Sunday, December 15, 2013

Travel tips for Southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego

Intro

I found it difficult to find info for some of these places, so here's some of what I dug up or tried out either alone or with friends/parents during my adventures in Southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. Prices and places can change rapidly, so check into things yourself, but I tried to provide links where possible.

The lists of lodging and restaurants aren't anything close to exhaustive, just the places I tried that stuck out i my memory. Maybe someday I can get paid to try out all the restaurants and hostels and report back... ;-)

Prices listed here are what I paid or was quoted in November-December 2013. Especially in Argentina, prices change rapidly, and in this whole area there can be big differences in high vs. low tourist seasons.

If you have tips to add, pipe up!!

Towns visited (from N->S) and covered in this collection of tips and reviews:

El Chaltén, Argentina
El Calafate, Argentina
Torres del Paine, Chile (see separate "Planning your Trip to Torres del Paine" post)
Puerto Natales, Chile
Punta Arenas, Chile
Ushuaia, Argentina
Puerto Williams, Chile

With jagged peaks, the world's third-largest ice sheet, massive glaciers, luxurient forests, pasturelands, cobalt lakes, huge swaths of wind-swept desolation, fjords, charming port towns, soaring condors, frolicking guanacos, and warm and friendly people, this is an incredible part of the world.


General practical tips for the region

  • Learn some Spanish. Many people speak English, many do not. A little Español combined with a smile will open doors.
  • Bring cash in USD. In Chile, many hotels will offer you a significant discount for paying with cash in USD because foreign tourists paying in cash do not have to pay the 19% VAT. In Argentina, where the blue market exchange rate will give you almost twice the number of pesos per dollar as banks, ATMs, or your credit card, bringing dollars and exchanging them for pesos once you arrive in Argentina at blue market exchange houses, at hotels, in shops, or on the street (be careful that you don't get fake pesos) will essentially make your trip to Argentina cost half what it would otherwise cost.
  • Bring your debit card and a credit card for emergencies. Put them in different places in case your main wallet gets lost/stolen. Many places accept major credit cards (Visa and MasterCard). However, many do not, and some towns don't have banks for doing exchanges or ATMs, so always have cash on hand before going to your next destination!
  • Pay your reciprocity fee in advance. People from the United States, Canada, and Australia need to pay a reciprocity fee before they enter Argentina. For folks from the U.S., this is $160, which is what we charge Argentinians for a tourist visa to the U.S. (so it's only fair). This is true at all border crossings, and you will not be able to book a bus ticket that crosses a border into Argentina without it. This did not used to be enforced as strictly, but as of January 2013 it became mandatory at all border crossings. You can pay by credit card here (under "Log In" click "Sign Up" and follow instructions), be sure to print out your receipt and staple it into your passport so you don't lose it. It is good for the life of your passport. Chile also requires a reciprocity fee (again, $160 for U.S. citizens, Canadians and Australians also need to pay), but it only is necessary if you fly into the Santiago airport and you can pay it at the airport.
  • Always carry tissues and hand sanitizer for public toilets. Toilets may not be stocked, and there's nothing worse than doing your business and realizing you have nothing but your t-shirt to wipe with.
  • Bus tickets usually need to be bought in person at bus ticket offices. Some companies allow online booking, but only for residents with a local bank account. Not all will accept credit card, so be prepared with cash for your fare.
  • Bring snacks for the bus. Some long bus rides will supply meals, but often a "meal" means two slices of white bread, a packet of mayonnaise, and a slice of cheese, or just a small package of cookies. Others supply excellent meals (I've heard rumors of steak and wine?), others nothing at all. It's wisest to bring a bag with some food and water. Note that when crossing the border into Chile, you will not be able to bring any plant or animal products (fruits, veggies, nuts, meats, dairy, honey, etc.), and they will check.
  • Water is generally safe to drink, but if you're sensitive, ask if the water in the place you are staying is potable. Bottled water is widely available for purchase.
  • Don't eat bus station empanadas. Trust me. Do eat empanadas, but eat them at a reputable establishment where they make them fresh. Also, empanadas are bigger, and therefore better, in Chile.
  • Do drink the wine. All the wine. Best in the world. There are some really good microbrews here, too. When in this region of Chile, try the Austral beers. My favorite in Argentina has been beer by Berlina, but one restaurant in Chaltén served up a delicious Stout that knocked my socks right off.

Enjoying a local beer at the end of a hike in Patagonia.


Where to go, in what order, and how to get there

If I were to do this again, had more money and lots of time, and were to design a tour from Bariloche, I'd do this 4-week trip:

1. Go from Bariloche to Puerto Montt either by bus or via on the Cruce Andino cruise across the lake.
2. Spend a few days exploring around Puerto Montt, e.g. visiting Chiloé.
3. Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales on the Navimag ferry through the Chilean fjords.
4. Visit Torres del Paine for a week from Puerto Natales, hiking the O clockwise from Torres.
5. Return to Puerto Natales and go to Punta Arenas for a day or two and see the penguins at Isla Magdalena and/or Seno Ottway.
6. Take the Yaghan ferry or fly to Puerto Williams. Better yet if I had the money or connections, hop a yacht and explore some of the more remote fjords and estancias on the way.
7. Spend a week or more trekking around Isla Navarino. Skip this part if you aren't an adventurous trekker or love of extreme yachting.
8. Then take a zodiac (or catch a yacht ride) to Ushuaia and spend a day or two there hiking or going on boat excursions.
9. Take the bus to El Chaltén via Rio Gallegos, spend a few days or more trekking and rock climbing in El Chaltén.
10. Take the bus from El Chaltén to El Calafate and do a glacier trek.
11. Bus (or fly) back to Bariloche. Taqse/Marga buses are really comfortable and hit the scenic parts of Ruta 40 while blowing through the rest on mostly paved roads. Or if you want the experience from Hell so you can say you did it, get one of the Ruta 40 buses (seriously not fun, but maybe less miserable than cycling it...).

Alternately, for those with lots of time and energy (next time...):

  1. After exploring Chiloé...
  2. Bike the Carretera Austral from Puerto Montt to Villa O'Higgins
  3. Magically ditch the bike and hike across the border to El Chaltén (description here) and play in the mountains there (rock climber's paradise, fun on the Southern Patagonian Ice Field.
  4. Bus to El Calafate and do some ice climbing on the glacier.
  5. Bus to Torres del Paine and do the O circuit.
  6. Jump back onto the above list for parts 5-8.
  7. If your butt hasn't had enough, bike from Ushuaia north on Ruta 40 (I've heard this is miserable! Yay!).

El Chaltén

Chaltén is a super-cute little mountain town and it wouldn't take much to convince me to live there forever. It is very touristy (goes from 500 residents in the winter to 3000 in the summer tourist season), but with plenty of charm to spread around. There are lots of hostels (I was staying with parents so didn't check them out), if you camp be aware that the winds can be very strong (welcome to Patagonia! brace yourselves!). The mountains are awesome, and there are trails and climbing everywhere. Also, with Fitz Roy rightupyournose there, it's a mecca for rock climbers and serious mountaineers. This would be a good place to stay for a while if you like the outdoors, a place to stick your claws into and scream "NO NOT LEAVING" if you love the outdoors (I know I did...).

The town of El Chaltén from the Fitz Roy trail

Lodging

  • Senderos Hosteria (rooms $130USD and up) is right across from the bus station at the edge of town. Rooms were nice, wifi was extremely slow, breakfasts included the standard toast and jams and cereals as well as cold cuts and fruit. The hotel also has a restaurant most days of the week with very nice food. The "deluxe" rooms face the mountains and sort of have views. The "standard" rooms are on the opposite side of the building and can get very hot from sun coming in through the windows and only little ventilation.
  • Lots of hostels in the town. Check them out online.
  • Campgrounds in the national park (hiking distance from the bus station) all looked very nice.

Food

  • La Cerveceria is conveniently located on the way back from the Fitz Roy trail (San Martin 564). Microbrews, a small outdoor Biergarten, and food (including excellent salads).
  • There are several nice restaurants along the main street Jose Antonio Rojo. All were good.

Hikes

  • Don't miss the Fitz Roy trail. Even if you only go to the viewpoints (there are several stunning ones) halfway and skip the final climb (it's steep and strenuous, I advise bringing trekking poles) up to the lake, this is the view you came here for. If you have a good weather day with low winds, do this and consider yourself incredibly lucky.
  • If you want a nice walk when you first get into town, hike out to the waterfall. The trail takes you through the whole town (not very long), along the river, and out to the Cascada. You pass the Fitz Roy trailhead on the way.
  • This trek across the border to Villa O'Higgins in Chile sounds amazing and I wish I had had time to do it.
  • Climber? Then bring your gear and your friends and you know what to do. Because... this:
Mountain, you are so beautiful I just want to give you hugs. All the way to the top.

El Calafate

Calafate is a good transit point, a little wooded oasis in an otherwise barren landscape. Stop off, see the glacier(s), continue on to somewhere nicer (like Torres del Paine or El Chaltén). It has plenty of stuff for tourists including streets full of tour agencies, souvenir shops, and outdoor equippers. Restaurants tended to be overpriced, although the Cerveceria was great.

Glacier Moreno out of El Calafate

Lodging

  • Los Dos Pinos offers up a range of lodging options from a lawn for pitching your tent to dorm rooms to little cabins. Nothing special, but prices were fine, the location convenient, the internet was decent, and transfer from the bus station was free (although it isn't a long walk). Tent site for a night was $40 argentine pesos, including free wifi, showers, and use of the kitchen. The communal kitchen area is nice and big, but woefully understocked due to backpackers stealing equipment from the kitchen.
  • Stanta Monica Aparts has a series of very cute kit cabins complete with private living rooms, kitchens, and bathrooms (with tubs) surrounded by green lawn, trees, and lupine off at the edge of town. The staff were very helpful in helping my parents book activities and transportation.

Food

  • Chopen cerveceria at the edge of town (Libertador 1630) serves up great food at a reasonable price as well as local brew, and the staff was fun. We ended up returning here after not particularly liking any of the other restaurants we tried in town.

Puerto Natales

Puerto Natales is a cute little port town with spectacular views of the mountains, but pretty much everyone who comes here isn't here to see the town, they are here on their way to or from Torres del Paine. For info on Torres del Paine, see my post "Planning your trip to Torres del Paine".

A cloudy day in Torres del Paine

Transportation

Lonely Planet is outdated: there is a new bus terminal (the glassy new Rodoviario) outside of town on Av. España 1455 where all of the buses come into and where the bus companies now have their offices. This means that, in general, you'll have a long-ish walk to any hostels downtown. Be prepared to walk in the rain.
There are so many backpackers, that despite high frequencies buses do fill up, sometimes days in advance. So leave extra time to get yourself on a bus!
  • To Torres del Paine Park from Puerto Natales, Pacheco runs buses twice daily at 7:30 and 14:30 and returns at 13:00 and 18:00
  • From Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales: Pacheco and Buses Fernandez both offer buses about every hour from 7:30 am to 8:00 pm. ~$5000 CLP.
  • Navimag ferry runs Puerto Montt <-> Puerto Natales for a scenic 3-day trip through the Chilean fjords. Cabins start at $500 USD, although if you show up at the terminal the day of, you can get steep discounts (I’ve heard as low as $300 USD). I didn't do this (no time) but have heard wonderful things about this trip.

Lodging

Many of the hostels in town offer gear rentals (tents and sleeping pads, some also  have sleeping bags, stoves, packs, gas cans, etc.) and can arrange bus tickets to the park.
  • Backpackers Kaweskar is clean, has a good breakfast, helpful staff, and enforced quiet hours ensuring the backpackers get their sleep. It is full of...backpackers. $9000 CLP/night for a dorm room.

Punta Arenas

A port town that has outlived its glory days but still retains a certain maritime coolness. Try the seafood, visit the penguins, move on.

Penguins at the Seno Ottway colony out of Punta Arenas

Food

  • The mercado municipal is full of little restaurants, all reasonably-priced and offering up local seafood and other specialties (including, supposedly, sea urchin = erizo) although I didn't find it on the menu at any of the places I looked).
  • La Luna is a fun place for dinner with excellent food and a nice wine and beer selection.

Ushuaia

Ushuaia bills itself as the "end of the world", which when you stand at the "End of the World" sign at the harbor and look out at the mountains beyond, kind of makes you feel cheated. But it's a fun little town in an absolutely spectacular landscape with a little something for everyone: hiking, boating, shopping, penguins, seafood...

Lovely Ushuaia

Hostels

Prices in $ Argentine pesos for dorm rooms in late November 2013.

Hostels in Ushuaia book up fast in Nov-Feb. Book in advance through HostelWorld or other booking site if you can!

All of the hostels I stopped at had good info desks for helping you plan trips and excursions.
  • Hostel Antarctica has a fun atmosphere and a bar
  • Hostel Yakush has a nice living room, kitchen, and dining area, $120/night
  • Hostel Cruz del Sur fun and lively atmosphere with knowledgeable and helpful staff for planning outings, $100/night
  • Amanacer del Bahia where I stayed, $120/night, all of the hostels downtown were full, this one is up on the top of the hill (a short distance from downtown, totally walkable) and sort of like a men’s boarding house, not a lot of charm, but it was clean enough and the people were friendly and the staff helpful
  • La Posta is recommended in Lonely Planet but is a long way from the town center and is not very charming. Not recommended.

Food

Transport

There is no central bus terminal in Ushuaia, which makes life difficult. To book tickets, you need to go to one of the agencies in town, all of which are closed on Sundays and holidays. Many hostel info desks can book tickets for you.
In general, Platforma 10 is the best website for looking for schedules for buses in Argentina.
Prices listed are in USD unless listed otherwise.
  • From Bariloche: Marga 36 hours, ~$220 USD including meals and snacks, leaves 9 am, arrives in Ushuaia at 9 pm the following day with a transfer in the morning in Rio Gallegos.
  • To Punta Arenas: Buses Pacheco ($60+) you can buy tickets on the bus the day of if seats are available, or book them at the Tolkeyen Patagonia office at 1267 San Martin. Other options are Bus Sur and Tecni Austral, check at the info center and at the offices in town to buy tickets.

Puerto Williams

Puerto Williams was my favorite place I've been in all of South America. Why? Read my Isla Navarino series. It's a tiny port town that reminded me of tiny port towns in SE Alaska. There's not a big tourist infrastructure there, and I liked it that way. So what I should say is that it's really hard to get to, there's not much there, definitely don't go. But I can't lie, I loved loved loved Puerto Williams.

View of the Dientes del Navarino from the legendary Club de Yates in Puerto Williams

Transport Options

Prices are in USD unless otherwise specified.
  • Piratour zodiacs: Ushuaia <-> Puerto Williams, $130 including harbor fee, runs most days weather permitting. Buy tickets at the info center on the water front or their office on San Martin. Leaves Ushuaia at 9am, arrives ~12pm including customs. Check in Puerto Williams for leaving times (varies). This is how I got to the island and they were fine, even if I think the price is ridiculously high.
  • Ushuaia Boating zodiacs: Ushuaia <-> Puerto Williams, office at Gobernador 233 was closed every time I checked there (despite posting opening hours that said they should be open) so I don't know what prices are or when boats leave, but this is a theoretical option
  • DAP flight: Punta Arenas <-> Puerto Williams, $120, 2 flights/day Monday-Saturday, 10 kg luggage limit, $1000 CLP per kilo after that, flights leave at 11:30 and 8:00 pm, but arrive really early since they seem to actually leave when they want!
  • Yaghan Ferry: Punta Arenas <-> Puerto Williams, $200 for basic seat, leaves Punta Arenas on Thursdays at 6 pm, leaves Puerto Williams on Saturdays or Sundays (check the schedule) at 4 pm, takes ~30 hours, boat to Punta Arenas arrives at around 9 pm the day after departure.

Lodging

  • There are a handful of hostels in Puerto Williams, I only have experience with one. If you show up at one and it is full, they'll help direct you to one that is not.
  • Patty Pusaki at the Residencial Pusaki is the best. She has private and dorm rooms, offers 3 excellent home-cooked meals a day (you can eat with her even if you aren't staying with her—her cooking is legendary!), is full of interesting stories, and she has a big map of the island on her wall that was actually really useful—arguably moreso than the topo maps—for planning my trek. Room and full board was ~$22000 CLP/night.

Other tips

  • The info booth in the center of town was staffed by a very knowledgeable and nice Estonian woman while I was there, she was great.
  • Yacht Club (Club de Yates Milcavi) on Milcavi on the waterfront at the west side of town. Good internet, club/bar open ~6pm most days, bar rages all night, great place to meet people.
  • There is a bank with an ATM downtown. Stores only accept CLP. Don’t expect to be able to exchange money when you arrive, so bring pesos or use the ATM.

Hikes (starting from town)

If you only have…

  • 1-2 days: Cerro Bandera ~3.5 hrs round trip, great views of the Beagle Channel
  • 2+ days: Overnight camp at Laguna Salta, you can continue on to the Paso de los Dientes and back if you have time for awesome views over both ends of the island if the weather is good. Hike to Salta is ~4 hours.
  • 5 days: Lago Windhond (2 days to the lake, 2 days back, one night at the Refugio Charles at the lake)
  • 6 days: The Dientes del Navarino circuit
  • Longer: combine Windhond and the Dientes circuit or explore some of the off-trail options

Notes:

  • There are no fees for hiking.
  • Campfires are allowed (using fallen wood only, no cutting new wood, but the beavers did all of the work for you), as is off-trail hiking, but be careful and responsible and follow leave-no-trace principles.
  • There is apparently great fishing all over the island.
  • The store across the street from the Municipalidad has lots of good stuff for trekking from topo maps to rental tents to ramen noodles and trail mix. The owner is very knowledgeable.
  • For trekking, checking in with the carabinieros is mandatory and free.
  • Be prepared to spend at least one extra night out and be prepared for some really bad weather—weather can turn awful (snow, torrential downpour, gale-force winds, etc.) really fast.
  • Check out my post "How to pack for a trek to the end of the world" for packing advice.

And...that's all for now! Again, if you have tips to add, pipe up!! Hope this is useful!