20 Tips for Planning Your Patagonia Trip

Apr 24, 2019 8:23:00 AM

Patagonia needs little help in attracting those fortunate enough to discover this premier travel destination. The region is heaving with national parks and UNESCO sites, with four World Heritage Sites in Argentina and four World Biosphere Reserves in Chile. It’s steeped in a history that reads like a sea-going legend, and some fame is attached to it for simply being the most southernly bit of the American continent.

Patagonia travel offers a lot to discover. It has a Pacific and Atlantic coast, both replete with marine wildlife, including whales, penguins and sea lions. It has vast grasslands, imposing rock faces, drifting glaciers and serene lakes. It is wide open and scarcely populated, with just a spattering of unique towns and villages to suggest humans inhabit it at all.

There is also a lot to know before heading down that way. In such rugged and isolated terrain, it’s wise to understand the climate and the costs. As an international destination, it’s important to know what documents to get before arriving and what items to take. In a place so expansive, it’s imperative to have an idea of how to get around. In a world so chocked full of amazing stuff, it’s good to get a grasp on what to do and see. Of course, that’s just one of the benefits of trusting your Patagonia adventure to the travel experts at International Expeditions. A trip to Patagonia is sure to blow you away (perhaps quite literally).

CONSIDERING A TRIP TO PATAGONIA

Patagonia travel guide

The stereotypical images of South America include historic colonial cities, colorful textile markets, steamy Amazonian jungles, uncontacted indigenous tribes, and beautiful tropical beaches.

But Patagonia offers a distinctly different type of South American experience. It’s sort of like the Yellowstone National Park of South America – a vast land carved by glaciers, full of wide open spaces, endemic animals and uniquely beautiful backdrops.

Exploring the region is a travel experience unlike anything else the continent has to offer. Here are a few basic things you should know before you travel to Patagonia:

1) The unavoidable result of the region’s remoteness is that things are more expensive in Patagonia than other parts of South America. Budget travel in Patagonia isn’t really an option. Because tourism there is seasonal, the demand and limited accommodation options raise the prices of rooms at peak times. Much of the food in Patagonia must be imported, which drives up dining costs. In other words, the region isn’t as cheap as Colombia or Peru, but it’s totally worth it!

2) Timing your trip is incredibly important. In terms of weather, the best time to visit Patagonia is the Austral summer, which is December through February. In the southern hemisphere, this is when the temperatures are warmest. Patagonia is located about as far from the equator as Ukraine and the southern territories of Canada, so visiting when the region is at its warmest is generally a good idea.

3) If you want to avoid crowds completely, consider traveling to Patagonia during the shoulder seasons–Austral spring (September-November) and fall (March-May). Temperatures in the area average a few degrees colder each month outside of the peak season. For example, in the month of February, Perito Moreno averages in the upper 50s, while March is in the lower 50s, and April is in the mid-40s. IE does offer both small-group and custom travel options during these seasons!

4) Remember that Patagonia encompasses just over 400,000 square miles (Texas isn’t quite 270,000) and stretches over 15 degrees of latitude. It’s essentially the length from the bottom of California to the top of Washington state. So, you can expect that temperatures will be vastly different depending on where you are in the region. The ecosystems can be quite different as well, moving from desert to mountain lakes to coastal islands. Suffice it to say, seeing all of it in one trip requires a good chunk of time.

THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU TRAVEL TO PATAGONIA

Patagonia travel guide

For those interested in deep exploration of Patagonia, it’s important to realize that the region is shared by two countries. Most of it is in Argentina, but there are also many serious points of interest in Chile. An in-depth Patagonia trip will require crossing an international border. And since it’s very remote and undeveloped, it’s best to stock up on all the conveniences you’ll need for your journey when you’re in Santiago or Buenos Aires. Here are a few other key things to know before you visit Patagonia:

5) Getting into Chile and Argentina only requires a passport for US and EU citizens, as well as those from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. A passport allows you a 90-day stay, and trips to a neighboring country (with a new entry stamp upon reentry) can allow you to stay another 90 days. The process for getting a visa is long, complicated and expensive, so it’s probably better not to do so unless you are moving to the region for good.

6) Though a passport might be enough documentation to get into these countries, reciprocity fees may be charged for certain nationalities. In 2014, the situation changed for visitors from the United States (and Canada), when Chile eliminated a $160 entry fee. The same thing happened in 2016 for US citizens entering Argentina. Of course, with the turbulent politics of the day, who knows what will happen this year? NOTE: This is particularly useful information to have when crossing border remotely.

7) Credit cards (MasterCard & Visa are best) and cash machines (debit cards need a four-digit pin code) are common in the populated areas of Patagonia. But it’s good to have a back-up card, as certain machines sometimes inexplicably don’t like certain cards. On that note, having a couple of days worth of cash or traveler's checks isn’t a bad insurance policy, either. Inform your bank where you’ll be traveling, and have a second option in mind should your credit cards not work. Western Union always works in a pinch.

8) Electrical adapters are necessary when visiting Argentina and Chile. Standard electricity in Patagonia is 220 volts, as opposed to 120 volts in the US. When charging your phone, tablet, or laptop, a basic plug adapter should be fine. These low-power devices are designed to adapt to different voltages. However, using something more energy-demanding, such as a hairdryer, requires a voltage adapter as well. Argentina and Chile share the type C plug with two round pegs (the same as is used in mainland Europe) but have different three-prong set-ups (type I and type L, respectively).

9) The weather in Patagonia is unpredictable and can get cold, windy and wet in a hurry. So it pays to pack layers of warm clothing, as well as rain gear. Good waterproof hiking shoes that are broken in and comfortable make hiking in Patagonia much more enjoyable. While we’re on the topic of precipitation, a water-resistant backpack is also useful.

10) The blazing sun of the southern hemisphere can sneakily fry foreheads, ears and hair partings, so it’s also a good idea to pack a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen.

GETTING TO PATAGONIA

How to get to Patagonia

There is no international airport in Patagonia, so getting there is usually part of the adventure. Options abound for venturing into the bottom rungs of the South American continent. In fact, because the region is so large, transportation will likely be an integral and possibly rewarding part of the trip.

11) Flying to Patagonia will require stopping in either Buenos Aires (EZE) or Santiago (SCL). From there, you can take domestic flights to reach smaller airports in different parts of Patagonia. Flights from Buenos Aires can take you to Bariloche, Trelew, El Calafate or Ushuaia. Chilean outposts include Punta Arenas, Puerto Natales, Coyhaique, Castro, Puerto Montt, and Temuco. Please note: International Expeditions’ Patagonia tour begins in Punta Arenas and ends in El Calafate.

12) Ferries are yet another adventurous transportation alternative. For those who like the sea, this could really be a bonus experience for your trip. Chile has ferries that run from down the coast to Puerto Chacabuco in Patagonia, as well as ferries within the region. There’s also a long trip from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales that leaves every Friday and arrives on Monday, as well as a trip from Punta Arenas to Puerto Williams (which takes 32 hours).

PLACES TO VISIT IN PATAGONIA

See Torres del Paine National Park

However you choose to travel to Patagonia, the region is all about nature. From the birds of Patagonia(including Andean condors, penguins, and caracaras) to mammals (including guanaco, pumas and whales), the region is packed with wildlife. From the desert-like steppes to the mystic mountains of the southern Andes, this is one of the least populated places on the planet, with a mere five people per square mile. In other words, this is the natural world at its most pristine, with room to roam freely.

13) Los Glaciares National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the Argentinian side of Patagonia. As its name would seem to suggest, the park is renowned for its stunning glaciers. Of course, it also has beautiful lakes, mountains, and forests. However, the glaciers here steal the show, and they constitute the largest continental ice extension after Antarctica. Perito Moreno, which is close to the town of Calafate, is arguably the most famous of the park’s glaciers, and it’s truly a must-see.

14) Torres del Paine National Park is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve on the Chilean side of Patagonia. It’s revered for the looming massifs of its namesake mountain as well as stunning lakes, gorgeous flowers, montane forests, and abundant wildlife. The mountain is considered one of the planet’s premier rock-climbing destinations, while the W Trek is regarded as one of the world’s great hikes. The park also includes the majority (90%) of the Southern Patagonia ice field, which is also seen in Los Glaciares.

15) If you love scenic road trips, Chile’s Carretera Austra Highway (a.k.a. Ruta 7) is an absolute mind-blower. Stretching around 770 miles from north to south, it passes by massive volcanoes, brilliant blue glacial lakes, and virgin forests. The route takes you by Pumalín National Park, Parque Queulat, the Enchanted Forest, Cerro Castillo National Park, and Patagonia Park. In other words, a trip down this road alone could supply a full vacation’s worth of adventure!

16) El Chaltén is considered by many avid backpackers to be the hiking capital of Patagonia, particularly on the Argentinian side. The area offers lots of day hikes (including Laguna de Los Tres and Laguna Torres) as well as multiple-day hikes (the best is arguably Monte Fitz Roy-Cerro Torre). The village of El Chaltén overlooks Los Glaciares National Park and is a border town that’s widely known as a hippie (and expat) hotspot.

17) Across the famous Straits of Magellan, Tierra del Fuego (and all of its incredible wildlife) beckons Patagonia visitors. In addition to a diverse flock of seabirds, the coastline teems with South American sea lions and pods of Peale’s dolphins. It is also home to the only continental breeding colony of king penguins, which congregate throughout the year in Porvenir.

CHOOSING PATAGONIA TOURS

Choosing a Patagonia Tour

20) International Expeditions offers a range of escorted Patagonia tour, from a comprehensive itinerary encompassing Chile and Argentina to trekking in Torres del Paine.

The key to choosing between all of these myriad options is realistically assessing your own limits and staying within those boundaries. Whether you are an avid birder or looking for an incredible trek, you’ll enjoy expert guidance, advance planning and a sense of security.

A pre-planned small group tour will ensure that the necessary logistics don’t get in the way of your enjoyment, as the trails and tour routes will be vetted for safe passage and ultimate experience.

Patagonia Expedition

Our classic Patagonia tour offers up to 18 guests a chance to explore the region on an 11-day, 10-night journey. You’ll explore the region’s jaw-dropping scenery and dazzling wildlife on land, boat, and foot, with daily hiking excursions providing ample opportunities to see guanacos, King and Magellanic penguins, and other wildlife up close. From Magdalena Island and Torres del Paine to El Calafate and Los Glaciares, this is our most immersive, in-depth Patagonia experience.

Birds of Patagonia & Tierra Del Fuego

This 7-day, 6-night land excursion offers birdwatchers a chance to see an outstanding array of avian species amidst the dazzling landscapes of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. With skilled naturalists leading a small group of no more than six travelers, you’ll explore the Patagonian steppes, sub-Antarctic forests, wetlands and glaciers looking for Andean condors, Austral parakeets, Chilean hawks and much more!

Pumas, Penguins & Whales of Patagonia

IE’s most wildlife-focused Patagonia trip is crafted with serious animal lovers in mind. Limited to just 8 guests, the 11-day, 10-night adventure begins in the southern side of Torres del Paine National Park, which boasts one of the world’s heaviest concentrations of pumas. From there it’s on to see the huge penguin colonies in Tierra del Fuego’s Useless Bay. Lastly, we’ll board a boat and head to Carlos III Island, which is located in the recently established Francisco Coloane Marine Park. There, we’ll search for humpback whales.

However you ultimately choose to explore Patagonia, this iconic South American destination is guaranteed not to disappoint. It’s one of those magical places that leaves little doubt as to just how majestic our planet can be. It’s a place unlike any other, still largely the way Mother Nature painted it, ready to wow anyone willing to take the epic journey.

Patagonia travel guide

Bio: Jonathon Engels is a traveler, writer, and vegan gardener. Born and raised in Louisiana, he has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in between. His interests include permaculture, cooking, and music. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

And just to inspire you for your Patagonia trip, we would like to share some quotes from our amazing guests who have traveled to Patagonia with International Expeditions: 

"The Patagonia Expedition was a wonderful experience. The sights are breathtaking, the wildlife fascinating, and the people are friendly. We got to see a wide variety of landscapes and culture." - Camille Richard

"Great guides, lots of wildlife, good food and drink, and fantastic company. It was a great mix of just about everything I hoped for." - Gerry Kraynik

"It is all that is advertised and more! We were fascinated by the king penguins and opportunity to observe guanacos. We had a fantastic IE guide, wonderful travel group AND found a new favorite wine!" Richard and Sharon Weber

"Watching guanacos and condors, the reflections of snow-capped mountains in a lake, dramatic fjords, the penguins--all of Patagonia is our 'favorite part' of this journey!" - Gordon and Sarah Gould

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