With its trademark dramatic mountainous landscapes, national parks that make hikers drool and a wealth of undiscovered corners that remain tantalizingly wild, it should come as no surprise that Patagonia is one of South America’s most popular travel destinations. Unfortunately, the cost of a trip to Patagonia can be enough to halt many visitors in their tracks.
But it doesn’t have to be this way: there are plenty of tips and tricks for travel and backpacking in Patagonia that will help you slim down your budget.
Why is Patagonia expensive?
The question on most travelers’ lips: why is Patagonia so damn expensive?
It’s one I’ve asked myself a few times on my three trips there. Unfortunately, the region’s remote location is to blame for elevated prices, particularly when it comes to food costs. High accommodation prices in Patagonia are a result of increasing tourism there – and this is something that is only set to get worse.
Add into the mix Argentina’s struggling economy (the reason for why most prices are either in Chilean pesos or US dollars in this guide: these are both far more stable currencies) and high costs for withdrawing cash in the region and there you have it: Patagonia is expensive.
The cost of a trip to Patagonia
However, the cost of traveling to Patagonia varies significantly and it’s hard to define an average trip cost.
A cheapest daily budget for Patagonia can come in at around $50 USD per day. This includes staying in cheap, dorm-style accommodation, self-catering and taking public transport. It is also possible to visit Patagonia on an even smaller budget if you plan to hitchhike, camp and self-cater.
You’ll need to budget in a bit more money for any tours you plan to take and other trips such as to Torres del Paine National Park.
Longer bus trips, particularly in Argentina, cost a lot too: you can expect to pay around $4.5 USD per hour (i.e. $75 USD for the 16-hour journey from Ushuaia to El Calafate) in Argentina and around $2 USD per hour (i.e. $45,000 CLP ($70 USD) for the 32-hour journey from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas) in Chile.
National park entrance fees vary, too: the entrance fee for Torres del Paine National Park is $21,000 CLP ($32 USD) for foreigners in the 2018/2019 season, while Los Glaciares in Argentina costs nothing.
How much does it cost to go to Patagonia for one person?
Here’s a breakdown of an average Patagonia trip cost per day for one person on a budget:
|Accommodation||$20 USD dorm*|
|Total||$45-$50 USD per person|
*You can reduce this to $10 USD if you swap to camping rather than dorms.
This adds up to $630-$700 USD plus flights and tours for the cost of two weeks in Patagonia on a serious budget. This works out at $1,350-$1,500 USD per month in Patagonia.
If you plan to camp in Patagonia, rather than staying in dorms, you can cut this down to $560-$630 USD plus flights and tours for two weeks or $1,200 USD-$1,350 USD per month.
How much does it cost to go to Patagonia for two peopl?
If you’re traveling as a couple and want to stay in double bedrooms, but still plan to self-cater and take public transport, you can expect to pay a little more:
|Total||$100-$110 USD = $50-$55 USD per person|
This adds up to $1,400-$1,540 USD plus flights and tours for the cost of two weeks in Patagonia, for two people traveling on a budget. This works out as $3,000-$3,300 USD per month for two people.
How to travel to Patagonia on a budget
Traveling to Patagonia cheaply is possible, but takes some advance planning and organization to ensure you get the best flight deals, cheap accommodation and can make the most of the tax discounts available for paying in dollars.
I’ve split the following sections into the different ways of traveling to Patagonia on a budget.
How to get to Patagonia cheaply
The cheapest way to get to Patagonia is by airplane, although this does vary depending upon the country you plan on starting in. Generally, flights are cheapest in Chile, with a growing number of budget airlines offering excellent deals.
In Argentina, you can expect to pay at least double what you would pay to fly into Chilean Patagonia. Flying across borders is generally very expensive too, although the Chilean airline DAP sometimes has resonably cheap deals between Punta Arenas and Ushuaia in their small aircraft.
Cheap flights to Patagonia
Your initial travel into Patagonia can result in your wallet already wincing from the expense. However, it doesn’t have to be like this, as there are several tricks for getting budget flights in Patagonia.
Firstly, budget airline carriers are paving the way for inexpensive flights. These include:
- Jetsmart: Chile’s answer to Easyjet, they started in 2017 and offer flights as cheap as $12,000 CLP ($19 USD) from Santiago to Punta Arenas. However, they have fewer flights than other carriers and you have to pay an additional fee (normally only around $10,000 CLP ($15.5 USD)) to add hold luggage.
- Sky Airline: Chile’s second cheapest airline, they have more regular departures than Jetsmart but are slightly more expensive. You can choose fares with hold luggage included, for a fee. Flights from Santiago to Punta Arenas cost from $25,000 CLP ($39 USD).
- Fly Bondi: Argentina’s only low-cost airline, they started in early 2018 and currently only offer flights between Buenos Aires and Bariloche, from $70 USD.
Secondly, plan in advance. As is often the case with flights, finding that sweet spot when prices are lowest is the best way to grab a budget flight. A mobile app that I’ve been increasingly using to achieve just this is Hopper.
I recently raved about it for getting me $210,000 CLP ($326 USD) return flights for to Easter Island (find out more about my tips for getting cheap flights to Easter Island and other essential information).
What it does is follow historic flight price data for dates that you wish to fly (you can enter lots if you’re not entirely sure of your exact date yet) and tracks prices.
When it thinks that you’re unlikely to get a better deal, it’ll send you a notification and tell you to buy. It’s really simple but I’ve found it to be a failproof and effective in getting me budget flights to Patagonia.
Best way to travel around Patagonia cheaply
Once you’re in Patagonia, traveling around cheaply can be difficult, particularly as a lack of competition on some routes means that bus prices can be sky-high. However, there are some tricks for reducing your Patagonia transport costs.
Traveling a dedo along the Carretera Austral has become the stuff of budget backpacker legend of late. Backpacking Patagonia on a budget lends itself to hitchhiking: more and more travellers have realised that this method of getting around Patagonia not only allows you to save a tonne of money on transportation costs but it’s also a tried and tested way of meeting local people – with Patagonians on both sides of the border known for their friendliness and welcoming nature.
Patagonia is as safe as it gets as a region but obviously hitchhiking always has its own risks. I’ve done it a number of times in groups and alone.
If you’re more than two people, it can get problematic to find a lift big enough to accommodate you. You’ll also notice that competition for rides, particularly along the Carretera Austral between December and March can be fierce – so you might find yourself waiting for hours for a lift.
I’ll admit this isn’t something I’ve personally tried but cycling is one of the most popular ways of seeing Patagonia among the more athletically-inclined. I can’t count how many cyclists that I’ve met who are peddling from Ushuaia north or Puerto Montt south and enjoying the fierce independence this way of travel grants you – and the fact that it’s considerably cheaper than most other forms of transport.
You’ll obviously need excellent equipment (buy at home: cycling gear is expensive in Chile and Argentina) and a strong constitution. The going is beyond tough but I’ve heard that the rewards are completely worth it.
Hire a rental car
Car rental in Patagonia is only economically viable for those on a budget if you’re traveling in a group of two people or more. Car hire is cheapest in Puerto Montt (from $17,000 CLP ($27 USD) per day), although you’ll want to check that the insurance covers driving on the gravel roads of the Carretera Austral, as not all do.
Further south, Punta Arenas (from $41,000 CLP ($65 USD) per day) is cheaper for car rental than Puerto Natales (from $51,000 CLP ($81 USD) per day). Car hire is generally far cheaper in Chile than Argentina.
Bear in mind that if you plan on crossing into Argentina, you’ll need to ask the rental company to organise the correct legal documents before you pick up the vehicle. Find out more about car rental in Patagonia.
Fuel is expensive once you get to remote parts of Patagonia; I noticed prices of almost $1,000 CLP ($1.5 USD) per litre along the Carretera Austral for example.
All in all, car rental between a group of you often works out as cheaper than getting buses and allows you to go beyond-the-beaten-trail and visit parts of Patagonia that few others explore.
If you plan to hire a rental car in Patagonia, I recommend you go through booking service Rentalcars.com, who find you the cheapest deal from the local companies available and also provide insurance details in English – something very difficult to get if you go directly through a company.
Buy your own car
A very popular way of getting around Patagonia is with your own car. This is partly due to the fact that rules for foreigners buying vehicles in Chile are far more relaxed than in other parts of the country.
You can expect to spend anything over $4,000 USD plus petrol costs (from 820 CLP ($1.28 USD)/30 ARS ($1.10 USD) per litre) but, at the end of using the vehicle, it’s easy enough to sell it on to another set of tourists and reclaim the majority of your initial outlay.
You will need a Chilean RUT, a reasonable grasp of Spanish and a local person on the ground in Chile who can help you out. You’ll also need a reasonable amount of time at the beginning and the end of your trip to organise the buying, insurance and final selling processes.
I’ve never done this myself, so for more information, I recommend you check out Comfortably Lost who have a guide to the process of hiring a car that was updated in 2018.
Budget Patagonia accommodation
Accommodation in Patagonia can take a big slice of your budget and can be significantly more expensive than other parts of Chile and Argentina. However, there are certain ways that you can keep costs down.
Camping in Patagonia
Camping is very popular among young people in Argentina and Chile, meaning there are a growing number of campsites throughout Patagonia. You’ll find most include showers (most often hot, but not always), toilets, running water and barbecue areas. Prices vary but start from upwards of $5,000 CLP ($8 USD). Be sure to bring cash as few places accept card.
Most national parks in Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia also have campgrounds for similar prices.
Wild camping is another possibility, particularly in Chile. Your problem with camping in Argentina is that on the pampas (the exposed grasslands), there’s very little cover for your tent and it’s not hard for the wind to blow it over at night.
Hostales and Residenciales
Two of the most common types of lodgings in Patagonia are hostales and residenciales. Don’t get confused: hostal isn’t the same as what we would call a hostel. Instead, it’s a set of private bedrooms within a building, sometimes with access to a shared kitchen (but not always) and other communal areas. Breakfast is generally included. A residencial is similar, but normally within the house of the owner.
Both are good budget options as you can expect to find a single bedroom for from $15,000 CLP ($23 USD) and a double from $30,000 CLP ($47 USD) and prices can drop outside of summer. I’ve found places as cheap as $10,000 CLP ($15.5 USD) per person in small towns along the Carretera Austral.
What I love about staying in these types of accommodation is the proximity it brings you to local people who are literally welcoming you into their homes.
Although they’re increasingly appearing on websites such as Booking.com, you’ll often find these by looking at accommodation marked on Google Maps and contacting the owners directly by telephone.
Again, be sure to bring cash with you to pay as few places accept card.
Hostels in Patagonia
Hostels in Patagonia are those aimed at an international crowd and fit the normal description of a hostel, e.g. dormitory-style accommodation with normally a kitchen available for guest use.
You can find hostels costing anywhere from between $8,000 CLP ($12 USD) to $17,000 CLP ($26 USD) per person. You’ll generally only find this style of accommodation in the cities; outside of these, hostales are far more common, where’s you’ll often find a private, single room for the price of a dorm bed.
These types of accommodation generally appear on both Booking.com and Hostelworld.com. If traveling between December and the start of March, these are the types of accommodations that are normally booked out by other international travellers, so you’ll want to make reservations in advance.
Another option for those on a budget in Patagonia is renting a cabaña. These are normally basic wooden two- or three-bedroom cabins, generally with bathrooms, living rooms and equipped kitchens.
You find these a lot in Chilean Patagonia and they make for a very cheap place to stay when you’re in a group, although you can often get a deal if you’re a couple traveling outside of December-March. Expect to pay $40,000 CLP ($63 USD) and $80,000 CLP ($126 USD) for a four-person cabin.
As with hostales and residenciales above, more and more cabañas are appearing on booking sites, but you can often get cheaper deals and find more options by using Google Maps and booking directly with the owners.
Bring cash, as it’s unlikely they’ll have a card machine.
Budget dining in Patagonia
One of your biggest expenses in Patagonia will be food. This is largely because it all has to be shipped in from further north in Chile and Argentina and, as a result, prices can be pushed up by up to 30% of what you’d pay in northern cities.
Restaurants can also be expensive and it’s not unusual to spend over $15,000 CLP ($23 USD) for a main and a drink in a medium-priced restaurant in cities across Patagonia. Given that the region is famed for its lamb, make sure you do – at least once – treat yourself to a typical Patagonian asado or parrilla.
Obviously, the cheapest way of eating in Patagonia is by self-catering. Your biggest problem will come with hotels or other accommodation types not have cooking facilities – something that you shouldn’t take for granted and should check before booking.
Secondly, be aware that supermarkets aren’t common outside of the main cities. You’ll find large, well-stocked shops in Ushuaia, Punta Arenas, El Calafate, Coyhaique and Bariloche, but outside of these urban areas, shops are poorly-stocked and prices elevated, so you’ll want to buy food in big cities in anticipation of this.
Supermarkets in cities normally take debit and credit cards and open daily until 9pm or 10pm, with shortened hours on Sundays.
Remember that you can’t cross into Argentina with fresh fruit, vegetables or animal products so avoid doing a big shop in Argentina and trying to bring it across the border.
Hiking in Torres del Paine on a budget
The ever-popular W hike in Torres del Paine National Park costs more than ever and can make a serious dent in your Patagonia budget.
Camping in Torres del Paine
The easiest way to visit Torres del Paine National Park on a budget is by camping. In the park, campgrounds range from $5,000 CLP ($7.50 USD) to $13,000 CLP ($20 USD) per person, while dorm-style accommodation costs from $33.000 CLP ($55 USD) to $70,000 CLP ($110 USD) per person, depending on the location.
Camping in Torres del Paine costs significantly less than staying in dorm acccommodation and, even if you factor in the price of hiring camping equipment in Puerto Natales (the town closest to the national park), you should only be adding an extra $7,500 CLP ($11.5 USD) to your accommodation costs per day.
If you plan on hiking in Torres del Paine, the least you can expect to spend is $95,000 CLP ($145 USD): find out how to hike the W Trek without a tour and on a budget.
Don’t forget to take cash (Chilean pesos) with you to pay the Torres del Paine entrance fee, which is set at $21,000 CLP ($32 USD) for foreigners in the 2018/2019 season. You’ll also need Chilean pesos for the ferry from Puedeto de Paine Grande Ranger Station, which costs $18,000 CLP ($27.50 USD) one-way.
General budget travel tips for Patagonia
Aside from the above tips, there are a couple of other ways that you can keep costs down in Patagonia:
Bring US dollars with you
The days of the “blue dollar” are over (when you could exchange US dollars for up to 40% higher on the black market in Argentina than the official rate), but Patagonia is still a good place for bringing dollars.
The region is very safe, so you don’t need to worry about carrying cash. Additionally, you’ll find that many hotels and even tour agencies on both sides of the border offer discounts for those paying in dollars.
You’ll find this more often in Chilean Patagonia and Chile in general: foreigners theoretically get a tax break of 19% – although in practice, smaller lodgings will only give you this discount if you pay in dollars.
Withdrawing cash in Argentina is also a huge pain in the arse. I spent an afternoon in Ushuaia when all of the ATMs in the city stopped functioning for a few hours – not ideal when you’ve recently crossed over from Chile and have no money.
ATMs in Argentina regularly run out of cash on weekends and bank holidays and it’s not uncommon for them to refuse foreign cards.
You’ll also find that there’s a charge of $220 ARS ($8 USD) to withdraw money from cash machines and you can only take out cash in batches of $2,400 ARS ($86 USD) – which soon becomes very expensive. Often, hotels and tour agencies doesn’t accept credit cards.
Dollars can be exchanged for good rates in exchange houses around Patagonia, although I found that you generally don’t get a good rate exchanging Chilean pesos to Argentinean pesos.
Book in advance where possible
This isn’t really a tip for lowering prices but one that will avoid you facing huge price hikes. As the popularity of the region has grown, demand for accommodation has increased dramatically and there’s now not enough supply to meet it.
As a result, if you book accommodation early in places like Puerto Natales, El Chaltén and Torres del Paine, you’ll have a choice of the budget accommodation. If you leave it until the last minute, you may well find that it’s all sold out and the only option is something more expensive.
That said, there are generally hostales and residenciales that aren’t on any booking sites that you might be able to hunt down, but if you’re on a shorter vacation or trip, save yourself the stress and book in advance.
Avoid unnecessary tours
A final way of avoiding spending over the odds traveling in Patagonia is by avoiding booking unnecessary tours.
For Torres del Paine National Park, for example, you don’t need a tour. As I’ve explained, it’s easy to hike the W without a tour. Yes, you do need to make reservations for accommodation in the park months in advance, but you don’t need someone to show you around the park’s well-worn paths.
For the vast majority of national parks in Patagonia, you’d better off bringing your own equipment if you plan on doing lots of hiking: see my recommended Patagonia packing list here.
If not, there are places you can rent gear for short periods of time in both Puerto Natales and El Chaltén.