Things to Do in Patagonia
The narrow Beagle Channel, separating Argentina's island chain of Tierra del Fuego to the north from remote Chilean islands to the south, serves as a waterway for the world's southernmost city, Ushuaia. It’s also one of the most important bodies of water in South America.
When travelers make their way to the far southern reaches of Argentina, chances are they’re heading into Tierra del Fuego National Park. The country’s only coastal national park protects the Andean-Patagonian forest, a land of peat bogs, beech forests, glistening lakes, remote beaches, and snow-capped peaks ideal for outdoor adventures.
The beauty of Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia has earned it the nickname of the "Eighth Wonder of the World” in Argentina. It’s the planet's third-largest reserve of fresh water and one of the continent's last advancing glaciers, slowly making its way in crackling celestial blue from the granite spires of the Chilean Torres del Paine into Argentina's Los Glaciares National Park (Parque Nacional Los Glaciares).
Encompassing a colossal 566 square miles (911 square-kilometers), Argentino Lake (Lago Argentino) is the largest lake in the country. El Calafate, the UNESCO-listed Perito Moreno Glacier, and the Upsala Glacier are all perched on its shores, so the lake serves as the gateway to some of Patagonia’s most impressive glacial landscapes.
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.
If you have more time, try out some of the other trails in the park, which covers almost 150,000 acres of this island off the southernmost tip of the South American mainland.
PaLos Glaciares National Park (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 outside Antarctica and Greenland. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to several natural wonders, including Perito Moreno Glacier and Mount Fitz Roy.
Argentinian Patagonia is a massive chunk of land, extending from wind-whipped southern shorelines to snowy Andean peaks. Animals have walked and hunted this landscape for hundreds of millions of years—and much of it is documented right here in this museum of paleontology. When visiting Egidio Feruglio, stare in wonder at a dinosaur skeleton that’s 150 million years old, or the fossilized bones of an ancient turtle that lived 60 million years ago. You’ll also find the history of peoples who settled Patagonia, enduring the harsh, challenging landscape and finding a way to survive. While exhibits date back all the way to microorganisms, it’s the dinosaur fossils from the Mesozoic Era that make the museum stand out. Whenever fossils are found in Patagonia they often end up in these halls, where teams of some of the world’s best paleontologists will study them and put them together. In total, over 1,700 fossils are found inside the museum walls, from marine life and plants to early mammals and fearsome, furious dinosaurs. Add in some fun-filled children’s exhibits and a stream of new discoveries, and the Museum of Paleontology Egidio Feruglio (MEF) is a fascinating stop in Trelew.
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.
It’s worth mentioning that the region is stunning, but harsh. The weather – and most commonly the wind - can be fierce, but it’s all part of the southern Patagonian experience.
Overlooking the icy waters of Beagle Channel, Estancia Harberton offers a glimpse into the history and wildlife of Tierra del Fuego. The oldest residence in the area, the still-working property dates back to 1887 when it was established by English missionary Thomas Bridges and remains in the hands of his descendants.
For the ultimate end-of-the-earth adventure, ride the world’s southernmost train to Tierra del Fuego National Park. Leave from outside Ushuaia and follow the historic convict train route, passing beech forests, peat bogs, and reminders of the timber-felling worksites of Ushuaia prisoners from 1901 to 1941.
More Things to Do in Patagonia
The Esmeralda Lagoon hike is a popular afternoon and evening activity just outside of Ushuaia. Set in a wide valley in the Fuegian Andes, Esmeralda Lagoon is ringed by native cohiue and lenga forests.
The hike traverses several peat bogs, which cover much of Tierra Del Fuego’s low-lying lands. After a 2-3 hour hike, visitors arrive at the shore of Esmeralda Lagoon, but the main attraction is hard to choose. Both the emerald-green glacier water and the beavers that ply its waters are equally stunning. Other native fauna, including guanaco, foxes and condors are commonly sighted along the hike to and from the lake.
Helicopter tours also depart Ushuaia airfield and fly across the Fuegian Andes, past Olivia Mountain to Esmeralda Lagoon.
In the winter months, the lake freezes and the Southern Andes are covered in snow. Tours still hike into the lake; however, it’s less about the destination and more about experiencing a rare winter wonderland.
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 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.
South America’s largest glacier, in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Los Glaciares National Park near El Calafate, measures 35 miles (56 kilometers) long and 6 miles (10 kilometers) wide. Upsala Glacier is among seven glaciers feeding Lake Argentino, where boats dodge icebergs the size of small islands en route to the wall of ice.
When visiting Los Alerces National Park (Parque Nacional Los Alerces), 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. Hire a sailboat to cruise the waters of cobalt Lake Futalaufquen, or hit the trails for views of waterfalls, glaciers, volcanoes, and lakes. The fly fishing here in the numerous rivers is some of the continent’s best, and it’s even said that Butch Cassidy hid out in this wild escape. For a classic Los Alerces adventure, begin in Puerto Limonao on the shores of Lake Futalaufquen, and begin an excursion by boat and by foot that explores the very heart of the park to trees over 2,000 years old.
Despite its being toward the ends of the earth, Patagonia has been settled by humans for 15,000 years. Though scant remnants of this era remain, on a tour of the stunning Walichu Caves outside of El Calafate, it’s still possible to find primitive drawings emblazoned on walls of the caves. Believed to represent stories of creation and tales of life in these hills, the drawings sat here forgotten for centuries until Perito Moreno discovered the caves in 1877. Today, while some of the drawings have been defaced, and others are modern replicas, they still tell a tale of primitive peoples who wandered this rugged landscape, where hunting, foraging—and even art—were staples of daily life. Aside from the actual drawings themselves, the setting surrounding Walichu Caves is arguably just as impressive, where rock formations line the shores of crystalline Lake Argentino.
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. Roca and Errazuriz share a history in Patagonia, as both were recognized for the Abrazo del Estrecho (the hug of the Strait of Magallanes) when they met in Punta Arenas to find a friendly solution to conflicting Patagonian land claims.
Prior to being renamed Lago Roca and Errazuriz (depending on which side of the border you visit), the lake was known as Lago Acigami, the yagan native name.
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.
Mt. Fitz Roy, the highest mountain in Los Glaciares National Park, rises 11,171 feet (3,405 meters) above the snow-blown landscape of Southern Patagonia to a granite peak that only serious climbers should consider. This recognizable landmark was named after Sir Robert FitzRoy, who once guided Charles Darwin aboard the HMS Beagle.
Devoted to studying the marine animals and birds of South America’s Tierra del Fuego region, the Acatushun Museum is an impressive testament to the region’s biodiversity. More than 4,000 specimens are on display in the natural history museum, including the complete skeleton of a humpback whale.
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.
An iceberg-inspired feat of architecture rising up over the shores of Lake Argentino and framed by snow-capped peaks, the Glaciarium is a fitting setting for a museum devoted to Patagonia’s glacial landscapes. Learn about the region’s unique geology and environmental concerns through multimedia displays and interactive exhibitions.
The Ushuaia Maritime Museum(Museo Marítimo y del Presidio) 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(Museo Marítimo y del Presidio) 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.
Garibaldi Pass, located on Tierra del Fuego, is the only paved route across the Fuegian Andes. Surprisingly enough, it’s also the highest point on Argentina’s Ruta Nacional 3. The views from the summit are stunning; to the north, the massive Lago Fagnano stretches 98 km west, across the Magallanes-Fagnano Fault and into Chile, and to the south, the often-missed Lago Escondido reveals its picture-perfect location surrounded by mountains.
The mountain pass also marks an abrupt transition in Tierra Del Fuego’s Geography. To the north, the island is mostly rolling steppe and sprawling sheep farms are the only things that interrupt the large distances between settlements. Heading south, the road snakes its way through the Fuegian Andes for the final 60km into Ushuaia before descending to the Beagle Channel.
The pass was built in 1956 to connect the island’s two major cities: Rio Grande and Ushuaia and it comes with a touch of interesting history. Three days after the route opened, a USA-licensed Jeep became just the third vehicle to successfully drive between the two cities, completing what at the time was the first successful Alaska-Ushuaia road trip.
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