Patagonia is one of the most remote places on earth and excites the imagination of many travelers. Planning a trip to Patagonia can be a daunting task considering its remoteness and rugged terrain. However, once the planning is completed you will undoubtedly enjoy every moment you spend in this region.
This detailed guide will help first-time or returning visitors with how to plan a trip to Patagonia on their own by detailing different regions, ways to travel, and things to see and experience. Patagonia map and sample itineraries are included to help with planning.
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Where is Patagonia?
Patagonia is at the southern tip of the South American continent and is shared between Chile and Argentina. It is notoriously hard to define Patagonia and according to some of the locals, it constantly keeps changing. For the sake of this article, we will use the map of Patagonia below as a rough guide of what regions are where.
Where to Visit in Patagonia?
It can be hard to decide where to go in Patagonia. Different regions offer different types of adventures.
CHILEAN LAKE DISTRICT – LOS LAGOS REGION
The description of the Chilean Lake District is in the name, the land of many lakes and volcanos at the foothills of the Andes. This is also where famous araucarias trees can be seen everywhere.
The Chilean Lake District is where the famous Carretera Austral starts, the highway that links parts of southern Chile with the mainland and is known for the famous views of the conical Osorno Volcano across Lake Llanquihue.
Aysen Region, or as we learned while traveling through there on our last trip “Ice End”, is home to National Park Patagonia, Laguna San Rafael National Park, Cerro Castillo, Hanging Glacier, and famous Marble Caves. This region, more than any other in Patagonia, makes you feel like there is always more to do and see around here.
When people talk about Patagonia, the Magallanes Region is most likely what they are talking and thinking about. That is because the most popular national park, Torres del Paine is located here. The unpredictable weather, Patagonian winds, jagged mountains, and endless fjords are all part of this remote region.
TIERRA DEL FUEGO
South America’s southernmost tip is shared by Chile and Argentina. Known for its dramatic landscape of snowy mountains, glaciers, and tundra. Ushuaia is the most popular town in the region and is also a gateway to Antarctica.
SOUTHERN ARGENTINE REGION
Southern Argentine Patagonia is to Argentina what the Magallanes Region is to Chile. The Santa Cruz Province is the home of Perito Moreno, Fitz Roy, and many other stunning glaciers and lakes. However, the northern part of the same region is a complete desert with few and in-between places along the way.
NORTHERN ARGENTINE REGION
Northern Patagonia is a lot greener and lush with dense forests, lakes, snow-capped mountains, and vines. San Carlos de Bariloche is the country’s playground for hiking, kayaking, water sports, and skiing. This place is not to be missed.
How to Get to Patagonia?
Since Patagonia is shared between Chile and Argentina, to get to Patagonia you will either need to start in Santiago or Bueno Aires. From one of these hubs, you can get a flight to one of the Patagonian cities in their respective country.
The flights heading to Patagonia from Santiago only fly to airports within Chile (not Argentina) and the same on Argentina’s side. This is what makes traveling through Patagonia challenging.
It depends on where you are going in Patagonia, to get to the furthest parts it is a 3:00 hrs. to 3:30 hrs. flight from Santiago or Bueno Aires. Local flights are usually operated by LATAM, Sky Airline, and Aerolineas Argentinas. See the map below for the airport locations.
TIP: International flights coming to Buenos Aires arrive at Buenos Aires Ezeiza (EZE) airport. Many flights to Patagonia depart from the national airport Aeroparque-Jorge Newbery (AEP). This is important to remember when making your travel arrangements. I would suggest a minimum 5 hr. layover if you must change airports.
Another option to get to Patagonia is to use a well-developed bus line. Buses are a safe and comfortable way to travel in South America. Since they cover great distances, they offer different seat options including a 170° recline option, blankets, pillows, and hostess service.
The bus option is a better choice for Argentina than Chile since there are no roads in parts of Patagonia on Chile’s side. Which means either crossing over to Argentina or using a combination of buses and ferries and that gets extremely complicated.
Flying within the country is usually a better option as the cost is very reasonable and saves a ton of time.
Patagonia Airport Map
How to Get Around Patagonia?
The best way to get around Patagonia is to rent a car. This gives you the most flexibility to do what you want to do. That said, be prepared to drive on unpaved roads for hundreds of miles at a time, with limited access to gas stations, facilities, and food. Renting a car is a costly option.
Another option is utilizing buses, ferries and hitchhiking. This is a good option if you have a flexible schedule. Local buses can be unreliable, that’s why flexibility is required. When crossing borders, you may have to walk for miles at a time as the connecting bus is in the neighboring country. Buses are much more of a budget option.
Crossing a Border in Patagonia
When visiting Patagonia, it is almost inevitable that you will have to cross the border between Chile and Argentina at some point. It is not always a straightforward and pleasant experience. Leaving Chile is much easier than entering Chile.
Borders are usually a few miles apart from each other, this is what makes taking a bus an unattractive option. Most public buses either operate in Chile or Argentina and do not cross the border (in some northern areas they do). In that case, you will have to get off the bus, get your luggage, cross one border, walk for up to 5 kilometers, cross another border, and then walk to catch another bus.
If crossing a border with a car rental you will need to make sure you get a border crossing pass from the rental company. It costs about $30/day.
Once you drive up to the border crossing, you will notice cars just parked on the road. Everyone leaves their vehicle, takes their documentation with them, and goes inside the border crossing office to get checked out. You will have to stand in two separate lines, one for the passengers and after that one for the vehicles.
When entering Chile, your vehicle will be inspected by an agent and you will have to take in all your luggage and pass it through the x-ray scanner. Chile is very strict about bringing in fruits, vegetables, seeds, meats, etc.
At the entry point to Chile, you will be issued a PDI form. It looks like a receipt and no one ever tells you that it is important to keep it with you the entire time you are in Chile. But it is. All the accommodations usually ask for it at the check-in, especially refugios. So make sure to keep it with your passport.
The Distance Between
The distance between places in Patagonia is very deceiving. I remember looking on a map at El Calafate and El Chalten and thinking “Great, they are right next to each other.” It takes 3 hours to drive from El Calafate to El Chalten. The roads are built around lakes, glaciers, and mountains (not through mountains like in Europe).
Not all the roads are paved. Famous Ruta 40 in Argentina still has some unpaved patches, and most of the Chilean Carretera Austral is unpaved. Simple things like gas stations, bathrooms, and food can be hundreds of miles apart. We drove from El Chalten to Perito Moreno (town not the glacier), over an 8-hour drive, only two gas stations were available during the entire drive, and one of them was closed.
If planning to travel such distances in Patagonia, make sure you have a gas can with you and a spare tire.
Best Time to Visit Patagonia?
The best time to visit Patagonia depends on the region you plan to visit. Patagonia is in the southern hemisphere and spring, summer, and fall months, September-April is the best time to visit Patagonia and they correspond with the coldest months in the northern hemisphere.
You can visit Patagonia any time of the year, just be aware that the availability of services slows down to almost non-existent between April and September in more southern regions like Magallanes and Sothern Argentine Patagonia. However, you will be rewarded with the idyllic beauty of snowcapped mountains, frozen and glistening lakes.
The lake districts on either side, Chile or Argentina, are amazing summer and winter destinations. A lot of the hiking trails turn into ski destinations in winter.
Things to Do and See in Patagonia
When it comes to things to do in Patagonia, the list is endless. It truly depends on what you would like to see and how active you want to be. Patagonia’s beauty is unmatched and brings people from every corner of the world.
Some of the most popular things to experience are:
Hiking in Torres del Paine National Park
Hike to Fitz Roy in El Chalten
Glacier Ice Trek on Perito Moreno
Visit to Estancia
Try Chocolate in Bariloche
Rout of Seven Lakes in Bariloche
All Things Bariloche – it is one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Eat Lamb al Asador and Drink Delicious Wine
There are a lot of things in Patagonia you can do as part of the guided tour or completely on your own. Some things make sense to go on a tour and may be the only option to experience that adventure (Ice Trekking). Others you may enjoy doing yourself. This gives you a lot of flexibility.
Our first time in El Calafate we did not rent a car and hired tour operators for all the adventures we wanted to have. However, when we made it to Bariloche we rented a car and explored on our own.
Our second time we traveled for 3 weeks between Chile and Argentina and found it much easier to rent a car and travel at our own pace. It all depends on what you want to do.
How Long to Visit Patagonia for?
For most people, 7 to 10 days is enough to enjoy Patagonia. For explorers and adventure lovers lifetime is not enough.
We have been to Patagonia twice and have spent over 4 weeks there altogether and still have not visited all the regions or done all the things we want to do. Patagonia is vast and rugged. It takes a long time to get to some of the places, especially if crossing a border is a requirement.
See the suggested itineraries below for more ideas.
Credit Cards and ATMs
Credit cards are widely accepted in Patagonia and ATMs are available. However, there are a few things to keep in mind. In some of the remote areas, they may have issues with WiFi and not be able to accept credit cards at the time. Also, not every town has an ATM.
It is good practice to have some cash on you at all times. And both Chile and Argentina would much rather take US dollars than the neighboring country’s currency.
Sample Itineraries in Patagonia
There are a million different ways to spend your time in Patagonia. Below are two sample itineraries one for 7 Day Classic Patagonia and other two weeks of adventure in Patagonia.
7 Day Classic Patagonia
Day 1 – Arrive in El Calafate
You will most likely be coming from Buenos Aires. It is over a 3 hr. flight to El Calafate.
Spend the afternoon exploring the town and evening with a dinner show at one of the estancias.
Day 2 – Perito Moreno Glacier Hike
You can either rent a car, take a bus or book a tour to go see Perito Moreno Glacier. This is a must-do activity in El Calafate. To trek on top of the glacier you must book a tour with Hielo & Aventura. They are the only operator that runs these tours. Whether you decide to do a 1 hr. or 8 hr. hike.
Day 3-5 – El Chalten
Spend next three days in El Chalten hiking.
The popular hikes in El Chalten are Laguna de Los Tres, Laguna Torre, and Chorillo del Salto.
To get to El Chalten the bus ticket is roughly $30/per person. Or you can rent a car or book a tour operator.
Day 6 – Day Trip to Torres Del Paine
A day trip to Torres del Paine to El Calafate is possible but a long day which you spend mostly driving. However, it would be regrettable to come down here and not see Torres del Paine. The best way to do this is with a tour operator, which makes it easier when it comes to crossing a border and staying on schedule.
If you are a fast hiker you may be able to make it to the base of the towers (Base la Torres) and back. If not, you still can do a short hike to the waterfalls and Curenos (the horns).
Day 7 – Fly Back
2 Weeks in Patagonia for Adventure Lovers
Day 1: Arrive in Puerto Natales
Arrive in Puerto Natales, explore this unique sailor’s city, and prepare for the next five days of hiking.
Day 2-6: W Trek in Torres del Paine
W Trek is one of the most popular hikes in the world and a place where you see iconic towers, horns, glaciers, lakes, and snow-capped mountains. And experience four seasons in one day. From cloudless summer days to 100 km/hr. winds.
A public bus from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine is only $10/per person.
When you return from the W trek you will need to rent a car for the next portion of the trip.
Day 7: Perito Moreno Glacier Hike
From Puerto Natales to Perito Moreno is about a 5-hour drive. If you start early this still gives you half a day to walk to the boardwalk and even do a mini trek on top of the glacier.
Spend the night in El Calafate.
Day 8-10: El Chalten
Spend the next three days in El Chalten hiking.
The popular hikes in El Chalten are Laguna de Los Tres, Laguna Torre, and Chorillo del Salto.
Day 11: Fly to Bariloche
You will have to drive back from El Chalten to the airport in El Calafate for the flight to Bariloche.
Spend the rest of the day in Bariloche trying chocolate, local beer, and choris and exploring the town.
Day 12: Hike to Refugio Frey
There is a couple of ways to hike Refugio Frey. To make it a loop you have to take a couple of ski lifts, hike for miles on the edge of the mountain, and the hike down to the laguna and the refugio. The way back is much simpler and easier.
To this day, this is one of our most favorite hikes ever.
Day 13: Ruta of Seven Lakes
You will need a car to do this activity. The drive is from Bariloche to San Martin de Los Andes while passing seven beautiful lakes.
Day 14: Fly Back
FAQ On HOW TO PLAN a Trip TO Patagonia:
What is the currency in Patagonia, and do I need cash?
In Chile, currency is the Chilean Peso. In Argentina, currency is the Argentine Peso. It is good practice to have some cash available in both currencies if traveling to both locations.
Argentine currency fluctuates so much that in recent years a Blue Dollar has become a thing. The Blue Dollar in Argentina is money exchanged on the street from a street vendor with a much better exchange rate than the official rate at the bank. Also, when paying with a credit card in Argentina, or any country for that matter, it is always better to pay in local currency and have your bank do the exchange.
What kind of electric power is used in Patagonia?
Both Chile and Argentina use 220V power. However, they use different sockets type C, type L, and type I. Lately, we have just been carrying universal electrical socket with us everywhere.
How is driving in Patagonia?
Driving in Patagonia is not as crazy as driving in Costa Rica or Madeira Island. The roads are usually wide, but the condition of the roads is not great everywhere. A lot of them are unpaved, and paved ones have massive potholes or just random sections of unpaved strips. It can be exhausting to drive long distances.
Road construction is common on the Chilean side and you may get stuck in traffic at times.
Is Patagonia safe?
Patagonia is completely safe but just like everywhere else you should pay attention to your surroundings.
What should I pack?
One of the most important things to bring with you is a water/windproof jacket. Winds are insane in some parts of Patagonia, the further south you go the worse it gets. If you plan to hike lightweight backpack with a rain cover, worn in waterproof hiking boots, and hiking poles are a must.
Sun is intense in Patagonia, bring plenty of sunscreen with you but also protective clothing, sunglasses, a sun hat, and a buff.
For camping gear, you can either bring that yourself or rent it while in Patagonia. Places like Punta Arenas, Puerto Natales, and El Calafate have stores for renting gear.