Things to Do in Patagonia
The epic massifs at Torres del Paine National Park (Parque Nacional Torres del Paine) in Chile draw visitors to an area of unspoiled beauty, where green fields and chill glittering lakes spread out beneath the naked granite spires of the Cordillera del Paine.
When Magellan passed through his eponymous strait bound for Chile for the first time, he cruised past the tiny Magdalena Island (Isla Magdalena). Today, travelers make it a point to stop at this scenic island just northeast of Punta Arenas to explore the rocky shores and observe the huge colony of Magellanic penguins at their critical breeding site.
Chiloé Island—also known as the Greater Island of Chiloé—is the largest island in the Chiloé Archipelago in the Lakes Region of southern Chile. Best known for its colorful wooden houses built on stilts, or palafitos, Chiloé Island is a popular vacation destination for local Chileans and for travelers.
The snow-capped cone of Osorno Volcano is one of Chile’s most recognizable landmarks. Towering over Lake Todos Los Santos and Lake Llanquihue in the Andean mountain range, Osorno is the starting point of Chilean Patagonia and is a magnet for adventurous outdoor enthusiasts who come here to ski, hike, and trek.
Lago Todos los Santos, or All Saints Lake, is located within Vicente Perez Rosales National Park in the lakes region of southern Chile. Sometimes it is referred to as Lago Esmeralda, which means Emerald Lake, due to its emerald green color. It is one of the biggest attractions in the national park. The lake was formed by glacial and volcanic activities. It is covers an area of about 69 square miles, and it has a maximum depth of about 1,105 feet. The lake flows into the Petrohué River and the Petrohué Waterfalls.
Visitors come to Lake Todos los Santos for boating, kayaking, rafting, swimming, and fishing. You can also enjoy hiking near the lake and watching for native animals in the area. From the lake, you can also see Osorno Volcano, Puntiagudo Volcano, Tronador Volcano. The lake has two ports, Peulla and Petrohue, which are part of the Lakes Cross, connecting Puerto Varas to Argentina.
In 1896, German explorer Eberhard Hermann entered a cave and found strange remains inside, the fur and bones of the extinct Mylodon sloth. Named after the giant ground sloth found within, Milodon Cave (Cueva del Milodon) is the largest of several caves within Cueva del Milodon National Monument. But the sloth wasn’t the only inhabitant of the caves. Remains of other extinct species, including a saber-toothed cat and a dwarf horse, as well as evidence of human habitation from as early as 6,000 BC have been found within the caves.
As visitors enter the monument, they’re greeted by a full-size replica of the mylodon sloth, standing 13 feet (4 meters) tall. The mylodon was said to resemble a giant bear, though the mammal was in fact a very large herbivore that went extinct over 10,000 years ago. A viewing point atop the cathedral-sized cave affords visitors views of the surrounding mountains, glaciers and the Eberhard fjord.
Whether by car or bike, it’s hard to dispute that the Carreterra Austral is one of South America's most rugged — and scenic — highway routes. Winding through the wilderness of Patagonia, the road is often remote and rough but grants access to some of the most naturally beautiful parts of Chile. Also known as Route 7 or Southern Highway, it runs north to south from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins for more than 1,200 kilometers.
Construction on the carretera began in 1976 under dictator Augusto Pinochet. It is not always one continuous road - in part it is connected only by ferry. Much of the paths are gravel, though more and more are being paved with time. It is particularly popular with cyclists in the summer months (December through February.)
Despite the length of the route, this area is sparsely populated by around only 100,000 people in rural communities — meaning you'll have much of the natural beauty to yourself.
Tumbling into Grey Lake (Lago Grey) in the heart of Torres del Paine National Park, massive Grey Glacier is almost 100 feet (30 meters) high at its peak. An arresting backdrop of snowcapped mountains adds to the glacier’s frozen enchantment.
The town of Puerto Varas sits on the banks of Llanquihue Lake in Chile’s magnificent Lakes District. The lake itself, the second-largest lake in the country after General Carrera Lake, sits at the base of the near-perfect conically shaped Osorno Volcano, adding to its already picturesque qualities.
The shores of the 336-square-mile (870-square-kilometer) lake share a German heritage, yet each attracts visitors for a different reason. Puerto Varas is the lake’s adventure capital, while Frutillar on the western banks of the lake appeals to Chilean tourists on summer holiday. The charming Bavarian-style town of Puerto Octay offers remote accommodations on the north shores of the lake, and rustic Ensenada on the eastern banks sits at the entrance to Vicente Perez Rosales National Park.
Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park was created in 1926, making it Chile's oldest national park. It covers an area of more than 620,000 acres in the Lakes region of Chile. The park is known for its volcanoes, mountains, forests, and lakes.
Some of the main attractions in the park include Osorno Volcano, Puntiagudo Volcano, and Tronador Volcano, which marks the border with Argentina. From higher areas of the park, you can see the lava flow paths to the rivers, lakes and waterfalls. The most famous waterfalls are the Petrohué Cascades, which flow through a canyon of volcanic rock formed by lava flows. Another big draw is Lago Todos los Santos, one of the most beautiful lakes in southern Chile.
Visitors come to the park for rock climbing, mountain biking, river kayaking, boating, canyoning, fishing, and hiking. Popular hiking trails include Los Enamorados, Velo de la Novia, Rincón de Osorno, and Desolación. Since it is a volcanic area, you can also enjoy thermal baths here. In the winter, it's a popular area for skiing. The park is also a great place to see native animals.
More Things to Do in Patagonia
Famed for its colony of adorable Magellanic penguins, Otway Sound (Seno Otway) houses one of the most easily visited penguin preserves in the world. In September, thousands of the smallish warm-weather penguins—all of them couples—make their way to this large inland bay in southern Chile and begin building nests.
Visitors to Fort Bulnes, located atop an unforgiving hillside, will surely take note of the unprecedented lengths colonizers went to in order to stake their claim on such inhospitable land.
Ancient shipwrecks that line the coastal route between this popular destination and Punta Arenas serve as a reminder of just how treacherous travel could be. While the fort’s museum, which explores the colonization history in Southern Chile and replicas of a historic church, jail, post office and stables are definitely worth the trip, visitors agree that it’s the epic views from scenic trails and the ancient watchtower that prove to be most memorable.
The Calbuco Volcano, one of two snow-capped volcanic cones rising above the town of Puerto Varas on the shores of Lake Llanquihue, is also one of Chile’s most active volcanoes with 36 confirmed eruptions — 13 recorded since 1893. In April 2015, Calbuco erupted three times in a period of eight days. While not a perfect cone like neighboring Osorno Volcano, the sight of Calbuco is equally magnificent.
Calbuco Volcano is located within Llanquihue National Reserve. Some of the best views of the peak can be seen while trekking through the park.
Not nearly as foreboding as it sounds, the Channel of Las Hope (Ultima Esperanza) is in fact a calm inlet stretching from Eberhard Fjord to Monte Balmaceda. In 1557, Spanish explorer Juan Ladrillero gave the channel its ominous name when he believed navigating it was his last opportunity to reach the Strait of Magellan, though he was met with a dead end.
Boat expeditions up the channel offer stellar views of Balmaceda Mountain and the Serrano Glacier — accessible via a short hike — where visitors walk on the surface of the glacier, visit ice caves or kayak amid ice bergs on Serrano Glacier Lake. Wildlife enthusiasts can spot cormorants, sea lions, dolphins and a variety of shore birds nesting along the banks of the channel.
Visitors to the Nao Victoria Museum can travel back in time and experience the real-life thrill of a 16th-century sailing experience. Opened in 2011, this destination is celebrated by locals for promoting national identity and preserving much of what makes this area so unique. Visitors can wander through four real-life replicas of famous ships: the Nao Victoria, James Caird, HMS Beagle and Schooner Ancud—boats that played an important role in the discovery of Magallanes. Guides are included in the cost of admission, which makes for rich storytelling while travelers explore the ships.
In the early 20th century, Swedish explorer Otto Nordenskjold discovered a blue alpine lake that would later be named after him. Located within Torres del Paine National Park, the lake is famous for its beautifully colored waters, as well as its outfall, the Salto Grande waterfall.
While the national park is famous for its multi-day hiking circuits, visitors can make a shorter, easier day hike to Mirador Nordenskjold, an overlook offering stunning views of the lake and surrounding mountains. The trail passes through fields of wildflowers in the spring, and it also brings hikers up close to the Salto Grande waterfall.
Unforgiving winds, rugged coastline, and narrow passages made the Strait of Magellan one of the most deadly channels for early explorers of South America. Luckily, modern cruise ship technology means today’s travelers can safely cross the strait for a scenic voyage past rocky fjords, forested islands, and glaciers that spill into the sea.
King George Island is the largest of South Shetland Islands, and its scenic bays, which include Maxwell, Admiralty and King George Bays, are home to unique wildlife, like elephant and leopard seals and a variety of species of penguins.
Its protected fjords and diverse flora and fauna make the island one of the region’s premier research stations for bio-diversity, and although these scientists who come from around the world are the only human inhabitants on this unique island, there’s still some draw for travelers venturing to the area’s icy depths. The Arctowski lighthouse is known for being the southernmost lighthouse in the world, and every summer intrepid runners venture to the island for the Antarctic marathon.
Located at the west end of Puerto Montt, the small fishing port of Angelmo got its name — according to local legend — from the mispronunciation by indigenous locals of the name of a local doctor, Angel Montt, when the town was first getting established.
Avenida Angelmo leads toward the port, lined with seafood restaurants and crammed with vendors selling handicrafts and souvenirs. Popular items include knickknacks made from the Alerce tree, a species native to Chile’s Lake District, as well as bottles of Licor de Oro. A fish market right on the banks of the bay sells the fresh catches brought in from local fishing boats, and restaurants — some built on stilts over the water — serve some of the best quality seafood in the area.
This 1,700-square-foot mecca of Patagonia heritage covers an entire history, culture and tradition in just four floors. Travelers can explore the well-organized galleries created by Salesian missionaries back in the late 1800s and learn about the rich ethnology, archaeology, wildlife and diversity of the region.
Visitors rave about the Cave of the Hands replica, which is displayed in a room dedicated to Southern Patagonia, and many applaud the museum’s honest handling of colonists, too. The Salesians made every effort to preserve artifacts from the Ona, Tehuelche, Alacalufe and Yamana people, while also explaining the impact of European colonists on local traditions and the role of pioneers in helping to create modern day Punta Arenas.
Opened in 1894, the Punta Arenas Municipal Cemetery is known as the final resting place for some of the area’s most famous historical figures. Relevant families—like the Menendez-Behetys—even have their own chapels here. The massive iron gate stationed at the cemetery’s main entrance was donated by Sara Braun, a wealthy businesswoman, back in 1919, and local legend says it has remained closed and locked since the day it was completed at Sara’s request. While the grounds were originally reserved for bodies of British colonialists, it also includes those of famous German, French, Norwegian and Chilean residents as well.
Punta Arenas Municipal Cemetery covers about 10 acres (four hectares) of city land, making it one of the most expansive burial grounds in the region. Visits are often included in city tours, and the cemetery’s main office has an incredible electronic database where travelers can search for individuals by name to find the location of specific plots.
The Punta Arenas Cruise Port on the Strait of Magellan serves as the gateway to Punta Arenas, Chilean Patagonia’s largest and most commercially important city. A port of call for passengers looking to explore the region and a jumping-off point for expeditions to Antarctica and Magdalena Island, Punta Arenas Cruise Port is a must-visit for adventurous travelers.
Situated in the popular Torres del Paine National Park, the Salto Grande Waterfall is fed by the ice-blue waters of Nordenskjöld Lake and tumbles 50 feet (15 meters) into Lake Pehoé below. Admire the Salto Grande Waterfall—one of the most impressive attractions in the park—during a beginner-friendly day hike and look out for grazing guanacos (camelids).
This historic town square is among the most popular destinations in the Magallanes Region because of its unmistakable energy and close proximity to some of Punta Arenas’ major attractions. Travelers can easily walk from Plaza Munoz Gamero to Casa Braun-Menendez, the Sociedad Menendez Behety and the local cathedral, and many visitors agree that the best handmade crafts in town can be found here.
Walking the plaza takes only a few minutes, but most visitors gather at park benches or relax in the shade of trees to take in the sights and sounds of local life. Local folklore states kissing the statue of Magellan’s feet is good luck, so visitors looking to change their fortune should be sure to do so before leaving the plaza. A central information center also offers travelers maps and recommendations, making this a perfect first stop on a trip to Punta Arenas.
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