Patagonia is a vast and scarcely-populated wilderness of outstanding natural beauty which straddles the Andean border of southern Chile and Argentina. It is a primeval land of towering granite peaks, frontier-bending expanses of windswept pampa pitted with sparkling glacial lakes, and a huge domed sky which can be egg-shell blue calm or torn apart by angry clouds.
This adventurous and economical private holiday will introduce you to this most extraordinary landscape, bookended by a few days in the two cosmopolitan capitals, Santiago and Buenos Aires.
Day 1 Arrive in Santiago. Transfer to hotel, afternoon half day bicycle tour.
Transfer from the airport to you hotel in Santiago. It’s in an agreeable and up and coming residential quarter, Lastarria. Santiago is set in a broad valley between ranges of the Andes, with majestic snow-capped peaks, and a smaller coastal range with a distinctly Mediterranean feel. Santiago is a huge metropolis, a mix of the old and the contemporary, with quarters of tree-lined avenues and affluent tranquillity and others full of commercial bustle.
During the afternoon, take a guided tour by bike of the old centre. Cycle through the quiet back streets, plazas and hidden corners of picturesque Barrio Yungay, in downtown Santiago. Moving towards Old Santiago cycle over old streets lined with stately palm trees, through parks and following the city's numerous bike lanes.
After a brief pause for some refreshments in one of the many outdoor cafés in Plaza Brazil you will continue towards the Quinta Normal Park and observe the impressive architecture of the Central train station. Soon you will be passing by the La Moneda Presidential Palace, seat of the Chilean government and one of the most interesting colonial buildings in the city.
Day 2 At leisure.
A full day at leisure in the Chilean capital. You might visit the sunlit vineyards and cellars of the Maipo Valley's celebrated wineries. The valley is considered one of the best wine-producing areas in the country. Within an hour of downtown, the scenery is lovely, with a rugged Mediterranean feel, and the peacefulness tranquillity a great contrast to the atmosphere in many parts of the congested capital. Alternatively, the tumbledown historic port of Valparaiso makes an excellent day trip.
Day 3 Fly to Puerto Montt, by road to Puerto Varas.
Transfer to Santiago airport and fly to Puerto Montt in the lake district, northern Patagonia (2hrs). It seems that each of the royal blue lakes in this region of chocolate-box prettiness is overlooked by its own snow-dipped volcano. On the lake shores are resort towns with an Alpine flavour and traditional villages of neat wooden cottages. The region is carpeted with pine forests and studded with youthful streams. Short drive to Alpine-style Puerto Varas on the shores of Lake Llanquihue.
Day 4 Hiking in the Lake District.
Hiking in Desolation Pass. In spite of its unsettling name, this is an enjoyable and relaxing walk in the foothills of Osorno volcano and beautiful Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park, with its native Patagonian forests of beech, pine and Chilean flame trees. Depart Puerto Varas by road for the hamlet of Petrohue(45mins). From here, begin walking with your guide towards the mountain pass which connects Osorno's perfect profile with an extinct neighbouring volcano called La Picada. Once past the tree-line you get a spectacular view of Lago Todos Los Santos and - if you are lucky - the 3,500m summit of Tronador in Argentina. It’s a good place to rest and enjoy your packed lunch before the descent which traces the path of an ancient eruption.
Arriving at the lakeshore, there's time for a refreshing swim in the emerald green waters. This will hopefully put a spring back into your step for the final stretch back to Petrohue, where your driver awaits. This hike is classified as easy to moderate; there are up and downhill stretches and a total of 7 hrs' walking.
Day 5 At leisure.
At leisure in Puerto Varas. The town was colonised by Germans at the turn of the 20th century and its architecture and sedate style reflects this, but it is now a fast-growing tourist resort. Its main attraction is an alpine green lake framed by tree-clad hills and beyond, one of the most perfectly shaped snow-capped volcanoes in the world - Osorno. If you're lucky enough to be in Puerto Varas on a clear and still evening, the sunsets over Osorno's snowy mantle can be magical.
Day 6 Fly to Punta Arenas; by road to Torres del Paine.
Transfer to Puerto Montt and fly to Punta Arenas in southern Patagonia (2 hrs). On a clear day you have other-worldly views of the swirling meringue of the southern icecap, its fjords, volcanoes and glaciers.
Approaching Punta Arenas you see the rust-brown stain of the Patagonian steppes, pitted with small lagoons stretching out towards the Straits of Magellan. The region’s fortunes were only briefly revived during a short-lived gold rush, and to add to its woes, the sheep-rearing business has never really recovered from the collapse of the price of meat and wool.
From the airport, drive into the awesome Torres del Paine National Park (5 hrs-ish, a wonderful wilderness where you’ll see silvery iceberg-dotted rivers, aquamarine lagoons and savagely wind-carved rocks, cliffs and ice-clad mountains. Guanacos (cameloids) graze peacefully while ostriches scamper across the plains and condors soar above.
The road takes you across inhospitable plains, battered by perpetual winds. The scenery becomes more dramatic as you approach the towering massif which looms up on the horizon. You’ll be staying in fixed dome tents with proper beds and shared bathroom facilities.
Days 7-8 Explore Torres del Paine National Park.
Choose from a menu of guided excursions and adventure activities from the camp. There is a programme of activities divided into 'easy' or 'active' tours, which have fixed schedules and are shared with other guests. The excursions included during your stay will vary depending on your arrival day, but the emphasis is on exploring these wonderful surroundings on foot. Typically, there is a choice of easy trails to the western lakes, Laguna Azul and the Mirador del Toro viewpoint.
More active guests may enjoy the day-long trek to the base of Torres del Paine or a hike in the French Valley. Excursions to Glacier Grey are offered twice-a-week (usually Tuesday and Friday) subject to local conditions and minimum numbers being reached. It might be possible to organise a private excursion locally at additional cost. Horse riding may also be arranged locally at extra cost.
Day 9 Public coach to El Calafate.
It’s an all-day public coach journey towards and over the frontier to Argentina across the bleak and scantily-populated Patagonian steppe, but the beauty of the mountainous scenery is staggering. In the afternoon you reach the shores of the milky turquoise Lago Argentina, and the little town of El Calafate, where you are based for the coming days.
This resort town is on the southern shore of turquoise Lago Argentino. Tourism in the last twenty years has transformed it into a bustling entrepôt for access to the nearby scenery of glaciers, lakes and impossibly steep peaks. It still has a bit of a frontier feel, though it is very busy in summer. Your hotel is a brisk walk along the lakeside, out of town.
Day 10 Visit Perito Moreno glacier; boat cruise on the lake.
Guided excursion to Perito Moreno Glacier. It’s an early morning departure from El Calafate to Los Glaciares National Park, a 90 min drive to the walkways and viewing platform overlooking the glacier. The thundering shards of falling ice are a breathtaking spectacle as you pass at a safe distance along the walkway in front of the Canal de los Tempanos, which separates Brazo Rico from the main part of the lake. The Glacier is five kilometres wide and stands 60m above the surface of the lake. Its ice masses are fed by the southern continental ice field from the west, and from other smaller surrounding glaciers.
After lunch (not included) in the nearby cafeteria, board the Safari Nautico or Moreno Fiesta for an hour-long cruise on the lake beneath the glacier, with a commentary. Alternatively, you can just walk and contemplate, away from the other visitors.
Day 11 Transfer to airport, fly to Buenos Aires.
Transfer to airport and fly to Buenos Aires (3hrs). This is an elegant, cultured and cosmopolitan city famed for its interesting museums and the fascinating port district of La Boca, with its cobbled streets and brightly painted houses. It was here where the tango was born, and where Diego Maradona honed his footballing skills. The centre of town is home to the colonial heartland, government buildings and churches as well as chic shopping districts, which have a nostalgic Parisian feel. Slightly further out of the centre is the Recoleta district, even more evocative of the French influence, where Evita Perón was laid to rest.
Day 12 Guided gastronomic tour in San Telmo, Buenos Aires.
Take a guided culinary-themed lunchtime walking tour, guiding you and the other participants around Buenos Aires' best off-the-beaten-track eats tasting authentic Argentine dishes, including from the city's traditional hole-in-the-wall parrillas. Learn about culture and cuisine on this relaxed, sociable tour with up to 12 participants. Visiting several venues, sample traditional street foods choripan, provoleta and empanadas; a variety of classic parrilla cuts of meat; wines; and artisanal 'heladeria' ice creams.
Tours are conducted in the company of an English-speaking expert and last just under 3 hrs. You need to make your own way to and from the meeting point (to be advised before departure), in either San Telmo neighbourhood to join your guide. Food and wine is included.
Day 13 At leisure in the capital.
At leisure. Make the most of your free time to shop, have a drink and a pastry in an enticing coffee bar or peruse the items on display in one of the many markets. Take a stroll round Puerto Madero, the refurbished port district where former dock installations and features have been preserved alongside a string of excellent restaurants and loft conversions.
Day 14 Transfer to airport for international flight home.