Updated: Jan 7, 2020
Two intense weeks of traveling, hiking and photographing the raw beauty of one of the most incredible places on Earth.
When I first saw the image of the road to El Chalten and the Andes I thought: "this place is one of the most amazing I have ever seen!". But it was one of those places that you only see on Google and is impossible to reach.
Turns out that few years later I am standing on this road with Ion, facing the amazing Andes and taking the same picture.
Patagonia is just and incredible land and if you are into nature, mountains, outdoors and non-touristy places, it should definitely be on your bucket list!
The region is huge and you will need a lot of time to explore it. Traveling from one place to another might take days and some areas cannot even be reached by air. Therefore, 15 days would be the absolute minimum amount of time in order to see the most important bits. And this is without taking into consideration the traveling and the transfers.
Our trip duration was 21 days but we spent about 4 days in total in Buenos Aires and the rest was just flights and transfers. Tips and tricks about Buenos Aires are posted in the next article.
Although we managed to do most of the things that we wanted, we have to say that there are so many more places to explore over there. From road trips, a lot of trekking trails and incredible photography opportunities to observing fauna and seeing glaciers, Patagonia has so much to offer!
We started our journey in Ushuaia and then traveled up to El Calafate for about 2 weeks.
Our trip took us from Argentina to Chile and then back to Argentina while ticking what we thought it was the most important: Ushuaia ( with Tierra del Fuego National Park, Beagle Channel and a visit to the penguins ), a stop in Punta Arenas, Puerto Natales ( with Torres del Paine National park), El Chalten ( for trekking ) and then El Calafate ( for Perito Moreno glacier ).
Of course, there are many other places that are worth visiting but Patagonia is an immense land and is absolutely impossible to tick everything, unless you have few month to spend here.
Patagonia is a sparsely populated region located at the southern end of South America, shared by Argentina and Chile. The region comprises the southern section of the Andes mountains as well as the desserts, pampas and grasslands east of this southern portion of the Andes. Patagonia has two coasts: western facing the Pacific Ocean and eastern facing the Atlantic Ocean.
The name Patagonia comes from the word "patagon" which was used by Magellan in1520 to describe the native tribes of the region, whom his expedition thought to be giants. It is now believed that the people he called the Patagons were Tehuelches, who tended to be taller than Europeans of the time.
Traveling within Patagonia is mostly a zig-zag travel in between Argentina and Chile and then choosing where to spend more time. The Andes mountains are pretty much the border in between the two.
There are several national parks over there but two of them are the most popular in terms of hiking. Also, most of the images you`ll see from Patagonia are probably taken in one of these two.
They are: Torres del Paine Nationale Park in Chile and Los Glaciares National Park ( where is Fitz Roy peak ) in Argentina. Both of them are amazing but most of the times you`ll have to choose in between them.
Another important places are the city of Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel in Tierra del Fuego National Park ( Argentina ),Punta Arenas ( Chile ), Puerto Natales ( Chile ), El Calafate ( next to Perito Moreno Glacier ) and Bariloche.
When to go
The official peak time to visit Patagonia is during the summer months, December to February, which is the warmest time of the year. However, during the summer months the winds are at their peak as well and the weather is changing all the time, so this season has its drawbacks as well.
Depending on what would you like to do, each season has its advantages. Spring and mostly autumn are a bit cooler but still acceptable and the winds tend to be more mild. So, you should not exclude these either. Also, autumn is probably one of the best times for photographers.
Although winter is in theory the coolest time of the year and some of the most popular hiking trails are inaccessible during winter, the visibility is much better and there is almost no wind, so it might be one of the best times to enjoy the amazing scenery.
We went there for almost 3 weeks in December and it was fine, although windy and the visibility was varying from day to day.
The cheapest and easiest way to go to Patagonia is via Buenos Aires or Santiago de Chile and then to take several domestic flights to travel in between.
We used Aerolineas Argentinas to go to Ushuaia and then from El Calafate back to Buenos Aires and the service and the connections were pretty good.
Most of the people don`t need a visa to go to Argentina or Chile, but you should check that prior to make your booking.
Getting around both Argentina and Chile is fairly simple,the bus being the main way of transportation for short distances.
The bus service in both of the countries is really good and civilized and the prices are pretty decent. ( it costs about 50 USD per person from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas and about 20 USD from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales ).
We flew to Ushuaia, then took buses to Puerto Natales ( via Punta Arenas ), to El Calafate and El Chalten. We flew back to Buenos Aires from El Calafate.
There are 3 main bus companies that we know of: Bus Sur, Buses Fernandez, Buses Pacheco and Tolkar Turismo. They are all ok, only the schedule varies a bit.
On all occasions we booked the bus tickets a day before in the bus stations.
We made a lot of research in order to optimize as much as possible our time /distance experience. We wanted to to a bit of everything and we needed to choose in between some things. We wanted to see Ushuaia and the surroundings, the penguins, we wanted to do a bit of trekking, to do some sightseeing, maybe some horse riding, going to a Estancia etc. There were so many things on the list. Then came the questions such as " where is better to hike? " or " which one is better, Argentina or Chile? ".
In the end we came up with this itinerary:
- flying to Ushuaia - 3 nights there ( Ushuaia sightseeing, biking around and penguins tour with Isla Martillo and Beagle Channel )
- bus to Puerto Natales via Punta Arenas - 1 night in Punta Arenas and some city sight seeing ( travel time was 12 hrs to Punta Arenas then another 3 hrs to Puerto Natales )
- 2 days and 3 nights in Puerto Natales ( Torres del Paine National Park day tour and visiting an Estancia )
- bus to El Chalten via El Calafate ( 1 day travel )
- 6 nights in El Chalten for trekking
- bus back to El Calafate - 2 nights in El Calafate ( Perito Moreno glacier visit )
- flight back to Buenos Aires
The reality doesn`t always match the planning so there were few changes over there but nothing really to regret. ☺
The main thing that we would do differently would be perhaps to have more time and hike a bit in Torres del Paine.
We booked all our accommodation via Booking.com and it was quite all right. The standards are pretty good in both Argentina and Chile but don`t expect any luxury. However, we found Chile a bit better than Argentina for the same price.
We stayed mainly in guest houses, hostels and small hotels.
The only thing that we didn`t like was the breakfast ( mostly in Argentina ) which was quite poor everywhere and rather unhealthy. It just has a lot of pastry and break and that`s pretty much all. In Chile it seemed to be richer and healthier.
The average price per night for us was about 70 USD but sometimes we needed to buy a second breakfast somewhere else and this was rather expensive. As all other food in Patagonia.
Our accommodation was: Hostal Arroyito, which is also the oldest, in Ushuaia ( which was ok and clean but the breakfast was rather poor ), Hostal Aventura Austral in Punta Arenas ( which had nice breakfast but a worse room ), Hostal Amerindia Patagonia in Puerto Natales ( which was our favorite - nice breakfast, nice room, very nice staff and cozy cafe/ restaurant inside - hippie style ),
Hotel El Alamo and then Hotel Kalenshen in El Chalten ( the second one being much better ) and Hotel Glaciares de la Patagonia in El Calafate ( which was nice but also not great breakfast ).
To solve the breakfast problem we applied our African solution whenever we could: guacamole! ☺
Outdoors and hiking are probably the main reason one wants to come to Patagonia!
Initially we wanted to trek in both countries but after a lot of research we ended up trekking only in Argentina. BUT, if you have the required time and money, go trekking in both!
There are two important national parks that are popular for treking: one in Argentina and the other one in Chile so it`s better to know a bit about each one as they feature different hikes.
Torres del Paine ( Chile ) is the home of the famous three towers and features mostly consecutive days hiking trips and you will need either a tent and the respective gear, or to just pay for a bed in the hostels/cottages of the park but this can be expensive.
There is the famous W Trek but this needs at least 5 days.
There is another trek, the last bit of the W actually, for which you`ll need 2 days and one night. This one brings you Mirador Base Las Torres, but you would require a rental car to bring you to the starting point as the bus schedule is doesn`t help too much. For this one you need to go to Laguna Amarga then go to Refugio Torres Central where you can overnight. The actual trek is from Refugion Torres Central to Mirador Base Las Torres and it takes around 7-8 hrs.
Accommodation options for this trek: Refugio Torre Central / Torre Norte / Camp central
( expensive ) or just camping.
Unfortunately,we didn`t have enough time to do any trekking here but we did a day tour. It was supposed to be a guided tour but we were basically left behind due to some misunderstanding and we ended up renting a car and doing the tour on our own. Which was MUCH better as we could stop and take photos WHENEVER we wanted!
Our road trip took us from Puerto Natales to Cueva del Milodon ( which is not amazing, really ) via Y290 road. The we followed the same road along Lago Torre and took left ( Y150 road ) towards Lago Grey.
Next to Lago grey there is a mirador - Mirador Lago Grey - where you could observe Grey Glacier, but this will take approximately 1,5 -2 hrs walk.
There is an expensive restaurant with a view as well.
Then we returned to the main road and took left to go around the park ( still Y150 road ). We went along Lake Pehoe, next to Salto Grande waterfall, next to Mirador Los Cuernos and then towards the exit of the park. In the last bit before the exit we encountered a lot of guanacos and managed to get pretty close to photograph them.
The whole park looks like a land on its own. There is a number of stunning turquoise lakes and a lot of guanacos that roam freely. Our impression was that the park is quite unique even in Patagonia, not to mention the world.
There are are a lot of indicators and it is quite impossible to get lost. The road is, however, mostly dust road and you`ll need to drive quite slowly. You would need ideally 12- 15 hrs to do this tour on your own but summer is a perfect time as it gets dark late.
Los Glaciares National Park ( Argentina ) is just next to El Chalten, the trekking capital of Argentina. It is home to another two famous peaks: Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre.
Trekking from El Chalten is more simple in the way that you can find accommodation in the village and then do several day hikes in the national park. If you don`t want to bring your own gear or rent one, probably this is the easier way.
There is a number of treks available from El Chalten and most of them go around the peaks for the best views. The treks don`t go up as much but they are fairly long: 20 -25 km.
There is El Chalten website that features most of the treks and has a lot of useful info.
We did 4 treks over there and then we had a recovery day in which we repeated some parts of the previous treks as the views were obscured by the clouds during the first days.
Our treks were: Laguna Torre ( Cerro Torre view ), Laguna Capri, Laguna de los tres ( which includes Laguna Capri ) and Loma del pliegue tumbado.
Additionally, about 5 km out of El Chalten, there is the famous view of the road going straight into Fitz Roy which is definitely worth seeing.
Our favorite treks were Loma del pliegue tumbado and Laguna de los tres, which were the longest ones as well.
Our treks were 1 day each but Laguna Capri can be done either together with Laguna de los tres or separately in half a day.
We went to Mirador Torre twice because the first time we couldn`t see anything due to the clouds and then went twice on the main road to El Chalten in the hope to take the picture which is featured for this article. Yeah, we`re obsessed with photography, we know! ☺
Even during summer months, Patagonia can be very harsh and you can get four seasons in one day. The wind is absolutely crazy most of the time and you should take this into consideration.
Another important thing you should take into consideration when planning your time is visibility. Mostly during summer months the weather is changing a lot and the cloud base can be very low so you end up not seeing anything.
We almost get disappointed in our day tour in Torres del Paine ( but we were lucky in the end ) and our first days in El Chalten were absolutely foggy.
So, our advice is to have some extra days in your pocket for this kind of situations.
What to visit
I mentioned earlier our itinerary. Now we`ll get into some details about each place that we visited and what is there to be done.
Ushuaia is the capital of Tierra del Fuego, Antartida e Islal del Atlantico Sur Province, Argentina. It is commonly regarded as the Southermost city in the world, although there is another small town which is even further South - Port Williams - in Chile. Ushuaia is located in a wide bay on the Southern coast of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego, bounded on the north by the Martial mountain range, and on the south by the Beagle Channel.
Ushuaia is well known for the penguin tours, so, if you`re going there, you should definitely take one of these tours.
After a lot of research, we used Pira Tour and our experience was very nice, very nice staff and good money value. We definitely recommend them.
We booked the Penguin Rookery + Beagle Channel tour via Facebook a month in advance and we paid when we got there, one day before the tour itself. The tour included Beagle Channel navigation, Sea Lions Island, the Birds Islan, Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse and Martillo island ( where is the habitat of Magellanic and Gentoo penguins ). Then we reached Estancia Haberton, one of the oldest in Patagonia and came back by bus while seeing the iconic flag trees.
The day before the tour we just rented two bikes and went all the way up to Martial Glacier for a better view of the Martial mountains and Beagle Channel from above. The mountain bikes were a bit expensive but they were high quality bikes as well and we could feel it while climbing to Martial Glacier. The rental company was Ushuaia Extremo and we definitely recommend it.
Puerto Natales is a port city on the Señoret Channel in Chile’s Southern Patagonia. It’s the gateway to Torres del Paine National Park to the Northwest and the port for boats touring the Patagonian fjords.
As we were saying before, we found Chile to be a bit more friendly than Argentina in terms of services provided. The hostel we stayed at here, in Puerto Natales, was the best accommodation we had in Patagonia and now we feel sorry for spending only 2 nights here.
Apart from Torres del Paine national park, which was mentioned earlier, there are many other things to do around Natales.
First of all an evening walk on the promenade along the waters of Gulf Almte Montt would tick the most iconic view of the town itself.
Another thing that we would have loved to do but unfortunately we couldn`t because of weather was to visit an estancia. Estancia is the Patagonian Spanish term for ranch and is an important thing in the Patagonian culture. There are estancias in both Argentina and Chile but some of them are very expensive.
We found one where we could do a day trip and which is less expensive and has all sorts of activities such as horse riding, trekking or 4x4 safari. We had arranged everything before hand but unfortunately, in the day of the tour the wind was too strong and we couldn`t navigate to the other part of the fjord, where was the estancia located.
However, someone from Natales which was their staff came to our hostel and tried to help us to figure some different schedule for the day, so we ended up just doing horse riding.
BUT, if you go there and you are luckier than us, go visit Estancia La Peninsula. They were super friendly and replied in time to our messages and the experience must be very nice. Just contact them via Facebook ( as we did ) or send them an e-mail. Ideally you should book at least a month in advance as they tend to be fully booked during the summer months.
So, we were saying that we ended up doing horse riding in the surroundings of Puerto Natales for half a day. We enjoyed that as well and the scenery was wild and quite epic.
The place where we did horseback riding is called Pingo Salvaje and we definitely recommend it. The ride itself doesn`t take more than half a day so you could combine this with something else.
El Calafate is a town near the edge of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field in the Argentine province of Santa Cruz. It’s mainly known as the gateway to Los Glaciares National Park, home to the massive Perito Moreno Glacier, whose ever-shifting icy landscape is popular for hiking and sightseeing.
We first used El Calafate as a gate to go to El Chalten, then we returned for visiting the famous Perito Moreno glacier.
El Calafate is also a popular point to fly to and from Patagonia.
Although there are a lot of day trips to the glacier, you can just book a bus from the main bus station in El Calafate. It is better to do it slighlty in advance as during peak times they tend to run out of tickets. You can book the ticket online as well, as far as we are aware.
The Perito Moreno Glacier is a glacier located in the Los Glaciares National Park in southwest Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. It is one of the most important tourist attractions in the Argentinian Patagonia. The 250 sq km ice formation, and 30 km in length, is one of 48 glaciers fed by the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, located in the Andes system shared with Chile. This ice field is the world's third largest reserve of fresh water.
What to wear
When you think of Patagonia, think layers.
T-shirt, first layer, polar fleece and wind stopper are the absolute minimum. On top of that you need to add wind stopper pants and thinner pants or leggings, rain wear and medium thick gloves.
Depending on the season you should consider adding a jacket, but during summer months the layers mentioned above are enough.
Rain proof ( goretex ) boots are a must, as well.
Another thing that is SUPER important: sun glasses! The combination of bright summer sun that reflects into the snow can cause cornea burn or photo keratitis! The more sensitive eyes are the dark colored eyes.
I had no idea such thing exists until we climbed on the snow to Loma del Pliegue Tumbado in bright sun and the next night I just woke up in the middle of the night with my eyes burning as hell and being soaked in tears. The following day I was extremely photo sensitive and I couldn`t see not even a ray of light.
The whole thing lasts for about 24 to 48 hrs and you cannot do anything but wait. Mine cured in less than 24 hrs.
What to expect overall
Expect to travel long distances, which can take days sometimes.
Expect very expensive quality food. You can always eat empanadas ( which you should try anyway ) and other pastries but this won`t provide you the vitamins you need. An average budget for 2 meals a day plus snacks would probably be 40 - 50 USD per person. Unless you eat empanadas. ☺
Expect harsh weather, low temperatures ( 7 -15 °C ), strong winds, low visibility, low clouds, rain. But when all these pass, expect the most unbelievable landscapes ever!
In Argentina the heating gas is very cheap, so expect proper heating mostly everywhere.
Expect average accommodation and quality bus transport.
Expect high prices for trips, transport, park fees, accommodation in national parks etc. Most of South America is fairly cheap but Argentina is not. So be prepared for that.
Expect to stop everywhere to take pictures!
Next, we would like to inspire you with our photo gallery.
Our gear: Samsung NX-1 with16 -55s mm lens ( video mostly ) and Olympus OM- D M5 with 12 mm, 25 mm and 75 mm prime lenses.
Hope you found this article useful!