How crazy is a visit to Patagonia in winter?

You are ten years old. Standing at the edge of the diving board. Scared of jumping off. But enticed by the joy of that first splash of water, as you dive into the swimming pool.

Our thoughts were similar to the ten-year-old’s, as we decided whether or not to take the plunge. We had two options (like always, in life) – go north or go south. North would still give us a taste of the Andes. It would be “south-enough”, and make no mistake, cold enough as well.

South, on the other hand, meant going head on – at the peak of the southern hemisphere winter – into deep Patagonia. At kissing distance from the white continent of Antarctica. There would be no turning back from here. Enquiring how cold it would be was pointless. We had no previous parameters to compare it with. We were, to be honest, petrified of the winter.

Our location on the map in El Calafate, Patagonia, Argentina

And yet, the prospect of hurling ourselves, into the far corner of our planet, was too enticing to ignore. There was something alluring drawing us into “deep Patagonia”. It was something more powerful than the (valid) rationale that “Patagonia is too far and too cold to visit in winter”.

We don’t know when we’ll be back here – sounded like a profound enough reason. We chose South. We would be visiting Patagonia in winter!

Our fear of the winter was validated on our first day in Santa Cruz. This is the state to which El Calafate, where we were headed, belongs. Our bus was stopped here for some paperwork. It was 2 PM, the time of the day we had so far associated with the warmest weather. The policemen outside, covered from head to toe, only their eyes visible through the thin slits between their huge mufflers and caps were puffing out clouds of mist with each word they spoke.

As the latitudes lowered, it got greyer, felt colder. The four hours at the Rio Gallegos bus station were spent within the confines of the wifi-enabled cafe.

At the unearthly hour of 1.30 AM, when the bus reached El Calafate, we were dreading getting out. The stillness of the night seemed to elevate the cold. The wind sounded like the devil of a horror movie. It was alright being pulled by an explicable force, and getting to El Calafate to explore Patagonia in the winter. “Explore” was the key word here, and it meant stepping out. On that first night in El Calafate, we had no idea how we were going to do that!

A warm dorm, warm shower and a warm bed soothed our nerves. We decided to give El Calafate a shot in a new light of a new day.

El Calafate is your typical little “tourist village” in Patagonia

Yes, El Calafate is an entry point for deep Patagonia from the Argentina side. And Patagonia, in our mind was all things wild and natural. We had almost imagined a mountain side hostel surrounded by a forest.

To our surprise, El Calafate was anything but wild. The “main street” (yes, there was a main street which gave way to hotels, hostels and more hotels – no homes here!) was lined with warm and cosy looking stores. All made in wood. Selling the kind of stuff that serves no particular purpose. Something that is bought only when people are on a holiday high!

El Calafate is far from everywhere. Except for a few crazy ones (like us), most tourists fly into El Calafate. Which explains a series of ticket booking agencies in the El Calafate market. Nothing surprising there. What did take us by surprise were the number of stores selling woollens. Someone visiting El Calafate in winter (or any time of the year) would have already purchased their stock of warm wear. But the shops were stocked with attractive sweaters and jackets, again in warm confines. We aren’t sure if people had flocked these stores to buy warm wear or just feel warm.

Our favourite part of the market were the restaurants. Emanating smells of asado, especially of the Patagonian lamb. The lamb is a special delicacy here. Steak to stew, it is served in every form and is just as delicious.

Apart from the food, there wasn’t much that held our interest in the El Calafate market. So when we saw a board saying bicycles on rent, we decided to check it out.

To cycle or not in El Calafate

We hadn’t cycled much (at all, actually!) since our college years. This would be our first time on geared bicycles. The weather forecast had said rains were likely. The guy at our hostel had translated this forecast to the local Patagonian lingo. “Be prepared for snow”, he had warned us.

For sure, the guy at the bicycle store who helped us choose the bikes had refused to charge us for the six-hour package. “You will not be able to stay outdoors that long, I don’t want to overcharge you”, he had confidently told us.

With this kind of encouragement, cycling around the lake Argentino sounded like a perfect plan! (Well, we had chosen to visit Patagonia in the winter. What was the point in shying away from some adventure, we reasoned!).

A fall and a crash into a parked car later, we had our bikes finalised. “See you in the evening”, we told the bike guy. “See you in a couple of hours” was the look with which he waved back.

El Calafate, lake Argentino and two ducks

The El Calafate municipality has built a paved road around the lake Argentino. This made our cycling experience a joy ride. The seven layers we were buried in, made us feel huge, but snug. The smooth ride had started to warm us up.

There were no shops or hotels around anymore. Just some fluorescent houses, adding a pop of colour to the greyness around. Near El Calafate, the lake started off as a lagoon. A flock of Andean flamingoes with their yellow beaks (a southern hemisphere characteristic) greeted us.

The houses receded as we moved away from El Calafate. Would there be people inside, we wondered. Would they have gathered around a fireplace, reading a book? Watching TV and sipping a hot drink warming them from the inside? Is this how people who lived in these hardly inhabited cold regions spent their time? Did they romanticise the remoteness of their lives, as we did, gliding across the lake that was a part of their daily lives?

A chilled mist had engulfed us. Even covered the sun above. The road was wet. The air was damp. And still. The only rhythm was of our cycles moving ahead. Not a sound could be heard. No calls of birds or the rustle of leaves. As if nature had created this “nothing” to focus all our senses only on the Lake Argentino now spread out endlessly before us. Sitting far away, in one corner of this earth. It was grey and blue and green, mixed in a way “cold” would if it was a colour.

We parked our cycles on some dry pebbles. Found some rocks by the lake to sit on and have our packed lunch. Ham, cheese, tomato and bread, and because this was Argentina, dulce de leche! We realised we had company here, in the form of two Patagonian ducks, sitting with their wings spread out to dry.

The rain grew stronger as we finished our lunch. We had come a long way from the El Calafate village. We made a sane decision to try to get back before it got too dark. The sky was turning a little golden now. We decided to gain higher ground and try to take some pictures of the snow topped golden tinged mountains.

Off the road we went, up a hillock. Turned out, this was the real local El Calafate. Away from the tourist market, we saw the real face of El Calafate here. Each house had huge mountain dogs guarding it. Some even chased us on our cycles! The “road” here was covered in sludge. We couldn’t make much of a higher ground and missed the golden light opportunity.

But we could now say, we had cycled to the far corner of the earth!

The lone warrior Perito Moreno: the real reason for coming to El Calafate

We had first heard of a glacier called Perito Moreno from our Couchsurfing guest. In the pictures that she showed us, the humongous Perito Moreno hadn’t looked like any of the glaciers we had seen earlier. The photo had stayed in minds since. “The only growing glacier in the world resides in Patagonia – the largest cover of snow in the world after Antarctica and Siberia” – our research on Perito Moreno had come up with these glorious findings.

You start when it is still dark. A bus takes you to the Los Glaciares National Park. You are now surrounded by the monstrous Andes mountain range. These Andes are now following you on both sides of the road; some of them are even Chilean! There is fresh snow on the sides of the roads.

The landscape transitions and you are in a thick coniferous forest. You have reached the Los Glaciares National Park.

You now dress up. Put the now-familiar layers on. Gloves, caps, socks are all in place. Jackets pulled up to cover the nose. Only your eyes are now seen, just like the policeman you saw on your first day here in deep Patagonia. It is still early in the morning, the sun is yet to rise and shine.

You step out and “acclimatise”. Breathe in the incredibly cold yet incredibly fresh air. The cold air cuts sharp through your nose and lungs. But you can feel the lungs feeling happy. They are being supplied with the cleanest material they have ever had! The boat arrives to take you to the southern end of the Perito Moreno glacier.

Inside the boat, no one’s dared to take off even their gloves, you notice. Everyone’s eyes are glued to the window. Probably they are all aware of how momentous this day is. The boat moves ahead steadily and suddenly there is a collective gasp. For a moment no one moves. Just as suddenly, everyone makes a dash for the door. The Perito Moreno glacier has presented itself in all its glory.

The cold is forgotten. The frenzied activity defies the sub-zero temperature or the kilos of warm clothing that exists on the deck of the boat at that moment. There is an onboard photographer. Everyone wants to pose for a picture with the Perito Moreno.

Quietly, you move away from the crowd. Find an empty spot on the deck. And look ahead. Fill your eyes up with the Perito Moreno. Every shade of blue imaginable is rising tall in the sky. As far as you can see, there is the glacier, glacier and only the glacier. (Presently, the Perito Moreno glacier spans over an area larger than the city of Buenos Aires.) It is a massive moving mass, defying all odds, fighting a losing battle against global warming. A lone warrior. As if telling you, taunting you, warning you, “I have stood tall so far. I have fought hard. Don’t let me cave in.”

It was now time to see the northern of the Perito Moreno glacier. There are ramps here, built through the forest. These ramps take you to the different sides of the glacier at different heights.

There was no time limit here, we could stand and gawk at the Perito Moreno glacier for as long as we wanted.

Observing carefully now, we noticed deep dark shades of blue inside the crevices of the glacier. These varying colours of ice indicate its age. Darker the blue, older is the ice. Which meant what we were seeing was actually witness to a large part of earth’s history! What events this glacier must have witnessed standing here, as it stood guard!

Every once in a while, the Perito Moreno glacier gives proof of its growing nature. As it moves ahead and hits the barrier, parts of the glacier come tumbling down and hits the lake with a thud. The sound we heard was louder than the loudest fireworks we had heard so far. The ripples caused took a long time to pacify, making the lake around resemble the sea!

We felt enamoured and dwarfed by the Perito Moreno glacier. We had witnessed the most glorious representative of nature’s ultimate supremacy.

We now began to comprehend the overpowering pull that had compelled us to choose South. That had made us decide to visit Patagonia in winter. Yes, we had missed the treks and walks Patagonia is fondly known for. Someday in the future, we may even return in the Patagonian summer.

Until then, in our hearts, we will hold this visit to Perito Moreno, El Calafate, Patagonia as our privilege.

How do you get to “deep Patagonia”?

  • El Calafate, 1400 km away is a 32-hour journey in the winter from Puerto Madryn.
  • Other times of the year, it is accessible via Ruta 40, the national highway of Argentina which goes through the Andes mountains. However, in the winter months Ruta 40 is closed for traffic.
  • You travel through the coastal highway via Commodore Rivadavia all the way south to Rio Gallegos.
  • After a change of bus at Rio Gallegos, you cross over from the East to the West. Nestled in the middle of the Andes, is a tourist village of El Calafate.

Top tips for visiting El Calafate and deep Patagonia

  • In the summer months, trekking on the Perito Moreno is possible. The trekking company arranges for crampons needed to walk on the ice there. Moderate fitness levels are necessary to participate in this trek.
  • El Chalten is to the north of El Calafate. The companies which conduct tours to El Calafate also offer a combined tour to El Chalten.
  • This is especially for Indian passport holders (or travelers who need a visa to visit Chile). If you plan to visit Ushuaia by road, you will need a visa for Chile. The state of Tiera del Fuego to which Ushuaia belongs is across a strait which is shared by Argentina and Chile. When going overland, the bus gets on a Chilean boat which goes through Chilean waters. Which means Chile asks for a visa from Indians to go to the Argentinian city of Ushuaia. Most people couldn’t believe we needed a visa to go from Argentina to Argentina. One of the guys at the bus company actually made five phone calls to his final call being to the border police! We heard him say “transito! transito!” several times, his body language indicating it was a ridiculous rule. But a rule it is and there isn’t much anyone can do.
  • Winter is the off season for Patagonia. Many activities will be closed for the winter. There are still plenty of options for things to do if you visit Patagonia in winter.
  • The weather in Patagonia in winter obviously severely cold. But with appropriate warm clothes, the cold is manageable.

Map of Puerto Madryn to El Calafate and Perito Moreno glacier

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Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca

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Sandeepa and Chetan. Married. Indians. Exploring Travel as Lifestyle. Featured by National Geographic, Yahoo. We hope that through our travel stories we inspire others to make their dream into a reality.

51 thoughts on “How crazy is a visit to Patagonia in winter?

  1. Dr G.Sundaram

    You have not covered Brasilia in Brazil andCape Horn and Free Port -southern most village in the world-/in Chile.
    Dr G.Sundaram

  2. Mike

    Which month exactly did you go? July/August? I am having a hard time finding information about visiting Perito Moreno Glacier in winter. Everyone says the shuttle bus don’t operate in winter from El Calafate -> Perito Moreno Glacier. But it seems that you took a bus and then the boat. Or was it a private tour? If yes, which one? Maybe you can help 🙂 🙂 Thanks, Mike

    1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

      Hey Mike, those were the doubts we had before we headed to Patagonia. However, once we got there we realised that many tour options were available even in the winter. The whale watching tours and snorkelling with the sea lions are activities carried out even in the winter in Puerto Madryn. For the Perito Moreno glacier, we took the regular bus which takes passengers from El Calafate bus stand and back. The boat rides to the glacier were also operational. In fact, they even had a Perito Moreno+ El Chalten combined tour option, which we didn’t take. But met people who did and they had enjoyed themselves. Of course, the trek on the glacier and other extensive trekking options around Chalten might be limited than the ones you have in summer. But we were glad we visited Patagonia, even in the winter. And yes, we went in July. Happy travels!

    1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

      Hey Sid, always a delight hearing from you! We are certain we will be reading stories of your Patagonia travels someday! It is a special place…(It took me a long time to finish this comment because just reading the word “Patagonia” makes me start thinking of our time there :))

  3. quirkywanderer

    CANNOT take my eyes off the pictures! Absolutely stunning! Its difficult for me to decide what I love more about your blog, the pictures or the destinations you choose! 🙂 Lovely!

    1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

      Patagonia did that to us, it had felt unreal when we first saw the pictures. After traveling through Patagonia, it still feels unreal! Thank you for your comment, Divsi!

    1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

      Thank you, Shweta! We too are glad that we chose to go South into deep Patagonia. Norway in November! Whoa!! After having visited Patagonia in winter, can try to imagine what Norway must be in November!

  4. Shrikant Vitthal Shingate

    Namaskar Mitranno, Your life is really amazing! I just gone through your site and its amazing journey…Enjoy life..! I just want to say [( YOU ARE THE REAL INSPIRATION FOR ALL PEOPLE LIKE ME, HAD DREAM TO TRAVEL WHOLE WORLD)] (but busy in ”duniyadari”)…………..(Now I can say, will see you some day at any best place on earth) – Shrikant Vitthal Shingate, A/P Mardhe, SATARA. – Thanks.

    1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

      We too were glad that we chose South, Patagonia esp in the winter is the stuff dreams are made of! We are glad we didn’t miss out on the chance to see this beauty of our planet!

  5. Priyanshu

    Your pictures speak a thousand words. And to complement that, there is a beautiful write-up. Great stuff

    1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

      Thank you so much, Shubhodeep! Patagonia, especially the Perito Moreno glacier had this exact same effect on us! We were left speechless and in awe!

  6. dNambiar

    Wow, Wow, Wow! That glacier!!
    I’m literally tongue-tied just seeing the pictures. I can imagine how you guys felt being there. I’m sure this was a trip like no other. Thank you for braving the cold and bringing back these breathtakingly beautiful pictures. Thank you so, so, much.

    1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

      We still can not believe we have seen something as majestic as the Perito Moreno glacier with our own eyes. It still feels unreal! And you are right, it was a remarkably special trip.

  7. rationalraj2000

    Beautiful post! Your posts invariably stand out because of the additional element od adventure….

      1. Saikiranreddy

        can you please tell me how much it costs for this trip tentative i plan to visit this place

        1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

          Hello Saikiran, are you asking about the cost to visit Patagonia from within Argentina? Are you planning to visit/ already in Argentina or South America? Or asking about the cost of visiting from India?

          1. saikiran

            thank you for your reply i wana know how much does itcost of visiting from India to patagoina, really mesmerized with pics u have posted such a beautiful place i wana vist this place in december