In my three weeks in South America I found Chile to be raw and local with modest food and accommodation. Whereas Argentina had higher prices, delicious lamb and beef dishes, much more shopping and a large touristy vibe. Read below to learn the essentials regarding the main cities in Souther Patagonia…
Punta Arenas, Chile
Punta Arenas is the city closest (still 40 minutes by taxi) to the airport used to fly into Chilean Southern Patagonia. It is a working port town with abundant statues and a small town square. There isn’t much for shopping and only a few restaurants, but it is a great jumping off point for cruises further south or to Magdalena Island to see penguins. If not interested in those, work with a hostel to book bus tickets directly to Puerto Natales after you land. However, if you have some time then grab a King Crab Stew over at La Luna.
Puerto Natales, Chile
Puerto Natales is the jumping off point for all treks into either Torres del Paine or O’Higgins parks. Unlike Punta Arenas which seemed to have a limited amount of things to do; there are a lot excursions you can take from the town, even to the Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina. You can also find plenty of supplies from dried fruit to gas canisters. You won’t however find balanced healthy trail bars like Cliff Bars or Mountain House meals due to Chilean import taxes. Lastly, its also fun to stay here. The hostels here were the best deal for accommodation and very well put together near the city square.
El Calafate, Argentina
This is the town you’ll fly into to reach Southern Patagonia on the Argentinian side. It is very touristy with a big commercial downtown and expensive restaurants. It also is home to a dinosaur museum, a small bird reserve and a museum about the history of Patagonia. All worth seeing if you have an extra day or two. However, the main attraction here is the Perito Moreno Glacier which is 45min away by bus with great views from the park balconies. At the end of your long summer day make sure to stop by Pura Vita for a funky bohemian vibe and the biggest lamb stew you’ll never be able to eat.
El Chalten, Argentina
El Chalten feels like a small ski-town, but instead of downhill skiing everyone you meet is here for climbing the Mount Fitz Roy and surrounding mountains. The hiking here is also amazing with great treks to Lago de los Tres to see the Fitz Roy range (you’ve seen it) and to Lago Torre to witness stone towers behind a rolling glacier (map). It is quite enjoyable to step foot outside your accommodations and walk to a trailhead, but I found the lodging and food a bit more expensive than I had expected (like a ski town). Regardless of price, its many people’s favorite town of their trip due to the mountain backdrop, climbing/trail access and laid back atmosphere.
Ushuaia, located on Tierra del Fuego, is labeled the southern most city in the world (actually its Puerto Williams). Its not easy to get to and is an extra plane ride down here from El Calafate. However, its just part of the adventure if your plan is to visit Antartica by cruise or by plane. I didn’t make it down here, but the hiking in Tierra del Fuego is likely much less busy than in Torres del Paine or Mt. Fitz Roy. Also becoming popular in this area is southern most trek in the world, the Dientes Circuit.