Patagonia. Just the word conjures up images of adventure, of journeying to the end of the Earth, of unreachable lands. Guided trips to Patagonia are thousands upon thousands of dollars. Most of the ones out there start at $5,000 and go steadily upward depending on how long you want to be there and what you expect to see. Because of the steep fees, I put it on my “someday” list, never imagining that “someday” was going to arrive so soon.
I have to give one of my travel companions kudos for finding this one. Wasn’t me! I heard through the grapevine that she was “going to Patagonia,” I contacted her and asked the price, and suddenly I was “in” on the trip of a lifetime.
So here’s the big secret: you don’t have to pay $5,000 or more to experience Patagonia. I did it for $3,000, with all side tours, food, and spending money counted in that figure. Here’s my usual disclaimer: I’m not an expert at this, I’m not endorsing any company, I’m not getting paid to advertise anything. What I am here to do is to explain how a relatively poor chick got to a land that most people only dream of going to.
Here’s where you start: Tripmasters. Is this the perfect place to book a trip? No, because nothing is perfect. But if you want to get to exotic places for a less than exotic price, this is where you go. I’ve used them for several trips and have no major complaints. You also have to be a DIYer to use Tripmasters. If you want a strictly guided tour, sorry, pull out your $5,000+ and begin somewhere else.
Tripmasters has many itineraries to start with, or you can build your own trip. I did the Buenos Aires/El Calafate/Ushuaia package. For the sake of sticking with my subject, I’ll do separate posts on all the aforementioned venues, but I’ll at least mention that you either start in Buenos Aires or in Santiago, Chile, and decide where you want to go and what you want to do from there. I’ve been to both cities, and they’re worth a couple of days time. They also offer the chance to rest up for the big thrill ahead.
Some trips you can kind of go with the flow and figure out what you’re going to do when you get there. I’ll point out the obvious by saying that this is true in Buenos Aires or Santiago. But if you’re going to do Patagonia on your own, do some research and figure out a few things at each of your destinations. We booked our day trips when we arrived, so I don’t think you have to book months in advance. A general game plan is important, however, so you aren’t wasting time once you get to this dreamscape, or scrambling to decide what natural wonder to prioritize. I highly recommend Perito Moreno Glacier, Lago Argetino, and Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, all day trips from El Calafate. The thrill of going to Ushuaia is more to brag that you were as close to Antarctica as possible without paying the ten thousand bucks, but the Penguin Island cruise is worth the much cheaper charge, and the town itself is pretty quirky for being the End of the World. More on both in later posts.
November to March is considered summer and peak season in Patagonia. Weather is always going to be a factor here, as I found out pretty quickly, another reason to decide what your objectives are for your trip. Take the word “summer” with a grain of salt when you’re talking about Patagonia. “Summer” weather features fierce wind and an ever-changing cornucopia of freezing rain, bold sun, and weeping clouds. The further south you go does not necessarily mean worse weather. In fact, the climate in Ushuaia, “the End of the Earth,” was much calmer than some of the points we reached from El Calafate, five hundred miles northwest. Also consider that you’ll be covering a lot of ground even if you’re going to be in a car or bus, with the weather constantly changing depending on where you are. Pack as a typical outdoors person: layer, layer, layer! And don’t plan for temperatures over 55 F.
Before I send you on your way to start planning your trip, here’s one more thought: if you’re considering renting a car and driving yourself, at the very least know how to change a flat. Those are some rough roads around those parts, particularly to and from Torres del Paine National Park, and within the park proper. Consider leaving the driving to people who do it all the time.
Now, start dreaming of your first glimpse of Patagonia!