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 However prices are rising so fast in Argentina right now that any guide is likely to be out of date with prices within a short time anyway.
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. Finding budget accommodation was often a bit of an ordeal.
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 what I’d do differently now.
- First stop: Puerto Madryn. 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, three if you’re really organized. Good seafood restaurants too, plus a beach
2. Next Bariloche ‘the Switzerland of Argentina’. Quite do-able with an overnight bus from Puerto Madryn. Has some great hiking opportunities, lakes and boat trips. I spent 6 days here. If I were doing it again I would stay maybe 2 nights here and the move on to …
3. El Bolson, a more laid back backpacker friendly place an hour or so away. Same great views and less of the touristy stuff.
4. Next stop El Calafate. I flew in because I couldn’t face another long bus journey and I spent 4 days here, mainly limited because of the cost of accommodation. It makes a great base for exploring the glacier park.
5. If I were doing this again I would definitely stop off at El Chalten for 2-3 days next. 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).
6. 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 $5-700 onto my budget. It’s a long way further on (if you’re from a small country the distances in Argentina will always surprise you) and certainly at this point I couldn’t face another long bus journey. It is, I think, 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.
7. I spent the final 4 days of this 3-week trip in Mendoza before taking the picturesque bus journey from Mendoza into Santiago.
8. 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/bnbs, and would make it a lot easier, and when you’ve had enough you are right on the bus route to Santiago.