This time two years ago. Rich and I were sitting in our courtyard in Newtown, NSW, Australia sharing a bottle of red wine.
It was time to dream a little and think about our trip to South America.
The big ticket bucket-list items were locked away like Machu Picchu, staying overnight in the Amazon, expeditions to Galapagos and Antarctica, and tickets to Rio Carnival 2015. We now had to fill in the gaps.
And there were a lot of gaps…
Why go to Patagonia?
I google imaged Chile and Argentina for travel inspiration. I practically swan-dived into my laptop screen when I saw glaciers, aquamarine lakes, and snow-capped mountains. I made mental notes of the names.
Then I looked at the excel doc I had open with the suggested route from Bolivia to Argentina via UNESCO towns and wineries.
It didn’t match up.
The Patagonia landscape was speaking to us or perhaps (ironically) it was the Chilean red wine. After another glass, we thought “stuff it” and shifted gears opting instead for a 3-week overland and hiking trip through Patagonia. One more glass was needed to toast our very mature decision-making skills.
Now fast forward to early December 2014 where Rich and I were sitting in a cafe in La Paz when we start thinking about our trip to Patagonia.
We had secured spots on the popular 3-week overland trip with Dragoman. We re-read the tour notes and quickly realised that we could replace our office jobs of sitting, with 8-hours of hiking every day on this trip!
To traverse the region like a pro, read on for Tripmasher’s guide to Patagonia for novice hikers.
You might be thinking what qualifies me to write this post?
- I am a rookie hiker. The first and only proper hike I’ve ever completed was the Inca Trail one month before arriving in Patagonia. Call me unfit and a bit lazy.
- Prior to South America, what was meant to be a leisurely walk around a Sydney national park turned into chaos when I managed to cut my leg up on a sharp rock. Call me clumsy.
- Judging by our matching his’n’her Kathmandu outfits we had the gear but no idea. Okay, Rich looks more like a mountain man with those wild locks, but you can see that I’m finding my way.
- Oh! and my hiking shoes are 12 years old held together by super glue.
So let’s dive into Patagonia for us newbie hikers.
Starting with the basics: Where is Patagonia?
Patagonia is a vast region covering the southern end of both Chile and Argentina, basically the ‘sticky-out’ bit at the bottom of South America. See our route below marked in orange pins. The grey pins are the activities or sites we wish we had the time and budget to afford. We certainly covered the length of Patagonia crisscrossing back ‘n’ forth from Chile to Argentina. All in all, I cannot fault our 3 week trip from Santiago to Ushuaia with Dragoman. We definitely got to see the best of the region.
Sold! So how to get to Patagonia?
We overlanded by bus from Bolivia to Chile via the Atacama desert and through Salar de Uyuni. We highly recommend this option if you are travelling south and if you have the time. If you have 2-3 weeks to explore the region then you will want to fly directly into either Chile or Argentina. The good news is that LAN airlines have great flight options.
To access the Chilean Patagonia you would fly into Santiago and then opt to overland south OR if time is limited catch an additional short flight to Punta Arenas to access the heart of Patagonia on the Chilean side with sights like Torres del Paine National Park.
To access the Argentinan Patagonia fly into Buenos Aires Ezeiza International Airport and catch a short flight to Bariloche or El Calafate.
Show me the pretty! Where to go/Things to do in Patagonia (in pictures)
Patagonia covers a region of over 1000 miles so deal with the fact you will not be able to get everywhere and cover everything. The good news is that we DID NOT find a place that sucked. Everywhere was stunning! Plus as a novice hiker, you may want to stick to the highlights for your first visit and break up your days of trekking with some downtime activities. We loved:
Pucon-Huerquehue National Park, Chile
Hanging Glacier of Queulat, Chile
Be a Gaucho for a day at Cerro Castillo National Reserve, Chile
Cueva de las Manos (Cave of Hands), Argentina
El Chaltén and Mount Fitzroy, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina
El Calafate and Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina
Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile
What we wish we got to do in Patagonia
We wish we had more time and to be honest more money to be able to accommodate more activities like:
Ice-hiking on Perito Moreno Glacier
Marble Caves, Chile
Boat out to Glacier Grey
Can a novice hiker complete the W Trek?
Absolutely! I would recommend setting aside 4-5 days to incorporate the National Park and trek as part of your Patagonian adventure.
I will link to a separate post about the W trek in the next day or so. What I will say is that we completed 3 out of the 4 days. We could have paid an additional supplement for the extra section, but we couldn’t afford it. I was easily the slowest in the group and what I remember as my biggest complaint was that my shoes were not great for the terrain or very supportive. Don’t get me wrong. It does test your legs and your muscle recovery, but totally doable.
Budget and travel tips for Patagonia
- Patagonia is not cheap – budget at least 50% more than you expect to spend because the remoteness of some of the locations makes daily spend on food, accommodation, and travel on par with European cities.
- Where to eat – Even with many of the meals included as part of the Dragoman overland trip, the times we ate out we ended up walking to the edges of town to find affordable food. Otherwise, you are forever eating empanadas or spending a lot more than you would like.
- The wine is cheap – This is the good news, so you can enjoy a glass or two (or more) as a deserved reward for all the hiking.
- Money – Withdraw the money you need for at least 4-5 days at a time at the major city stops you are passing such as Bariloche, Puerto Natales, Punta Arenas and El Calafate. Be aware that the ATM in El Chalten does not always work and given it’s the only one, often has run out of money.
- Card skimming – Note that card skimming scams are in operation in the Patagonia area. A handful of us got burnt with card skimming in El Calafate. Thankfully the money was returned, but be sure to check with you financial institution how something like this is handled.
- Bring a backup credit/debit card – If your card is skimmed then your account will likely be deactivated meaning your card will no longer work. So ensure you have a backup card from another financial institution or at least from a separate account. This will make a shitty situation at least a little better when you are able to use your secondary/backup card.
- Do not carry fresh fruit, meat or dairy across the border into Chile. They don’t like it. No seriously, there are some ridiculous stories of people getting fined $150USD for an apple.
- Town names – Be aware that some town names may sound like they are near the similarly named attraction eg Perito Moreno and Perito Moreno Glacier. Do not make this mistake.
- For all female hikers. If you plan to buy a lot of your hiking gear from a specialised outdoor/adventure store check out the men’s section for items like socks or fleeces. I found my fleece for $30 cheaper in the men’s section than the exact same ‘female version’ was priced.
Full Patagonia tour with Dragoman
I’d highly recommend it for novice hikers and particularly if you are a first-timer to South America and you have zero Spanish under your belt.
We specifically chose the overland trip with Dragoman because in the 3 weeks we covered the length of the Patagonia region taking in the best of the scenery with a new-found group of buddies! I also promptly lost my sleeping bag on the border of Bolivia to Chile which I needed for Patagonia. Thankfully, there was a spare I could use to avoid buying a new one. I know…call me forgetful, but also resourceful. Yes?
We also got to camp in some of the most extraordinary sites in the area that you wouldn’t get with taking public buses from town to town:
When to visit Patagonia?
If you are a novice hiker to Patagonia like us, then you will want to opt for the warmer summer months, which in the Southern Hemisphere is from November to March. While this is also the peak season for visitors for a number of the destinations, it also means a safety in numbers. Think of it more as a good way to meet people, particularly useful for the treks.
Trust me, it will be adventurous enough when you are camping at Paine Grande in a tent that’s smacking you in the face as you sleep due to the crazy winds.
Patagonia for novice hikers: What to pack?
So what do you do to prepare? A lot more than me. As you know I stupidly relied on my 12-year-old hiking shoes held together with super glue. They survived Machu Picchu, so I figured I was set. I suggest you don’t think like this.
It is unlikely that you will be embarking on multi-day treks, and would suggest sticking to day-hikes particularly if you are a novice and haven’t quite worked your leg muscles in this way before. So the following packing list is for day hikes. If you are going to camp and complete a multi-day trek, then this is not for you and will need to think about sleeping bag type, sleep mat, stove, food and how the heck you plan to carry it all.
Hiking boots – Yep, get them.
Okay seriously, I wish I had some hiking boots that had a lot more grip and ankle support than I wore. Some trails are muddy, some are gravelly, some are packed dirt, some are covered with a light layer of snow, and some are a combination of all of these things. You would benefit from an all-terrain sole and do wear them in before you depart.
Fleece – Uh-huh.
Patagonia weather is notoriously unpredictable, so a warm layer is a must.
Water/windproof jacket – Smart move!
A necessity to beat the harsh winds in Torres del Paine National Park. While we got very lucky experiencing mainly sunny days in Patagonia, it is known to rain and to rain a lot, so a waterproof is a must. Plus you might experience a light sleet shower in El Chalten like we did!
Hiking Pants – Hell no!
I don’t know about you, but just because I’m struggling on the trail, doesn’t mean I need to look uncomfortable too. I have really tried with hiking pants. The zip-convertible-kind, the wide-leg-kind, the high-waisted-kind, the skirt variety and NOT one of them sit right when it comes to my thighs and butt. Of course, if you are proportioned in a normal weigh (see what I did there?) then don’t discount the hiking pants. I would say that most of the women on various trails were wearing them and seemed completely comfortable.
Running leggings – Better option (at least for me).
I opted for running/gym leggings instead. You can team it with some running shorts over the top if you don’t want to flash your panty-line around. I found leggings ideal. They are lightweight, dry fast, and super comfortable. If I had the money, I’d look into compression leggings that are sweat-wicking and help with muscle soreness and recovery.
Beanie – With so many fun designs, let your freak flag fly.
You also lose 30% of your body heat through your head, so it’s a smart move to preserve your heat and keep your ears warm too.
Gloves – To store your rock collection of course!
For your hands dummy!
Hiking poles – Ideal for faux light-saber battles in the moonlight.
Or whatever floats your boat. I’d also like to proffer that you could use them for hiking. I found that they helped me preserve at least 40% of my energy which I needed to get me to the end of the hike.
Water – Mmmm yummy.
Bring a durable and lightweight water bottle to refill. Thankfully while on the hikes, most of the streams have water that is drinkable.
Sunscreen – Don’t bother if you are going for the Rudolph look.
You will be surprised how bright it can get.
Lip balm – The winds are drier than a popcorn fart. Nuff said.
Cold sore cream – Eeeew!
Yep, people get them. Get over it!
Patagonia Chile v Patagonia Argentina
This is almost impossible to answer – look at the photos! We were super fortunate to be able to see both sides. I’ll leave it at that.
Honestly, if you do have a preference, please let me know in the comments section below. Would love to know which way people lean.
Hopefully, this has helped you navigate Patagonia as a novice hiker. I’ll be adding to it, so do let me know if you have any more tips to offer.
Patagonia is not as daunting as it may seem. Yes, you will hear stories of people who have completed Everest base camp or some crazy multi-day hike in New Zealand or Switzerland. But it is possible and totally within your reach even as a novice hiker or tubby traveller like me.