Here are a couple tips we learned after a one month trip to South America.
Maybe it’s just me, but I just don’t really like cities all that much. We budgeted a day and a half in Santiago at the start of the trip, but by the time we bought our return flights, we decided to forgo checking out Buenos Aires and just flew straight home.
The major expense is going to be the flight. And both Chile and Argentina are quite big, so flying is almost required. Let’s start with Chile.
Torres Del Paine, Chile
To get to Torres Del Paine, you’ll need to fly to Punta Arenas via Santiago, but once you have that ticket, to get into the park it’ll be all buses. The first bus (3hrs) gets you from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales, and then a second bus (2hrs) gets you into the park. From there you pay a park fee and you’ll be ready to go after one final bus (15min) to the trailhead (Hotel Las Torres). Except not really, you’ll want to have reserved camping spots months and months in advance on an unbelievably complicated system which sells out extremely quickly. But if you can manage to figure all that out and commit to dates well ahead of time, the W trek is quite a reward.
At least I guess it is, we did the I trek, which is only the last leg of the W, staying one night at Chileno Refugio. Staying there sets you up well (about an hour) to hike to the famous view point, Mirador Las Torres, which gets absolutely packed around midday, so hiking up after an early breakfast is definitely the way to do it. We had the whole place to ourselves for about an hour before people started trickling in.
After soaking up the view for an hour, we hiked all the way out going against heavy traffic, and started heading over to El Chalten in Argentina.
Torres Del Paine is undeniably beautiful, but the cost, logistics (flights and buses), complicated booking platform, crowds and crowds of people on the trails, take away from it a little. We felt the way we did it to be a great way to experience the park without too much hassle and red tape to cross.
Dec 30: Flight from Boston to Santiago
Jan 1: Flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas
Jan 2: Bus from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales
Jan 3: Bus from Puerto Natales to TDP, then hike to Chileno Refugio to camp (2hr)
Jan 4: Early morning hike (1hr) to Mirador Las Torres for beautiful views of the towers. Then hike out, take bus back to Puerto Natales
Jan 5: Bus from Puerto Natales to El Calafate (hub city for El Chalten)
El Chalten, Argentina
El Chalten is pretty much exactly the opposite of TDP, except for the same breathtaking views. No national park fees, no bussing around, no camping fees, etc. Just take a bus from El Calafate (worth spending a day to check out Perito Moreno Glacier) to El Chalten, check into your hostel/hotel and you’re ready to go.
All the trailheads start in town, and the two famous long hikes are Laguna De Los Tres and Laguno Torre. They are both about 20km roundtrip, but the first one, which goes to the Fitz Roy viewpoint, has quite a lot more elevation gain (~3000) than the second one which goes to the Cerro Torre viewpoint.
Having the flexibility to do the hikes on any day without any additional planning or reservations allows you to choose a good weather day instead of relying on getting lucky. Though you will still need to be lucky since Chalten is known for rough weather that can easily last through your entire stay.
If you can do both, obviously you should. But if money, time, or headache is a limiting factor, I would definitely recommend Chalten in Argentina by flying to Buenos Aires then Calafate, and from there taking a 3hr bus to Chalten. Nothing else to plan except those flights and that bus, and once you’re there, you’re free to do whatever you want, from hiking to sport climbing to big alpine objectives.