I had been eyeing a trip to Patagonia for some time. I usually plan my vacations a few months out (~4 months or so). This has given me optimal flight and hotel prices; book too early, and you miss out on savings. Book too close to the trip, and you're scrambling and paying up the wazoo.
I was originally thinking about going in April. Circumstances changed at work, and my amazing manager suggested that if I wanted to take a vacation, it had to be now. 2 weeks in 2 weeks, I double-checked, bewildered? Sure!
Well, planning a 2 week long trip 2 weeks out would be new one for me.
So, I decided to do the play most of it by ear. After only a week of research, I booked my flight tickets and hosterias 6 days beforehand, on January 21st. I flew out on January 27th. Everything else, I’d figure out when I got there. I had a few things I needed to pick up from REI (the most notable purchases being trekking poles, a larger multi-day pack, and finally shelling out for proper hiking boots) , but I already had most of the basics.
What’s the worst that could happen?
Spoiler alert: literally only good things happened on this trip. I’ve officially set a bad precedent for myself when it comes to planning trips.
Day 1: 🛫 New York City
I’m addicting to packing light for any trip these days.
Day 2: 🛬 ☀️ Buenos Aires 🛫 🛬 ☀️ El Calafate 🚌 🌨 El Chaltén
I arrived in Buenos Aires to a beautiful day. I had a 6 hour layover, which was just enough time to get my luggage, transfer, and relax before my next flight. I always prefer to leave at least 6 hours per layover to account for delays and avoid unnecessary rushes. Anything 7 hours or more, and I enjoy the layover city as a destination in and of itself, time (and luggage) permitting.
I arrived to incredible weather in El Calafate as well. I had ~3 hours after arriving before my bus to El Chaltén. My taxi from the airport in El Calafate dropped me off at a hostel accidentally (America Del Sur), which turned out to be wonderful. I had a delicious meal, freshened up, and walked to the bus station.
Day 3: 💨🌨🏔 Laguna De Los Tres, Mt. Fitz Roy
Before I started my day, I wanted to see if I could grab a lunch bag from the only gluten-free/vegan place in town, Curcuma. I could, and I did! Little did I know at the time, Curcuma would end up being my favorite food experience of the entire trip.
The front desk called a van for me to take me to an alternate start point, so I could take advantage of the entire circuit instead of a loop. We went and picked up various people around town. Unfortunately, the driver got lost at one point; we drove in circles for 20 minutes, giving us a late start. In the end, I finished the hike ahead of schedule, even if the absolute time was later than intended.
I don’t have any photos of the ascent, as we encountered heavy winds. I was really glad I brought my trekking poles at this point, as they saved me (and my knees) quite a few times on the way up & down.
After getting back to town, I was enamored by a roadside café, Primos. I stayed for a delicious matcha and great conversation.
I topped off the day with a delicious meal at Curcuma.
Day 4: ☀️🏔 Laguna Torre 🚌☀️ El Calafate
Now this was a beautiful day for a hike. I grabbed my lunch box from Curcuma and got started a full hour before the previous day.
When I finally reached Laguna Torre, I sat down to relax and eat my lunch. I originally wanted to give myself 15 minutes, but it was so peaceful that I ended up staying for an hour. I wanted to stay longer, but I needed to make it back to town in time for my bus back to El Calafate.
Day 5: ☀️🚐🛥📸 Perito Moreno Glacier
I arranged a tour to the glacier in the morning with the help of the front desk of the hotel at 8am, and the tour van picked me up about an hour later at 9am.
We made a stop along Lago Argentina for some blue-tiful views.
This first glimpse of the glacier simply took my breath away!
There was an option to take a catamaran closer to the glacier, which I definitely opted in for.
And then we got closer.
You're probably asking for a panorama right about now.
After the catamaran, I was able to walk around and see the full spectrum of the Perito Moreno from a different height.
Day 6: ☀️🚌 Puerto Natales
I took a 7:30am bus to Puerto Natales.
Protip: Border control between Argentina and Chile is a thing. You will have to get out of the bus twice — once at the Argentina border, and again at the Chile border. You may have you take all of your belongings from the bus and have it scanned, just like at an airport. I had this happen to me going from Argentina to Chile, but not from Chile to Argentina. I’m not sure if it depends on the country, as I only had to cross once each way.
After I got into town, I visited the infamous erratic rock to get tips for day hikes in Torres Del Paine for the next 2 days.
That evening, I had to cancel my plans. I was doubling over because of knee pain. I have a history of dislocations, subluxations, and knee surgeries. When my knee cries, I listen. I reluctently decided to take it easy and avoid hiking until my knee was better, but I was now at a loss as to how to take advantage of my time.
I went to sleep with the idea of renting a car for a day, and then driving around Torres Del Paine. If I can’t hike, at least I can take in the scenery.
Spoiler alert: That did not happen.
Day 7: ☀️🤕🐑🍵⛰🔦 Mirador Dorotea, Cueva del Milodón
I went to several car rental shops as soon as I woke up. They all had 3 day minimums, with exorbitant prices. I went back to the bus station; I had just missed the bus to a possible light hiking route (which I shouldn’t have been doing in my knee’s condition anyway).
I reluctantly went back to my bed and breakfast with my head hanging. I asked my host if there was anything she knew I could do. We went through some options, and I settled on a trip to Cueva del Milodón.
The previous day, I had gotten a lead on a place called Kayak en Patagonia. I had chatted with them to get some info. I figured it could be a great way to get a truly unique experience, enjoy Torres Del Paine, get physical activity, and not need my knee. I filled out the forms & sent them over.
I used this opportunity to also explore Puerto Natales itself. After chatting with folks in town, I also found out about Mirador Dorotea. I soon headed over.
Mirador Dorotea is an overlook that is right outside of town. The land belongs to a local farm, which is family owned and operated. You pay a small fee to get in; but they also make tea for you after you’re done, and give you some food. It’s a really humble operation, and the low key pace of this moment really put a smile on my face.
I couldn’t make it to the viewpoint because of my knee, but I was glad I was able to enjoy my time in a different way.
I WhatsApp’d my new cabbie friend to pick me up to get back to town, after which I was picked up to head to Cueva del Milodón Natural Monument.
These are a series of caves that used be home to the Milodón (Mylodon), a giant prehistoric sloth. The oldest remains of humans in Patagonia were also found in one of those caves, where archaeological expeditions are still active.
The monument is also home to Silla del Diablo (Devil’s Chair). I couldn’t find someone with a clear answer to why it’s called as such.
Day 8: ☀️🚣🏾♂️🥃🏈 Torres Del Paine
I was picked up bright and early. We had extremely lucky weather on this day, as I was told repeatedly. And I believed it, based on the wide variety of weather I was privvy to thus far.
There’s not much more to say about kayaking in this region; the pictures speak for themselves.
Day 9: ☀️🚌📸 El Calafate
Another day, another day in El Calafate. This time, I had absolutely nothing to do for half of the day. This didn’t mean I couldn’t enjoy nature, though.
I stopped by a cafe with gluten-free options to cool down and write some postcards.
Day 10: ☀️🛫🛬 Ushuaia
I was really surprised by Ushuaia. I was expecting a small port town at the bottom of the world, not a city. It threw me off quite a bit, and was jarring. I was hoping to stay away from cities for my trip, but it makes sense. Ushuaia is where most people go to before heading off for expeditions to Antarctica.
I don’t use the word expedition lightly; the price tags and lengths of time are prohibitive for most.
Day 11: ⛅️🌧🚂⛰ Tierra Del Fuego
By this time, my knee was feeling pretty good again. I was ready to take on another hike before I went back home. Tierra Del Fuego National Park was on my list, and I’m also a sucker for trains. Here I was, within proximity of the world’s southernmost operating railroad.
Why not both?
Day 12: ⛅️🚐🚤🐧 Isla Martillo
For the first time in this trip, I took my time getting up in the morning. My penguin tour wasn't until the afternoon. I had booked it using GetYourGuide a few days beforehand, when I was in Puerto Natales. Isla Martillo is a naturally occuring penguin home, but the land legally belongs to a family-run estancia. The family now allows only one touring company to go there, and is pretty mindful about making sure humans don’t disturb the habitat while getting a chance to appreciate the beauty of nature.
On the estancia, we first visited a museum which contained various fossils. It’s run by a group of rotating volunteer scientists, who use their space time to collect, clean, and identify fossils.
Due to its unique position as being the worlds’ southernmost region, in conjunction with the flow of the currents, Ushuaia and the surrounding areas end up receiving the vast majority of bones from the Antarctic region. The group here uses their findings to educate visitors and shares that knowledge with scientists around the world.
Day 13: ⛅️🛫🛬 ☀️ Buenos Aires 🚕 ☕️ 🚕🛫
I had a 7 hour layover in Buenos Aires. I could’ve chilled at the airport, but I grabbed a taxi to kill 2 hours in the city. I don’t have any photos to share, as I was lugging around my multi-day pack with me at this point. It is such a gorgeous city, however. I will have to come back to give it the time and attention it deserves.
I got back to the airport, and was promptly greeted by one of the largest check-in lines I’ve seen, ever. Turns out, there was a massive school trip to Miami. The line was due to parents of all the minors flying that needed to fill out extra paperwork upon check-in. After an hour of waiting, it was pretty smooth sailing from thereon in.
Day 14: 🛬 🥶 New York City
I landed in the morning. There’s nothing like brr sweet brr.
Round Trip El Calafate El Chaltén: USD 45.54
El Calafate to Puerto Natales: USD 27.04
Puerto Natales to El Calafate: USD 33.56
JFK to El Calafate, Ushuaia to JFK: 83,535 Chase Reserve Points, worth USD 1,253.03. I was torn about paying with my card or using my points. Ultimately, I decided to use my points because this was such a last minute trip.
El Calafate to Ushuaia: USD 272.81. Paying with my card was the better value here.
Hosterias & Hotels
El Chaltén 2 nights: USD 140.00
El Calafate 3 nights: USD 452.43. This was my biggest financial regret of the trip. I wanted to stay at a nice place once during the trip, and while the hotel was pretty nice, it wasn't worth the cost for a solo trip like mine.
Puerto Natales 3 nights: USD 277.15
Ushuaia 3 nights: USD 136.59
14,000 ARS: 350 USD
100,000 CLP: 150 USD
I used this cash for food, fees, cabs, and incidentals.
6,000 ARS went to postage and postcards 😅. I usually don’t send so many postcards on my travels, but I went overboard due to the unique nature of this trip. The folks I sent postcards to really appreciated it however, and I enjoy sharing my experiences with my loved ones, so I will likely budget for this spend on my next trip.
Perito Moreno: USD 95.98.
Kayak en Patagonia: USD 332.80.
Isla Martillo: USD 149.71.
The Kayak & Isla Martillo experiences were worth every penny, even if a guided experience was the only way we were allowed to do them. If I were to do the same itinerary again, I would’ve spent less money on a van to the Perito Moreno glacier, and simply take a regular bus there, which would’ve let me take my time.
Total Out of Pocket
For 2 weeks of travel, this was a lot of money. The poor hotel choice in El Calafate, not thinking about my post card list ahead of time, and last minute experience costs ultimately drove this cost up significantly. Even taking the post card costs aside, I could’ve easily shaved off USD 1,000.
In addition, at first glance one might think prices in Argentina and Chile would be lower than that of, say New York City. Due to the high cost of living in the remote regions of Patagonia however, these costs can add up pretty quickly.
Lessons learned for next time.
The fact that I’m able to learn from such an expensive lesson is not lost on me. I feel, and I know that I am, extremely fortunate to be able to afford such a trip last minute.
Being vegan and recently gluten-free (currently getting tested for Celiac disease), eating in Patagonia was a major challenge. Here are lists of restaurants that I found and consistently returned to that were more than accomodating.
Curcuma. Exclusively a plant-based, gluten-free, and raw place. I was really pleasantly surprised. The food was delicious, and the all-women staff were amazing. They also offer lunch boxes for your hiking trips. If you aren’t able to book it a day in advance, just go there that morning and be prepared to wait 15 minutes while they make it for you.
Bocanada. A woman-run sushi place that had gluten-free and vegan options. Absolutely delicious. The soy sauce is not-gluten free.
Olivia Bagels & Coffee Shop. They have gluten-free bread which makes for a mean avo toast, and delicious smoothies.
Guayoyo Café & Bistro. They have delicious nachos (chips are made with corn) and a delish vegan dessert.
Last Hope Distillery. They dub themselves the southern-most distillery in the world. They have a smashing gin made with calafate berry.
I ended up using a lot of the bars and oatmeal packets I brought on this leg of the trip, due to a lack of notable options for eating.
Marcopolo Freelife. Not exclusively gluten-free or vegan, but they have great options - including gluten-free pizza.
There's usually one gluten-free vegan friendly spot in each location that I've been able to find, with the exception of Puerto Natales.
Hosterias & Hotels Post-Mortem
Nothing bad to say here. I highly recommend every single place I stayed at, even the one in El Calafate (if you really want to pay that much money, that is). The facilities were well kempt and the staff were always helpful with any questions I had.
I highly recommend brushing up on your Spanish if you’re going to Patagonia. I was lucky that I was able to utilize my broken high school level Spanish and get by (and even get better!). You will find many people who speak English, especially in Puerto Natales. However, there are just as many folks who don't speak English.
I do believe in being respectful whenever I travel. This means making the effort to learn the local language. At the most basic level of effort, I try to memorize the bare minimum that I would need and download an offline dictionary that’ll help me translate.
Personal note of pride: It wasn't until near the end of the trip when I was relaxing in a cafe in Ushuaia and conversing with the waiter in Spanish, that someone finally realized that Spanish wasn’t my first language. I messed up a word while asking for the check. The waiter’s compliments on my Spanish felt really good!
Every moment of this trip was jaw-dropping and astonishing. I am definitely returning to Patagonia some day – specifically El Chaltén and Puerto Natales.
The trekking in El Chaltén is so spectacularly well maintained and beautiful, that I simply need to do it again. Next time I’ll camp down at the base of Fitz Roy and hike up in the morning to catch the mystical views.
I missed out on trekking in Torres del Paine, so I’ll be back to do the full circuit.
Ushuaia was lovely, but the only time I’ll go back is likely for an inevitable Antarctica expedition when I’m 60 and have more money in the bank.
El Calafate was lovely, but there’s no need to go back except because I will likely have to, as it’s a transportation hub.
Patagonia was amazing and I’ll be back.