Back when we worked to travel, spending lots of cash in a short amount of time to make the most of our holidays, we aggressively planned almost every minute of our time away. On a RTW trip, we’ve accepted that days move along too fast to have every detail planned.
After our trip through Patagonia, there was a lot of information that we wish we would have had to make our trip even better. We’re going to share our itinerary, approximate costs, and budget savvy tips. So here’s a compiled cheat sheet we wished someone would have put in our back pocket (or backpack!) before we entered Patagonia. It would have left us feeling like we came prepared for the big test without having all the necessary time to study.
So here’s what we did and we’re passing it along to you! And know in advance, we aren’t hardcore backpacker types….we just like to play (and look like them) on TV.
Ushuaia ➡️Punta Arenas➡️ Puerto Natales➡️ El Calafate➡️El Chaltén➡️ Bariloche ➡️ San Martín de Los Andes
Ushuaia – We stayed here only for the bookends of our Antarctica trip. Three nights on the way in and one night on the way out, which seemed like a lot of days as compared to other travelers. Looking back, it felt like it was an appropriate amount of time in order to take in the city and not feel rushed. If you are coming to this area and not going to Antarctica, the main attraction is the Tierra Del Fuego National Park. We considered visiting but did not want to pay to take a taxi/bus for a self-guided tour or pay for a pricey group excursion. In fact, we heard mixed reviews on the park and figured that the Antarctic cruise which navigates the Beagle channel would make up for any missed views in Tierra Del Fuego. If you are an avid hiker, there are a number of scenic day hikes around Ushuaia. Just keep in mind you’ll need to pay for transportation to get to the head of the trail for the majority of them.
Overall, we decided that we’d rather spend the limited time (before the trip down to Antarctica) exploring Ushuaia. We took in a great 1/2 day hike along the Capitan Armando Mutton road which offers exceptional views of Ushuaia. It’s also a great place to have a picnic or photo shoot.
We visited <Andino Gourmet> two days in a row for their cake, coffee and fast(er) wifi. We also enjoyed <Tante Sara> for their ambience, reasonably priced bar-food, and wifi. On the higher end we visited <Bodegon Fueguino> which was recommended by many other travelers. We thought it was quite good and enjoyed the ambience of the cozy dining area.
Of course, we figured by not spending the money on the park fees we could use the money saved towards a great King Crab dinner which was on Harry’s bucket list. (He watches too much Deadliest Catch). After a little research we visited <Volver>. They definitely rolled out the red carpet for us. The wait staff was amazingly courteous and helpful. The crab was fresh and delicious. Overall, it was a memorable dining experience and well worth the splurge.
B$ Tip – Go to the information center by the Ushuaia port to help with bus fare costs. They gave us a form with the different bus companies that showed their advertised prices. The variance was significant and we saved about $30 dollars USD (each) by shopping around and going with the cheapest rate.
🚍 The bus ride from Ushuaia to Puerto Arenas was ~14 hours with multiple stops for customs to leave Argentina and enter Chile. In addition, there’s a ferry ride to cross the Strait of Magellan. There is a misconception about how strict the customs agents are with rumors that they will arrest you if you sneak in banned items. Just declare everything on your form and you will be safe if questioned. For example, we had spices from home that we didn’t want to toss and we declared them. No one even checked us and we passed right through. We believe they’re mainly focused on meat, fruits and vegetables. We used the bus company TECNI AUSTRAL and paid $105 USD for 2 tickets.
Punta Arenas – Generally, most people bypass this city and take the long trip from Ushuaia straight to Puerto Natales. So while most people disembark here and quickly board another bus to continue on, we were happy to stop in this city. The medium sized city has a lot of charm, enough to keep you busy for 2-3 days. We enjoyed walks along the waterfront, a self-guided tour of the history of Chilean-Antarctica, walking the main square, and the beautiful historic cemetery. It was just enough time to stretch our legs for the next bus ride. We enjoyed our stay at <Hostel Ovejero>. If you don’t have the time, you may not want to make the stop. We had the time and didn’t regret it.
B$ Tip – Pizza restaurants are big here. Go to <Pizza Gyros>, where the locals are eating! It had the thickest, heartiest pizza we came across and the Gyros were big enough for two to share. A good value for the money.
🚍 Bus ride from Puerto Arenas to Puerto Natales was 3 hours. We took Bus Sur and paid $49 USD for 2 tickets. A nice, clean, organized experience.
Puerto Natales – This is where we felt we did not do our homework and ran into some trouble! So pay attention! Visitors come here to visit the famous Torres del Paine National Park and hard core types complete the “W” trek, which is 5 days of overnight camping or basic dorm style accommodations, and intense trekking. We booked 5 nights in this city allowing plenty of time to enjoy this iconic park of Patagonia. Here is what we did not know…the trip from the city center to the national park is ~2.5 hours away! So to get there and back in ONE DAY takes around 5 hours! Not good on bumpy, windy, gravel roads.
B$ Tip – Note that there is a fee to enter Torres del Paine National Park at ~$30 USD (ea.), although you can get your ticket stamped to enter again at no cost for the next 2 days.
Another downfall? I really wanted to do the glacier ice hike on Glacier Grey. You can find more information <here>. Big Foot Adventures is the sole outfitter allowed to get out on the ice. If you are not staying near the Big Foot’s base or in the hotel located near the glacier (in the park) you cannot bus into the park by the 8:30 morning excursion departure. You also won’t be back in time to catch the evening bus back to Puerto Natales if you participate in the afternoon excursion at 2:30. So if glacier hiking is a must for you…plan accordingly and plan to stay in the park!
So what did we do? Hostels in Puerto Natales are known to help travelers organize excursions right at their own front desks which is a nice perk. The Singing Lamb’s hostel staff was so helpful and it was one of our top hostel stays. <Review here> Just note, some off the beaten path excursions can only be booked through specific hostels. We decided just to opt for a day trip into the park to drive to see the famous towers and other major sites. We were picked up around 7:30 am in a small van and explored Torres del Paine with about 18 others. The price did not include park admission or lunch so we brought sack lunches. Tour cost approximately $82.00 USD for 2 people.
It was a long day. We were dropped back off at our hostel around 8:00 pm. However, we had a productive, scenic day and we were lucky enough to see the towers due to great weather. The only negatives were that we were often rushed at the scenic points, and at the end of the day we were anxious to get out of the packed van after so many hours of driving on bumpy roads. It was the only logical way to see the park without camping or staying at an expensive hotel.
One place worthy to mention was <Chocolateria Patagonia Dulce>. It was absolutely delicious and although it was a little pricey it was worth the splurge. I’d recommend it to hikers prior to the big trek to carb-up or on the way back to celebrate. Try the Brownie Temptation, I promise you won’t regret it.
B$ Tip – If you are not hiking the W, three days may be more than enough in Puerto Natales.
🚍 Bus ride from Puerto Natales to El Calafate was about 4 hours. The cost was ~$50 USD for two booked through Turismo Zaahj bus company.
El Calafate – This was another city we enjoyed. More developed, with a touristy strip, the entire city is walkable. There are many options for tours and another opportunity for glacier ice trekking on Perito Moreno Glacier. Upon arrival, we headed straight to Hielo y Aventura (located on the strip) who informed that they did not have availability until 4 days later! Tripadvisor has very mixed reviews on this outfitter and they do not reply to emails (I’m STILL waiting to hear back…). Again, if you want to do glacier ice trekking plan way in advance! They are the only company allowed on the glacier.
The highlight here is Perito Moreno Glacier. Purchase bus tickets and board the bus at El Calafate bus terminal to the national park which cost ~$23.00 USD per person. We purchased our tickets a few days prior and there were only 4 tickets available, so book ASAP. There is a morning departure and an afternoon departure. The park is about ~1.5 hours away and you pay for admission upon arrival on the bus! Easy! Admission cost was about ~$20 USD per person. Upon arrival, the bus drops you off and there are walkable trails right from the entrance. The bus waits for everyone with a set time to depart. We enjoyed our time here, it was easily organized, and we highly recommend bringing a huge sack lunch, water, gloves, and hats.
One dining option that we really enjoyed and ended up visiting three times was <Panaderia Don Luis>. There are a few locations, we visited the one just a few blocks from the bus terminal. They have the best coffee we had in Argentina and Chile! (Much closer taste to a Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks.) The cakes were heavenly and nice empanadas too. The restaurant also has a strong wifi signal. Additionally, there’s one table that has an outlet to charge-up. Great pit stop for a bus layover.
🚍 Bus ride from El Calafate to El Chaltén cost ~$25.00 USD per person with TAQSA. It took ~3 hours.
El Chaltén – We loved this city! This was our favorite place in our Patagonia tour. First, there are NO park fees to enter Los Glaciares National Park. Second, there are a variety of hikes that you access right from walking out your front door so there is no additional transportation needed. Everything in the 12 block city is in walking distance. From multi-day treks to 1-2 hour hikes there’s something for everyone. We stayed here for 5 days and felt like it was enough time to get some great hikes in and enjoy the small quaint town. Our favorite day hikes included Laguna Torre, Los Cóndores, and Laguna Capri. These treks were all just tough enough to get our “extreme” hiking fix.
B$ Tips – At the time of this post, there was only one ATM here. It was out of service for 2.5 days and many places (including the bus companies) were cash only. Bring extra cash just in case or visit the ATM (in the bus terminal) immediately upon entering the city. You could get stuck here for numerous days if you don’t have cash.
Wifi here is almost non-existent. It is satellite based and mountain ranges appear to block it. Plan on spending 30 minutes to complete one email, no joke.
We enjoyed <Porter Resto Bar and Grill> for ridiculously huge burgers and grilled chicken sandwiches. Wine (85 ARS for bottle of house wine) and beer was also more reasonably priced with nice outdoor seating to enjoy mountain views after a long hike. This was the place in town where we got the best wifi signal!
Restaurants and grocery stores are fairly expensive here. Head to the grocery store to purchase food for lunches to enjoy on the trails. Grocery stores have only the basics. (E.g., 8 slices of ham cost $3.50 USD, large bag of chips ~$6.00 USD.)
🚍 Bus ride from El Chaltén, back to El Calafate, to Bariloche cost ~$167 USD per person for 28 grueling hours of travel. We took Marga which we were not happy with it due to the cleanliness/quality of the bus and quality of meals. No soap, paper towels or toilet paper in bathroom the entire ride! How did the man serving meals wash his hands? Gross!
*According to CALTUR bus company in El Chaltén, there was not a full-cama bus to take us from El Chaltén directly to Bariloche. With over 24 hours on a bus, we wanted to get there as comfortably and directly as possible. We were told that if we took the bus out of El Chaltén, we would have a less comfortable bus, plus an overnight in a hotel that they select with shared bedrooms and shared bath (price not included in bus fare). Therefore, we opted to return to El Calafate to take a full-cama bus directly to Bariloche. Note: Bariloche is a big city and you probably have to take a taxi to get to your accommodations.
Bariloche – This was our last stop in our Patagonia tour. We stayed in an apartment to return to some “normalcy”, enjoy the Christmas holiday, and recoup from being on the go. <Link here>
Bariloche was bigger, and even more touristy than we anticipated. Many of the must do activities are on the pricier side, but in order to enjoy the city we planned one big excursion a day to take in the beauty of Bariloche.
There are two different chair lifts with views in the city; Cerro Viejo and Cerro Campanario. We opted for the more impressive Cerro Campanario. The ride up is 8 minutes long and costs 100 pesos person. We read that you can hike up, but it is very steep and unmarked. We brought sack lunches and ate in the nice seating area at the top with gorgeous views. There is a restaurant at the top that serves some cakes, coffee, simple sandwiches and hamburgers. We poked our heads in, but we were unimpressed with the selection. Although, the Cerro Viejo has less impressive views, it does have a rotating restaurant at the top which may be fun if you’ve never dined “in rotation” before.
Next, we spent an entire afternoon biking the Circuito Chico. We chose the Cordillera Bike company due to the higher rating on Tripadvsior. The rental costs 200 pesos per person and includes a helmet and bike lock. The ride is really difficult due to the mountainous terrain.
It’s fun going down, but strenuous to the point that we often had to walk our bike up the steep inclines. It’s a great way to see the scenery including Argentina’s most famous accommodation the Hotel Llao-Llao, the hidden beach Villa Tacul, the Bosque de Arrayanes, the Bahía López Outlook, the Green Christ monument, and to view the range at the panoramic viewpoint overlooking Lago Moreno.
Lastly, Bariloche is known for chocolate. We visited Mamuschka (which was a better value) and Rapanui to get our sweet tooth fix. Rather than buy a prepackaged box, we opted to pick out a few select chocolates asking for a small box or bag as the chocolates are quite expensive. The stores also hand out free samples which we took advantage of when we walked the main strip in the city center.
🚍 To get to Cerro Campanario or the rental bike companies for the Circuito Chico, take the number 20 local bus to each destination from the Centro (downtown strip). The bus driver will call out the Cerro Campanario stop and the bike rental stop is the one following Cerro Campanario near the kilometer 18 marker at the roundabout.
Walk about 100 meters from the bus stop, veer to the right, and Cordillera Bike Company will be on the left hand side of the street with orange flags out in front. Our apartment came with a local bus pass which we loaded at the designated convenient stores on the main strip.
🚍 The bus ride from Bariloche to San Martín de Los Andes was one of the prettiest yet. The ~ 4 hour trip takes you along the scenic river and because the landscape was different that what we’ve seen thus far in Patagonia, it was a very enjoyable ride. We took KoKo bus costing 148 pesos each.
San Martín de Los Andes Many travelers do not make the stop to this little hidden gem of a city. We did so to break up the drive up north and it was a nice place to transition to the Patagonia Wine region portion of our trip. With its rustic lakeside charm, famous Seven Lakes beauty, and nice outdoor dining options, this is what we thought Bariloche was going to be. The city is small and walk-able. We enjoyed sitting at the lake’s edge to watch the boats come and go while eating a picnic lunch. Yes, it was a splurge, but it is here that we found the best dinner experience in South America at <Don Florencio>. The service was impeccable, the tree lined mountain outside patio views lovely, and the steak finally lived up to Argentine expectations! Order the Ojo de Bife. You won’t be disappointed. Just note, accommodations may be costly as this is an Argentine holiday retreat, not a typical backpacker stop. We stayed at the <Hotel Intermonti>.
🚍 San Martín de Los Andes to Cipolletti was a 6 hour and 40 minute trip. We took the Chevalier bus company with the full-cama executive option at 375 pesos each.
General Patagonia B$ Tips
Hosterias are similar to a bed and breakfast without access to kitchens and basic laundry services. We accidentally booked two of these and missed using a kitchen to make lunches and dinners. If you want a kitchen, make sure when you book it says hostel, not hosteria!
We were very lucky to be in Argentina when the blue rate was at a high, 15.20. Bring more USD ($100 bills) than you think! It will be worth it! We were surprised on how much money we spent on bus tickets. You can exchange (cambio) on Florida street in Buenos Aires very easily. Since we just recently ran out of USD currency, we went into panic mode. We were surprised to find out (from our host in Bariloche) that we’re also able to exchange Chilean pesos (CLP) at a good rate (specifically at BariExpress in Bariloche). This saved us a HUGE amount of $$. Luckily, we had some CLP left from our time in Chile and were able to exchange it at an equivalent rate of 11.92. Once those funds expire, we’re going to give Xoom a try since we’re not planning on going to Chile again until the end of the South American portion of our trip. The rate quoted on Xoom comes out to approximately 11.05 when the fee is included, still much better than the 8.50 official rate. The lesson here is to bring as much USD as possible and avoid taking money out of ATM’s or using a credit card because you’ll get stuck paying for purchases at the official rate. The best alternatives we’ve discovered in case you run out of USD are:
- Near Uruguay? Redeem USD out of ATM’s in Uruguay.
- Near Chile? Redeem USD or CLP out of ATM’s in Uruguay.
- CLP may not receive as high a rate as USD, but it’s nearly 40% (currently) more than using the official rate.
- Find a local money exchange office (in Argentina) and simply ask them for the best rate that they can offer on the CLP? They’ll instantly know that you’re not looking for the official rate and offer you something close to the “blue” rate.
- Xoom.com: Find a location nearby to pick up ARS pesos at a competitive rate, around 30% (currently) more than using the official rate.
Due to the <windy conditions> and bumpy/gravel roads, Harry was getting very car sick on the buses. Bring medicine if you are prone to motion sickness. Also, bring your own snacks and water on the buses or you’ll be starving and thirsty (and Purell)!
If you have the time, give yourself an extra day or two in each location to help prevent burnout.
Go to Platforma10.com to get price comparisons and the name of the bus companies that service your desired route…in English!
Save money by drinking tap water! Harry and I typically have sensitive stomachs and we drank water straight from the tap the entire time in Argentina, Chile and Patagonia.
*All costs are based on the blue rate that we were using at the time of purchase.