Be warned: this post is less about eye candy and more about suggestions for someone thinking about traveling here. It’s wordy! There are photos though, and all of them are ones we didn’t use in other posts – so you’ll have to check those out to see the best.
Patagonia is one of the most unique regions in the world in so many ways. Traveling here has brought wondrous sights and dispiriting challenges like nowhere else. For those with time, goals, and determination it is immensely rewarding; comfort seekers expecting a clear check-list itinerary will be frustrated and unfulfilled. Over the span of a month we found ourselves in one of these camps or the other at different times and places. A year of travel abroad did not fully prepare us for this place!
Patagonia is beautiful, busy, lonely, and vexing; it’s blustery, glowing, dusty, damp, and crisp; it’s vibrant, gray, dismal, and striking; it’s tedious and it’s enthralling. It can easily be all of these things in a single day.
Patagonia is paradoxical. It begs for thorough planning in advance – for the likes of camping/refugio reservations (especially Torres del Paine), bus schedules, car rentals, etc. But then it will throw wrenches in the works with wild weather, a vehicle breakdown, or things simply not being what you expect. We like to travel with open plans and adjust as we go, which has worked well for much of the world; here that approach forced some concessions.
Patagonia is expensive. We paid more here for less than pretty much anywhere in the world. Getting a bed in a one-horse town is the same as a European city, and the food is equally overpriced. ATM fees are very high and you can’t always find them in smaller towns, so plan ahead and also bring some dollars as backup. If they aren’t damaged many places will take them.
A modest level of self-sufficiency would go a long way here – we found ourselves really wishing for a camper-van on many occasions. Being able to bring your own bed, food, and set your own itineraries would be liberating. We did fine getting around by buses but we could have done a lot more with our own wheels. It’s a bit of an all-or-nothing thing: rental car prices in the middle of Patagonia are absurdly high if they’re even available at all. You have to rent from either the top or the bottom before you start.
Another thing we wished for – and this will sound obvious – was our camping gear. On extended travel as we were, we didn’t have it with us nor did we bother trying to ship it down, thinking if we really needed it we could rent it or buy used stuff. You can indeed rent but it’s not cheap, and having your bedding with you the whole way would definitely save on lodging when the weather is good. We surprisingly found no sign of used gear trading or sales so don’t count on that!
If you want to see the length of Patagonia and can make a camper-van work – including the extra insurance needed so you can cross between Chile and Argentina – then we’d recommend it. Friends of ours did this at the same time we were bussing around and they saw some amazing things we missed out on. If you can’t, then bring your camping stuff and enough gear to be comfortable if (when) adverse weather appears. If that doesn’t sound fun… then just do what we did, it’s still awesome! Or go to a warm beach somewhere.
I get annoyed by people who speak with authority about traveling to X when they’ve only been there once. So many travel experiences are affected by luck and circumstance and that’s especially true in Patagonia. Plus everyone’s thresholds and interests are different, and I think Patagonia really amplifies these factors as well. It’s only us and we’ve only been here a short time, so that’s my caveat – take all of this with a grain of salt!
From Puerto Montt – easily reached by bus from Santiago – we zig-zagged south through Patagonia, crossing into Argentina and back twice. We finished up at Punta Arenas which has daily flights to Santiago.
This took us about a month, though of course it would depend on how much time you spend in each area and what activities you do.
We covered this journey over 5 posts:
- From Puerto Montt to San Carlos de Bariloche (1-9 on the map).
- Covers Futaleufú and Coyhaique (11 and 12),
- Wonderful Puerto Rio Tranquilo (13-15),
- Back into Argentina at El Chaltén and El Calafate (16-19 on the map),
- Finishing with Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas (20-23).
Argentina’s Ruta 40, which we crossed for part of our trip, is the fastest way to get to connect some of the big destinations like El Chaltén, El Calafate, and Torres del Paine. But don’t miss Chile’s small towns along the Carretera Austral – when it comes to just traveling around, the Chilean side of the Andes is often more beautiful!
We did everything by bus. Like the weather, transportation options become less predictable and comfortable the further south you go. If you’re taking Ruta 40 all the way down on the Argentina side then no problem, there are plenty of buses every day. You just might need to buy your ticket a day in advance. But if part of your route goes through small towns in Chile (it should) then it might be a little more work. Tourist information offices are in most towns and will have bus schedules and other helpful info.
Prices for flights in the high season start to climb at least a month in advance. That said, being flexible with your schedule might be worth paying for a more expensive flight – even a last minute ticket from Punta Arenas to Santiago is a small expense compared to the total cost of a trip here.
If you want to rent a car for part of the trip, reserve it ahead. This way it will actually be available – there’s a very limited supply – and you’ll know what you’re going to be paying. Don’t count on grabbing a car along the way on a whim! Roads are windy, winding, and often gravel so be ready.
If you possess an indomitable desire to bicycle Chile’s Carretera Austral, good on you! Prepare to ingest a lot of dust and flying rocks. It looked pretty awful to us but we saw many people doing it, and the views along the road are indeed wonderful.
Guided tours are sometimes necessary but often exist only because you are too uninformed or too lazy. There are some things you can’t do without a guide, like trekking on a glacier, but most sights don’t require one. Local buses can be pretty extensive especially in the northern end of Patagonia, so it’s easy to get to trailheads on your own. Worst case you can take a taxi or hitchhike (our own hitchhiking experience was pretty limited, consisting once of being ferried across the border by a 90-year old lady, and second of failing to attract a ride because everyone thought the local dog tagging along with us was ours. But plenty of people hitchhike extensively here and it’s totally chill, another special thing about Patagonia).
Northern Patagonian summer is gorgeous. The air is clean and clear, the temperature is very comfortable, the weather is consistent and the long days let you stay outside forever. The only thing we found that might deter you from the outdoors were the occasional swarms of prehistorically giant marauding flies.
As you go south, the winds get stronger and gustier. It’s cloudy or rainy more often and conditions change more rapidly. By the time you get to places like Parque Nacional Los Glaciares or Torres del Paine, the weather is wholly unpredictable – it’s anybody’s guess what will happen that afternoon, and your temperature varies wildly from one moment as the sun, clouds, wind and rain do their thing. I usually bring too many extra layers but not so here – cap, knit hat, vest, jacket, and shell were all used regularly on hikes.
Of the 14 days where we wished for perfect weather (a big hike, etc), 10 of them were great; it’s worth mentioning, however, that on several occasions we had free time to plan around the weather. Three were overcast enough to block views but otherwise fine, one turned into a drenching downpour and one was too sketchy to even start our hike.
By and large don’t expect to be eating cheap gourmet meals – it seems to cost more than it should to get food here. Wherever we could we stayed somewhere with a kitchen so we could prepare at least some of our meals, but even then you’re limited by what you can find in the local grocery. If you like white bread, you’re in luck: it’s a staple in most meals. It’s locally made and pretty tasty so that’s good, but it does get tiresome after a while.
That said, we did find some delicious food here and there. A churrasco steak sandwich piled high with palta (avocado) is pretty awesome. A similar post-hike delicacy is the super-pancho aka completo – hot dog with the works. There’s a lot of trout and salmon, both fresh and flavorful. Wine from both Chile and Argentina can be quite good and inexpensive (hooray!) – just aim at or above ~$4 USD for a bottle and you’re all set. Beer is mostly your typical Latin American lager though there are a fair number of microbreweries in the larger towns.
Mate is the perk-you-up beverage of choice for the locals here. Everywhere you will see people lugging around their kit of hot water, dried yerba mate, mug, and straw. We joined in by getting our own mate straw and thermos – it’s good!
In the north section of Chilean Patagonia you’ll find bakeries that make kuchen, a German-influenced cake with fruit which is really good. On the other side of the border Argentina makes alfajores which are a sort of shortbread-cookie sandwich containing dulche de leche and sometimes coated in chocolate. These are now probably my favorite type of cookie and it is imperative that you try them!
One great and inexpensive thing about Patagonia: drinking water! The stuff that comes from the taps is clean and refreshing.
Expect to get less for more. We used a mix of booking.com, agoda, airbnb, and just wandering around on arrival (the small towns have a lot of options that aren’t online). Read reviews or check it out yourself before you commit because you can easily pay a lot for a tiny, noisy, grubby place. Having your own transportation can help here – you won’t end up paying less, but you’ll get a better place for the same price. Having even a modest kitchen is great. Or just skip the whole mess and get a camper van!
Everywhere we stayed was a last-minute find. Having an advance itinerary and reservations would help you find better deals or at least more quality options. We often found that our first and second choice was full by the time we arrived. Of course, to make that work you actually have to create – and stick to – a schedule.
Unless you want to spend all your time with tour groups, some basic Spanish is really necessary. We’ve found fewer English speakers here than pretty much anywhere in the world including Southeast Asia (where many students learn some English in grade school). Of course you’ll survive without Spanish but I think you would frequently find it impenetrable and frustrating. Learn a little, make a friend, or marry someone (like I did) who speaks the language!
Patagonia is a hiking paradise. The scenery is ever-changing: dusty volcanic scree, lush temperate rainforest, dry steppe and snowcapped granite crags. One of the best parts is getting world-class mountain, glacier, lake and river views without having to huff and puff your way up to high altitude – the peaks here top out at a mere 2000m (6500ft)! Plus the water that you find everywhere is potable, a boast matched by few other regions of the world.
Our favorite spot overall would have to be El Chaltén and it neighboring Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. For us the combination of accessible, spectacular, and fulfilling was perfect. For many Chile’s Torres del Paine is the highlight, but as you can read in that post the circumstances didn’t work in our favor and we found it difficult to work around the challenges of the busy and inaccessible park. If you plan ahead or go in the off-season I bet it would be great! For us, I would take some of the time we burned in Puerto Natales and spent it doing a longer trek out of El Chaltén such as the Huemul Circuit.
Places we saw and loved:
- Volcan Osorno and Saltos Del Petrohué
- Laguna Tonchek at Refugio Frey
- Glaciar Castaño Overo at Tronador
- Glaciar Exploradores
- Capilla, Catedral, and Cavernas Mármol
- Laguna Torre
- Laguna de los Tres
- Glaciar Perito Moreno
- Las Torres (del Paine)
We’re sorry that we missed:
- Laguna Cerro Castillo
- The French Valley in Torres del Paine
- The Huemul Circuit
- And a lot more to see, if you have the time…
- Puerto Varas, Chile
- Futaleufú, Chile
- Puerto Rio Tranquilo, Chile
- El Chaltén, Argentina
A lot of Patagonia is one amazing panorama after another, to the point where we shamefully started getting snobbish about what actually made a worthwhile view. You can get spoiled by the main sights, the heavy hitters, because they really are that majestic. But you don’t even have to go into the parks or hike at all to see dramatic stretches of glacier-capped mountains, bright blue lakes and rivers, rippling kaleidoscopic fields, and high-contrast 10pm sunsets.
Some interesting fauna are easy to spot as you’re traveling around. Andean condors are common, though it can take a bit of luck to get an up-close view. There are a variety of other raptors and interesting birds as well. Guanaco are llama relatives common in southern Patagonia, and ñandu – mini ostrich – live in the same area. Our friends who had a camper van even got an up close view of a puma!
I have to mention a blog post by Kristin Addis titled “18 of the Best Spots in Patagonia”. We were inspired by her photos and writing to visit (or attempt to visit) many of these places on our trip. Thanks Kristin!