An Introduction to Patagonia
Patagonia is a vast expanse of sparsely vegetated plains and mountains in the south of Chile and Argentina. It covers an “area about the size of Bolivia or 1/9 the size of the United States and 3 times that of Japan. Driving around Patagonia is a lesson in huge distances and braving 50 hour bus rides. Getting there can be expensive and will inflate any budget to Argentina or Chile. Why go to Patagonia? In the southern latitudes it offers an amazing range of scenery and fauna that should not be missed. Below is a guide to several of the popular destinations within southern Patagonia.
Where To Go In Southern Patagonia
Go to Punta Arenas in Chile or Ushuaia in Argentina to experience penguins and the southern most areas of the world outside of Antarctica. Torres del Paine and El Calafate / Fitz Roy are both parks filled with towering granite mountains and days upon days of hiking.
- Punta Arenas & Ushuaia
- Torres del Paine
- El Calafate & Fitz Roy
Punta Arenas & Ushuaia
You can bus, boat, or fly down to Punta Arenas and Ushuaia. LAN flies, numerous bus companies make the trip down from Santiago and Buenos Aires (expect to travel for several days to get down there), and there is an expensive boat option that sails from Puerto Montt. Flying isn’t cheap, but the flight only takes 4 hours or so from Santiago & Buenos Aires, so will be your only option if you have limited time to spend in Patagonia.
Punta Arenas is overpriced in terms of hostels and you can find a few cheap ones on hostelworld.com but you’ll get what you pay for. There are many more hostels than what are on the hostel web sites, so if you are there in low season, then it would be worth shopping around there rather than Once we got to town we realized that there are many more hostels around town, but didn’t stop in any of them to find out whether or not they competed price wise with “El Mirador”. While we did get a nights rest there, wouldn’t say it was a good one because of the dirty facilities and beds that looked like the sheets hadn’t been changed. Be aware that there are two Mirador’s in town and I heard that the other is more expensive and much nicer.
Punta Arenas is a small town and for those with some money you can catch boats to go tour the various bays and islands down there. For those, like us, that are pinching pennies then a trip to see the penguins in the Seno Otway penguin reserve is a much better option. Either of the two bus companies downtown (Bus-Sur or Buses Fernandez) offers the same deal which works out to about $15 for the bus ticket and the entrance fee into the park. You get to see the penguins up close and from behind a blind when you get close to the ocean. The wind can be ferocious and there is little protection against the elements out there. There is also a bathroom at the reserve and some overpriced food. Buses leave in the afternoon (maybe the morning too) and we did it the same day that we arrived in town.
Some will jump from Punta Arenas down to Ushuaia. We decided to skip Ushuaia as we heard it didn’t have a lot to offer other than giving us a stamp in our passport that we’d been to the southern most city in the world. There was still plenty to see and do further north on the continent so we gave it a by.
Torres del Paine
We started in Santiago with some bits and pieces of knowledge about Patagonia. The first thing you should know about going to Patagonia is that if you fly into either Chile or Argentina and you are American, Canadian, Australian or Armenian that you had better have at least $130 USD (Americans and Canadians) for when you arrive by plane to either BA or Santiago. The good news is that if you cross the border in either direction (as of 2010) there are no fees. I’ve heard from other travelers that if you fly from Chile into Argentina or vice versa then you might be subject to the immigration tax again. Considering that it’s a short bus ride (relatively speaking) between the two major hot spots of the glaciers national park area, just take the bus.
To get from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales we took the bus which we booked downtown in Punta Arenas. There is no central bus station there, so you have to walk around a bit to visit both, but the offices aren’t very far from each other. The bus ride took about 3 hours to Puerto Natales and cost around $20 USD. We got to Puerto Natales around noon and had plenty of time to find our hostel – Backpackers Kawashkar.
Backpackers Kawashkar is highly recommended by us because we really liked the owner (Omar), the beds / kitchen / bathrooms were super clean and the kitchen is very well stocked. It’s not a big hostel so there is a really nice family feel to it and Omar is very accommodating. He also sells tickets to the park at a discounted price and offers you locker space to store your stuff when you go hiking.
The town of Puerto Natales has everything you need to prepare for the trip. We rented a tent / sleeping bags / stove from Kawashkar and got all of our food supplies for the Circuit hike in town. There is a nice dried fruit store (careful not to by too much) and several local food stores. Friends of ours did manage to find one place that sells dried salami so keep your eyes peeled if your craving it for the hike.
The weather in Torres del Paine is extremely unpredictable. We had great weather when we did it (little rain and nearly no wind), but the temperatures at night dip down near the freezing point at the higher elevations so make sure that you have a warm sleeping bag. We did the hike in February. I would recommend at least two days for the park and 5 if you have the time and want to do the W. The circuit is going to take about 8 days unless you are a strong walker or stay at the refuggios (expensive) the whole way around.
The bus ride from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine is about 2.5 hours and $20 USD again. The park entrance fee comes to about $30 per person, so best to head into the park once and then stay there. If you have a clear day going into the park and will be there for awhile, I recommend keeping your head down or eyes covered so that you can save the torres for last. Once you get into the park and take the shuttle to the Hosteria Los Torres you can open then up again as you’ll only be able to see the peaks from there. You’ll have to do the 4 hour hike up the mountain to see them in their full glory after that.
From Torres del Paine we took a bus back to Puerto Natales to head up to El Calafate. We heard of others that went straight from the park to Calafate so either is possible. The bus from Puerto Natales to El Calafate cost about .. and took around 5 hours. Going from Chile into Argentina they just stamped our passports at the border stations on both sides. I heard stories from friends, however, that going from Argentina into Chile is much stricter and required everyone to take their bags off the bus so that the authorities could check everything. Be sure you aren’t bringing any fruits / bread / things like that with you into Chile if you are following that route. One couple we met in Torres del Paine came straight from El Calafate and they didn’t have the luxury of being about to pick up any good food for the trip because the refuggios and hosterias in the park don’t really sell too much in that department and they couldn’t bring anything with them across the border.
El Calafate and Fitz Roy
We arrived in El Calafate at about 1ish and then asked the bus companies if they had any rooms available at the hostels that they own in El Chalten. You have more than enough time to make the trip on to El Chalten from El Calafate in a single day. Chalten Travel and CalTur bus companies both have hostels in El Chalten, but the CalTur hostel – Pioneros del Valle wins hands down over the Rancho that is owned by Chalten Travel. When we booked a round trip bus ticket through CalTur, the first night was $20 pesos per person and then only $36 after that. The normal going rate is around $50 to $60. There are plenty of other nicer hostels in town, but nothing at that price. Don’t expect much in terms of Internet access when you are in El Chalten or pretty much anywhere down south. El Chalten was, however, particularly bad.
The great thing about Fitzroy and El Chalten is that all of the hiking is free around there. The paths are in better condition than Torres del Paine, but the two parks have a lot differences. I’d say the two centerpieces – Fitzroy and the Torres are similar, but the French valley, glacier gray and Dickson at Torres del Paine offer a variety of scenery that is much harder to get at Fitzroy.
After El Chalten we went back to El Calafate and spent 4 days in the little town. There is a beautiful bird sanctuary down near the lake. There is a $10 peso charge to get in, but the “ticket” lasts you a week. We stayed at the I Keu Ken hostel which we also highly recommend. The place is clean, has a decent kitchen and a great view of the lake and mountains.