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Patagonia Travel: Your Trip Planning Guide

SmarterTravel

You must be wild to travel to Patagonia. We’re not talking about what you choose to do in the late-night hours but about your desire to embrace some of the rawest landscapes and most unpredictable weather on the planet.

Spanning southern Argentina and Chile, Patagonia is wind-carved, windswept and wind-whipped. Have we mentioned the wind? Because you’ll definitely feel it while you’re there. It’s probably the most prominent aspect of the region — and fundamental to carving a landscape that in some spots looks more like a famous sculptor’s oeuvre than a destination. At times, it’s hard to believe the vistas of jagged glaciers, snow-capped peaks and aquamarine fjords are real.

Unless you book an organized tour — which isn’t a bad idea even for the independent traveler in this logistically challenging nook of the world — Patagonia travel takes careful planning. Because the region has such a short tourist season, and because the local economy is driven by tourism, Patagonia trips tend to be expensive, even for budget travelers sticking to hostels and eating on the cheap.

When to Visit Patagonia

Thanks to weather conditions most of us would consider extreme, Patagonia has a short visitor season. Most hotels are open from mid-September through April, with most travelers visiting between mid-October and mid-March.

That’s the Patagonian summer, but recalibrate your definition of summer. Highs here rarely go above 70 degrees Fahrenheit (or 21 degrees Celsius), and the rip-roaring wind can make it feel downright frigid. It’s common to wear a ski beanie and gloves in the morning, be in short sleeves at lunchtime and find yourself shivering in full raingear by late afternoon. The only predictable thing about the weather in Patagonia is its unpredictability, so gear up.

How to Get to Patagonia

You’ll want to book flights to Patagonia at least six months in advance. Flights fill quickly during peak season, which could leave you with limited options and high costs.

If you’re starting with Argentine Patagonia, you’ll likely fly from Buenos Aires to the gateway cities of El Calafate or Ushuaia on LATAM Airlines or Aerolineas Argentinas. If you start in Chile, you’ll fly from Santiago to Punta Arenas or Puerto Natales, aboard LATAM or Sky Airline.

Getting Around Patagonia

Renting a car: Independent travelers will be happiest with their own cars; roads are easy to navigate and in good condition, save for the occasional nature-made pothole. Not all roads are paved, however, and depending how far off the main routes you’re planning to go, you should err on the side of caution and rent a vehicle with four-wheel drive.

You should also be prepared with a spare tire, fuel container and emergency supplies. If your car breaks down, you might not be able to get assistance the same day. And bring paper maps — cell phone service is limited, and GPS signals can come and go.

When deciding whether to rent a car, one of the biggest considerations, budget-wise, is whether you’ll pick up and drop off the vehicle at the same location. Some travelers report fees of as much as $500 for dropping off the car in a different city.

Renting a motorcycle: A motorcycle journey along Patagonia’s Route 40 often shows up on the life lists of those who ride. You can rent a bike on your own or join a group tour. Patagonia Backroads, which operates out of Punta Arenas, Chile, offers group tour itineraries and custom-designed trips. (See PatagoniaBackroads.com.) Ride Adventure rents motorcycles in Patagonia for self-guided trips, and also offers some guided options. (See RideAdv.com.)

Buses: If you decide to rely on public transportation, buses are your option. A number of reputable companies have daily service for the five- to seven-hour route from El Calafate, Argentina, to Puerto Natales, Chile, and destinations in between. Companies serving Patagonia include Andesmar and Bus Sur.

A limited number of local buses are also available to take you to national parks and other key sights from the nearest city. For example, several bus companies run daily service from El Calafate to the entrance of Perrito Moreno Glacier; however, a fixed-rate taxi might end up being cheaper, depending on the number of people going.

Group tours: Because of the logistical challenges of widespread Patagonia, it’s not a bad idea to consider a group tour. Most tours are hiking oriented, so base your decision on how active you want to be. Road Scholar offers several small-group trips featuring hiking, horseback riding and bike riding, among other activities. Natural Habitat Adventures offers tours with a choice of hikes, including some challenging options, as well as sightseeing opportunities emphasizing flora and fauna. Backroads’ annual trip includes wine tasting and horseback riding, in addition to hiking and walking.

For more information, see Getting Around Argentina: Transportation Tips and Getting Around Chile: Transportation Tips.

Where to Go in Patagonia

The top attractions in Patagonia are Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina’s Santa Cruz Province and Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park. The two parks draw hundreds of thousands of people a year, though they never feel as crowded as, say the Grand Canyon during the peak of summer. The primary activities are hiking and mountain climbing in the shadows of Mount Fitz Roy and the Perito Moreno and Upsala glaciers.

The area surrounding the city of Bariloche, Argentina, meanwhile, attracts kayakers, skiers, snowboarders and fly fishing fans.

The southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia, in the Argentinean province of Tierra del Fuego, draws animal aficionados to go on whale-watching trips and outings to see colonies of seabirds and penguins by the thousands (sometimes tens of thousands). The Valdes Peninsula in Chile is known for the same.

Where to Stay in Patagonia

The reason that towns like El Calafate and El Chalten developed was to provide lodging, meals, gear and souvenirs for travelers. As a result, they have become hubs for the tourism industry in Patagonia and are the main places to stay.

While some boutique-style hotels have opened in the region in recent years, the most common lodging option is the backpacker hostel. This is usually a small, locally run, friendly establishment with basic amenities — private or shared rooms, ensuite or shared bathrooms, hot meals and plenty of bags of ice to nurse sore muscles after hiking and climbing.

Ecolodges, inns and rooms at estancias (farmsteads) are also available. Plan to book far in advance, as there is limited inventory.

If you plan to camp, make sure you bring or rent equipment that can withstand the elements. Camping shelters are available in some places and can make the difference between a comfortable rest and a sleepless night if you experience strong wind.

For information, see Where to Stay in Argentina: Lodging Tips and Where to Stay in Chile: Lodging Tips.

Patagonia Packing Essentials

Layers, layers, layers. Your packing checklist should include everything from breathable T-shirts and wickaway shorts to head-to-toe raingear and warm jackets. Hiking boots are necessary, even for the casual walker. Walking sticks can be hard to come by in Patagonia, so be sure to bring your own if you use one.

Sunglasses, a sun hat and sunscreen are also a must — the ozone layer above Patagonia is compromised, so even on a rainy or cloudy day you could suffer sun damage. See our How to Pack for an Active Outdoor Vacation for ideas.

Patagonia Food and Drink

The specialty of the region is cordero, which is spit-roasted lamb. Locals claim the lamb tastes better here than anywhere else in the world because of the types of grasses and herbs on which Patagonian lambs graze.

In the morning, locals start their day with a bitter, caffeinated tea called mate (pronounced “MA-tay”). It provides a nice strong jolt that seems apropos for such a rugged place.

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