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Patagonia: Insider’s Guide

Tom Damon | September 7, 2014

The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for South America: Tom Damon of Southwind Adventures.

Trusted Travel Expert
Tom Damon

An experienced trekker and expedition climber, Tom Damon specializes in outdoor adventures and family travel throughout South America. He’ll point you to the best hiking trails—for every skill level—at Machu Picchu and in Patagonia, and the most thrilling jungle adventures in the Amazon, whether by dugout canoe or luxe riverboat. Whether you opt for a private expedition or a small-group tour, Tom will ensure you’re in the company of highly trained, highly personal English-speaking guides. As for accommodations, he knows the best-of-the-best wilderness lodges (where he often gets upgrades and other perks), as well as the prime camping spots; his favorite itineraries include both. If you’re looking to cross borders or link multiple regions, Tom is a pro at making the trip seamless, dodging crowds and logistical hassles. In Patagonia especially—where one itinerary might include planes, cars, trains, and boats—he’ll make it all run like clockwork. Tom was also included in Perrin’s People, Wendy’s award-winning list of top travel specialists, which was published annually in Condé Nast Traveler magazine from 2000 to 2013.

Travel arrangements start at $1,250 per day for two travelers. This is the minimum you should expect to pay.
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Where to Stay and Eat

Best bang-for-your-buck lodges
Until Awasi in Chile opened in 2013, staying at a top lodge inside Torres del Paine National Park meant that you’d have to share your outdoor excursions with up to eight other hotel guests per guide. But now, with Awasi, you can go it alone (with a guide). Situated on a private reserve adjacent to the park, the lodge has just 12 spacious bungalows, and each comes with its own private guide and vehicle so you can explore the remote corners of the park at your own pace—and you get access to off-the-beaten-path valleys such as Baguales, known for herds of wild horses and a petrified forest. Families can explore together or select different half- or full-day excursions. It’s a little more expensive than the two other high-end properties inside the park (Explora and Tierra Patagonia), but you avoid the shared group packages at those lodges and Explora’s preset arrival dates.

In the four–star category, both Hotel Las Torres Patagonia and Hotel Rio Serrano are an especially good deal if you book multiple nights—three nights at Hotel Las Torres and two nights at Hotel Rio Serrano. Hotel Las Torres Patagonia is set right beneath the three granite Paine Towers, and I always favor the Superior Cipres rooms, which have large windows and prime views of Mount Almirante Nieto. At Hotel Rio Serrano, rooms overlook the Serrano River and the Paine Massif, and I personally like the Superior Paine Massif rooms on the second floor because of the great views, and the corner Superior King, since it has a small terrace. What’s more, if you stay at these properties you can come and go as you please and we’ll arrange for a Southwind private guide and a completely customized itinerary (Explora and Tierra guests must share these lodges’ guides).

Best bang-for-your-buck estancia
Estancia Nibepo Aike in Argentina, an authentic working ranch that offers a limited number of visitors a glimpse into the distinctive Patagonian lifestyle. Encompassing nearly 25,000 acres within Los Glaciares National Park and overlooking Lago Argentino, Nibepo Aike offers buckets of activities and gorgeous vistas everywhere you look. You can go horseback riding with a baqueano (cowboy) guide, fishing in nearby lakes, biking, or just relax and learn about life on a ranch (if you’ve never seen a sheep-shearing, this could be your chance). Meals here are sensational. Superior rooms with a corner location are the best value, with ample space and unbeatable views.

Meal worth a pit stop
If passing through El Calafate, Argentina, en route to Los Glaciares National Park, warm up by the fire at Casimiro Bigua and try the Patagonian lamb with crusted almonds or the lamb and beef tenderloin topped with a sauce made from morels that grow wild in nearby El Chalten.

Meal worth the splurge
Barbecue at the Estancia Nibepo Aike’s grill house in Argentine, Patagonia. The countryside setting here is as authentic as can be, the meal served family-style from a portable grill brought to the table with sizzling lamb, steak, and pork. Accompanied by chimichurri sauce and a bottle of malbec. Add in the grand vista of snow-capped peaks and Lake Argentino in the distance and you have a recipe for a memorable Patagonian lunch or dinner.

What to See and Do

Don’t miss
The penguins at Otway Sound. Each year about a thousand Magellanic penguins arrive from the south Atlantic in September to nest where they were hatched. The best viewing is January to March after offspring appear and before they head to sea.

The quiet town of Puerto Natales, Chile, located on scenic Last Hope Sound. It’s an ideal stopover to break up the six-hour drive between Punta Arenas and Paine Park, and home to two of my favorite properties. For full-on luxury and a bit of history, there’s the Singular Patagonia, a very stylish and distinctive hotel that was repurposed from a cold-storage plant built in 1915 by the descendants of the sheep farmers who originally settled the area. And then there’s the more modestly priced Hotel Costaustralis, a big chateau-style building that sits on the edge of the sound. Some of the rooms look right out onto the mountains and glaciers.

Don’t bother
Don’t think that just because El Calafate (in Argentina) is centrally located it makes a good base for exploring the region. It’s touristy, and the hotels there aren’t nearly as appealing as the lovely estancias on the outskirts of town, closer to Perito Moreno Glacier. Better yet, spend a few nights in the sleepy village of El Chalten, a hiker’s paradise at the base of the granite spires of Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre.

Hosteria on Pehoe Lake

Hosteria on Pehoe Lake, Torres del Paine National Park. Photo courtesy Southwind Adventures.

Hidden gems
The backcountry in Torres del Paine Park, Chile. No vehicles, only pristine wilderness. Stay at Hotel Las Torres Patagonia (see “Best bang-for-your-buck lodges,” above) and ride horseback for the day through the Paine River Valley to Paine Lake. Or ride to Dickson Lake for a night of comfortable tent camping. You’ll avoid the crowds of hikers on the park’s more easily accessed trails (like the W trek) while soaking up rugged mountain landscapes few get to see.

Patagonia is a hiker’s dream in part because of the low elevations compared to the Andes farther north in Peru. If you only have time for one hike in Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park, don’t miss the flower-filled route following the Electrico River to its junction with the Blanco. After a gradual uphill hike, have lunch close to where climbers stage their big wall climbs up Fitz Roy. The gem of this day is not descending to town as others do, but rather venturing up a zigzag trail (1,300 feet higher in elevation) to top out at Laguna de los Tres. This small lake is etched in my memory from the first time I saw it: A completely still lake reflecting the late-afternoon light and vertical rock of Fitz Roy’s east face, the spire of Poincenot Needle, and the unusually blue Piedras Blancas Glacier. I’d only recommend it for seasoned hikers.

Perito Moreno Glacier

Perito Moreno Glacier. Photo courtesy Southwind Adventures.

Cheap thrills
After taking in the grandeur of the three-mile-wide Perito Moreno Glacier, one of only a few on earth still mysteriously advancing outside the poles as others recede, don crampons and venture up on the glacier itself for a few hours of easygoing, close-up exploration. The price is about $200 per person to join a group of ten climbers, or I can arrange a similar glacier walk with a private guide on Viedma Glacier, near El Chalten.

As an alternative to driving into Paine Park, overnight in Puerto Natales and then board a motorized catamaran to journey through the icy waters of Last Hope Sound, where the scenery is surreal. As the sheer walls of Balmaceda Mountain loom ahead, you may hear the boom of ice blocks falling from its glacier. At Puerto Toro, disembark to walk through the native forest up to see the lake and the Serrano Glacier. Then switch to a Zodiac motorboat to continue winding up the turquoise Serrano River past the Geike and Tyndall glaciers in the distance, then around a cascade to enter Torres del Paine National Park to begin your hike. Wildlife sightings along this route may include seals, sea lions, black-necked swans, porpoises, and other Patagonian wildlife. Prices for this hike start at about $250 per person to join a group of approximately 12 to 15 people.

 

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Best Times to Go

Mid-October through November or mid-March through April. Those are shoulder seasons, so there are fewer visitors and the lodges have a quieter, more relaxed ambiance, and there is less traffic. These are also the best times to spot elusive wildlife such as nandu, guanaco, puma, huemul, and condor. The national parks of southern Patagonia have a reputation for changeable windy weather influenced by Antarctica and the continental ice cap, but October and November will feel like spring with snows melting off the high peaks and flowers beginning to bloom. In March and April there’s a fall chill in the air, with hillsides beginning to show colors as leaves turn.

Worst Times to Go

June through September is winter in Patagonia. Trails and roads may close due to snow.

Also avoid late December through early January, when crowds descend on the lodges, trails, and boats, while increased road traffic kicks up dust. Local schools are on their summer recess into January, adding to the volume of both international and domestic travelers in the parks. Around the holidays, the lodges often sell out six months or more in advance.

Biggest Rookie Mistakes

Trying to go too far in a short window or underestimating travel time needed to reach the southern parks of Patagonia (Torres del Paine National Park in Chile and Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina). If you only have 10 days, choose one park or at least one country so you can soak up the grandeur and not feel like you spent your vacation in planes and vehicles traversing wide-open expanses. Combining the two parks in one trip can mean over 800 miles of driving, so a full two weeks is best.

Laying over too long in Santiago. In Chile, bypass the hectic and congested capital and make a beeline for Punta Arenas, the country’s southernmost regional capital. You’ll get your flying out of the way, and Punta Arenas, built on the shores of the Strait of Magellan, has nice hotels and restaurants but a more relaxed vibe than Santiago. For an additional three hours of travel, you can also continue the same afternoon to Puerto Natales, spending two nights there at the Singular Hotel.

Instagram Moments


The long daylight hours of the Patagonian summer mean you can meander out from your lodge (Explora has some of the best views) after dinner and still catch alpenglow casting soft sunset hues on the granite and snow-covered peaks of the Paine Massif.

In the early afternoon at Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina, walk the lower path, while other visitors are at lunch, to capture a close-up of the glacier’s front wall. There’s a good chance you’ll catch a chunk of blue ice falling into the lake.

Along the trail in Paine Park leading to the Grey Glacier, you’ll find overlooks where you can see the wide glacier in the distance. Those are the perfect spots to reach out and have your companion snap a shot of you holding a glacier in your arms.

Perfect Souvenirs

You’re traveling in the land of fine steak and wine. Your guide will probably bring his personal steak knife to the table while dining at an estancia. Pick one up for yourself in Calafate or Puerto Natales, bring it home in a nice case, and break it out at your next barbecue as you indulge friends with stories from the ends of the earth. Kids usually like a handcrafted purse, a leather wallet, or a wall decoration from the local gaucho artisans.

Scam Alert

Be careful when buying silver jewelry as souvenirs in Calafate’s shops. Instead of silver, you could be buying copper or nickel with a slight silver finish; the store clerk may not even realize it.

Taxis or private car services sometimes overcharge foreigners for trips from Puerto Natales north to Paine Park or south to Punta Arenas. Those are long distances, so the high price quoted may sound reasonable, but first ask a local guide in town what you should expect to pay that time of year.

Must-Have App

EveryTrail offers detailed maps of Patagonia hiking routes with descriptions, photos, trail distances, hiking times, and satellite views (for iPhone and Android).

Airport Intel

The Punta Arenas Airport in Chile is the closest major commercial airport to Torres del Paine National Park, but it’s still a six-hour drive away. If you have more than four in your party, consider a charter flight to Puerto Natales to reduce your drive time. If your plans call for combining both sides of Patagonia (Chile and Argentina), consider flying into El Calafate, Argentina, and driving the half-day across the border to Paine Park.

Tipping Tip

Tipping in Patagonia is common but considered by locals to be something extra when you like the service. You may not see a tip option on restaurant tabs, so best to have some cash to give directly to the waiter, not to leave on the table. Ten percent is standard at restaurants; hiking guides get about $8 to $12 per person per day of service; and city tour guides get $6 to $8 per person per day. Taxi drivers don’t expect a tip unless they provide service such as carrying bags. Locals will round up their fare to leave a little extra. Carry small denominations of U.S. currency or pesos, as getting change is not easy.

Don’t Forget to Pack

A scarf or neck gator to protect against the wind. In the far south, they say the weather is influenced by Antarctica, and gusts are common; it’s not unusual to have four seasons in one day when out hiking in Patagonia. Even though the wind can cool the air, the sun shines long hours in the south, so don’t forget to apply sunscreen. If you are prone to sore knees, trekking poles come in very handy.

 

Reviews

Tom provided truly outstanding...

Linda and Joe Rothman | January 2, 2017

So many pinch-me moments

Cindy Reeves | December 1, 2016

Favorite hikes of my life

David Max | November 11, 2016
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