Arrive in Buenos Aires at any time. Check into the hotel and enjoy the city as there are no planned activities. Argentina is the second giant of South America with a landscape nearly as varied as its people. Modern and sophisticated, Argentina has much more in common with Europe than with the rest of its neighbours. The capital city of Argentina, Buenos Aires, is the ultimate cosmopolitan city. Nearly 40 percent of Argentina's 33 million citizens live in Greater Buenos Aires, and the Porteños are justifiably proud of their home. The city is comprised of a number of distinct neighbourhoods, some of which have become top tourist draws. For many, the highlight of their time in the capital is a visit to San Telmo for the weekend antiques market and street artist's displays. La Boca was originally settled by the successive waves of immigrants, all of whom contribute to the capital's unique character. Its brightly coloured walls and buildings draw Porteños and tourists alike, and it is here that the world-class football team, Boca Juniors, plies its trade. A Sunday afternoon match at the fabled Bombonera is not to be missed. Posh Recoleta, with its cafes, museums and cemetery, is a pleasant place to spend an afternoon. During colonial days Buenos Aires was the seat of the Viceroy of La Plata. Almost completely rebuilt since the turn of the century, the heart of the city is the Plaza de Mayo, with the historic Cabildo (Town Hall), where the Independence movement was first planned, the Casa Rosada (Government Palace) and the Cathedral where San MartÌn, the father of Argentine independence, is buried. When you are done exploring, settle your weary feet and enjoy a drink in one of the many sidewalk cafes and restaurants and you will begin to understand the contemplative Argentine way of life. Buenos Aires will be your last chance to try the succulent bife and parrilladas, so dig in and enjoy!
Take a short flight to San Carlos de Bariloche, the entrance to northern Patagonia. Situated on the beautiful shore of Lake Nahuel Huapi, Bariloche is a year-round playground for skiers, hikers and outdoors enthusiasts of all types. Enjoy optional day hikes, hire a mountain bike or simply relax in a cafe. The urban centre of the Argentine Lake District, San Carlos de Bariloche in many ways resembles alpine resorts of Europe. During winter ski season the town fills to capacity with jovial Argentine and Brazilian vacationers whose favourite pastime seems to be eating and drinking. Their gusto is understandable as Bariloche has some of the best food in the country. Sample a beefy parillada, a variety of fresh salmon or lake trout, then work it off during a day hike around Cerro Catedral or by living vicariously through the Tango dancers at their live shows.
Journey aboard a comfortable bus across the Andes and through the marvellous mountain scenery of the Lake District. Spend 2 nights on the shores of Lake Llanquihue, enjoying the perfect views of Osorno Volcano. Take an optional day hike to the shelter on Osorno volcano, where there is an undisturbed panoramic view of the lake and surrounding mountains and forests, and if fortunate, a clear view of Osorno's near perfect cone. This is a beautiful region with bright flowers and wooded mountain slopes. Take an exhilirating hike up to the ice-clad volcano, providing stunning panoramic views of the Petrohue River valley below and the surrounding peaks. Encompassing a narrow strip of land between the Pacific Ocean and the high peaks of the Andes-approximately 180 km (112 miles) wide, but with a coastline stretching over 4300 km (14104 ft), Chile's 'geografia loca' (as termed by Benjamin Subercasseaux) includes the driest desert, the Atacama in the north, the agriculturally rich Central Valley, snow-covered volcanoes, forests and tranquil lakes of the near south, and the wild and windswept glaciers and fjords of the far south. It is within this last region that you'll discover magnificent trekking country, where guanacos, ñandues (rheas), condors, pink flamingos and magellanic (jack-ass) penguins abound. The region also boasts some of the world's finest salmon and trout fishing, and the cuisine at times rivals the natural setting. There are few areas in the world that can match the Chilean Lake District for scenic grandeur. South of the Rio Tolten and sprawled across the provinces of Valdivia, Osorno and Llanquihue, you'll find everything from snow-capped mountains to deep-blue and emerald lakes, smoking volcanoes, forests and glaciers. Outside noisy cities, such as Puerto Montt, the loudest sound you're likely to hear is the roar of waterfalls streaming down cliff faces into crystal clear pools. This is a favourite vacation ground for national tourists, visitors from across the Andes and around the globe. The region's architecture is unique in that older structures are wooden and resemble European homes and churches of the 19th Century. This is due to the significant number of immigrants from central Europe (largely Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy) who settled here over the last half of that century. The regional cuisine also reflects this, with many restaurants specializing in kuchen and other baked delicacies. Seafood dishes abound in this region. Of particular interest to visitors is the curanto Chilote, a hearty seafood stew that'll leave you ready for a siesta.
At the very end of the Chilean mainland, looking across the Straits of Magellan to Porvenir and Tierra del Fuego, Punta Arenas is a city of about 100 000 people. It is the capital of the 12th region (Magallanes) and the discovery of offshore oil and gas as well as a burgeoning adventure tourism industry have fueled much of its recent development, although the traditional sheep estancÌas remain a significant part of the economy and culture. Punta Arenas is a surprisingly large and well developed city and an important Chilean naval base. Monuments to the early Yugoslav settlers and to the hardy ranchers and explorers who pioneered the area are scattered throughout the city, and the enormous cemetery contains the crypts of many of the city's historically leading citizens. One of the most interesting optional activities is only a short drive away from Punta Arenas. The Otway Sound penguin colony is the result of a successful protection program that has brought back to healthy numbers the once endangered population. These charming birds are here from October to April, with chicks hatching in early December. En route there and back to town look out for rheas, flamingos, and a variety of other birds. Foxes and skunks occasionally make an appearance as well.
Puerto Natales is the entrance way to Torres del Paine National Park. We have time to hike in the area and enjoy the local scenery and seafood in this small fishing town before we head out for the park. We store any extra gear not needed for the Paine hike. A town of brightly coloured corrugated tin houses, Puerto Natales lies on the Seno de Ultima Esperanza (Last Hope Sound, so named by a group of desperate early explorers) and is home to the once large and important Bories meat processing plant. These days most of its residents rely on tourism as a source of income. The surrounding countryside of foothills and mountains beckons the explorer and it is the logical jumping-off point for an excursion into Paine National Park.
Words cannot describe the majesty and beauty of this National Park in Chilean Patagonia. Few people have the opportunity to see this area and those who do find it difficult to forget its vivid colours and tranquility. One of the many thriving legends concerns the origin of the park's name. Locals insist that "paine" is derived from the Tehuelche Indian word for the colour blue, while others say it is the name of an original Welsh settler to the area. Spend four days hiking in this spectacular park, with breathtaking views of the Horns of Paine, the Towers, French Valley and Grey Glacier. Visit the Serrano and Last Hope Sound for a different perspective of the area. The granite Towers of Paine make a sudden and dramatic appearance on the horizon in the midst of a flat, dry, wind-swept plain; they are so extravagantly beautiful that superlatives fail. Despite the almost constant summer winds, this is some of the finest trekking country in Chile. Endowed with severe mountains, sparkling lakes, waterfalls and glaciers, as well as herds of guanacos, majestic condors, flocks of pink flamingos, and large Patagonian hares, the park's international attraction is immediately evident. Once a large sheep estancia, the park was established in 1959 as the Parque Nacional Lago Grey. Prior to this, baqueanos (cowboys) grazed their flocks here and fires occasionally burnt out of control. The devastation wrought near Lago Grey with large areas of burnt forest and charred logs remain visible to this day. More land was added to the park in 1962 and the name was changed to its present one. Torre (Tower) Sur rises 2900m (9512 ft) above sea level, Torre Central is 2850m (9348 ft) high and Torre Norte measures 2600m (8528 ft). The Cuernos (Horns) del Paine, massive blocks of various rock layers visible from great distances, are as spectacular as the towers themselves. Spend the next few days hiking and camping in this spectacular park, visiting the Towers, Grey Glacier and French Valley, before making your way back to Puerto Natales. Day 8 Approximate distance hiked: 16 km Estimate hike time: 7 hours Day 9 Approximate distance hiked: 11 km Estimate hike time: 5 hours Day 10 Approximate distance hiked: 24 km Estimate hike time: 7 hours Day 11 Approximate distance hiked: 11 km Estimate hike time: 3-4 hours
Leave Chile and return to Argentina, travelling across the dusty, windy altiplano. The long road takes us through the arid southern pampas and across the border to the turquoise waters of Lake Argentina and the town of Calafate. A spectacular drive west towards the mountains leads us to dynamic Moreno glacier. We may spot condors, rheas, eagles or flamingos en route, but the real star of the day is stunning Moreno Glacier, at the southern terminus of Glacier National Park. The southern continental ice field, the third largest on the planet (after Greenland and Antarctica) is the source of all the area's glaciers, including Moreno, Onelli, Viedma and Upsala. Moreno Glacier moves down from this massive river of frozen water, huge chunks of ice constantly crashing into the lake waters below. Very dynamic, Moreno is one of the very few advancing glaciers left in the world. It is simply enormous: 1 km (half a mile) wide and 60m (196 ft) high, it occasionally chokes off the narrow Canal de los Tempanos (Channel of Ice Bergs) creating a dam of ice through which the lake water eventually bursts in a spectacular display of force. If Buenos Aires is the heart of the country, Patagonia and the southern Pampas of Santa Cruz province are its soul. This is the very region we explore, trekking within Glacier National Park for the grand rewards of the trail. Hikes are moderate, with clearly marked & well-maintained trails, though there are some more challenging sections, and Parque Nacional Los Glaciares has some of the most spectacular natural sights you will see in your lifetime.
Visit Perito Moreno Glacer in the morning before continuing on to the town of El Chalten, located in the north end of the park. Hikers and climbers from around the globe congregate here, waiting for good weather to undertake the challenges presented by nature. The atmosphere is laid back and the mountains and Beech forests here are very similar to Paine. The hikes to Laguna de Los Tres and Laguna Torre traverse spectacular glacial valleys to obtain awe-inspiring views of these peaks of ice and granite. From our base in the town we complete a full-day hike within Glacier National Park’s northern end, where granite pinnacles spiral upward into the sky from the third largest ice field on earth. Hike to Laguna de Los Tres to fully appreciate majestic Cerro Fitzroy/Chaltén (3441 m/11286 ft), and enjoy one free day for optional activities including a hike to Laguna Torre for inspiring views of these magical peaks and glaciers.
A short flight takes us to the southern-most city in the world: Ushuaia, situated on the island of Tierra del Fuego. “Ushuaia” actually means 'the bay facing westward' in the language of the original Yamana inhabitants. The town of 40 000 is also a major ski resort area for both alpine and cross-country skiers and offers magnificent hiking in Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego, the only coastal national park in Argentina. Enjoy an optional cruise along the Beagle Channel (named after Darwin's expedition vessel) providing you with panoramic views of the scenery and the chance to spot marine animals and a variety of marine birds. Back on land there are various options, including bird watching, day hikes in Tierra del Fuego National Park, horseback riding and a visit to the ex-penal colony, disbanded in the 1940s.
Enjoy a free morning in Ushuaia before the return flight to Buenos Aires and a final night out on the town.