundra. The best tip for Cabo Froward is to organise a group tour. Even if you’re an excellent hiker and aren’t alone, you’ll need local knowledge, like the dates of low tides. Bring a waterproof bag for the crossing too.

Froward is only accessible via Punta Arenas, and you’ll have to walk there and back unless you charter a boat for the return leg.

Difficulty: Very hard – the unsheltered, wild terrain is challenging in moderate conditions, so expect to be thrown around by the wind. The fact you have to trek 120km for a roundtrip from Punta Arenas and back only adds to the difficulty

Length: 4 to 6 days – it takes 2 to 3 days to reach Cabo Froward, but you can bypass the 60km return leg by asking a fisherman for a lift.

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4. Dientes de Navarino

hiking in patagonia, wooden shack at Dientes de Navarino with mountains in the back ground

@matiascontreras

Dientes de Navarino is a Patagonian hike for only the most experienced and advanced hikers. Still, there’s nothing quite like starting your day at a statue of the Virgin Mary and trekking to the Cerro Bandera lookout point, where breathtaking views of the Beagle Channel never get old. The 860m ascent to Paso Virginia is back-breaking work, yet the reward of the Cape Horn archipelago is unforgettable. Throw in lakes and terrain that stretch for miles, as well as a bird’s eye view of Ushuaia, and you’ve got Patagonia hiking that will fill your heart with pride once you complete your trip. Seriously, the sense of achievement is as rewarding as the scenery!

The only tip you need is this: do some research. The island of Navarino is incredibly remote, and the lodgings aren’t plentiful, which means you’ll need to book everything in advance. Camping is the only form of accommodation on the trek, so you’ll need a tent and a spot for the night. Also, avoid the winter as the island weather is unpredictable, and snow and high winds can make the cold unbearable. To get there, make your way to Puerto Williams, the start and finish of any Navarino Island hike.

Difficulty: Extremely hard – if you don’t hike regularly, this isn’t for you. If you have confidence and experience, it’s probably the best hike in Patagonia as it isn’t busy

Length: 5 days

5. Exploradores Glacier

hiking in patagonia, Glaciar Exploradores

Glaciar Exploradores, @pabloheimplatz

Don’t worry if lengthy treks aren’t your thing, hiking in Patagonia also comes in the form of epic day trips. There are loads, but my favourite is the Exploradores Glacier. For starters, trips have only been organised for the past five years, so it’s not as busy as a lot of other Patagonia hikes. Secondly, you get to actually go inside the glacier thanks to the seemingly never-ending ice caves. While the glaciers in Nacional Parque Torres del Paine are only viewable from a distance, you can get fully immersed in the Exploradores Glacier. You might want to bring poles and boots with plenty of grip, as you’ll spend lots of time traversing rocks before you reach the ice.

Take the Carretera Austral gravel road to Puerto Rio Tranquilo to begin your trip. You need a guide to get into the park as there’s a danger of falling into crevasses.

Difficulty: Moderate – it’s undoubtedly long and finicky, but the tracks are defined and aren’t steep

Length: Several hours – you’ll start at dawn and return after dark, or camp or stay the night if you prefer

Find more hostels in Chile

Hiking in Patagonia: Argentina

1. El Chaltén to Villa O’Higgins

hiking in patagonia, highway road in El Chalten with mountains in the background

El Chalten, @roi_dimor

El Chaltén to Villa O’Higgins is quite an easy trek, so why is it number one on the list? Because it’s an international walk that crosses borders (*mic drop*). Along the way you’ll see highlights of both Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia, starting with the beautiful Lago del Desierto. Once across the lake, the Argentine guards will stamp you out and you’ll start your walk through no man’s land along a dirt road, until you reach Lago Argentino. From there, you can hop on a ferry across to Villa O’Higgins and officially enter Chile, making this trek perfect for people who want to combine both countries but have little time.

It’s well worth taking a tent, even if you don’t plan on spending the night. The ferries are temperamental due to the changing weather, and there’s no accommodation, so camping can end up being the only option.

Difficulty: Easy – it’s doable in one day if you set off early and get lucky with the ferries and border crossings

Length: 2 days/1 night – it’s a 20km hike, barring the ferries from O’Higgins back to the mainland and from Lago del Desierto to El Chaltén (about 40km).

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2. Laguna de Los Tres

hiking in patagonia,Laguna de Los Tres

@wandervisions

Visiting the Argentine side of Patagonia means one thing: stunning views of Fitz Roy mountain. It’s the number one Patagonia hiking attraction in Argentina, and there are plenty of ways to see the spectacular peak. Laguna de Los Tres combines a relatively straightforward walk with a steep 1.5km trek to a viewpoint that overlooks the Laguna Sucia, or ‘Dirty Lagoon’ in English. Once at the top, the views of Fitz Roy are hard to beat.

Please don’t attempt to finish the ascent if the wind is blowing a gale. It’s too risky and lots of people get injured.

Difficulty: Easy – the only tough section is the final ascent

Length: The 30km roundtrip can be finished in a day and takes about 6 hours in total. The walk to Sucia is 4 hours, yet you can easily knock-off a couple of hours on the return trip as it’s flat/downhill

3. Laguna Torre

hiking in patagonia, Laguna Torre

@hellojoanna

When you’re in the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, you’ll want to see Fitz Roy – that’s a given. However, there’s another stunning and dramatic spire that you shouldn’t miss – Cerro Torre. Reaching over 3,000m into the heavens, Torre is home to the sparkling lake where the trail got its name, as well as two incredible glaciers. Sure, the hike isn’t like some of the most strenuous you’ll find in Patagonia, but it’s nice to stroll around after days of scaling mountains and slipping down paths that crumble away.

For those who need more adrenaline, you can use the campsites in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares to combine as many treks as possible.

Difficulty: Very easy – the walk doesn’t get any more challenging than ‘gentle’ from the beginning to the end.

Length: 24km roundtrip – most people finish it within hours, even after spending time gazing at the glaciers and dominating peaks

4. Tronador

hiking in patagonia, girl sitting on a rock on a hiking trail in Tronador

Tronador is for self-respecting hikers who want to replicate the demanding landscapes and hikes of Chilean Patagonia. There’s no better place to start than Tronador, as the glacier trek begins innocently enough before getting tougher. Once you hit the caracoles, a steep and winding portion of the trek, you can’t look back – the path is little more than rocks. There’s accommodation at the top if you fancy spending the night staring at the stars underneath the glacier, or you can camp.

However, my tip is to do it as a day trip and use the far superior hostels in Bariloche as a base. It’s only a 2-hour bus drive away, and you can get there and back by early evening. The Bonita Lake House offers traveller luxury, while Moving Hostel Travel Bar is closer to the action and the centre of town.

Difficulty: Moderate – don’t let the start of the hike fool you; it gets harder the closer you get to the top

Length: 36km – set aside at least 8 hours if you don’t want to stay the night at the summit

Find more hostels in El Chalten

5. The Fitz Roy

hiking in patagonia, man jumping in Mount Fitz Roy in El Chalten

Mount Fitz Roy in El Chalten, @eduardornogueira

The Fitz Roy itself is accessible by hiking up to the base of the mountain. It’s one of the most iconic Patagonia hikes, partly since the backpacker-fave brand of the same name uses its likeness on its clothes. Still, even though it’s pretty crowded year-round, there’s no excuse for visiting El Chaltén and omitting the Fitz Roy base from your itinerary. Aside from the snow and low-lying clouds that line the peaks, you should keep an eye out for condors that stoop down to drink from the blue lagoon. The Cerro Torre joins on to the Fitz Roy, so it’s not hard to combine both hikes if you bring a tent and supplies.

Are you sticking with the Fitz Roy? Then I recommend learning the etiquette to avoid bumping into crowds of people on their way to the top. Stay to the left and stop if you’re coming down – it’s harder for the hikers coming up to get going again if they have to stop.

Difficulty: Moderate – the beginning is very gentle, but the last hour turns into a scramble up slippery rocks where grip is nearly non-existent. Take poles to help maintain your balance

Length: 1 day – you can make it 2 or 3 days depending on whether you want to use the Cerro Torre connection

Now you’ve got the know-how, who’s ready to go hiking in Patagonia? Bucket list adventures don’t come much bigger than this! Check out all of our hostels in Chile and Argentina to get the planning started.

Keep reading:

? The ultimate guide to backpacking Chile

? Glaciers, grand landscapes and glistening beaches: 13 best places to visit in Argentina

? The 20 best hostels in Santiago De Chile for every backpacker

About the author:

Matthew Goodwin is a traveller with the knack for landing on his feet and new airport Tarmac on a semi-regular basis. Follow my adventures and my musings on Instagram and LinkedIn (Matthew Goodwin).

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