GUEST ARTICLE: Argentine Patagonia, the southern corner of South America, offers travellers a full spectrum of wilderness experiences. From alpine mountain peaks and valleys, to frozen desert-like tundra plateaus that span for hundreds of miles, this region makes for hiking, road trip and photographic heaven.
Patagonia has always been a frontier land of Argentina, never experiencing huge influxes of European settlement due to its harsh climate and wild landscape – it’s always attracted explorers and adventure seekers.
Many areas still maintain an element of remoteness and isolation while some parts have become busy tourist centres for Argentine and international travellers to plan their Patagonian experience from.
Bariloche and El Bolson
Bariloche sits on the eastern side of the southern Andes in Argentine Patagonia near the border with Chile. Home to around 100,000 people, it’s a historic tourist town and one of the largest in the region. People from Buenos Aires and beyond come to enjoy the alpine air, lakes, skiing and laid back life away from the cities.
In warmer months it’s a great place to take in crystal clear blue lakes and fresh mountain air while in the winter months it’s one of Argentina’s main ski resorts and home to some of the best snow on the continent apparently. We spent about a week here toward the end of the warmer months and I say ‘warmer’ because it’s anything but summery at around 5 degrees at night and 10-15 degrees during the day.
Bariloche overlooks the massive Lake Nahuel Huapi – a long slim glacial lake that reaches a depth of 438 metres (1,437 feet) in parts. Architecturally, Bariloche resembles a European alpine town – not what most travellers would expect from the southern reaches of the new world.
It was first settled by German, Austrian and Slovene immigrants in the mid-1800s and much of its original architecture still stands in the town centre. The main street is also dotted with dozens European style chocolate and confectionery shops – a great place to be around at Easter.
By any standards Bariloche is beautiful but it is a major tourist centre and for those who want a quieter vibe, a trip to a surrounding town or village is the way to go.
A short, 2 hour bus-ride away is the former hippie town of El Bolson, a tiny holiday village sitting on Lago Puelo – a crystal clear glacial fjord-like lake with deep blue and green tones.
El Bolson is sandwiched between high peaks seltered by mountains ridges in a small valley. Because of this, it enjoys a warm micro-climate that is 2-3 degrees higher than anywhere else in the area. El Bolson is a great place to buy locally made arts, crafts and artisan food – from beaded necklaces and carved benches to homemade jams and organic beer, it’s all there.
Boat rides and walks in the mountains are also easily accessible. The restaurants are also great for hearty stews, steaks and fresh trout sourced from the surrounding mountains.
Accommodation in Bariloche and El Bolson is fairly easy to organise but as they are popular getaways during Argentinean holidays so it pays research into hotel and hostel availability in advance. Most places in Argentina are listed on hostelworld.com and tripadvisor.com so choosing a safe and reliable place to stay is generally not very hard.
El Calafate and El Chalten
El Calafate sits across dry, dusty and exposed plains that reach to deep icy lakes lakes fed by huge ice sheets. It is further south than Bariloche and far colder. The town has a real frontier-land feel which is backed up by cold polar winds that blow the dusty ground into your face as they swirl through the surrounding mountain ranges.
Perito Moreno National Park lies a short 1.5 hour bus ride to the west of El Calafate. Most tourists are recommended to take a sunrise bus to make the most of the day as you can spend hours walking the viewing platforms around the 30 metre tall, 5km wide Perito Moreno glacier. You also get to see some of the sun’s first rays hit the mountains ridges, ice sheets and tussock grasses as you meander your way to the park.
There are a range of ways to see Perito Moreno from its very modern tourist office. You can take a boat tour across the lake to the glacier’s edge, a trek across its surface or stroll one of the maany extensive walkways that wrap around its widest part.
Every 15 minutes or so a thunderous sound will crack open the valley as ice chunks the size of fridges and cars break away from Perito Moreno – it’s literally crumbling before your eyes. While many tourists sit watching for chance to snap a photo of ice crashing in to the lake below, capturing it at the right time can be a real challenge.
Keen photographers are recommended to pick one specific area of the glacier to watch for falling ice rather than running somewhere when the crackling sound of the ice breaking hits the valley. Once the sound of breaking ice is heard, it’s too late and all you’ll only see the final splash if you’re not standing in front of it.
The mountains around Perito Moreno are constantly circled by massive condors – a large member of the vulture family that is native to South America. These huge birds catch the updrafts of wind from the mountains across Patagonia and appear rather menacing as they float past tourists on the look out for carcasses.
Pumas are not so common here but I was told they can sometimes be spotted in the distance. Hunted to near extinction over the last 100 years, Pumas are highly cautious of humans and only occasionally seen in the distance from the main roads. Some locals we spoke to mentioned they do expect more Puma sightings in the coming years with better conservation laws.
Four hours north of El Calafate lies El Chalten, a tiny village on the border with Chile and home to some of the best mountain hikes in the South America. A day trip from El Chalten is great way to appreciate the dramatic rock-faced peaks that loom over the valley. If you can spend more time there, I would recommend you do so. After visiting for just one day, and looking back now, I would have given El Chalten a few days (at least).
Keen hikers who visit El Chalten are indulged by a range tracks that feed into the mountain ranges, all tailored to varying skill and fitness levels. Perhaps one of the the most iconic of the peaks in the area is Mount Fitz Roy, a three spire peak that stabs the sky over El Chalten. Fitz Roy marks the Argentine border with Chile and stands at over 3,375 m (11,073 ft) tall. The best look-out for Fitz Roy is a 2 hour walk from El Chalten village and great for a quick snapshot of what the area has to offer.
Tips for travel in Argentine Patagonia
- Argentine Patagonia is not cheap, but can be affordable if you do your research, plan and book ahead.
- Be prepared for the elements. The climate can be bone-chillingly cold and the sun very harsh so bring thermals and sun block!
- Be prepared for a lack in the range of fresh food. Many areas in Patagonia rely on fruit and vegetables transported from Buenos Aires so they may not always have your favourite and you may have to settle for the canned equivalent.
- If you have time and are travelling on a budget, look in to a suite class seat on an Argentine tour bus. You will save a lot more and see some of the most remote parts of the country along the way. See Overland Transport Argentina: Buses Better Than Flying
- Hostel World and Trip Advisor are great for research on accommodation. Like anywhere, there are some place that should be avoided as well as real gems that can make your stay amazing.
- The only issue commonly encountered by visitors to El Calafate are stray dogs. While most will have homes, there are dozens of dogs roaming the streets in packs and can snap at the odd tourist. At one point I had two dogs nipping at my feet on the way back from the supermarket.
- I found the price of accommodation increased the further south you go but at around $AUD11.00 / $USD9.00 per night for bed in a shared room, it’s not exactly an arm and a leg when compared to Europe or Australia
This travel diary has been written by my friend Nick Healy. Nick works in the field of online and digital public relations for Technology companies, but lives to explore and photograph places less travelled around the world by planes, buses and even ocean going yachts.
If you’ve travelled somewhere off the beaten track, can write well and have good quality photos I encourage you to contact me and I’ll consider publishing your travel diary here including generous attribution and links back to your website as thanks for your contribution