If you aren’t limited by time and imagination, choose a course that takes you into the hinterlands, an itinerary that only ends when the wind wins and you catch yourself daydreaming of beaches somewhere far away, warm and tropical.
Go Your Own Way
An increasingly popular option for launching your Patagonia backpacking or mountain-bike journey is the Carretera Austral. Mostly unpaved, this 1,200 kilometer Southern Highway, or Ruta 7, runs south from Puerto Montt, Chile, the southernmost terminus of the Pan-American Highway.
As the road unfolds on your way south, take time to visit the dripping rain forests of Parque Pumalín, the hanging toothpaste-colored Colgante glacier at Queulat National Park, and Chile’s latest national gem, Parque Patagonia, 650,000 acres of protected land, unclimbed peaks and endless opportunities for exploration and adventure.
Eventually, you’ll make it to the quiet port town of Villa O’Higgins on the northern edge of Lago O’Higgins. Weather dependent, a boat takes you across the blue-green waters of the lake to the start of your backdoor passage into Argentina.
Backpacking out of Chile and into Argentina has two great rewards for weary trekkers.
For one, the clouds formed over the ice fields might clear as your steps bring you closer to Argentina. When the clouds do open, look up and be amazed at the rock palace of Mount Fitz Roy sticking up like a sore thumb over everything else.
The other benefit is overland travelers save almost $200 USD by avoiding the mandatory reciprocity fee required of U.S. citizens entering Argentina. Don’t worry: You’ll spend all of that and more when you reach El Chaltén, Argentina’s frontier town where patient climbers wait for weather windows for a chance to summit the iconic peaks of Patagonia, such as the Fitz and Cerro Torre, some of the most majestic granitic forms in the world.
Multiday trips can be made with ease right from El Chaltén, so don’t be surprised if you decide to kick it here for a week or more. When you grow tired of the incessant winds, keep moving south, making a stop in El Calafate to snap a photo of Perito Moreno, one of the world’s few advancing glaciers. Then make your way back into Chile for some time in Torres del Paine National Park.
Ferry crossings, U.S. dollars (for the “blue” market of Argentina) and an elementary grasp on the Spanish language are a must for this pioneer choice. And while there are towns along the way in which you can restock your fuel and food, as well as find hospedajes and alojamientos (homestay lodging options), enjoy the luxuries of being self-contained by packing your own camping gear. The flexibility to sleep and eat where you might get stuck due to unforeseen transportation, weather or other complications is invaluable.
Booking a guide guarantees you won’t be wasting time doing things you don’t want to do, or spending money you’d rather not spend. Instead, relish the marvelous natural wonders you came for, like spying the elusive pudú (a tiny deer) or photographing the rose-colored Torres del Paine at sunrise.
Warmed by a fire, Nick Martin enjoys the remains of the day in Cochamo Valley. Following a 12 km rutted path created by gauchos over the years, a trek into this Yosemite of South America kicks off adventures on the Carratera Austral. Granite faces loom over green pastures and trails climb through rain forests to reach the base of both classic climbs and soon-to-be-classic routes set by future senders.
Nick Martin skims a first-edition map of Chile’s newest national park, Parque Patagonia. If you hike from Jeinimeni into Valle Aviles through the hinterlands of this conservation project, expect to walk the 20 km dirt road to park headquarters where hot showers, gourmet meals, roaring fireplaces and plush beds await if you’re willing to fork over the pesos.
Local beer brewed straight from the waters of Chile’s mighty Río Baker serves as a welcome refresher while planning the next steps of your journey on the Carretera Austral.
Mount Fitz Roy rises like a sentinel out of the clouds in the distance. Lago Desierto in the foreground marks the entry of the backdoor into Argentina from Chile.
When planning your Patagonia adventure, consider packing your harness for potential climbing opportunities or the occasional Tyrolean crossing found along the way. Nick Martin navigates this classic crossing over a stream pouring from Lago Torre, one of many easy day-hike destinations accessed from El Chaltén, Argentina.
Worth the early rise is a brisk hike up to Lago de Los Tres to view the Fitz Roy range in first light. Bring a thermos of mate and some crumbly scones to ward off the chill while you wait.
Don’t be afraid to wave the white flag every now and then, ceding to the ceaseless winds of Patagonia. Shedding wet, icy shoes and socks, Nick Martin relishes a calm moment in the trees. A mere 30 feet from this spot, 40 mph gales rage in one of the many glacial valleys scattered throughout Patagonia.