In Chile, inspiring Patagonian scenery and great trekking between comfortable mountain lodges rival any in the world. We left winter in Seattle to enjoy summer in Buenos Aires, Patagonia (in Argentina and Chile), and Antarctica from February 3 to March 11, 2005. Since flying so far south takes extra money and effort, I suggest integrating both Argentine and Chilean Patagonia into one thorough itinerary, plus Antarctica if desired. First read my latest trip article Patagonia 2020. Below are travel tips and self-booked itinerary from 2005, plus my Lake District images from a 1993 trip.
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In Chile, Patagonia includes the territory of Valdivia through Tierra del Fuego archipelago. Spanning both Argentina and Chile, the foot of South America is known as Patagonia, a name derived from coastal giants (“Patagão” or “Patagoni” who were actually Tehuelche native people who averaged 25 cm taller than the Spaniards) who were reported by Magellan’s 1520s voyage circumnavigating the world.
Torres del Paine National Park: “W Route” trek
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In Torres del Paine National Park, hike between excellent mountain huts (refugios) which provide hot meals, hot showers, and mattresses in dormitory bunkrooms. Trekking to huts with a sleeping bag and change of clothes (US$42-52 per person per night in 2005) leaves your backpack much lighter weight than carrying a tent and food. Due to a grass fire burning and closing the park entrance, we shortened our “W Route” Trek from 8 to 5 days. While waiting two days for the park to reopen, we ferried up the Sound of Last Hope (Seno de Ultima Esperanza) to tour impressive Serrano Glacier. The 2005 grass fire was caused by a tourist having problems lighting his portable stove on a windy day in an area where camping was not authorized. Backpacking with a tent, stove, food, pad, and sleeping bag is cheaper than hut walking, but frequent 50mph winds can make tent camping uncomfortable.
The refugios (refuges) are well-equipped mountain hotels operated by two different companies, inconveniently requiring separate bookings:
- Refugios operated by FantasticoSur.com: Camping & Domes Francés; Refugio Los Cuernos; Refugio Chileno; and on the park road terminus are grouped Refugio Torre Central, Camping Central, and Refugio Torre Norte.
- Refugios operated by VerticePatagonia.com: Refugio & Camping Paine Grande; Refugio & Camping Grey; Dickson Shelter & Camping (on the “O Route”).
Weather forecast for trekkers near Paine Grande at 500m/1600 ft elevation:
W Route trekking itinerary
- Stay the first night or two at Hostería Pehoé with great views of Torres del Paine peaks. (Standard double room US$175; standard triple room US$215 in 2005). Explore nearby day hikes with great views, guanacos, and wildlife. (Our stay there was unfortunately cancelled due to nearby forest fire.)
- Trek Day 1: While waiting for the ferry at Refugio Pudeto on the park road, walk to Salto Grande, a nice waterfall. Take the ferry “Hielos Patagonicos” to Refugio Lago Pehoé. Hike 6.6 miles, 2000 feet gain, to Refugio Grey (renovated 2005) for Night 1.
- Trek Day 2: Hike from Refugio Grey back to the very nice Refugio Lago Pehoé. Dormitory bunks sleep 6 people in each comfortably carpeted room, with great mountain views.
- On Day 3, hike French Valley side trip (only if mountain tops are visible) on your way to Refugio Los Cuernos. Advance booking of Nights 3 and 4 at Refugio Los Cuernos allows another day to experience spectacular French Valley in case of previous bad weather. Refugio Los Cuernos dormitory style hut (8 to 10 people per room) has excellent views of rock towers which glow at sunrise.
- Alternative: Stay Nights 2 and 3 in comfortable Refugio Lago Pehoé. Hike on Day 3 round trip to spectacular French Valley (Valle Francés) 18 miles round trip, 3830 feet gain, one of our favorite hikes in the world! Hike on Day 4 from Refugio Lago Pehoé to Refugio Los Cuernos, 8 miles, 1435 feet up, 1200 feet down.
- Trek Day 5: Hike from Refugio Los Cuernos to Refugio Chileno to stay for Nights 5 & 6.
- Optional finish in 5 days: Hike from Refugio Los Cuernos out to Hostaria Las Torres on the park road, 10 miles, 700 feet total gain. Optionally get up early to complete the W Route by hiking 18 miles total including 5-hour side trip to Torres del Paine Lookout.
- Trek Day 6: From Refugio Chileno, hike 3.5 hours round trip up Valle Ascensio to Torres del Paine Lookout, which many call the most spectacular hike in the park (about 40 minutes beyond Campamento Torres). Stay Night 6 in Refugio Chileno.
- Trek Day 7: Hike from Refugio Chileno 1.5 hours to Hostaria Las Torres end point (or 3 hours if you miss the bus and must walk to Laguna Amarga entrance station).
Alternatively, you could start from Hostaria Las Torres and hike the W Route westwards, but prevailing high winds would blast coldly into your face, impeding progress and sapping energy.
Puerto Natales trips: Serrano River by Zodiac, Serrano Glacier, Seno Ultima Esperanza cruise, Puerto Montt ferry
Puerto Natales is not scenic, but is the best place to get supplies and arrange tours in and around Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. Get out of town with great excursions into wilderness:
1. Serrano Glacier cruise
From the docks of Puerto Natales, catch the inexpensive daily cruise to Serrano Glacier on the ship “21 de Mayo.” Explore scenic fjord “Seno de Ultima Esperanza” (Sound of Last Hope) and walk a fun nature trail to the tongue of a spectacular tidewater glacier. Frequent high winds can sometimes turn back or cancel this day cruise. If the next day’s weather forecast is good, book the cruise one day in advance at the dock — or check for tickets on the morning of departure. If you sleep overnight near remote Serrano Glacier at basic Hostaria Balmaceda (as we did), meals are provided, but no hot shower or bath, just a sink. Pleasant day hikes have views of Serrano Glacier across the fjord and Torres (Towers) to the north. Adventure alert! Extend a Serrano Glacier cruise via remote wilderness into Torres del Paine National Park as follows:
2. Zodiac cruise up Serrano River to Torres del Paine
could be a dramatic way to enter the park and first lay your eyes on the awesome Paine Towers. Ride the Zodiac boat day trip into Torres del Paine National Park, stay extra nights on lakes with Torres views, optionally trek the W Route, then return to Puerto Natales by road/bus. Bring a camera or smartphone which is waterproof. Several different Chilean tour companies offer a great Serrano River tour via Zodiac including luggage transfers to lodging. (Don’t go the opposite direction, because southward Zodiacs leave the Towers behind you.)
3. Hostería Pehoé
To maximize your chances of catching good weather and seeing wildlife, stay at least one or two extra nights in Torres del Paine National Park, such as at Hostería Pehoé. Buy dinner in cafeteria (or bring cold food).
4. Puerto Montt ferry
Puerto Natales is the southern terminus for the ferry from Puerto Montt via Chilean fjords. The regular ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales is on the Puerto Eden cargo ship/ferry, which I hear is an enjoyable way of making your way south for 4 days through the fjords and canals of Patagonia. “The ship is large and comfortable, with adequate deck space, large lounge, adequate food, videos of old movies, and a party on the last night.” Scenery is pretty, but there are no penguins, no icebergs, and little summer snow on peaks. I ferried and drove the coastal highway from Puerto Montt as far south as Chaiten and Chiloe Island, and saw interesting fjords, salmon farms, villages on stilts in the seawater (Palifitos), impressive snow capped volcanos — but none of this was as spectacular as Torres del Paine, where glaciers descend to sea level.
Image gallery of Serrano Glacier and Punta Arenas
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“Chilean Lake District” or Zona Sur
What international tourist literature calls the “Chilean Lake District” usually refers to the Andean foothills between Temuco and Puerto Montt including three Regions (XIV Los Ríos, IX La Araucanía, and X Los Lagos), in what Chile calls the Zona Sur (Southern Zone). The southern Andes mountains are pimpled with an astounding number of volcanoes, more ubiquitous than in Washington’s Cascades Range!
A trip with Mom, Dad, and brothers Jim and Dave took us from Santiago to Valdevia (where Jim was serving in the US Peace Corps) to Chiloé Island round trip in a van 25 days through the “Lake District” (December 24, 1992 to January 18, 1993). Highlights included: an enchanting native Monkey Puzzle tree forest in Nahuelbuta National Park atop the coast range; impressive snow capped volcanoes every 30 kilometers in the Andes (Volcan Osorno, Villarica, Llaima, Puntiagudo-Cordón Cenizos, etc); huasos (Chilean cowboys) pinning bulls with horses in a competitive rodeo; Fishermen’s traditional wood houses (palafitos) rising on stilts on Chiloé Island; delicious fresh seafood; roadside sales of German kuchen (tort-like cake); and the world’s smallest deer species (pudu).
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Mountain weather forecast for Volcan Osorno at 2600 ft elevation: www.mountain-forecast.com/peaks/Osorno/forecasts/811
Patagonia and Antarctica itinerary
- Fly to Buenos Aires, Ezeiza airport (code EZE, Ministro Pistarini International Airport). Stay in San Telmo barrio (oldest neighborhood in Buenos Aires). See tango shows, shop at street fairs, dance in Dorrego Square.
- Fly 1500 miles from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia (airport code USH), in Tierra del Fuego province of Argentina. Eat king crab pizza with frosty beer, take the ski lift to hikes, and walk in Tierra del Fuego National Park.
- From Ushuaia, cruise 12 days round trip with GAP (now called G Adventures) through the Beagle Channel and across rough 400-mile Drake Straight to explore the frozen Antarctic Peninsula.
- Fly a short hop from Ushuaia to working-class Punta Arenas (airport code PUQ), in Chile. Ride vans and buses to tourist town Puerto Natales.
- Bus from Puerto Natales to lodges or trailheads in Torres del Paine National Park (Chile). Trek or day hike happily for a week.
- Bus from Puerto Natales (Chile) to thriving tourist town El Calafate (Argentina), where awesome Perito Moreno Glacier is a popular day trip. Most people take a bus tour to Moreno Glacier round trip 8:30am to 5:00pm, which most hotels can book upon your arrival. But for better photographs, rent a car, drive in early around sunrise (2 hours driving one way), and experience morning light from the boardwalks. Staying for sunset light may also be good. For two or more people, car rental is cheaper and more flexible than a bus tour.
- Bus from El Calafate round trip to frontier town El Chaltén. The road is now paved and 2.5 hours by car or 3 hours by bus. (The formerly gravel road took 5 hours by bus in 2005.) Explore spectacular Mount Fitz Roy via classic day hikes.
- From El Calafate Airport (code FTE, 20 km east of El Calafate), fly back to Buenos Aires. Frequent daily flights.
Recommended Patagonia, Argentina, Chile, and Antarctica books and maps
Search for latest Patagonia travel books at Amazon.com:
- Moon Patagonia: Including the Falkland Islands (Travel Guide) Paperback – November 21, 2017:
Search for latest Argentina travel books at Amazon.com:
- Lonely Planet Argentina 12 (Travel Guide) Paperback – January 18, 2022
- DK Eyewitness Argentina (Travel Guide) Paperback – Illustrated, February 21, 2017
- Patagonia South Icefield Trekking Mountaineering (Spanish and English Edition) Map – April 1, 2016
Search for latest Chile travel books at Amazon.com:
- Lonely Planet Chile & Easter Island 11 (Travel Guide) Paperback – Illustrated, October 16, 2018
- DK Eyewitness Chile and Easter Island (Travel Guide) Paperback – Illustrated, July 21, 2020
- Trekking Torres del Paine: Chile’s Premier National Park and Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park Paperback – December 30, 2016
Search for latest Antarctica travel books at Amazon.com:
- Lonely Planet Antarctica 6 (Travel Guide) Paperback – December 19, 2017
- Antarctica Cruising Guide: Fourth edition: Includes Antarctic Peninsula, Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Ross Sea Paperback – October 22, 2018
- South: The Last Antarctic Expedition of Shackleton and the Endurance (The Explorers Club Classic) Paperback – June 17, 2008