The magical place sitting at the end of the world. It was time to take on Patagonia and see what else I could add to my South American journey. Hiking, trekking and living in the wild helped solidify what I expected, I will return to Patagonia.
Patagonia is becoming more and more popular. Once it was just some place that people heard of but didn’t really understand where it was and how to even take on the task of travelling around it. Now, it’s a different story. Tourism has caught on and the treks have become ever more popular and controlled. As with most things on my travels, I wish I could have been there 5 years ago.
That said, Patagonia still has a lot to offer and is a place you could easily spend months exploring. My only regret is that I didn’t stay longer. I need to go back there and see some of the road less traveled.
To make this easier for readers to follow, I have split it into two parts. Admin, explaining the logistics of doing the O or W Trek, and Impressions, what my thoughts are on the area and how to get the most out of it.
After flying into Punta Arenas, which I highly recommend over busing, I was heading up to Puerto Natales to begin my trekking preparation. Make sure you book a bus in advance from Punta Arenas airport to Puerto Natales. Otherwise they will force you to take a taxi to the main bus terminal to then catch another bus. It’s a waste of time and a scam to get more money out of you for the taxi drivers. This kind of thing really irritates me when travelling. We are already spending time and money coming to visit your beautiful country, don’t let us leave with a bad taste in our mouths that we have been exploited.
Anyway, what’s more important is the process to do the ever popular W or O Trek from Puerto Natales. Things have got a bit more complicated to complete the trek. With such a dramatic increase in the number of travelers, they have introduced an online booking system for the free campsites. It’s definitely not perfect yet, but regardless you need to use it and you need to use it well in advance of when you arrive. Not booking will mean no campsite and no exceptions. A LOT of people were unaware on their arrival in Patagonia and missed out on doing the trek, which for me would have been devastating. There are three campsite companies, the free park-run campsites, Vertice and FantasticoSur. The best website to check out is the Park Website they have maps to help you plan and you can book online here.
Failing lack of availability then jump on Vertice or FantasticoSur to see if they have space at the paid campsites.
For our trek, my friend flew over from London to join in on the experience which just made it even better. We hired all our gear from Erratic Rock and the gear was pretty good and they had decent prices. They have a fantastic briefing on the treks every day at 3pm, MAKE SURE YOU ATTEND! They were really helpful and eased any concerns we had on heading into the unknown. We traveled East to West which isn’t as common but we found it to be a really good hike. Torres del Paine on the first day and staying at Campamento Torres for free, huge bonus. You can get up at 4am and hike for an hour to the top to see the sunrise. Almost impossible if you stay at campsites lower down. The following day was the hardest of all the days, trekking to Campamento Italiano. My preference would have been to stay at Los Cuernos as the hike was a little too long at 11 hours of hiking, including the trek up and back for the sunrise. After seeing Valle de Frances, we hiked down to Campamento Paine and did only a one day hike up to the glacier and back. Again I wish we would have stayed an extra night at Camp Grey near the glacier. However we didn’t have time and we did the trek in 4 days, 3 nights.
Travelling up to El Calafate is best by bus and you need to book in advance or you could be stuck for another day in Puerto Natales. America del Sur is a great hostel in El Calafate and make sure you try their asado BBQ, it is out of this world. El Chalten is another 3-4 hour bus from there. It has easy hikes but amazing views. It has a bit of everything, forests, glaciers, soaring mountains and 360 degree hikes. I spent a week there and ended up camping to save money since it’s cheaper than a hostel, get out in the wild without all the effort of a 100km hike. Perfect for families.
Book plane tickets in advance. My original plan was to bus from El Chalten to Puerto Madryn and then on to Buenos Aires. However bus travel is out of control in Argentina and the cost to get around is extortionate. Therefore I was forced to abandon that idea and fly directly to Buenos Aires. If I had known in advance it could have saved me a lot of money.
I don’t think Patagonia was quite what I expected. Not necessarily in a bad way. I was hoping to get lost in the wild with a tent and my hiking boots, but the outcome was very controlled and pre-planned by the ministries and tourism agencies. When I think of Patagonia, I think of the endless wild landscapes, the snow capped mountains and the blissful silence of being in nature. The reality is slightly different. The treks are laid out, the process has been dominated by multiple companies and you feel like a part in a process line at a factory. Arrive via the transport company, rent gear from generic rental place, herd all tourists on to transfer buses, follow clearly signed routes, bus back. You are one of hundreds every day following the routes. I didn’t feel as though I was truly experiencing Patagonia in the wild and I missed that. The challenge remained however, the trek was hard having to cover 100km in 4 days but the satisfaction at the end, it was all worth it.
What would I change? Research areas away from the W Trek. Give yourself a bit more time. Prepare before arriving so you have the freedom to move about.
When I compare this hike to the one in North Peru I felt much more free in the mountains there and truly exploring untouched scenery. After viewing the beauty in Patagonia I don’t regret the path I took, I’m just spurred on to go back and go deeper into the wild territory. This time I’ll be bringing my camping gear and a fly fishing rod, saving me money and removing the tourism shackles which hindered me doing some activities in the area. One thing that Patagonia does give you is a real sense of accomplishment.
If you’re travelling up Argentina then it’s likely you will pass through El Calafate, El Chalten and Bariloche. All fantastic hiking areas and easily accessible being along the tourist trail. They have so much to offer and the hiking continues to impress. Giving myself a week in El Chalten helped to slow my travels down and relax to take in the scenery. Don’t miss this places if you can help it.
After my time in South America, I wasn’t expecting to love hiking as much as I do now. I’m an addict. My travel plans around the world seem to be changing to include the top spots for trekking, stay tuned…
Thanks for reading!