How to Navigate Patagonia On A College Student’s Budget (Without Camping)

When planning our trip to Patagonia last November, we had two options: go hardcore camping on one of the various trails for a week or create an elaborate plan to see the highlight reel of the region in the same amount of time. Naturally, we chose the second option.

After coming back, I’ve been asked by multiple people how I and two friends navigated this route (probably because they know it must’ve taken a lot of planning for 3 broke girls to get around such an notoriously expensive paradise), so I decided to compile all my notes and make a guide for those trying to dig their boots into the mountains and not dig themselves into debt.

November ended up being perfect timing because it wasn’t as crowded as it tends to be in December and January when Chile experiences the peak of its summer months. This guide is hefty, I know, but it could save your butt if you’re tight on cash.

Route: Santiago –> Punta Arenas –> Puerto Natales –> El Calafate –> El Chaltén –> El Calafate –> Puerto Natales –> Punta Arenas

 (1) Morning flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas (Sunday, Nov. 27th)

The roundtrip flight south from Santiago was $123, however the flight was about $40 cheaper a few months ahead of time; so I recommend grabbing that flight to Punta Arenas as soon as possible.

(2) Punta Arenas (arrival on Sunday, Nov 27th)

From the airport, we took a taxi to the bus station and then got a bus ticket to Puerto Natales, where we spent the night.

  • Next transporation: 3-hr bus to Puerto Natales ($25 USD)

 (3) Puerto Natales (Sunday night, Nov. 27th)

  • Our hostel: ($21USD/person/night) so for our 2 night stay, it was about $40-45/person. Really chill environment and included breakfast.
    • Got hostel for both Sunday & Monday night, Nov. 2728th

Hostel tip: Try to always get a hostel that provides breakfast because when you’re arriving at odd hours, it’s very possible that the decent grocery stores are closed, leaving you hungry in the street. 

Highlight: Torres del Paine National Park, Riding horses

There are tons of tour companies to choose from, but we did a full-day tour of Torres del Paine with the Adventure Patagonia hostel on Nov. 28th ($52 tour + $37 park entrance fees) and loved it. It was a splurge on cash, but we wanted to see the most famous park in the area without renting a car or hardcore camping.

Travel Tip: If you’re like me, these tours that don’t usually offer lunch are a problem, so I’d recommend bringing snacks for the full-day tour.

We also used the same Adventure Patagonia hostel to go horse-back riding (half-day) in Torres del Paine on Tuesday, Nov. 29 for $54. I would recommend this to anyone because it was one of the best parts of the whole trip and ended with breakfast in the home of the gauchos (SO GOOD.)

  •  Next transportation: 4-hr bus to El Calafate, Argentina on night of Nov. 29th

Travel Tip: When you cross over into Argentina, keep in mind you’re going to have to withdraw Argentinian Pesos in order to pay for anything in cash. Most places in El Calafate & El Chaltén accept card, but just as a precaution, it’s safe to have usable cash.

(4) El Calafate, Argentina (arrival late on Tuesday, Nov. 29th)

  • Our hostel: ($20USD/person/night) We LOVED this hostel. It’s a bit of a hike from the bus station, but the people who work there are so helpful and the place is a magnet for interesting people. I would highly recommend staying here.
    • Get hostel for nights of Nov. 29th, 30th, and Dec. 2. (You’ll want to book that additional night so you have a place to stay on the way back.)

Highlight: Perito Moreno Glacier

We used our hostel’s tour options for this adventure because it was easy and equivalent to competing tour companies. Plan ahead because the tours leave really early in the morning to get to the glacier before it’s crowded.

The cost was about $55USD total on this excursion, which included the van ride and  entrance fee to the park ($17USD.) You can take a public transport bus or rent a car, but I imagine those would be more difficult depending on availability and timing.

Travel Tip: To save some cash, pack a lunch because the restaurant in the park can be pricey. (Do this as much as you can if your’e a cheap traveler!)

Once we were back in El Calafate, we rented bikes and rode through the whole town, which was a great way of navigating through streets and getting down to the lake and the parks quickly. There’s also an AMAZING bakery called Don Luis if you have the time to stop.

Hostel Tip: Try to get a hostel that is near to the bus station if you’re not planning on spending the extra cash to get to/from the station when it’s time to leave.

  • Next transportation: 3-hr bus to El Chaltén ($75USD for roundtrip ticket) on evening of Dec. 1st. Yes, this is a pricey bus ticket for only one night, but El Chaltén was no doubt the highlight of the whole trip and was worth the best hike of my life.

(5) El Chaltén (arrival in evening, Thursday, Dec. 1st)

  • Our hostel: ($19USD/person/night) We loved this hostel too! The people who work there waited up for us and really helped us with planning of the Laguna de Los Tres hike (PLEASE DO THIS HIKE IF YOU CAN. IT’S TOO GOOD TO PASS UP!)
    • Get hostel for night of Thursday, Dec. 1st

Highlight: Laguna de los Tres hike (3-4 hrs)

Although there are a variety of hikes to do, especially because the trailhead starts in the middle of town, this was the best one and anybody could tell you that. Get up early (like 7am), do the hike, and align yourselves with the very few people who get to say they’ve had lunch at the base of Mount Fitz Roy. Breathtaking would be an understatement. It’s not even a tough hike, and I say that as someone whose lung capacity still isn’t used to living on a third-floor apartment.

  • Next transportation: 3-hr bus back to El Calafate on evening of Friday, Dec. 2nd

 (6) El Calafate (Friday, Dec. 2nd)

  • Our Hostel: We went back down to Hostel Nakel Yenu, where we stayed the first time. ($20USD/person/night)
    • Get a hostel night of Friday, Dec. 2nd

On the way back down, we bought the souvenirs and went to the restaurants that we’d scoped out on the way up, which turned into a great way to get rid of Argentinian Pesos before crossing back into Chile.

  • Next transportation: Bus on Saturday, Dec. 3rd from El Calafate to Puerto Natales

Travel Tip: Because we couldn’t find a direct bus from El Calafate to Punta Arenas on the morning we left, we stayed in Puerto Natales that night (Saturday, Dec. 3rd) and then bussed to Punta Arenas the next morning, which ended up being a great break from the hustle of bus-hopping.

(7) Punta Arenas (Sunday-Monday, Dec. 4-5th)

  • Our Hostel: ($17USD/person/night) This was our least favorite hostel because we just didn’t feel very welcome, so I’d recommend checking out a few other options.
    • Get a hostel for night of Sunday, Dec. 4th

Highlight: Exploring that coastal town

Because it was so successful in El Calafate, we decided to rent bikes again and rode all along the coastline, really soaking in those patagonic winds you’ll keep hearing about. We even rode to the Cemetery of Punta Arenas, which was beautiful and full of people on a Sunday afternoon.

I’d also recommend this little café, La Chocolatta, because it was amazing and felt like being at home during the holidays–cozy and comfy. We flew home Monday, Dec. 5th.

For those of you keeping score at home, let me break that down into some numbers you can work with:

  • Spent about $137USD in hostels
  • Spent about $212USD in excursions/tours
  • Spent about $323USD in transportation when necessary (including roundtrip flight)
  • That brings our total to about $672 (without food & shopping)

I hope this guide is helpful and improves your planning process if you ever get to go to that chunk of South American paradise. It was one of the wildest and most beautiful trips I’ll ever experience and I couldn’t recommend it any more than I already do. Jeez just thinking about all of this makes me want to go back tomorrow!



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