Patagonia is often described as the “once in a lifetime trip”; an adventure into a wilderness ruled by nature, but one where untamed forests, skyline dominating volcanoes, and enchanting national parks are open to being discovered.
Haciendas and traditional Welsh tea houses, shores teeming with scuttling penguins or loafing seals, dolphins playfully trailing passenger ferries, and glaciers collapsing over cliffs into pearly-green lagoons below: Patagonia has every imaginable – and often, unimaginable – sight to offer.
Planning a trip to Patagonia the easy way
Waste no more time dreaming about your trip of a lifetime; make it a reality by following my list of dos and don’ts for planning a trip to Patagonia.
Don’t miss out on your free packing checklist for backpacking in Patagonia, available as a free download at the bottom of this article!
1. DON’T be put off by the price tag
You’ve probably heard it already, but Patagonia is expensive. Factoring in bus transport across Patagonia’s one million square kilometres of territory (with Ushuaia to Bariloche, the edge of Patagonia, a whopping 2,161 km), food costs, the potential scarcity and/or raised prices in remote areas, plus entry into national parks and tourist attractions, backpacking in Patagonia can leave your wallet wincing.
But… you should visit Patagonia anyway.
2. DO see a trip to Patagonia as an investment
Where else in the world boasts such diversity of wildlife and nature? Chile and Argentina’s most southern extremities are Queens of the incredible: King Penguin colonies in Tierra del Fuego; 10,000-year-old cave paintings near the town of Perito Moreno; the end of the world in Ushuaia; active volcanoes near El Chaitén on the north of the Carretera Austral.
Camping, researching treks and places of interest so you can dispense with expensive and unnecessary tour guides (learn how to hike the W in Torres del Paine National Park self-guided and see my packing list and recommendations for hiking the O without a guide), and travelling during shoulder season (see below) can help keep costs of a trip to Patagonia strapped down. You’re guaranteed to leave thanking your lucky stars for the experience, rather than steeped in regret at the expense. Make sure you pack for the adventure too: read my guide to packing for Patagonia to ensure you’ve not forgotten to include something essential in your rucsack.
What’s more, by contemplating different forms of travel, including hitchhiking – a safe and convenient form of transport in this part of South America and getting off-the-gringo-trail with Patagonia’s most unique travel routes will make your trip to Patagonia even more memorable – and even a little cheaper.
3. DON’T try and take money out of Argentinian cash machines
Having heard that the blue dollar (or black market exchange rate between US dollar and Argentine peso) had collapsed thanks to the lowering of the official rate by the government at the end of 2015, I stupidly arrived into Argentina thinking the best decision would be to just take money out the cash machines. Given the official rate was almost identical to that being offered on the black market, as someone who doesn’t like carrying a lot of money, I thought this would be the better option.
Wrong. Despite being able to use my Halifax Clarity Credit Card throughout Bolivia, Peru, and Chile at certain (not all) cash machines to withdraw money without a charge, I couldn’t find any bank in Argentina that would allow me to do this. All imposed an initial fee of $79.80 pesos (roughly £4) and capped the amount I could withdraw to $2400 pesos (around £116). Not cool.
Realising I’d made an error in Bolivia by not taking out dollars (where the BNB (Banco Nacional de Bolivia) often provides this option), I ended up having to accept the fees and curse myself at my own stupidity.
4. DO bring US dollars into the country to be exchanged for Argentine pesos
Although I wouldn’t recommend trying to exchange US dollars on the black market anymore (it’s dodgy and you’ll get a very similar rate going through the legal route), I would certainly suggest bringing a wad of them into the country with you. It’ll save you a frustrating battle with the cash machine (some of which in Buenos Aires didn’t have any local currency in them anyway) and still get you a decent rate.
Some hotels and accommodation in Patagonia actually give you a discount if you pay in USD – so double check before settling up at the end of your stay.
5. DON’T visit at the wrong time of the year
Ok so there’s a lot of disagreement about when exactly is the best time of year to visit Patagonia. Many argue that the Patagonian summer (December through February) is the best time of year to visit, while others make the point that South Americans holiday in January and February, so these are months to avoid.
Planning a trip to Patagonia during this window of time offers you a certain number of guarantees: sunshine, a working (if very pricey) tourist infrastructure, and hordes of other travellers, particularly in areas where visitors are funnelled into only a few tourist activities (I’m looking at you, Torres del Paine and the W Trek). It’s also worth bearing in mind that there is the chance of 190 km/per hour winds, which is unlikely to be much fun.
Despite the profound beauty of a snow-sprinkled Patagonia, neither is winter the best time to travel Patagonia. Most tourist outfits – and even walking routes – close during this season, and the colder, icy weather make travelling more complicated.
6. DO visit during the shoulder season: October/November or March-May
As someone who visited during the strangely named “shoulder season”, I can attest to the benefits of a trip to Patagonia at this time of the year. Not only does autumn transform verdant forests into a russet red and golden scatterings of fallen leaves, but reduced volumes of tourists are an absolute winner. Well-walked hiking routes and regional buses are no longer thronged, and accommodation becomes significantly more affordable.
That said, at the very start of October and in May, some accommodation and tour companies are shut and buses run less frequently so you find it takes a bit longer to travel if visiting at this time.
It’s also important to bear in mind that when backpacking in Patagonia during these months, the weather is more temperamental and it’s necessary to have clothing to suit all four seasons – you will need them, I promise you! My guide to packing for travel in Patagonia has the complete list of everything I took with me on my last trip to the region to help you out.
Finally, if you’re planning a trip to Patagonia that also involves hitchhiking along the Carretera Austral, consider that this is somewhat more complicated at this time of year due to lighter volumes of traffic, but not entirely impossible, nor should it be discounted. Make sure you hitchhike safely by following my tips for getting a hitch.
7. DON’T just drink the delicious Chilean or Argentinian wine
Argentinian Malbec. Chilean Carmenere. The thought of either of these two delectable reds is guaranteed to send me into a frenzied state where I must get my hands on a bottle. Patagonia is roasted lamb country, so a delicious glass or two of red alongside your meal is a standard feature of the culture. But, be aware, there’s another popular tipple that you’d be a fool to miss.
8. DO sample the locally-brewed, artisanal beer
From Manush and Blest – among numerous others – in Bariloche, to Austral in Puerto Arenas, or Tropera in Coyhaique, craft and artisanal beer in Patagonia is booming. As a lover of pale ale and IPAs back in the UK, for me, discovering beer that isn’t lager in South America has made up (a tiny bit) for the absolute lack of decent cheese on these shores.
Patagonia is the undeniable master of South American beer (thanks to the influence of German migrants in the late 19th -century) and it’s definitely worth planning a trip to Patagonia that includes visiting the many cervezerias found in most of the main towns in the region (check out my article for Rough Guides about just this), as well as making the most of sampling all the new beers you encounter.
9. DON’T spend all of your time in Argentina
My initial trip to Patagonia centred around Argentina and I can understand why.
Back when the blue dollar was king, Argentina was a much more affordable choice, and, even though most things are more expensive in Patagonia anyway, Argentina probably had the financial edge for backpackers when compared with neighbouring Chile.
Now, it’s no longer the case. Argentina is just plain expensive.
Added to this, cities on the Argentinian side that I visited seemed swamped by tourists. Being on a tour, I didn’t have much choice over the destinations we visited. Ushuaia, El Calafate, El Chaltén, Puerto Madryn: all were beautiful, but since having explored the other side of the border, I’ve realised we definitely missed out on some gems.
10. DO discover Chile. It’s a stunner. Honest.
Planning a trip to Patagonia needs to include Chile. Of all the countries I’ve visited in South America, it’s definitely tied with Bolivia as being my favourite (I still have my residency card for my eleven months spent living and travelling in Bolivia so that does sway it a little).
The topography and flora and fauna are immaculately preserved and varied, the people cannot do enough to be friendly. What’s more, backpacking through Patagonia is an utterly unique experience: from the Navimag ferry that plies the waters of the Chilean fjords to the Carretera Austral (yup, I’m a bit obsessed with it), Chile is aching to be explored. Whether you hire a car, cycle your bike, hitchhike, or go by bus, Chilean Patagonia should not be missed.
Not yet convinced? Read why you should be lining up a trip to the Carretera Austral.
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Do you have any further tips for planning a trip to Patagonia? Read The Only Tips You Need For Adventure Travel in Patagonia