Patagonia: Know Before You Go
I spent an amazing two weeks in Chilean and Argentine Patagonia at the beginning of this year. I set off with a vague idea of what this far-away region of the world would be like, and while I wasn’t dramatically far off, there are a few things I’d have liked to know ahead of time. Here they are!
I don’t know why I expected Patagonia to be affordable (because it’s in South America? Because it’s really far away from everything else?), but to put it simply—it’s not. Food, transportation, park entry fees, tours, and accommodations are all pricey, sometimes astronomically so.
A few examples: the entry fee to Torres del Paine National Park, on the Chilean side, is 21,000 Chilean pesos, or about $34. A round-trip bus ticket from Puerto Natales, the closest town to the park, is $25. On the Argentine side, the entry fee to Los Glaciares National Park was $28, and the one-hour bus ride from El Calafate cost $32 round-trip.
As far as accommodations and food: in El Calafate we stayed at Amigo del Mundo Hosteria in a private room with 2 beds, for around $95/night. The room was clean but very basic, the rate included a simple breakfast of bread, hard-boiled eggs, and orange slices, and the hotel was located about a 20-minute walk from town (up a hill at the end!). The lounge had fast wifi and a nice view, and the staff was really friendly.
There are some really nice restaurants in El Calafate, and not a ton of cheap food options. It’s worth splurging at least once on a dinner of lamb, provoleta, and red wine. This will run you around $25/person. Even at the lower-end restaurants, you won’t get a filling meal for less than $15/person.
In El Chalten we stayed at Rancho Grande Hostel in a 4-person room with bunk beds, and the cost was $24 per person per night. This was the first time I had stayed in a hostel since college, and while it wasn’t terrible, I can’t say I loved it either.
Restaurants in El Chalten are similar to those in El Calafate, though there are a few more backpacker options that are more affordable. Still, plan on spending a bare minimum of $10/meal.
Patagonia is literally at the end of the earth. It takes a lot of time and a lot of money to get there. For these reasons I was under the impression there wouldn’t be that many people there. I pictured pristine, unspoiled landscapes where I’d do 10-mile hikes and only encounter a couple other humans.
The landscapes part was accurate, but other than that, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Maybe it was because I went right in the middle of high season (early January), or the fact that I mostly stuck to the popular destinations rather than going off the beaten path (it’s Patagonia! Isn’t it ALL off the beaten path?!), but boy was the end of the earth packed with tourists. Busloads of them, everywhere, all the time.
I didn’t do the W trek in Torres del Paine, but heard from other travelers I met that each rest stop was dramatically overcrowded, with way too many people trying to use the sparse bathroom facilities, and not enough space for all the tents at the campgrounds.
El Calafate, the gateway to Los Glaciares National Park, is clean and charming, but filled with restaurants, shops, and other businesses catering to tourists. It’s also the place where you’ll find more elderly tourists and families, as it’s the most easily accessible since it has an airport and frequent bus service.
The only places where I got a little bit of the feeling I’d been expecting were Puerto Natales, Chile, and El Chalten, Argentina. These spots were more rustic, with just a couple paved roads and amazing mountain views right from town.
It Has Crazy Weather
Something I’d forgotten about being at the tip of the planet is that you’re at a very different angle to the sun than when you’re closer to the equator. In the farthest-south destination we hit—Puerto Natales, Chile—it didn’t get dark until around 1am, and it started getting light again at 4am. While this was confusing, it was actually kind of a huge bonus, because we never found ourselves wandering around lost in a new town in pitch darkness; even when we took the last bus of the day from one place to another, it was still light out upon arrival.
The temperature and precipitation can change on a dime, and it’s a good idea to check the most reliable forecast you can find before planning out what to do on which day. I had a friend who was planning to do a serious climb at Fitz Roy, and he had paid for access to a special forecast (the details of which I unfortunately don’t remember!). He advised us which day to do the Laguna de los Tres hike, and it turned out to be the only clear day that week.
Also, wind. Lots of it. Almost constantly, and enough to knock you off your feet at times.
It’s Worth It
The (very snooty and privileged-sounding) downside of traveling a lot is that you can get a bit world-weary; the more you’ve seen, the more it takes to really blow your mind. There aren’t a ton of sights out there that have left me truly awestruck, but Patagonia did it over and over. For me the best example was Perito Moreno glacier: its immensity, its cartoon-like pastel blue color, its setting among snow-capped black mountain peaks and crystalline blue lakes… my mind was blown, and I’m certain I’ll never see anything like it again.