Snow-capped mountains, glistening lakes, and locals who leave their front doors unlocked because it is so safe. This my friend is Patagonia! Planning a trip to Patagonia can be simultaneously exciting and overwhelming so let’s remove the latter from the equation and ensure you have the best trip possible.
My love affair with Patagonia started in San Carlos de Bariloche. Located in the foothills of the Andes in the Rio Negro Province, Bariloche is considered ‘the gateway to Patagonia. Right off the bat, I knew Patagonia was going to be one of my favorite places in all of Argentina, and even South America.
This guide will run you through everything you need to know to travel to Patagonia: Transportation, where to spot wildlife, best hikes you can’t miss, budget estimation, and even a rough itinerary. Time to delve into the nitty-gritty planning modus of your Patagonia trip.
Where is Patagonia located?
Patagonia is not a country, in fact, it is a geographical region spanning two countries: Chile and Argentina. The region encompasses the southernmost part of South America and spans a whopping 800.000 square kilometers (310.000 square miles).
In its folds, you will find the Andes Mountains, fjords, glaciers, deserts, and even steppe. Patagonia is bound by the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Atlantic Ocean on the east. Interestingly enough the Andes are the perfect natural border between Argentina and Chile
Unlike other parts of South America, Spanish conquistadores never managed to penetrate the wild landscapes of Patagonia. The region remained uncolonized for many centuries and served as a stronghold for the indigenous Mapuches. To this day it is one of the least populated places in the world.
How to get to Patagonia
The answer to that question depends on where you are coming from and how much time you calculated in for traveling in Patagonia. Let me break it down for you!
Generally speaking, the fastest way to visit Patagonia is by air. Getting to Patagonia from abroad (outside of Chile & Argentina) will entail a stop in either Buenos Aires (Argentina) or Santiago (Chile) before catching a connecting flight to Patagonia.
Contrary to popular belief, I found that booking flights to Patagonia with one of the low-cost airlines (Flybondi for flights to Bariloche in Argentina, Sky Airline for all of Chilean Patagonia) was at times cheaper (and a lot faster) than relying on the network of busses. This only holds true for domestic flights (e.g. Buenos Aires to Bariloche for example). Flights between Chile and Argentina were much more expensive than the bus.
I opted to fly into Bariloche from Mendoza. This was the only flight I took for the entirety of my trip to Patagonia, relying on buses and hitchhiking (perfectly safe!) to get me around the various highlights of the region. More on that later on.
How to get to Chilean Patagonia from Santiago
Flying to Chilean Patagonia from Santiago
International flights into Santiago de Chile fly into the Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport (SZL), connecting flights to Chilean Patagonia leave from the same airport.
Direct flights run daily between Santiago and Punta Arenas (3h20), Puerto Montt (2h), and Balmaceda (2h20). Limited (seasonal) flights run between Santiago and Puerto Natales (3h20) as this is the closest airport to the Torres del Paine these flights tend to sell out quickly.
Good to know: Two airlines service this region of Patagonia: LATAM and the low-cost Sky Airlines. Check timetables and compare prices via Skyscanner
Taking the bus between Santiago and Chilean Patagonia
Taking a bus from Santiago to Chilean Patagonia is not to be underestimated to give you an example getting from Santiago to Punta Arenas takes 45hours and requires a change (Santiago to Osorno (12h), Osorno to Punta Arenas (30h)). Luckily busses in Chile are very comfortable, come with AC and an on-board toilet.
Overnight busses tend to provide food and drinks, though in my experience this was a bit of a hit and miss with food sometimes amounting to dried snacks. When I visited back in 2018 there were no vegetarian options available onboard.
Busses or micros with overnight journeys have four types of seats available:
Clásico: Regular seat, may or may not recline slightly
Semi-cama: Comparable to an airline seat
Cama: Seat that reclines 180°
Delux/premium cama: Seat that reclines 180°, pillows, blankets, and onboard hostess service included.
Good to know: The two largest bus companies in Chile are Turbus & Pullman, a host of regional bus lines crisscross the country. Check timetables and book tickets online via Busbud
How to get to Argentinian Patagonia from Buenos Aires
Flying into Argentinian Patagonia from Buenos Aires
International flights into Argentina stop in the Buenos Aires Ezeiza International Airport (EZE) while the majority of the domestic flights leave from Aeroparque Jorge Newberry (AEP) in Buenos Aires.
Airports in Patagonia reachable from Buenos Aires include: Bariloche (2h30), El Calafate (3h15), Tierra del Fuego (3h30) and Ushuaia (3h30), Puerto Madryn (2h), Rio Gallegos (3h15).
Good to know: Three airlines serve this region of Argentina: LATAM Airlines, Aerolineas Argentinas and low-cost airline Flybondi. Check timetables & compare prices via Skyscanner
Taking the bus between Buenos Aires and Argentinian Patagonia
Busses or colectivo are very similar to those in Chile and just as comfortable. As is the case in Chile, four different types of tickets are available: Comun, semi-cama, cama, super cama, or ejecutivo. Meals and drinks are usually offered on overnight buses. The ejecutivo seats have the option of wine or alcoholic beverage onboard.
Officially vegetarian meals are available, though in practice this is usually not the case. Getting from Buenos Aires to Bariloche is a good 24-hour journey. Busses run daily and usually tend to leave Buenos Aires at midday.
Good to know: The busroute between Buenos Aires and Bariloche is serviced by a number of buscompanies: Via Bariloche, El-valle and Crucero Norte. Check timetables and book tickets online via Busbud
The best time to visit Patagonia
When to go to Patagonia depends on the region, given its size, it is no surprise that there are great variations in the weather, not just from north to south, but from coastal to inland also. What is deemed the best season to visit Patagonia will depend entirely on you and your personal preference.
Temperatures will start to rise from November to December, which can also mean that popular parks such as Tierra Del Fuego National park will start to get busier. The warm summer months then run through to the end of February and can bring with them surprising heat but also surprising rainfall. This time of year will be the busiest so you will need to ensure you book your activities and plan your Patagonia itinerary in advance.
The winter months of May through to August are generally cold and wet with many areas becoming frozen and inaccessible to tourists, Torres del Paine National Park for example is likely to be closed in the winter. If you are planning a Patagonia trip in these months just be sure to do your research first to ensure you can actually tick off your bucket list plans.
How to get around while traveling in Patagonia
As I may have mentioned, Patagonia is huge, huge, and sparsely populated. You will find that large areas of Patagonia are actually uninhabited and it is just vast stretches of land, scenic land admittedly.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, when you are traveling around Patagonia allow for enough time to get from point A to point B. It might look like nothing on Google Maps but can easily mean a 15-hour bus ride.
Hitchhiking around Patagonia
The most budget-friendly way to get around Patagonia (both Argentinian and Chilean) is through hitchhiking. Unlike many other places in the world, hitchhiking is a perfectly acceptable means of transport used by both locals and visitors alike.
I and a fellow female traveler hitchhiked all across Patagonia and never once felt unsafe. We traveled in the back of a pick-up van, in the front seat of a truck, with families or other travelers who rented a car. I would never hitchhike back home in
Europe, but in Patagonia, it soon became second nature.
Renting a car in Patagonia
Driving in Patagonia is the fastest and most flexible way to get around. Roads are well maintained and getting to the various highlights of Patagonia is easy enough, that is if you download maps.me in advance as Google Maps tends to get a little lost.
To rent a car you will need a valid driver’s license (with a picture ID) and be at least 18 years old. Slight surcharges may be added for drivers who have not had their license for 2 full years. A self-drive Patagonia itinerary is very common for travelers who are tight on time and willing to splurge. Car rentals start at US$70 US/day.
BOOK YOUR RENTAL CAR IN ADVANCE
Trip to Patagonia costs
Argentina and Chile are the two most expensive countries to visit in South America. Due to its remote location and harsh climate, fruits and vegetables do not grow in abundance in Patagonia. Instead, they are transported from other parts of the country driving up the costs for meals. Add to that the large distances to be covered between the various Patagonia attractions (by bus, car, or flight) and you have yourself a costly holiday.
Average cost breakdown for visiting Patagonia
ACCOMMODATION: Average cost for a dorm bed per person is US$25/night, Guesthouses start at US$60 per room (US$30 a person) and hotels tend to cost US$80 and upwards.
Browse accommodations in Argentian Patagonia and Chilean Patagonia.
TRANSPORTATION: This was by far my largest expense. Calculate at least US$70/day if you want to rent a car, taking a bus will cost anywhere between US$25-US$80 (depending on the route and type of ticket). Book them in advance on via Busbud.
FOOD: Average cost of a simple lunch is US$15/person, the average cost of dinner is US$25/person
ENTRANCE FEES & TOURS: Torres del Paines CLP 25.600 (US$32), Perito Moreno ARS 800 (US$13), Tierra del Fuego National Park ARS 560 (US$7), Rio Tranquilo Marble Caves boat tour CLP 10.000 (US$14)
ADDITIONAL EXPENSES: Fees for ATMs (see below), purchase of hiking gear (if you did not bring it), the cost of laundry (for backpackers), and souvenirs.
Tips for traveling to Patagonia on a budget
In the 6 weeks that I traveled in Patagonia, I spent US$1500, this includes all accommodation, transportation, food, entrance tickets, and activities. This does not include my flights to Patagonia. These four simple tips kept my Patagonia trip costs very low:
COUCHSURFING – Save on accommodation and meet new local friends at the same time. I used couchsurfing extensively on my solo travels through South America and it saved me a large chunk of my budget. If you are traveling solo as a woman, I do highly recommend you read the reviews before you request a stay with a host (for your own safety).
COOK – The majority of my meals were cooked at either my Couchsurfing hosts’ homes or in hostels. While trying local cuisine is one of my favorite activities to do, as a vegetarian in Argentina and Chile I found the options in restaurants slightly disappointing.
HITCHHIKE – As mentioned prior, hitchhiking is super easy in Patagonia and a great way to meet locals. The only point where it does get a bit trickier is at the border crossings between Argentina and Chile. Be patient, create a sign saying where you want to go, and don’t give up. Sometimes it takes time (our longest wait was 2 hours) but you will always get to your destination in the end.
BE FLEXIBLE WITH YOUR SCHEDULE – Costs for transportation tend to vary. At times taking the bus the next day meant saving 50% off the ticket price.
Top 5 things to do in Patagonia
No Patagonia travel guide is complete without mentioning some of the infamous big-ticket items that are available in the region. This is but a sprinkling of places to visit and things to do in Patagonia. Alternatively, check out a full northern Patagonia itinerary that hits all the highlights.
1. Hiking in Patagonia (Chile & Argentina)
Patagonia is full of outdoor adventures with one of the most popular being hiking. In fact, the first thing to throw in your bag when packing for Patagonia should be a pair of decent hiking shoes and a windbreaker.
Being a city girl I was not expecting to fall in love with the hikes in Patagonia. I started off slow with small hikes around Bariloche, eventually working up the courage to trek the O-trek in Torres del Paine. It is noteworthy to say that I did not hike alone, most of the hikes were undertaken with a female friend I met while traveling in Patagonia.
Best hikes in Patagonia
1. Prettiest day hike: Fitz Roy Hike (Argentina) – 21.4 km/13.3 mi
2. Glacier Hike: Perito Moreno Glacier Hike (Argentina)
3. Most adventurous hike: Crossing from Villa O’Higgins to El Chaltén (Chile/Argentina) – 22 km/ 13.67 mi
4. Best off the beaten path hike: The Refugio Otto Meiling trail (Argentina) -14 km / 8.7 mi
5. Best long-distance trek: The Circuit Torres del Paine National Park (Chile) – 100km / 68 mi.
2. Spot wildlife in Patagonia (Chile & Argentina)
Spotting wildlife in Patagonia is surprisingly easy. In some places like Torres del Paine National Park, you will see more guanacos than human beings. For those who don’t know, guanacos are native to South America and are akin to a Lama.
Where to go whale watching
Wildlife spotting extends to the waters around Patagonia and one of the best places to whale watch has to be the Valdes Peninsula on Argentina’s Atlantic coastline. In this area, and more specifically the town of Puerto Madryn you can expect to find plenty of day trips available to get the best view of the whales, you may even get to spot some orcas, sea lions, and other water-based wildlife on your way.
Mating season runs from June to December, so this is the best time to visit to catch a glimpse of one of nature’s most majestic beasts.
Tip: Book your whale watching tour in advance if you are planning on visiting in high season!
Where to see penguins in Patagonia
Penguins are some of Argentina’s friendliest inhabitants and a highlight for many visitors traveling to Patagonia. One of the best places to see them is the peninsula of Punta Tombo. Here you will find one of the largest colonies of Magellanic penguins in South America.
Over half a million penguins arrive from Brazil in September and stay until April, making this the best time of year to come and walk amongst the penguins, yes really.
Save Money: Book the top-rated Get your Guide day trip from Puerto Madryn to Punta Tombo and see Penguins in the wild. Check prices and book online.
3. Hear the ice cracking at the Perito Moreno Glacier (Argentina)
Perito Moreno Glacier at Los Glaciares National park is one of the most visited areas in Argentina. It is a staggering sight of natural beauty, the deep hues of blue ice is unlike anything you will have ever seen on this planet.
The glacier is known to be rather vociferous, as the ice shifts, it emits an ear-shattering cracking sound. Popular activities include a day tour from El Calafate (including a boat ride) to Perito Moreno and a Perito Moreno Glacier Hike!
Location: Los Glaciares National Park, Argentinian Patagonia
Entrance Fee: US$800 ARS (US$13 USD)
4. Travel to the ends of the earth to Tierra del Fuego (Argentina)
Tierra del Fuego translated into ‘Land of Fire’ is the southernmost part of South America and is often referred to as ‘the ends of the Earth’. Unsurprisingly therefore it is usually the finishing point for many Patagonia travel expeditions.
Most travelers will aim to go to Ushuaia, the southernmost city, which is surrounded by beautiful snow-capped mountains and steeped in fascinating history. Popular activities include hiking in the Tierra del Fuego National Park.
Location: Tierra del Fuego, Argentinian Patagonia
Entrance Fee: 560 ARS (US$7)
5. Discover the 50 shades of blue at the marble caves in Puerto Rio Tranquilo (Chile)
Back to the Chilean side of Patagonia now where you can kayak or sail amongst one of the world’s natural wonders, the marble caves in Puerto Rio Tranquilo.
This unassuming little village in Chilean Patagonia grew very popular in recent years thanks to the presence of breathtaking marble caves or Cuevas de Marmol that have been gently formed by nature over the last 6000 years. For me personally, it was one of the most unexpected highlights of Patagonia.
Visiting the caves up close requires a short speedboat ride (warning for those suffering from seasickness as I do, this ride can get very bumpy) or alternatively, you can take a half-day kayak trip.
Location: Puerto Rio Tranquilo, Chilean Patagonia
Fee: Boat Tour – 10.000 CLP (US$12); renting a kayak – 30.000 CLP (US$37). Head to the lake in Puerto Rio Tranquilo and book a tour from one of the local vendors.
Food in Patagonia
Unsurprisingly the food in Patagonia is not dissimilar to the rest of Argentina or Chile. Essentially it is all about the meat. Specifically, Patagonia is renowned for ‘Cordero al Palo’ or Spit Roast lamb. Another popular choice that is specific to Patagonia is ‘Filete de Guanaco’.
As a vegetarian, the national dishes are not really my thing, that said vegetarian options are possible to find, even if they are not commonplace. What you can expect is for them to be accompanied by a lot of cheese. I would recommend stocking up on vegetarian-friendly supplies from the supermarkets in bigger cities such as Puerto Natales, to see you through.
You can also expect to come across a fair amount of Dulce de Leche (Argentina) or Manjar (Chile), also known as caramelized milk or milk jam in English. My local Chilean and Argentinian friends were absolutely addicted to the stuff! Do as the locals do during your trip to Patagonia and carry a sandwich with a rich spread of Dulce de Leche during your hikes.
Responsible tourism tips for your Patagonia trip
KEEP IT CLEAN – Whatever you bring into the National Parks, take it right back out with you. Carry an extra bag to deposit your trash in while hiking in Patagonia (especially for multi-day hikes).
REUSABLE WATER BOTTLE: Water comes straight from the mountains and is as fresh as it gets. Ditch the plastic bottles and invest in a good old fashioned reusable water bottle
PAY YOUR PARK FEES: Support the National Parks and pay the (sometimes hefty) park fees. Showing the government that conservation is worth investing in will make them a lot more likely to renew their efforts to protect the land (vs. selling it off to international investors).
SUPPORT LOCAL COMMUNITIES: Stay in locally run guesthouses, invest in small locally-run tours. Delve deeper into the topic via this article on Responsible Vacations
Traveling in Patagonia FAQ
Finally and just in case my comprehensive guide to Patagonia has missed anything here is a helpful quick-fire FAQ session. Do let me know in the comments below if you have any additional questions that I might have forgotten.
Is exploring Patagonia safe?
Patagonia is one of the safest places I have traveled to, much safer than my home city of Brussels. People are kind and super happy to help out in any which way they can. As with any new destination, make sure to keep a close eye on your belongings.
Using ATMs in Patagonia
Taking out money in both Argentina and Chile is expensive and each transaction is coupled with a hefty transaction fee. In Argentina the maximum amounts I could withdraw varied between 2000 ARS and 3000 ARS, the surcharge was always 200 ARS irrespective of the amount withdrawn.
The Banco de la Nacion in Argentina charges a 120 ARS surcharge and was the cheapest place I found to withdraw money in Argentina. Most cities and towns did allow payment with (credit) card and did not charge a fee.
Is it easy to cross the border between Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia?
When I traveled to Argentina I did make my way down by border-hopping. Crossing the border between Chile and Argentina a total of 6 times. Crossing the border is easy if you know what products you are not allowed to bring into Chile.
The country has a very strict set of rules and scans every passenger and their bags before letting you into the country. I crossed the border on foot, via bus, and even hitchhiking and every single time both my bags and person were checked.
Make sure to declare anything that is plant-, or animal-based. Failure to declare can result in fines running into hundreds of dollars. Previously the official website of the Chilean tourism board had a clear overview of what was allowed in the country, what needed to be declared and what was banned. This list has since disappeared, after a bit of hunting I tracked down this list which should help you out.
Planning a trip to Patagonia in conclusion
Patagonia is quite possible my absolute favorite destination. The combination of raw nature with the warmth en genuine nature of locals is heartwarming on so many levels. Time permitting, explore Patagonia by bus or even better get adventurous and hitchhike your way through this majestic region.
The ideal time to spend in Patagonia is anywhere from 3 weeks to 2 months, depending on how many hikes you want to do and your pace of travel. I spent 6 weeks exploring the various different parts and felt like I could have spent another 6 easy-peasy.
ADDITIONAL RESOURCES FOR TRAVELING IN SOUTH AMERICA