Known as the End of the Earth, Patagonia reigns as one of the best backdrops for adventurous trekking routes and expeditions. Between Torres del Paine National Park and Monte Fitz Roy, the area located at the southern end of South America offers everything from green alpine meadows to glacier fields stretching as far as the eye can see.
Patagonia -- a cone-shaped land mass that straddles Chile and Argentina -- is home to a number of already established world-famous trekking routes, as well as a national park that is under development. Treks such as The W circuit at Torres del Paine, The Monte Fitz Roy Trails and the tours of the the Futaleufu River Valley are just a few of the main attractions that draw tourists each year.
With most of the trails in Chilean Patagonia -- including over 2,000 km of paths, native forests, deserts, lakes and volcanoes -- hiking and tourism in general have become an important part of the region's economy. As a result, Patagonia tour companies have continued to accommodate increasing numbers of explorers and adventures over the years looking to take advantage of the countryside and its unique offerings.
With so many ways to enjoy every nook and cranny of Chilean Patagonia, we've narrowed down the five best treks to follow while you're in the area.
The W route in Torres del Paine
The Torres del Paine National Park covers 181,000 hectares in Chilean Patagonia. The five day, four night W route through the park leads past the Cordillera del Paine, a spectacular collection of granite monoliths located in the transitional area between the Magellanic subpolar forests and the Patagonian steppe (also known as the Patagonian Desert). Declared a world biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 1978, the lakes, rivers, waterfalls, glaciers, and dense forests of the region are internationally recognized as one of the most unique and uncontaminated places on the planet. Although camping is possible, most prefer to stay and eat in the refugios, comfortable cabins conveniently situated at the end of each day's stretch. While there are plenty of companies willing to scoop you up for a guided trek, it's certainly possible to do this one with a map and a bit of common sense. Book early for the refugios in high season as this is a popular excursion from Punta Arenas.
The Friendly Paine Circuit
Lasting four days/three nights, the Friendly Paine route puts you right in the middle of Torres del Paine National Park. Trekking the route is mainly recommended between late December and late February as hikers have the opportunity to enjoy the route's sights and sounds for a longer time in the sun given the extreme southern latitude. Although this specific circuit is shorter than The W, it does highlight some of Torres' best offerings, such as Puerto Natales, Cueva del Milodón, Pehoe Lake and Sarmiento Lake. As many of the programs do include accommodations in several Torres del Paine hotels, it's suggested that you bring waterproof boots and warm clothes as wood fires at the various campsites are prohibited throughout the park.
The Monte Fitz Roy Trail
Monte Fitz Roy Trail, while crossing over in to Argentina, remains one of the most stunning and advanced treks that Patagonia has to offer. The four day/three night trail takes you in the direction of 40 major glaciers as you go from Fitz Roy to Rio Blanco, where you can relax and enjoy the campsite located at Cerro Poincenot. Fitz Roy is located at the northern tip of gorgeous Parque Nacional Los Glaciers, itself part of Hielo Sur, the largest icecap not in a polar region. Despite its average height, the mountain has a reputation of being the ultimate ascend in terms of trekking the landscape of Patagonia. Other popular destinations within Monte Fitz Roy include Laguna de los Tres, Laguna Torre, and the non-technical ascend of nearby Cerro Eléctrico. Accommodations and restaurants can be found throughout the trail with the help of a map or one of the many tour guide outlets.
The Trail of Neighbors
Although a part of the Futaleufu River flows from a chain of high, sunny lakes in Argentina, it also runs through a rugged, glaciated area of the Chilean mountains. The four day/three night trek through the valley is an impressive one for nature lovers as it takes you into the Chilean mountains, along the lakes, and up the marvelous Futaleufu River. Followed correctly, you should reach the peak of Cerro Teta and eventually descend down the river of Esplon where you will encounter the beautiful Azul Valley and the long bridge that crosses the River. Eco camps, lodges and ranches are located along the trail for overnight accommodations in this best kept secret of Patagonia.
Patagonia National Park, a location that's under development and soon to be opened, is an ideal location for hiking, backpacking and mountaineering. Exploring its valleys and mountains through the growing number of trails is the best way to discover its vast landscape. Lagunas Altas, the first official trail of the future park, is challenging, yet rewarding with its spectacular views of the entire Aviles Valley. The trail makes a loop from the park headquarters up toward Tamangito peak, along the ridge, around half a dozen alpine lakes, and then down the ridge back toward home. While Aviles Valley connects the Jeinimeni Mountains to the Chacabuco Valley, hikers can trek up and eventually cross over toward Chile Chico on the shores of Lago General Carrera. Even a half-day of trekking up this valley will provide excellent views of this glaciated landscape. Check back for official Patagonia National Park opening dates.