Patagonia is a magic distant dream for a lot of travelers, and we’ve been among them for what seems like forever. We’ve decided that the first step to making this dream come true would be research – how exactly to organize a trip there? So we talked to two friends, one of whom went to Patagonia with a tour and another organized the trip herself. In this first installment, we take a close look at what it means to join a tour to Patagonia, and our guide will be Kate’s friend Olga, an avid runner, snowboarder, and hiker.
Could you start by telling how did you plan your trip?
I went with an organized tourist group. There are a lot of offers of tours to Patagonia online, and I chose a Ukrainian company that my friends recommended. Patagonia was a spontaneous trip, and I was planning to go alone, so naturally, I was looking at tours to have some company. In the end, a friend joined me, but we still stayed with the group.
What did you pay for with the group?
I think it differs, but in our case what we paid covered the tour guide and food – they buy camping food and cooking gas for the whole group and then distribute it among people to carry. They also booked camping places in advance, but we had to pay them by ourselves. Transport was also not included, and most of the time we were told to be somewhere at a specific time, but how we fly there is our own business. The total amount of money we spent per person was about 3500$, which is expensive, but reasonable if you think about how much we managed to see in these 20 days.
So let’s talk in more detail about your route – where did you go and what did you see?
We flew to Buenos Aires and met the group there. Then some people took Aerolíneas Argentinas and some LATAM Airlines flights to Ushuaia. They are both low-cost companies so expect to pay extra for the luggage. We stayed for several days in Ushuaia having day trips to the neighboring mountains and to see the penguins. Then a regional bus took us to Puerto Natales and yet another bus to the entrance point of Torres del Paine National Park.
As far as I understand, you can only see the park on foot?
Yes, there are two tracks through the park. Track O is the fool circle and track V is a shorter one for those in a hurry or less sporty. Track O is about 100 km long and takes 8 days.
And can you see it on your own, without an organized group?
Oh, absolutely! The tracks are very well marked, so it’s impossible to get lost. There are time estimates to the next camping and warnings that you shouldn’t start the new leg if it’s too late. At the entrance you sign a paper agreeing to park rules – no littering and no unauthorized camping, of course. Then every day you have to check in with the rangers at the camping grounds. The only important thing if you don’t go with the group is to book places at the camping sites along your route at least half a year in advance – they are pretty full in summer.
What’s the accommodation like in the park, only camping available? Do you have to carry everything with you?
Oh, it really depends on how rich you are! We carried everything with us and were only paying for a camping place and shower/toilet. This costs from 8$ to 25$ depending on the camp, but it does mean that you have to carry all the camping gear – a tent, sleeping bag, and a mat, cooking gas, food, and cooking utensils. But if you want to splurge, there are places in houses or you can rent a tent right in place. There are also bars and shops in these camps, but of course, everything is very expensive.
So how taxing is the track, do you need to be very sporty to undertake it?
Well, it’s not difficult technically, but you have to be a decent walker. I’m quite trained and wasn’t tired, but I’ve also seen people looking less sporty or more advanced in age doing fine on the path. It’s mostly a well-tended trail without any dangers, but you do go up and down quite a bit. As I’ve said, the full track is 100km, and if you do it in 8 days as recommended, it’s less than 20 km per day. And if you’re very sporty, you can even try to do it faster.
What was your itinerary after the Torres del Paine trek?
After the park, we went to El Calafate city from where we did a day trip to the Perito Moreno Glacier. Then we moved to El Chaltén where we went to the top of Mount Fitz Roy. The idea is to see the sunrise there, and although you can do it by walking to the top for the whole night, we preferred to camp under the peak for the night and start just before the sunrise. Besides, the surroundings are beautiful, it would be a shame to pass them at night. From there we went back to El Calafate and flew to Iguazu with the change in Buenos Aires. There we saw the famous waterfalls from both sides – Argentinian and Brasilian. We were just a couple of days there, and after that, we flew back to BA, parted with the group, explored the city a bit (we personally took a ferry to Montevideo too!) and that was it!
Wow, that’s quite a trip, you must have so many impressions! What are the three things that you enjoyed most?
I think the most memorable experience was Iguazu waterfalls and the jungles around them! I’ve never been to a jungle before, so all this greenery and wildlife is just shockingly beautiful! One tip – you have to see the waterfall both from the Argentinian side and from the Brasilian, Yes, it’s the same waterfall, but the view is completely different! By the way, we rented a car in Iguazu, the driver had a paper saying where we’re going so we weren’t even checked for the visas.
The second place that left a deep mark was Buenos Aires. It’s a very interesting city, beautiful and a little crazy, and definitely worth the time spent there!
And the third thing I must put here are the penguins – there are tours to meet them from Ushuaia, and they are just so cute! Hm, I just realized that the glaciers somehow didn’t make it to my top 3, but it just proves that 3 is too small a number for Patagonia! Of course, Torres del Paine is breathtaking too, especially the part around Lake Pehoé.
So what would be your recommendations to a traveler that is going on a similar trip?
Well, first, really think if you want to go with a tour. On the one hand, you worry and plan less, but on the other hand, it’s limiting your options. Our trip was mostly fine, hiking is better in groups of people, I think. Besides, we learned a lot from our guides. However, there were some problems with organizing a penguin tour in Ushuaia, and we ended up missing that due to our guide’s slackness.
Second, take good gear! Comfy boots and a warm sleeping bag can make all the difference between enjoying the trip and feeling miserable.
Third, learn some Spanish! Or at least learn to use Google translate. Seriously, Argentinians are great, friendly and helpful people, but they don’t speak any English. And finally, take cash dollars! Cards are very rarely accepted, so you have to change dollars into pesos in the beginning of the trip. And don’t change more than you need, as nobody will buy peso back from you.