Things to Do in Patagonia
If you’re visiting El Calafate, there’s no way to miss the vast Lago Argentino. The city sits on the shore of this massive lake, the largest freshwater source in Argentina. It covers 566 square miles and is a result of glacial meltwater, which causes its milky blue color. The lake is part of Argentina’s Glacier National Park and is home to one of the area’s only advancing glaciers, Perito Moreno, which calves into Lago Argentino.
But Perito Moreno is not the only thing to see at Lago Argentino, and many visitors choose a full day of sightseeing on the lake, starting from El Calafate. Visits up the north arm to Upsala usually give visitors a chance to see calving glaciers up close, and the Spegazzini Glacier is the tallest one in the area, at almost 450 feet. Most visits also include the Onelli Glacier, and visitors are sometimes allowed to disembark along the shores and hike among native beech forest and red-blooming firebush.
Parque Nacional Los Glaciares protects Argentina’s wild Patagonian expanses of icy glaciers and mountain lakes. With a massive 47 glaciers, the Andean ice cap is the largest expanse of ice outside Antarctica and Greenland.
Created by millennia of ice flows from the Andean snowfields, the ice feeds huge Lake Argentino, Lake Viedma and the Rio Santa Cruz. The national park’s most famous glacier is the Perito Moreno Glacier, safely viewed via lookout platforms and renowned for its dynamic movement and dramatic ice falls.
Climbers target Mt Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, and fly-fishers praise the trout fishing on Lake Argentino. Wildlife spotters might see condor, guanaco and pumas in the park.
El Calafate is the national park’s main hub, the base for sailing cruises to spot icebergs on the lakes, hiking expeditions and mountain climbing.
Lapataia Bay is where Argentina’s RN 3 road ends, a road that is a continuation of the Pan-American Highway, which stretches all the way to Alaska. Roadies are always stopping to pose next to the sign here in Lapataia Bay, and it’s worth thinking about how far they’ve come to get there! According to the sign, the distance between this spot and Alaska is a whopping 11,090 miles (17,848 kilometers).
Most visitors don’t take the land route to Lapataia Bay, however, and instead fly into Argentina. The bay is within Parque National Tierra del Fuego, a popular day trip from Ushuaia, which sits only 10 miles away. The park offers a chance to get out into nature, overlook azure lakes and bays, walk through native beech forests and in season, catch both the firebush, which blooms bright red, and the spooky-looking orange “pan de indio,” golf ball-sized mushrooms that grow on some of the trees.
The Upsala Glacier upstages even Perito Moreno in scale.
South America’s largest glacier, Upsala measures 50km long and 10km wide (31 miles long, 6 miles wide). It’s only from the water of Lake Argentino that you can really appreciate the glacier’s magnitude and crystalline beauty.
Forests surround the glacier and lake, and icebergs that have tumbled from the glacier’s peaks fill the water.
From the glacier, you can hike to the iceberg-dotted waters of Lago Onelli and take in vistas of blue-white ice floes, jagged mountains and pristine waterways stretching to the horizon.
Travel here by horseback, boat, hiking or 4WD, before taking the boat to the glacier’s towering walls fronting the lake.
The Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse marks the dangerous rocks at the entrance to Ushuaia Bay in the Beagle Channel. Locals often wrongfully call this the Lighthouse at the End of the World, which is technically incorrect because the lighthouse Jules Verne made famous in his novel lies further east, but it’s oddly accurate, too; it’s the last mainland reference most sailors see on their way to Antarctica.
Located just five miles from Ushuaia, Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse is a common destination for short tourist sailing trips. The waters surrounding the lighthouse are a sea-goers dream, as penguins and both South American and fur sea lions are spotted regularly. Bird life is abundant, too, with black eyebrow albatrosses, steamer ducks and upland geese often seen on the nearby islands. Many tours also include landing on Karelo Island.
Lago Escondido, which translates to Hidden Lake, is surrounded by the Fuegian Andes just north of Ushuaia, Argentina. Many tourists choose to visit on a day-trip from Ushuaia; however, Hosteria Petral provides a lakeside basecamp for anybody interested in taking advantage of its status as a popular sport-fishing destination.
Brown and Rainbow trout can be caught in the lake itself, while brook trout are most often landed near stream inlets or around the many beaver dams that surround the lake.
Other popular activities in the area include horseback riding along the lakeshore, boat and kayak tours on the crystal-clear waters, and, oddly, Canadian-style wildlife watching. Lago Escondido is an excellent place to watch Canadian beavers, which were introduced to southern Patagonia in 1946 with false hope to spur a declining fur trade.
For the ultimate end of the world adventure, ride the world’s southernmost train to the Tierra del Fuego National Park. The one-hour narrow-gauge journey leaves from outside Ushuaia, following the 100-year route of the historic Convict Train. The route crosses the Pip River across a wooden bridge, past the Macarena Waterfall and a reconstruction of a Yamanas Indian campsite. Once inside the national park, the train passes beech forests, peat bogs and reminders of the timber-felling worksites worked by Ushuaia prisoners from 1901 to 1941.
The route then returns to the End of the World Station outside Ushuaia or travels to the National Park Station. Along the way, an informative bilingual guide (English and Spanish) provides a history of the Convict Train and this remote part of the world.
Overlooking the icy waters of the Beagle Channel, Estancia Harberton offers a glimpse into the history and wildlife of Argentina’s far-flung Tierra del Fuego. The oldest estancia (farm) in this part of the world, the still-working property dates back to 1887 and was established by English missionary Thomas Bridges. Bridges founded the Anglican Mission at Ushuaia in 1870.
Today, the estancia remains in the hands of Bridges’ descendants, and it was declared an Argentine National Historical Monument in 1999. A visit reveals the original buildings of wood and corrugated iron, and terraced gardens. The sheep have long gone but the cattle remain. While you’re here you can also walk amongst a penguin colony at the estancia’s Yecapasela Reserve.
More Things to Do in Patagonia
The Ushuaia Maritime museum shows off much of Tierra Del Fuego’s impressive maritime history with few original artifacts. The majority of the displays include scale models of tall ships and merchant vessels that first plied these waters, maps and charts used by early explorers, including Ferdinand Magellan, Francis Drake, Thomas Cavendish and Oliver van Noort, and the first voyage of the HMS Beagle.
Outside, a replica of the San Juan de Salvamento lighthouse stands alongside a decaying example of canoes used by the island’s American Indian populations.
The Maritime Museum is one of four museums housed in Ushuaia’s Old Prison Building, so it’s fitting that the final exhibit tells the story of the Argentinean navy vessel 1 de Mayo, which carried the first prisoners to Tierra Del Fuego in 1896. It’s a natural transition, as the next exhibit marks the entrance to the Old Prison Museum.
Celebrate your visit to the world’s southernmost city by exploring the Museo del Fin del Mundo. The museum focuses on Ushuaia’s natural and indigenous history, including a menagerie of stuffed animals and the tools used to hunt them. The collection is displayed in a series of interconnecting rooms, starting off with travelers and ethnography, including mementos of past visitors such as the shipwrecked figurehead of the HMS Duchess of Albany, which came to grief off the coast of Tierra del Fuego in 1893.
The grocery store exhibit is a hit with kids of all ages, displaying the essential shopping items of Ushuaia’s far-flung citizens in times gone by. Seabirds like albatrosses and petrels are featured in the Birds of Fire room, along with penguins, shorebirds, ducks, swans, flamingos and waterfowl. The final exhibit displays the safes, security doors, sturdy furniture and log books of Argentina’s National Bank.
El Calafate Historical Interpretation Center, a small museum in El Calafate, covers a big chunk of history — 100 million years of history. Recently renovated, the museum provides an excellent introduction to the natural and human history of southern Patagonia from the time it was formed through to today. The collection, divided into five rooms, includes fossilized skeletons of dinosaurs and mega mammals found in the area, as well as recreations of prehistoric cave paintings and collections of objects, tools and relics from the native Aonikenk culture and colonizers who showed up later.
Before Patagonia was peppered with glaciers and jagged, snow-capped peaks, it was a vast plain of lush forests where dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Granted, that was 100 million years ago, and Patagonia today is vastly different from those early days of its founding. At La Leona Petrified Forest, however, visitors have the chance to literally walk through prehistoric Patagonia. This 2,000-acre depression in the Earth is amazingly frozen in time, where massive trees and dinosaur bones still lie on the dusty Earth. There’s an enveloping silence in the desert plains, and only the wind and crunch of your boots seem to break the eerie silence. Nearby, at La Leona Hotel, even more mystique is added to the visit by viewing a place where legendary outlaws hid to escape the law. The towering peak of Mt. Fitzroy can often be seen in the distance, and from walking past fossilized dinosaur dung to hiking in a lunar landscape, this easy daytrip from El Calafate can seem like another world.
Visits to the Onelli Glacier are usually part of a longer cruise of Lago Argentino that includes the Upsala and Spegazzini glaciers as well. The Onelli Glacier is currently receding, like all others in the area, other than Perito Moreno, and visitors witness the extraordinary glacier by boat, navigating the milky-blue waters of Lago Argentino.
The glacier in particular does not feed into Lago Argentino proper, but instead drains into Onelli Lake, which is accessible via a walk through a native beech forest from Onelli Bay. The lake offers views of three glaciers: Bolados, Agassiz and Onelli, which is eight miles long, covering 32 square miles. Upsala glacier is famous for its activity and the Spegazzini for its towering height (nearly 45 feet), but Onelli has its own charm. Because visitors approach the glacier by foot (via a mile-long walk), there is a different sense of Patagonia here.
The Laguna Nimez Nature Reserve is an important conservation spot and stopover for many migrating bird species. It’s also home to dozens of Patagonian bird types, and in all, there are about 80 species that can be seen here. Most notable are the flamingoes and black-necked swans, but visitors are also likely to see geese, silvery grebes, ibis and hawks, among others.
The reserve has a walking path of about a mile and a half that runs in and out of vegetation with full vantage of the two lagoons in the middle. There are two shelters from which you can observe the birds in relative secrecy, and the reed-filled areas of the lagoons are almost always bustling with activity. The best time to visit this area is very early in the morning or later in the evening around sunset, when birds return to rest for the evening.
Patagonia, Argentina, is a place that makes people want to pack up their bags and move to this natural paradise. Estancia Cristina, an old sheep ranch (estancia) dating back to 1918, makes that a possibility. In 2005, the site opened its doors as an inn, as well as an agro-tourism day trip destination.
A visit to the estancia provides background information about the history of how Argentine Patagonia was settled, in addition to explaining the functions of the farm. A Patagonian barbecue is a highlight of the region and to this site specifically, which normally features spit-roasted lamb, often accompanied by a glass of Argentina’s iconic Malbec wine.
Access to Estancia Cristina is on a boat from Puerto Bandera, itself only a 40-minute drive from El Calafate. It is easy to combine a trip to Estancia Cristina with a visit to the Upsala Glacier, one of the most active in the area.
The alpine lake of Lago Roca is in the southern stretches of Los Glaciares National Park, overlooked by the icy peak of lofty Cerro Cristal. The camping, trekking, fishing and climbing in these parts are legendary, including climbs to Cerro Cristal and the Moreno Glacier, and treks along the banks of Lake Roca. The November to April fly-fishing season draws anglers to fish for rainbow trout and to watch the October spawning. Lakeside estancias offer horseback riding tours and traditional asado barbecues, and birdwatchers come here to spot migrating waterbirds on the lake.
Perched atop El Calafate’s nearest peak, with access to a vast stretch of snow-blanketed slopes and rugged mountain trails, the Calafate Mountain Park is an obvious choice for outdoors enthusiasts and there is a range of activities on offer. Winter visitors can make the most of the snow by skiing and tubing, or venture into the wilderness on a snowshoeing or snowmobiling excursion, while summer activities include downhill mountain biking and quad biking, along with kayaking and rafting tours around the nearby lakes and rivers. Even the journey to the Calafate Mountain Park is impressive and riding the chairlift to the 1,050-meter peak of Mt Huyliche serves up jaw dropping views over Argentino Lake and El Calafate below.
The Martial Glacier sits high above Ushuaia, but it's still only a few kilometers away. It’s open year-round, too, but the different seasons do bring about a striking change of scenery.
In the summer, the chairlift that runs from the end of Martial Glacier Road to the glacier itself is little more than a sightseer’s ticket to the alpine environment, where several hiking trails lead either across the glacier ice or into the nearby mountains. The black gorge trail offers stunning views of the Beagle Channel, while it’s also possible to skip the chairlift ride down and slowly descend with panorama-views of Ushuaia.
Throughout the winter, there is a little-used ski center that access terrific off-piste terrain for experienced backcountry skiers. There is also a Club Andino Ushuaia refugio, which often becomes a basecamp for skiers looking to truly explore the surrounding areas, including the Andorra Valley and Vinciguerra Glacier.
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