THE most memorable experiences in Patagonia were spent in the small towns and villages that reside in Chile and Argentina.
“Quien se apura en la Patagonia pierde el tiempo.”
(Those who hurry in Patagonia lose time.)
– Local saying
Few places in the world can match the mystical wonder and natural beauty of Patagonia. From barren deserts and expansive steppes, to glaciered peaks and pristine rivers, the southern frontier of South America is where everyday travelers venture to become experienced explorers. It’s a place where spaces are wide and vast, full of impressive emptiness and resounding silence, beckoning the irresistible call for exploration.
Last year, I was lucky enough to spend a month in Patagonia (though I could easily spend three months there), exploring the region and getting conveniently lost in its natural embrace. From trekking, hiking, camping, and more trekking, I fell in love with Patagonia in the best kind of way (you know, when you least expect it to happen and all of a sudden it takes you wonderfully by surprise!).
Other than outdoor excursions, my most memorable experiences in Patagonia were spent in the small towns and villages that reside in Chile and Argentina. Here, mingling with locals over home cooked meals and swapping travel stories with expats and fellow backpackers, I cultivated lasting memories and an everlasting bond to this breathtaking and awe-inspiring region.
If you’re planning a trip to Patagonia, here are my top five hidden-gem towns you need to visit when there!
1. Puerto Williams, Chile
Located in the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego, Puerto Williams is situated just below latitude 55°S parallel on Isla Navarino. With a sparse population of less than 3,000, Puerto Williams is recognized as the world’s southernmost city (sorry Ushuaia!) and is often the last stop for scientists and tourists before embarking to Antarctica. It’s also a burgeoning hub for tourism, and acts as the home base for trekkers heading on the world-renowned Dientes de Navarino trail.
But what truly stands out about this hidden gem town, and the reason why it’s so near and dear to my heart, is the people who call it home. Whether it was Karina who runs the local tourist office to Cecilia who took me in at Refugio El Padrino when I had no place to stay, everyone went out of their way to make sure I felt right at home. If you ask anyone who knows me, they’ll tell you that Puerto Williams is always the first town I mention when I reflect upon my travels in South America and the one place I always miss the most. You can read more about my home away from home here.
2. Puerto Toro, Chile
Now, if you really want to go off the beaten path, then a stop by Puerto Toro is a must! If Puerto Williams is recognized as the world’s southernmost city, then Puerto Toro is known as being the world’s southernmost community, conveniently located on the other side of Isla Navarino. In fact, according to my own count from last year when I was there, only 20 people resided in the in Puerto Toro, which includes a few carabineers, some fisherman and their families (plus children), a scientist and a few stray dogs. That’s it!
The easiest and most convenient way to reach Puerto Toro is via a free two-hour cruise ship, which departs on the last Sunday of every month from Puerto Williams. It’s absolutely free and all you need to do is bring your passport along and register with the carabineers a day in advance. Just remember to catch the boat ride back because if you happen to miss it you’ll have to wait another month for the next available ship to arrive (or you can trek it back to Puerto Williams, but it’ll take you about two days). You can read more about my visit to Puerto Toro here!
3. El Calafate, Argentina
We jump from the Chilean side to the Argentinean side of Patagonia for our next stop. Similar to our next hidden gem stop (El Chaltén), El Calafate is known as a popular home base for travelers and adventurists seeking the thrill of the outdoors! Visit Parque Nacional Los Glaciares and marvel in awe at the magnificent Perito Moreno glacier range, where gigantic chunks of enormous ice shards, weighing several tons each, can be seen crashing into the water below. Did I mention you could trek atop Glacier Perito Moreno, too?
4. El Chaltén, Argentina
If Patagonia is the land of trekking, then El Chaltén is its capital. As the self-proclaimed capital of trekking, El Chaltén is an adventurist’s dream, featuring several trails of low-to-high levels of difficulty for both trekking and hiking, many beautiful sprawling locales with great camping sites, beautiful lakes (Laguna Torre), and one infamous hike that’s as beloved for its surrounding views as its loathed for the hike itself, affectionately known as Mount Fitz Roy.
With a population of less than 2,000, there’s nothing to really do here except hike, trek and camp (but then again isn’t that the reason why you’re here?). There is, however, a nice microbrewery called La Cervecería that’s worth checking out. After several days of non-stopping trekking, it’s always great to end the day with a nice cold IPA and a chat with fellow hikers.
5. El Bolsón, Argentina
For hippies, artsy folks and liberals, this is the town for you! Located about 120km (75 miles) south of Bariloche, El Bolsón is situated just within the nondescript “border” of Patagonia. Surrounded by jagged mountain ranges, warm microclimate and fertile soil, an incredible variety of organic farms have blossomed here over the years, with delicious cheeses, fruits (raspberries and apples), vegetables and orchards found throughout the area.
After spending several days in El Chaltén, with virtually no produce or fruit to speak of – although meat, such as chicken and beef were plentiful in supply – it felt absolutely divine to have the sweet taste of fruit once again. If you happen to stop by on the weekends, make sure to catch the Feria Artesanal (craft market), where homemade crafts and delicious healthy food are sold.
Don’t forget to check out the Cabeza del Indio (Indian Head), a rock formation located 7km outside of town that is shaped like the profile of a man’s face. It’s an interesting site and worth a visit, and especially lovely as an early morning trek to catch some beautiful views of nearby Río Azul.
Got a favorite town in Patagonia? Let us know below!
Photos: Jerry Leon