Places to visit in Patagonia | CNN Travel

(CNN) — For travelers looking for adventure, to reconnect with nature, or to feel like the only people for miles, Patagonia is one of the last pristine places on earth.

Covering hundreds of thousands of square kilometers in southern Argentina and Chile, this remote region spans ancient forests, vast glaciers, deep fjords and the rugged Andes.

Patagonia is home to diverse wildlife including cougars, penguins and parrots. There’s kayaking, trekking, biking, rock climbing, rafting and snorkeling – even alongside sea lion pups.

“This is a place for people who like adventure. You can feel the wind and you can feel the sea,” said Kevin Zaouali, co-director of the new CNN original series Patagonia: Life on the Edge of the World. “In Patagonia you feel alone in this huge wildlife.”

Here are some of the must-see places at the end of the world:

Torres del Paine National Park is a paradise for nature lovers, hikers and climbers.

Torres del Paine National Park is a paradise for nature lovers, hikers and climbers.

Ana Fernandez/AFP/Getty Images

Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

Torres del Paine National Park is a crown jewel of Chile’s park system. It has miles of glaciers, turquoise lakes, granite peaks that soar more than 10,000 feet, breathtaking waterfalls and rare wildlife.

“There are very few places in the world that are so pristine and untouched,” said Camilo Rada, a scientist and mountaineer from Chile.

This park is one of the world’s most sparsely populated regions, where wildlife must be resilient to survive its punishing and unpredictable extremes. There are condors, wild horses, rheas, guanacos and pumas.

“This is one of the best places in the world to see these cougars. Everywhere else they are afraid of humans, but not here. They have no predators – there are no wolves or bears, so they’re pretty chilled. René Araneda, former tour guide and director of Patagonia: Life on the Edge of the World, told CNN. “Torres del Paine National Park is probably my favorite place on earth.”

It is estimated that the park and surrounding area are home to hundreds of cougars.

Magellanic penguins stand on the beach at El Pedral, Argentina, at sunset.

Magellanic penguins stand on the beach at El Pedral, Argentina, at sunset.

Kevin Zaouali

Península Valdés and El Pedral, Argentina

More than 700 miles northeast of Torres del Paine on the Argentine coast, Península Valdés is another wildlife lover’s paradise. At the UNESCO World Heritage Site, visitors can see killer whales, southern right whales, elephant seals, sea lions, Magellanic penguins and countless birds.
Zaouali recommends a boat trip to see southern right whales up close. These slow-moving, peaceful giants get their name because they were once known as the “right guys” to hunt.

The orcas, on the other hand, can be seen from the beaches of the Península Valdés.

“It’s the best place in the world to see orcas,” Zaouali said. “When you walk, you will come into real contact with wildlife.”

Punta Norte, on the northern tip of the peninsula, is one of the few places on earth where orcas come ashore to hunt unsuspecting seals and sea lion pups. Only two orca schools know this ingenious hunting trick.

First they swim sideways to hide their dorsal fins, then beach themselves to snatch their meal, and finally maneuver back into the sea. This occurs in March and April and the risky feat is breathtaking to behold.

Orcas come ashore at Punta Norte to hunt seals and sea lion pups. They do this by swimming sideways to hide their dorsal fins, then stranding to attack their prey, and finally maneuvering back out to sea. The new original series, Patagonia: Life on the Edge of the World, airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET.

There is a growing colony of penguins at El Pedral, about 30 miles south.

“When you are there, you are alone in a huge colony of penguins. It’s the best place to stay if you want to experience Patagonia on another level,” Zaouali told CNN, calling the place magical.

There are over 12,000 Magellanic penguins, conservationist Popi García said on CNN’s Patagonia.

“One of the favorite penguins in this colony is called Clarita,” said García, “we know that she is about 16 years old. She was able to raise 14 chicks.”

September to April is the best time to see the penguins when these migratory waddling birds come to breed.

View of the Perito Moreno Glacier in Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina.

View of the Perito Moreno Glacier in Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina.

RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/AFP via Getty Images

Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Los Glaciares National Park, located in the southwest of Santa Cruz province in the Argentine Andes, is characterized by its numerous glaciers.

Zaouali likened the icy marvel to “The Wall” in “Game of Thrones.”

“It’s a huge spectacle to watch,” said Zaouali. He recommends visiting in the spring and summer, when it’s melting, to see and hear the giant chunks of the wall crumble before your eyes.

At over 11,000 feet, Mount Fitz Roy is the highest peak in the park. For breathtaking views of the mountain, hikers embark on the steep, 13-mile (21 km) Fitz Roy Trek.

Horseback riding, kayaking, biking and rock climbing also offer panoramic views of the impressive park.

Balneario El Condor, Argentina

After overwintering in the north, pairs of burrowing parrots return to the same nest each spring. Some of their nests extend three meters into the cliffs. There are 37,000 active nests, conservationist Mauricio Failla said in the Patagonia series.

These green, yellow and blue birds are very social and vocal, which is why Failla loves studying them.

Other local attractions on the Río Negro coast include sandy beaches and the Faro Río Negro lighthouse.

There’s kite surfing, wind surfing and sand sailing, a wheeled vehicle with a sail driven by the wind across the sand.

The colorful waterfront houses known as palafitos in the city of Castro on the island of Chiloé, Chile.

The colorful waterfront houses known as palafitos in the city of Castro on the island of Chiloé, Chile.

Kike Calvo/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Chiloe Island, Chile

The Chilean island of Chiloé offers some of the best whale watching in the region. The beautiful surrounding fjords are a magnet for wildlife, including sea lions, dolphins and the largest animal that ever lived: blue whales.

Summer is the best time to see the endangered blue whales. then they congregate on the Pacific coast to feast on krill. The almost 200-ton whales will eat four tons of krill a day.

“Seeing a blue whale never gets boring. It’s always a thrill,” oceanographer Susannah Buchan told CNN. “It’s always amazing and emotional and an absolute privilege.”

Every year from January to April, 700 migrating whales come to this region.

Buchan recommends whale watchers visit in February. But she warns that this is a huge and dynamic feeding ground, so sightings are not guaranteed. Sometimes she doesn’t see whales for a few weeks.

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Two blue whales swim in the Corcovado Gulf in Chile.

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A trip to Chiloé Island is not complete without enjoying the culture. There is a large indigenous community rooted in deep traditions. Fishing and tourism are the main industries of the locals.

The island is famous for its picturesque Palafitos, wooden houses on stilts over the water. There are even hotels and restaurants on stilts for tourists to visit.

The area is also known for its delicious seafood. One of the traditional Chilean dishes is curanto, a feast of meat and seafood cooked in a pit in the ground and covered by a large leaf. It’s a big communal pot with clams, mussels, sausage, potatoes, chicken and pork.

Buchan advises avoiding Chilean salmon, which is not native to the region. There are no natural salmon in the southern hemisphere, so the local salmon is farmed. Overcrowding in the enclosures has led to disease among the salmon, she said, and large-scale escapes that have damaged native fish communities and devastated the marine ecosystem.

Back on the mainland to the east of the island is Pumalín Park, Chile’s largest privately owned nature reserve. The park was once owned by North Face founder Douglas Tompkins but was donated to the country of Chile. This park is free to visit. This lush and temperate rainforest with crystal clear rivers is a stunning area for outdoor enthusiasts.

“They escape civilization,” Araneda said of the adventurous Carretera Austral ride.

Joël Arpaillange/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Carretera Austral, Chile

If you’re looking for a road trip through particularly remote parts of Patagonia, the Carretera Austral route travels more than 700 scenic miles south from Puerto Montt in the Lakes District to Villa O’Higgins in the Aysén region.

The road, sometimes unpaved and requiring ferries, passes through small isolated villages and tremendously varied landscapes in what many consider Patagonia’s finest road trip.

One of Patagonia: Life on the Edge of the World director Araneda’s favorite spots in Patagonia lies at the southern end of the route – the Aysén region. Home to several iconic parks, including Pumalín Park and Laguna San Rafael National Park, this forested area is considered a biodiversity hotspot, and new species are still being discovered here.

“This is one of the most unexplored places on earth,” Araneda said. “It looks like a jungle, like Costa Rica, but in a cold environment with sea and mountains.”

Puma trackers at Estancia Cerro Guido in Chile.

Puma trackers at Estancia Cerro Guido in Chile.

Ben Gotzen

Estancias throughout Patagonia

Ranches called for a unique experience estancia offer traditional accommodations throughout Patagonia.

Visitors can embrace the solitude of living as one gauchoa native rider who embodies the frontier spirit.

For horseback riding and fly-fishing, northwest Patagonia’s 100,000-acre Estancia Ranquilco offers lodge stays and backcountry horseback treks.
Another option is Tipiliuke in Argentina’s Chimehuín River Valley in northwestern Patagonia. There’s fly fishing, horseback riding, hiking, yoga, golfing, mountain biking, rafting, bird watching and even skiing at the nearby Chapelco ski area. The estancia’s chef is known for her empanadas.

Estancias offer the perfect opportunity to taste authentic cuisine. One of the main staples is the Argentine barbecue known as asado.

In southern Chile, Estancia Cerro Guido covers 247,000 acres. Guests can experience the daily life of the gauchos – spending time in the orchards and horse stables – and immerse themselves in the local conservation work. Activities include 4×4 driving, horseback riding around Torres del Paine and participating in cougar trackers that monitor the daily movements of these top predators and research how the big cats can co-exist with the ranches.

“The cougar and the gaucho have always been enemies”, gaucho and cougar tracker Said Mirko Utrovicic in the series. “I think the most important thing is to recognize that times are changing. Look at what surrounds us. We have to give them their space back.”