Part 1-Getting to Patagonia
Visiting Patagonia has always been a dream for Abe and I. At home we would watch documentaries, as I am sure most you have and just sit in awe at this wonderland. Patagonia region is located at the southern end of South America reaching across Chile and Argentina. It consists of plains, mountains, lakes and glaciers and are frequented by wild animals, inhabitants and weather that can cycle through all 4 seasons in a day. It has some of the best hiking in the world, for all levels. We set aside 16 nights to explore this magnificent piece of nature, which only gave us a taste and left us wanting more. Argentina Patagonia is truly out of this world spectacular, breathtaking, unique… and the list goes on and on. We couldn’t recommend this more for your must do list!
After leaving Santiago, Chile on a 10pm bus (Cruz del Sur Chile, not as luxurious as the Peruvian one, but still comfy and with wifi) on January 2nd, 2013, we arrived at 11am the next morning in Puerto Montt, the capital of the Chilean Lakes Region. It was a treat to wake up to such lush green scenery.
Now planning our 2 weeks in Patagonia was by far the most difficult and most stressful of the entire 16 month trip. Certain areas of Patagonia are more expensive than others (namely the Chilean side), so figuring out where you get the most bang for you buck, was also an important aspect. There is very limited information online or in books on when buses run, which are sometimes once a day and other times bi-weekly. And everything online says that you must book in advance during the summer months. How do you book something if you don’t know if you will be able to get there in time? Hope for the best or pay a premium for a driver as a Brazilian couple we met had to do. My first instinct was to take Lonely Planet’s recommended route, but after calculating the amount of time we would spend on buses (8-14 hours per day every other day) we decided to limit what we saw to only a few places and fly down to the bottom of Chile. Knowing what we know now, we would have spent most of our 2 weeks on the Argentinian side, but I’ll get to that later.
Below is the route we took, our now wise recommendations on what to do and how we would have done it differently.
Our flight from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas, the capital of Chile’s most southern region, Magallanes and Antartica Chilena didn’t leave until the following afternoon at 4pm, so we explored this capital city over two days. There’s not much to do here, so most of our time was spent sitting down at the waterfront or relaxing at Hostel y Residencial Benavente. We searched around for good restaurants, but never found one. So as always we just settled for mediocre pizza. There was a great spot for scrambled eggs and ham a few blocks up a side street from the visitor center, which is difficult to find in South America. Our hostel was decent, spacious rooms, fast internet, and centrally located. And one of the best parts about staying in hostels is that you can leave your luggage behind and pick it up weeks later free of charge. We left half our bags and Abe’s surfboards behind and rolled our lightened gear down the street to the bus station. The ladies running our hostel told us the only way to the get to the airport is by a $20 (10,000 clp) taxi (its only a 10-15 minute drive) or an early bus. After doing our own research we discovered that the buses run according to all the flights throughout the day. It costs $3 each for a luxury airport transporter that leaves from the central bus station. People in South America constantly try to rip you off, so you should always do a bit of your own research once you get there.
On our short two hour flight, we sat next to a young girl flying back home alone. She thought Punta Arenas was the most beautiful of all the towns around, so we had high hopes. Just like every other airport, getting out of there with most of your money is an obstacle. In Punta Arenas there’s a shuttle bus that picks up directly in front of the terminal and drops you off at your hostel/hotel. We jumped in the with a bunch of other people and eventually made it to Hospedaje Costanera. This hostel was full of travelers, but was an odd layout of two houses pushed together. PA felt like a large spread out ghost town and we couldn’t get out of there fast enough. We did enjoy a few hours sitting by the freezing ocean…you always have to make the best of it, right? I had hoped to take a bus to the Pinguinera Otway the next morning. But the only option was to rent a car or take an afternoon tour. Both tours for the Pinguinera Otway and the ferry to Isla Magdalena leave at 4pm and get back at 9pm and will cost $50 (25,000 clp)/person. Isla Magdalena is supposed to be way more impressive, so do that one if you find yourself in Punta Arenas. (FYI: The tour for the Pinguinera Otway is $30 (15,000 clp), but you also have to pay the $18 (9,000 clp) park entrance fee.) We missed our opportunity since we got in late and needed to be in Puerto Natales the following night. If you have to fly into Punta Arenas, there is a bus straight from the airport to Puerto Natales, so you can bypass this town all together. Once in the town, we checked out the different bus companies and bought tickets for the following afternoon to Puerto Natales. When we returned to the hostel after dinner a very distraught Brazilian couple were pacing around the living room. They had tried to buy bus tickets for the next morning in order to get to their Torres del Paine ‘W’ tour by 1pm the next day. But all were sold out. They had no choice but to pay the hostel owners’ husband $200 (100,000 clp) to drive them there. Ouch!
One of the greatest parts about visiting Patagonia in summer is that it doesn’t get dark until 11pm, so even if you get somewhere in the evening you still have plenty of light and everything stays open late! Puerto Natales is a small bustling tourist town. All the top outdoor equipment outfitters line the streets. The one bus ticket you can book ahead of time online is the one from Puerto Natales, Chile to El Calafate, Argentina and return, through the company Zaahj. And boy we’re we glad we did! When we arrived to pick up our tickets for the next day, a gentleman was in there trying to buy one. Zaahj and the other bus companies were sold out for the next 3 days. When you’re on a limited time schedule everyday counts!
The bus schedule for Zaahj from Puerto Natales to El Calafate is Tues, Thur, Sat and Sun at 7am, arriving around 1pm. On Mon, Wed, & Fri it leaves at 8am, arriving around 2pm. The schedule from El Calafate to Puerto Natales is Tues, Thur, Sat at 8am and Mon and Fri at 4:30pm. They help you go through the two border crossings (departing Chile and then stop again to get stamped into Argentina 15 minutes up the road). You only have to go through customs, when you are coming from Argentina into Chile. It costs $35 (17,500 clp) per person each way.
Since we would be heading back to Puerto Natales the following Saturday, we would have to depart from El Calafate. In my endless research, I discovered its not possible to get back from El Chalten before the 8am bus, so going straight to El Chalten, once in El Calafate would be the only option. The only kicker is, you can’t buy a ticket ahead of time, well you can from Zaahj, but it will cost you almost double since they add a bit of overhead. Online it says the only buses from El Calafate to El Chalten are at 8am, 2pm, and 6pm and from El Chalten to El Calafate at 7:30am and 6pm. I had my fingers crossed the whole trip over whether we would make it in time for the 2pm bus. By the time we got there, that bus was of course full and our next option wasn’t until 6:30pm, arriving at 9:30pm. The ticket cost 145 Argentinean pesos (then $35, now its around $28 as the Argentinian peso fluctuates a lot…$18 if you get your pesos on the Blue Market in Buenos Aires!)/person. There are 3 bus companies that actually depart at different times all generally around what I mentioned above, so you should be able to get a ticket that same day, it just might be later at night. It wasn’t a big deal though as we were able to leave our bags with the bus company, Chalten Travel and explore El Calafate. Plus, we bought our return ticket back for 1:30pm…so there are also midday buses that run from El Chalten to El Calafate. There’s one main street in El Calafate, with a few off chute side streets. Lots of outdoor café’s (touristy and expensive, but good quality!) There is a big grocery store down the steps and to the right from the bus station. Make sure you get all your groceries and booze in El Calafate for El Chalten as there are only a couple tiny stores that have minimal goods and wilted vegetables. No need to pack in water…. The streams there are the freshest water you can get!
Watch the related Getting to Patagonia video
El Chalten, Fitz Roy Range here we come!!!
Also, if you’re planning a trip to Patagonia, click over and explore our Patagonia Section for hints and tips.