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Patagonia

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Patagonia Overview

When Ferdinand Magellan sailed to Patagonia in 1520, one of the passengers aboard believed they had arrived at a land of giants because of the larger stature of Patagonia’s indigenous people. Magellan dubbed the local Indians Patagones, meaning “big feet.” The name stuck and gave Patagonia its moniker. It’s had a giant reputation ever since.

Patagonia’s geographic profile reinforce its larger-than-life identity. The region covers more than 600,000 square miles of the southern tip of South America (roughly the size of Texas and California combined) encompassing parts of Chile and Argentina. On the Chilean side, Patagonia begins south of the city of Puerto Mont and extends down to the southern edge of the country. In Argentina, it begins in the province of Rio Negro and covers the southern third of the country all the way through the island of Tierra del Fuego.

The Argentinean side of Patagonia is characterized by the mountainous Andes in the west, which transition to plateaus and low plains as you move east before hitting the Atlantic Coast. The Chilean side is dominated by the Andes Mountains, complimented by a rugged coastline peppered with high fjords, brutal channels, and small islands. Chile is also known for its comprehensive ice fields. Northern Patagonia is dubbed the Lake District, with ice-blue glacial lakes surrounded by thick forests and snow-capped peaks and volcanoes. Southern Patagonia is dominated by vertical granite spires and glaciers. To say the landscape is dramatic would be an understatement. A visit to Patagonia could include a hike around the famed granite mountains of Torres del Paine, camping on the shore of a glacial lake, or strapping on crampons to trek across a glacier. You could travel the plains where cowboys still roam by horseback, and hit the road all the way down to the land of fire, Tierra del Fuego, at the southern end of the inhabited world.

Hiking
On the northern end of Los Glaciares National Park, Monte Fitz Roy is a beacon for hikers as well as climbers. While a summit expedition might be out of the question, hiking around the base of Fitz Roy is surprisingly accessible, with options that range from a two-hour jaunt to a four-day circumnavigation of the mountain. Access Fitz Roy through the town of El Chalten. Entrance to the park through El Chalten is free.
On the Chilean side of Patagonia, Torres Del Paine National Park is a 927-square-mile park characterized by the granite towers of the Paine Massif and the small valleys, glaciers, and lakes that occupy the space below the rock walls. The park marks a distinct transition between the Andes Mountains and the steppes to the east. Trekking is the most popular activity inside the park, with epic, multi-day journeys around lakes, towers, and ice fields. The 150-km Paine Circuit is a comprehensive walk through the park, but can take up to two weeks to complete. The shorter, 46-mile W Circuit, hits the highlights in half the time. Either trek can be done self-supported, overnighting at popular lake-side campsites, or by hiking from lodge to lodge. If you’re into wildlife, keep your eyes peeled for Andean condors, Chilean flamingoes, llama-like guanacos, ostrich-like rheas, black-neck geese, and pumas. Puerto Natales should be your base for a Torres Del Paine adventure. Entry fee is $31.

Fly Fishing
Covering the southern tip of South America, and divided by Chile and Argentina, Tierra del Fuego (land of fire) is known by locals as “the end of the world.” In fact, Ushuaia, the capital city of the Argentine side, is the southernmost city in the world. The 240-square-mile Tierra del Fuego National Park is also the world’s southernmost park, with a coastline defined by high fjords and glaciers. The region is surrounded by the South Atlantic Ocean and the Strait of Magellan. The national park is expansive, but largely off limits with only a fraction of its southern border opens to the public.  

If the region of Tierra del Fuego is known for one thing, it’s fly fishing, with lodges perched on the edge of remote rivers and lakes within casting distance of the region’s famous freshwater salmon and brown, brook, and rainbow trout. The fishing season in Tierra del Fuego runs November through April, and the Rio Grande is a major river for the sport. The river flows west from the Andes to the Atlantic, and is known for its ocean-fed Sea Run Brown Trout and high-end fly-fishing lodges.

To get to the island of Tierra del Fuego, rent a car or take a bus from Puerto Natales to Punta Arenas, also in Chile. Take a ferry from Punta Arenas and cross the Strait of Magellan to land in Tierra del Fuego.

Glacier Trekking
Located in the Austral Andes in Argentina along the border with Chile, the aptly-named Los Glaciares National Park is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site, boasting 47 major glaciers a 200 smaller glaciers. The park’s portfolio of ice represents a significant chunk the largest glacier system in South America. The glaciers exist in a fairly temperate climate and relatively low elevation, and they’re able to do so because of the severe winds in the area, known locally as “the williwaws,” which can blow at 65 mph.

Glaciar Perito Moreno, near the southern end of the park, is the most famous glacial cap. At three-miles wide and 197 feet tall, the glacier is best known for the massive icebergs that fall from its broad face into the Canal de los Tempanos. Tour guides offer sailing excursions around the glacier and even mini-trekking tours that allow you to walk across the natural wonder. Access Perito Moreno through the city of El Calafate. Entrance fees to the park are typically $30.

Climbing
Patagonia has some of the most revered mountain summits in the world. Southern Patagonia in particular is known for its huge granite towers like Mount Fitz Roy, Cerro Torre, and Torres del Paine. Fitz Roy is a jagged, granite peak that rises 6,000 vertical feet from a tangle of glaciers to form one of the toughest climbs in the world, thanks to the ice and wind that plague its flanks. The extreme weather surrounding these peaks often leaves climbers without a feasible window for a summit attempt. Smaller towers in the south like Guillaumet and Saint Exupery are less technical, and are more appropriate testing grounds for big-tower mountaineering.

In North Patagonia, golden granite crags surround Bariloche, offering world-class traditional climbing, particularly along the towers and thin needles around Refugio Frey. Warmer weather and a more stable climate make North Patagonia a more climber-friendly region.

Getting There
Patagonia is not an easy place to reach, but a flight into Buenos Aires, Argentina, is 8.5 hours from Miami, with tickets typically running $1,000 in December. From Buenos Aires, you can catch another flight to El Calafate, which will put you within striking distance of Patagonia’s most famous national park, Los Glaciares.

When to Go
November through April (Patagonia’s spring through fall) is high season, with the warmest weather, lowest precipitation, and largest crowds. The days are very long, with sunrise around 4:30 a.m. and sunset around 10:30 p.m. Average temperatures range from 46F to 68F, with cooler temperatures at higher elevations. Still, the weather in Patagonia is unpredictable, and the clouds shift quickly. You can get rain, sleet, snow, and sun all in one day.

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