Patagonia travel advice
August 26, 2018 12:08 AM   Subscribe

Help me plan the best way to spend 3 weeks seeing awesome Patagonian nature in January/February

Next year I am finally fulfilling a dream and taking 6 months to travel round South America. The rough plan is to arrive in Buenos Aires around the 15th of January, spend a week there then spend around 3 weeks in Patagonia before working my way north through Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Columbia. I plan not to plan most of this trip and just let it unfold. However, as I'll be in Patagonia in the busy season and want to cram in as much as possible in a fairly defined period I think I'll need a plan and an itinerary.

So, my question is: what is the best way to do this? What's the best route to see the most in that time? I'd like to start at the south and work my way north but along which route and how to allocate the time?

Additional questions are around accommodation and whether or not to camp. I feel like taking a tent and camping would be the best way to maximise my time in nature rather than being restricted to day hikes. However, I'll be travelling as light as possible for a 6 month trip (35-45 l rucksack) and I have essentially zero experience with camping. So could I rent all equipment I'd need there along with the means to carry it? Is that a good idea if I don't really know what I'm doing? Will I be missing out if I don't camp?

Potentially relevant information: I really just want to see spectacular nature - not too bothered about anything else. I'll be going alone but hoping to make friends and travelling buddies in hostels along the way. My Spanish is pretty good. My max budget would be £1,500 (~$1,900) for the 3 weeks.
posted by neilb449 to Travel & Transportation (7 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
(As a source of inspiration, I'd recommend Bruce Chatwin's "In Patagonia". A few years old now but great as a description of a rambling voyage to the area.)

I think there is a standard trail which would maybe start at Ushuaia and then head north via Torres del Piane /El Calafate - maybe some time on an estancia somewhere in the pampas - maybe a trip to Laguna San Rafael. Some time on a horse maybe? Distances are large and many wonderful potential locations are also quite remote. My own personal experience of the area (a few months on an expedition camping there in the early 90s and an upcoming honeymoon destination next month) - make me that it is not the easiest place to camp: scorching sun and days of heavy rain both common. So if you are a camping newbie - and are going it alone - you are going to need to choose to be well prepared with your equipment and plans - or to stay indoors.

If you do want to let your trip unfold - but also want to plan an itinerary - then your best advise would probably be to plan one with only a few pre-planned points on it.
posted by rongorongo at 1:07 AM on August 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

There are plenty of hostels and not that many places to safely camp, so I would go that route. Look in to how you're going to get down there from BsAs...there are lots of new low cost flights in Argentina, so you won't have to spend days on a bus anymore.
posted by conifer at 2:10 AM on August 26, 2018

I did this a couple of years ago, but we only had 9 days. No camping, just hostels/AirBNBs. We flew from BA to Calafate, rented a car (there was a group of us, so this was more economical/easier than bus trips), spent 3 days in El Chalten (Mt. FitzRoy, Laguna de los Tres, Chorillo del Salto), then 2 days in Torres del Paine. I would have liked to have spent more time in the Torres; there is a multi-day circuit trek which looked amazing. The scenery is indeed spectacular. rongorongo is right about the weather -- it was dry and hot in El Chalten, then steady rain for much of the time in the Torres.

We also spent 2 days in the Tierra del Fuego (Punta Arenas) which is a little out of the way, but PENGUINS!
posted by basalganglia at 5:04 AM on August 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

One thing about camping in Patagonia is that the wind is really unbelievably, intensely strong. I thought I knew what to expect; I thought it would be like the prairies of eastern Montana. But it's a whole other level of windiness you've probably never experienced. All night long, my tent was being slammed by wind and - what's a word that's like the shouting version of rustling? Maybe there is no word like that, but you have to expect that constant RUSTLING noise all night long, like being in a huge storm, but it happens all the time even when the weather is fine. I was constantly wondering if my rain fly was going to be pulled off or the stakes were going to pull out of the ground. And there probably were times when those things happened, but no disasters. Camping was fine; I enjoyed it. But there was definitely a feeling of being a tiny boat in a huge storm. You might consider whether that would bother you.
posted by Redstart at 6:50 AM on August 26, 2018

Best answer: We've done this from both sides - arriving Buenos Aires for a few days, jetting to Bariloche, and renting a car for a drive through the insanely beautiful landscape - and this was in a tiny spec of a car that while *slow* on nasty dirt roads, performed flawlessly for 10 days. Car was rented in Bariloche airport and we did most of the big lakes in the area, the 7 lakes route, Chilean border, and heading as far south as we could muster in such a short time. Loved every minute of it. 7 lakes route gets crowded with tourists (well, by Patagonia standards) but we stayed Villa Traful and it was fantastic. Pampa Linda was a great short base for a hike up to the Refugio Otto Meiling for a night - well worth the effort. And the dramatic change in scenery as one heads up from the desert rivers of the east to the rain forests near the passes was nothing short of spectacular. Camping is certainly an option but we decided on local accomodations and planned accordingly (sometimes by the seat of our pants, but it always worked out). Heading south of the Pampa Linda area really separated ourselves from the crowds though we skipped the 'hippy' town to the south whose name a can't remember.

The other trip was land in Santiago, rent a car, drive to Valparaiso and points north, and then fly to Puenta Arenas and make our way to Torres del Paine. I could have spent a week or two at Torres. We didn't do the full circuit - basically just doing the W, but staying at the Torres hotel or whatever the no-super-fancy hotel was, was amazing. If you're in to horseback riding ,the ride west and around from the Hotel Torres was incredible and perfect for horseback riding (don't take the horses to the French Glacier area - it's just too rocky and so the horses are slow on such difficult landscapes).

To answer your specific questions, the distances are soooo big I'd probably choose either the Chilean side or the Argentinian side for the trip. If I were to return I'd probably fly to Santiago and then to Puerto Montt. It's wetter, more ferries, smaller villages and rich farmland until you get way south and the winds start going bananas (and then wind really really really goes bananas sometimes).

But you're looking for more BA, had west and then head north. Beyond San Martin de los Andes I'm unfamiliar with the traveling farther north than that - I kind of don't consider that Patagonia. Most of Patagonia is flat steppe land working it's cattle ranching estancias to the east - a fairly desolate landscape.

The tourist trail follows the Puenta Arenas, Puerto Natales, Torres, Calafate route so if you're looking for traveling friends, that's the easiest way to meet folks. Basically these folks were backpacking types- not sure if they had tents, bags, etc. but from the size of their packs it sure looked liked it.

In hindsight I'd probably try to make the trek to Ushuaia, but it is a popular cruise destiination (such as popular cruise destinations are that far south).

Feel free to ask any questions you might have.
posted by mrzz at 9:57 AM on August 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

An enthusiastic Yes! to Bruce Chatin's book. Be sure to read Sandra Allen's essay, "In Patagonia" (The Paris Review, May 14, 2013):
While I was traveling in South America, a friend, a writer, heard I was heading down to Patagonia. At the end of an e-mail he broke into all caps: “DRINK LOTS OF WINE FUCK SHIT UP RIDE A HORSE AND READ SOME BRUCE CHATWIN.” Fortunately, my boyfriend and I had been drinking wine and fucking shit up plenty in Argentina already. While I like horses in theory, I haven’t had the desire to get on one since I saw National Velvet as a child. His last command, though, made me curse myself—I’d meant to buy a copy of the Chatwin before leaving the states. I figured it was now unlikely I’d find a copy in English. The next afternoon, we entered a Palermo Viejo bookstore. High on a shelf in the brief English-language section, I excitedly located a shrink-wrapped copy of the Penguin Classics edition of In Patagonia.
posted by standardasparagus at 6:06 PM on August 26, 2018

My experience of Patagonia (in May of 2005) was all in Chile: Punta Arenas (nice town with an amazing cemetery), 3 wonderful days of day-hikes in Torres del Paine, the Navimag boat to Puerto Montt (not unpleasant, but not worth the money), and a too-brief visit to fascinating Chiloé. The people at the erratic rock hostel in Puerto Natales were extremely helpful in arranging transport to Torres del Paine and also rented me hiking boots and winter gloves. Their guided tours of the classic multi-day routes look outside your budget but you might also find them useful for equipment hire and background information.

For later in your trip, if you get to the far north of Chile, I heartily recommend Iquique (and a day-trip to the ruins of Humberstone).
posted by kelper at 11:21 AM on August 27, 2018

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