Day 1: El Calafate, Argentina
Arrive in El Calafate, where we meet our Expedition Leader and enjoy a welcome dinner this evening. Our leader, an outstanding South American nature photographer, will provide an orientation to our itinerary with an overview of the photography highlights that lie ahead.
Day 2: La Leona Petrified Forest / El Chaltén
We spend today driving across the broad expanse of the Patagonian steppe that sprawls northeast from El Calafate. Along our drive there are possibilities for great shots of Lago Argentino, several broad river valleys and the panorama of the Southern Andes and Mount Fitz Roy. At La Leona Petrified Forest we take a gentle hike through fossilized remnants of a warm, humid prehistoric Patagonia. We'll see enormous tree trunks that date back millions of years, heaps of fossilized broken bones, and occasionally whole leg bones of large reptiles, some of which are still in the process of being identified. Wind and water erosion occur rapidly, so each season we encounter new surprises. Continuing to El Chaltén, we arrive in the small town known as the Trekking Capital of Patagonia.
Day 3: El Chaltén—Mount Fitz Roy Vista Hike
Today we drive a short distance and then enjoy a point-to-point hike along a trail that brings us back to town. Along the way we are rewarded with stunning views of glaciers, iconic Mount Fitz Roy and the tranquil waters of Laguna Capri. We ascend a short distance through a thick forest and then enjoy a mostly flat and downhill stretch back to El Chaltén. As we walk along bogs we might catch glimpses of Magellanic woodpeckers tapping away while also hearing the glaciers groan as they slide slowly down the mountains. After a respite at our hotel, we'll enjoy a gourmet dinner at one of the modest and hospitable restaurants that abound in this charming town.
Day 4: Viedma Glacier Trek / El Calafate
An exciting adventure awaits today: a trek on the Viedma Glacier, the largest in Los Glaciares National Park. We cruise in an excursion boat across Lake Viedma to the glacier's face, then after a short walk on the rocks we don crampons to walk safely atop the ice to examine crevasses and caves within the glacier's rugged blue surface. Viedma Glacier is part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, one of 48 outlet glaciers that flows down from the nearly 6,500-square-mile mass of ice. The national park that is the glaciers' namesake—Los Glaciares—was created in 1937 and named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981.
Day 5: Upsala Glacier Cruise / Estancia Cristina
We cruise by catamaran across Lago Argentino to dramatic Upsala Glacier, a large valley glacier with an imposing blue face nearly five miles across. Unlike Perito Moreno, this glacier is retreating rapidly, leaving a jagged puzzle of ice floes. We disembark at Estancia Cristina, an early 20th century sheep farm where the traditional gaucho way of life once prevailed. After a lunch of lamb roasted on a spit, we'll ride in 4-wheel-drive vehicles to a lookout for stupendous views of the surrounding peaks and Lago Argentino far below.
Day 6: Lago Argentino—Perito Moreno Glacier
This morning we enjoy birdwatching and photography on Lago Argentino, Patagonia's largest freshwater lake fed by the glacial meltwater of several rivers. More than 40 migratory species frequent the lake, including black-necked swans, flamingos and silvery grebes. Next, it's on to one of the world's most spectacular natural wonders, Perito Moreno Glacier. One of very few advancing glaciers on the planet, Perito Moreno is Patagonia's most famous. Nearly 200 feet high, it winds down from the perpetual snowfields of the Andes to its terminus in Lago Argentino where it crowds the water with enormous floating rafts of ice that calve from its massive face. We'll do some light hiking in the area for varied views of the glacier and icebergs.
Day 7: Torres del Paine National Park
Driving across pampas and steppe, we enter Chile and Torres del Paine National Park. A UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, beautiful and pristine, the park is home to a host of wildlife, including pumas and guanacos. A remarkable array of birds lives here: we may see eagles, hawks, lesser rheas, buzzards and South American condors returned from the brink of extinction. Dominating the horizon are the famous "horns and towers of Paine," igneous rock spires millions of years old.
We stay at renowned EcoCamp Patagonia, offering low-impact luxury in the wilderness. Our domed suites are modeled on traditional Kawesqa native huts, blending artfully with the wild landscape. Warm and wind-resistant, our nomad-style dwellings afford superlative views and an unparalleled immersion in nature. There are plenty of hours ahead to drink in this stunning landscape, camera in hand. During the southern summer the sun sets around 11 pm, offering magical evening light by which to photograph the furry guanacos grazing on the steppe and the mythical-looking peaks on the horizon, bathed in the sunset glow.
Day 8: Torres del Paine—Salto Grande
Our day begins early with a drive to the southern part of Torres del Paine National Park, watching overhead for Andean condors and eagles hunting hares and small rodents. Our main destinations today are the most famous viewpoints on this astounding range. We drive across the park, surveying the snow-clad massif of Paine Grande, highest in the range, and Los Cuernos, famed for their dark granite horn-like spires. On a calm day, brilliant blue Lake Pehoe reflects the serrated peaks like a mirror. We follow its shoreline to Salto Grande Falls, a thunderous cataract pouring into the lake from Lake Nordenskjold above. We return to EcoCamp in time for a hearty dinner.
Day 9: Torres del Paine—Laguna Azul
Travel to the eastern side of the park today to follow the sendero de la fauna
—the animals' trail—so dubbed for the many guanacos often seen along the way. It winds through a favorite puma hunting area where we may see the remains of camelids that the big, tawny cats have preyed upon. High rock formations flank the path, serving as dwellings and lookout points for the pumas. The felines are highly elusive, however, and sightings are rare. We'll also visit a cave en route with ancient paintings decorating the walls, mostly representing guanacos. This afternoon we return to EcoCamp and spend the afternoon exploring the flora and fauna of the surrounding environs. Our day continues with a drive to Laguna Azul in the northern part of the park, where on a clear day we can see the iconic towers from a completely different angle. Before we return to our camp, we stop at Cascada Paine to enjoy one of the most beautiful views on this side of the park.
Day 10: Puerto Natales / Punta Arenas
Our adventure continues today as we set out for one of the world's southernmost cities, Punta Arenas on the Strait of Magellan. Along our leisurely drive, we'll stop for lunch and exploration time in Puerto Natales, an attractive town on Ultima Esperanza Sound that serves as a gateway for trips into Chilean Patagonia. From town one can see the Riesco Mountain Range, the Paine Massif, and the Southern Ice Field Glaciers, while in the foreground, black-necked swans and gulls bob on the often-misty waters of the sound. Once we reach Punta Arenas, we gather for a dinner near the town's main square.
Day 11: Magdalena Island Penguin Colony
A wondrous sight is in store today as we visit one of the largest penguin colonies in Chile. We travel by Zodiac across the Strait of Magellan to uninhabited Magdalena Island, where thousands of Magellanic penguins come to breed each summer. We'll capture all their antics with our cameras, watching them waddle and fall flat on their faces as they negotiate obstacles on land. Yet they are agile swimmers, remarkably graceful in the water. En route we may also see sea lions that inhabit nearby Marta Island. Our grand nature adventure concludes in Punta Arenas, where we enjoy a farewell dinner to celebrate our final night in Patagonia.
Day 12: Depart Punta Arenas
A transfer to the airport is provided for flights home.
Please Note: This itinerary is meant as a guideline and can change due to the unpredictable nature of the wind and weather in Patagonia. On some occasions these conditions may require us to deviate from our intended itinerary, in which case we will provide the best available alternative. And we'll make a great adventure of it!
Physical Rating: Moderate