Patagonia was one of our long time dream destinations. Covering the countries Chile and Argentina, both marvellous in their own right, with landscapes that made each picture perfect, no matter the skill of the one shooting. 😉
This tour requires a bit more planning, due to the complex arrangements around a trip to the southern most city of the world (Ushuaia), two countries, and two major cities (Buenos Aires and Santiago). So the report is split into three. A review of Buenos Aires, a review of Santiago and this report on Patagonia.
Our total trip schedule (13 days) looked like this:
- Buenos Aires (2 days)
- Ushuaia & Firelands National Park (1.5 days)
- El Calafate & El Chaltén (2 days)
- Puerto Natales & Torres del Paine National Park (3 days)
- Punta Arenas & Magellan Strait (1.5 days)
- Santiago de Chile (3 days)
- You have half a day flight time each direction, so in total 14 days (10 vacation days used)
We started our trip in Buenos Aires and spent two days there. You can find our report here:
After that we took a regional flight from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, the “southernmost city in the world“. Both LATAM and Aerolineas Argentinas fly there frequently.
Ushuaia is located at the Beagle canal and the starting point for many antarctic expeditions. It is also the entrance to the Tierra del Fuego national park. We did not spend much time in the city. It consists mainly of one tourist shopping street, a casino, and the traditional port. At least the last one is nice.
On the other side of a small lake in the south you can find a military base and a small private airstrip. That location offers some good shots of the city with the mountains in the back. We landed late afternoon and it was very cold, so that is the only thing we did on that evening, besides having a great seafood dinner. Restaurants open at 7pm. But some of the popular and smaller restaurants will have queues starting at 6:30 (“El Viejo Marino” for example).
Next morning we started out with some friends we met in our hostel. Actually almost all accomodations there are hostels, but you can easily find one with separate bathrooms and overall good quality. To get to the park, you essentially have two options:
- An expensive historic train, going the same way as the old train did, which carried the prisoners being taken to the presidio at the end of the world. [not recommended]
- The bus, which takes you to the same endpoint and is cheaper and faster.
Some guys took the train, we took the bus, and we all met in the same place. After that it is straight hiking. It is easy territory and the park entrance fee is not that high. The park rangers equip you with good maps and there are 3-4 good tour options that you can do. You can even board the return busses from other stops, so you do not have to hike back the same way. The park is well maintained and beautiful. We did not like the “end of the world hike” too much. I rather preferred the hike North, towards the border with Chile. (Picture below)
You can for sure do longer hikes and spend 2-3 days here. But in one solid day hike you can see the best spots without stressing too much.
We took the bus at 5pm and got back to our hostel around 6. Our group size had increased steadily and we all went for a lamb stew. That is the 2nd major food option you have to try besides the seafood/fish when in Ushuaia.
A bit hungover we jumped on an early plane the next morning and flew up north again, to El Calafate.
El Calafate & El Chaltén (2days)
El Calafate is the base for the Los Glaciares National Park. The two main attractions here are the Perito Moreno Glacier and the trek to Mount Fitz Roy. Both are incredible and a must do.
The Perito Moreno Glacier can be reached quite quickly with a bus from El Calafate. Just ask your hostel for a tour, the prices don’t vary that much from the direct buy at the bus terminal. There are two options, a half-day and a full-day tour.
Since we arrived at noon, we chose the half-day tour and found that more than enough. It is very windy and cold near the glacier and we had about 2.5 hours on Location. Plenty of time to do all boardwalks even if you are slow. You pay for the tour and again for the park entrance fee.
You also have the option of taking a boat to drive closer to the glacier. We didn’t opt to do that because they also have to keep a safety distance (ice is regularly breaking off the glacier) and you are actually not that much further away than the boats. So boat tour [not recommended].
There are glacier hikes which are supposed to be great experiences if you stay longer. We didn’t do that. I did one before in Iceland and I wasn’t that impressed.
For Mount Fitz Roy (and the neighbor peak Cerro Torre) the base to start is the village El Chaltén. You can stay overnight in the small village. If we’d had more time, we definitely would have chosen that option. But with just one day, we opted for a day tour by bus from El Calafate. The day trip is tough, because you leave early and come back late. And the long drive means you just have about 6 hours for hiking. Sadly the two most popular treks are 8 and 9 hours respectively, and we had to choose one of the shorter treks. Still very beautiful as you can see from the picture below. There is no park entrance fee here.
We came back very late that evening and were really tired from the long day. But this was one of the most beautiful trips we did on our entire tour. You should spend more time here than we did. At least 2 days.
Next morning we took a very early bus (6am) to cross the border to Chile and head for Puerto Natales, the base to go to Torres del Paine national park. Arrangements are easy, just book it via the hostel and take one of the standard bus providers (like Bus-Sur).
The waiting time is quite long to cross the border and fill all the paperwork, so when we got there it was already afternoon.
Puerto Natales & Torres del Paine (3 days)
Puerto Natales is a nice and quiet little town and there are only few options to see or do. We spend the afternoon strolling around the town to see what’s available and to get an idea about the different tours and options we had. Essentially you can skip all of that and head straight for the national park Torres del Paine.
That is what we did the next morning.
You have several options for visiting Torres del Paine. The most cost-effective is to take one of the regular busses from the central bus terminal in Puerto Natales. They will take you to the park entrance, the starting point of the catamaran and some other spots from where you can start your own treks.
The other extreme is a fully guided, and supplied trek. Most convenient but expensive.
The most popular treks – whether by yourself or with a full group – are the “O” and “W” trek. Both take several days, so we did not have the chance to do either.
We were still with some friends and weather wasn’t too good, so we opted on day 1 for a third variant, which is a full-day bus tour that takes you across the entire national park and just adds some smaller hikes. This is a fast way to see everything in one day and get an idea which area you like best and want to explore more. Also the park entrance fee is quite high, but valid for three days. Just show your passoport and make sure the park rangers stamp it with a date, so you can return the next day. We booked this tour with Viator and were very lucky with an excellent tour guide and some beautiful photo stops:
The most beautiful locations you should not miss are: Lago Grey, Lake Nordenskjöld and the Paine Grande.
Salto Grande – the big waterfall – is also nice. You should take the old abandoned way, following the old railtracks to the broken bridge, instead of the official upper hike. You get a beautiful frontal view of the falls.
Stuff I think you can do without is the Midolon Caves (very boring), the Cerro Castillo Village (really nothing to see) and Sarmiento Lake (overshadowed by the other lakes if you have to choose) [not recommended]
Prepared with our pre-selection we set out on day 2 on a regular bus to the park. This time without our last remaining companion traveller who had to head back to Ushuaia. Sadly the weather got very bad and we got storm strength winds (quite common, so you should plan more days in case this happens). The catamaran we had booked was grounded and we could not get to the French Valley, our chosen hike tour. We went for some smaller hikes along the area instead. All the other and better treks require an overnight stay or the boat ride.
The next day we had to head off to Punta Arenas, our last stop in Patagonia. Busses from Puerto Natales to Punta Arenas depart every day at several times. Most depart around 8am in the morning and take about 3 hours to reach Punta Arenas. Just head to the central bus station and buy your ticket. Cash and card is all fine.
Punta Arenas (1.5days)
Punta Arenas is the largest city and capital of the area located on the Magellan Strait. It has a larger port and airport and is essentially the second entrance option into Patagonia besides El Calafate. The city itself does not offer much. Most popular is the tour to the Pengiun Island Isla Magdalena. Sadly the weather continued to be bad with heavy storms, so we could not take the island tour and spent the afternoon at the port and in the city instead.
The next day, after sleeping late and relaxing, we flew to our last trip destination: Santiago de Chile. You can find our report here:
Recommended photo spots:
- Frontal view of Fitz Roy when hiking towards the mountain near Laguna Capri or Laguna Torre (those are the two best stops)
- Perito Moreno Glacier and the adjacent lake: Just stay on the boardwalk, better pics than from the boat
- Lake Nordenskjöld: Go all the way to the top of the Little island with the camp site at the base. You will have a beautiful panoramic view of Paine Grande and the turqouise waters
- Lago Grey: Go across the open, windy area, you will get some good shots of the ice crystals washed ashore. Then head onwards to the footpath that leads all the way up the little hill. You get a nice view of the lake and the glacier. Can be muddy but is not steep or tough.
- Salto Grande: Don’t take the official way. Go to the “prohibited” area with the old route and the destroyed bridge. It is quite windy but safe and you get a good front shot.
- Punta Arenas: The port is very nice, albeit is a bit far from town. You will get some good pics.
For both Los Glaciares and Torres del Paine it really depends on the weather, We had the Torres almost always covered in clouds, so check the weather with the park rangers and head for a good spot.
- Domestic flights between Ushuaia, El Calafate, Buenos Aires, Punta Arenas and Santiago are easy to get and you can book relatively short notice. If you want it even cheaper, try with a local VPN and spanish booking Website.
- The busses between El Calafate, Puerto Natales und Punta Arenas go daily, there are lots of companies like Bus-Sur which are reliable. We didn’t have any trouble with sold-out tickets, although the busses are quite full.
- In El Chaltén there is only one ATM. Get some cash in El Calafate. But generally avoid drawing cash in Argentina, as the charges are high. In Chile there are no extra charges.
- Book your hostels with some lead time, as the good ones fill up quickly. Align with them beforehand on the tours.
- You can book almost all tours, the regular busses and more with your hostels. They price difference is very small and the convenience is well worth it. In some hostels you get a discount for paying cash instead of card.
- Really double check the weather very closely and plan your trips and treks accordingly.
- Check when the last catamaran is heading back in Torres del Paine. The busses wait for the last boat. But if you miss that, you stay in the park for the night.
- Get the stamp on the park entrance fee for Torres del Paine, so you can enter again for free the next 2 days. This saves you from the huge queue at the entrance when you take the public bus,
- Security is not a big issue in the smaller towns
- Temperatures in Ushuaia can be low, even in summer. And weather changes quickly. Avoid bringing too few clothes.
- Avoid the tourist trap restaurants on the main Shopping street in Ushuaia. Spend 5 minutes more to find a good and more local place.
- Don’t book one the “premium” Magdalena Island tours in Punta Arenas. There is a large simple ferry that takes you across and that is totally fine and the cheapest option. The different of the tour our Hotel offered (Best Western…awful, do not stay there) was 3 times the price of the ferry.
- You do not need a guide for the treks from El Chaltén. Every trek is well marked and simple to do.
- Do NOT bring fruit or meat when you cross the border from Argentina to Chile. It is prohibited and they check very strictly for this.
[Trip Date: 11/2017, Duration 14 days]