Puerto Natales, the gateway to Patagonia’s most famous national park, Torres del Paine, is for many just a stop off on the way to the main event. But those who arrive towards the beginning or end of the hiking season or who don’t have quite enough room in their itineraries to attempt the multi-day treks in Torres del Paine (such as the W or the O), might be concerned that there’s not a lot else to do around this city.
But that’s simply not true. Surrounded on all angles by a wealth of nature, including precious glaciers and unique flora and fauna, Puerto Natales has plenty to offer. Here are the top day trips to take – that aren’t to Torre del Paine.
Visit the Cueva del Milodón
The Cueva del Milodón (Mylodon Cave) 15-miles (24km) northwest of Puerto Natales is a unique example of Patagonia’s incredible history.
This natural monument contains a series of caves, including the main attraction, the Cueva del Milodón. Discovered in 1895 by a German explorer, the cave contained a piece of animal skin, whose origins he was unable to discern. It was only when another explorer arrived in the cave the following year that it was identified as belonging to the Mylodon, a ground sloth that went extinct in the area around 10,000 years ago.
There are other caves and rock formations including the Silla del Diablo (Devil’s Chair), some of which were found to contain evidence of human occupation dating to the arrival of the region’s first inhabitants, 11,000 years ago.
Kayak through the Chilean fjords
Some of Puerto Natales’ most impressive natural attractions are the two tidewater glaciers that hang off the mountainside at the northernmost edge of Eberhard Fjord, the waters that connect Seno Última Esperanza with Cerro Balmaceda.
Tour agencies organize kayaking day trips paddling out through the iceberg-riddled waters to sit below the Serrano and Balmaceda glaciers, both of which are retreating rapidly due to temperature change and global warming.
For the less adventurous, boat tours also make this trip, allowing a more leisurely way of admiring the natural surroundings, which include noisy colonies of sea lions and sunbathing cormorants. These tours can be combined with entrance into Torres del Paine National Park via the Serrano River in semi-rigid boats – one of the most unique ways of reaching the park.
Birdwatch at the Seno Últimaa Esperanza on the shores of Puerto Natales
The location of Puerto Natales on the edge of Seno Última Esperanza means that from the city itself, it’s possible to encounter the region’s unique feathered inhabitants.
Species visible from the shoreline include Imperial and king cormorants, South American terns, black-necked and coscoroba swans, Chiloe wigeons and crested ducks.
If the weather is kind, take a bicycle northwards towards the edges of Eberhard Fjord for even better viewpoints of the native birdlife.
Rock climb near Laguna Sofia
Another adventurous day trip from Puerto Natales is to Laguna Sofia located 25-miles (40km) from the city.
A nearby sport climbing crag is ideal for beginners and can be visited as part of an organized tour. Expect stunning views across the lake and even the possibility of seeing Andean condors floating on the thermals above you as you climb.