November 2018: Planning for Patagonia

Planning for Patagonia is not logistically easy. It basically took me and my friends three days to get to Torres del Paine (pronounced Torres del “Pine-ay”), which resides in Chile, from NYC. Most people fly into Santiago, Chile to travel to Torres del Paine but we chose to go through Buenos Aires, Argentina as we wanted to end our trip visiting the vineyards of Mendoza.

This is the fourth time I attempted to plan this trip and I’m glad I waited this long. The first time I looked into going was more than 10 years ago and information on Torres del Paine is not as plentiful as it is today. The internet/communication infrastructure has probably improved over this period of time as well and a lot of things in place years ago are no longer. Four years ago I went to Argentina to visit Iguazu Falls (amazing, highly recommend waterfall lovers to go) and had to pay a $100 or so reciprocity fee (valid for 10 years) to get into the country. Well, apparently as of last year that’s no longer in place. In addition, the last time I was in Argentina, I had to exchange all my money on the ‘black market’ because the exchange rate was fixed as $1 USD = 8 pesos (on the black market you could get up to 12 or 14 pesos) and today, $1 USD = 35-38 pesos!

Anyway, planning a trip to Torres del Paine is no easy feat unless you have a lot of time on your hands. You need to register with the park and also make reservations in advance if you want to stay at the limited number of refugios (hostel lodges) in the park. From what I read on the internet, booking a bed or tent at the refugios was frustrating (payment won’t go through, people don’t respond, sold out, etc.) so early on my friends and I decided to bite the bullet and sign up with a tour guide instead to do all the bookings for us.

After a bunch of research, we decided to go with Swoop Patagonia. They have a flashy website and were very responsive and their itinerary worked out for us. However, as soon as we said yes to booking, they turned us over to Chile Nativo! So it turns out Swoop Patagonia is a 3rd party seller of tours and Chile Native is the local operator who actually takes you on the tour. It worked out anyway though as we LOVED Chile Nativo (and after speaking with them, I can see why they need Swoop—the agency has been around for over 15 years but is a small-run tour operator which has grown bigger in the last year and they just haven’t done as much marketing as they can be doing).

We found the price to be reasonable for our budget (we did the 5-day trek for $1695) though yes, if you planned this on your own, you’d be saving more than half. We just didn’t have the time to plan it all ourselves so to us, it was worth it. And no one in our group is an experienced camper or hiker so we felt more comfortable going with a guide in case something happened or someone got sick/injured but you don’t really need one. The trails on the W Trek are all well marked paths.

When I was doing my research for the tour, I read many mixed things about going either west to east or east to west on the W Trek (the other option is the O trek, which is much longer and you’ll see all of the park while the W hits the highlights). As Torres del Paine is known for its wind, most people suggested going west to east (to move along with the winds) but I am SUPER glad we went with Chile Nativo and did the route from east to west. I think this route is better because:

  • you’re moving along with the sun (if it is sunny—this will be incredibly helpful, hiking without the sun in your eyes)

  • we got the hardest part of the hike over on day 1, going up to the Blue Towers (which is what Torres del Paine means)

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 This is literally what you can expect from hiking Torres del Paine. Our trip started at Refugio Las Torres and we stayed overnight in Los Cuernos, Paine Grande, and Grey. The first day of the hike to the Base of the Towers was the hardest (22 km roundtrip back to Refugio Las Torres) and took 8 hours.

This is literally what you can expect from hiking Torres del Paine. Our trip started at Refugio Las Torres and we stayed overnight in Los Cuernos, Paine Grande, and Grey. The first day of the hike to the Base of the Towers was the hardest (22 km roundtrip back to Refugio Las Torres) and took 8 hours.

In addition to planning all our accommodations, meals, and guides in Torres del Paine, Chile Nativo also booked our first and last night in Puerto Natales (the gateway into the park). We stayed at Hotel Vendaval, which was a wonderful stay, and you’re able to leave whatever luggage you’re NOT taking into the park here (which we found to be safe and we had locks on our luggage as well).

Getting to Torres del Paine from New York City

We traveled through four airports, two taxi rides, and two buses over a 72 hour period to get to Torres del Paine. We flew with Aerolineas Argentina (pretty decent airline, I have no complaints—besides the very first 5 minutes of my trip, the check ins were smooth, service was friendly, and had no issues traveling with this line). In summary, these were our travel logistics:

  • On Tuesday, Nov. 6, we took a 3:30 pm direct flight from JFK to EZE, the international airport in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The trip may have started off on the wrong foot had I not watched out for my luggage! I ended up bringing just two pieces—a carry-on size hiking backpack for the trek and a carry-on size suitcase that I checked in. Well, while the Aerolineas Argentina agent gave me my plane ticket at check in, I noticed he totally forgot about my checked-in bag! When I asked him about it, his eyes got wide and said “Oh, yes! Sorry about that!” and ticketed my luggage, stuck the slips on, and put it on the conveyor belt. Had I not watched/said anything, who knows if my luggage would’ve made it out! Probably not, since he didn’t even issue a luggage ticket until I asked! My other friend also had an issue with her luggage and bringing on her trekking poles. Mine were foldable and hidden but hers were bigger and sticking out and had metal tips and they had to recall her luggage (after she checked it in) to put the metal tips away. They wouldn’t let her pass security otherwise. Anyway, after the luggage issues, we otherwise had a smooth overnight flight and arrived in EZE by 4 am, and in November, Buenos Aires is two hours ahead of NYC.

  • By the time we got our luggage and through customs, it was 6 am. I was paranoid about getting money from the ATM (last time I was in Argentina my cards didn’t work at all!) so I exchanged U.S. dollars at Banco Nacional, a local Argentinian bank. The bank is located directly outside the luggage, to the right. ATMs may have a limit to how much you can withdraw every day so I withdrew $600 USD which was more than enough to get me through the two week trip (most places except taxi cabs take credit card). The exchange rate I got it for was AR 34.60 vs. the official rate at the time of 35-36 pesos so not much of a difference. And if you do use the ATM, you will probably pay additional fees there too.

  • We booked a car transfer with Taxi Ezeiza. I made the rsvp a few days beforehand online and they charged $35 USD for 4 people. They’re also located right outside the luggage terminal, at a big booth and if you make a rsvp your name will be on a sign at the desk. You can pay in dollars or pesos (or in credit card). We had rush hour traffic and it took just over an hour to get to AEP, which is the domestic airport in Buenos Aires.

  • From AEP, we took a 12:15 pm flight from Buenos Aires to El Calafate, Argentina. You can either fly to El Calafate to get to Puerto Natales (the last town before Torres del Paine) or to Punta Arenas, Chile (which is further south than Puerto Natales). Two of my friends told me there was NOTHING to see in Punta Arenas whereas in El Calafate you at least have the Perito Moreno Glacier so I’m glad we stuck to El Calafate. Also, if you plan to visit more of Argentina after Torres del Paine, it’s cheaper to fly within Argentina than to fly to Chile and then back to Argentina. We arrived in El Calafate by 3:30 pm and grabbed a taxi to pick up our bus tickets for the next day’s trip to Puerto Natales. The bus terminal is about 15 min. away from the airport and costs like $10 USD to get there by taxi. We had to pick up our tickets the day before because they needed to verify our passport info for the border crossing. The bus office (Cootra) closes at 4:30 pm so keep this in mind if you choose to use them and fly into El Calafate before then! We stayed overnight at Hostal Gnomos, which is a 5 min. walk from the bus station.

  • The next day: woke up early to catch the 7:30 am bus to Puerto Natales. We got to the bus station by 7 am though as we heard horror stories of buses leaving without people if they were not on time. The Cootra bus was quite nice and comfortable. It’s a double decker bus (you can reserve seats in advance) and there is a bathroom on board for the 5-6 hour drive. The driver didn’t really speak English though but we figured things out. By the time we got to the border crossing it was about noon and the whole process took an hour. On the Argentina side, they just stamp your passport. On the Chile side, they stamp your passport but they also scan your luggage (we had no problem bringing in snacks or food—I think someone got fruit in—but from what I heard it really depends on the mood of the officers!). The Chile passport security check has bathrooms which was much needed after the long drive. The Argentina side does not, and going on the bus is not really fun. So after security check it was another 45 minutes to Puerto Natales. When we arrived, we grabbed a taxi for 2000 Chilean pesos to Hotel Vendaval (like $5 USD). I had gotten Chilean pesos before the trip at Chase Bank (they didn’t offer Argentian pesos though and all I took was $60 USD equivalent in Chilean pesos which was more than enough. I never needed Chilean pesos on the W trek, just for the taxis. We ended up using the money for dinners in town though but they take credit cards). Checked into Hotel Vendaval.

  • In the evening, we had our briefing at the office of Chile Nativo (literally a 2 min. walk from the hotel) and met our two tour guides, the rest of our tour group (10 people in total!) and got the details of the trip.

  • The next day: got picked up at 6:30 am on Friday morning, November 9, 2018 for the hiking trip of a lifetime!!!

Other Info

Other resources that really helped me for the trip:

  • This website someone recommended on Trip Advisor was amazingly helpful to check out the weather forecast in Torres del Paine: www.mountain-forecast.com. Just be sure to pick the lowest altitude and convert it to Fahrenheit if needed. I checked the forecast every day for a week before arrival and it was 90% spot on in predicting the weather we would be having in an unpredictable place.

  • REI. I love this store. I know I’m late to the game but I grew up as a city slicker. I never grew up camping or being in the outdoors! But REI and the people who work there were wonderful resources for me in terms of what gear I needed for this trip. I got my backpack, trekking poles, jackets, windproof pants, blister bandaids, everything here. I’ll do a post later on the gear I got.