Travel Guide - Patagonia Travel Tips

By Matt & Jody Pritchard

Please Note: It's been about 4 years since we wrote this guide. Since then it's been viewed a few thousand times, and we have received a lot of positive feedback. Much of the information is still relevant, but we've made no substantial efforts to keep it updated. At the very least, the prices are probably out of whack. Keep this in mind as you plan your trip. We hope you enjoy Patagonia.

El Chalten Continued

How to Get There - Getting to El Chalten is an adventure. As far as we know, a bus from El Calafate is the only way to get there, unless you are brave enough to attack 4 - 5 hours of rough, dirt roads in a rental car. The trip is very dusty and very bumpy and several times you may ask yourself where in the hell the driver is taking you. There is one stop midway, for snacks and bathroom use. We suggest putting the rain cover on your pack before loading it into the bus' cargo area, to keep it from being completed covered by dust. A roundtrip ticket from El Calafate to El Chalten was 80 AGP ($26 USD). We used El Chalten Travel, but there are several companies at the El Calafate bus terminal that offer comparable service and rates.

Where to Stay - El Chalten has a handful of places to stay that range from hostels and hospedajes to small hotels. It also has several public (free) and private (not free) campgrounds. We only spent one night in El Chalten (at the Madsen campground), as we were camping in the park for most nights during this portion of our trip. The Madsen campground is located at the far northern end of town, near the trailheads to Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy. It has a lot of room and it is free, but there are no services (including bathrooms) at this site. The other downside to the Madsen campground is that it is a good 1 - 2 km from the center of town. For more accommodations information, refer to the El Chalten website - www.elchalten.com

Where to Eat - We only had a few meals in El Chalten, all of which were tasty and reasonably priced. Patagonicus (Ave. Guemes about a block from Lago del Desierto) is a popular pub in the center of town that serves draught beer and pizza and has other hot drinks. Pangea (corner of Lago del Desierto and Ave. San Martin), is also centrally located and serves up good pizza and a selection of Argentine classics (i.e. beef). There are several panaderias/pastelerias throughout town where you can get a bag full or yummy pastries for pocket change. It's a good way to wait out a rain shower if your stuck a few km from camp. There is reportedly a great chocolate shop in town called Chocolateria that we couldn't seem to find - better luck to you. Again, the El Chalten website referenced above has more information about the food options in town.

Shopping, Etc. - The shopping options in El Chalten are a bit slim, but we were able to find most of what we needed. There are two modestly stocked general stores that have food and souvenirs. There are also a handful of specialty stores scattered throughout town that have souvenirs, trekking supplies, and other assorted items. Aside from the basics, it may be wise to buy the majority of your supplies in El Calafate before heading to El Chalten.

A Brief Guide to Two Parks

Torres del Paine National Park

Prepare to be impressed. Torres del Paine (pronounced PIE-nee), is one of the most breathtaking parklands in the world. The combination or windswept granite monoliths, ice-blue lakes, and glacial expanses make this park a required stop for anyone traveling to Southern Patagonia. The most active area of the park is in and around the Paine massif, a chunk of Andean landscape whose scale and grandeur are nearly incomparable. The Paine Circuit, a 8-10 day circumnavigation of the massif is one of the world's classic treks. Not to be forgotten, the lush, green pampas and beautiful lakes that comprise the majority of the park provide a perfect frame for these mountains and a playground for explorers of all abilities.

How to Get There - The most direct access to TDP is via Puerto Natales. Several bus companies run daily trips into the park during the high season. The ride is about 2.5 - 3 hours long and quite pretty. We took Buses Gomez and paid 11,000 CLP ($18 USD) for our roundtrip tickets. Your bus will most likely enter the park at the Guarderia Laguna Armaga. This is the starting point for several popular treks, including the Paine Circuit. At the park entrance, you will be required to sign in, show your passport, and pay a fee of 8,000 CLP ($13 USD). We got back on the bus and rode as far as Pudeto (20 min further), the launch point for the catamaran across Lago Pehoe. Our bus did continue on to yet a third stop at Hosteria Pehoe. These seem to be the 3 standards stops in the park for most buses. You might be able to find other buses and shuttles to get you around the park to accommodate the starting and ending points for your trek.

Highlights - The crown jewel of the park is the Paine massif, and the Torres del Paine in particular. The Torres del Paine are 3 majestic, granite towers that soar above the canyon of the Rio Ascencio and define the park both in name and scale. Their relief is remarkable and the hike to their base is challenging. Despite the Torres' role as namesake of the park, the Cuernos del Paine are probably the most photographed and recognizable part of the massif. With their unmistakable profile, these windswept granite "horns" are a testament to the climactic and glacial power that has carved the Paine massif and defined this region of the Andes. One of our favorite locations in the park was the Valle Frances (French Valley), which winds its way between the Cumbre Principal and the Cuernos. This area probably offers the best panoramic views of the park and the most impressive alpine setting.

Trail Descriptions and Campsites - What we have below is a quick rundown of some trails within TDP. The scope and the order of these descriptions are based on our route through the park during our trip. We completed the W trek from west to east. The W trek is a great hike for people that want to see the "highlights" of the park without commiting ot the longer Paine Circuit. The W can be done as fast as 3-4 days, but 5-6 would be more comfortable. We took a leisurely 8 days to complete the trip, choosing to stay for 2 nights at a Grey and Cuernos. If you plan to hike the W, the most important part is to understand the general route. Your daily itinerary can be adjusted on the fly depending on what you're up for each day. The fastest way to hike the W is to shuttle you gear along the "base" of the W and day hike up the "arms" of the W. We chose to do the trip from east to west, which we would recommend. It allowed us a climactic finish at the base of Torres del Paine on our last day.

The distances included are very rough approximations, based on readings from a map wheel. None of the maps of the area include accurate distances between points. The maps only include average hiking times, which is a totally subjective way to provide information. We have also included brief descriptions of the campsites along the route we used with some information about the services available at each. In general the campsites cost 3500 CLP ($6 USD) per person per night. All refugios offered drinks, meals, and beds by reservation.

Refugio/Campamento Pehoe to Refugio/Campamento Grey (6.5 mi, 10.5 km one way) - Arrive at Refugio Pehoe via catamaran from Pudeto. The ride takes about 45 min and the price was 10,000 CLP ($16 USD). This hike constitutes the western "arm" of the W trek. From Refugio Pehoe, the trail gradually climbs up a canyon and crests a pass, where you gain the first view of Lago Grey and Glacier Grey - and it is quite a sight. A brief bit of level hiking leads to a long and sometimes steep descent down to the northeastern shore of Lago Grey, where you will find the Refugio Grey. The map said 4 hours - it took us 5. Return via the same route.

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