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.

General Information

Language

Although Matt and I were able to "get by" with our limited Spanish, I would strongly recommend brushing up on what you may already know, or taking a course prior to traveling. Several times we felt like the stereotypical Americans who could speak only one language fluently with a smattering in another. This isn't a great feeling when the Germans next to you are asking questions in English and ordering their meal in fluent Spanish. Friendly smiles and laughter help smooth out the vocabulary blanks, but any effort on your part to converse in Spanish will be appreciated even if it's not perfect. Don't be shy!

Even if you do speak Spanish, you may be thrown off by the accent and word use that varies from the Spanish of Mexico (what we were accustomed to hearing.) If we were confused we would ask the person "Mas despacio por favor?" (slower please) and often were surprised to find they had asked a question that we understood, but the accent had confused us. In many cases the letter 's' was dropped and the most common word for an object was not the one we were used to using.

As an additional source of help, we took the Lonely Planet Latin American Spanish Phrasebook with us and found it very helpful and worth its weight in our packs. We highly recommend it.

Money

Both Chile and Argentina have their own version of the peso. Getting ahold of either currency in the US, prior to your trip, may be difficult and you will likely get screwed on the exchange rate and fees. The best approach is probably to bring a Visa/Mastercard Debit Card and hit the first ATM you see. There were several in the Santiago airport. All of the towns we visited, with the exception of El Chalten, had ATM machines that worked fine with our cards. Pulling out cash in country and using your credit card when necessary is the best way to guarantee a good exchange rate. US dollars were taken in some places. It is important to remember that a "reciprocity" fee is charged to Americans entering Chile. It is paid at customs and it must be paid in US cash. The fee at the time of our trip was $100. As the name implies, it is a reciprocal fee based on what the US charges Chilean citizens for a tourist visa. Argentina has no such fee.

Food

Detailed information about particular places to eat and our 'reviews' of the menu items can be found in the information for each town, however here's a brief overview.

Chile - Generally speaking, we weren't in love with the food of Chile, but I think this is because the region is known for its seafood (all that coastline), and Matt and I aren't big seafood fans. We ate the 'alternates' of beef, chicken, and french fries, lots of fries. You'll find staples like hamburgers and sandwiches with a few variations like the widespread use of mayonnaise. A visit to a grocery store is worth the time to see how a good portion of an aisle is dedicated to selling mayonnaise in every size and packaging type available. Our favorite local menu items were the 'Empanadas'. Imagine homemade Hot Pockets stuffed with flavorful beef and vegetables - yum. I also found that vegetable soup was a great standby if I wasn't up to having fried beef covered with cheese.

Argentina - This country is known worldwide for it's beef and it's a well-deserved fame. I think three of the best dinners I've ever eaten were in El Calafate alone. The beef is flavorful, tender, and completely affordable. The lamb is also excellent. After dinner (and before) Matt and I fell victim to the numerous 'Artesianal' chocolate and ice cream shops. I just cannot say enough about the incredible things to eat in this country; make sure to come hungry.

On the Trail - Grocery stores in this region are geared to the trekker. We would encourage you to buy most of your food once you arrive instead of packing it ahead of time. Punta Arenas has a fabulous grocery / general items store (described under the Punta Arenas heading) where you can purchased packaged dry goods made and packaged for the trail.

Gear Recommendations

Matt and I were pleasantly surprised to find that we packed very well for this trip. Basically, pack as you would for a multi-day cold/wet/windy trip with a few warmer days mixed in.

We went back an forth on whether to pack a stove or buy one down there. Our biggest question before we left was, "Will we be able to travel with our MSR WhisperLite and empty MSR fuel bottles on airlines post 9/11?" We decided to chance it and cleaned all items thoroughly and left the bottles uncapped. When we arrived at the SF airport, our exact stove and fuel bottles were in the plastic display case marked "Forbidden". Now, officially our airline (American) and the FAA have no policies governing these items as long as there is no flammable substance on / in them. (Obviously you can't travel with fuel, etc…) We kept the items in our pack with notes attached describing what the items were used for, and how they were prepped for flight. We took 9 flights and passed through 6 airports to and from Patagonia with no problems. If need be, you can also buy all of these things down there in several of the towns (we saw them in Punta Arenas & Puerto Natales at hardware and sporting good stores). If you choose to bring a white gas stove, as we did, white gas goes by the name "bencina blanca" and is available throughout the area. Check ferreterias (hardware stores) or sporting goods stores first.

Here are some other gear-related thoughts:

  • Ditch the poncho - it's way too windy in this region to use one.
  • Backpack rain cover - Beyond rain, this helps keep your pack together on bus trips. Important Note: Tie and cinch your cover to your pack. Don't learn this the hard way in a surprise windstorm.
  • Opt towards the heavy duty raingear - Gore-tex is good
  • Sturdy 3 season tent is plenty
  • Learn to tie guy lines - have we mentioned the wind enough?
  • Trekking poles - the trails are steep and we found these very useful
  • Pack towel - not everyplace you will stay will have a nice clean towel for your use
  • Consult a travel clinic for any recommended vaccines or travel medications
  • Lots of ziplock bags of all sizes
  • Pencil - it's erasable and doesn't get all over your stuff

Seasons

South America's seasons are reversed for Northern Hemisphere dwellers, so our Nov / Dec trip took place in late spring / early summer. However, remember the latitude! We were so far south that it was similar to traveling in the coast range of British Columbia. We experienced blizzard like snowstorms, high wind gusts, rain and sunshine (sometimes all within 48 hours). Expect chilly and sudden changes in the weather and make sure your gear is easy to put on/up and take off/down.

Books, Maps, and Websites

Lonely Planet's Trekking in the Patagonian Andes (Book) - This is by far the most targeted book for those planning a hiking/trekking trip to Patagonia. The 2nd edition of this book has earned a bad reputation for inaccuracy and out of date information. Despite these shortcomings, we still found it to be pretty useful when planning our trip. A 3rd edition of this book was released in November of 2003 (too late for our benefit) and is said to be a much improved version over its predecessor. This book should be available through any large online bookstore

Lonely Planet's Latin American Spanish Phrasebook (Book) - This is the only "language" book we brought and we found it to be very helpful. It is small enough to tote around throughout your trip, and it has most of the essential phrases and words that you will need. This book should be available through any large online bookstore.

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