Patagonia, the end of the earth where Antarctic is practically a stone’s throw away. It is in fact the most southern area of any mainland on the planet and home to some of the most ruggedly beautiful country to boot. Snowy peaks, bright blue glacier fed lakes, rolling plains and seemingly endless trekking opportunities. Patagonia has become a hiking haven to travellers during the summer months and with so much to see and do, it’s easy to understand why.
So here’s what you need to know before planning your next trip out there… Patagonia actually makes up the border of Chile and Argentina in the far south of both countries. When visiting the area you can choose to do either side or if you can’t decide, do as we did and explore both, why not! There are many ways in getting to and from/around but here is a short list of what we did and possible alternatives to our trip.
What to do
Most people come to Patagonia for one thing, hiking. The area is famous for its hikes and has a huge number of well marked trails throughout its boundary. From Puerto Natales in Chile it’s a 1.5hr drive to the entrance of the Torres del Paine park and the start of many treks including the famous O and W where you get to see the highlights of Chile’s Patagonia. As we were visiting in winter we were very limited to the trail options with only the W being open during the off season, this is due to snow, ice and cold weather conditions not really being safe for the average hiker. We spent a number of hours researching the W trek for a DIY excursion and while there are accommodations still open along the route they were quite difficult to find for online booking (which must be done in advance of arrival; you can’t just rock up unfortunately) and once we found out the prices, which albeit were a lot cheaper than the summer tariffs, for us they seemed a bit too steep for what you were getting. You can find the info for the open winter accomodation along the W trek on www.verticepatagonia.cl if you’re keen. And as we research more we decided that we would probably end up spending more money than we had budgeted for. Instead we opted to base ourselves in Puerto Natales for 3 days and join a day tour to the base of Las Torres 3 towers.
We went with Chile Tour and had the best day! You’re picked up from your hotel around 6:30am and travel by minibus to the park entrance and begin the hike up to the bases which takes roughly 4-6hrs depending on breaks, photo stops etc the hike is pretty easy with a flat/gentle incline most of the way up with only the last 1hr or so being a steeper gradient. The trickiest part of the trail is actually maneuvering through, snow, ice and some mud. Lucky Chile Tour had already thought in advance and supplied everybody with crampons which came in extremely handy. At the bases you’ll enjoy a packed lunch complete with my favourite and a special little surprise – a Snickers Bar! After lunch and many photos later you’ll head back down which will take around 3 – 5hrs. On the way back to Puerto Natales you’ll be able to stop at an incredible lake and view point where we were lucky enough to spot a solo flamingo (yes they really do live that far south!). Not long after our stop at the lake our driver Rodrigo started spotting various wildlife left right and center, our awesome day of hiking had turned into a Chilean safari. We were lucky enough to see rhea, guancope, an armadillo, a skunk and finally the elusive puma.
Pumas are rather hard to track down in the wild with a few companies in the area charging upwards of $1000USD for a day of Puma searching. That’s right I said searching not seeing because unfortunately if you aren’t able to find a Puma you won’t get any of your money back. So your best bet might be to book a day trip into Patagonia’s wilderness with the Puma whisperers at Chile Tour to try your luck. Just remember though that the tour like all other companies doesn’t include the entrance fee to the park. In winter it will cost you 11,000CLP half the price of summer’s 21,000CLP (1st Oct – 30th April). Also be sure to take cash to the entrance as you can’t pay with card; Chilaean, US dollars or Euros are accepted.
The other side of Patagonia is around the mountain range and in Argentina. From El Calafate you can explore Argentina’s side of the park visiting the Perito Moreno Glacier. The glacier provides a number of activities including a simple walk along the viewing platforms directly in front of the mighty ice wall, you can also hike over it’s top, take a boat ride around it’s base or try as we did to kayak. Unfortunately for us, we chose a not very good day to go kayaking around the glacier. Turns out it’s not really ideal conditions when the wind is blowing 50km/hr and it’s snowing. We were out on the water for a total of about 20 minutes before we had to turn around and head back to shore. If we had had perfect conditions I think kayaking would have been amazing but since there was so much cloud we couldn’t really see the glacier and the waters were tough to navigate. Not to mention the cold, my fingers were numb in about 5 minutes. It wasn’t the best experience, especially for the money. I would therefore suggest if you wanted to get close to the base of the glacier maybe consider taking the boat tour instead, the classic tour is cheaper than kayaking with the premium package costing about the same.
Unless the conditions are perfect which is pretty rare in Patagonia it’s really not worth the money or the loss of feeling in your extremities in my opinion. But seeing the glacier any way you can is 100% worth it. It’s one of the few glaciers in the world which is actually getting bigger every year instead of shrinking and is just amazing to see up close. Remember that it is patagonia and the weather can be very temperamental and for this reason if you can you should keep some time up your sleeve. If the weather turns bad one day try the next, if you return to the Glacier Park the next day the entry fee is half. Entrance fees for Glacier Park in Argentina are 800 Argentine Pesos (ARS) which can be paid in cash or card, cash must be paid in ARS other currencies are not accepted.
Best time to visit
The peak season in Patagonia is of course during the summer months December to February. During summer there is less risk of snow and ice but a lot more wind (Patagonia is also known for it’s wild winds). In summer you will find all accommodation and restaurants open for business but as it is the peak season be aware you will pay a premium for the privilege and much of the accommodation books out months if not a year in advance. Winter however is a lot more chilled (pun intended) in the people department, you will for sure see next to no tourists and many businesses close over the winter months because of the lack of customers. Also many of the hiking trails are closed during this time, the W trek which is accessible from Puerto Natales is the only open hike in the area so if you’re hoping to do the famous O trek unfortunately you’ll have to wait until summer.
Getting there and away
Depending on your plan of action there are several ways to get to the area. As this was the last stop on our 4 month adventure through Central/South America we just happened to already be in the north of Chile and so flew to Punta Arenas via Santiago (see skyscanner or kayak.com for the latest prices on flights). There are also airports in Puerto Natales and El Calafate but flights here are less frequent and more expensive. Once arriving in Punta Arenas we were then able to catch a bus to Puerto Natales directly from the Airport. There are 2 main bus companies which run almost hourly from the airport and the center of Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales, the hours are pretty consistent even in the winter months. The companies are Bus-Sur and Buses Fernandez, tickets cost around 7,500CLP and can be bought online prior or on the bus once you’ve boarded. If travelling in the summer months booking ahead of time is definitely the safest bet for a seat.
From Puerto Natales you can then catch a bus to El Calafate across the border into Argentina. The bus is operated by Bus-Sur and run only a few times a week during winter, with a few more added during the summer months, so you really have to plan this one if you’re short on time. During winter the bus to El Calafate leaves the Puerto Natales bus terminal at 7:30am Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and takes 5hrs. Coming back in the other direction the buses leave the El Calafate terminal Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. You can buy the tickets either at the terminal or online however if buying on the Bus-Sur website you can only use a Paypal otherwise head to Busbud.com to use credit card (Busbud do however charge a booking fee so keep that in mind). There is also an exit fee from El Calafate bus station (pretty common in many South American countries) so remember to keep some cash handy for that.
There are many accommodation options for the area and depending on your budget you should be able to find something to suite you, however as this is a super popular tourist destination expect to pay a bit more than a regular South American shoe-string budget. Here are our recommendations for the 3 towns we visited.
Puerto Natales: Hotel Costaustralis, this hotel is a little bit of luxury with some amazing waterfront views. Positioned in the downtown area of Natales close to bars and restaurants the hotel is the perfect place to arrive home to after a hard day hiking. The hotel also includes a very nice breakfast buffet where you can order eggs the way you like and has some of the best croissants in town. If you are leaving for an early tour before breakfast starts let the staff know the day before and they will set out a little something so you don’t miss out completely. Book your stay here on booking.com
El Calafate: America del Sur is a fantastic option for all types of travellers, individuals, family groups and couples. The hostel consists of 4 bed dorms rooms with bathroom ensuites as well as private double bedrooms with private ensuite. This fitout is great because if you’ve ever stayed in a hostel you’ll know how cramped it can get in an 8 bed dorm with only a couple of showers/toilets for the entire hostel. The hostel also has an onsite restaurant, which unfortunately is not mentioned on their website but it does exist! This was a happy surprise for us when we arrived as we didn’t have to leave the warmth and comfort of the hostel to brave the wind in search of a place to eat. Chef Roberto is hands down the absolute best Argentinian BBQ-er in the world! Every day they do a BBQ feast where you get to try sausage, chicken, steak and the famous lamb, it’s a meat lover’s haven and at an extremely reasonable price around 800ARS. For all the vegos out there you’ll be happy to know they also have some fantastic options for you, try the margarita pizza and grilled bell peppers, you’ll be very happy! The lovely staff at the front desk are super happy and helpful, they can even book any tour you wanted to go on without you ever having to set foot in a travel agent.
Punta Arenas: Hotel Jose Nogueira. This is one of my all time favourite hotels, nestled right in the town center across from it’s main square the hotel is the former mansion of Punta Arenas resident Sara Braun. Sara was something of an entrepreneur during her time and commissioned this amazing house at the turn of the 20th century. The mansion is designed in the French neoclassical style and took over 10 years to build! The building is so significant to the area and Chile that in 1982 it was declared a national heritage. Today the former mansion is still oozing early 20th century wealth and grandeur housing a 22 room hotel, a cocktail bar, museum and restaurant. It’s more than just an ordinary hotel here, it’s a special part of history and an exciting and different place to rest your head.
There are endless ways in which you can explore Patagonia it’s all down to your time and budget. And while this list is not complete hopefully it gives you some good ideas for a starting point. If you have any questions or queries be sure to pop them in the comment section, we’re happy to answer anything we can.
Keep seeking those trails guys!