Making the Most of Your Trip to Southwest Patagonia

The knife-edge peaks of Mount Fitz Roy and colossal Perito Moreno glacier are famous for good reason – but beyond the heavy hitters, Argentine Patagonia offers a wealth of lesser-known alternatives with fewer visitors.

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Photo © Milly McGrath

The Other Side to El Perito Moreno

Astonishing in size and truly spectacular in form, El Perito Moreno – aka Argentina’s most famous glacier – truly deserves to be called “unmissable.” But a trip to the park can feel like your hard-earned pesos are disappearing more quickly than Patagonia’s glaciers.

It’s possible to visit on the cheap, although be aware that “cheap” is still a relative term. Hop on a public bus from the terminal (US $30/$600 ARS return) and pay your US $25 ($500 ARS) entrance fee to access the boardwalks that offer various perspectives of this ice giant’s 3mi (5km) wide snout.

To get up close and personal, consider an afternoon of ice trekking, where you strap on your crampons to crunch across the surface of the ice, climbing through crevasses and shafts and getting to see what a glacier actually looks like. Expect to spend around US $130 ($2,753 ARS) for an hour and a half of activity. 

Hiking on Perito Moreno glacier. Photo credit: Sean O'Reilly

Lesser-known Trails in Los Glaciares National Park

78mi (125km) north of Perito Moreno lies Argentina’s self-proclaimed hiking capital, El Chalten, which makes an excellent base for exploring the hiking trails of the northern sector of Los Glaciares National Park.

The most popular is the eight-hour round trip to Laguna de los Tres, an aquamarine glacial lake offering the ultimate views of Mount Fitz Roy. Although the hike is possible in one day, savvy trekkers pitch up at the free Poincenot campsite just before the final ascent to the lake, and head up for sunrise. You’ll find fewer other hikers at this time and, if the weather’s good, witness the spectacular moment when the granite peaks appear out of the early morning light.

But Los Glaciares National Park is packed with other trails beyond this crowd-pleaser. A detour on the return trip from Laguna de los Tres via Laguna Madre and Laguna Hijo adds an extra 30 minutes to your descent, but promises spectacular lake vistas along a trail practically empty of hikers.

For a more challenging trek, the four-day Huemul Circuit – which requires experience and technical equipment, the latter of which you can rent in El Chalten – is quickly establishing itself as a unique alternative to the more famous W trek in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park.

Mount Fitz Roy. Photo credit: Edwin d'Haens

Patagonia’s Most Intrepid Border Crossing 

If that doesn’t satisfy your urge to get off the beaten trail, this trek over to Chile might just do it. The two-day, one-night adventure combines hiking and a boat journey as you cross from El Chalten in Argentina to Villa O’Higgins at the very end of the Carretera Austral in Chile – with stunning views of Fitz Roy, glaciers, and lakes.

It’s not a trip to be taken lightly – quite literally, as you’ll be carrying all of your gear at least 9mi (15km) before reaching the boat to cross Lago O’Higgins – but it’s well worth the effort. It’s easy to feel like a pioneer as you pass through one of Patagonia’s most unexplored reaches, and you might even catch a glimpse of the critically endangered huemul deer.

The Other Perito Moreno

Heading north of El Chalten, the next 311mi (500km) of pampa is fairly sparse when it comes to tourist attractions, until you reach the Cueva de los Manos Pintados. Located near Perito Moreno – the town, not the glacier – this cave has the most impressive ancient paintings you’ll find in Patagonia.

Dated at a whopping 7,300 years BC, the multi-colored, stenciled outlines of handprints are believed to show evidence of one of the earliest hunter-gatherer cultures in the continent – and look like they were painted just yesterday. Get here on a tour from nearby Perito Moreno or Los Antiguos and admire the handprints in all their splendor (look out for the one with six fingers), as well as the pictures of guanaco being hunted and shamanic ceremonies, all left for eternity on the rock face.

Cueva de los Manos Pintados. Photo credit: iStock/Mandy2110

Want to know more about Argentina? Listen to the World Nomads podcast. How drinking mate defines Argentinians, how to kiss properly when you greet someone, and meet Popi, the scientist who's saving penguins.

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