Background: This trip report will focus on logistical details, as that’s what I struggled with the most when planning this trip. When I detail Things That Went Wrong, I’m not doing it to complain, just to improve experiences for those who follow.
So, when we first contemplated traveling to Patagonia, we knew we either wanted to do Santiago/Torres del Paine or Buenos Aires/El Chalten-El Calafate. Our research indicated relative difficulty in jumping between countries once in Patagonia; with only 10 days to work with for our itinerary, we decided to pick a country and stay there. This decision proved difficult…did we want to backpack in TdP, or day hike in El Chalten? How important to see penguins in Chile? We found $1000 multi-city tickets from Miami – Santiago – Punta Arenas – Miami with LAN, so we jumped on them and decided to go the Chilean route. BUT…a month after booking our tickets, we got an email from LAN that the flight schedule had changed. Our one stop (Santiago) between PA to Miami changed to include additional, lengthy layovers in Puerto Montt and Lima. Ugh! We cancelled our tickets, got a refund, and started looking for new tickets.
During part 2 of our plane ticket search, I had a change of heart about choosing Chile over Argentina. Two out of the four members of our group had no prior backpacking experience, and I got nervous about how they might react to the lack of certain amenities if the Refugios happened to be full. We found tickets Miami – Buenos Aires – El Calafate – Miami on Aerolineas Argentinas for a few hundred bucks more than our original tickets to Chile. Boom. A month after THAT, we got another email that out of the four of us, two had their flight reservation from BA – El Calafate involuntarily changed from the morning flight to the early afternoon flight. At this point we didn’t want to start over again and figured we’d deal with it.
Here’s how things panned out:
Our red-eye flight from Miami to BA on Friday night departed 3 hours late. While hanging out in MIA, we chatted with some BA locals who asked if we could exchange money with them at 9 pesos/dollar. Each of the four of us exchanged $100 with them. After a painless EZE customs clearing, we took a cab to our hotel in San Telmo and were instantly delighted with the historic look of the lobby. Unfortunately, the desk clerk told us that Expedia had made a mistake and overbooked the hotel, and we would be staying at their sister hotel instead. They called a cab for us to get to the new hotel, which was also very nice but brand new and lacking the historic charm of the one we booked online. No big deal, though. After ample showering, we headed out for a café con leche in San Telmo to power us through a day of sightseeing. We walked to Plaza de Mayo and went through Casa Rosada, then lunched at Café Tortoni. Next, off to Calle Florida to get some more cash. I can’t recall exactly which Casa de Cambio we went in, but it was a bit of an intimidating experience. We were escorted into a dark room, door locked behind us, armed guard in the room. Everything went fine, but after the stories I read online about getting counterfeit currency (though supposedly this is a problem with ATMs too) we were pretty nervous. Next, we followed a street vendor inside another building to book a dinner/tango show at Complejo Tango. It included dinner, the show, a tango class, transportation, and as much Malbec as one cared to imbibe…for $39 USD. We all agree now that it was the best 40 bucks each of us has ever spent in our lives…we had a blast.
The next morning, my boyfriend and I headed out to Puerto Madero to go jogging. Our two friends planned to go to El Caminito and take some photos, and we planned to meet up in late morning to go to la Recoleta. Puerto Madero was a great place for jogging, and the BA marathon happened to be going on so we got to cheer on the runners. When we got back to our hotel, we discovered our friends scratched and disheveled. Apparently they didn’t read the part of the guidebook about La Boca being kind of sketchy, and they walked there with my friend toting a digital SLR camera bag strapped around her chest. Someone grabbed her by the bag, threw her to the ground, and pointed a gun at her head to give him the camera. Her boyfriend said the attacker was very small, so he grabbed the gun and got into a fight with the guy. They scuffled, but ultimately the attacker left by hopping on a co-conspirator’s motorcycle and zooming away. I mean, I wouldn’t fight someone with a gun over a camera, but whatever floats your boat. Immediately, passersby came up to them to see if they were okay and called the police, who arrived within 2 minutes. They were fine. We don’t relay this as a horror don’t-ever-set-foot-in-South-America story…just don’t walk from San Telmo to La Boca, even on the main road, with a $500 camera! Anyway, we regrouped and grabbed some pizza for lunch and headed for Teatro Colon. The tours were sold out for the day as we arrived later than anticipated, so we moved on to the Recoleta cemetery. Recoleta was my favorite area, with lots of people lounging on the grass in the beautiful parks. We perused a few museums in Recoleta and Palermo, including the Evita museum, the interior decorations museum, and the museum of Bellas Artes. Loved them all. Palermo was great to stroll through, and we stopped for gelato at one place, and beers at another. At this point, our friends were exhausted from being beaten earlier in the day, so they cabbed it to the hotel to sleep while my boyfriend and I went for an Italian dinner.
The next morning, our friends departed for the early flight from Aeroparque to El Calafate. Since my boyfriend and I were on the later flight, we were assigned the task of exchanging money for everyone before heading to Patagonia. We had to leave the hotel at 10 am for the airport, and by 9:30am (on a Monday), the Casas de Cambio still weren’t open. So we had to go to a bank and exchange the rest of our dollars for a painful 5.9 peso rate. We were concerned that we would run out of money at this point since we anticipated getting 8 pesos per dollar at least, so from here on out we paid credit card whenever possible. After landing in Calafate, we were able to easily book a shuttle from the airport to downtown and find our friends at the bus station. Our friends were a little panicked…apparently a union rally had disturbed bus service the day before and people were getting bumped to the evening bus that we wanted to take to El Chalten. They were worried that the tickets would be sold out before we arrived…and they didn’t want to buy our tickets without knowing that our flight actually arrived in El Calafate. We did get seats on the Caltur bus to Chalten departing in the evening. With our free time, we walked around El Calafate and ate lunch. Most of the businesses in downtown Calafate are souvenir shops and tour operators. Overall, we ended up preferring El Chalten and I’m glad we based there. The bus ride included two pit stops…during the first, a policeman pulled over the bus, came aboard, and checked everyone’s passports and departure tax receipts. (The departure tax you must pay for bus rides at the terminal the bus departs from, so remember to have some cash in El Chalten for the tax even if you paid for a round trip ticket in Calafate). The second was a ‘rest stop’ with a rustic cafe selling the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had. Once we arrived in El Chalten, we could easily walk from the bus station to our accommodations. The cabin we rented (Cabanas El Puesto Sur) had a kitchen so we could make oatmeal and tea for breakfast in the mornings. Highly recommended!
The next day, our first full day in Chalten, we set off for Laguna Torre. The weather did not cooperate with us for seeing Cerro Torre, but it was a beautiful hike nonetheless, and easy even by US standards (6 hours, flat). The rain and wind really picked up when we reached the lake, and I almost preferred the ethereal gloom to calmer weather. The visibility wasn’t so poor as to obscure the glacier, so that was nice. Dinner at Estepa was delicious. The proprietor of the cabins, Alexandra, helped us set up horseback riding for the next day.
On day 2 in El Chalten, we were picked up at 9am for our cabalgatas (horseback riding) adventure at the Bonanza Ranch, run by the gauchos at El Relincho. The 2 hour ride was visually stunning, through many types of farm and mountain scenery. At one point, we took a break for tea and alfajores, and we watched our guide give baby cows vaccines. After lunch at Patagonicus, my boyfriend and I decided to venture to Laguna Capri while our friends hung out in town. The weather was clear, so after hanging out at the lake for a bit, we decided to try and hustle over to the Cerro Torre lookout to get a glimpse. Our trail map indicated we could cut from Laguna Capri to the Cerro Torre lookout without descending back to El Chalten, but the trail kind of petered out not too far from Capri. So, we trail ran back to El Chalten, then ran (via a different route, from the north side of El Chalten) to the lookout for a crystal clear view of Cerro Torre. Success!! When we returned, we headed over to Patagonia Aventura office to try and book Viedma Pro ice climbing. Between impending bad weather and sellouts, they only had one available day to squeeze us in before we departed, which we booked. We dined at Ritual de Fuego for dinner, which we liked so much we went back the next day.
Day 3 in El Chalten was our big day…hiking to Laguna de los Tres to see FitzRoy. Later in our trip, I overheard a small group on our ice climbing excursion mention that they got tired during this trek and turned back before the final ascent to the lake. Big mistake. Laguna de los Tres is It. It’s why you came here. Sure, sure, all the hikes in the area are pretty, but do NOT skip this if you’re physically able and the weather is safe. The last 1,000 ft or so of ascent right before you reach the lake are very challenging. By the way, you pass Laguna Capri on the way up, so that doesn’t need to be a separate hike. We took power naps at LdlT…bring lots of granola bars, it’s a long day! Also, at one point about halfway through the hike, we heard ‘MOVE!’ We cleared off to the side of the trail, and a few guys carrying a stretcher sprinted through. I hope whoever the stretcher was going to fetch was okay. I guess it’s somewhat comforting to know there is medical assistance nearby?
Day 4 in El Chalten took us to Viedma Pro ice climbing. We met the coach bus at the Patagonia Aventura office and took it to a boat, which took us across Lago Viedma to the glacier. From there, we went into an igloo type structure to get our helmets, crampons, axes, and harnesses. The guides were fun, funny, attentive, professional, I cannot brainstorm enough adjectives to adequately praise them. We started with an easy climb and then they took us to progressively higher glacier walls. I would say the highest reached 30 ft. We headed to La Tapera for dinner, yum.
Day 5 in El Chalten…we accomplished all of our desires in day 1-4 without any major weather issues, so this was a free day. We hit the Wafleria for brunch, the Cervezeria for dinner, napped, shopped (I picked up a few books on the area's history), played cards and drank lots of malbec, and I went trail running. A nice, relaxed day to enjoy the town and reflect on our time here. We all loved El Chalten. It’s very similar to small mountain/ski towns in the US. The vibe is super friendly, the food and microbrews were made and served with great care.
The next day, we took the first bus back to El Calafate, then hung out around town (and ate a terrible lunch at Borges y Alvares) until heading to the airport to go back to BA. We had a red-eye back to Miami from BA, which departed 4 hours late. We were so tired and anxious to get on the dang plane that we turned to emotional eating, which proved a VERY expensive venture at EZE. Two sandwiches and two glasses of wine = $100. Yes, after eating like kings in BA for half of what we spend in Miami, we paid over twice a reasonable price at EZE. Moral of the story, bring snacks to EZE to combat boredom.
Overall, the tango show, ice climbing, and Laguna de los Tres were the highlights for me. I would love to go back and explore Ushuaia, Bariloche, Mendoza, and spend a few days lounging around la Recoleta.
Now I wish to leave you with some tips:
• If you take a few days to explore BA before moving elsewhere in the country, make sure you fly out of Aeroparque instead of Ezeiza. Ezeiza is the international airport, located much farther from downtown.
• Try to exchange money with people on your flight on the way down. Exchanging at the bank gets you a dismal rate, exchanging on Calle Florida is scary. If there’s a better/reasonable way to get a good exchange rate, please tell me because I would love to go back to Argentina but I REALLY disliked this aspect! Maybe we just chose poorly on Calle Florida?
• Allow an extra day during each leg of your trip for inclement weather, tours being sold out, or public transportation delays. Flight times are more like suggestions than actual schedules. Think 'cable guy window.'
• We highly recommend the Glaciar Viedma ice climbing. The glacier is not as pristine white looking as Perito Moreno appears to be on the interwebs, but Perito Moreno would require an overnight stay in El Calafate, which we did not want to do; we wanted to go straight to El Chalten, unpack, and base there the entire trip. Viedma was plenty scenic.
• In BA, stay in Microcentro. We didn’t ‘get’ San Telmo’s alleged charm, we didn’t feel safe, and it just made the walk from la Recoleta/Palermo really long. It was practically deserted until people were yelling on the streets all night long. The room A/C wasn’t functioning and it was in the 80’s in the room so we had to keep the windows open, which did not help block the yelling. Perhaps on another trip we would stay at the same place and come back imploring ‘you simply MUST stay in San Telmo’, but alas, this is our data point for this particular trip.
• It can be difficult to decide what to pre-book and what to book once you get there in terms of transportation, hotels, and activities. We booked our hotel and flights ahead of time, not bus tickets or activities. This worked out for us.
• Make sure you actually like hiking and not just the idea of hiking before you head to Chalten. One of my travel buddies was totally pumped to ‘go to Patagonia’, but arrived sans hiking boots and expressed displeasure about ‘walking for 10 hours.’ If you enjoy constant stimulation and dislike relative solitude, this place is not for you.
• If you really dig glaciers, it might be a good idea to hone your mountaineering skills at home, then use your time in Patagonia to go on a guided multi-day venture into the southern continental ice field. I left the glaciers wanting more!
• Come with a mindset of extreme flexibility. You might just get your hotel changed. Your flight might get cancelled. You might get half as many pesos as someone else gets for the same amount of dollars. You might enter 15 stores advertising stamps that don’t actually have stamps. Stressing over this is fruitless. If you like things to be on time, as advertised…take lots of deep breaths and enjoy the ride, or whatever is not the ride because the ride is late :)