Exploring Patagonia with family
We landed in Santiago after 13 hours of flight, excitement and anticipation overshadowed any fatigue or jet lag, if there was any. First international travel and first backpacking trip, we were supercharged for an adventure. Only a scenic flight with uninterrupted views of the Andes, lakes, volcanoes and countless fjords, is between us and Patagonia now.
Patagonia, a spellbinding remote landscape shaped by ancient glaciers and wind has captivated our imaginations since we started thinking about our first international adventure with the family. Patagonia is shared across southern Argentina and Chile, with incredible options to explore on both sides. The most challenging part of the planning was to pick a few to fit into our three-week trip.
We were in Punta Arenas after 3.5 hours, the largest Chilean city in Patagonia. We were greeted by a smiling sun and cool breeze, which turned into light drizzle by afternoon – typical Patagonian weather. Puerto Natales, our destination for today is still some 250 km away and our bus will depart after two hours. Recently limited direct flights to Puerto Natales from Santiago have started. We sat in a cafe, absorbing new sounds, smells, and sights of the town while overstuffing our tummies with delicious fresh food.
Our plan is to spend a few days at Los Glaciares National Park and El Calafate in Argentina before getting back to Puerto Natales for the top adventure of our trip – 7-day backpacking famed “W” trek in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. Buses are the gold standard to explore vast and remote Patagonia. Both countries have a very reliable and comfortable bus network operated by several bus operators, making it the most accessible and cheapest option to travel around Patagonia.
Punta Arenas – Puerto Natales
Sleep overtook excitement with the aid of the gentle swaying motion of the bus. We reached our hostel Erratic Rock II by the evening, a perfect place to get some rest. Friendliest people, cozy decor, most satisfying breakfast, positive vibes – our kids still reminisce about a wonderful time there. This sleepy little town is the jumping-off point to Torres del Paine and has some great places to eat. We stored extra luggage at the hostel and boarded the early morning bus to take us to El Chalten across the border in Argentina. Fortunately, we did not have to wait very long at the border crossing, which sometimes can take hours.
Puerto Natales – El Chaltén
El Chaltén or ‘Smoking Mountain’ is Tehuelche language, a colorful village at the edge of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. It was founded in 1985, to beat Chile to the land claim, now evolved itself into a “trekking capital of Argentina.” Dramatic Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre mountain massifs tower above its smattering of unpretentious accommodations, shops, and restaurants catering to travelers and climbers.
I bet you will instantly fall in love with this charmingly quaint town. We stayed at Anita’s House, a beautiful guesthouse close to the park’s entrance managed by Anita. Her home was the base for our first backpacking trip to Fitz Roy. We hiked to Fitz Roy base, which was our first backpacking with kids and now a most cherished experience. Read the full story from Fitz Roy here – First backpacking with kids.
El Chaltén – El Calafate
El Calafate is three hours away by bus and a base town to visit magnificent Perito Moreno Glacier. El Calafate is named for the berry that once eaten guarantees your return to Patagonia We stayed at Keu Ken hostel, a funky hostel in the middle of the town. The soft-spoken host, a delicious BBQ dinner, company of intrepid travelers with lots of interesting travel stories to share – our first trip was getting interesting every day.
We ditched the bus tour in favor of total freedom and rented a cheap old car. The day was perfect, albeit a bit chilly, and my side of the window refused to roll up, once rolled down. After driving 80 km west of town with lungs full of 100% fresh Patagonian air, and ice-cold noses we made it to the parking lot, which may have had 10-15 other cars. We were early to beat bus crowds.
We were face to face with Perito Moreno Glacier after a short walk, and it took our breath away. I had never seen anything so magnificent in my life before. I wonder how Francisco Moreno, a famous Argentine explorer, after whom it is named, must have felt exploring it for the first time. Stretching 5 km wide with distant peaks in the background and towering 75 meters above the milky blue waters of Lago Argentino, (the largest freshwater lake in the country), it was a sight to behold. It is beyond imagination and beyond the capability of any camera to capture its grandeur.
Park has done an excellent job with wood and metal walkways, which blend with surroundings beautifully. They offer several viewing decks with benches to appreciate the glacier from different perspectives. All the paths are very well-marked and colored coded.
Perito Moreno is very active, substantial ice chunks crack off its face frequently, known as ‘calving,’ thundering, and making big waves in the lake. We sat there spellbound looking at the 70 m high slowly advancing snow wall. Kids were thrilled by calving and cheered for the ones which they were able to witness just in time. We heard some crackling, and everyone around us got excited, and then a large slice calved into the water with a rumble of loud thunder, sending it several meters high.
There are three ways to enjoy this remarkable glacier – from the walkways, from lake’s level by boat, and from the top by hiking on it.
Bus tours take visitors in groups and have a time limit and generally, provide a guide and lunch. Boat tours, which you may book at the park, take you up to 100m close to the glacier’s face. Hiking on the glacier was ruled out for us. Our kids did not make the required age limit. Anyway, we will go back to Patagonia, since we ate the berries.
On our way back to the town, we stopped at Glaciarium museum, which we thought will be good for kids as they were primed to learn more about the glacier. To our pleasant surprise, this museum far exceeded our expectations. It is a creatively designed museum using multimedia and audiovisual effects, to present every dimension of the glaciers, from their formation to their role in our planet, in a very inspiring way. Kids loved their time here, and I would highly recommend to visit it, with or without kids. In the end, to feel the glacier bit more intimately, we went underground, to Glaciobar, where everything is made of ice – the walls, the bar, the stools, the glasses – everything. We raised our glasses to the next Patagonia adventure – “W” trail and headed to the town to get ready for the next day’s bus ride back to Puerto Natales.
El Calafate – Puerto Natales
Back at Erratic Rock, we prepared our backpacks for the much-anticipated “W” trek, the highlight of our Patagonia trip, and a story for another time. After seven days of backpacking, we were back in Puerto Natales to celebrate low-key and homely Christmas festivities. Next day, we headed back to the starting point – Punta Arenas.
Puerto Natales – Punta Arenas
Punta Arenas, the “edge of the world,” the gateway to Antarctica, is a captivating windblown port town with friendly and relaxed people. Magellanic hospitality outweighs the inhospitality of nature any day, and our hostel Keoken was not an exception. We were made comfortable and fed in the morning by a friendly host, to seize our two days in the town, which we did!
The weather was perfect on our first day, and we were cautioned of its fickleness. Thanking our good luck, we reserved our seats for Magdalena and Santa Marta Islands tour and hopped on the bus which took us to Laredo Bay, the starting point for the boat tour. The first stop was Isabel Island, not a stop in a real sense, as humans are not allowed to disembark on this island. Our boat circled the island giving us an opportunity to watch a colony of sea lions sunbathing, several otters going about their day, and loud cormorants feeding their young chicks.
Humans are allowed to disembark at Magdalena Island, with a strong warning to stay on the trail path and always keeping in mind penguins’ right of way to waddle by as they please. These amusing seabirds nest in the same spot every year and over 60 thousand couples take possession of the island from October to March. We visited them in December, their chicks were grown up a bit and were absolutely way louder than our kids, who were under Penguin magic at that time. Magdalena Island is part of the Los Pingüinos Natural Monument, and home to around 120,000 Magellanic penguins.
We woke up with a great sense of urgency, and a tinge of sadness, today was our last day of the trip. We spend the day in museums to understand Chilean history and evening at Plaza Muñoz Gamero to soak up the town’s vibes. With heavy hearts, we planted kisses at the toe of the statue of the indigenous Ona man in the center of the Plaza, making a promise to come back!
Tips for your Patagonian Adventure Planning
1. Choosing the right time to travel
Most of the places are closed during winter (June – August), April and May are wet. December – March are the best times to explore Patagonia with all services functioning. Regardless of the month, the weather fluctuates without warning and violent storms can sweep in from the Pacific. It’s wise to keep a couple of days extra in case you encounter inclement weather.
2. Planning your budget
If you are a budget-conscious traveler like me, consider hostels and camping. With so much to do and see, expenses add up pretty fast, and you may like to spend on some amazing excursions rather than food and accommodation.
3. Planning travel time
You will be visiting a vast and remote land, which needs planning to travel around. Plan carefully, saving time and money by long overnight, domestic flights are expensive. Don’t forget to keep some floating days for recovery and relaxation.
4. Packing for Patagonia
Pack layers and be ready to experience four seasons in one day, especially when hiking. The ozone layer is still being healed over Patagonia, and the UV index gets really high. Protect yourself with sunscreen, hat, and UV-protective clothing. Always keep a rain jacket handy.
5. Crossing the border
Travel light for quicker scanning, be prepared for long delays due to border traffic. Be careful of food items in your bags while hopping over to Chile to avoid fine.