Things to Do & Must-See Attractions 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Mount Fitz Roy, the highest mountain in Los Glacieres National Park, rises 3,405 m (11,168 ft) above the bare, sculpted mountains with blowing snow to a peak that only serious climbers will even consider. Its neighbor, 3,128 m (10,260 ft) Cerro Torre is no easier to crest, but their magnificent spires crown the parkland with its most recognizable formation.
Serious climbers can attempt either mountain between November and February, but keep in mind that even in summer, clear days are not guaranteed. Less ambitious hikers will find wonderful trails up into the granite wonderland, nowhere near the apex but high enough to enjoy views across the flowering fields and crystaline lakes.
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.
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.
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.
When visiting Los Alerces National Park, you’ll have the chance to commune with some of the oldest organisms in the world. Here in this protected swath of land on the mountainous border with Chile, collections of large Alerce trees have silently grown in this rugged terrain for over 3,000 years. Similar in appearance to North American Sequoias, these towering trees can grow two hundred feet and have trunks up to ten feet wide, and many of the trees in the park today are well over 1,000 years old. The park itself was established back in 1937, as a means of protecting the ancient trees that were rapidly being depleted. Thankfully for travelers who like the outdoors, the lakes, rivers, mountains, and trails surrounding the trees were also protected in this stunning national park. Today, Los Alerces National Park spans 1,000 square miles of Patagonian wilderness that’s some of the Argentina’s best.
Completely surrounded by the Guanaco and Piramides Mountain Ranges, both sub ranges of the Andes, Lago Roca is a stunning emerald-green lake protected by Argentina’s Tierra Del Fuego National Park.
The Lago Roca hostel and campground is the easiest starting point to explore this section of the national park. Fishing is popular on the lake, while several trails lead around the lake and into the surrounding mountains. The Cerro Guanaco Trail is a steep climb to a mountain summit. The views from the top are massive, overlooking Lago Roca, the Beagle Channel, and across the border into Chile.
It’s a lake with an identity crisis, too, as Lago Roca – named for former Argentinean president Julio Argentino Roca - is just the most recognized of its three names. The western most portion of the Lake crosses the international border into Chile, where the lake is known as Lago Errazuriz, after Chile’s former President Federico Errázuriz Echaurren.
With a population around 50,000, Puerto Madryn is one of the fastest growing cities in Argentina. While it was originally founded by Welsh settlers, little remains of that Welsh heritage today. Instead, it has become a major tourist destination for visitors looking to enjoy the beaches, wildlife and outdoor activities of the nearby Valdes Peninsula.
Cruise ships dock about four miles from the center of town. Taxis are metered and are the best way to get into the city if you are not participating in a shore excursion organized by your ship.
Visiting Puerto Madryn is really more about exploring the surrounding area than the city itself. It is the jumping off point for excursions to the nearby Valdes Peninsula, a wildlife sanctuary for birds and marine life. Visit sea lion colonies, spot sea elephants, drive past guanacos, foxes, armadillos and ostriches or hop on a boat to go whale watching.
Lake Fagnano sits directly above the Magallanes-Fagnano Fault, which marks the boundary between the Scotia and South American tectonic plates. The 98km long lake also sits upon the Chile/Argentina border; however, the majority of the lake belongs to Argentina. It’s also the largest lake on Tierra del Fuego.
Lake Fagnano is surrounded by virgin Patagonian forest but there is still a striking landscape change between the south and north shores. The south is marked by the steep Fuegian Andes, while the northern shore is much gentler as Tierra de Fuego transforms into rolling steppe. While boat trips and sport fishing are popular on the lake, most visitors still opt to visit Lake Fagnano the same day they visit Lake Escondido, on a lengthy daytrip from Ushuaia. The small town of Tolhuin sits on the lake’s easternmost point. Although little more than a stopping point between the two larger cities of Ushuaia and Rio Grande, the Panaderia La Union bakery has become famous.
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.
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