Two of the most beautiful places on earth, home to snow capped mountains (the Andes and Southern Alps), lakes of every shade of blue, epic and easily accessible glaciers, and some fantastic walks. Having spent a few weeks exploring Patagonia (Torres del Paine in Chile, and El Chalten, El Calefate and the Argentinian part of Tierra del Fuego) the obvious comparison for me is with the South Island of New Zealand (in particular the West Coast, Fjordland, Nelson and Mt Cook regions), in terms of the landscape and as places to visit, primarily for walking.
For reference the pictures alternate equally throughout this post between New Zealand and Patagonia, pretty similar!
The infrastructure for both has developed hugely over the past decade or so, primarily for tourism, with new or expanded airports in El Calefate, Ushuaia, and Queenstown. There are unpaved main roads in Patagonia, but these are reducing, and the long haul buses are generally modern and comfortable. Patagonia is complicated by being split between two countries so expect time consuming travel across the borders, and the distances involved are further so expect more of your trip to be spent travelling. However travelling from Europe or the US there is less time difference to adjust to, 3-4 hours from Europe to Patagonia compared with ~12 hours for New Zealand. Speaking Spanish will help hugely in Patagonia, and do expect a slightly more flexible approach to timetables than New Zealand.
In Patagonia the two main walking spots are El Chalten in Argentina and Torres del Paine in Chile, with El Calefate the main glacier hub. The New Zealand equivalents are Te Anau, Queenstown and Nelson, and Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers.
I thought Patagonia would look a lot like New Zealand, and so it turned out to be. Spot the difference…
There are some notable differences though.
Forests – Though both have large amounts of beech trees New Zealand bush is super dense, I’ve never seen forest like it outside of tropical rain forest. Patagonian forest is more European in terms of the spacing between trees. Personally I think New Zealand bush is more interesting and varied, and it certainly makes it harder to get lost as anything but the path is usually impenetrable.
Mountains – New Zealand has some pretty impressive mountains, but nothing to match the shape of Patagonia’s granite outcrops, particularly in Torres del Paine.
Wildlife – New Zealand has almost no native mammals and there have been huge efforts taken to eradicate introduced species like possum, mice and stoat, so almost every track has pest traps along it. There is birdlife but not huge amounts, though if you’re lucky you’ll get to see native pigeons, fantails, and the Kea, a super smart alpine parrot. El Chalten had relatively more, with seemingly less easily scared birdlife including colourful woodpeckers, and El Calefate had flamingos in the lagoons. In Torres del Paine are guanaco, red foxes and puma, though also less welcome are the horses and the mess they leave on the track.
Both are famous for four seasons in one day, from super strong sunshine to torrential rain in a short space of time, but Patagonia was markably more extreme. Ambient temperatures in Patagonia are also noticeably lower, by at least 10C, making camping a chilly experience.
Both offer some of the best walks in the world, from the famous W in Chile’s Torres del Paine to New Zealand’s Great Walks for multi-day experiences, and brilliant day walks in El Chalten and the Queenstown, Arrowtown and Wanaka areas. However the condition of the tracks in Patagonia were poor in comparison with New Zealand, with poorly maintained / absent signage, little surface grading, few bridges and an almost complete absence of steps or boardwalks. These make the tracks more difficult to walk, but also result in far more erosion and damage to the environment. For example the Cerro Guanaco Track in Tierra del Fuego National Park crosses a sizeable bog, an environmental sensitive area, but poor signage and zero boardwalks result in people tramping over the entire area. The equivalent in New Zealand would be properly protected and marked, even without having to pay a fee to enter the park in the first place.
Patagonia wins hands down here, in terms of the quality, quantity and accessibility of glaciers. Perito Moreno Glacier is an absolute monster, unlike anything else I’ve seen, while seemingly every walk in El Chalten or Torres del Paine included seeing multiple glaciers. Fox and Franz Josef glaciers are surrounded by forest which is unusual and impressive, but since 2015 it hasn’t been possible to walk on either without a helicopter flight, thanks to climate change.
Both are increasingly popular places to visit, but judging by Christmas / New Year trips to Patagonia and Fjordland / Nelson they seemed equally busy in terms of the number of people on the tracks. The visitor stats however suggest that Patagonia is more popular, or at least areas of it, with 150,000 visitors to Torres del Paine each year compared with 80,000 people doing at least one of the nine Great Walks in New Zealand.
If you love meat, pasta and pizza then Patagonia is the place for you. If you like to even occasionally eat something else, or have more than a token amount of vegetables with your meal, then you’ll be out of luck. Eating out in Argentina was a highly variable experience, less between restaurants and more between menu choices, with as many bad as good meals had. New Zealand, particularly in Queenstown or Nelson, offers far more variety and far more consistency. It is also much better stocked with food for walking, with readily available dehydrated meals, decent sandwiches (retaining their crusts!), and fruit (helped by it being grown locally rather than having to travel 3,000km).
The classic New Zealand multi-day walking experience is to stay in huts, which for a low cost offer shelter and warmth. In Patagonia (and to be honest most other places in the world) I didn’t see any real equivalents, it was either camping or upmarket lodges (both also options on New Zealand walks). The camp grounds in Torres del Paines seemed particularly space constrained, and as with almost everywhere in Patagonia plumbing seemed to be an issue. They did have showers though, which is something New Zealand huts lack. In the hubs themselves New Zealand though has the advantage of contiguous pavements, and no wild dogs roaming the streets.
Patagonia has the edge on glaciers, wildlife, and mountains, while New Zealand beats it on food, accommodation and infrastructure. If you live in New Zealand it is certainly less compelling to visit Patagonia, due to the similarity of scenery, better infrastructure, travel time and cost, and time difference. It’s a closer call for those living in the US or Europe, with Patagonia offering arguably better sights, but with more time and effort required to visit them. New Zealand is brilliantly set up for travellers, Patagonia is getting better all the time but I suspect will never be as easy to visit. You can’t go wrong with either though in terms of enjoying nature at it’s most spectacular.
20 thoughts on “Patagonia, Argentina & Chile v South Island, New Zealand”
Thanks so much for your excellent write-up. I went to the South Island of NZ for 2.5 weeks this year in late February/early March and am now considering a trip to Patagonia (both Argentina and Chile) next year. I loved the South Island (I have no interest in the North Island) and was wondering if Patagonia would be similar and/or worth the money. I need to decide if I want to go back to the South Island again and do what I missed this past time or travel to the new terrain of Patagonia. First world problems, huh? Decisions, decisions. Happy travels to you!!!
Glad you found it useful. Depends a bit on where you’re travelling from? Patagonia is more accessible if you’re in North America or Europe. In 2 & 1/2 weeks you’ll have left plenty more of the South Island to do on another return trip. I won’t write off the North Island completely, Tongariro National Park is a pretty amazing place, completely different to anything on the South Island.
It is amazing that there are some Countries that really look alike with NZ. 🙂
Hey, thanks so much for your brilliant write-up, comparing two of the places I am dying to visit. On the surface, both looks similar and offers stunning vistas. However, if needed to be picked then which one will you suggest, basis your experience?
I am looking for a romantic vacation – to see nature closely and travel lesser known paths
Vegetarian and based out of India
Thanks MD, glad you liked it.
I am somewhat biased living in New Zealand but it can definitely offer what you’re looking for, and is a easier place to get to from India, and travel around. There are also much better eating options. Argentina in particular is a paradise for meat lovers, much less so for vegetarians.
I am currently in the south island of NZ and got back this morning from an overnight on Doubtful Sound, and experience never to be forgotten. We are visiting from UK. During this trip I have seen both Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, having previously been to Perito Merino and the two in NZ come NOWHERE near close to the magnificence of Patagonia’s glacier. It is truly in a class of its own.
Completely agree, Perito Merino is quite phenomenal. I revisited the New Zealand West Coast glaciers last month, quite shocking how much they’ve shrunk in the five years since I last visited. Such a visible sign of climate change.
Thank you for your helpful posts! I’m also going through your great walks post now too! 🙂
My friend and I did five weeks in Patagonia in January/Feb 2016 and now we plan to do New Zealand in Jan/Feb 2018 for five weeks. I think probably 10 days in the North Island, 25 days in the South Island, does that sound like a reasonable split? We want to do at least one of the Great Walks and based on reading around, we will likely try to do the Routebrun Track (yes I know we have to book soon!).
Thank you for all your advice! We look forward to visiting your beautiful country!
Hi Christine, glad you’ve found them useful 🙂 Sounds like a good split of time, and I’m jealous of taking that much time out in one go to go exploring. You’ll be able to see and do a lot. Worth thinking ahead in terms of accommodation at that time of year, particular end of January / early February when there are a couple of NZ public holidays (Auckland Day in Auckland, and Waitangi Day nationally) when things are particularly busy.
Worth checking on the Routeburn as it does get booked up increasingly early. If it does doing parts of it as a day walk is also a good option. A few weeks ago I walked from Routeburn Shelter to Conical Hill and back which is basically half of the track, and a similar thing can be done from The Divide at the other end.
Let me know if you have any questions, I’ve got plenty of posts on NZ for ideas. Hope you have a wonderful time here!
Hi! Yes, your posts are super helpful, a treasure trove for people like me trying to plan! My friend and I are digging through all your old posts now haha. It seems like it’s gonna be hard to limit ourselves, we want to hike everything! Plus, there looks like there’s great whitewater rafting on North Island too, which is also our jam! And skydiving!
Thanks for all of your advice, we still have to pick dates (it’s quite expensive to fly from the States and Canada which is where we are from) so we can get to booking the Routebrun soon! I really appreciate all of your help and I’m sure we’ll have more questions as the date gets closer! Thanks again 🙂
Taupo is the best spot for skydiving. Reliable weather, stunning views, and popular so the competition keeps the prices down. I’ve only done rafting once in Wairoa which was pretty good. Also if you’ve not tried canyoning it’s a blast, Queenstown / Wanaka are probably the best places for it. So much to do!
Awesomeeee! We couldn’t decide between all the places to go skydiving, but now I think we’ll be heading to Taupo! Yay!!!!
And thanks for the tip about canyoning… we will definitely want to do that as well! So excited reading all your posts — your pictures just look absolutely amazing. I hope the weather stays cooperative while we rare there! We lucked out in Patagonia for sure, just one day of rain in five weeks, so I hope we stay lucky! Thanks again for all of your help and expertise, it’s really very very helpful for us! 🙂 So much to do!
Oh I just remembered another question I had! We want to go in Jan/Feb but if we did have to push it back toward Feb/Mar (likely all of Feb and the first week of March), do you think it matters that we are still doing it North to South? Or would you recommend starting in the South and going North instead? Is Queenstown going to be too rainy or cold like the first week of March? (My friend is Canadian so she does fine with weather, but I’m from Hawaii and I’m a wimp.) We super appreciate all of your help, you rock!
We’re in the Southern Hemisphere so that is our summer, should be hot and sunny in general, though like with most parts of the world now it’s not 100% reliable. Later is actually better as Kiwi’s go back to work in Feb and the weather is often more settled and consistent later in the summer. Queenstown will be hot and dry 🙂
In terms of the order I’d suggest starting with the North Island as the South Island is even better. Save the best for last 🙂
I like that, save the best for last! I think we’re gonna stretch it to 6 weeks now because we both went through your blog and there are just so many things to do! We would like to do as much as we can. Awesome. I think we’ll probably try to go from like February 6 to March 16 or so. Really very excited. Thanks so much for all your help!!!!
I wish I could repay your kindness. If you’re ever in Hawaii and need recommendations, let me know! 🙂
I’ve not been to Hawaii yet, it’s on my bucket list 😉
Patagonia and New Zealand are like two twins separated at birth. However there’re many differences between both, mainly:
1. As you stated, Patagonia is more heavily glaciated and even has icefields.
2. NZ has fews fjords, while Patagonia has literally thousands of minor islands and inlents, multiple channels to navigate, etc.
3. NZ’s flora is all evergreen, while Patagonia’s is mixed with decidious, especially down south. That means that Patagonia has more intense fall foliage (April-May), more like in the northern hemisphere.
4. East of the Alps, NZ has temperate prairies and grasslands, and some semiarids areas at most. Meanwhile, in Patagonia east of Andes you have fully cold desert with barren plains, plateaus, small canyons (Cueva de las Manos), geological formations (Piedra Parada, los Altares), and the main highlight: the desert coast plenty of maritime wildlife (lots of penguins and others). Eastern and Western Patagonia are two entirely different worlds.
Finally the statement of NZ being more “dense” or “bushy” is partially true. It seems like you visited the south area of Patagonia, wich is the Magellanic subpolar forest ecoregion, but in the north area (Patagonia covers a bigger latitudinal range than NZ) you have the Valdivian rainforest, wich is more dense and has bigger trees and more underwoods. Maybe Patagonia doesn’t have forests as rich as the ones in NZ’s North Island, but for sure it has the “cold jungle” environment, too.
Wonderful and informative comments, thank you!