Believe it or not, our South American travel adventures delivered quite a few greatest hits in 2020 including the only place to see king penguins outside of Antarctica, a cruise through part of the Patagonian Ice Field, and epic horseback riding inside an iconic national park. That’s because we packed a lot into the first two months of the year in the Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego regions of Argentina and Chile before the pandemic lockdown began in March and travel stopped. Welcome to part 1 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2020 series–our guide to our best adventure travel of 2020 in Argentina and Chile. Part 2 covers the best hotels of 2020 and part 3 covers the best food and beverages of the year.
Now here’s some South American adventure travel inspiration.
Best adventure travel of 2020
Best festival of ice: The Southern Patagonian Ice Field is the second-largest non-polar ice field in the world covering 4,773 square miles (12,363 square km) including dozens of glaciers. A great way to see part of it is on the 4-day/3-night Kewasker Route cruise with Cruceros Skorpios which explores part of the Bernardo O’Higgins National Park which is the largest protected area in Chile covering 13,614 square miles (35,259 square kilometers)–that’s larger than the US state of Maryland and the only access is by boat or helicopter. We saw dolphins, watched glaciers calve, drank 12-year-old scotch on 30 million-year-old glacial ice, and much more. Get a day-by-day description of this trip through the ice, including more photos and a video, in our post about exploring the Southern Patagonian Ice Field with Skorpios.
Best penguin encounter: Parque Pingüino Rey (12,000 CLP or about US$16.50, reservations required) in the Tierra del Fuego region of Chile is the only place in the world where you can see king penguins outside of Antarctica. The penguins started forming the colony here in 2010 and the population now includes about 80 adults who pair up and produce about 30 eggs per year. A 1,600 foot (500 meter) flat loop trail takes visitors through a series of blinds outfitted with telescopes that allow you to see the penguins without getting too close or otherwise disturbing them. Your visit is prefaced with a short tutorial about king penguins (in Spanish and English) and proceeds from entrance fees are used to support scientific study and conservation of the species.
Best authentic estancia experience: We visited a lot of sheep farms and other types of estancias during our explorations in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, but none was quite as authentic as Estancia Lago Pinto (reservations required). Located about an hour outside the town of Puerto Natales in Chile, The adventure starts during the 25 mile (42 km) journey (allow an hour) from Puerto Natales to the farm is via a coastal road that passes through chunks of wind-whipped forest. This working sheep farm, part of a once much larger operation that was created in the 1800s, is now run by Kaley (Kiki), Pedro, and their young son. Pedro was born in Puerto Natales, Kiki is Chilean but grew up in the US, and both of them speak perfect English. Pedro’s grandfather bought the estancia in 1972 and Pedro spent much of his youth (when not studying in Santiago or in Versailles) on the 20,000 acre (8,000 hectare) farm which is home to 800 cows, 250 sheep, more than 40 horses, and plenty of dogs. In 2018, Kiki had the idea to welcome people for day visits to the farm offering a tour of gardens, greenhouses, the wind power system, livestock and barns (including the farm’s original wool baling machine that’s still in use), and a range of horseback riding options on the property using traditional tack including a sheepskin-draped saddle. This is all capped off with a fantastic traditional asado lunch, which showcases Kiki’s culinary school training and features a fire-roasted lamb, salad made with vegetables from their garden, roasted potatoes, light and crispy sopapillas (fried squash bread), pebre (Chile’s beloved cross between pico de gallo and chimichurri), Chilean wine, and dessert all served family-style in their farmhouse.
Best horseback riding: Pedro Ibáñez, the founder of the explora luxury all-inclusive adventure lodges in South America, is an equestrian and a horse lover and his passion has been poured into the horse riding program at the explora Patagonia lodge in Chile. Horses are bred and trained at a facility near Santiago to ensure that there’s a horse for every level and type of rider. Guides are hand-selected to lead horseback excursions and receive special training. And a wide variety of rides means guests can choose an easy excursion or a challenging one based on their level of experience. Bonus: the explora Patagonia is the only luxury lodge located inside Torres del Paine National Park, so the scenery is epic. For more about why you should visit this extraordinary lodge, read our full review of explora Patagonia for Luxury Latin America.
Best unsung park: Perito Moreno National Park in the Patagonia region of Argentina recently expanded thanks to a land donation from the Tompkins Conservation organization. The park, which is open from November 1 through April, now protects nearly 450 square miles (1,165 square km) of Patagonian steppe, spiky peaks, milky glacier-fed lakes, and looming glaciers. There are miles of hiking trails (and the network of trails is being expanded) and the terrain is home to guanacos (the llama’s wild cousin), Andean condors, flamingos, pumas, and more. This park also recently added a daisy chain of charming wood cabins with sleeping areas with mats (byo sleeping bag), high-quality windows (no drafts), wood-burning stoves (and well-stocked woodpiles), a basic cooking/dining/sitting area, porches with lake views, and nearby bio outhouses. And all of this is free and you’re likely to have the park basically to yourself since it is very little visited. Don’t want to camp or stay in one of the park’s cabins? Book a room at the homey and historic Estancia La Oriental which is located inside the park. The Lada family bought the place in the 1970s and they lived there and raised sheep for decades before beginning to offer bedrooms in the farmhouse to tourists in 1995.
Best wild animal sighting: Some things never get old, like seeing a puma in the wild. While traveling in Patagonia we saw four different pumas. Our best puma sighting of 2020 occurred along the dirt road between the La Posta de Los Toldos lodge (more about that awesome place in our Best Hotels of 2020 post) and the Cueva de las Manos archaeological site in Parque Patagonia in Argentina. We spotted her near dusk on our way back to the lodge after exploring the site. A blur of movement gave her away so we pulled and watched her pick her way along a hillside and over a ridge. Then she was gone.
Best multi-day hike: Sure you can do the very popular hike from the town of El Chalten, Argentina up to Lagos de los Tres in Los Glaciares National Park and back again in one very long and very hard day covering a total of 13 miles (20.8 km). However, we decided to break it up into a leisurely 3-day affair with different routing and two nights of camping. Instead of hitting the trail from El Chalten, we took a van from town to the nearby El Pilar Hosteria. From there we walked for 2.5 hours covering about 4 miles (6 km) to the Campamento Poincenot campground gaining just 700 feet (200 meters) in elevation along the way. The mostly undulating trail followed the Rio Blanco valley up through forested areas and we saw fewer than 20 other hikers. The next morning, we got out of our tent pre-dawn and started up the 1.5 mile (2.3 km) trail (each way) to Lago de los Tres to beat the heat and the crowds. The final 0.5 mile (1 km) stretch gains more than 1,200 feet (365 meters) and we rewarded ourselves at the top with coffee and a granola bar as we took in the view and listened to glaciers crack and rumble all around us with just handful of other early birds. It took another 1.5 hours to get back down the rocky trail to our campsite as the crowds of hikers from El Chalten started hiking up. After another night of camping, we hiked the 5 miles (8 km) back to El Chalten through forest and open areas, past Laguna Azul and its smaller lakeside campground, then did the long and steep 1.5 mile (2.5 km) descent into town which is a relentless climb up for hikers coming directly from El Chalten, yet one more reason to do this hike backwards like we did.
Best high-octane adventure: Frenchman Philippe Reuter arrived in Chile more than three decades ago and promptly fell in love with the Patagonia region and South American adventures in general. In 1992 he got into the Guinness world record books after skiing down the 10 highest volcanos on earth. He got in again for kayaking on Lake Licancabur at 19,356 feet (5,900 meters). In 2001 he summited 29,032 foot (8,848 meter), Mount Everest. Along the way, he created Aziumut 360 Tours to assist similarly adventurous travelers scratch that itch in Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina. He also owns Terra Luna hotels in the Atacama Desert in Chile and in Chilean Patagonia and that’s where we met him. It makes sense that the adventures Philippe offers his guests push the envelope. Case in point: The Los Leones Patagonia Jet full-day tour from his Terra Luna Patagonia hotel. The day started with a 1.5-hour jet boat ride from the lodge across Lago General Carrera and then up the Rio Leones as far as water levels allow. A short guided walk brought us to Lago Leones where we got into zodiacs to cross the bay to the foot of the Leones Glacier. While we ate a packed lunch on a huge boulder near the glacier’s face we could hear the ice rumbling and see it calving. The jet boat journey back to the lodge was even wilder since we were traveling downriver. At times it felt like drift racing only on water over barely submerged boulders. Karen admits that her eyes were often closed as we skirted around bends in the river at up to 45 miles (70 km) per hour and through rocky rapids covered by as little as 8 inches (20 cm) of water. The glacier was spectacular, but it’s the jet boat river rush of adrenaline that we remember most. Experience some of that adrenaline in our Los Leones jet boat adventure video, above.
Best adventure in the sky: In 2019 we saw our very first total solar eclipse when we traveled to northern Argentina to see the spectacle in Bellavista (here’s our post about that amazing first total solar eclipse experience). We were hooked and we vowed to be at the total solar eclipse set to occur in southern Argentina in December of 2020. Covid pandemic-related travel restrictions nearly stopped us, but in early December the Argentinean government authorized domestic travel between provinces which allowed us to drive from our pandemic lockdown apartment in Mendoza to the neighboring province of Neuquén where we headed for a remote spot called Catán Lil where the eclipse reached full totality. Factor in nearly 40-mile-per-hour (65-km-per-hour) Patagonian winds and our second total solar eclipse was even more exciting than our first.
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