The name Patagonia evokes images of an untamed, undefinable land - and that is in essence exactly what this spectacular region is. Stretching across southern Chile and Argentina (see our separate guides for Argentine Patagonia to the east and the Chilean Lake District to the north), it has no definite boundaries. Its ever-changing landscapes encompass Pacific and Atlantic coastlines, rugged cliffs, rolling plains, misty forests, vast lakes, tumbling rivers, and turquoise glaciers which send sheets of ice crashing into the water below. Opportunities for adventure abound: rafting on the Futaleufu river, sea-kayaking off the remote island of Chiloé, horse-riding across windswept steppes, and hiking through the Torres del Paine National Park with its famed granite towers. Those who want to explore at a more sedate pace can choose from awe-inspiring boat journeys past fjords, floating icebergs and islets inhabited only by seals and penguins.
The turquoise Futaleufu river is renowned for its whitewater rapids. Every December to April, the charming village of Futaleufu becomes a base for paddlers looking to descend some of the wildest waters on the planet, or explore the gentler River Espolon. Former American Olympic kayaker Chris Spelius runs excellent kayak and rafting trips, as well as other adrenaline-pumping activities, from a remote river camp or his wooden lodge in the village. There's also world-class fly-fishing on the Futaleufu and Yelcho rivers, with large native populations of brown and rainbow trout.
One of the world's great overland trips, this singular road winds south over 1,000km from Puerto Montt to the obscure port of Yungay. Due to its lack of paving (a 4WD is recommended), it remains very underused, but it's worth the bumpy conditions for the unadulterated natural beauty. This sparsely populated area is characterised by occasional hamlets, ancient forests, rugged snow-capped peaks, rushing rivers of every shade of blue and green imaginable, and countless waterfalls. Throw in 2 vast ice fields, the breathtaking Lago General Carrera and golden pampas, and it's a pretty special journey.
If starting along the northern stretch from Puerto Montt, the road is interrupted by fjords, making 2 car-ferry crossings with Transmarchilay necessary (and only possible Jan-Feb). Alternatively, start 200km further south in Chaitén, from where the road heading south is continuous. For Patagonian-style pampering along the way, stop at one of Chile's best spa hotels, set in dense forest on the shore of a fjord.
For a more leisurely - but just as spectacular - journey south, travel by boat past fjords, glaciers and untouched islands (though note that weather conditions can often be foggy). There are 2 fantastic options - a 3-night/4-day trip between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales (ideal for those visiting Torres del Paine, as you can take the boat there and fly back from Punta Arenas or vice versa), and a 1- to 6-day voyage starting from Puerto Montt or Puerto Chacabuco and sailing to Laguna San Rafael. The laguna is part of a huge glacier-filled park located 200km south of Puerto Chacabuco, which encompasses some of the most awesome scenery in the world.
Navimag operates modest passenger and cargo ferries on both routes. Skorpios runs a more deluxe 6-night round trip to the San Rafael glacier from Puerto Montt, and a 3-night voyage from Puerto Chacabuco. Book well ahead.
Separated from mainland Chile by the Chacao Channel, Chiloé is a mystical island populated by remote and largely self-sufficient fishing communities. It’s famed for its artisan traditions (particularly textiles), its stilted houses and its Unesco-listed churches, which are made entirely of natural timber and often clad in wood shingles. It’s a wonderful place to spend a few days (Tierra Chiloe makes a luxurious base), pottering around tiny villages, horse-riding across the rugged countryside, and taking boat tours around unspoilt islets in search of penguins, otters and whales.
The famed Torres del Paine National Park lies in Chile's southernmost reaches. Its magnificent granite towers (the Torres) and horn-shaped Cuernos ('horns') - often tinged pink at sunset - are surrounded by lagoons and home to wildlife of all kinds. The area is laced with well-marked hiking trails, and most of our featured hotels offer guided treks of varying lengths and degrees of difficulty. The most popular include the short hike to the Laguna Azul, the full-day journey to the base of the Torres, and the demanding El Circuito (5-6 days) and W (4-5 days). Along the way, you're likely to see llama-like guanacos, flamingos, condors and flightless rheas.
The 3-hour scenic boat trip across Lago Grey aboard the vessel Grey II is a must-do for anyone visiting the Torres del Paine National Park. You’ll sail past unbelievably blue icebergs to the impressive Grey Glacier, which flows into the lake’s southern end. It runs several times a day in season, and most hotels can arrange tickets and transport to the boarding point. If you want to get even closer to the glacier, you can don crampons and embark on an ice hike with Bigfoot Patagonia.
Set right on the edge of the Torres del Paine National Park, Estancia Cerro Guido provides a taste of traditional life on a working sheep farm. It offers a range of horse-riding programmes which take experienced riders into the steppe, with the option of staying overnight on a remote estancia. Depending on the time of your visit, you can also witness sheep shearing (early November), lamb branding (late November/early December), cattle round-ups (early January) and sheep round-ups (mid January).