Al sur.
February 7, 2009 6:57 PM   Subscribe

Requesting travel, transport and itinerary suggestions for southern and western South America.

I have a guide book for the continent and ideas about where I want to go, but the distances seem vast and I'm having trouble envisioning how to string together several destinations in multiple countries without spending a fortune. Difficult to tell where overland travel is or is not feasible.

* Time frame: 18 days, including travel down and back from North America. I live near a major international airport that has direct flights to many South American cities.
* Time of year: March (i.e. Southern Hemisphere late summer, early fall).
* Budget: TBD, though certainly not unlimited. I imagine airfare will be the single greatest expense.

Things I'm interested in seeing:
* Usuhaia, Argentina, and nearby parks. Tierra del Fuego.
* Glaciares National Park, Argentina. Specifically, a hike around Cerro Torre. -Or- Torres del Paine in Chile.
* Santiago, Chile.
* Atacama Desert.
* Lake Titicaca and/or La Paz, Bolivia.
* Cuzco/Machu Picchu.

I seriously doubt I could see all that in the given period of time. Does anybody with experience traveling in the region have any good suggestions for how to do as much as possible, without being a total road warrior? Any particularly obvious links between places, such as good short reliable ground transport between Cuzco and Bolivia? Are flights between Santiago and Argentine Patagonia/Usuhaia reasonable? Etc. This is a rather expansive question, I realize, and am very appreciative of any advice you're willing to offer.

About me:
* U.S. citizen.
* Fairly travel-savvy and mobile, does not require luxurious accomodations.
* Fluent in Spanish.
* Has been in South America previously (Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay).
posted by donpedro to Travel & Transportation (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
A lot of it depends on how you plan to get around. If you're taking flights, you can spend the whole time city-hopping -- 18 days will give you time enough to "sample" maybe 4-5 different cities? (that's pushing it really -- probably 2-3 cities, if you want to be not-stressed-out, and actually have time to explore). If you're traveling by bus, your options are more limited, just because it's going to take a couple of days to get from place to place (and DEFINITELY if you're doing an "across SA thing" -- that doesn't even make sense to try by bus, given your limited time schedule)

For my two cents -- I'd take the bus. I spent 6 weeks in Ecuador, alternating between city hopping and working / volunteering in the mountains outside Quito, and it was amazing. I got around entirely by bus, since (at least in Ecuador) as it's really the only mode of transportation outside the cities -- going on weekend trips, then coming back to the reserve as a home base. (You can do this really easily out of hostels -- find a cool, friendly hostel, and go on trips -- esp. in Ecuador, it's really easy to pair up with other travelers, and lots of organizations run multiple day-or-week trips.) The key is having a "base" location -- it really only works if you're going to limit your trip to a particular region. (and with two weeks, that's really all it makes sense to do)

[Looking back on your question, I was going to write a whole bunch of stuff about finding a base, and then just taking time to stay in one place -- but I realize that that's actually not what you're asking at all. concrete recommendations on those areas, having never been.]

[Sorry! Will read more carefully next time before waxing poetic. ::grumble:: ::smack::]

posted by puckish at 7:38 PM on February 7, 2009

If you really want to include Patagonia Argentina and/or Tierra del Fuego, you should know that the airports are few, serviced lightly, and many only link to Buenos Aires (with stops in the way), so that would add to your travel time. A quick googling shows that Ushuaia seems a happy exception, and you might get from Chile via LAN as your only option. They are usually ok as far as I know. If you go ahead and fly to one of the spots that are only served through Buenos Aires, be aware that Aerolineas Argentinas/Austral/LADE (who tend to have the exclusive rights) are a mess, like to go on strike without warning, suffer LOTS of delays (mainly due to shitty planes that are falling apart) and the in-flight amenities are pretty miserable.
posted by Iosephus at 8:15 PM on February 7, 2009

Response by poster: If you really want to include Patagonia Argentina and/or Tierra del Fuego

Don't want to overmoderate this thread, but I'm not stuck on any particular item in the list of interests above. Those are things that seem cool; I'm looking for a way to optimize some selection of them.
posted by donpedro at 10:48 PM on February 7, 2009

Some relevant comments I have... bus trips- its ~20 hours from Santiago to San Pedro, ~7 Puno to Cuzco, ~a couple (3 or 4ish?) Puno to Copacabana, Copacabana to La Paz fairly easy by bus too but I forget how long, you'll have to get off and take a short ferry.
All those trips should be fairly easy to organize at the terminal, a day or so before if possible in case they only leave in the morning or something. Strikes and bus problems are always a risk for delays.

Prices for flights are often way higher when you buy them from the US. However, I don't know if you'd want to risk last minute attempts just to get around that. It is common to fly from Santiago to the very South to see those attractions. I'm not sure which/all/exactly how though. I think airports are in Calama (next to Atacama/San Pedro), Cuzco, La Paz, Arequipa, etc... so you might make one long flight into a couple regions then bus around from there.

In all, that's probably the best way to do it, fly the long distances and bus around when you can within the region.

A time idea-- From La Paz (which you could spend some days in) I bussed one morning to Copacabana and slept there
The next morning boated to Isla del Sol and hiked and slept on the island,
The next day got off the island and bussed to Puno, Peru and stayed 2 nights there (visiting the floating islands during the day in the middle).
The next morning bussed to Cuzco and stayed 2 nights.
The next morning did a huge tour of the Sacred Valley, Ollantaytambo, and slept that night in Aguas Calientes. ("backpackers' tour")
Woke up at the crack of dawn and saw Machu Picchu, slept again in Aguas Calientes,
At 5:30am took the train (again, part of "backpackers' tour") back to Cuzco and went straight to the airport that morning and flew out to Lima.
... So I think my trip meant 8 nights not counting time beforehand in La Paz, though could have been a day or so less in Cuzco if there would've been availabilty for the Machu Picchu trip. La Paz and Cuzco have enough to do for days if you want. Puno doesn't, see the floating islands and leave.

However... I do think this region would be great to keep in your trip. (La Paz, floating islands, Isla del Sol, Machu Picchu) They are very awesome sights and distinct. Worth it.

San Pedro has a lot to do. I had 3 full days there and any less would've felt too short I think. Even so I left without doing everything. I've heard of people bussing from there to Bolivia but have no specifics.

I've never been to those way south locations but many friends have, with very high recommendations and excellent pictures.

I'm personally not the biggest fan of Santiago. I'm not sure your reasons obviously, and there really is a ton to do and see there, but I truthfully wouldn't recommend letting it steal a big chunk of your time away from the other cool things on your to do list.

Have a great trip!
posted by nzydarkxj at 11:15 PM on February 7, 2009

I'm a tour operator who specializes in these areas and have been to most of the destinations you mentioned. A couple of thoughts:

1) Internal flights will roughly cost about $300 -$350 a leg. Internal flights within Argentina are even more expensive because of the monopoly that Aerolineas has.

2) Although Torres del Paine, Ushuaia and Los Glaciares each offer something spectacular, in a way, they're also very similar. I probably would recommend eliminating Argentina all together and sticking with Chile.

If you decide to eliminate Argentina, now you can book Lan Chile all the way and save a buttload of money on internal flights if you use their air pass.

Day 1 Arrive LIM, overnight
Day 2 Fly into CUS, go straight to Sacred Valley, see Ollantaytambo (make sure this day is a Tue / Thu / Sun to take advantage of the local Indian markets
Day 3 Train to Machu Picchu, overnight Aguas Calientes
Day 4 Hike around MaPi in the morning, afternoon train to Cusco
Day 5 Take all day bus to Puno
Day 6 Lake Titicaca (if you can, overnight on Taquile or Sun Islands)
Day 7 Back to Puno
Day 8 Back to Cusco (if you're not rushed for time, certainly add a day or two here)
Day 9 Fly back to Lima and connect with flight to Santiago - SCL
Day 10 FLy to Calama and go to San Pedro
Day 11-12 Atacama wanderings
Day 13 Back to Calama, fly to SCL
Day 14 Fly to Punta Arenas - get to Puerto Natales
Day 15-16 Explore Patagonia, with 1 day in Torres Del Paine
Day 17 Back to Punta Arenas and fly back to Santiago
Day 18 Fly back to USA

So there you have it - accomplishable only if you do a lot of internal flights because with your time frame, you're limiting youself to only a few days in each place because of logistics to get from place to another.
posted by HeyAllie at 9:49 AM on February 8, 2009 [3 favorites]

Actually on Day 17, the flights to the USA depart late in the evening, so you would be home on Day 18.

Also to clarify, when I said that Torres del Paine, Ushuaia and Los Glaciares are very similar, I mean in the way that Yosemite, the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone are very similar. Fabulous scenery with grand landscapes, but each unique in its own way.
posted by HeyAllie at 9:54 AM on February 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

I live in Santiago, and I agree you shouldn't spend a lot of time here if you're on such a tight schedule, unless you're really into cities, and even then Lima or Cuzco are probably more interesting and exotic.
Seconding spending time in and around Lake Titicaca, though I'd avoid Puno like the hellhole it is. Definitely would not stay there (in my case, again, as I have and wish I hadn't). Cross over to Copacabana (which is the origin of the statue of the virgin that gives the Rio beach its name) and stay there, do the islands from there, etc. Skip the floating islands, too, not worth it and really just sort of squishy and depressing.
Other than that, HeyAllie's schedule sounds about right.
Let me know if you need Santiago-specific advice.
posted by signal at 5:04 PM on February 8, 2009

Skip Ushuaia - it's a pretty boring, pretty expensive town and the national park isn't anything too incredible.

I would choose one pretty tight geographical area and stick to it. You could definitely do (the W hike is pretty worth it) Torres del Paine, Glaciares/el calafate, etc... but you might get pretty burned out on mountains after almost 3 weeks.

Everybody I've ever spoken to agrees that Santiago, Chile pretty much sucks and is expensive.

You could definitely roll around Peru for a while and have a great time, do the inca trail, see other ruins nearby (ollaytaytambo, hang in cuzco for a minute) You can skip Lima (very sucky city) unless it's to go to the museum with the trepanned skulls/skull with crystal teeth, well worth the $12 admission. You should have plenty of time to do Lake Titicaca and around there.

I've spent 12 months of the last 36 or all over South America, but most of that was in Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia with a little Peru, Uruguay, Chile and Paraguay thrown in. If you're not stuck on a MONUMENTAL (TdP, Calafate Glaciar, Macchu Piccu) vacation, definitely consider Colombia. Carnaval starts here in a week or so, it's cheap, safer than pretty much everywhere but Uruguay, and the people are awesome. It's my favorite South American country, but it doesn't really have an incredible standout Wonder of the World attraction...
posted by youthenrage at 10:29 PM on February 8, 2009

« Older What should I expect to be asked about at a...   |   Childfree-positive movies? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.