From El Chalten, Argentina to Santiago, Chile, February, 2017
Vicki and Mark are halfway through a 2 month trip to Argentina, Chile and Peru by suitcase. You can contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org. Mark's blog has lots of pictures roadeveron.blogspot.com Vick's practical guides to their travels is at their website theroadgoeseveron.com
One of the things we had planned to do was to buy our airfares on the South American pass in connection with our flights on American Airlines to Buenos Aires and back from Lima. I had read that this was difficult, but then who believes what you read on the internet! I spent two months wasting my time by phone and email with LATAM who is American's partner for South America. Basically I finally found out you need to send them the flights, times, and dates you want, then anywhere from 2 to 15 days later they send you the cost. I had to request several times for the different flights to be priced separately, and they never did give me anything but a lump sum for taxes and fees. So it was almost impossible to compare with their published prices. In most cases it looked like you saved no money, and I could never get them to tell me what the advantage was to doing the pass route. The same penalties applied for changes etc. Finally, late in the game, I just used Google flights, and we ended up with some flights on LATAM, some on Sky and some on Avica, depending on times and prices. Most were pretty reasonable given how late we were in making reservations. I will include the cost in my write up. I did find out that you want to make the flights to Cusco, Peru and to and from Puerto Natales, Chile as far in advance as you can, or the prices go up astronomically.
In El Chalten, Argentina we stayed at the Hosteria de Paridiso--$118 a night for six nights. A nice place to stay and within walking distance to bus station, etc. If you stay up on the hill, you would be closer to trails but have a climb to town. We had planned a longer stay in “the trekking capital of Argentina” in order to do some major day-hikes with backpacks in preparation for hiking the W in Chile. The weather is always iffy in the mountains—even more so with all the glaciers. Of the six days we had 2 with rain and wind, 1 cloudy with wind--no mountain views, and three windy with partial sun. The ranger told us this was the first two days of back to back good weather of the summer. Yikes! For a trekking capital we found that there were only 3 main day-hike trails into the mountains. The trail of the 3 lakes with its vertical climb at the end was a miss. We did enjoy the trail to Lago Agostina—which we actually did twice but only a little more than half each time—about 8 miles for us round trip. The wind died away in the foothills, the path was good, and the views spectacular. We also took the short, somewhat steep hike to the Mirador of the Condors for views of the town and mountains. And we were rewarded with multiple condor sightings, too! We ate twice at La Tapera, where the steak was amazing--but order it medium rare or you will get well done. Very popular, so go at lunch or 6:30 or so. Be sure to request the secret formula rebecca liquor after dinner—free and divine. We also ate at the Patagonia Rebelde to try their famous meals in a cast iron disk. Half a chicken with orange, onions and carrots in a thin broth—frankly, not much to savor, but the decorations are a hoot. All revolutionary posters and propaganda. The real stuff. (After hiking the W trail, I now wish we had pushed ourselves further to get closer to Mount Fitzroy—it is a truly dramatic peak. Also perhaps the “vertical part” at the end of one of the hikes might only have been strenuous rather than technical. Assessing trail difficulty from a guide book is not as good as talking to a ranger.)
It is only a three hour bus ride to El Calafate ($30) where the airport for the region is located. Several couples we met rented a car there and then drove themselves to El Chalten (and to a couple of the tiny towns nearby) and to Glacier Perito Merino. Whereas El Chalten is basically a small town with lots of tourist accommodations, El Calafate is a full blown tourist town with lots of restaurants, artisanal and other shops and the headquarters of the Glacier National Park, with dioramas, films, exhibits. We stayed at Hosteria Posada Josh, where the owner spoke excellent English and was very helpful. ($72) It is also fairly close to town and a walkable kilometer or so to the bus station. The Hosteria has a small, family run restaurant where we had hot sandwiches one night. But we also walked to the other end of town for a fancy steak lunch at La Tablita. A beautiful place with attentive service and again great, great steak for $20 (1 entre enough for 2 with additional sides.
By far the main reason for going to El Calafate is to see the Glacier. Mark and I have seen, walked on, and witnessed calving at glaciers on five continents now, and this was really first rate. The bus trip to the park takes 1½ hours and you have about 4.5 hours there. We decided not to do a boat trip until we had been out on the 4 kilometers of metal catwalks that face the glacier. For us that was a good decision as we had plenty of opportunity to witness some super calving. The boat really doesn't get any closer than the catwalks do—but to a different part of the glacier. It can only stay at the face maybe 15 minutes, so your opportunity is slight. The decks are packed and it runs about $30. The catwalks are fine walking, lots of steps, but some ramps too, so parts are doable if you can't do that many steps. It is chilly out there so even on a sunny day, take a jacket, hat and gloves. There is a snack bar and small gift shop. Entrance to the park is $25. If you are really into glaciers, you may want to do a tour instead of the public bus. One of the more extensive tours takes a different boat and goes up to the Uppsala Glacier as well. There are also tours to take you trekking in crampons on the glacier. One fellow we met told us he had tried to sign up for the longer glacier walk and was told at age 53, he was too old!
After two days in El Calafate we took the 4 hour bus ride to Puerto Natales, Chile ($35). It's four hours on the bus plus whatever time it takes to clear customs. For us, two hours, and you had better have rain gear, since much of that waiting is outside. No snack shops here but there are bathrooms. Be warned whether busing or flying into Chile they allow no meat, dairy, vegetables or fruit and you have to declare even cookies or salt and pepper. Lots of folks on our bus were wolfing down their sandwiches and tackling their apples while waiting in line.
Puerto Natales is a fairly large but very run down place compared to Bariloche and El Calafate in Argentina. It was a meat processing center in the distant past. Now it has tourism from the Torres del Paine National Park which is located about 90 minutes north. We were surprised at how few camping and gift shops there were. We stayed at the Hostel Nikos Adventure II for $62 with bath for 3 nights, then stored our luggage there for the trek, and returned for one night. The breakfast was fresh juice, cereal, bread, yogurt, even an egg if you wanted. We also like having an available refrigerator for lunch meat, soda, etc. Hosterias (small hotels) do not have refrigerators available so you pretty much have to eat out for lunch and dinner. We did find peanut butter in Puerto Natales to resupply!!!!!
So we were there to hike the W. Any picture you have ever seen of Patagonia (which is the entire southern area of both Chile and Argentina) shows a picture of the famous Torres—Towers left standing after all the softer rock has eroded from wind and rain from the volcanic cores. You can just go to see the Torres on day trips with or without hikes. But I (Mark was willing, but not enthusiastic) wanted to hike the W trek which for most folks, younger and/or in better shape, means 4 nights and 5 days backpacking near the Torres, but including going up to glaciers and other sites. Reading about doing it was extremely confusing and if you want further advice on planning this hike or the longer one (7 days) that circles the Torres, send me an email. Anyway the park now requires reservations for every night in camping areas or refugios (dorms). The demand is probably twice the supply so you must make reservations far in advance. Our 2 months in advance gave us few choices and meant we had to carry almost all our equipment with us as all the rental equipment in the park was booked. It turned out that because of the reservation system fewer folks could go, and so lots of equipment was available in Puerto Natales. In the past that had not been the case. But renting in PN means carrying!
Anyway one of the things we did in P N was attend the 3 pm free hour long seminar at the Erratic Rock Hostel. It was well worth going to to get the last of our questions answered and hear from someone who has done the trek several times. She said she carries a 52 lb. pack with only 1 change of clothes but likes to cook big dinners. We planned on around 20 lbs for me and 24 or so for Mark. Bare bones and relying on eating less and buying some meals and food at the refugios even though it is triple the normal price.
We learned a lot on the hike and were lucky to have had pretty good weather. It turns out that unless you actually hike up to the Mirador (viewpoint at the lake) that you can only see about half of the Towers. Strong hikers (including older folks) stay at the hotel, refugio, or campground in the valley on the east end of the park (Central Torres) and hike up and down in a day. The park says this is an 8 hour round trip. We did it in two stages—spending the night at the Refugio Chilleno half way up. First afternoon took us 3 hrs for the 2 hour hike. Second day took us over 10 hours with lunch for the rest of the way up and then all the way down to the valley. We are slow, but it is strenuous—not technical, and certainly a guide is not needed. Elevation gain from the valley is about 2000 feet. If you decide to do it—try to get two nights at Chilleno since the weather is such a factor. You may not want to be there at dawn with the young kids, but the earlier in the morning you reach the Towers the better chance that the afternoon clouds won't obscure your view. Be prepared for sticker shock at the refugios. Chilleno was $120 for 2 bunks in a dorm with just mattresses. (no cooking allowed) At Camping Cuernos we paid $180 for a wooden tent platform for our own tent and the required full board for 2. Dinner was vegetable broth, mashed potatoes with 2 tablespoons of ground beef, and a small caramel pudding. But for older folks we decided buying food along the way was much better than carrying it.
After seven days (the last one in constant light rain,) we were back at the hostel in Puerto Natales. We had wanted a rest day after the hike but Sky airlines only flies out every other day to Santiago. Their price of $133 was less than half of what LATAM wanted, so no rest day. Luckily, we suffered no delays on the hike. Really it would be prudent to plan for that extra day.
In Santiago, we did get some rest. We stayed at the Hotel Foresta in a small suite for $68 a night. Clean, good breakfast, some street noise, but very good location. We had no trouble walking to the excellent Pre-Columbian museum ($7), the Central Market (where all the great fish restaurants are located,) the Cathedral, etc. Taxi to hotel was $30. With good wifi, I was able to finish making hotel reservations for the rest of the trip. Mark also took a one day excursion ($115) out of town and across the Argentine border again to see Anaconga mountain—the tallest in the world outside of the Himalayas. Also in Santiago, we washed, cleaned and sprayed all our worldly goods to get rid of the bed bugs we picked up, we think, in the most expensive lodgings of the trip in El Chalten. We started this clean up before our trek, but dealing with these buggers on the road is super difficult. I intend to write a separate article on the whole bed bug issue for next month's WWT. By then, we should know if our current efforts have been successful. Bedbugs remind us how much we would rather trave in our own RV!
Unfortunately, we had two scam incidents on our last day in Santiago. We decided to go to the other end of town to visit the practically brand new and largest shopping mall in South America. It was over a mile walk and about half way there the 90 degree heat got to us and we hailed a cab—a very reasonable cost of $5. After having lunch and looking around, we got in another cab just after 4 pm. In about 7 minutes I noticed the meter had jumped to the equivalent of $21 US! I called the driver's attention and he pointed to his watch that it was on nighttime setting. I said no—too much and asked him to let us out. We argued, but he wouldn't budge and claimed he didn't speak English. Mark pulled out 2-- 10,000 Peso notes to pay him. He quickly palmed them and showed us two 1000 notes that he motioned we had given him!! The whole affair ended up costing us about US $45 for a $5 ride. Mark did get his license number. We filed a report with the police which cost us a long walk and another couple of hours—but hopefully, there is a record of this crook.
After getting back to the hotel on the metro (you can buy individual tickets without a card), the clerk accosted us with a supplemental bill of US $277!! I whipped out my phone and showed him that we had paid in full to Hotels.com. His English speaking counterpart said that that wasn't the official price and we must pay the difference. He had a printed receipt from Expedia showing the hotel had been paid $268. We had paid about $362. He expected us to pay the inflated official price plus cover the commission the booking agency had kept. We again refused. In our room, I had an online chat with Hotels.com—they had no one there who could call hotel in Spanish but said they would send an email. Of course, we worried all evening that they would grab our luggage and try to get the money out of us. Next morning, however, the other two clerks said nothing when we checked out. Very nerve racking! We were interviewed at the airport by Chile tourism and told the woman about our taxi experience. She suggested Uber next time. We hadn't realized they were in Santiago. Our guidebook hadn't mentioned them. By the way, we used Lonely Planet in Argentina and though I am not a fan of it in European countries, it was really helpful. We used Footprints in Chile and Peru. Didn't like it much at all. Maps are way too small and what to do and how to see things not at all clear.
We caught a cab for $8 to the bus station (keeping the money well in hand, counting it out loud before we gave it to the driver) and for $9 took the 2 hour bus ride to Valparaiso. Another $8 taxi got us from the bus station to the La Nona B&B. Located in the heart of the UNESCO recognized district, La Nona turned out just fine. The owner spoke excellent English, the breakfast was excellent, the room only okay but clean—this is an old part of town. Another plus was access to a small kitchen with refrigerator so we could eat a few meals in. Our first afternoon we did the two hour Tours 4 Tips and loved learning about the city. We could never have done what he showed us on our own. Valparaiso is extremely quirky, completely hilly, and justly famous for the incredible street art murals. Our second day we took the metro to the next door seaside resort of Villa del Mar—only$3 rt but basically like every other seaside resort you see from Spain to Turkey to even the US. Easily a skip. As for eating out, Mark particularly enjoyed the shell fish at the Bote Salvividas at the port. I had the worst steak ever—so skip it if you are not a sea food person.
Getting back to the Santiago airport involved paying the B and B owner $15 for a drive to the bus station, busing to the Pajaritos station on the outskirts of Santiago and then the shuttle bus to the airport($2.50) for our flight to Lima. But still we thought the side trip to Valparaiso definitely worth it. The city metro also runs from Pajaritos terminal so you could save a good bit of money by taking the shuttle to there and then the metro instead of a cab to get from the airport into Santiago.