It is quite possible to do this trip independently, but don’t expect it to be significantly cheaper than organised tours. I did look at a few of the tour companies (companies like Intrepid who offer tours with more of an independent feel to them), but dismissed them as too expensive. However Patagonia is expensive (Argentina generally isn’t cheap).
This way I did get to pick and choose what I wanted to do though, rather than follow somebody else’s itinerary.
I still haven’t calculated the exact cost of the three-week trip (in that way that people don’t open bank statements if they know they are in debt; I don’t want to face it). However prices are rising so fast in Argentina right now that any guide is likely to be out of date with prices within a short time anyway.
Finding budget accommodation was often a bit of an challenge. I stayed in hostels but camping would get the cost down further if you’re ok with that, however this body does not camp anymore.
I was also carrying more luggage than I would have liked, because this is a small part of a much longer trip. If I were doing this again I would make it a circular tour out of Buenos Aires and leave my wheelie bag behind.
Anyway here’s my itinerary for three weeks between Buenos Aires and Santiago, plus most importantly what I’d do differently now I know.
First stop: Puerto Madryn (post here).
22 hours from Buenos Aires on a bus, or you can get flights if you want to save time. Must-sees are the penguins, whales, sea lions and wildlife generally (depends on the time of year what is available). I spent 5 days here; 4-5 days is probably about right to see the main things; you could do it in 3 if you’re really organised. Good seafood restaurants too, plus a beach.
2. Bariloche (post here) ‘the Switzerland of Argentina’.
Quite do-able with an overnight bus from Puerto Madryn. It has some great hiking opportunities, lakes and boat trips. I spent 6 days here. If I were doing it again I would stay less time here, maybe just 2 nights, and then move on to El Bolson for the rest of the time.
3. El Bolson (post here)
El Bolson is a more laid back backpacker-friendly place an hour or so away from Bariloche. Same great views and less of the touristy stuff.
4. Next stop El Calafate (post here).
I flew in because I couldn’t face another long bus journey; it is a long way by road. I spent 4 days here; the high cost of accommodation did limit me somewhat. It makes a great base for exploring the glacier park.
5. El Chalten
If I were doing this trip again I would definitely stop off at El Chalten for 2-3 days next. It is a small town with a handful of hostels, mainly aimed at the backpacking/hiking community. I did it as a day trip from El Calafate, but it was a long day and I would rather have stayed overnight and enjoyed some more of the walks the next day.
For completists you can then go on to Ushuaia, ‘the end of the world’. I opted not to do this, as I had already spent way too much money and Ushuaia is not cheap. Transport costs and hotels there (there didn’t seem to be too many budget options) plus the cost of food that has to be shipped all that way would have easily added another $500-700 onto my budget. It’s a long way and certainly at this point I couldn’t face another long bus journey. It is mostly a stopping off point for cruises to Antartica, however I do understand the urge to complete the circuit and not leave one thing undone.
Although there was nothing there I particularly wanted to see, I did feel disappointed with myself afterwards, for not spending the money and making the extra bit of effort.
I spent the final 4 days of this 3-week trip in Mendoza before taking the picturesque bus journey from Mendoza into Santiago.
If I were doing it again I would tag a final two days on at Uspallata, which is en route for Santiago. I took a day trip around there travelling from Mendoza and there was so much else I could have done, from hiking the Aconcagua park or rafting in the nearby rivers. You can, like me, do this on day trips from Mendoza, but Uspallata has some nice little hostals/b&bs of its own, and when you’ve had enough you are right on the bus route to Santiago.