Traveling to Patagonia is many a dream, including mine. To be fair, it is such a spectacular place that even after having been there 3 times already, I hardly feel like my dream came true and I feel compelled to visit and again. This easily qualifies as one of my favorite places on earth.
Patagonia is huge, very diverse and simply breathtaking. But traveling around Patagonia is easier said than done: the weather is unpredictable; the infrastructure often lacking, and the prices higher than a backpacker would hope for.
Sure enough, before you plan to visit Patagonia you should do a bit of research so that you know what to expect. So, I have decided to put together a post that sums up a few facts and things you should know before you go there.
30 Important Things To Know Before Traveling To Patagonia
Patagonia is huge
Saying that you are traveling to Patagonia hardly gives a clear indication of where you are going. Patagonia is huge! First of all, it spans across two countries – Argentina and Chile. Only in Argentina, it comprises a whopping 5 provinces: Chubut, Neuquén, Río Negro, Tierra del Fuego and Santa Cruz. I recommend visiting both countries, if you have the time (Patagonia calls for slow travel, actually) and your budget allows it. A good idea may be flying into Buenos Aires and out of Santiago de Chile, and then moving around by bus to cover the shorter distances and by plane for the longest ones.
It calls for slow travel
The best way to fully enjoy Patagonia is by taking your time to explore it, to take in all the amazing views and landscapes it has to offer. Try to be as spontaneous as possible, letting your travel plans unfold little by little, so that you can make the most of the good weather – should you be so lucky to have a few days of sun in a row. And make sure to give yourself plenty of time to move from one place to the other: with such huge distances bus rides take a lot of time and easily warn you out. Just to give you an example, the ride from El Chalten to Bariloche takes a whopping 24 hours!
But if you are short on time, planning is vital
This almost contradicts what I have said before about slow travel, I know. However, if you are short on time but still want to visit Patagonia, careful planning is vital. This means taking a few planes to connect you from one place to the other (which will inevitably increase the price of your trip), or joining a guided tour where you let the experts do the planning job and you just have to plan what goes in your backpack. If you like the idea of sitting down while someone else organizes your Patagonia trip, and want to join a guided group tour, you may want to consider the following tours:
• Patagonia Hiking: this is a fantastic tour, perfect for active travelers who want to be in nature for most of their time. It lasts 9 days with stops at a bunch of the most famous places in Patagonia.
• Argentina Multisport: the perfect tour for very active travelers who like the idea of hiking, biking and even rafting.
• Hike Patagonia In Depth: the name says it all. This tour is for those who want to spenda s much time as possible hiking. You’ll be spending a few nights camping.
• Best of Patagonia: a 13 days tour hitting all the landmarks of Patagonia.
• 6 Day tour of Patagonia: a short but sweet tour if you have limited time to travel to Patagonia.
• Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego: the best tour if you also want to go to Tierra del Fuego and want to visit both the Argentinian and Chilean side of Patagonia.
Especially for certain places
For as much as you may want to be spontaneous and even if you have all the time in the world, there will be some places for which you will have to plan in advance during your Patagonia trip. Torres del Paine National Park is one of the highlights of Chilean Patagonia, but unless you have some accommodation booked (whether camping or staying in lodges) local authorities won’t let you get on trails such as the W-trek or the O-circuit (both multi-day hikes). In the high season, this means booking months in advance and it will often imply planning the rest of your trip around those dates.
Border crossing is easier said than done
One thing to keep in mind when traveling to Patagonia – especially if you want to visit both Chile and Argentina – is that border crossing in South America is not that straightforward. Even if you don’t need a visa, the process can be very slow. You will have to get to one border, line up to get your passport stamped out, move to the other border (which can be as far as 5 km) and get your passport stamped in. Border control is actually quite strict, especially in Chile, and your bags will carefully screened to make sure you are not carrying anything that may hinder the local flora, fauna and agricultural crops. Make sure not to carry things such as fruit or meat or dairy products if you plan to cross the border. I was stuck for a good hour when I crossed to go to Torres del Paine, because a German guy traveling on the same bus forgot he had an apple and a banana in his bag – for which he had to pay a hefty fine.
Patagonia is pristine
One thing you’ll immediately notice upon traveling to Patagonia is how clean it is. Not only the air is clear and crisp; but you won’t see any garbage aroundalong trails and in national parks, despite the fact that there are no garbage bins. Be respectful of the environment and always take a small bag to dispose of your garbage: make sure you contribute to the effort to keep Patagonia clean.
You should be environmentally conscious
Speaking of efforts to keep Patagonia clean, male sure to consider the impact of your actions and try to be an environmentally conscious traveler as much as possible. Always walk on the trails – you’ll often see signs that warn you that certain areas are recuperating. Never light fires in the forest. Fires started by careless hikers have caused incredible damage to Patagonia in the last decade (it was in 2012 that a massive portion of Torres del Paine burned down following a fire lit by a camper). Remember that the strong winds of Patagonia carry the fire far and fast!
The views are incredible throughout
Whether driving along the vast planes of Chubut, the windy roads of Tierra del Fuego, or along the peaks of the province of Santa Cruz, you can rest assured of something: when traveling to Patagonia, you will no shortage of breathtaking views.
The wildlife is unique
One of the biggest treats when traveling to Patagonia is the possibility of admiring the local wildlife. Guanacos – a wild species similar to llamas and alpacas – are found throughout Patagonia, from the vast plains of Chubut to the icy Tierra del Fuego. Depending on the season, you’ll be able to seesouthern right whales, orcas and sea lions in Chubut, as well as in Tierra del Fuego. Various species of penguins live on the shores of Chubut (the best place to see them is Punta Tombo) and in Tierra del Fuego. Other animals that populate this part of the world are pumas (though they are way more difficult to spot), flamingos, foxes and an incredible variety of birds.
The weather is crazy
The best time to visit Patagonia is the summer, between the end of November and the very beginning of April. Even if you may want to visit in the low season, you won’t have much of a choice: most businesses, hotels, restaurants, and tour companies and even bus routes only operate in the summer months. Trails are closed in the winter months, and often covered in snow anyways. You may be able to travel to Patagonia in the shoulder season, ie in October and in April and May, and enjoy it when it is less crowded. But before heading there make sure to double check if trails are accessible and if any hotel or hostel is still open. Provided that you are traveling to Patagonia in the summer, rest assured that you’ll get a good dose of the crazy Patagonian weather. On any given day, you may get sun, wind, rain and at times even snow. Needless to say, I wholeheartedly recommend to be fully equipped for sudden weather changes.
You’ll be hiking most of the time (and should be prepared for it)
Most people who travel to Patagonia go there to hike, and to be fair most of the incredible sites in Patagonia require a bit of an effort to get to admire them. Obviously, bus travel allows you to visit some of the most famous places such as Perito Moreno Glacier or Tierra del Fuego National Park, but for the vast majority, you need to hike.
Needless to say, you should be prepared for all the hiking you’ll be doing. This means being actually fit – don’t attempt to hike to Laguna de Los Tres is the most exercise you’ve done in the last few months was lifting your pint glass. And it also means being properly geared for the hikes.
You should build some rest days in your itinerary
Hiking (and traveling in general) can be exhausting. Make sure to allow yourself a rest day between the longest hikes, to give your legs and feet a break. You can use those rest days to do other useful things such as planning the next steps of your Patagonia trip, looking for bus companies for your onward travel; booking guided tours with local companies; doing laundry (such a hard thing to do if you keep moving from one place to the other!) and – quite simply – relaxing before you head on to the next hike.
Patagonia is actually quite expensive
There is no other way to put it, really. If you are planning to travel to Patagonia, you should be aware of the fact that this is not a cheap place. Although access to the trails is free for the most part (you’ll be paying a fee to access Los Glaciares National Park, where Perito Moreno Glacier is located, and to visit Tierra del Fuego National Park), everything else will add up to the costs. Accommodation, food, transportation and – should you do any – tours in Patagonia are expensive. However, this should not prevent you from traveling to Patagonia. By all means, go. Just plan your trip smartly so that you can save a bit here and there.
You should pick your accommodation wisely
The best way to keep your costs down when traveling to Patagonia is by picking your accommodation wisely. The good news is that Patagonia offers a wide range of options for just about any taste and budget, with refugios(mountain huts); hotels; boutique hotels; chalets; hostels and even camping sites. Hostels, chalets and camping sites are obviously the best options if you have a small budget, especially because you have the possibility of cooking as well. However, keep in mind that Patagonia is becoming an increasingly popular destination and that places fill up quickly. Make sure to book in advance for a chance to get a spot in the cheapest places.
It can be crowded – but never overwhelming
As I have said before, Patagonia is becoming an increasingly popular holiday destination for nature and hiking lovers, and on a regular day you’ll find a lot of people on most trails. Yet, it’s such a vast place that you’ll hardly feel overwhelmed. Besides, most travelers visit Patagonia with only one thing in mind: hiking. This means you’ll likely encounter like minded people with whom to share your experiences and who you can join on the trails.
Internet is hardly a thing
Make sure to warn your family and friends before traveling to Patagonia, and to set an automatic out-of-office reply for your email. Internet is hardly a thing in many places around Patagonia. While in El Calafate you’ll easily get wifi in town, forget about in El Chalten. You may do your best by getting a local sim card; you may try hard to get online at your hostel, or when at a restaurant; and you may even be able to send the odd WhatApp message to your friends and upload a picture or two on social media if you are lucky. But really, by all means don’t schedule work calls or business e-meetings:internet is frustratingly slow in most of Patagonia, and chances are you’ll end up wasting your time trying to communicate while really, you should be out on the trails.
But you’ll still need a power bank
The lack of internet will keep your phone battery going longer than it normally would. The constant use you’ll make of it to take incredible photos will consume it. Make sure to take a good power bank with you, so you can recharge your phone on the go any time your battery is running low. You wouldn’t want to run out of battery when you need to photograph that impressive mountain, right?
You should visit an estancia
Estancias are farms used for cattle raising that can be found all over Argentina. Patagonia has some beautiful ones. Though some have now become actual tourist attractions where animal farming is only a minor part of the income, most of them are still fully working to raise the famous Argentinian beef and Patagonian lamb. A few of the latter ones are open to visitors. Try to find one of them, and make sure to visit. It’s a great way to learn more about the local culture and way of life, and about the hardship of living in Patagonia in the winter.
You do need hiking boots
Hiking boots are a must when traveling to Patagonia. You simply can’t head out on the trails with a pair of running shoes: you need something that gives you excellent ankle support, and that is water proof. If you are getting new boots, make sure to use them a few times before your trip and wear them in, so that they will be more comfortable.
Make sure you also don’t underestimate the importance of good hiking socks: they will keep your feet from rubbing against the shoes and blistering.
In fact, you do need proper hiking gear
Packing smartly is essential when traveling to Patagonia. Leave your fancy clothes at home, and only bring good hiking gear that keeps you warm and at the same time comfortable.
You should bring a water bottle
Water in Patagonia comes from glaciers and it’s absolutely safe to drink. Local authorities put a lot of effort in educating people to avoid practices that may cause contamination of rivers, streams and water sources and for the most part, you can easily refill your bottle at the river and avoid the use of plastic. On occasions, campers and travelers doing things such as washing their clothes or even something as simple as swimming or rinsing their bowls in the river have caused contamination with serious consequences for people drinking the water. By all means, avoid any kind of behavior that may cause contamination of the water: no swimming, washing dishes or clothes in the river!
You should always wear sunglasses
Sunglasses are a basic commodity in Patagonia. They will protect you from the sun, but most importantly repair your eyes from the ever blowing winds and from all the dust that these carry. Make sure to always keep a pair in your bag!
And a hat or a beanie
Make sure to pack a hat and / or a beanie for your Patagonia trip. You should go for something that protects you from the sun so – ideally – covers your forehead, and at the same time keeps your ears and head warm when it gets windy. You may not look stylish, but Patagonia ain’t a cat walk either.
Remember to put on sun block
Never underestimate the importance of sun block when traveling to Patagonia. Make sure to smother it on your face, neck, ears, chest and any other exposed bit. You won’t feel the sun so much, because it never gets too hot, but your skin definitely will and it will thank you if you protect it!
Calafate berries are yummy
El Calafate, the main starting point to visit Perito Moreno Glacier takes its name from a berry that grows in a small bush and that can be found all over Patagonia. You will see these bushes along the trails and can safely eat the berries. Mind you, they are so tiny that there hardly is a chance you’ll fill up on them! But an old saying goes: “Once you taste the calafate berry, you are destined to go back to Patagonia.” I guess I called it upon me…
Actually, all food is good
Speaking of food, you’ll be glad to know that during your Patagonia trip you are likely to have some really good food. Whether you opt for the typical asado (mixed grill) or go for the local trucha (trout), the ever-present milanesa(breaded and fried meat) or the home made pasta or lamb ravioli; you can rest assured that you’ll be having delicious food throughout.
Argentina and Chile are both famous for their wine, but while this will be ever present on any good restaurant menu, Patagonia is not a wine producing region. What abounds locally, however, is beer. In recent year microbreweries have been springing pretty much anywhere, and you’ll be able to reward yourself with a good pint of craft beer after any hike. El Chalten has a lot of small breweries (which is surprising for such a small village). In Ushuaia, head to The Birra and opt for a good pint of Beagle.
Patagonia is safe
Argentina and Chile are the safest countries in South America, and Patagonia is by far the safest region. You can travel to Patagonia safely, even by yourself. Chances are you’ll be meeting lots of other like minded travelers, and enjoy a chat or two with the very friendly locals.
Yes, you do need a good travel insurance
Regardless of how safe Patagonia is, of how fit you are for hiking, make sure to get yourself a good insurance before traveling to Patagonia. Some parts of it are truly remote, and in the unlucky event that something happens to you, you may have to be evacuated and this is very expensive.