Patagonia has been somewhere on my list of intriguing travel destinations for quite a while. So when it was time to choose a honeymoon destination to visit during a December/January window, it seemed like a good choice. We set aside two weeks and hoped to visit a number of wildlife-rich areas and explore some of dramatic mountain scenery. Not everything went as expected (to say the least), but the trip was a good introduction to a fascinating place.
Getting There - A couple long flights from Seattle got us to Buenos Aires (via Atlanta). It wasn't cheap.
Transportation - Once we got to Argentina, we split our modes of transport between domestic flights and renting a car. We flew between Buenos Aires and Peninsula Valdes, Peninsula Valdes and Ushuaia, Ushuaia and El Calafate, Calafate and Buenos Aires. Note that international flights arrive and depart from a different airport than many of the domestic flights. You'll have to catch a cab across the city to switch airports. We rented a car to tour Peninsula Valdes and to cover ground around El Calafate for a week, including trips to Perito Moreno Glacier and overnight journeys to Chalten (Mt. Fitz Roy) and Torres del Paine in Chile.
Note: Our first three domestic flights were with Austral Airlines, which went just fine. Only when checking into our last flight with Aerolineas Argentinas did we run into a big problem with baggage weight restrictions. I've never encountered an employee so adamant about refusing to allow camera gear on board if it was over their miniscule limit. Be prepared to rearrange your carry-ons if you run into her!
When We Went - The trip lasted two weeks from late December into early January. Weatherwise, things were decent. However, this turned out to not be the best time for wildlife in some cases. This was especially apparent on Peninsula Valdes, where all of the major wildlife the are is famous for (Orcas on the beach, southern right whales, adult southern elephant seals) isn't around at that time. Unfortunately, we learned this the hard way in couple of those cases. For potential orca-on-the-beach sightings (rare even in "high season"), your best shot is to go in February and March. For better chances at seeing elephant seals and whales, one should travel earlier than we went. By December they've all left.
It's hard to say if there's a better time to travel to places like Chalten and Torres del Paine, since the weather was generally quite nice. The ever-present wind supposedly calms down as you get into fall (March/April), and I imagine there's less of a chance you'll get the annoying clouds we saw all the time covering the dramatic mountain peaks if you go when it's colder. So autumn may indeed be the best time for those areas. Plus, it's presumably less-crowded.
First, a word about the company we went through. I have chosen to withhold their name due to numerous problems we encountered on the trip. They were nice folks and helpful when we had to call mid-trip when there was a problem (which is why I'd prefer not to name them here)... but there were too many issues we shouldn't have had to deal with. Much of it stemmed from poor communication between the company and the various hotels, tour operators and vendors. Not everyone in Argentina is ready to handle reservations solely via email, so it's probably best for you to work with a company that uses the voucher system folks are used to. Our other problems mainly evolved from bad advice about wildlife destinations. Looking for a wildlife-centric itinerary, we ended up on what seemed to be more of a normal tourist itinerary. We probably could have skipped Valdes altogether (see the reasons why in the When We Went blurb above) and found better wildlife viewing opportunities in other areas... or simply spent more of that time exploring places like Torres del Paine. In one case, we arrived at a location expecting to find a guide that could help us find wildlife and were told "there's no wildlife here" when we arrived.
Some of our best wildlife experiences came from activities we planned on our own. We made an impromptu decision to hire a private guide down for a half day in Ushuaia. Esteban Daniels is an excellent bird guide, and was a perfect choice to show us around the Lapataia Forest in Tierra del Fuego National Park.
Peninsula Valdes - Located about a third of the way down Argentina's Atlantic Coast, this flat piece of land is famous for its wildlife. Unfortunately, your timing has to be good (see When We Went above). Valdes is most famous for its orcas, which beach themselves purposely in an attempt to snatch sea lions from the surf. It's also a haven for the endangered southern right whale and is home to the only continental breeding ground for massive southern elephant seals in South America. There's plenty of smaller stuff to see as well: Magellanic penguins, which have a beachfront colony you can get quite close to, armadillos, foxes, guanacos and the ostrich-like rhea. For a first-time visitor to Patagonia, this place is a nice introduction to several new types of animals. To really make the most of it though, you really need to time your visit properly for the orcas, whales and seals.
There are plenty of penguins and other wildlife on Peninsula Valdes and in Tierra del Fuego
See photos from Peninsula Valdes
Ushuaia (Tierra del Fuego) - An interesting and rugged landscape, and the main launching point for most Antarctica excursions. Even if you're not heading further south from here, there are several interesting options to explore. A number of sea excursions are available, many involving boat trips to the many islands that dot the Beagle Channel.
A trip to Isla H gives you a nice close-up view of the colorful and hearty plant species that survive in this harsh environment, as well as a remarkably close view of a rock cormorant rookery. Estancia Harberton, and old ranch out in hills away from town gives you a look at how earlier settlers lived and worked in Tierra del Fuego, and also gives you access to an island full of Magellanic and gentoo penguins. We found Haberton a bit disappointing. What was advertised as at least a half-day tour of the ranch and island instead involved an hour-and-a-half bus ride out followed by the hour-long penguin island tour (the gentoos aren't close), followed by a bus ride back to town. There was no tour or exploration of the ranch itself.
One of the highlights of Ushuaia is the Lapataia Forest, part of Tierra del Fuego National Park. This beautiful woodland offers several easy walks and abundant birdlife, including the iconic Magellanic woodpecker. We missed out on seeing this species, but we were fortunate to spot an austral pygmy owl, one of several birds of prey present in the park. Culpeos (fox-like wild dogs) and rabbits are also common.
Ushuaia itself reminded me of a European mountain resort town. Narrow streets built into a steep hillside, with plenty of hotels, shops and eateries for the tourists.
See photos from Tierra del Fuego
El Calafate - A home base for tourists and adventurers heading in a variety of directions. This town in located on the shores of Lago Argentino. Plenty of stores and restaurants to pick from, but also plenty of activities (most of which require some form of motorized transportation to reach). The town itself has a small nature preserve at Laguna Nimez, home to various aquatic birds, including flocks of Chilean flamingos.
On a clear day, the view from Chalten can be spectacular
Perito Moreno Glacier is one of the main draws for visitors to Calafate. It's 80km away, but easily reachable by car or bus. You will pay a fee to enter Los Glaciares National Park. Look for Magellanic woodpeckers and condors as you drive through the park, and even as you head out on the walkways to the Glacier. Perito Moreno is South America's most famous glacier, and the views of its massive wall are up close and personal. Visitors have the option of paying for a boat ride for an even closer view of the jagged wall of ice. If you're lucky, you may witness some calving as the evolving glacier splits apart. It's more likely that you'll hear the ice cracking apart before you see it. By the way, avoid the restaurant in the parking lot where you walk out to the glacier viewpoint (pack your own lunch). The service there was the worst we encountered during the entire trip.
Calafate is also a jumping-off point for excursions to Estancia Christina (see Lodging), Chalten and Torres del Paine.
See photos from Estancia Christina, Perito Moreno and areas around Calafate
Chalten - There's one main reason to visit this small town: the mountains. A few hours drive from Calafate, this relatively young town (established in the mid-80s) lies in the shadow of Mt. Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, two of the more famous peaks in the Andes. The town itself is full of backpackers and adventurers heading off on their next hike or climb. Nothing too exciting to speak of, though the Wafelria is definitely worth a visit for a late breakfast. There are plenty of internet cafes and finally there's an ATM here.
There are several hikes worth doing in the park. My favorite was the Fitz Roy Viewpoint hike. A couple miles each way, it takes you to one of the most breathtaking views on earth, a wide valley that leads right up to the looming peak of Mt. Fitz Roy.
Note that it's definitely worth the effort to wake up early and catch sunrise on the face of the mountains... if the sun actually appears (we weren't lucky). Try to do at least one early morning hike or get to a nice viewpoint to soak in the view. If you choose to hike before dawn, watch out for the trailside skunks!
See photos from Mt. Fitz Roy and Chalten
Torres del Paine - Another must-see in Patagonia is this famous national park just over the border in Chile. Like Chalten, this is an area famous for its giant towers. You can find an awe-inspiring view almost anywhere in Paine, which is a hiker's paradise. Try to get out and hit the trail at least once. If you attempt the hike to the Torres viewpoint, note it's best stay overnight halfway up in one of the two refuges (hostels) along the trail. You'll have to start early the next morning to reach the peaks by sunrise, which could mean a 2:30am wakeup time. The hike itself, especially the last leg, is quite steep. The hike back to the parking lot can be done in one day.
Paine is home to a variety of wildlife. In the rolling hillsides and mountain valleys it's not always easy to see (except for the ever-present guanacos), but there are some interesting species here, including gray fox, Andean condor and it's perhaps the best place to see a puma. Try the trail for pumas. It's still a rare animal to spot, but this is one of the better areas to see them due to the high density of prey species found here.
See photos from Torres del Paine
It's difficult to remember all the places we stayed, but I'll try!
Posada Piramides, Puerto Pirámides - A plain hotel in this tiny beachfront town on Peninsula Valdes. The staff is helpful and the place also doubles as a restaurant. Some of the rooms are fairly close to the road and the outdoor eating area, so the lights and activity at night may be bothersome to light sleepers.
Patagonia Jarke, Ushuaia - This was the best place we stayed during the trip. What used to be separate buildings perched on a steep hillside close to "downtown," this hotel is now on staggered expanse covering 3-4 stories. Very nice rooms, great owners and a killer view of Ushuaia's harbor, this is a great choice that's close to the action.
Hosteria La Estepa, El Calafate - A sprawling ranch house, for a lack of a better description. Again, lodging was fine here. The biggest issue is that it's located way on the outskirts of town, so if you're staying here it's best to have your own car. They do serve food, but require notice well in advance. The internet connection here is quite flaky. If you're stuck with no car and no internet, you can always spend your time browsing the hundreds of old National Geographics lying around.
Estancia Cristina - "One of the remotest spots in South America," as described by the people who helped plan our trip. It's definitely out there, only reachable by a boat that takes you up to the northern reaches of Lago Argentino. Don't come here for wildlife. Period. Come here if you want some solitude and relaxation. There are some limited activities available, mainly hikes or horseback rides. The hike that takes you past the Glaciar Upsala viewpoint is full of spectacular views and a dynamic landscape that was once all under glacial ice. It is a longer hike (around 10km), though it's all downhill.
El Paraiso, Chalten - Basic accomodation at the doorstep of Mt. Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. Within walking distance of the town's main drag.
Hosteria Pehoe, Torres del Paine - Located on its own island, which can only be accessed via a long footbridge, this hotel has a great view of the jagged peaks that make this park famous. As a result, it's expensive and the food in particular is severely overpriced. Find a different place to eat in the park, or bring your own food.
Though it was technically summer time in the southern hemisphere, we were traveling to some extreme locations... some pretty far south, some pretty high up and all pretty windy to an extent. We needed to be prepared for all sorts of weather, so everything from long underwear and a warm hat to sunscreen was needed.
As always, we brought our my handy travel compressor bags to save space. Since we were mainly traveling by air, boat or car, suitcases may have sufficed, but we stuck with our usual duffel bag and backpack combo.
Gear was mostly packed in the LowePro PhotoTrekker AW II, but I also brought along my ThinkTank Skin belt and pouch system, which was needed during the various hikes and excursions during the trip. You can read my additional notes on this system and some of the pouch options in my Costa Rica 2008 summary.
Since my main goal was to see and photograph wildlife, with a secondary emphasis on landscapes, I had my full complement of gear. My wife and I shared the 100-400 and 70-200, and it was good to have both after one of the lenses was damaged early in the trip. During the more serious hikes, the 500 and Wimberley head stayed locked in the car.
7D, Canon 40D, 20D
Canon 500mm f/4 IS
Canon 24-70mm 2.8
Canon 1.4x teleconverter
ThinkTank Pixel Pocket Rocket
Extra Batteries, Memory Cards
Lens Wipes/Brush, Polarizer, Graduated Neutral Density Filters
Epson P-5000 Storage Device
Rain covers for camera & lenses
Powerstrip & battery chargers