19 Essential Things You Need to Know Before Traveling to Patagonia
Traveling to both Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia is for many of us once in a lifetime adventure. We are sure that before your visit, you will do thorough research to ensure your trip will go smoothly. We've created this guide on essential things you need to know before traveling to Patagonia, focusing on everything you should have covered before your ultimate journey. Happy planning!
Patagonia is an incredible region in South America, a dream destination for every traveler, including us, but planning this adventure can be quite a daunting task for many reasons.
Patagonia is a vast region spread between two countries, Chile and Argentina the weather conditions are harsh, public transport is often unreliable, and prices are much higher than our backpacker's budget can usually take.
Despite all these facts (all maybe because of these facts), our adventurous hearts and our outdoorsy souls were driven to visit Patagonia more than ever, so this year the dream finally came true.
It required lots of planning, and lots of saving but in retrospect, we can say it was worth it.
The beauty of Patagonia is hard to ignore.
The region boasts with the rugged landscape, sharp towering snow-capped mountain peaks, endless grassy areas, turquoise lakes, massive glaciers and pristine wild rivers making their way through deep valleys. It is easy to fall in love with Patagonia but to enjoy your holidays or an outstanding part of your long-term travels this visit requires to do research to come well-prepared as the often underestimated and dull planning part can either make or break your trip.
We've created this guide on all the essential things you should know before traveling to Patagonia including the region introduction, tips on how to cross borders between Chile and Argentina, how to plan your itinerary, what places to visit, when is the best time to travel to Patagonia, where to stay, what to pack and how to stay safe.
We are excited to help you with planning your ultimate trip to Patagonia!
HOW TO GET TO PATAGONIA
First things first, how the hell should you get to Patagonia?
For those traveling via land (often backpackers on a long-term trip), getting to Patagonia is not that hard. Us, for example, traveled to Chilean Patagonia by bus, so from Santiago de Chile, we took a bus via Pucon to Puerto Montt, here we took an overnight ferry to Chaiten which is the beginning of Carretera Austral.
When traveling via land the Argentinian side first, you will most likely take a long bus (we recommend you to break the journey somewhere) from Bariloche to El Chalten.
Most of the travelers reach Patagonia by plane though, which is much comfortable and it saves time as well. No matter where are you flying from, you will most likely need to catch a connection for Patagonia in either Santiago de Chile or in Buenos Aires in Argentina.
From these two airports, depending on where your itinerary starts, you can carry on to Puerto Montt, Cochrane, El Calafate, Punta Arenas or Ushuaia.
When looking for flight tickets you can search Skyscanner to find the best price.
WHAT PART OF PATAGONIA TO VISIT
Patagonia spans across two countries, Chile and Argentina it is a really vast region to cover in only two to four weeks (this is the time the majority of people have for exploring Patagonia), so your first question probably is what part of Patagonia to visit.
Unfortunately, there is no straightforward answer, because as it always happens with exceptional places like this one, both Chilean and Argentinian part has mind-blowing highlights you won't want to miss once you see photos.
If you have enough time, we recommend you to visit both countries, but it also depends on your budget and on the way of transport you are going to use because distances are extensive.
In Chile you should not miss Torres del Paine National Park, you can drive part or all Carretera Austral, and in Argentina, the must-see places are hikes around El Chalten, Perito Moreno Glacier, and Ushuaia.
In case your time and budget is limit, do not despair.
Patagonia is truly so beautiful that you can choose only one smaller area and explore it thoroughly rather than frantically jump from one place to another in trying to see it all.
HOW & WHERE TO CROSS BORDERS BETWEEN CHILEAN AND ARGENTINIAN PATAGONIA
Only in Patagonia, we crossed borders between Chile and Argentina three times, luckily we don't need to have visas, and we don't have to pay any reciprocal fee, but check the most up-to-date information for your country before your travels.
Crossing borders between those two countries is not hard you only need to follow all rules - every time we were entering Chile, we could notice that officers were much stricter than on the Argentinian side, so do not bring any seeds, fruit or dairy products with you otherwise, you'll pay a hefty fine, and your travels will be delayed.
You have three options on how to cross borders between Chile, and Argentina and all of those options depends on the way you are going to travel around Patagonia.
Rental Car | When traveling in Patagonia via a rental car, you must ensure you have a document from the rental company which legally allows you to take the car to another country. Most of the companies do not have a problem to issue you such a document you only need to let them know at least one week in advance that you're going to need it (check conditions first that they allow travelers to drive abroad). When crossing borders in the high season, try to arrive at the borders as soon as you can to avoid lines. In Patagonia, you can cross borders between Chile and Argentina for example in Chile Chico, then in Rio Turbio and Rio Gallegos.
On Foot | Are we serious here? Well, most of the time we crossed borders in Patagonia by bus, but it is not possible not to mention here our favorite border crossing in the region. When we got to the end of Carretera Austral to the village Villa O'Higgins we walked one day through the stunning scenery to Argentina. If you have time and you love hiking, this is a must-do activity.
Public Transport | Crossing borders between two countries on a bus was overall easy and stress-free in South America. Your bus driver usually has a list of all passengers, then he will tell you to go to immigration, advice you whether you need to take your backpacks or not, all the people from the bus get the passport stamp one by one, then everyone jumps on the bus and carry on to the final destination.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT PATAGONIA
No matter when you decide to visit Patagonia, you can be sure there will be days when you'll experience all four seasons in only one day. That's how unpredictable and changeable the weather in the region can be.
That's being said, there are four distinct seasons in Patagonia, while some are for sure better for traveling and hiking than others.
Weather-wise the best time to travel in Patagonia is from December to February.
These months are summer months on the Southern Hemisphere when you can experience higher temperatures (around 22 degrees), the higher chance of sunny days, but also rain showers and strong winds. Summer is a favorite season for hikers, so you can expect that accommodations, buses, and cars can be booked up well in advance, so when planning on traveling in Patagonia during this time of the year, you should start preparing your trip as soon as you can. It should not surprise you that prices are the highest in the summer.
We think that if you still want to have a chance for fine weather, enjoy hiking trails with fewer crowds, and take advantage of a bit lower prices you should consider visiting Patagonia in either late spring between late October and November or early autumn between March and the beginning of May.
During this time of the year, temperatures are still pleasant (although it is a bit colder than in summer), it can rain, but it is a thing in Patagonia all year round. Both autumn and spring are the most photogenic times of the year in the region because the snow is either melting, and the landscape is fresh and green or in the autumn you can take those incredible photos with colored trees on the backdrop. Services such as accommodation and bus companies should still operate, but you need to double check it closer to winter you travel.
Winter is a hibernation time in Patagonia when it comes to tourism, and only hardcore hikers usually travel in the region between June and September.
You can experience heavy snowfalls and low temperatures, and although there are not that many travelers you will have to share the place with, you should book your hotels well in advance to make sure they will be open, especially in more remote parts of Patagonia. Public buses change travel schedules, and it can happen that hiking trails and roads can be impassable.
Traveling in Patagonia in winter must be a peaceful and enriching experience, but it for sure requires even more planning than usual.
PATAGONIA FOR BUDGET TRAVELERS
Patagonia is an expensive region, particularly by South American standards.
When traveling the continent long-term, after crossing borders to either Chile or Argentina, you will have a feeling you crossed borders to a completely different world. Although Patagonia is for sure not a budget-friendly destination, there are certain ways, how you can lower the necessary expenses.
Overall accommodation and transport will take the most out of your budget.
Looking for cheap accommodation can be a pain, especially in the season, so the rule of thumb is to book hostels well-in-advance to secure your spot.
For sure the cheapest option when it comes to accommodation is sleeping in the campsites (it pays off to travel with your equipment) followed by sleeping in dormitories. Overall public transport is quite expensive in Patagonia, so when traveling in a group of more people, you should consider whether it is not cheaper to rent a car and share costs. Last but not least, grocery stores in Patagonia are overpriced and often don't offer fresh stuff (we can understand that though), but eating in the restaurants is even more expensive, so always when booking hotel or hostel, make sure there is a kitchen where you can cook own food.
Most of the hiking trails and attractions in Patagonia are for free, so when you need to count every cent, avoid Torres del Paine where the entrance fee is pretty steep.
If you don't have money to splurge, budget around $40 - 50 per person a day.
IT IS NECESSARY TO PLAN YOUR ITINERARY
When traveling in Patagonia, careful planning will be a vital part of your success.
Before creating your perfect itinerary, it is necessary to know several things.
First, as we mentioned above, distances between points of interests are vast so you should not over-dimension your plans. You must know how much time it will take you to get from one point to another, how much time you need for rest, be ready that the nature in Patagonia is stunning so you will often drive slower or stop to take a photo, and always integrate into your itinerary one or two days in case the weather won't be cooperating and think of a backup plan in case some trail will be impassable.
If we should give you one advice when planning your itinerary, always build rest days into it.
Some things are simply not possible to book in advance in Patagonia, so you need time to reserve your onward travelers, there can be a delay or the bus does not need to run every day, your car can break down, you can get sick, etc. We genuinely hope none of those things will happen, so later you can use this extra day for more thorough exploring or much-needed relaxation - traveling every day from one place to another while hiking 20+ kilometers every day can be pretty exhausting.
When you'll be traveling during the high season, it is essential to know that because of the limited availability you won't be that flexible with changing your itinerary, and in the most cases you will have to stick with it, so it is necessary to take your time when working on it.
Of course, when traveling long term, you are a bit more flexible, but always before you change your plan, do not forget to check that bus tickets are available all together with accommodation within your budget.
HOW IS IT WITH ACCOMMODATION IN PATAGONIA
You have several options on where to stay overnight when traveling in Patagonia, from cheap campsites and family guesthouses which often cannot be found on booking sites (these places work on first come first served basis), mid-range hotels, to absolutely luxurious lodges.
Camping | For most budget travelers, camping is the unique way how to explore the region which would otherwise have been almost impossible to visit. Camping is popular especially among local travelers, but it is also an option for those who love hiking and want to explore off the beaten path and stay away from the crowds in the Patagonian mountains. Campgrounds usually work on first come first served bases, but note that when you plan on hiking the most popular multi-day treks, you will need to make a booking well in advance as the sites fill up quickly.
Guesthouses, Hospedajes, and Cabanas | Often, when we were road tripping Carretera Austral, we slept in a basic but considerably clean guesthouse with a kitchen. These places were often not possible to book online, and we were lucky to find a bed available every day.
Hotels | There is no shortage of hotels in Patagonia, especially in the famous areas around El Chalten or Puerto Natales. The quality of hotels differ the same as the price, but when booking well ahead, you should be able to find good deals.
Lodges | When visiting Patagonia for a short holiday, you might be able to afford to stay in one of the more luxurious lodges. These types of accommodation are absolutely stunning, often set in an incredible landscape with perfect views.
No matter where are you going to stay, we can only recommend you to reserve your room or a bunk bed, so you won't end up like us when we arrived in El Chalten and had to walk around the town for more than an hour before we found a shabby room available for an outrageous price (we made the reservation but did not pay it in advance - which the owner did not tell us to do, and he canceled the booking without letting us know).
HOW TO GET AROUND PATAGONIA
When we consider the remoteness of Patagonia, getting around is not that hard at the end, depending on the time of the year you are visiting the destination. Depending on your budget and time schedule, you can opt what way of transport will be the best for you.
Hitchhiking | We recommend hitchhiking only to travelers with plenty of time, possibly with own tent. Patagonia is a safe region, so hitchhiking is definitely a way to go in case you don't want to spend money on public transport. We hitchhiked only a couple of times in Patagonia for a few kilometers when we needed to get to a national park without road access or without regular public transport. The disadvantage here is that you must be prepared that no one will stop, and also what we could see cars were often already occupied by four or five people, so there was no space left for other travelers.
Cycling | Chilean Carretera Austral is one of the most spectacular road trips in the world, and it is popular among hardcore cyclists, who often cycle this more than 1000 kilometers long drive and then cross borders to Argentina and carry on as far as they can. If you decide on cycling in Patagonia, you need to be physically fit, have good outdoor equipment, and a positive mental attitude!
Public Transport | When we were in Patagonia, almost all the time we traveled via public transport without a problem, but if you are on a strict itinerary this way of transport requires a bit of planning which is sometimes hard when sitting behind the screen on the other side of the world as timetables change often or are not loaded online. The downside of traveling by bus in Patagonia was that buses, especially on the Chilean side of Patagonia were not regular, or they did not run every day, so we always had to adjust our plans, to a bus schedule. The other thing is that in the main season, bus tickets can be sold out - it happened to us when traveling from El Calafate to Puerto Natales, and we had to wait there one more day, which cost us more money. On the other hand, we were always able to get where we needed, and we believe that if we were willing to pay more, there would always have been a way how to get from one place to another. Note, that bus lines and bus schedules, are even more irregular out of season.
Rental Car | Probably the best and most comfortable way how to get around Patagonia is by rental car. Make sure you reserve your car well in advance as well, because inventories are often booked ahead from December to February, especially when you want to rent a campervan. Roads in Patagonia are quite ok for driving, only a part of Carretera Austral is not paved yet.
Tours | Travel agencies in Patagonia also offer a large number of tours - this is also a comfortable way how to get around, you only need to reserve the correct dates.
PATAGONIA IS HIKERS PARADISE
Yes, you can admire the beauty of Patagonia from the car, because the mountains and thick forests are everywhere around, but to get some of the most iconic views, you need to hike a bit.
If your itinerary contains hikes Mirador Las Torres in Torres del Paine National Park or Laguna de Los Tres in Los Glaciares National Park, you should start doing some workout at least a couple of weeks before your Patagonia holidays, if you want to enjoy it and not to struggle on the way up.
Traveling in Patagonia was for us probably the most physically challenging four weeks out of the year spent in South and Central America, because we hiked more than 20 kilometers almost every day, and when we did not trek, we needed to get from one place to another, so it was pretty exhausting.
Why did we do that, though?
Well, Patagonia has so many hiking trails, and so many wonderful places, that we wanted to see as much as we could no matter what.
If hiking is your thing, we must warn you that the Patagonian landscape can be addictive. If you are not a hiking type of traveler, we believe after this trip you'll find your new hobby.
YOU NEED GOOD EQUIPMENT
The combination of unpredictable weather and the fact that you will spend most of your day out, you should arrive well-equipped. Martin soon found out that his old trusty waterproof jacket is not that waterproof here in Patagonia.
We've handpicked five essential things you should pack with you for your Patagonia trip.
Fleece Jacket for Him & for Her | The region of Patagonia is extremely cold even in summer, so bring along fleece jacket or any additional layer with long sleeves not to feel cold. We spent quite a lot of time on the lake's shore and a warm jacket came handy.
Rain Poncho | It can start raining any time of the year in Patagonia's mountains, and rain poncho will protect you and your valuables as well.
Waterproof Jacket for Him & for Her | Wind in Patagonia is so strong, especially during summer hiking season, that you must pack a quality waterproof and windproof jacket otherwise the day could be quite miserable.
Hiking Poles | We always find hiking poles useful, especially when we know from trek's profile there will be a steep descend.
We've also written a full post, Patagonia Packing List, in case you want to read what to bring and what to leave behind.
YOU NEED TO BOOK SOME THINGS IN ADVANCE
We said that before and will say it again. Although Patagonia is one of the most expensive destinations in the world, because of its popularity, travelers need to secure many things in advance to ensure the trip will go smoothly. Always read conditions before you make your final reservation, and read your itinerary several times to ensure everything fits.
Flight tickets | To get to Patagonia, chances are you will have to travel by plane. First, choose your preferred season, and then look for the best available rates. When looking for flight tickets you can search Skyscanner to find the best price.
Car Rental | When booking a car, you need to decide how many people will travel with you, and also if you prefer to rent a standard car and sleep in hotels, or you can also rent a campervan and stay in campgrounds.
Accommodation | Booking your room in either hotels or hostels should be your next step when finalizing your trip to Patagonia. Some hotels even offer a first-minute deal, but always check conditions if you can change or cancel the reservation later in case something happens. When we search for accommodation, to find the best rate we usually use Booking.com in combination with Hostelworld.
Tours | When you reserved everything, you need to decide whether you want to visit all places on own, or if you want to arrange a guided tour.
Most of the one-day or multi-day treks are not necessary to book ahead, but in case you would like to do the W or O Trek in Torres del Paine, you must reserve it once the quota opens because spaces fill up quickly.
PATAGONIA CAN BE CROWDED
When you hear the word Patagonia, you will most likely imagine pristine nature, and only yourself standing in front of the crystal clear lake with a mountain backdrop creating the most terrific vista you've ever seen.
Well, everything we'd just said is there, except for the part of you being alone.
Patagonia has gained popularity in the past decade (it's always been popular, but it was either too expensive or uncomfortable to travel, which has changed as people are getting richer and services are much better), and some of the most famous places like Torres del Paine in Chile or El Chalten in Argentina can get crowded, especially when the hiking season from December to February.
Here we must say that we never had a negative experience when traveling between destinations or when hiking in the mountains where the crowds disperse, but we could feel it in the small mountainous towns which were often full.
WI-FI IS NOT GREAT, BUT IT WORKS
We were pleasantly surprised by how the wifi worked in Patagonia.
We did not expect much and were mentally prepared we will be offline for most of our days down South, but in the end, we had wifi every single day in every cheap hostel we slept in.
We are not saying the internet worked somehow fast, but it was sufficient for us that we could upload some photos and post a couple of articles on our blog. We also bought a sim card with data, and the connection was bad outside towns, it stopped usually working one meter behind the sign announcing the end of town, but overall, everything worked much better than we had expected.
We would not schedule important work calls or important business meetings calls, but for every other task, the internet in Patagonia was just fine.
SAFETY IN PATAGONIA
According to our personal experience, Patagonia is the safest destination in South America.
Although always some odd things can happen, the region is so vast and so sparsely populated that pickpockets, muggings or kidnapping is not anything you should be worried here about. Local people are friendly and always ready to help.
If there is one thing you should watch out for, it is nature.
Never underestimate the power of nature, and always go to the mountains well-prepared.
YOU NEED TRAVEL INSURANCE
This brings us to travel insurance.
We would never ever leave our home country, especially when traveling to a remote region such as Patagonia where we planned on hiking in the mountains without travel insurance.
At all times it's a good idea to have travel insurance in case something goes wrong.
You can purchase travel insurance from World Nomads, it is a reputable world-wide company, providing travel insurance to travelers from over 140 countries.
Spotting wildlife is yet another reason and a lure why to travel to Patagonia.
Wild cats such as pumas are wandering around the region, but only those incredibly lucky can see those shy animals. Other animals you can observe in Patagonia are penguins, orcas, foxes, flamingos, whales, or sea lions.
If spotting wildlife is the main goal why you want to go to Patagonia, do not forget to check what is the best season.
MUST-VISIT PLACES IN PATAGONIA
Patagonia is full of highlights, and it is hard to choose the must-see destinations, but here we will outline places we've visited and enjoyed the best.
Carretera Austral | Carretera Austral is more than a thousand kilometers long picturesque road with many national parks along. We explored Pumalin National Park, Hanging Glacier, Laguna Cerro Castillo, Patagonia National Park, Marble Caves, or Villa O'Higgins.
Villa O'Higgins to El Chalten | One of the best days we had in Patagonia was when we were crossing borders on foot between Chile and Argentina. You cannot have a car in case you want to do this.
El Chalten | Argentina's hiking capital is hard to miss. Several trails start right from the small town, but the most iconic hike is to Cerro Torre Towering above Laguna de Los Tres.
Perito Moreno Glacier | Perito Moreno is the shining star of Argentinian Patagonia, one of the most famous glaciers in the world, and it was almost scary how close we could get. It was one of the most expensive days we experienced in Patagonia, but it was well worth it.
Torres del Paine National Park | Some say it is one of the most beautiful national parks in the world, either way, Torres del Paine must be on your travel itinerary.
Ushuaia | The world's southernmost point is the jumping off point for Antarctica, but even travelers who did not book this expensive tour can admire the beautiful nature close to the city.
As we were traveling in Patagonia on a budget, we could not afford to eat in restaurants, especially in the touristy towns.
When lucky, you can find menu del dia alias lunch menu for $8 - $10, but we did not want to pay that much for average tasteless food. If your budget is higher, you will for sure find a good restaurant serving grilled steaks paired with wines from the region.
Supermarkets or small grocery stores are almost everywhere, so you do not need to worry you'll be hungry, but the problem is freshness, especially in the little towns along Carretera Austral.
To find fresh vegetables or fruits was a real problem, sometimes even in places, we hadn't expected it such as in El Chalten.
Prices of food are higher because food travels across Argentina or Chile to Patagonia by sea or via land long distances. We usually cooked meals in hostels, so if you plan on doing the same, always check in advance, that your accommodation has an equipped kitchen.
When planning on hiking multi-day treks, stock up with food at least one day in advance to make sure there will be food suitable for hiking available in store.
In the remote parts of Patagonia, for example on Chile's Carretera Austral the cash is still the king, and unless staying in a bigger city such as Coyhaique, you won't have many opportunities to pay with your credit card.
At the beginning of your trip always withdraw enough cash to ensure you have enough money with you.
We always had at least $200 with us just in case we run out of cash as we found out on our travels, no one will ever refuse American dollar. The situation in Argentina is a bit more complicated nowadays because of inflation, but we always paid with Argentinian Pesos without a problem.
Surprisingly, we had an issue to exchange Chilean Pesos to Argentinian Pesos anywhere in Argentina, and the first destination where we could do it was in Ushuaia.
Also, it can happen that cash machines in Patagonia run out of money, or there can be a small limit of money you can withdraw.
Our ‘favorite’ ATM was the one in El Chalten, which one of the most touristy places in Patagonia, where everyone could take out a maximum of $50 at once which usually is not enough for an accommodation and food for a day.