Ahh Patagonia – beautiful, rugged, remote, intense – so many ways to describe the vast wilderness that covers over 400,000 square miles and two different countries. Planning a trip to Patagonia, deciding where to go and how to get there, especially on a budget, can be quite overwhelming – I know from experience! The long flight to the southern point is enough to intimidate travelers.
Thankfully, it’s 110% totally completely worth it. AND, lucky for you, I’ve outlined all of my research, reasoning, and itinerary details into a Patagonia Planning Guide below so you can have an even better experience yourself.
Like Backpacking? Check out my post on backpacking in Denali National Park, Alaska!
Where to start when planning a trip to Patagonia
What regions do you want to visit?
Patagonia can be broken down into the following main areas
- Lake Region – Puerto Montt (Chilean Side) or Bariloche (Argentinian side)
- El Chalten (mountain town around Fitz Roy, Argentina, no nearby airport)
- Torres Del Paine (famous park in Chile outside of Puerto Natales known for the W circuit trek and O circuit trek to name a few)
- El Calafate, Argentina (backpacker town with lots of hikes and things to do nearby including the famous Perito Moreno glacier)
- Punta Arenas, Chile ( town on the Strait of Magellan, local airport, also known for penguins!)
- Ushuaia/Cape Horn (southern most city, Argentina)
Deciding on which regions to visit depends on what you want to get out of your Patagonia experience and what your timeline/budget is. Getting from one region to the next can be time-consuming and expensive so thoughtfully planning based on your priorities is crucial.
Hiking in Patagonia
El Chalten should be on your list if you’re looking for epic hikes – I’ve outlined everything you need to know about El Chalten here.
For backpacking (some day hike options) you should plan to backpack in Torres Del Paine. If this is on your list, then you should start there and inquire about lodging availability. We didn’t realize that lodging books up in the park FAR in advance, sometimes 3-4 months, so we were at the mercy of the park’s availability when planning our trip.
There are options for day trips or one night stays to see either the Torres or Glacier Grey (I would recommend Torres for sure). I would also recommend using a third party to book Park lodging for you if you can swing the added cost. I go into more detail about the park, lodging options, and the W trek here.
For wildlife (penguins) in Patagonia
Punta Arenas and Ushuaia have lots of penguins that you can book tours to see. While Ushuaia is more difficult to get to than Punta Arenas, you get bonus points for making it all the way to the southern most city in South America.
The Lake Region, obviously, will have the best rafting options. Also, because this region is more north, the weather is a bit more predictable than Torres Del Paine and more southern parts of Patagonia.
Deciding on Transportation in Patagonia
If you’re like me, the more you research each part of Patagonia, the more trouble you have deciding where to go because you want to GO EVERYWHERE AGH! Too many beautiful places, not enough PTO, amiright? Ugh. I digress.
We knew we wanted to maximize our time in the great outdoors so we decided on staying in the area around Torres Del Paine and renting a car to visit El Calafate and El Chalten. That being said, I’ve outlined some things for you to consider when making your own itinerary:
What are your time and money constraints?
The quickest (and most expensive) option to see the most places is to fly. The second quickest and more moderately priced option to cover a good amount of ground is to drive. Finally, a great budget option that takes up a bit more time is to bus.
The more you cross borders when flying, the more it will cost you. Try to plan your trip with this in mind.
Buses are very comfortable, pretty affordable, but obviously take more time. We took a bus from Punta Arenas Airport to Puerto Natales and it had reclining seats and USB ports. Booking a bus was a bit difficult for us. We had issues with the online portals and ended up reaching out to a local travel agency in Puerto Natales to help us book a ticket (Shoutout to Venture Patagonia – so incredibly helpful!)
Renting a car is somewhat affordable but becomes much less affordable if you need to drop it off at a different location than your pick up. Also, almost all of the cars are manuals so if you’re not familiar with stick shift, probably not the way to go.
For reference, a compact car for 5 days cost us $470. I booked via email with Magallanes Rent A Car (conveniently located across from the bus station in Puerto Natales). The route from Puerto Natales to El Chalten was straightforward and paved, no need for anything bigger than a compact and border crossing was easy peasy. You do need a permit to cross with a rental car so make sure to inquire about that with the rental agency.
Our Patagonia Itinerary:
We had two weeks and a moderate budget. We also knew early on that we wanted to complete the W Trek in Torres Del Paine (which I would highly recommend!) and we wanted some time to visit one of the major South American cities we’d be flying through – Santiago, Chile or Buenos Aires, Argentina. Our itinerary looked like this:
- Fly to Santiago, Chile, stay the night then fly to Puerto Natales, Chile. Stay for two nights then head to Torres Del Paine by bus to begin the W trek. **
- Complete the W trek and return to Puerto Natales for a night to recover.
- Rent a car from Puerto Natales and drive to El Calafate, Argentina for the night.
- Drive from El Calafate to El Chalten, Argentina while stopping at Perito Moreno glacier on the way. Stay in El Chalten for 3 nights.
- Drive back to Puerto Natales, return the car, and fly back to Santiago. Stay for 3 nights to explore the city and visit Valparaiso and Maipo Valley (Andes Mountains).
**This was the original plan but our very first flight from home to Atlanta (where we would then fly to Santiago) had a mechanical issue and we lost an entire day of vacation (cue me breaking out in hives and tearful pleas to the gate attendants). Thank God for trip insurance though, which kept us from losing any money (just precious time). We rebooked from Santiago to Punta Arenas and bussed to Puerto Natales. A whopping 48 hours of travel later, we finally arrived in to Patagonia. Always get insurance!
Although I loved my time in Santiago, I wish we went more north and explored the Atacama Desert – something to think about if you’re flying out of Santiago, Chile.
Where to Stay in Patagonia
I used Booking.com and HostelWorld.com for all lodging in Patagonia. We stayed with Hilton and Marriott properties while in Santiago because I’m an avid points user. We had enough points, in fact, to cover our stay in Santiago and our roundtrip flights from PA to Santiago (woo! if you use points and have nifty tricks and tips to share, let’s connect!)
Again, I recommend getting at least a 3 month head start on booking places. We were doing a shoulder season but still found a lot of the more affordable options to be booked.
Where to Stay in Puerto Natales
Yagan House Hostel ($60/night for private room and bath), very clean, kind of tiny but great common area and amazing free breakfast. Free wifi, gear rentals, and luggage storage available as well. Not super central to restaurants or bus station but we walked everywhere with no problem. I’d probably choose somewhere closer to the town square if I had more time to explore Puerto Natales.
Where to Stay in El Calafate
El Calafate – Bustling town filled with restaurants and shops. Definitely worth a stop and grabbing some food at least.
We stayed at Hotel Kapenke $70/night. Decent, a bit dated, breakfast was limited to stale breads but it was clean.
Definitely stop at Mi Rancho while in El Calafate for a nice dinner.
Where to Stay in El Chalten
This might have been my favorite part of the whole trip. I’ll go into more detail about El Chalten later but for lodging – we splurged and stayed at Los Cerros Boutique Hotel. This was mostly because the town booked up so quick and we had limited options – but I do not regret it one bit. We had a large room with a jacuzzi tub that was perfect after hiking for so many days. They had an amazing breakfast spread (can you tell breakfast is important to me? What meal isn’t important though?), incredible views, and helpful staff (shout out Patricio!!). Highly recommend.
Hopefully this post was helpful if you’re planning a trip to the southern most part of the world or perhaps inspired you to add it to your list of destinations! I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences if you’ve been before. Leave a comment below and connect with me on the gram