Southern Patagonia, while majestic and beautiful, was a letdown for me. Maybe I built it up too much in my head; maybe it was from hearing so many wonderful [possibly exaggerated] stories from other travelers; maybe it was how hard we tried to do it on a budget. Whatever the reason, I was disappointed.
Colin and I rented a campervan and road tripped around the Southern Patagonia, from El Chaltén to Ushuaia, for 16 days, September 1 – 16, 2017. We had trouble finding information about how exactly to road trip around Patagonia, so we wrote about the details of our trip in our how-to blog, McPatton Manual. See that post here.
At the bottom of this post, there are photos of each of the major parts of our trip. To see even more photos from the trip (which I highly recommend), check them out here, and for an EVEN BETTER visualization of the trip, see our YouTube videos on the playlist here.
I have never heard anything bad about Patagonia. Everyone seems to think it is A-MAZ-ING. And it's not necessarily that I don’t. But I didn't love it, and it didn't live up to my expectations. Let me be clear about something though, I am not suggesting that you won't love it or that you shouldn't visit. If you rent a car and stay in hostels, then it might be a better trip. Or if you rent a camper van for only a couple of days, then it might be a better trip. Done differently, this maybe would have been better. Or maybe not.
I must admit, I am not an avid hiker. I enjoy the feeling of really working out and pushing myself, but trees are boring for me, and I have bad joints so downhill is difficult. When I do enjoy hiking, it’s either because there is something magnificent and breathtaking at the end of the hike or because my dogs are having a good time. Since we don’t have the dogs right now, none of the hikes could be the latter (and also, pets aren’t allowed on these hikes as far as I’m aware). Some of the hikes we did were challenging and had a magnificent and breathtaking view at the end. Those were the few that I enjoyed. If you just LOVE LOVE LOVE hiking, this would be a different part of the trip for you. But 9 hour hikes for several days over 2 weeks aren't my thing.
I also don’t think that Patagonia is something that should be done on a budget. I mean, sure, you can. And some people do it for a lot cheaper than we did (with camping and / or hitchhiking). If that’s the type of thing you enjoy, then you may LOVE Patagonia. But for us, it was still pretty expensive even with renting the van and trying to cook our own food (see our McPatton Manual blog post here for details on cost). I can see how it would be nice to make it a romantic getaway with fancy hotel rooms and nice dinners every evening after a day of hiking. But everything is SO expensive in Patagonia, and you could spend a crazy amount of money doing this. But if we had the money, that’s how I would do it.
I am realizing more and more that I don't like budget travel. And I'm not a fan of the converted camper van thing either. Ever had to pee in the middle of a big city with no public bathrooms? I have... I race to the nearest Starbucks and buy a $5 soy latte to get the code to their bathroom. Now, imagine you not only wake up every morning in the middle of a city with no public bathrooms around, but that the coffee shops don't open until hours after you're already awake. I ask you, WHAT DO YOU DO?! Surely you can't just pee on the side of a road... right? RIGHT?!
And showering is hard when there is no running water. Whew! We smelled BAD. I showered twice the entire time we were on the road (15 days). TWICE! Ok... I'm done with the caps. But seriously. I don't need a 5-star resort. I mean, it'd be nice, but it isn't needed. I've decided that I do like having bathrooms and showers though.
One more thing about the van while I'm on this subject... the stoves. Having a kitchen is nice (even if it's a filthy hostel one). Usually we don't cook. We like eating out. But if I want to cook, it's nice to have the option. Our first night we tried to cook dinner, it turned out that the wind was too intense for our weak little portable camping stoves that came with the van. We ended up eating tacos with raw onions, cold canned beans, and garlic powder. Yummmm.
On top of your budget, you also need to consider the weather. We were in Southern Patagonia when the region was coming out of winter. Although it was cold, we had enough gear to keep us warm for the most part. We experienced some of the most intense wind I have ever felt. And I’m from Florida, so we had hurricanes every year. One night when we were sleeping in the van, the wind was so intense that one of the sliding doors kept being blown slightly open. It would cause the lights to flash on for a second and then off again when it closed. I thought it was lightening for the longest time before we realized what it actually was. I swore the van was going to tip over that night (and some other nights too), so I barely got any sleep as I laid there imagining the van toppling over and being blown down the street. I also almost got blown over while hiking on the edge of mountains several times.
Additionally, it was still snowing in Ushuaia because it’s so far south. We were there 4 days, and it snowed every day. It was great for skiing, but not so great for driving. We almost died the morning we were driving out of the city because of a black ice patch. Colin was driving (thank goodness – I wouldn’t have known what to do), and all of a sudden, we swerved to the left. He thought it was the crazy wind at first, so he corrected to the right. If you are fishtailing because of ice though, you are supposed to steer into it (so in this case, he should have steered left), and we started fishtailing even worse to the right. To our right was a cliff with no guardrail and a long drop to the bottom of the mountain we were driving on. Luckily, also to our right in this one spot, was a large shoulder to pull off and park. When Colin realized what was going on, he was able to steer correctly. All I know is that the vehicle swung around off the road so that we were facing the opposite direction right next to the cliff and came to a stop. We lived. The end.
However, what was great about this time of year was that there were barely any other tourists. And the weather was clear. I heard that a lot of the time it's cloudy, but sometimes winter can be when it's less so.
Other than jackets, gloves, scarves, hats, and facemasks for the cold weather and wind, you should also have nice boots for hiking. I suggest bringing small backpacks to carry with you while hiking so that when you take the layers off, you have somewhere to put them. If you bring one other thing with you, make it a Katadyn BeFree water bottle:
I am seriously in love with my Katadyn BeFree water bottle. If you’ve ever been to a country where you can’t drink the tap water (like most of the countries we are traveling to), you know how frustrating, expensive, and unsustainable it is to buy bottled water all the time. We actually didn’t use these the first few months of the trip because we didn’t realize how useful they are. We were buying bottled water all the time (and becoming super dehydrated because you can only carry so much on you at once).
One night in Bolivia though after a couple of bottles of wine (this is a no judgement zone), I woke up around 3:00 AM, and we were out of bottled water. I was so thirsty that I got up, put on some clothes, and walked around the little town trying to find any water that I could by. I went to a street vendor: nothing; I went to a bar: nothing; I went inside a house party: oops, my bad. So I come stomping back up to our hostel room where I wake Colin up and complain to him about the situation. Being the brilliant man that he is, he remembered that we had these Katadyn BeFree water bottles us. We hadn’t used them before, so we dug them out of one of the bags and read the directions. We filled them up with the tap water in Bolivia (which you can’t drink straight from the tap), and I drank several gulps down.
The Katadyn BeFree water bottle filters the water as you drink it so that you don’t get sick. But that’s not all (read in a TV infomercial voice)! It also collapses so that when it’s empty, it doesn’t take up very much room at all. It’s the perfect water bottle for traveling! Since that night, we’ve only used the Katadyn BeFree water bottles. In Patagonia, we used the streams and rivers to fill them up so that we stayed hydrated when we were hiking. If you can’t tell, I’m obsessed, and you should be too.
P.S. We are not sponsored by Katadyn. I am simply a huge fan of the product, and it’s made our lives easier. If you do end up buying one, use this Amazon link for it – we get a tiny bit of cash money, and the price is the same as your regular Amazon purchase :)
Something that I did LOVE about Patagonia is that there are mountains almost everywhere you look, and they are all beautiful. I’ve already said months ago that I’m obsessed with snow-capped mountains, but these ones are especially majestic. Just the sheer size of them leaves me in awe. You just have to look at photos here and watch our YouTube videos here to see what I’m talking about.
My favorite day of the road trip was the day that we climbed to the base of Mount Fitz Roy (which was day 4 / about 16 days... it was a lot to live up to). It's only a 10 km hike, but parts of it are pretty steep. The last kilometer is supposed to take you at least an hour to climb on a normal day. When we got to the last kilometer, I wasn't sure if we were going to be able to continue. It was very snowy, and because it was so steep and we didn't have any gear, it was very slow. We continued to make our way; however, when we were part of the way up, there were others coming back down who kept telling us it was dangerous to keep going because it was sheer ice. Colin and I were like "meh" and kept on going. The people were all right though. It was all ice in parts of it, and we didn't even have hiking poles much less something to help with the ice. So you know what we did? We kept going. We followed rabbit foot prints part of the way up where they had made nice little holes in the snow / ice. We kicked our boots in to have a little bit of a foothold. We took sharp sticks and rocks and used them as ice picks.
We were the only ones to make it to the end of the trail that day (judging by there being no other fresh prints in the snow and not meeting anyone else along the trail who had been up). It was intense, but it was rewarding! The view was spectacular. The lake at the top was completely frozen over and covered in snow... Everything was blindingly white. We couldn't hike back down without falling down the mountain, but luckily we had packed our rain pants. We put them on, found more sharp rocks, and slid our way down the icy parts! Check out this video of me sliding down one of the safer icy parts. I'm holding my rock-ice-picks in my hands!
It also seems safe everywhere you go. We just pulled off on the side of the road to sleep and were never bothered. We met a few hitchhikers that hadn’t had any problems getting around (and even picked one up on our way from El Calafate to El Chaltén – he was a nice guy from Spain that we ended up seeing a few more times and hiking with in El Chaltén).
You have to make the decision for yourself, and I don't really want to discourage you from seeing Patagonia. But just be informed that it may not be all that you want it to be. Don't set your expectations too high. Now for the best part... photos!
Our Camper Van from Soul Vans
Perito Moreno Glacier
Lago (Lake) Roca
Mount Fitz Roy
Lago (Lake) Desierto
Torres del Paine
Condor Lookout in Torres del Paine
Grey Glacier in Torres del Paine
Hi, I'm Sara Monica Patton. I love animals, traveling, and eating. Read more about me in my first blog post here.