Patagonia Trip Notes

My logo at the top of the page calling ourselves "Mel Art Tours" is a small joke, we are not a tour company - we did the trip to Patagonia without a guide and had an excellent adventure. This page describes a lot of details that I wish I had known before our trip. Hopefully this will answer some questions for you, making your own trip planning easier. You definitely can self-plan a trip to Torres del Paine and FitzRoy - it takes some effort, but it can be done. We also relied upon an organization called Experience Chile for some of the planning, and that worked out well for us (more about them later). This information is from our trip in February of 2015, by the time you read this, many details may have changed.

This first map is a simple overview of the three main destinations that we visited on our trip: Torres del Paine (Chile), El Calafate (Argentina) and El Chaltén:


Buenos Aires Airport Shuttle

Be careful when you are booking your flight into El Calafate. International flights into Argentina will likely land at the International airport (EZE) of Buenos Aires, but many of the flights from Buenos Aires to El Calafate depart from the Buenos Aires domestic airport (AEP) which is on the other side of the city. You will need to hire a shuttle to get across town. I read several on-line posts that warned that the taxi drivers at the Buenos Airport are ripoff artists, but I have no idea if that is true. We hired a shuttle inside the airport from a company called Manuel Tienda Leon. We paid $490 Argentina pesos (US $56) for a private car that holds up to three people for a direct ride between the airports. You have the cheaper option of paying $140 Argentina pesos (US $16) per person to take a Manuel Tienda Leon shuttle bus that leaves every half hour. The shuttle bus will take you to a central terminal, and there you will transfer to another bus to complete your trip to the other airport. We opted for the private car, even though it was a bit more expensive, because we didn't want to be pressed for time. The two airports are on opposite sides of Buenos Aires, and during rush hour traffic the trip can take up to 2 hours. We encountered no traffic congestion because we arrived on a Sunday morning, and still the drive took us 45 minutes. We reserved our ride with Manuel Tienda Leon ahead of time, prepaying with a credit card on their website. Maneul Tienda Leon is located right inside the EZE airport, you can't miss it when you exit customs.


Argentina Reciprocity

The United States apparently charges an entry to fee to all visitors from Argentina. In retaliation, Argentina charges a fee to all US visitors that enter the country. This fee is called the Argentina Reciprocity fee. It costs US $160 per person. Once purchased, this gives a US citizen the right to enter for up to 10 years. You MUST purchase the reciprocity fee before departing for Argentina. You MUST have a print out with proof of payment for the reciprocity fee or they won't even let you board the plane to Argentina.

You pay ahead of time with a credit card at an Argentina gov't website. You will see a place where it says: LOG IN, underneath 'Sign up', click there, it takes you to a sign up page (in english), you have to fill out all the info, create a username enter your passport data. Once with that done, you return to the initial page, sign up with your username & passport & pay the fee, and print out the receipt which you need to travel.

Don't forget to bring the proof of reciprocity with you to Torres del Paine so that you can return to Argentina when your Chile excursion is over.

You can read more about the Reciprocity fee at this site.


Chile Reciprocity

Chile also used to charge US citizens a reciprocity fee, but that was cancelled in February of 2014


Currency

When in Chile, we paid for the few items that we purchased with Chilean pesos. When we were in Argentina, we discovered that vendors preferred to be paid in US dollars instead of with Argentina pesos. Apparently, the Argentina pesos frequently suffers from inflation, so the Argentinians like being paid with a more stable currency. However, you must have SOME Argentinian pesos to pay for official gov't functions - specifically, the admission fee to Los Glaciares Nacional Park. Be careful to not get too much Argentina pesos from the bank, we were told that they would not exchange any left over pesos back into dollars when we returned - apparently the US banks are just as fearful of Argentinian inflation as the citizens of Argentina.


El Calafate Airport Shuttle

The airport is 20 km from the city of El Calafate. The locals know when the planes are scheduled to arrive, and they have companies that provide a shuttle service. We paid 100 Argentina pesos per person to sit in a 14 person van that took every passenger to the front door of their lodging. There is no need to pre-arrange for a shuttle to take you into town from the airport.


Outlet Plugs

Chile and Argentina have two types of outlet plugs - style one has two flat prongs that are slanted toward each other (see picture one). Sometimes the style one outlet has a third hole for the ground. The second style of power outlet is two round holes. The second picture here shows a hybrid outlet - it combines style one and style two into a single power outlet that accommodates both types of power plug.

Patagonia Power Outlet Patagonia Power Outlet


Car Rental

My initial plan was to rent a car in Argentina and drive ourselves back and forth to Torres del Paine. But when I checked with a couple of the rental agencies, I learned that rental cars are not permitted to cross the Argentina/Chile border. Having a rental car isn't a good idea any way - you won't need a car while you are hiking the "W". Nor do you need a car while in El Chaltén, all of the hiking trails begin right in town. Every gas station we saw was always jammed with a long line of vehicles. The only time where your own car would be useful would be visiting the Perito Moreno glacier. There apparently isn't any public transport option to get you from El Calafate out the 80 km to the Perito Moreno, you have to pay one of the tourist companies.


Bus from El Calafate to Torres del Paine

Taking a bus from El Calafate to Torres del Paine and back again seemed like a complicated operation. From our home in Seattle, I was unable to find a website that offered this service. If you can find a working website for Always Glaciers or Calturs, then try booking your bus with them. We ended up using Experience Chile to make the reservations for us, and that worked out perfectly for us.

The border crossing is a bit complicated - first you stop at the Argentina station to get your passport stamped for exit, and then you stop again a few km later at the Chile border guard to get your entry passport stamp. At the Chile station you must throw away any fresh produce, plus there is a list of processed foods (such as smoked meats) that they don't want entering the country. We got a piece of paper from the border agent when entering Chile, we had to return this slip of paper when we exited Chile on our way back to Argentina. We switched buses at the border - it was still an Always Glacier operation, but we were on a different vehicle on each side of the border, so perhaps there are restrictions about buses crossing from one country to the other.

Don't forget to bring proof of your Argentina Reciprocity with you to Torres del Paine, you will need it to get back into Argentina.


Torres del Paine Admission Fee

The admission to Torres del Paine is 18,000 Chilean pesos per person. This must be paid in cash and it must be paid with Chilean currency. In exchange, you will receive a mountain hiking pass and a map of the National Park which contains a large amount of useful data. No ranger ever stopped us and asked to see our passes, but you should always keep it with you. The park map is the only trail map you will need. Stick to the trails and you can not possibly get lost. Here are the Trail Pass and the useful park map that they gave us:

TDP Trail Pass Torres del Paine Flyer

Inside the TDP park flyer is this useful guide showing elevation gain and distances.

Elevation Guide

This is the Torres Del Paine hiking map that Experience Chile gave us.

Torres del Paine Flyer

I found this map of TDP online, it is similar to the previous map, but it shows a few peak names that are not labeled on the other map.

Torres del Paine Flyer

Refugio Chileno

When checking into the Refugios, you are required to show your passport. Refugio Chileno is not inside the Torres Del Paine park boundaries, it is just outside the park on private land. The refugio is operated by an agency called Fantastico Sur.

There is no Wi-Fi in this refugio. There are no power outlets in the room, but I did see some power strips plugged in the hallway outlets. All of the outlets were occupied with battery chargers and phones.

Like all of the other refugios in TDP, I could not find any way to contact this refugio via email or website in order to make an advanced reservation. We ended up using a company called Experience Chile to make our reservations - we booked our reservation in July for a trip the following February. February is the high season, so I heartily recommend making reservations well ahead of time! Now that I have been to Torres del Paine and learned that the refugios are operated by Fantastico Sur, I have found the website that will allow you to make reservations directly: Fantastico Sur

There are four main rooms for sleeping in Refugio Chileno. Each room has eight or ten bunk beds, some of the bunk beds are stacked 3 high, so a person in the top bunk is quite high off the ground (10 feet or so.) The beds do not have sheets, but there is a sleeping bag on each bed. You are expected to bring your own sleeping sack to use as a liner inside the sleeping bag. I don't think the sleeping bags are washed after each use.

Despite the fact that you are required to remove your boots before entering Refugio Chileno, the floor of the mens restroom was a muddy wet mess. I am not sure where all the mud came from (someone must have kept their boots on?), I did not see any one washing clothes in the sink. Indeed, in none of the refugios in Torres del Paine did I see clothing hung up to dry except for towels.

There are lockers inside Refugio Chileno. The strategy is to unload all of your heavy gear, and then take just the lightest of day packs with you up to the Mirador for the Torres. When you come back down from the viewpoint, you pick up all your stuff and continue on your way. Everyone was doing this.

One of the downsides of having 10 or 12 hikers sleeping in one room is that if one of them is a loud snorer, it will keep many people awake. I suggest earplugs. It is surprising how many people snore so loudly.

The power is shut off at about 12:30 A.M. I happened to have woken up just before then and walked to the restroom, and I did not bring my flashlight because the hall lights were all on. Naturally, when I was in the bathroom, all the power clicked off without warning, and I had to feel my way back in the dark to my bunk. I had left my LED flashlight right next to my bed.

These were the posted prices at Refugio Chileno, but there was nothing available to those who showed up without a reservation. I think even the campsites were all taken. It rained a lot that night, so I wonder about the fate of the guy who showed up in the evening and pleaded fruitlessly with the front desk for a place to sleep; there weren't even tents available at that time.

When I was researching our trip to Patagonia, I read one blog that commented that the food served by the refugios was completely inedible. This made me wonder if we should carry our own food, or was the writer a picky eater? We ended up eating all the meals served by the refugios, and I certainly had no complaints about the food, but hiking makes me hungry, and everything tastes better when you are hungry. I decided to photograph all the meals served by the refugios so that you could decide for yourself if the meals are palatable.


Refugio Cuernos

Given its location, you might think Refugio Cuernos was inside the park boundaries of Torres del Paine, but it is actually on private land, just outside the park. It is run by an agency called Fantastico Sur. To enter this refugio, you are required to take off your boots. The rooms in the refugio are large - they hold a couple of triple-bunk beds (in other words, there are four sets of beds stacked three high) plus a couple of normal bunk beds (just two beds on the stack.) Melanie was assigned one of the top bunks, and it looked a long way up to me, but she said she preferred to have the high bunk because it was warmer up there. The bunk beds do NOT come with sheets, however, there is a sleeping bag on each bed. I doubt the sleeping bags are cleaned daily. We brought silk sleeping bag liners with us, and used those as sheets inside the sleeping bag. I recommend this idea.

There is no Wi-Fi in this refugio.

I photographed the posted prices inside Refugio Cuernos. We got the bunk bed plus sleeping bag and all three meals.

There are no power outlets in the rooms, but I did see several power strips in the hallway - the every outlet on the strip was occupied charging camera or phone batteries. I was glad I had brought enough batteries for all of TDP without needing to recharge.

Unlike Refugio Chileno, the floors in the bathroom were mopped. This meant the floor was not a sopping mess of mud and water, and I appreciated that.

Again, the meals run by Fantastico Sur are done in two seatings - an early dinner and a late dinner. You are assigned a seating based upon your arrival time. Since we arrived later than most at the refugio, we were assigned the second seating. I didn't mind eating the late dinner, but I was extremely annoyed at being assigned the second breakfast, because we wanted to get started for a big hike on that day, and the refugio operators were slow at finishing breakfast for the first seating. In the end, I was so eager to get started that we skipped the second seating of breakfast, and just grabbed our boxed lunches and left to get on the trail - that decision saved us about 45 minutes. Here is a photograph of the dinner menu, plus the dinner itself.

I do not have pictures of the breakfast served at Refugio Cuernos, but it looked like the same that was served at Refugio Chileno. The large sandwich in our boxed lunch had the driest bread I have ever chewed - I literally needed to take a sip of water with every bit of sandwich so that I could swallow. I am not saying the sandwich was bad (it was tuna fish), I am remarking at how dry the bread was.


Refugio Paine Grande

Refugio Paine Grande is a large facility, it is equipped to handle a lot of tourists. On some websites, I saw it referred to as Lodge Paine Grande, but there is only one building there (in other words, the Refugio is the Lodge). The Refugio is inside park boundaries and it is run by Vértice Patagonia.

We were given a bunk bed in a room that we shared with two other strangers (the other two lodgers did not know each other.) The guy in the other bottom bunk was incredibly rude and noisy, plus he was the LOUDEST snorer I have ever heard. It did not surprise me that he traveled alone, no one traveling with him would ever get any sleep.

The lights go out a little bit after midnight, without any warning. If you happen to be in the restroom, like I was, you will be plunged into complete darkness. Naturally, I did not bring my flashlight with me, so I crept back to my room in the darkness, feeling my way slowly along the wall. I found the room because the roommate was snoring so loudly it was like a homing beacon. Always carry your flashlight in the Refugios! I can't believe this mistake happened to me twice on the same trip.

There is no Wi-Fi in this refugio.

I photographed the posted price list. We got a room with a full made up bed, and we ordered all three meals.

The menu that was posted in Paine Grande, plus photographs of all the meals.


Refugio Grey

Refugio Grey is inside Torres del Paine and is run by the park through an agency called Vértice Patagonia. We shared a four person room with two bunk beds with two European guys who were the quietest roommates ever, quite a contrast to our previous night. There are no power outlets in the room. Like everyone else, we left our hiking boots out in the hallway to keep their smell out of the room. (You are allowed to wear your hiking boots into the Refugio). The beds in these rooms were fitted with a complete set of sheets. Here is our room:

There is no Wi-Fi in this refugio.

I took a photograph of the posted price list, which shows Chile pesos and approximate charge in US dollars. The red arrow indicates that the cost of a full pension (all three meals) was 25,400 Chilean pesos per person. I believe Cama Armada means "A bed with sheets", which cost 42,300 Chilean pesos per person.

At the dining hall, we sat down at the dinner hour, and Refugio operators came by and served us our dinners. We ended up at a lively table and met some other hikers from Seattle, much to our delight.

I photographed the dinner that we were served at Refugio Grey:

Breakfast at Refugio Grey:

Once again, we purchased the box lunch to carry with us:


Catamaran

The catamaran that will carry you to/from Refugio Paine Grande has a surprising amount of capacity - when I saw the big line of people waiting to board, I wondered if everyone would fit, but the boat easily had room for everyone. Once the boat is under way, they open a ticket booth on the inside deck - if you are standing up on top of the deck admiring the view (like I was), then you will be unaware that you are supposed to go down and purchase your ticket from this interior on-board ticket vendor. You need the ticket to exit the boat. You must pay in cash. We had plenty of Chilean currency, so it was not a problem for us. The cost was 15,000 Chilean pesos per boat ticket - for the two of us, it was about $50 US.

Los Glaciares Admission Fee

The fee for entering Los Glaciares Nacional Parque is 215 Argentina pesos per person. This fee must be paid in Argentina currency and in cash. Note - you must pay this fee each day that you enter the park, your admission ticket is only good for one day. The day we took the boat ride to the Upsala Glacier and the day we did the Mini-Trek on the Perito Moreno Glacier - the price charged by the tour operator did not include this admission fee. We had to pay the admission in addition to the cost of the excursion. Also note that this admission fee is only charged in El Calafate - at El Chaltén there is no fee for entering Los Glaciares parque.

Los Glaciares Flyer


El Calafate Map

El Calafate is a sizable town, with many shops, restaurants and lodging opportunities. I suggest that when you make a reservation for a place to stay that you check the location - some of the new lodging is being built outside of El Calafate, at distances that require a shuttle to get to town for dinner or wandering. We stay at nice Bed and Breakfast called Posada Karut Josh that was bargain priced and located in a good area - I have marked its location on the map, and also marked the location of the bus terminal (a fifteen minute walk). I have also marked the location of the Always Glacier office, because they are the outfit in El Calafate that Experience Chile used to book some of our activities and transportation.

El Calafate Map

El Calafate Lodging: Posada Karut Josh

In El Calafate, we stayed at bed and breakfast called Posada Karut Josh. This was a bargain place to stay. It is located inside El Calafate, so you can walk out to the shops and restaurants in the evenings. Because we stayed here on non-consecutive nights, we were in two different rooms: Room 2 and Room 4. Room 2 is the better room because there is no one on the floor above you. Best part of this bed and breakfast was the fact that they let us store a couple of suitcases at their building while we did our hike in Torres del Paine (we stayed here before and after our trek in Chile). The managers are friendly, and speak English. Trip Advisor likes them too


Bus Between El Calafate and El Chaltén

There are a number of bus companies that run between El Calafate and El Chaltén - this is not an exhaustive list: Always Glaciers, Calturs, El Chaltén Travel. The bus ride takes about 3 hours, including a stop at the halfway point. The price for a round trip was 550 Argentina pesos. The buses were full, but not so full that there is no last minute space available. Each of these companies seemed to run a morning and an evening bus in each direction. See my maps below for location of the bus terminals in the towns. This website had a map that showed Los Glaciares nacional parque. You can see the distance between El Calafate and El Chaltén. I have copied that map here:

Los Glaciares Map


El Chaltén Maps

When you arrive on the public bus at El Chaltén, your first stop will be at the ranger station at the entrance to the town. After a 15 minute introductory talk about the park, you will receive a hiking map, which I have copied here:

Elevation Guide

The town of El Chaltén is not that big, and it has multiple laundromats, grocery stores, restaurants and souvenier shops. All of the hiking trails start right from the town itself, you don't need transportation to any trailhead unless you plan to start at El Pilar (which we did). To get to El Pilar, we paid an outfit called Lago San Martin 100 pesos each for a one way ride to that trailhead. I have marked Lago San Martin on this town map:

Elevation Guide

Because the trails are so well marked, you don't need any hiking map beyond the paper map available from the ranger station. However, I like maps, I like to know the names of mountains and landmarks, so we bought the following trail map from a souvenier shop. This is a nice map.

Elevation Guide

Here is a map that I found on line, showing the hiking trails around El Chaltén:

Elevation Guide

El Chaltén Lodging: Lo de Tomy

In El Chaltén, we stayed at Lo de Tomy. I picked them because Trip Advisor were all universally positive, at the time of this writing, they are the top rated lodging in El Chaltén. It turned out that Lo de Tomy is actually a two story apartment. Upstairs is a master bath room and a large bed room. Downstairs is a living room with a dining room table in the middle. There is a fully equipped kitchen in the apartment, so we saved some money on a couple of nights by eating a dinner of spaghetti noodles and sauce bought from the nearby supermarket. Every day, when we returned from hiking, we found a plate of cookies on the dining room table. Twice, we also found a dessert of Apple Crumb Cake.

On the last night of our stay, we went down to the Lo de Tomy office to tell them that we would be checking out very early the next morning, before breakfast even, because we had an early bus to catch back to El Calafate. We wanted to know what to do with the keys after we left. Later that night, when we were packing up to get ready for our early bus ride, we heard a knock on the door. The Lo de Tomy people had put together a breakfast for us to eat in our room before the bus ride. I was impressed, I certainly didn't expect that.


Shuttle to El Pilar

An ideal way to hike to up to Lago de los Tres is to begin at the Hosteria El Pilar, but this hosteria is 11 km from El Chaltén. On the evening before did our hike we went into the office of Lago San Martin and asked if we could catch a morning shuttle to El Pilar. The 9:30 AM shuttle was full, but they had room for two in their 8:00 AM shuttle. The cost was 100 Argentinian pesos per person.


A useful site for El Chaltén

This site had a write up about some of the day hikes in El Chaltén


El Calafate Exit Tax

The airport at El Calafate used to charge $35 as an exit tax for all travelers who flew out of there. As of 2012, this exit fee is now included as part of your ticket price.


Experience Chile

We used Experience Chile.org to make our reservations in the Chile refugios. We also used Experience Chile for arranging the bus transport to TDP and to El Chaltén from El Calafate. All of our communication was via email, and they were mostly prompt at answering my questions (and I asked a LOT of questions before our trip.) All of the arrangements worked out perfectly for us, we got our tickets and did our activities all on time. We planned our trip routes and times on our schedule, but I think our Torres del Paine route was quite similar to the "Package C" shown here.

We met other independent hikers who had also booked their reservations through Experience Chile. I didn't hear any complaints. I was happy with our outcome and I would use Experience Chile again if we ever decided to return to Torres del Paine.

The following table shows all of our expenses from this trip - this lists everything was NOT covered by our Experience Chile fees (which totaled $3656 US, see above chart).

Item

Argentina Pesos

Chilean Pesos

US dollars

Comments

Plane tickets to Patagonia $4027fly thru Houston and Buenos Aires to El Calafate
Manuel Tienda Leon $80Private car btwn Buenos Aires EZE airport to AEP airport
Airport Shuttle 200$23Shuttle service from El Calafate airport to town
Catamaran30,000 $49Boat ride across Lago Pehoé
Bus Terminal Tax10$1Five pesos tax to use El Calafate bus station
San Martin Lago Transfers200$23Shuttle to El Pilar from El Chaltén

Transport Total

$4203

Posada Karut Josh$340Five nights, includes breakfast

Lodging Total

$340

Reciprocity Fee$320Two Argentina reciprocity fees
Los Glaciares Admission430$49Admission to national park for boat ride
Torres del Paine Admission36,000$58Two admission to TDP national park
Los Glaciares Admission430$49Admission to national park for mini-trek
El Chaltén Hiking Map95$11Waterproof contour map
T-shirt180$21Souvenier Patagonia T-shirt
Magnet12$1Souvenier Patagonia Magnet
Laguna Nimez Admission140$16Admission to El Calafate wetlands
Los Glaciares Admission430$49Admission to national park on last day

Entertainment Total

$574

Quiznos Sandwich$7.54Sandwich in Houston Airport
Sbarro Pizza$4.93Slice of pizza in Houston Airport
Wendy's$2.37Medium frosty
La Lechuza285$33Pizza dinner first night in El Calafate
La Lechuza385$44Dinner second night in El Calafate
Two Coke Light3000$52x Diet coke at Refugio Paine Grande
Four Coke Light6000$104x Diet coke at Refugio Grey
Four Coke Light8000$134x Diet coke at Refugio Paine Grande
La Lechuza325$37Two giant hamburgers for dinner at El Calafate
Don Guerra365$42Two chicken fajitas dinners in El Chaltén
Supermarket88$10Spaghetti sauce, noodle, diet coke at the market
Don Guerra270$31Red pepper & ham pizza, with french fries side order
Supermarket105$12More spaghetti sauce and noodles, diet coke, bonbons
La Tratto495$57Steak dinner, fries, personal Hawaiian pizza
Cinnabon$4.09Breakfast in Houston airport

Food Total

$313

Our Total Expenses

$5430

Experience Chile

$3656

Grand Trip Total

$9086


While we were in Patagonia, I was able to see the posted prices of some of the services that we had paid for through Experience Chile, such as the cost of staying at the Refugios in TDP. I have written down those prices here. A few of these prices are estimates, but most of the prices I took from signs. The total adds up to $2628, while Experience Chile charged us $3656. This shows that you could make all of these reservations on your own and save some money. Hopefully the links I provided above will remain active. I recognize that Experience Chile is making a profit, and since their mark up was not too extreme, I am happy with the outcome. However, contacting lo de Tomy in El Chaltén is easily done on your own, so you could book that one yourself.

Item

Argentina Pesos

Chilean Pesos

US dollars

Comments

Bus to Torres del Paine $320?Always Glaciers shuttle roundtrip El Calafate to TDP
TDP ShuttlefreeBus Gomez back to Laguna Amarga
El Chaltén bus1100$126Two round trip tickets El Calafate to El Chaltén
Private car$160Drive to Perito Moreno, then to El Calafate airport

Transport Total

$606

Refugio Chileno148000$240One night bunk beds, plus dinner, breakfast & box lunch
Refugio Cuernos148000$240One night bunk beds, plus dinner, breakfast & box lunch
Refugio Paine Grande148000$240One night made up beds, plus dinner, breakfast & box lunch
Refugio Grey148000$240One night made up beds, plus dinner, breakfast & box lunch
Lo de Tomy $750Five nights, includes breakfast

Lodging Total

$1710

Rios de Hielo$160Rivers of Ice boat tour - bring your own lunch
Perito Moreno Mini-trek2660$152Walk with crampons on Perito Moreno - bring your own lunch

Entertainment Total

$312

Grand Total

$2628

We paid Experience Chile $3656