The southernmost region of South America is huge in every way: Patagonia is twice the size of California and home to some of the biggest landscapes and adventures on the planet. Head south for stunning landscapes, ridiculous fishing, rugged trekking, roadside asados, and a 100 percent chance of escape.
Beat the Crowds: Cerro Castillo, Chile
Patagonia is packed with legendary hikes, like the iconic Torres del Paine circuit. While the best known of them are famous for a reason—rugged terrain, breathtaking vistas—with fame comes crowds. Detour instead onto the Carretera Austral, a road that snakes hundreds of miles through southern Chile, to one of the country’s most stunning yet under-the-radar hikes at Cerro Castillo, a razor-sharp peak about 900 miles south of Santiago. The four-day trek isn’t the easiest in Chile, but the wildness of its moss-bound forests and hanging glaciers makes it one of the most rewarding. The traverse ranges through 39 miles of deep wilderness on the mountain’s upper flanks, starting on an old logging and ranching road and winding through shallow streams and stands of southern beech. After that you’ll labor through scrub and rocky gullies to reach snowy 4,767-foot Peñon Pass; keep a camera handy to capture the Andean condors overhead.
Cerro Castillo, Chile
The pass is where the real fun starts, with a steep 1,270-foot scree descent into the forest. On the third day, hikers reach a plateau where meltwater from Castillo Glacier cascades into the Laguna Cerro Castillo. From here a shorter exit leads south to Villa Cerro Castillo, but you should keep going: the route curves west to the remote valley of the New Zealand Camp, named for a Kiwi team who made several first ascents in the area. An extra mile drops you at the turquoise Laguna Duff, where the reward is clear views of the jagged, mesmerizing summit.
Cerro Castillo, Chile
Go with GeoSur Expediciones for the comfort of local knowledge and satellite phones—not to mention porters to help carry your gear (from $1,096 for four days, including transport to and from Coyhaique). It’s also possible to DIY the trip if you’re solid on your orienteering and alpine skills. Or find an independent guide through Escuela de Guías, a nonprofit group that trains locals to be pros.
In Coyhaique, splurge with a few nights at boutique hotel Nómades, which has river views and stone fireplaces (from $200).
Perfect Layover: Santiago, Chile
Stay near Barrio Lastarria, a once gritty neighborhood that now has a sharp modern arts center and an influx of bars and restaurants. The Aubrey hotel (doubles from $252) is close to Cerro San Cristóbal, a good running hill that rises 1,000 feet over the city to a massive Virgin Mary statue. There are some fun dirt trails once you get off the paved road.
Check out the art at the truly impressive Centro Cultural Gabriela Mistral, fill up on seafood, and see if you can find a bottle of local Emiliana syrah. Then take a half-day jaunt into the nearby Andes to Glacier Morado, a massive, hanging sheet of ice at the base of 17,000-foot peaks ($323).
Two If by Sea: Pumalín Park, Chile
Getting to the Patagonian Andes can be hard. Along much of Chile’s coast, the heart of the range is unreachable by road. But by water, the mountains are there for the taking.
Pumalín Park, Chile
Sea Kayak Chile’s six-day Andean Fjords trip tours the steep, rocky inlets of Pumalín Park and other protected areas of northern Patagonia ($1,460). “The main thing is the size of the mountains that plunge into the sea,” says the company’s owner and head guide, Francisco Valle. “It’s all big waterfalls and snow-capped peaks.”
Guests and two guides navigate roughly 30 miles of this landscape, and no paddling experience is necessary—the outfitter uses a 50-foot support vessel for meals and to ferry guests to new spots. The upshot: your kayaking miles and muscles are spent along the best zones of coastline. At night you’ll camp on secluded beaches and escarpments, including a stop at Porcelana hot springs, a series of natural stone pools in the rainforest—and a place that can’t be accessed any other way.
Pumalín Park, Chile
Pumalín is one of four parks created by North Face cofounder Doug Tompkins and is managed by the nonprofit Fundación Pumalín. Flights from most U.S. cities are typically around $1,500 and connect through Santiago to Puerto Montt. Give yourself a few days on either end of your kayaking adventure to explore the Chilean Lake District around Puerto Montt.
National Park Preview
More than 650,000 acres of Chilean grassland and mountain ranges are slated to open as Patagonia National Park in 2015. It will be the fourth time that Doug Tompkins, who co-founded the North Face, and his wife, Kris, a former Patagonia CEO, hand over the keys to a strategically purchased expanse of adventure heaven. And you can enjoy it all—for free—before the park officially opens.
It’s a six-hour drive from the closest airport in Coyhaique, but the haul pays off: miles of hiking trails, world-class fly-fishing, and raft trips down the Rio Baker await. Don’t miss the ten-mile trail through the Aviles Valley, where you’ll navigate a footbridge over a canyon. The centrally located Lodge at Valle Chacabuco is the best place to recharge for the next day of adventure (from $350).
Size Isn’t Everything: Trevelin, Argentina
In Argentina, things are bigger: the mountains, the steaks, the rivers, and especially the fish. Nearly everyone who visits wants to catch a huge one—I met one guy who was refusing to cast to anything smaller than 24 inches—but that’s a good way to end up on the same lake day after day, casting against a wind that could tear paint off a car.
So when my wife and I went, we abandoned the hunt for the biggest catch and focused on fishing as many types of water as we could find. Our base of choice: Trevelin, located near the Chilean border in southern Argentina. The town is a 60-minute drive from an astounding variety of fishing, everything from world-famous spring creeks like Arroyo Pescado to the high-alpine lakes of Los Alerces National Park.
The lodge closest to all of it belongs to Patagonia River Guides (from $3,000 for four days). It’s worth staying here even if you don’t fish—there’s an indoor parrilla where chefs cook round after round of meat each night, spectacular views of the mountains from all 12 rooms, and a full thermos of freshly made coffee on your doorstep every morning.
But the fishing is as good as any I’ve ever experienced. On day one, four 20-inch rainbows fought each other over my fly on a high-alpine river; on day two, my wife plucked back-to-back 24-inch brown trout from a small spring creek; on day three, I watched a wee 18-incher swim 40 feet up from the bottom of a glacial lake to slurp a giant hopper pattern; on day four… you get the idea. For six days, we drove up into the mountains or down to the plains, and each day we saw big landscapes and bigger fish. As for the trophy hunter, he did catch the biggest fish of the week—until my wife stepped into a six-foot-wide stream and pulled out a 27-inch brown.
Patagonia River Guides has ten lodges throughout Argentina (plus multiday floats and cast and blast programs for fishing and hunting), but Trevelin offers the most diversity. Ask for Johnny and Juani, two cousins who grew up in a family of guides and know the area’s water well.
If You Need That Trophy...
Chile’s Simpson River, near Coyhaique, gets runs of suit-case-size Pacific king salmon. To catch one, pack a stiff eight-weight and a handful of black bunny streamers, and hire 17-year Chilean veteran Brent Taylor of Patagonia Angler (from $500; email@example.com). He’s the guy the huasos* call when they’re hungry for ceviche. You’ll be lucky to hook a copper-colored 50-pounder an hour, but all the boredom will be worth it at the first tug and water-frothing run.
*A Chilean horseman. Don’t slip up and call them gauchos—those are in Argentina.
High Water: Rio Futaleufú, Argentina and Chile
Remarkably, the rivers of Patagonia remained untouched by paddlers until the mid-1980s. Access to the region was poor, and there were plenty of great rivers farther north, in central Chile. Once Patagonia’s whitewater was discovered, though, it was paradise found.
The lush southern Andes are similar to Washington’s northern Cascades, but the region is less developed, and the rivers are so blue they look more like chemically colored Vegas fountains than pure mountain waterways. But it’s all real in Patagonia, right down to whitewater powerful enough to burst your eardrums.
Rio Futaleufú, Argentina and Chile
The Futaleufú River is the crown jewel of the region, draining east into Argentina before curving back into the Chilean Andes and passing through a small village that shares the river’s name.
Plunging into a canyon below town, the Futa, as it’s commonly known, courses through canyons for 25 miles of the most rollicking whitewater on the continent. At 5,000 to 20,000 cubic feet per second, it’s a bit like the Grand Canyon—if all its hardest rapids were compressed into a single 25-mile stretch, with a handful of enormous drops for good measure. The hydraulics are big and fluffy white, mimicking the snow-draped mountains looming above. Not only is this the training ground for the world’s best big-water paddlers, but it’s some of the hardest commercially rafted whitewater available, period. This being Chile, you can expect a little rain. But that’s just an excuse to take cover with some of the most welcoming people on the planet and share a round of maté.
Rio Futaleufú, Argentina and Chile
You can reach the Futaleufú from San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina, or Puerto Montt, Chile. The Argentinean approach makes for a shorter eight-hour bus ride. Bio Bio Expeditions and Patagonia Elements are two of the best outfitters offering river trips in the area.
Perfect Layover: Buenos Aires, Argentina
The San Telmo neighborhood doesn’t have quite as many young people in tight-fitting clothes as the more hyped Palermo, but it has better steakhouses, cheaper rentals, and far more charm.
Stay at the two-bedroom former printing plant from apartment brokers Casa San Telmo (from $130). If you’re around on a Sunday, head down the street to the Dorrego flea market and load up on maté cups for friends. For your steak fix, walk around the corner to La Brigada. It’s not quite as famous as Gran Parrilla del Plata (which is also nearby), but it’s every bit as good. One last thing: bring lots of small American bills. Every restaurant accepts them, and they’ll give you a far better exchange rate than you get from a bank.
A Short Guide to Asado
Argentina is home to the best steaks on the planet: grass fed, grilled slowly over a real fire, and served with chimichurri, a vinegary green sauce made from smashed parsley and garlic. Before you order, know what you’re getting.
Asado: A general term for cooking a variety of meats over an open flame, or a party where those meats are served.
Tira de asado: A cut of grilled short ribs.
Morcilla: Blood sausage that scares away most gringos.
Choripán: A piece of bread used to grab meat (sausage in particular) right off the grill.
Parrilla: The actual grilling surface, though it can also mean the grilled meat or the restaurant where it’s served.
Bife de chorizo: A strip steak, not the spicy sausage.
Ojo de bife: Rib eye, not the literal “eye of cow.”