In Argentina, Patagonia technically begins at the Rio Colorado River, which forms the border between the provinces of La Pampa and Neuquén. Thus, Bariloche is in Patagonia, and that region is known as "Andean Patagonia" or Northern Patagonia. This section covers the Atlantic Coastal area and the far south of Patagonia, and also includes Torres del Paine National Park in Chile.
The big challenges in Patagonia are the extreme distances and the weather. Destinations can be upwards of 1,000km (620 miles) apart -- and most of those kilometers are on unpaved roads. Yet thanks to modern amenities and air travel, it's nonetheless easy to travel to Patagonia's most compelling areas today. It's entirely feasible to visit such main highlights as Puerto Madryn and Península Valdés on the coast and then head inland to El Calafate and El Chaltén (or reverse), making for a trip that is just over a week long. If you're planning to hike the trails of Los Glaciares National Park, beneath the lofty peaks of Mt. FitzRoy and Cerro Torre, for example, you'll want to spend between 3 and 5 days in El Chaltén. The minimum amount of time for a worthwhile stop at Península Valdés is 3 days. A quick trip to Argentine Patagonia might include 2 days in El Calafate, 2 in El Chaltén, and 3 in Península Valdés. If you want to work in a trip to Chilean Patagonia, add at least another 5 days.
Prices jump and crowds swell during the summer months, from early November to late March, and some businesses open only during this season. In November, the Península Valdés is busiest with visiting foreigners, who come to see the Southern Right Whales. The southern area around Parque Nacional Los Glaciares is busiest in January and February, but these summer months are not necessarily the best time to visit Patagonia; calmer weather usually prevails in November, and from mid-March to late April, when the leaves turn gold and rust in the autumn air, and winds generally die down a bit.
Exploring Península Valdés/Puerto Madryn
In the middle of Atlantic Patagonia, in the vast province of Chubut, lies the remote and barren Península Valdés, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999.
The bays and shores on this peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic serve as a marine-life preserve for marine mammals such as sea elephants, sea lions, and the enormous Southern Right Whales, which come in from April to December. Penguins and orca whales also swim past. Visitors come here to see the whales and to walk on the beaches and view the unusual sea elephants up close. Diving trips are also popular.
Other animals that run wild here include guanacos (similar to llamas), maras (large wild rabbits), choique (similar to an ostrich), and a bevy of birds and smaller animals.
The region is very well controlled -- in fact, in some areas, beach access is restricted unless you are with a certified "naturalist guide." When whales are in the bays (from July-Dec), beach activities are not allowed. This is a nature preserve, after all, not a playground. Kayaks are allowed from late December to March only, when the whales are gone. Diving is allowed offshore throughout the year, but only on certified boats with government-sanctioned guides.
On the peninsula itself (the entire area is a national park), the tiny village of Puerto Pirámides (100km/62 miles from Puerto Madryn) is the departure point for all the whale-watching and diving trips. Some visitors opt to stay overnight here. But most of the tourist infrastructure is in Puerto Madryn, a small, laid-back, beachside city of 70,000 people. The town went from a tiny, sleepy hamlet of 6,000 people to a bustling small city that serves as a center for industrial products in eastern Patagonia. It's the most pleasant base for travelers -- a jumping-off point for day trips to the peninsula and to Punta Tombo (2 hr. south), where Magellan penguins come to mate every year.
The typical visit to this area includes a travel day; then a jampacked day tour of the Península Valdés, which could include whale-watching; and a third day to visit Punta Tombo.
Visitors with more than 3 nights available should consider renting a car and spending a few nights at a rural hotel on the peninsula itself, such as Faro Punta Delgada, or in the beach town at Puerto Pirámides. This will allow you to explore the area away from the crowds, and also to relax. You could consider skipping Punta Tombo if you visit the penguin colony at Estancia San Lorenzo instead, on the northern tip of Península Valdés. A car is necessary to explore the peninsula on your own; there is no public bus system, and distances are vast. Most of the roads are not paved, so a 4WD is a good idea.
The capital of Chubut province is the nearby residential town of Rawson (only 20,000 inhabitants), where there's not much to see. Nearby, the bigger city of Trelew serves as a gateway to the area, with an airport capable of handling bigger jets. Trelew has a good museum and a few hotels, but it's not of much interest to visitors. The Welsh town of Gaiman is much more interesting and makes for an excellent afternoon excursion. Settled primarily from 1865 to 1870, this is one of the few places outside of Wales where Welsh is still spoken. Houses here are reminiscent of those in the Welsh countryside. A handful of teahouses offer traditional tea service (which came in handy when the late Princess Diana visited in 1995).
Exploring Southern Argentine Patagonia
The popular image of Patagonia -- wind-swept plains, towering granite spires, hardworking pioneers, endless stretches of dirt road -- still exists today in the southern part of Argentina. It's way down there, though. The main tourist center is El Calafate, which is 2,727km (1,691 miles) southwest of Buenos Aires. It's easier than ever to get here, however, which means an increasing number of visitors from North America and Europe are making a pilgrimage to see the glaciers, peaks, and emptiness of Patagonia. The two main destinations in southern Argentine Patagonia are El Calafate -- the jumping-off point for seeing the beautiful glaciers of Los Glaciares National Park -- and El Chaltén, a hiking town at the base of Cerro Torre and Mt. FitzRoy. You could feasibly see this area in a short week, which would give you 2 full travel days to get there and back from Buenos Aires, from where all international flights depart.
Start in El Calafate, and spend a few days exploring the glaciers -- Perito Moreno and the more remote ones such as Upsala. Then head to El Chaltén for some hiking; to make it worthwhile, you need at least 1 full day and 2 half-days there.
Many people visit this area on a trip combined with Torres del Paine National Park, next door in Chile. It's worthwhile, given that they are so close. "Paine," however, as the park is known here, is much busier and more expensive.
You'll also find a growing list of inns and some very good restaurants. If you're anything like me, you'll find yourself deeply moved and inspired by the vast stretches of wilderness unique to this remote part of the world.