Updated: Jul 5, 2021
In my previous blog post Patagonia: How to Plan a Trip to the End of the World I gave you the scoop on how I prepared for my trip to Torres del Paine and El Calafate. Today I will tell you how it really went. I learned that while planning is definitely helpful, unexpected events can still occur!
From Santiago to Torres del Paine
We took a very early flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas. The saying “Who gets up early, goes far” is completely true in this case. We landed in Punta Arenas around 11am and proceeded to get our rented car.
Then we immediately started driving towards Torres del Paine and got to our hotel around 6pm. Our only stop was in Puerto Natales to refuel and get some food. The guy at the car rental recommended a place, but the food was not good.
Plan to arrive to your final destination before sunset, as the last 2h of the drive are through the park on unpaved roads. And the landscapes are so breathtaking that you will want to stop to take pictures, which makes the drive a bit longer.
Tip #1: Make sure to let your car rental company know that you’re planning to cross the border 1-2 weeks in advance, as they have to prepare special documentation for customs. We told them on the spot, and it took a bit longer for them to hand us over the documents, but we finally got them.
Tip #2: Download offline maps for the entire region. I can’t even begin to tell you how useful the offline maps were. Outside the major towns the service is scarce at best. Our car had a phone charger, so we were all set for the entire duration of our trip.
Tip #3: Use every opportunity to refuel, even if you still have gas. Thinking back I would probably bring a canister next time for additional gas storage. The only towns with gas stations are Punta Arenas, Puerto Natales, Esperanza and El Calafate. Once you’re in the park, there is no gas. Many of the tourists at our hotel were forced to use the hotel shuttle because they needed the gas to get back to Puerto Natales.
A taste of Torres del Paine
The beginning of our trip was full with uncertainty. We didn’t hire a guide to plan our excursions, so we had to figure it all out by ourselves. First we started talking to the hotel staff asking for advice on full day hikes. Although they even had two guides who organized almost daily excursions, they proved to be more confusing than helpful and also very expensive to hire.
After getting some conflicting information, we managed to find out that we could use dollars to take the catamaran from Pudeto. We drove for about an hour through the park to Salto Grande parking lot, where we did a short walk to the waterfall. Then at 11.30am we took the catamaran on lake Pehoe to Paine Grande refugio. For $50 a person we go to the heart of the W circuit, en route to our objective for the day: French Valley.
We started hiking as soon as we hit the ground at 12.30pm and returned around 6pm, in time for the 6.30pm catamaran back. This is a good way to experience one of the most beautiful segments of the W trail without going for the entire 4-6 days circuit. However, if you do decide to adventure and do the entire circuit, the park is very friendly. There are a number of refugios where you can sleep at night, as well as camps for tents.
The second day we initially wanted to do the most gruesome hike in the park, what is known as the Base Towers. I had a cold from before that was getting worse, so we ended up opting for a less intense activity: the Lago Gray glacier cruise. I had never done anything like this in my life and although the price is steep ($120 per person), I’m glad that we did it. We had a great time getting close to the glacier, taking pictures and drinking pisco sours with glacier ice.
Tip #4: Exchange money before you get to the park. While the hotel was paid and you can always use your card for gas, it is best to have local cash in hand. This is especially true for El Calafate, where you need to pay a 500 Argentinian pesos park fee for Parque National los Glaciares.
Tip #5: Try to go off-season. At first I was concerned that early September may be too cold, windy, snowy, etc. I soon realized that this is an amazing time to visit because the park is much less crowded and some of the activities and accommodations are less expensive.
Parque Nacional los Glaciares & El Calafate
On our third day we drove to El Calafate across the border. We had no notable incidents along the way and congratulated ourselves for getting there without refueling. Our second gas stop was in El Calafate (first one was in Puerto Natales).
As soon as we got there, we went straight to the famous Perito Moreno. It was late afternoon, so we were lucky to skip the crowds and have the entire glacier almost to ourselves. The place is friendly to all ages and all physical conditions. It has a very well developed system of balconies that get you really close to the glacier and are perfect for pictures.
El Calafate is a real town, unlike the remoteness of TDP where your hotel is your only source for food. We wanted to try the local cuisine and Argentinian steak, so we went to the best reviewed restaurant in town: xxxx. I read that this place usually requires reservations, but another advantage of going off season was that we didn’t need any. We arrived around 8pm and got seated immediately. Attention as they are cash only.
The second day we had already booked a cruise to Lago Argentino to see the Upsala and Speghazzini glaciers. While the cruise was interesting and we learned that there are literally thousands of (smaller) glaciers in the park, this was the thing that we enjoyed the least during our entire trip. The cruise felt very commercial with hundreds of people crowding to take pictures. I suggest skipping this or trying to find a smaller cruise.
Lesson #6: Leave early when you have a long drive ahead. Both our drive from TDP to El Calafate and from El Calafate all the way back to Punta Arenas were very long 6-7h drives. Try to get a head start, especially since the drive also involves crossing the border. Route 40 in Argentina is an unpaved, very bumpy road. We did see lots of wild animals on that road, including eagles, llamas, wild horses and emus. However, I suggest taking the road through Esperanza. It looks longer, but it takes the same amount of time.
Lesson #7: Look for smaller cruises and group activities. Smaller is always better because you want to get an intimate look at the amazing nature in front of you.
My only regret is that we didn’t have more time to spend in Torres del Paine specifically. The sunrises and sunsets over the Paine Grande Massif are breathless hues of pink and pink-orange that turn into purple.
Planning a trip to Patagonia is not easy. Many things you only learn once you’re there. If you’re thinking about this, drop me a line and I’d be happy to help advise you.