Patagonia Hiking at its Finest…
The southernmost part of Chile and Argentina is a hiker’s paradise. Between the craggy Andean mountains and their powerful glaciers, waterfalls lining the trails, scrubland sprinkled with turquoise glacial lakes, and old-growth forests leading to windblown cliffs, well, you get the picture. The scenery in Patagonia changes almost as rapidly as the weather. And the number of options for trekking in this ‘end-of-the-world’ paradise is nothing less than mind blowing. Below are four bucket list-worthy Patagonia hikes you’ll never forget…
1) Nahuel Huapi Traverse ‘Circuito Chico’ – Bariloche, Argentina
3 days | 37 miles | Moderate to difficult
Why go? You’ll strangely feel like you’ve landed straight into the scenery from “The Sound of Music.”
You definitely won’t be the only one on this well-beaten path, but this shorter stretch of the Nahuel Huapi Traverse is a popular classic for a reason. The ‘Circuito Chico’ offers scenery that changes at every turn and includes alpine lakes, waterfalls, wildflowers, old forests, and massive mountain ridges, with a picturesque charm that will make you wonder if you’ve somehow ended up in the Alps.
This trek starts at the ski village of Catedral and ends near Colonia Suiza (both approximately 12 miles outside of town). Buses from downtown Bariloche go to and from both places quite a few times per day. There’s refugios* along the route, but you should carry a tent, sleeping bag and a stove with you even if you plan on sleeping at the huts. In January, February, or anytime in bad weather, it’s very possible that you could arrive wanting nothing more than a hot meal and to crash for the night, only to be informed there is no more room, so be prepared.
Day one takes you to Refugio Frey, passing Lago Gutierrez, the Van Titter stream, then goes through a lenga forest (if you are there late in the season the lengas turn bright red) and finally ends after a decent ascent to the busy refugio popular with weekend warriors.
Day two is fairly simple and straight forward, and takes you through valleys, more lenga forests, past the Rucaco waterfall where you’ll have the time to stay a while and enjoy it, and finally to Refugio Jakob.
Most prudent trekkers finish on day three with a leisurely descent through dry, arid vegetation and end up near Colonia Suiza, where a good Patagonian meal (lamb and Malbec, anyone?) awaits at one of the restaurants.
2) Refugio Circuit – El Bolson, Argentina
4 days | Roughly 28 miles | Moderate
Why go? Refugios that make their own microbrews, impressive glaciers, and a laid-back hippie vibe that runs through the entire area.
El Bolson lies a couple of hours south of Bariloche and is known for its happening artist market, microbrews, and incredible trekking choices – one could easily do a day trek or link together enough paths to stay on the ‘refugio circuit‘ for weeks.
For this trek, start by spending the night at Refugio Perito Moreno. This refugio/trailhead is far from town and you’ll want an early start the next day. From here, you’ll bomb up the steep ski hills of the resort (trying this trek with snow-covered trails is not recommended) for about two hours until you reach the plateau, which offers a panoramic view that makes the exhausting ascent worth it. There’s a glacier up there, some boggy areas with pretty moss, and at times, high winds. You’ll probably have the place to yourself. Your goal for the night is to sleep at a refugio called Encanto Blanco, so don’t dawdle too long because it’s a long day.
From Encanto Blanco, day two will have you winding your way through old-growth forest and down some questionable (but doable) steeps where for about a half hour you have to hang onto tree roots and branches to get down. Once you finish the steeps, the trail chills out and is well-marked and much easier. Follow the signs to sleep at Retamal.
Day three is mostly uphill after passing Cajon de Azul—a river with water so transparent you can watch trout swim by—before the trail takes you through dense forest, past a waterfall and Lago Natacion (where you can rent a kayak or just take a dip), and finally heads down to Refugio Hielo Azul. Rest up and head to the big glacier (about an hour up) first thing in the morning, spend some time there, and start the trek back to Bolson before noon. You will end up at a campsite and the groundskeepers can call you a taxi to take you back to town, where you should treat yourself to a raspberry microbrew and some chocolate from world-famous Jauja.
3) Dientes Circuit – Isla Navarino, Chile
5 days | 33 miles | Moderate to difficult
Why go? The feeling of deep isolation mixed with savage, unpredictable weather will make you feel like an adventurous new-frontiers explorer from days past.
The Dientes Circuit is Patagonia hiking at its finest. Isla Navarino is a little island easily accessible by plane from Punta Arenas or by ferry boat from Ushuaia. The island has over 90 miles of trails, hundreds of lakes (you’ll see quite a few on this trek), and a raw wildness about the place that is hard to come by. Stay on the trail at all times and don’t get any grandiose ideas about trekking into the interior of the island – the weather is unstable above the tree line, with crazy high winds and heavy summer snowfalls.
Day one takes you from town to Laguna del Salto on a well-marked path. After a couple of hours of descending tight switchbacks you’ll come to a lagoon, where if you keep an eye out, you might see nesting condors. Day two gets you to Laguna Escondida and offers you your first views of the mysterious islands around Cape Horn. Day three is marked by high wind areas, more lakes, and lots of beaver dams before you get to Laguna Martillo. You’ll probably be feeling your legs quite a bit by day four, so take the often muddy, slippery descents and ascents carefully. You’ll reach the highest point on the circuit today, with views of the Beagle Channel and a beautiful glacial lake called Los Guanacos. Your last day is a lot of descending, but be careful, because the trail is not as clear as it could be – there’s some bushwhacking involved for the first hour until you get to a clearing – then it’s all straightforward and you end up on an actual road, where you can meander your way along the coast until you hit town.
If you have time, stop by the Puerto Williams Yacht Club and say hello to the ‘Captain’ who runs the place, a grand storyteller and the perfect character to share some pisco with to celebrate the finishing of this strenuous trek.
4) W Trek – Torres del Paine, Chile
5 days | 50 miles | Moderate
Why go? Because this is THE quintessential Patagonia trek that should be ticked off of every self-respecting hiker’s bucket list.
The domineering granite pillars of Torres del Paine have always drawn hikers toward them. While the one day trek to the lookout gets saturated with trekkers, do yourself a favor and take on the less busy W route, which will show you why this national park is one of South America’s finest. You’ll have the privilege to see gorgeously transparent lakes, vibrant emerald forest, raging rivers, a massive glacier, and condors gliding effortlessly above the peaks.
If possible, avoid January and February when the park fills up. November and March will still give you decent weather (in theory), but not so many people on the trail with you. On the weather front, be prepared for rapid and extreme changes. One moment you could be dealing with heavy rains and gale force winds, and literally the next minute, blue, sunny skies and a lovely light breeze.
Plan to trek the W from east to west to keep the killer views of the Cuernos in front of you. Each leg of this route is less than five hours (with the exception of day two, which is slightly longer), so you will have plenty of time to take breaks and bask in the thrill of being in Patagonia. Day three is mind-glowingly beautiful, with Paine Grande to the west, Torres del Paine to the east, along with Los Cuernos. Glaciers are pretty much everywhere and you probably won’t be able to put your camera down. Fair warning: just when you think you are almost home free on day five, you get to cross a ravine. It’s doable, everyone manages to get across, but if you are expecting it to be a quick hop across a gentle stream, think again.
The infrastructure within and around Torres del Paine is impressive. After completing the W, take a night or two and indulge with a stay at one of the ecolodges that offer glamping in fancy, cozy yurts. You won’t be ready to leave this paradise yet.
*Refugios are rustic, often shared lodging accommodations (think bunk style dormitories) located in remote trailside locations. They generally can’t be booked in advance and you need to take your own sleeping bag. For an additional fee, some refugios provide sleeping bags, offer meals and/or use of basic kitchen facilities.
Photos: Torres del Paine; Cascada Expediciones, Refugio Frey; NateClicks/FlickrCC, Cajon de Azul; Marcelo A. Gonzalez, Dientes Circuit; IslaNavarino.com, W Trek; Cascada Expediciones