Camping and hiking in Patagonia on the cheap

Everything you’ve heard about trekking in Patagonia is true. Amongst the mythical mountains, grand glaciers and unique wildlife, you really feel like you’re at the end of the world. Unfortunately, it can be the most expensive place to visit on this continent. But being the cheap bastards we are, we were able visit without busting the bank. If you want to look at the real numbers go check out our Patagonia Costs spreadsheet. For me, this is crucial information and the hardest to come by.

Before you go

When to go – Peak season in Patagonia is mid-December to February, so everything will be cost more. We flew from Buenos Aires to El Calafate on Dec 2 for $187 tickets that were purchased 6 weeks earlier. Even before peak season, campsites were fairly crowded and hostels were fully booked. If you decide to travel at this time, make reservations to ensure a cheap bed. We also heard that you should make reservations weeks ahead of time to stay at Torres del Paine refugios.

Our home on the trail... we love our little tent!
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Our home on the trail... we love our little tent!08-Jan-2011 06:54, Canon Canon PowerShot S90, 4.0, 6.0mm, 0.013 sec, ISO 160
 

Itinerary – Patagonia is huge, and getting around ain’t cheap. For example: a bus from El Calafate to El Chaltan takes 4 hours and costs 75 Pesos ($19). Getting south to Ushuaia from El Calafate will take more than a day on a bus and cost over $100 (flights are $300). Pick the places you want to go with this in mind. Heading to Tierra del Fuego to see the “end of the world” may seem cool, but is it worth it? We flew into El Calafate, saw Perito Moreno glacier, took a bus to Chile for Torres del Paine, then hit El Chaltan for Fitz Roy trekking. This simple itinerary still cost us $110 each in transportation and 20 bus hours.

Gear

One trip to REI or Decathlon can bust the bank before you even step on a plane. The towns and trails in Patagonia are fashion shows for the latest Northface or Jack Wolfskin performance wear (I’ll leave the discussion for consuming your identity for another time). Yes, the conditions in Patagonia are harsh. Yes, you will encounter blazing hot sun, hurricane strength gales, blowing rains, and snow in the same day. And yes, having lightweight high tech gear will make life easier. It is not, however, necessary.

Where to Buy – When it came what and where to buy, we learned the hard way. Firstly, don’t wait until you arrive to stock up. The US is the cheapest place to buy anything you’ll need, and even Europe is cheaper than South America. Expect to pay twice for international brands in Argentina, and little less in Chile. You wont find any non-local branded tents or sleeping bags here. A Northface fleece that is priced at $80 on the web goes for 612 pesos ($155) in El Calafate. The cheapest one I bought was still $28. We also thought we’d be better off buying gear in Buenos Aires than in Patagonia…wrong again. Even though there are hundreds of Sports stores in BA, most only sell soccer jerseys and sneakers (again deferring the rant on buying your identity).You’ll have more choices and better prices in El Calafate or Puerto Natales. For local gear, the Chilean brand Doite is the highest quality. Avoid the Argentine brand Montagne, it’s all show. Renting is also an option. See Patagonia Costs Spreadsheet for details.

Clothes – All you need are a few breathable layers and something warm for camp. Our simple travel rain jackets and pants worked fine as both rain and wind protection. On bottom: I wore socks, long johns, convertible pants, rain pants. On top: tee-shirt, thermal top, fleece, rain coat with a big cotton hoodie for nights (also doubled as a pillow). Add a good hat and light gloves and you will be good to go without dropping hella cash on Patagonia puff coats or Gortex jackets.

Kim in her sleeping bag enjoying the best vew of Los Torres we got
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Kim in her sleeping bag enjoying the best vew of Los Torres we got08-Jan-2011 21:27, Canon Canon PowerShot S90, 4.0, 6.0mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 80
 
Tent – You don’t need a $500 expedition tent, but I also wouldn’t suggest a $50 Target/Walmart special. The winds in Patagonia are fierce. You’ll want one that can take it, preferably a low profile design with a rain fly that goes to the ground. We slept in a tiny two person tent we bought in Buenos Aires for 690 pesos/$175 and we loved it. Sure only one of us could sit up at a time, but small tents are cheaper, lighter, and warmer. We also slung sarongs over the mesh windows, under the rainfly, to supplement our measly sleeping bags and it helped against the winds enormously.

Sleeping bags – Although our Quechua 10 C/50 F (you read that right) sleeping bags were lightweight, compact and only 35 Euros/$47 at Decathlon in Spain, they were inadequate. To share body warmth, we zipped them together and huddled all night. Even so, we wore all our clothes and sometimes our rain pants to sleep comfortably. I suggest getting a 0 C/ 32 F bag at the minimum. Spend a bit more on the bag and don’t buy in South America since they are huge and expensive.

Sleeping pads – We bought $10 foam pads with aluminum covering. They aren’t as comfy as the inflatable ones, and you wont look as cool with a big roll of foam strapped to you bag, but they cost a fraction of the alternative, and weigh less to boot. We wrapped them in sarongs so they didn’t get torn up by branches. Avoid the the thick blow up pads like the Thermarest NeoAir. They contain so much air that it takes a lot of body heat to warm up… and cost $150!*!?

Cooking stuff – Screw titanium, $10 sporks and all that. We got the cheapest stove and cookware we could find and two spoons for 25 cents each at a dime store – it all worked fine. By wrapping some aluminum foil around the butane tank and stove, we increased it’s efficiency, eliminated wind and dealt with the problem of the tank getting too cold to maintain proper pressure. You can find the standard screw on butane tanks everywhere, but may need to hunt for white gas.

Staging:

View of Fitzroy from teeny El Chalten
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View of Fitzroy from teeny El Chalten13-Jan-2011 04:31, Canon Canon PowerShot S90, 5.6, 18.189mm, 0.002 sec, ISO 80
 
You’ve come to Patagonia to be part of nature, but you’ll have to spend some time in town to set up transportation, prepare your food and gear and rest. These thrown together cities are nothing special and easy places to blow through money, but it’s easy to cut corners.

Lodging – The cheapest place accommodation is your own tent. It cost between $4-$5 per person/night but is much cheaper than a dorm. Added bonus: you can test your gear before getting on the trail. In El Calafate, go to Los Dos Pinos for camping and get full use of a kitchen, bathrooms and TV room. They also have the cheapest double rooms we found in all of Argentina for 90 pesos/$23 (a third the cost of a Hosteling International joint). Lonely Planet says there is free camping in El Chalten, but it closed 2 years ago. It’s also the most expensive town we visited in Patagonia (camping 25 pesos/$6.60, dorm bed 50 pesos/$12.60) so go straight from the bus just one hour up the trail to Lago Capri . You’ll find free camping, great views and no crowds…ahh. Swing by Hostel del Lago on the way back for a shower (5 pesos/$1.27) and to pick up your left bags (5 pesos per night) before heading out of town.

Eating – Do yourself a favor and make sure your hostel has a kitchen. With a basic restaurant meal running about $10, you’ll want to cook most meals. Even food in the grocery stores is pricey due to killer inflation. Food costs slightly more in Chile, but remember that you can’t bring any meat, dairy, nuts or fruits over the border. Don’t be like the other suckers that have their newly purchased groceries seized by customs.

On the Trail

So you’ve finally arrived in the beautiful mountains of Patagonia. It’s what you’ve spent all this time and money planning for, and the best part… this is the cheapest part of your whole adventure! Many people blast through the parks as fast as possible before getting onto a bus to head back to town to congratulate themselves with a $30 dinner and a $75 hotel room… but why? You’re in beautiful Patagonian mountains – take your damn time! In Torres del Paine, after paying the park fee (15000 pesos/$31) and the cost of getting to a trail head (11000 pesos/23 for the catamaran or 2000 pesos/$4 for the shuttle) you can spend nothing, just camp at the free sites and stay away form the food in the refugios and stores. Fitz Roy is totally free. So stay an extra day or two, enjoy the sights or just chill out. The only cost for doing this is some extra food in your pack. After making this mistake in Torres del Paine, we took 5 days to do 2 days worth of trekking around Fitz Roy and it was great.

There it is. So go forth, take lots of pictures, stay warm, and enjoy Patagonia, it is really one of the most beautiful places on earth, and maybe you can even come back with a little money in your pocket.

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