10 Best Sights in Southern Chilean Patagonia, Chile

Museo Antropológico Martín Gusinde

Fodor's choice

Tierra del Fuego was inhabited for centuries by the indigenous Selk'nam, Yaganes, and Alacalufes, which were estimated to number between 10,000 and 12,000 people here before colonization in the 19th century. Founded in 1974, the Martin Gusinde Anthropological Museum is a very well-done introduction to these first inhabitants with archaeological, historical, and ethnographic collections about the cultural and natural heritage of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago and Cape Horn. It is a must-visit. 

Parque Nacional Torres del Paine

Fodor's choice

About 12 million years ago, lava flows pushed up through the thick sedimentary crust that covered the southwestern coast of South America, cooling to form a granite mass. Glaciers then swept through the region, grinding away all but the twisted ash-gray spire, the "towers" of Paine (pronounced "pie-nay"; it's the old Tehuelche word for "blue"), which rise over the landscape to create one of the world's most beautiful natural phenomena, now the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. The park was established in 1959. Rock formations, windswept trees, and waterfalls dazzle at every turn of road, and the sunset views are spectacular. The 2,420-square-km (934-square-mile) park's most astonishing attractions are its lakes of turquoise, aquamarine, and emerald waters; its magnificent Grey Glacier; and the Cuernos del Paine ("Paine Horns"), the geological showpiece of the immense granite massif.

Another draw is the park's wildlife; creatures like the guanaco and the ñandú abound. They are acclimated to visitors and don't seem to be bothered by approaching cars and people with cameras. Predators like the gray fox make less frequent appearances. You may also spot the dramatic aerobatics of falcons and the graceful soaring of endangered condors. The beautiful puma, the apex predator of the ecosystem here, is an especially elusive cat, but sightings have grown more common.

The vast majority of visitors come during the summer months of January and February, which means the trails can get congested. Early spring, when wildflowers add flashes of color to the meadows, can be an ideal time to visit because the crowds have not yet arrived. In summer, the winds can be incredibly fierce, but the days are also incredibly longer (in December, there's light for almost 20 hours). During the wintertime of June to September, the days are sunnier yet colder (averaging around freezing) and shorter, but the winds all but disappear and wildlife sightings become more frequent. The park is open all year, but some trails are not accessible in winter. Storms can hit without warning, so be prepared for sudden rain at any time of year. The sight of the Paine peaks in clear weather is stunning; if you have any flexibility in your itinerary, visit the park on the first clear day.

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Erratic Rock

For anyone seriously contemplating trekking the W or the full Circuit around Torres del Paine, the Erratic Rock hostel in Puerto Natales offers a free seminar on how best to make the journey. Rustyn Mesdag, the hostel's Oregonian co-owner, is a rambunctious, opinionated guide who gives the not-to-be-missed "Three O'Clock Talk" describing all the routes, tips, and tricks you need to complete one of South America's most challenging treks. His hour-long presentation to a room full of eager hikers starts promptly at 3 pm every day of the high season, and is full of advice on camping, equipment, food, and provisions, including the latest reports on weather and trail conditions inside the park. It's a great introduction to possible trekking partners, as CONAF doesn't allow you to complete the walk on your own. The irrepressible Mr. Mesdag also publishes the ubiquitous Black Sheep newspaper in English.

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Estancia Bahía Esperanza

Just outside of Puerto Natales is a new, private nature park on former ranch lands called Estancia Bahía Esperanza. The park makes for a great day trip for biking, hiking, and bird-watching along the seven short and mostly easy trails covering more than 20 kilometers of peatlands, forests, lagunas, hills, and coastline. Some of the trails offer panoramic views of the fjords and bays in the area. Accessible only by boat, for 35,000 pesos you get access to the park and a round-trip ticket on a short, 15-minute ride on a speedboat that departs from Muelle Natalis (Natales Pier) at Puerto Bories, located 7 km (4 miles) from Puerto Natales. The park also offers guided excursions (including e-bikes and horseback rides) for a special rate and has a café that offers lunch, snacks, and drinks. 

Iglesia Parroquial

Across from the Plaza de Armas is the squat, little Iglesia Parroquial. The ornate altarpiece in this church depicts the town's founders, Indigenous peoples, and the Virgin Mary all in front of the Torres del Paine.

Arturo Prat and Eberhard, Puerto Natales, 6160000, Chile

Monumento Natural Cueva de Milodón

In 1896, Hermann Eberhard stumbled upon a gaping cave that extended 200 meters (650 feet) into the earth. Venturing inside, he discovered the bones and dried pieces of hide (with deep red fur) of an animal he could not identify. It was later determined that what Eberhard had discovered were the extraordinarily well-preserved remains of a prehistoric herbivorous mammal, mylodon darwini, about twice the height of a man, which they called a milodón. The discovery of a stone wall in the cave, and of neatly cut grass stalks in the animal's feces led researchers to conclude that 15,000 years ago the extinct beast inhabited this place and that an ancient tribe of Tehuelches likely captured the animal there. The cave at the Monumento Natural Cueva de Milodón is an impressive, cathedral-size space carved out of a solid rock wall by rising waters. It makes for an interesting stop for anyone fascinated by paleontology, or for fans of Bruce Chatwin's legendary travel book, In Patagonia, which centers in part on Chatwin's quest to find the origins of the remnant of mylodon skin he saw in his grandmother's home as a boy that she had told him came from a “brontosaurus."

Museo Histórico Municipal

A highlight in the small but interesting Museo Historico Municipal is a room filled with antique prints of Aonikenk and Kawéskar peoples. Another room is devoted to the exploits of Hermann Eberhard, a German explorer considered the region's first settler. Check out his celebrated collapsible boat. In an adjacent room you will find some vestiges of the old Bories sheep plant, which processed the meat and wool of more than 300,000 sheep a year.

Av. Bulnes 285, Puerto Natales, 6160000, Chile
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Rate Includes: 1,000 pesos, Closed Sun.

Parque Etnobotánico Omora

Five km (3 miles) west of Puerto Williams is Parque Etnobotánico Omora, a former ranch converted into a 1,000-hectare (2,471-acre) nature sanctuary in 2000 and now a biological research center for Chile's Magallanes University. On the park's interpretive trails, you can explore the various habitats of the Isla Navarino region: coastal coigue forests, lenga parks, nirre forests, sphagnum bogs, beaver wetlands, and alpine heath. A highlight is the Miniature Forests trail, where the park guide will give you a close-up view of the spectacularly diverse tiny plants in the park (on one tree, there could be more than 50 species of moss). You'll also spot the Robalo River run through the park, important because it provides potable water to the town. Call or email the park office to set up a guided tour; you must book 48 hours in advance.

Parque Nacional Bernardo O'Higgins

Bordering the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine on the southwest, Parque Nacional Bernardo O'Higgins marks the southern tip of the vast Campo de Hielo Sur (Southern Ice Field). As it is inaccessible by land, the only way to visit the park is to take a boat up the Seno Última Esperanza. The Navimag boat passes through on the way to Puerto Montt, but only the Puerto Natales–based, family-run outfit Turismo 21 de Mayo operates boats that actually stop here—the 21 de Mayo and the Alberto de Agostini. (Several operators run trips to just the Balmaceda Glacier.) These well-equipped boating day trips are a good option, especially if for some reason you don't have the time to make it to Torres del Paine. On your way to the park you approach a cormorant colony with nests clinging to sheer cliff walls, venture to a glacier at the foot of Mt. Balmaceda, and finally dock at Puerto Toro for a 1-km (½-mile) hike to the foot of the Serrano Glacier. Congratulations, you made it to the least-visited national park in all of Chile. In recognition of the feat, on the trip back to Puerto Natales the crew treats you to a pisco sour (brandy mixed with lemon, egg whites, and sugar) served over a chunk of glacier ice. As with many full-day tours, you must bring your own lunch. Warm clothing, including gloves, is recommended year-round, particularly if there's even the slightest breeze.

Plaza de Armas

A few blocks east of the waterfront overlooking Seno Última Esperanza is the Plaza de Armas. This well-manicured, open square with gardens and a fountain is one of the town's pride and joys. An old church and several shops and restaurants surround the plaza, making it a pleasant spot to spend some time.

Arturo Prat at Eberhard, Puerto Natales, 6160000, Chile