Things to Do in Patagonia
Nicknamed the King of the South, snow-capped Osorno Volcano is one of Chile’s most visible landmarks. Towering over Lake Todos Los Santos and Lake Llanquihue, the conical volcano can be seen from as far off as Chiloé. The volcano’s near perfect shape is the result of some 40 craters scattered along its base. The volcano has erupted 11 times during the 18th and 19th centuries, but always in these craters; never at its peak. Today, a windy road leads visitors to the base of a ski resort, where chairlifts ferry passengers to a point near the volcano’s peak — a worthwhile excursion even for non-skiers simply for the stellar views of the alpine lake below. Experienced climbers can make the full-day trek to the summit of Osorno.
In 1896, German explorer Eberhard Hermann entered a cave and found strange remains inside, the fur and bones of the extinct Mylodon sloth. Named after the giant ground sloth found within, Milodon Cave (Cueva del Milodon) is the largest of several caves within Cueva del Milodon National Monument. But the sloth wasn’t the only inhabitant of the caves. Remains of other extinct species, including a saber-toothed cat and a dwarf horse, as well as evidence of human habitation from as early as 6,000 BC have been found within the caves.
As visitors enter the monument, they’re greeted by a full-size replica of the mylodon sloth, standing 13 feet (4 meters) tall. The mylodon was said to resemble a giant bear, though the mammal was in fact a very large herbivore that went extinct over 10,000 years ago. A viewing point atop the cathedral-sized cave affords visitors views of the surrounding mountains, glaciers and the Eberhard fjord.
The town of Puerto Varas sits on the banks of Llanquihue Lake in Chile’s magnificent Lakes District. The lake itself, the second-largest lake in the country after General Carrera Lake, sits at the base of the near-perfect conically shaped Osorno Volcano, adding to its already picturesque qualities.
The shores of the 336-square-mile (870-square-kilometer) lake share a German heritage, yet each attracts visitors for a different reason. Puerto Varas is the lake’s adventure capital, while Frutillar on the western banks of the lake appeals to Chilean tourists on summer holiday. The charming Bavarian-style town of Puerto Octay offers remote accommodations on the north shores of the lake, and rustic Ensenada on the eastern banks sits at the entrance to Vicente Perez Rosales National Park.
Torres Del Paine National Park (or Parque Nacional Torres del Paine) is one of the world's last great, unspoiled spaces, green fields and chill glittering lakes spread out beneath the naked granite spires of the Cordillera del Paine.
These epic massifs, with their wintry snow raiments, call rock climbers and ice hikers to their feet with promises of an adventure at the edge of their abilities. Less ambitious visitors will find all sorts of wonderful trails through the wilderness and herds of guanaco (a type of small, Patagonian llama) that can be enjoyed in a few hours; buses run between lodging and the different trailheads and vistas. The famous W trail takes 9 days for full circuit, and requires more serious preparation.
When Magellan passed through the strait bound for Chile for the first time, he cruised on past the tiny Magdalena Island, famous for its thousands of penguins. Today, travelers make it a point to stop at this scenic island that’s northeast of Punta Arenas to explore the rocky shores and get up close to the playful penguins.
Visitors can follow well-marked paths to a popular lighthouse for impressive views of the empty island, but it’s the friendly penguins that walk side-by-side with travelers that really draw tourists to this natural haven outside of the region’s capital.
Travelers can find close encounters of the penguin kind on a visit to Otway Sound and Penguin Reserve in Punta Arenas, where wooden walkways wind through the animal’s natural habitat. Travelers warn cold winds blow most any time of year. And while visitors have to stay in designated areas, penguins and other wildlife roam close and roam freely, making it a truly unique outdoor experience. Roughly 5,000 warm weather penguins make their way to the shores of the Otway Sound each September and begin laying eggs in October. By November, travelers can find plenty of fluffy gray chicks wandering the sound, which makes it one of the best times of year to visit.
Lago Todos los Santos, or All Saints Lake, is located within Vicente Perez Rosales National Park in the lakes region of southern Chile. Sometimes it is referred to as Lago Esmeralda, which means Emerald Lake, due to its emerald green color. It is one of the biggest attractions in the national park. The lake was formed by glacial and volcanic activities. It is covers an area of about 69 square miles, and it has a maximum depth of about 1,105 feet. The lake flows into the Petrohué River and the Petrohué Waterfalls.
Visitors come to Lake Todos los Santos for boating, kayaking, rafting, swimming, and fishing. You can also enjoy hiking near the lake and watching for native animals in the area. From the lake, you can also see Osorno Volcano, Puntiagudo Volcano, Tronador Volcano. The lake has two ports, Peulla and Petrohue, which are part of the Lakes Cross, connecting Puerto Varas to Argentina.
Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park was created in 1926, making it Chile's oldest national park. It covers an area of more than 620,000 acres in the Lakes region of Chile. The park is known for its volcanoes, mountains, forests, and lakes.
Some of the main attractions in the park include Osorno Volcano, Puntiagudo Volcano, and Tronador Volcano, which marks the border with Argentina. From higher areas of the park, you can see the lava flow paths to the rivers, lakes and waterfalls. The most famous waterfalls are the Petrohué Cascades, which flow through a canyon of volcanic rock formed by lava flows. Another big draw is Lago Todos los Santos, one of the most beautiful lakes in southern Chile. Visitors come to the park for rock climbing, mountain biking, river kayaking, boating, canyoning, fishing, and hiking. Popular hiking trails include Los Enamorados, Velo de la Novia, Rincón de Osorno, and Desolación.
The Calbuco Volcano, one of two snow-capped volcanic cones rising above the town of Puerto Varas on the shores of Lake Llanquihue, is also one of Chile’s most active volcanoes with 36 confirmed eruptions — 13 recorded since 1893. In April 2015, Calbuco erupted three times in a period of eight days. While not a perfect cone like neighboring Osorno Volcano, the sight of Calbuco is equally magnificent. Calbuco Volcano is located within Llanquihue National Reserve. Some of the best views of the peak can be seen while trekking through the park.
Visitors to the Nao Victoria Museum can travel back in time and experience the real-life thrill of a 16th-century sailing experience. Opened in 2011, this destination is celebrated by locals for promoting national identity and preserving much of what makes this area so unique. Visitors can wander through four real-life replicas of famous ships: the Nao Victoria, James Caird, HMS Beagle and Schooner Ancud—boats that played an important role in the discovery of Magallanes. Guides are included in the cost of admission, which makes for rich storytelling while travelers explore the ships.
More Things to Do in Patagonia
This historic town square is among the most popular destinations in the Magallanes Region because of its unmistakable energy and close proximity to some of Punta Arenas’ major attractions. Travelers can easily walk from Plaza Munoz Gamero to Casa Braun-Menendez, the Sociedad Menendez Behety and the local cathedral, and many visitors agree that the best handmade crafts in town can be found here.
Walking the plaza takes only a few minutes, but most visitors gather at park benches or relax in the shade of trees to take in the sights and sounds of local life. Local folklore states kissing the statue of Magellan’s feet is good luck, so visitors looking to change their fortune should be sure to do so before leaving the plaza. A central information center also offers travelers maps and recommendations, making this a perfect first stop on a trip to Punta Arenas.
Visitors to Fort Bulnes, located atop an unforgiving hillside, will surely take note of the unprecedented lengths colonizers went to in order to stake their claim on such inhospitable land.
Ancient shipwrecks that line the coastal route between this popular destination and Punta Arenas serve as a reminder of just how treacherous travel could be. While the fort’s museum, which explores the colonization history in Southern Chile and replicas of a historic church, jail, post office and stables are definitely worth the trip, visitors agree that it’s the epic views from scenic trails and the ancient watchtower that prove to be most memorable.
Located in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, Chile’s Grey Glacier flows south into Grey Lake, though warmer temperatures in recent summers have seen the glacier retreat somewhat. A boat trip to see the Grey Glacier up close is one of the most spectacular excursions on offer inside Torres del Paine National Park. Seeing this ancient ice up close brings out its spectrum of colors and unusual shapes, and the sounds of the ice breaking apart are unlike anything else on earth.
Another way to experience Grey Glacier is to take the strenuous day hike from Paine Grande which leads to a lookout point where huge icebergs can be seen floating on the surface of Grey Lake in front of the glacier. The Grey Glacier is one of a few within the national park that visitors can trek across the surface of. Unlike the other glaciers in the park, this glacier has an island of land dividing it in two.
Located at the west end of Puerto Montt, the small fishing port of Angelmo got its name — according to local legend — from the mispronunciation by indigenous locals of the name of a local doctor, Angel Montt, when the town was first getting established.
Avenida Angelmo leads toward the port, lined with seafood restaurants and crammed with vendors selling handicrafts and souvenirs. Popular items include knickknacks made from the Alerce tree, a species native to Chile’s Lake District, as well as bottles of Licor de Oro. A fish market right on the banks of the bay sells the fresh catches brought in from local fishing boats, and restaurants — some built on stilts over the water — serve some of the best quality seafood in the area.
This 1,700-square-foot mecca of Patagonia heritage covers an entire history, culture and tradition in just four floors. Travelers can explore the well-organized galleries created by Salesian missionaries back in the late 1800s and learn about the rich ethnology, archaeology, wildlife and diversity of the region.
Visitors rave about the Cave of the Hands replica, which is displayed in a room dedicated to Southern Patagonia, and many applaud the museum’s honest handling of colonists, too. The Salesians made every effort to preserve artifacts from the Ona, Tehuelche, Alacalufe and Yamana people, while also explaining the impact of European colonists on local traditions and the role of pioneers in helping to create modern day Punta Arenas.
In the early 20th century, Swedish explorer Otto Nordenskjold discovered a blue alpine lake that would later be named after him. Located within Torres del Paine National Park, the lake is famous for its beautifully colored waters, as well as its outfall, the Salto Grande waterfall.
While the national park is famous for its multi-day hiking circuits, visitors can make a shorter, easier day hike to Mirador Nordenskjold, an overlook offering stunning views of the lake and surrounding mountains. The trail passes through fields of wildflowers in the spring, and it also brings hikers up close to the Salto Grande waterfall.
Unforgiving winds, a rugged coastline and narrow passageways made the Strait of Magellan one of the most deadly channels for early explorers attempting to navigate by ship. But today, this historic route, which was successfully navigated for the first time by Ferdinand Magellan in 1520, has become a popular spot for adventurers, seamen and travelers looking to experience the treacherous waters of this South American spot. Luckily, new ship technology and expert captains make for a much safer passage, but the rich history, incredible landscapes and unforgettable historic tales still make for a truly remarkable experience on the sea.
Not nearly as foreboding as it sounds, the Channel of Las Hope (Ultima Esperanza) is in fact a calm inlet stretching from Eberhard Fjord to Monte Balmaceda. In 1557, Spanish explorer Juan Ladrillero gave the channel its ominous name when he believed navigating it was his last opportunity to reach the Strait of Magellan, though he was met with a dead end.
Boat expeditions up the channel offer stellar views of Balmaceda Mountain and the Serrano Glacier — accessible via a short hike — where visitors walk on the surface of the glacier, visit ice caves or kayak amid ice bergs on Serrano Glacier Lake. Wildlife enthusiasts can spot cormorants, sea lions, dolphins and a variety of shore birds nesting along the banks of the channel.
Puerto Montt is located at the southern end of Chile’s Lake District, but you might feel like you have been transported across the ocean to Germany when you arrive. German settlers founded the city in 1852, bringing their architecture, customs and cuisine – and the influence is still apparent today. Squeezed among lakes, rivers and volcanoes, this small city offers enough outdoor activities to keep you busy for weeks.
Puerto Montt is a tender port – you will actually get to shore via large, flat-bottomed tender boats that dock at the Puerto Angelmo fishing cove. From there, you can walk into the city. Buses for shore excursions usually pick up in the parking lot adjacent to the dock.
Go water skiing on Lake Llanquihue or try your hand at fly fishing on the Maullin River. Soar 125 feet above ground on the Osorno Canopy Zipline while enjoying views of Lake Llanquihue and the Osorno and Calbuco volcanoes.
Punta Arenas is the largest and most commercially important city in Patagonian Chile. Located on the Strait of Magellan, it has long been a stop for European adventurers and traders and, as a result, is a true melting pot of cultures. In addition to being a port of call for South American cruises, this city of 100,000 is a departure point for expeditions to Antarctica.
Cruise ships dock at either Arturo Prat or Mardones/Bahia Catalina Pier. If you arrive at Arturo Prat, the center of town is an easy 10- to 15-minute walk from the port or a short taxi ride. Coming from Bahia Catalina, a taxi is your best option and should cost $10-$15.
Punta Arenas is easily walkable and you can see many of the main sights in a few hours – either on your own or with a guide. Your starting point should be the central plaza, Plaza Munoz Gamero, where you can pick up a map from the tourism kiosk. If the weather is good, you may also find locals selling their crafts in the plaza.
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