Buenos Aires, by Noelia Diaco. Photo is not visible, used only for sharing on social networks.

Navigating southern Patagonia

February 17, 2012
Update: We're back! Read about our adventure here.

So much for a nice slow vacation to Patagonia. I currently have three Excel spreadsheets and several Evernote documents to keep track of our plans. Parque Nacional de los Glaciares in Argentina and Torres del Paine in Chile are popular tourist destinations, but oddly there's both a dearth and overabundance of information for planning a trip there.

The problem largely comes down to the fact that prices, accommodations, and companies change too quickly for published sources to keep up. A dinner in Buenos Aires that cost $30 in December now costs $40. Our corner produce store suddenly closed down without warning, or even a sign. Guidebooks are helpful for describing lasting attractions (assumingly Mount Fitz Roy hasn't moved in the last two years) but not for figuring out logistics and prices.

That means I have to trust fellow travelers to recount their trips and share their sources of information. But Joe Schmoe posting on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forum doesn't necessarily have any idea what he's talking about. And since we're going to popular places, there are thousands of threads asking the same questions: How do we take a bus from Argentina to Chile? How many days does it take to hike the W Circuit?

Only adding to the complications is the fact that a fire broke out in Torres del Paine at the end of December. Searching for information about the latest conditions in the park usually turns up posts from panicked travelers at the beginning of January saying the park is closed. But we won't be there until the middle of March. I need the latest information, not the hundreds of contradictory reports from a month ago.

So for future travelers, here's a look at some of the information I found and how I found it. My biggest piece of advice: check directly with the source. Just from emailing several tour companies, I received extensive brochures listing hotel prices, transportation options and a variety of tours that it would have taken me hours to put together myself.

Hiking: Lonely Planet publishes a guide to Trekking in the Patagonian Andes, last updated in 2009. You can buy individual PDF chapters through the Lonely Planet website. So far, this has been my main source of information for envisioning where we'll actually be going. I expect a lot of it to change once we're there, but it's been helpful for forming a broad mental picture of our route.

Map: How to hike the "W" in Torres del Paine — A more detailed map of the "W" trek, including hiking times and route options.

Buses: Transport within Patagonia seemed to be one of the most common sources of confusion. We're traveling between El Chalten, El Calafate, Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine, so I focused my efforts on how to get between those four places.
There are no direct buses from the Chilean side (Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine) to El Chalten, the hiking town near Mount Fitz Roy. To get to El Chalten you have to take a bus from El Calafate. Chalten Travel, Tasqa, and CalTur run daily buses, and the schedules are available on their websites. During the summer, they run 2-3 buses per day.
The most common way to cross from the Argentine to Chilean side is from El Calafate to Puerto Natales. The ride takes about 5 hours and you have to pass through customs on the way. Cootra and Zaahj both run buses, generally one in the early morning and one in the early afternoon. But the times vary depending on the day, and the buses often sell out, so plan accordingly.
Once in Puerto Natales (where you'll likely want to get Chilean pesos and to buy food since Chile is very strict about letting food products across the border), several companies including BusSur, Buses Gomez, and Buses Pachecho operate daily buses to Torres del Paine. The hostels in Puerto Natales can help book these.
To save time it's possible to book a bus directly from El Calafate to Torres del Paine, or vice versa. Always Glaciers runs a tour and bus to the park that's pretty expensive. My advice would be to go through Puerto Natales on the way there -- it's much cheaper and you can stock up on money and food and pick up any last-minute equipment. But to shorten the trip back, Always Glaciers offers a direct bus for US$45. Keep in mind that the bus only leaves from Laguna Amarga, which is usually the beginning, not the ending point, for the W Circuit. 
Lodging: See my previous post on how to find lodging options.

We still have to finalize our gear list and figure out what to bring for food. For any hikers reading this, we'd love to hear your favorite meals for the trail.

- Steph

Continue to our next post about our itinerary


  1. I went the same route to Chile to hike Torre del Paines with all my food for the trip and had no problem. Customs doesn't take all the backpacks out of the bus to search them.

  2. Can I get the $45 always glacier bus if I'm coming from Del Paine to El Calafate only?

    1. Hi David, I don't entirely understand your question, but yes - you can take the Always Glaciers bus one-way from Torres del Paine to El Calafate.

  3. Vanessa-- you got lucky! I've crossed the border back into Chile twice now and both times they took all bags off the bus & "searched" them with police dogs. A friend had to open hers up because she had cooked food in it (which is totally fine and wasn't an issue). There's a killer grocery in Puerto Natales. I'd just wait and get all your stuff there for the Torres trek.

  4. This post is awesome. Thanks for sharing all of these details!

  5. Hello Steph, thanks for the valuable info. I looked at your post for the Torres del Paine's W circuit, and I have one question: starting from east to west, once I take the catamaran from Refugio Grey and I end up at Hotel lago Grey, how can I go to Puerto Natales or Laguna Amarga without spending the $150p.p. for the transfer offered by Hotel lago Grey? anything cheaper? Thanks!

    1. The catamaran takes you back to Pudeto, and from there you can catch a bus to Puerto Natales.


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