At the southern terminus of the Panamerican Highway, a fantastic, glacier-carved realm of natural beauty begins. This is the gateway to Antarctica, guarded by sharp-toothed granite peaks and snow-capped volcanoes rising above a carpet of wildflowers and crystal clear lakes. The wave-crashed inlets along the wild Pacific shore become islands as you head south, toward Tierra del Fuego, and the penguin colonies along the Straits of Magellan.
Patagonia’s rugged wonders and wildlife remain pristine because this is a difficult place for humans to survive. Even in the summer months – November through March – most travelers to the ends of the Earth will want to base themselves in the region’s two major cities. Puerto Montt is more accessible, at the terminus of the Panamerican freeway, clinging colorfully to picturesque Reloncaví Sound in the waterfall-streaked Los Lagos (Lakes) Region. Punta Arenas, the largest city on the Straits of Magellan and gateway to Antarctica, is much more remote – you’ll fly here or take a remarkable ferry trip. This pretty town offers access to several almost untouched natural treasures, including Otway Sound’s famous penguin colony.
Day 1: Puerto Montt and The Lakes Region
Begin you visit in Puerto Montt, a pretty town with proudly Germanic roots and deep natural port at the foot of the Andes. Ferries head out to several destinations, including day trips to Isla Grande de Chiloé, Chile’s "big island", known for its spectacular vistas and tasty seafood. Or, head inland, to the Puerto Varas, with epic views of Esmeralda (Todos Santos) Lake and climbable Osorno Volcano; or Frutillar, a classic Chilean-German fishing village.
Day 2: Exploring Wild Patagonia
One of the most exciting treks from Puerto Montt is the 11-hour day trip to Petrohué National Park, which takes in the park, Lake Esmeralda, and Lake Llanquihue, all surrounded by fantastic volcanoes. Shorter treks focus mostly on Petrohué Waterfalls, cascading across ancient lava flows. While you could spend a week exploring Puerto Montt, if you’re in a hurry, grab a two-hour flight or scenic tourist ferry to Punta Arenas, one of the southernmost cities in the world.
Day 3: On the Edge of Antarctica
While modern Punta Arenas is a city with all the modern conveniences, it rises from the center of a truly wild region, overlooking the Straits of Magellan. To the north, close to Puerto Natales, are the serrated granite peaks of Torres del Paine National Park and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, with incredible hiking opportunities and, for the truly adventurous, some of the roughest and most rewarding rock climbs in the world. After this epic and active escape, however, be sure to visit the Penguin Sanctuary and Otway Sound, a half-day trip into the famed sanctuary for fussy, flirty Magellan penguins, who nest here between November and March.