Hiking in Patagonia
Hiking in Patagonia will not disappoint. Whether in Chile or Argentina, the region is full of beautiful untouched landscapes, spectacular snow-capped mountains, glaciers, and blue-green lakes. Infrastructure is good and hikers will find themselves well catered for, with a wide range of walking and accommodation options.
Three of the most famous destinations for hiking in Patagonia are Torres del Paine in Chile, Fitz Roy (Los Glaciares National Park) in Argentina, and Isla Navarino in Tierra del Fuego, an island close to Ushuaia but belonging to Chile. I have been lucky enough to have hiked and camped in all three locations and have thoroughly enjoyed each one. If you can, you should visit all three places – but in case you can’t, below is a comparison to help you decide which you might prefer.
Whichever Patagonia hike you chose, you are guaranteed to be surrounded by spectacular landscapes, aching glaciers, and looming, snow capped mountains.
Fitz Roy: Here many spectacular highlights can be accessed in a relatively short time. Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy are both very impressive mountains that can be seen from almost anywhere in the park, and accessed on a day walk from El Chalten. You will pass beautiful blue-green lakes and glaciers on almost every hike here.
Torres del Paine: The famous Torres del Paine peaks are virtually an icon of tourism in Chile. The Torres can be seen from the park entrance and reached on a day hike. Other highlights include the John Gardner Pass on the full circuit, and Glacier Grey, which can be accessed on either circuit. The French valley is also spectacular.
Isla Navarino: The Dientes de Navarino are the highlight of their namesake circuit. Lago Windhond and the southern coast (if you go that far) are the highlights of the Windhond hike. In general Navarino has many smaller highlights than the other Patagonian hiking circuits, including the high Paso Virginia, frozen lakes, and Monte Bettinelli.
Transportation and Logistics
None of the parks are easy to get to, though all are worth the effort.
Fitz Roy: Most people make their way to El Calafate by bus or air from Buenos Aires. From there frequent buses run to El Chalten. The hike starts straight out of the town. Supplies are easy to find in El Calafate; harder and more expensive in El Chalten.
Torres del Paine: The most common route is to fly to Santiago, then Punta Arenas. From there buses can easily be booked to Puerto Natales and then on to Torres del Paine park entrance. A wide range of supplies can be found easily in Punta Arenas or Puerto Natales.
Isla Navarino: Difficult and expensive to reach, even by Patagonian standards. Supplies, except basic food stuffs, are hard to find in Puerto Williams on Isla Navarino, so it is best to buy in advance. There are two transportation options:
From Punta Arenas there are air and sea transports options to Isla Navarino, but these tend to be expensive. The ferry is also quite slow and could be rough, but does offer potentially spectacular views. Supplies can easily be found in Ushuaia.
From Ushuaia in Argentina there are light aircraft flights across the Beagle Channel, or you can take a Zodiac. This is the option I took. The disadvantage of the flight is the 10kg weight limit – not enough for camping gear and supplied. Supplies can easily be found in Ushuaia. The Zodiac only runs when the weather is calm, and involves an hour of driving on the far side to reach Puerto Williams.
Fitz Roy: Of the three locations, Los Glaciares National Park is the only place where day hikes are realistically possible. Laguna Torres, Laguna de los Tres, and Piedras Blancas can all be hiked from El Chalten in a day. In fact, it is quite hard to find a decent multi-day trip in Fitz Roy: when I hiked there I started in the north and headed east towards Piedra Fraille before heading south towards the centre of the park near Laguna de los Tres. This took only 2 nights.
Torres del Paine: Although some agencies do offer day trips to Torres del Paine, the distance from nearby towns means the shortest common option is the ‘W’ circuit, which can be done in 4 or 5 days. This trek incorporates the most spectacular areas of the park, including the famous Torres themselves, the French Valley, and Lago Grey and Glacier Grey.
The full Torres del Paine ‘O’ circuit which circles around the ‘back’ of the park takes anywhere from 7 to 10 days. I took 10 days when I hiked the trail in 2011, taking things at a steady pace and taking all of the side trips too.
Isla Navarino: Isla Navarino’s hiking trails also tend to be multi-day. Although it might be possible to hike to Laguna Salto and back in a single day, this would provide only a fleeting view of the Dientes de Navarino. The full Dientes circuit is normally done in 5 days / 4 nights, although it could be possible to reduce this by a day for very fit, fast hikers. The Lago Windhond trek took me 4 days back in 2014 – again, it might be possible to reduce this to 3 days, but it would be rushed. An additional day could be added for a trip to the far southern shore of the island – something I wish I had done.
Fitz Roy: There are campsites on the trail to Lago Electrico (Los Troncos), on the trail just below the climb to Laguna de los Tres climb (Campamento Poincenot) and on the shore of Laguna Capri (Campamento Laguna Capri). These have basic outhouse facilities but nothing else. The Poincenot campsite has spectacular views of Fitz Roy but I found it cold and crowded, in a muddy area of woodland. The Los Troncos campsite was slightly more pleasant. I didn’t camp at Laguna Capri but the campsite looked the best – less frequented in a nice, grassy setting.
Torres del Paine: There are campsites throughout the ‘O’ and the ‘W’ circuit. In general the sites on the ‘W’ section have better facilities (including the availability of food and drinks), but they suffer from being somewhat overcrowded. The campsites on the full circuit are more peaceful, with Dickson campsite being absolutely spectacular. Some of the campsites have basic shops and charge a small fee; others are free but with no facilities except a toilet. The standard of all campsites is very good.
Isla Navarino: Wild camping is permitted anywhere on Isla Navarino, although on the Dientes Circuit it is best to use the established sites for environmental impact reasons. Of these, the Laguna Salto campsite is overcrowded but the rest are quite peaceful. None of the campsites have any facilities of any kind. On the Lago Windhond trek it is wild camping all the way.
Fitz Roy: In Fitz Roy, starting from El Chalten requires a short, sharp climb up to the main area of the park. Starting from the road in the north, near the El Pilar hotel, this climb is taken care of while driving. The rest of the park I found to be relatively flat, except the steep uphill section to Laguna de los Tres. The Laguna Torre hike was easy. Los Glaciares was the only park where I saw children and pre-teens walking the trail, seemingly without major difficulty.
Torres del Paine: Hiking on the Torres del Paine ‘W’ circuit is made harder by the need to ascend valleys to see each of the main sights (the Torres, the French Valley, and Glacier Grey). These should not be too difficult with day packs (I climbed with all my gear), but it still represents several hours of uphill in each valley and therefore requires some level of fitness. The full ‘O’ circuit is not particularly steep in any part, but of course is much harder due to the increased pack weight.
Isla Navarino: The terrain on Isla Navarino is very varied. Although I never found the trail itself particular challenging (the Lago Windhond trail in particular is very gentle), environmental factors make a difference. The section from Laguna Martillo towards Paso Virginia was incredibly boggy and the climb up to the pass was knee-deep mud where I had to literally hang on to tree branches and haul myself up. The other issue, not a real physical difficulty but a mental challenge, is the damage done by beavers. On the Dientes de Navarino this was never a real issue, but on the Laguna Windhond trail the path could be blocked by fallen trees for hundreds of metres at a time – requiring very slow and tedious clambering over or under each log.
Fitz Roy: The trails in the park are well sign posted and there are few trails to take, making getting lost difficult.
Torres del Paine: The trails on both the ‘W’ and ‘O’ circuit are clear and I had no difficult following them (except one minor issue out of Los Perros campsite). The ‘W’ circuit is particular popular and it is unlikely that you will be alone on the trail long enough to get lost.
Isla Navarino: In terms of navigation, the Isla Navarino hikes are by far the most difficult. On the Dientes circuit I lost the path several times; on the Windhond hike, less trodden, the path sometimes disappears completely and requires very careful attention to ensure you pick it up again. This is made even harder by areas blocked or flooded by beavers. I got lost several times on this trek, even within an hour of returning to the trail head. The Navarino trails are also much more isolated than the other hikes described here. Good navigation skills are definitely essential here.
Of course it is not possible to say which hike in Patagonia is ‘the best’ as it all depends on personal preference and, to a large extent, luck with factors such as the weather. Nevertheless, of the three options, my favourite treks were on Isla Navarino. I like to hike alone or with one other person. I like the freedom of wild camping, and the solitude of being alone in the wilderness. I like the way these challenges push our independence and self-reliance. On the Lago Windhond trek I saw nobody else for four days. Checking the log book in the refuge at the lake, nobody had made an entry that week. I also greatly enjoyed the Torres del Paine ‘O’ circuit and did find solitude there, but the wild camping of Isla Navarino just pushes it slightly ahead in my book. There is also something about being that far south, across the Beagle Channel, in a place few of heard of.
This is not to say that Fitz Roy is not a spectacular place – the mountains, glaciers, and lakes there are absolutely stunning examples of natural beauty. I simply found that, due to the relatively small size of the park, the trails and the campsites were quite crowded and did not really offer the peace I was seeking, and the relatively short day walks did not challenge me enough.