trip report: Patagonia, January 2019 – part 1: planning & research

Two of my favorite hikes in the world at the moment is in Patagonia, the O-Circuit of Torres Del Paine National Park in Chile and the Huemul Circuit of Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina. I would return to either places in a heartbeat, as our two previous week long trips out there during our spring breaks left us wanting for more. But these two hikes are just a small portion of the vast region of Patagonia with plenty that I’d looked forward to exploring in the future. So when I saw a USD$400 roundtrip flight from the United States to São Paulo, Brazil in business class, that future was much closer than I originally thought. Not to take away from what we had experienced in Brazil, but it was no question we’d be heading back to Patagonia.

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This is part 1 of my Patagonia and Carretera Austral trip report series. You can navigate to the other parts in the index below as they are posted.

index

1 planning & research
      1.1 the decision
      1.2 planning & activity
            1.2.1 travel & transportation
            1.2.2 return to the Huemul Circuit
            1.2.3 Carretera Austral
                  1.2.3.1 hitchhiking and busing
                  1.2.3.2 bikepacking
                  1.2.3.3 rental car & self driving
                  1.2.3.4 camping on the Carretera Austral
            1.2.4 equipment
            1.2.5 miscellaneous
                  1.2.5.1 money
                  1.2.5.2 maps and navigation
                  1.2.5.3 communication
      1.3 links
2 trip report: getting in & Huemul Circuit
3 trip report: Ruta 40 & driving on the Carretera Austral
4 trip report: Marble Cave on General Carrera Lake & Glaciar Exploradores
5 trip report: Mirador Laguna Cerro Castillo
6 trip report: Parque Nacional Queulat & Ventisquero Colgante
7 trip report: Futaleafú
8 trip report: Pumalín National Park
9 trip report: getting out via San Carlos de Bariloche & Mexico City
10 final impressions & budget

the decision

The decision was made for me based on the fare deal and this was probably the best one I’d ever pulled off as a “travel enthusiast”. The flight itself was a roundtrip flight from Miami (MIA) to São Paulo, Brazil (GRU) on Aeroméxico in business class for USD$400 (secretflying.com).

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Sitting up front on an Aeroméxico Boeing 788

Two parts of this flight made it perfect to allow us to return to the Patagonia Region. The first is that it is heading into southern South America. Even though most travelers going to Patagonia Region has to connect through Santiago de Chile, Chile or Buenos Aires, Argentina like we did on our previous trips, Sao Paulo is southern enough that it makes the transfer doable. For the points and miles game purposes as I will discuss below in my flight planning, all three countries cities are in the same region for Delta so only the cost difference to travel to Patagonia would be in the fees.

Secondly, I found availability for the flight during the holiday season and during winter break of the academic calendar. This was the high season for Patagonia, as it is their summer (U.S. News) making the timing of the flight perfect for us to explore new spots and revisit ones we’ve loved.

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planning & activities

The duration of our adventures into Patagonia this time around was about three weeks, not including flight time there and back. So we had plenty more time than our one week adventures on our previous trips. With more time on our hands, our approach to the trip was much less planned out and more free form. Again, the free form approach would allow us the flexibility to make decision based on our situation rather than trying to hit planned points. Secondly, that process of planning for a long duration such as three week is a nightmare as I’ve learned with our previous long trip in New Zealand. Lastly, I just didn’t want or even could put in the time to plan much at all beforehand.

So, I pretty much went with the bare minimum planning for this trip. I had our flight all the way into Patagonia, specifically El Calafate, Argentina. I booked a hotel for our first night. But, I didn’t book our connecting flight back to São Paulo until we knew where we’d end up.

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I planned up to this point pre-trip. The rest we figured out as we went.

From an activity standpoint, there were two general goals I had in mind before we took off.

The first was that I wanted to hike the Huemul Circuit again. It sits as my favorite hike in the world thus far and I wanted to enjoy it again without being rained on everyday like our previous hike. This was the reason for our flight into El Calafate, Argentina, the closest airport to the hike trailhead in El Chaltén, Argentina.

The second goal was to explore other parts of Patagonia such as the Carretera Austral and the many hikes along its route. The Carretera Austral is a road from Puerto Montt, Chile to Villa O’Higgins, Chile that covers 1,240 km (770 miles) winding its way through the many remote parks and hikes in the Chilean Patagonia. At the southern terminal of the road at Villa O’Higgins, I knew that you can hike and ferry to El Chaltén, Argentina providing a possibility to connect from our starting point.

Alternatively, we could have explored south from El Chaltén revisiting Torres Del Paine and then back into Argentina again at the southernmost town of Ushuaia on the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego. This option was less appealing due to the new regulations at Torres Del Paine for backpacking (CONAF) and would involve more exploiting of what we know compared to exploring new hikes.

This was essentially most of my plans going into the trip. Similar to my previous trip reports, the information that I’ll cover in my planning section will be specific to our trip and the planning I put into it with some useful details we learned from our trip. I will do my best to link you to guides I referred to in my planning throughout. However, I don’t intend this to be a complete guide about the region.

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Our eventual path through Patagonia.

flights & transportation planning

flights

My initial flight planning was centered on the roundtrip business class fare on Aeroméxico. The specific flight was out of Miami (MIA) to São Paulo, Brazil (GRU) with an overnight in Mexico City, Mexico (MEX) both on the inbound and outbound. The inbound was a shorter night layover and the outbound was almost a full 24 hours. The total for 2 tickets was USD$807 (USD$403.50 each).

The first thing I had to do was to reposition to MIA from our local airports. Since it was the holiday season, to MIA were relatively expensive themselves. The flight back was less so at it was near the end of January. Our Southwest companion pass was once again key (guide from Frequent Miler). For our outbound connection, I used 15076 Southwest points and USD$11.20 in fees for 2 tickets from Washington D.C. Dulles Airport (IAD) to Fort Lauderdale (FLL). On the return flight, I used USD$125.58 for 2 tickets from FLL to Washington D.C. Reagan Airport (DCA). The reason I used cash for the second flight was because I had to wait until my points and requalification for the companion pass to hit my account in the middle of our trip in January (dealswelike write up on companion pass timing). While FLL and MIA aren’t the same airport, it was cheap and about 1-2 hour commute between the two airports on the Tri-Rail public transport.

The next flights I had to plan for was to connect from GRU to the airports in Patagonia. The cheapest airfare for these flights is on LATAM or Sky from the Chilean side (discussed in the logistic section of first trip report). From the Argentina side, the flight costs on Aerolineas Argentinas are much more expensive. However they are part of Skyteam alliance and you can redeem 12500 Delta miles for a one way flight between any South American cities covered my Skyteam members. This was our way of connecting to Patagonia from GRU. Within Patagonia, Aerolineas Argentinas flew to the southernmost city of Ushuaia (USH), El Calafate (FTE) in the middle and near Los Glaciares National Park, and San Carlos de Bariloche (BRC) in the north. Since I wanted to start with the Huemul Circuit, I booked two tickets to travel from GRU to El Calafate connecting in Buenos Aires (EZE) for 25000 Delta Skymiles and USD$60.00 in fees. The award space was wide open for the return connection from all 3 airports, so I waited until we figured out where we’d end up before booking flights out. We ended up leaving from the northern town of San Carlos de Bariloche and 2 tickets from BRC to GRU connecting through EZE was 25000 Delta Skymiles and USD$138.00 in fees.

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My pre-trip bookings or expected bookings. Each color represents a different booking.

buses

Within Patagonia, we ended up relying on buses to travel between cities. We were recommended the booking site busbud. They charge a small fee ahead of time, but saves you a trip to the bus station.

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Our bus from El Chaltén to San Carlos de Bariloche.

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return to the Huemul Circuit

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Having completed the hike previously, I’d already planned for the hike in its entirety making it a very unstressful beginning to our current trip. I can attest that I reread my previous trip report to get me ready this time around.

While I will discuss my impressions from our return to a much more popular hike in my trip report (part 2 in this series), I would like to stress a couple basic backpacking things you should plan for and be prepared for going into the hike.

That is to please make sure you are adequately prepared for the wilderness and backcountry if you are to attempt this hike. I had the feeling that some hikers were not prepared and did not respect the harsh conditions that the Huemul can throw at you. There is serious risks and dangers on this hike and part of the euphoria of accomplishing this hike is the aspect of getting through it. Know your limits and it is common to turn back or have to wait parts of it out. We met a couple that waited for 3 days at Laguna Toro because of the terrible winds and that was the smart thing to do. Those terrible winds made us delay our start date by a day. Many visitors are on a schedule and aim to seek out the awesome views on this hike, but you must respect the dangers of the Patagonia wilderness and be able to adjust to it.

An vital part of your preparation for the backcountry backpacking is to learn the tenets of LEAVE NO TRACE (wikipedia). We saw white flowers (aka toilet paper and wet naps) often and especially littering the campsites 2 and 3 where there wasn’t a vault toilet. It is not very much weight to carry out your used toilet paper and all you need is a dedicated ziplock. It didn’t just stop at toilet paper, we saw literally piles of poop all around the campsites and you can smell it if the wind changes direction. We even saw poop directly on the trail. Digging a cat hole isn’t very hard and you can even do it afterwards and push your poop into it with a stick. Trash can also be found all around the campsites. Also, just because others haven’t observed leave no trace it doesn’t give you permission follow their bad example. I’m all for hike your own hike, but practicing leave no trace is a principle I have no problems expressing to everyone how I feel. I understand we can’t be perfect, but you do not deserve to be on the trails if you can’t TRY to leave it for others to enjoy. If you didn’t know about leave no trace before, please try to going forward.

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Carretera Austral

The Carretera Austral or Chile’s Route 7 is a 1,240 km road (770 miles) that cuts through a remote region of Chilean Patagonia, specially through the Aysén Region and southern parts of Los Lagos Region. The road was first built as a strategic venture to allow Chile access to many of its remote communities under the orders of the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. I have heard it referred to as the dictators’ highway a few times.

The road crosses an area of Chilean Patagonia filled with forests, lakes, rivers, steep mountains, glaciers, meadows, and fjords (see Back-Packer.org – top 10 places to visit on the Carretera Austral). As such, foreign conservationists Kris (wikipedia) and Douglas Tompkins (wikipedia) recognized the beauty of the region and begin efforts to preserve the natural beauty. Subsequently the Chilean government have also acknowledged the conservations as a natural resource and the economic benefits of tourism (BBC). As part of that effort, we saw many government projects improving and paving the once all dirt road. However, tourism is still at its infancy compared to other regions of Patagonia. There is plenty of stretches along the road you’ll be off the grid and mingle amongst the local villagers going about their everyday lives.

The northern terminal of the Carretera Austral is the salmon capital of Chile, Puerto Montt. It is a large city that has plenty of connections to the rest of Chile and Argentina. The southern end is Villa O’Higgins, where the road dead ends. You can only continue south on foot or bike via a ferry crossing Largo O’Higgins to Candelario Mancilla and eventually into El Chaltén, Argentina on a dirt trail (crossing description by Stingy Nomads). There are plans to connect the Carretera Austral to the southern Magallanes Region through Rio Bravo, Ventisquero Montt, and Puerto Natales (wikipedia), but not much information is available about that project.

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By User:B1mbo – Dibujo propio basado en diferentes mapas, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

I was drawn to the Carretera Austral since we had a good amount of time to explore it. But I still wasn’t sure the exact method of how as we begin our trip. We only came to an conclusion after sharing some stories of fellow traveler we met along the way. Regardless of how you travel the Carretera Austral, I found the app iOverlander a tremendous tool to helping us find everything we needed along the road.

Below are a few points regarding methods of travel on the Carretera Austral.

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hitchhiking and busing

Hitchhiking and busing is a traditional way to see the road and is a pastime for Chilean youth. My initial idea was to continue north from El Chaltén, Argentina and cross over to Villa O’Higgins at the southern terminus of the Carretera Austral. From there, we would hitch and bus our way up to Puerto Montt and exit out of San Carlos de Bariloche. We already had a tent for backpacking the Huemul Circuit and minimized our gear to allow for this. 

However after talking to a few new friend who had been reliant on this mode of travel, we decided against it. The two main reason was our lack of Spanish speaking skills and the lack of flexibility. Without the ability to communicate with locals, we’d be missing a major part of hitchhiking. Not only that, we would have a hard time communicating where we wanted to go. Secondly, while we did have about 2 weeks to explore the Carretera Austral, it still isn’t a lot of time to travel up the road and to be able to explore all that we wanted to. With unreliable bus schedules and wasted time trying to hitch we opted to spend more money allowing us to use our time more efficiently.

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Hanging out with a hitchhiking couple we picked up.

pros:

  • more interaction with locals and met new friends
  • possibly greater immersion with the local culture
  • more sense of an adventure
  • cheaper
  • can connect from the southern terminus of Villa O’Higgin to El Chaltén in Argentina

cons:

  • less control, dependent on unreliable bus schedules or rides
  • conversational spanish is a must to get full experience and for communication
  • potential for high amount of wasted time standing by the road
  • carry everything with you
  • camping/backpacking equipment recommended
  • requires more time

useful hitchhiking and busing guides:

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bikepacking

Bikepacking has become a popular activity to undertake. It shares many similarities with hitchhiking or busing, but with more control based on your own legs. This was never a consideration for us since Meg hates biking.

pros:

  • control over your pace and destination
  • see the road from a more detailed perspective
  • possibly cheap
  • can connect from the southern terminus of Villa O’Higgin to El Chaltén in Argentina

cons:

  • transporting or renting an adequate bike might difficult to deal with
  • fatigue from biking might make hiking unappealing
  • long distance biking hurts
  • the condition of the dirt road maybe very difficult on your tires
  • during a dry day, passing cars will kick up plenty of dust
  • during the rainy ones, you’ll be soaked
  • camping equipment required

useful trip reports:

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rental car & self driving

We ended with this option as it allowed us to utilize our time most efficiently and we were willing to spend the extra dollar. We were also able to focus on the main point of our trip, to hike.

There are several places along the Carretera Austral to rent a car including Puerto Montt and Coyhaique. In Argentina, rental cars are available in San Carlos de Bariloche and El Calafate. Should you need to cross the border, you’ll need additional paperwork that the rental company may or may not grant you. At the minimal, they will charge you an extra fee. After comparing prices of all the locations online and with autoslash.com, we found rental out of Puerto Montt being the cheapest by far even accounting for the bus tickets needed to get us there from El Chaltén. Maybe it was my lack of ability to communicate, but we were not able to get our rental company to issue us the paperwork to enter into Argentina. Being a last minute rental within a few days of pickup, it was a costly choice. Part of our justification was that our rental was a SUV and would provide us a mobile shelter. I remember the cost difference of a car and SUV wasn’t too different since it was so last minute.

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Home sweet home on the Carretera Austral.

An issue and additional cost unknown to me before we booked our rental was the necessity to also book the major ferry crossing (taustral.cl) between Hornopiren and Caleta Gonzalo just north of Chaitén, Chile (not to be confused with El Chaltén, Argentina) in Pumalín National Park located at the northern portion of the Carretera Austral. There are several alternative ferries (navieraustral.cl) that can connect with Puerto Montt to Chaitén directly or the peninsula of Chiloe to the west to Chaitén. Neither of these ferries are cheap for cars.

Lastly, there are plenty of gas available along the Carretera Austral at most major towns. The exception would be the more remote southern section between Cochrane and Villa O’Higgins.

pros:

  • complete control of your trip
  • most efficient use of your time
  • car can serve as your housing, no camping gear necessary
  • you can pick up hitchhikers to meet new friends
  • can pack more luxury items

cons:

  • expensive
  • having to returning your car at the same place
  • rental limitation of going into Argentina (must ask for additional paperwork)
  • reservations needed for certain ferry crossings ahead of time
  • no direct connection from the southern terminus of Villa O’Higgin to El Chaltén in Argentina

useful trip reports:

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wild/stealth camping on the Carretera Austral

Unless you are in a town or explicitly marked private property, camping on the Carretera Austral was pretty much a free for all from my experience. I would encourage you to practice LEAVE NO TRACE principles (wikipedia) where every you decide to camp. Following those principles has the bonus of others not knowing you were there afterwards.

However, not everywhere might be good for camping. The iOverlander app provides you a nice listing of nice places where you can set up camp. Also on the map are plenty of maintained campground you can pay for both public and private. These for pay campsites might provide more amenities such as showers and such.

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equipment

Our gear list for this trip was pretty much our standard backpacking gear. For descriptions and reviews on the major equipment items, see our equipment page. Since our original plans included the possibility of hitchhiking, we minimized our extra travel gear, such as clothing and electronic. The only extra travel gear we had with us was our laptops.

Below is an approximate list of our gear for the trip.

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miscellaneous

money

Argentina

The Argentine Peso (ARS) has been a mess since mid-2018 (Barron’s). When we first visited in 2017, it was around ARS$17 per USD$1. When we returned at the beginning of 2019 it was inflated to about ARS$37 per USD$1. Since then, it as even jumped further to about ARS$52 per USD$1. Perhaps it was due to this reason that there was inconsistencies with what different vendors accepted.

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As with our previous visit, atm withdrawal were still limited and many atms around the airport did not have any bills in them. In El Chaltén, the bank we visited last time was no longer there and it seemed to be going through renovations. There was an ATM in the bus station though.

However, we found more vendors willing to accept credit cards or even preferred them. The 5-10% discounts for cash was a bit less prevent as well, but we still found here and there.

Chile

The Chilean Peso (CLP) is much more stable in comparison to the USD. Also unlike Argentina, almost everywhere we went accepted credit cards. In addition, all the Chilean terminals were equipped with contactless/tap to pay technology allowing me to use google pay or Meg’s Apple pay on our phones. Some of the locals were even surprised that this worked. Our mobile payment in conjunction with my USBank Altitude Reserve Credit Card meant I even netted 4.5% back (Frequent Miler guide).

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maps

For our roadtrip on the Carretera Austral, my main map resource was google maps and the iOverlander app.

For topographical maps we used for our hikes, I used the Wikiloc app. Wikiloc is more widely used trail map for hikes in South America. It allows the download of Open Street Map (OSM) of regions that most apps utilize, WIFI download recommended. Alternatively, you can download OSM maps using other apps like MAPS.ME or Alltrails.

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communication

My Google Fi (referral link) plan worked as well as any local cell phone and data plan. On the Carretera Austral, I would typically have reception in the towns, much more than I had expected. However, when we reached the more remote regions south of Cerro Castillo, all bets were off. In El Chaltén, I recall better reception this time around as well, but it was still spotty.

Most towns had cafes and hostels that had wifi connection as well. Don’t expect the fastest speeds, but it will do. Again, check the information on iOverlander.

If you are worries about regions with lack of communication, you can always use a satellite messaging device like the Garmin InReach. Do note that the cost of such devices go beyond the device itself as you have to subscribe to the satellite service. I had a Garmin InReach Mini on a month to month plan for our time in Patagonia. I didn’t end up pulling it out at all on our trip, but it was there in case of emergencies.

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Written by John

I'm a graduate student that likes to hike and travel.

6 comments

    1. Thanks Anna. Yea, we are lucky with the amount of South America airfare deals from the USA, so it has been easier for us to go back there. But Patagonia is so big, we still have plenty to still explore there.

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  1. Ditto with Anna. Great opportunity for you to go back! Look forward to reading your new thoughts on the Huemul again. And the entire Careterra route in Chile/Argentina. Usually when people go to Patagonia, they go to big places (El Chalten, El Calafate, TDP, Ushuaia, Bariloche). It really takes a dedicated effort to make it to the Careterra. Must have been much less crowded.

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    1. Yea, there are plenty of travelers on the Carretera Austral, but more Chilean Nationals and less foreign visitors like those big places. You definitely interact more with the locals and their culture, so definitely worth it. There is also so much wilderness out there, but the hiking infrastructure is still at an beginning.

      I’ll write more about it in the later sections of this series. It takes me so much time to get through the pictures and such. I just finished post processing the Huemul ones, so hopefully I’ll get the next post up soon. Thanks for reading Rahoul.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this! I’m glad I found your blog. I am currently (low-key) planning a hike in Patagonia, some time in the next two years or so. This gives me a ton of great information to get the gears in motion! I can’t wait to show my SO this post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No problem, I’m glad the information is helpful for you. I’m hoping to get more of the series up soon. And if y’all have any questions about Patagonia, I can try my best to answer them.

      Like

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