By Sadie Whitelocks, Avid-adventurer – 26 countries in 12 months, two polar regions, one mountain, hand luggage only.
Tuesday 20 Feb 2018 3:00 pm
From stunning mountain peaks to gaping glaciers and fairy-tale forests, Patagonia is one of the world’s ultimate spots when it comes to rugged untouched beauty.
The area can be a little intimidating and with some 400,000 square miles to cover, it’s difficult to know where to start.
In a bid to get a taste of what this magnificent region has to offer, I booked on to travel company Exodus’s Patagonia Highlights tour, which covers a vast amount of ground in 15 days.
Here’s some of the nuggets you can expect on the group trip, which caters to avid hikers and nature enthusiasts alike.
Starting in Buenos Aires
Landing in Buenos Aires, you could mistake yourself for being in Paris, with identikit architecture.
On the first day of the tour we met our guide for the next two or so weeks, Xiavier.
He was extremely knowledgeable about everything.
Must-visit spots include the Metropolitan Cathedral; Cafe Tortoni, the oldest coffee shop in town; Teatro Colon opera house; Monserrat, one of the few original colonial buildings in town; and the famed 235-foot-high obelisk.
El Chalten, Argentina’s trekking capital
On day two, we took a three-hour internal flight south to Calafate, where temperatures dropped from a sweaty 35C in Buenos Aires to a more manageable 18C.
From the airport, we took a three-hour bus ride to El Chalten, hailed as ‘Argentina’s trekking capital’.
El Chalten is a thoroughly charming town, with a small downtown area home to hostels, boutique hotels and quaint restaurants.
The place has a young feel and you can hear a mix of different languages as you ramble around.
Suggested kit list
Exodus’ Patagonia Highlights tour runs from October through to March.
When I visited in January the weather was about 35C in Buenos Aires, dipping to lows of 14C in Ushuaia.
It was generally a dry heat but there were occasional showers and the winds proved ferocious in several spots.
Here are some of the key essentials I packed: verto micro jacket (North Face), £195; wool watch cap (Filson), £45; motivation tech bra (North Face), £45; Lowe Alpine Cholatse ND45 (backpack), £110; full-length align pant (Lululemon), £88; shinpuru gore-tex jacket (North Face), £150; moab FST hiking boots (Merrell), £120. And don’t forget to bring a water bottle.
We went on a magnificent 11-hour hike to the glistening Laguna de Los Tres at the base of Mount Fitz Roy.
Luckily, the weather was clear and we could see the jagged mountain range in all its glory.
Half the group didn’t make it, so be warned, it does take a bit of huff and puff to make it to the top.
On the second day, we had a free time so I opted to do a wonderful trek to the Margarita Waterfall, which unfortunately isn’t flowing with pre-made cocktail, and to the Mirador Del Torre lookout point.
That afternoon we were off again, making our way back past Calafate airport and to the town centre.
Stunning glaciers in Calafate
The town of Calafate is a rather odd place and the main street has dozens of retail stores promoting trips, but that’s about it.
Spread in between there’s a peppering of souvenir shops, restaurants and bars, not to mention the rather bizarre addition of a casino.
Most people use the town as a base camp to do day trips to the Viedma Glacier and the magnificent Perito Moreno Glacier.
The Exodus tour includes a day trip to this awe-inspiring site where you could stand all day, purely admiring the beauty of the ice and watching 240-foot-high chunks drop off due to a natural process called calving.
Eating and drinking in Patagonia:
Cerveceria Artesanal Chalten: one of the oldest restaurants in town complete with a microbrewery.
A great atmosphere by candlelight, punchy cocktails and deliciously large salads.
La Tapera: one of the area’s most popular restaurants with American number plates lining the walls and enormous steaks to gorge on.
Isabel: think hearty stews cooked in heavy, metal pans that were made out of tractor parts.
Borges y Alvarez Libro-Bar: a library-inspired bar with book references all around.
There’s a lovely, relaxed atmosphere with great Irish coffees to accompany a spot of reading.
La Tablita: a high-end eatery with a sophisticated vibe and a window looking into the meat-loaded kitchen.
The olive oil is moreish as are the Americano cocktails.
The Dublin: be warned, there is no Guinness at this bustling Irish pub but it does rustle up some killer cocktails for about £6 each.
Pisco sours come in pint glasses.
Almacen Ramos Generales: If you’re looking for something a little more civilised, this cosy former general store serves up local beers, warming wines and delicious cheese boards.
Chez Manu: Serving up unbeatable views and inspiring a little romance, this tucked-away mountainside restaurant is a must-visit.
Chef Emmanuel Herbin rustles up French-inspired cuisine using fresh produce from the region. His blue cheese-infused butter is divine.
Crossing over to Chile
On day seven we crossed the border to Chile, gaining anther stamp in the passport.
The scenery didn’t change wildly as we drove along, but we did see guanacos, a kind of cross between llamas and camels, for the first time.
The soaring peaks of Torres Del Paine
For the two nights we were at the Torre Central Refugios in the Torres Del Paine National Park the boys and girls shared dormitory-style rooms, complete with bunk beds and communal showers.
Everyone noted that they were the comfiest beds of the trip with crisp linen and snuggly duvet filling.
The stay included one of our earlier starts, with a hike up to the Torres Del Paine base camp starting at 8:30am.
After a delicious breakfast, featuring the ever-flowing dulce de leche caramel spread, we were off.
As with the Mount Fitz Roy trek, this hike is fairly strenuous with steep paths with uneven footing.
Luckily, the weather was clear the day we went up and we were able to see the top of the dagger-shaped peaks.
Dipping down to Tierra Del Fuego
After two days of driving, stopping briefly at the fishing port of Puerto Natales and overnighting in a bizarre ‘ghost town’ called Cerro Sombrero, we finally made to our last port of call.
Dipping down south, the scenery gets more mountainous once again.
Isla Grande De Tierra Del Fuego is an island at the tip of Argentina. It’s shared with Chile and home to the Tierra Del Fuego National Park.
As with all of the other parks, hiking paths are well signposted with distances and estimated times helpfully listed.
If you’re staying in the city of Ushuaia there are two hikes which I recommend as they are a quick taxi ride from town and doable in a morning or afternoon.
Firstly, you can hike from town or take a cab to the base of Martial Glacier, which is popular with alpine skiers in the winter.
This trek will reward you with stunning views of the Beagle Channel and there’s a fantastic tea shop for when you get down.
The other hike is to Lake Esmeralda, which is about a three-hour round trip from where you’re dropped off.
The path goes through a mix of different terrain, from forest to bog, and the final vista makes it all worthwhile with a still body of glacial water starring back at you with craggy peaks around.
On the Exodus trip we also got a guided hike to some of the more difficult-to-reach spots in the park, including a stop at the southernmost post office in the Americas.
Save the last dance
From Ushuaia, we took a three-hour, 20-minute internal flight back to Buenos Aires, where the trip ended.
The final evening was free for us to do as we pleased, with tango being the popular way to end things on a high.
If you’re looking for an extra-special place to see this sexy-style of ballroom dance, I recommend taxiing over to the Philippe Starck-designed Faena Hotel.
The lavish venue boasts Alice and Wonderland-style interiors with triple-height ceilings, mirrored panels and swathes of red velvet.
The Rojo Tango show isn’t cheap at $220, but the dinner package ($290) comes with three courses and unlimited wine.
I’d thoroughly recommend this if you’re celebrating a special occasion, as the dancing and musicianship are faultless.
How to get there:
Exodus’ 15-day Patagonian Highlights tour starts from £3,999 with flights included.
British Airways also offers direct flights to Buenos Aires from London Heathrow with prices starting at about £900.
Main image: a view of Mount Fitz Roy from the Laguna De Los Tres viewing point (Picture: Sadie Whitelocks)