What are the top sightseeing places in Patagonia? What should you wear and how to plan your trip? Recently we went to Patagonia with the Latvian tour agency “Dabas tūres” (www.dabastures.lv) that specializes in bird watching and nature tours for small groups (6-8 people) accompanied by a professional birding guide. The tour was exactly as promised – there were seven of us and the coordinator from the agency on a 2.5 week spring trip to Argentina, as well as several guides, one at each destinations. Our full itinerary included Patagonia, Buenos Aires, Ibera marshes and Iguazu falls from Argentinean and Brazilian side. As it all would be just too much for one blog post, here is the first part of our adventure, 5 days in Patagonia!
Practical Tips & FAQ on Patagonia
When is the best time to visit Patagonia? It is on the southern hemisphere, so when it is November and cold for us, it is the very beginning of spring there – perfect time for a visit!
How to get to Patagonia? Our trip started in Buenos Aires, from there we took a flight to El Calafate, spend a few days there, then took an airplane to Trelew and from there got back to Buenos Aires.
What is Patagonia? It is a region on Chile and Argentina from Argentinean Rio Colorado and Chilean Bio Bio rivers to Terra del Fuego. This is one of the most sparsely populated areas in the world, with only about 2 people per square kilometer living here.
What should you take with you and what should you wear? We brought gloves, hats, and we wore thermal underwear under our jeans. You will need several layers of jackets and good hiking boots. It is not as cold as it is windy – temperatures in the beginning of November were around 10-15 degrees, but the wind is very strong, and buff would have come in handy too. Don’t forget sunglasses to protect your eyes from the sand and strong sun. A good SPF 50 sunscreen should be a must.
What are the costs? Despite what you may have heard, the standard of living is relatively high and Argentina is by no means cheap. While you can get food for less than in Europe, especially in Buenos Aires, Patagonia is significantly more expensive for anything you may want to plan – transportation, accommodation and food. Patagonia used to be primarily agricultural area but now tourism is the primary occupation and prices are rising here.
How much time to spend there? 3 days is the absolute minimum! I could easily see myself spend a month in south of Patagonia alone.
Day 1 – El Calafate and Perito Moreno Glacier
The Land of the Giants
When we get off the plane in the city of El Calafate, already in the airport we feel that the climate here is very different from that in Buenos Aires. The magnificent Patagonia, the land of wanderers and outcasts does not allow you to explore the wonders unprepared – and you will see that even by looking at others! People come very well prepared, wearing high quality hiking clothing.
It was hard to understand what the weather would feel like here, if it is very early spring or already warmer. But soon we saw the first houses with apple trees and tulips in bloom and understood that this feels like May in Northern Europe. For anyone from Northern Europe, experiencing the foggy, cloudy Novembers back at home, excitement of freshly cut grass in Argentina is something to cherish!
Our driver, Emmanuel, is a tall, dark haired man and he says that the season of the winds has begun. We hear his wonderful warm laugh when we jump in our minibus, hiding from the wind. He looks like from a book about Patagonia. One of the legends about the origins of the name “Patagonia” says that Portuguese, seeing the tall locals called them so because of their big feet, as “pata grau” apparently means “big feet”. The locals were around 1.80 m tall, usually not taller than 2 m, while most of arriving Europeans barely reached 1.55m. This was enough to create a myth that lasted over 250 years that there are giants in Patagonia.
Emmanuel will be our driver and guide for the few upcoming days. Soon it becomes clear that without him as our guide and Ilze as coordinator, we would have easily missed two thirds of the birds around here! They, on the other hand, notice birds easily. We have only been driving for a few kilometers, when we see the Andean geese that lives only here, and ibises. Soon we see the first guanaco, a local animal similar to camel, a close relative of alpaca. I also notice movement in the bushes and it turns out to be the European hare, an invasive species.
Soon we stop again, as we see Andean condor, the largest bird in the world, based on it’s wingspan and weight. It’s wingspan can reach 3.3 m and adult male can weight 15 kg. Considering how enormous the bird is, we realize how far in the sky is the specimen that we noticed. Condors can also live for very long, up to 70 years! While the photographers are trying to catch a good shot, the rest of us are enjoying the beautiful spring feeling here – dandelions lining the bright green fields, melting snow higher in the mountains and the surreal blue of the Largo Argentino. It feels like Alps, just brighter, bolder and larger. The roads feel empty and we really do feel like at the end of the world!
Perito Moreno – the Kingdom of the Glaciers
It seemed it was a bit windy when we stopped on the way, but when we reach Los Glaciares National Park, it is impossible to open your eyes without sunglasses. It is so windy that you can almost hang in the wind, and standing straight is a difficult task! At the first viewpoint we see the majestic glacier in the distance. An hour is just not enough here, as we admire the glacier from the distance, walk on the hillside, eating local berries and observe Calafate bushes with yellow flowers. Later there will be dark berries that are local specialty, and the name of El Calafate city comes from them. There is just never enough time, as the scenery is out of this world, and we haven’t even reached the main viewpoint!
At last, we are ready to go and arrive at the Perito Moreno glacier and Emmanuel lets us out at the parking lot to pick us up at the end of the trail. This glacier is considered to be one of the most important touristic sights in all of Patagonia, and not without a reason! It is one of 48 glaciers in the Andes, and this glacier formation is one of the largest freshwater reserves in the world. Perito Moreno isn’t even the biggest one! It is 250 square kilometers are dwarfed by Pio IX at 1265 square kilometers. There is only one glacier around here that is bigger – that is Antarctica. However, irrespective of which is the largest glacier, the first view of it is something that I will remember for the rest of my life and can describe as one of the most impressive travel experiences so far.
When we go down on the beautiful new pathway, among green trees and bushes we get the first glimpse of the incredibly beautiful, enormously large blue wall. It smells like fresh leaves and spring, and sounds like a thunder, as the ice is cracking under pressure. From time to time larger and smaller pieces of ice fall into the almost toxic blue colored lake and there is an echo surrounding the place. It almost feels like the wall is alive! I could sit here for hours and hours, just watching the incredible view in front of me. The next three hours pass like few moments. We go from one side of the trail to the other, exploring every nook and cranny. We are also pleasantly surprised that some areas here are wheelchair accessible.
Even after the first excitement passes, we still can’t look away. We only look sideways to see a bird or two, and then we keep watching the royal blue wall ahead of us. How can a piece of ice be this incredibly beautiful?!
We have wisely chosen the afternoon to walk here and there are almost no people around us. The sun is starting to move closer and closer to the mountain edges, a pair of condors is flying high above the glacier, large piece of ice falls off and waves go deep in the lake. The strong wind is bringing up drops of water in a small hurricane above the lake. It almost feels like we are wearing some kind of feeling enhancing glasses – as everything is so incredibly beautiful here!
We have the last 30 minutes before Emmanuel takes us back to town, and we spend those exploring the area right next to the lake. In many glacier excursions worldwide you can have a drink with glacier water – well here you just have to pick up a piece of ice at the shore and give it a go! It has been over 25 years since I last ate an icicle, but this was well worth to depart from my principles!
Once we are back in town, we eat an incredible steak dinner. Argentinians usually eat late, and many places only open around 8 pm or later. You can find many restaurants in town, and you definitely have to eat meat here! Not without a reason this is considered to be one of the best steak destination worldwide! Servings are very large and you can often split a meal with someone, as it is just way too much for one person!
Day 2 – Uppsala Glacier & Estancia Cristina
Taking the Boat to Estancia Cristina
We spend our second day in Patagonia at another glacier – Uppsala – which is three times bigger than Perito Moreno. To get there we take a boat to Estancia Cristina. Estancias are like the American ranchos – large private properties with cattle. When immigrants arrived here, they were given a piece of land, and by taking care of it, eventually, they could get ownership of the land. Most of these lands in Patagonia were incredibly remote and neighbours might not meet for weeks and months at a time. Master family from England used to live in this estancia, and it was called in their name until their daughter Cristina passed away from pneumonia and they renamed the property to honor her.
Nowadays there is a national park here and you can take an organized hike to the waterfalls, go birding and go up to the viewpoint to the glaciers. As getting here involves a boat trip, you have to make reservation in advance. Even the trip there is incredible! The boat is navigating the windy waters of the lake with icebergs on it’s way. Reminds me of Titanic, just in a bit safer way!
Seeing the Glacier
Once you arrive to the estancia, you will see a small restaurant nearby the port. It offers beautiful views, and you don’t even have to order anything – bringing your own food is fine as well. We opted for a butter squash soup and some tea. There is also a museum about the history of the property. But first we take the tour up! We are split up into groups based on the bookings made (and bracelets distributed on the boat allow us to find our group very quickly) and soon we are inside the 4×4, slowly crawling up the mountain.
At some of the mountainsides we see abandoned tree trunks – turns out that Master’s family had burned down the forest here to increase the grassy area for sheep. Unfortunately, they did not realize at the time what it meant for the local ecosystem – the forest takes 400 years to grow back, and it is still very deserted at this hillside.
The higher we go, the scarier it gets – the jeep is driving on a very primitive road and when we are finally there, my legs are shaking a bit. The guide tells us to stay strictly on the path, not just because of the safety, but also because the surrounding stones are like polished mirrors, and if people start walking on those, footprints will forever change the landscape. So even footprints are not allowed here! You are also not allowed to take any stones with you, as there are many fossils.
Once we at the top, the view is out of this world. But it is also incredibly windy, and there are no safety rails, so t is scary to go near the side. Deep down there is surreal blue water and the glacier touches the land. You can see also several other glaciers at the opposite sides of the mountains.
At the top of the hill an Argentine woman, Ana approaches us and asks where we are from. What a wonderful meeting it is! We spend all of the boat ride back talking to her. Turns out, she is English teacher and lives not too far from Buenos Aires. We talk about safety in the big cities(not so safe) and small towns (very safe), about how English language classes are often a privilege for the wealthy, as noone studies it at school. Overall, education is free, but healthcare is not. Only if you are extremely poor, you can be treated for free at the hospital. Interestingly, you can also only take 2 weeks off a year, and some of that has to be taken out in January and some in July. We exchange social media contacts and get a list of good Argentine writers to read. It is always so nice to talk to someone local and learn more about the normal life of people in the country!
Back to El Calafate
After the long day at the glacier it is time to enjoy some dinner. We had some steak before, but this evening is the night for local specialty asado, which is lamb cooked on open fire. At the restaurant you can even see how it is being done in a special fire pit! The meat is very tasty, the servings are enormous and all of us eat something that was supposed to be for 3 people, yet is too much for 8!
We also try an ice cream with calafate berries. The legend has it that you must try it to be able to return here. Later, when all flights from Trelew are cancelled due to the strike of Aerolineas Argentinas, we remember this berry – Patagonia does not let us go!
Day 3 – Nimez Lagoon Preserve and El Calafate Balcony
Looking for Even More Birds – Nimez Lagoon
The next day we are up even earlier – with the first rays of sun we are at the Nimez lagoon preserve, a true paradise for bird watchers. It is closed this early in the morning, but we return to the rangers station later to pay the entrance fee.
At the middle of the preserve we see elegant Chilean flamingos, and there are many small birds in the bushes. Some look like sparrows at first glance, but then if you start paying attention, one has a yellow stripe, another a red or white dot. Here we truly feel what the wind is like in Patagonia – at this point we have sand everywhere – in pockets, in shoes and in hair. But bird variety here is really magnificent and the area is very peaceful, so you get a chance to see many birds up close!
El Calafate Balcony
As the planned excursion for the day, exploring the city, is not of particular interest for us, we book our own trip to El Calafate balcony instead. Having spend two hours at the lagoon, we run back to the hotel, where a jeep is waiting for us. It takes us to the top of the mountain near the city. Largo Argentino, the beautiful blue lake, is under our feet, so is the tiny city, and there are large mountains in the distance. The clouds seem closer than the lake under our feet. The wind, once again, is so strong we don’t dare to come closer to the edge for the fear of falling down!
At the end of the trip we are taken to a little valley up in the mountains, where a guy similar to Emmanuel cooks us lunch. He is tall, with dark straight hair and very friendly. Unfortunately, he does not speak English and we don’t speak Spanish. Knowing a bit of Spanish if you plan to come on your own, is definitely an advantage in Argentina! But we find a way anyway, using gestures and smiles. There are several Argentine woman with us on the trip, one of them is constantly on the phone messaging someone until the cell network disappears, and another one is quite unhappy when she learns that there is no proper bathroom at the top of the hill. At least everything else is thought of – the lunch is amazing, the house incredibly inviting and even the utensils and napkins are matching. A perfect place to enjoy solitude!
In the afternoon we rejoin our Latvian group, send the final post cards at the post office and get ready to head to Peninsula Valdes!
Patagonia surprises and inspires. With large fields, beautiful nature and peace and quiet. It is the complete opposite of one’s idea of South America. No overcrowded areas, no noise. I am not at all surprised that many say “You went to Patagonia? That is my dream destination!” As it truly is worth it.
We are thankful to “Dabas Tūres” (www.dabastures.lv) for the support in making this article reality. Dabas tures offers internationally acclaimed birding tours in Latvia (lake Lubana, cranes and owls and many other bird tours), as well as numerous tours in other countries – spring in Argentina, Scottish landscapes, the castles of Northern Poland, all suitable for friends of nature. You don’t need to have any prior knowledge about birds, as the expert guides will teach you all about spotting the fauna and you will learn a lot!