My friend and I are planning a trip in January to Patagonia--unfortunately, I'm having trouble finding a guidebook that focuses on this region and does it well. The initial plan (not yet booked) is to start in Punta Arenas, but is that the best idea? I would be coming from Ushuaia (following an Antarctic cruise) and my friend would be coming from the US, so she's able to fly anywhere. If we do start in Punta Arenas, I'll probably take the bus there from Ushuaia, but maybe we should start somewhere in Argentina?
We are interested in scenery, mild hiking (i.e. not climbing), and wildlife. To be honest I'm not particularly educated about what there is to do down there, how best to organize logistics, possibilities of including both countries in a reasonable time frame, etc. Any assistance is welcome!
The world is full of guidebooks on this region, but they are full of errors. But not so much as to keep you from getting a good idea of what there is to see and do and where and how to see and do it.
There is scenery and mild hiking at the Argentine national park at Lapataia (Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego) to the west of Ushuaia. In fact you could spend a couple of days in the area in and around Ushuaia, ranging from that park in one direction and visiting Harberton in the other. There are enough tour offerings to make your head swim.
The bus ride from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas is fine. It may take as much as two hours to get through the frontier formalities at San Sebastián. The scenery is good at first in southern Tierra del Fuego but as you get further north the monotony of the open plains and the wind knocking the bus around will lull you to sleep. The silly Argentines have placed signs everywhere about their pretending to own the Falkland Islands, so that should provide some comic relief on their side of the island. If the Falklands topic does come up, remind the Argie hosts about their 100 percent effective genocide against the native Selknam indians, and that, too, will be good for laughs.
If you insist upon staying in Argentina, the Perito Moreno glacier and nearby glacier/ice museum near Calafate are definitely worthwhile, and remind all the world that for their many flaws, the argies are still better at tourism than their hillbilly chilean neighbours. Ask the locals about how the criminal prosecution of their former president is coming along (she has large holdings in Calafate and is generally believed to have used them for large scale money laundering -- remember that this is the Argentina of always). The topic is certain to be good for more laughs. You can book directly from Ushuaia to travel by bus to Calafate and avoid for the time being the visit to Punta Arenas. By the time you get to Calafate you will have had enough of Argentine bus travel. If not, you can take another bus to El Chaltén, and their free national park with excellent mild hiking and more spectacular scenery.
That is a start. The interwebs are full of information about how to accomplish what was outlined above. For part 2, if you still want more Patagonia, you can think about getting back on those buses and heading for the Chilean side, and taking in Torres del Paine national park, which besides possessing splendid scenery, also sports the sort of weather that often keeps you from seeing the scenery, as well as the sort of national park amenities that one would have expected in southern Africa during the Boer War.
I'm pretty sure there is a footprint guide to Patagonia which focused on hiking it still has lot of yseful info. I would have your friend just meet you in ushuaia as its an interesting town with some nice places to see close by such as Tierra del Fuego. You can then maybe travel to Puerto Natales and then onto Torres des Paines, El. Calafate, El Chattanooga and bariloche. Plenty to do at each of these places. One of the issues you'll face going on a backpacking trip right after your cruise is that you'll have lots of cold weather gear you won't need and will just have to lug around. In this case consider shipping stuff home from ushuaia.
Thanks [VT member 65646], I did buy the Footprint guide to Argentina yesterday--it has a section on Chilean Patagonia as well--and based on that suggested that my friend come to Ushuaia. Is it possible to rent a car in Ushuaia and drive out to the north and west (including Torres del Paine)? That sounds like an interesting plan.
Avis rental car in Ushuaia
Conditions for Avis rental car involving crossing of the frontier into Chile (in Spanish of course)
Naturally there are additional charges for turning in the vehicle at another location
There are rental agencies other than Avis. Be aware that the argies drive like maniacs but are generally competent, while the chilenos are for the most part still learning to drive and park. Tourist drivers have a tendency to break windscreens from driving too close to other vehicles on those gravel roads.
Hiring a car is a good option but the tourist trail is pretty well set up and you might find it easier to bus it point to point and hire cars as you need them returning them to the same location.
You will find that you'll base yourself out of a few key towns and do most of you site seeing from each point. Also then when you hire a car you will usually be able to find more people to share the cost between.
Great, we will look into how to do the car rental (or multiple car rentals if necessary). Who knows, maybe it is easy to rent in Ushuaia and drop off somewhere else...I would imagine that most people would want to do the opposite!
No, you don't necessarily need to return rental cars to the origination point, so get that false idea out of the discussion. However, the policies and prices associated with returns to other locations will vary, so you will do well to carefully study the details.
Splitting the cost of a rental vehicle with another person may be a splendid idea. The degree of flexibility can also be priceless. For example, if you wished to visit Harberton, along the coast from Ushuaia, you'd quickly discover that there are no public buses going there, and you'd miss a chance to see the penguins nearby. In Torres del Paine national park you are positively handicapped by not having a rental/hired car, because there are no public intra-park buses. And the buses that do run to and from the park do not stop at some of the best parts of the park, such as the Lago Gray access in the northwestern part of the park. And that is something not to be missed (icebergs and views of the glacier).
Likewise, if you might wish to take advantage of wildlife photo opportunities, such as the flamingos in the ponds alongside the roadways, you're not likely to get the bus driver to stop for you. This region is very rich in bird life so be prepared in the camera department (something like 400 species of birds down here, ranging from condors to parrots, owls, and woodpeckers).
If you do rent a vehicle, here is some advice: insist on and inspect that the tyres are in good condition, and when traveling don't let your tyre pressure drop below required limits. The tyres on rental vehicles down here tend to not be the best. A flexing tyre with low inflation can quickly disintegrate, particularly if you are on a gravel road and don't immediately notice the effects of the lower pressure. Remember that much of this region is outside of cell phone coverage so even if you do have the sometimes-optional "auto club roadside emergency service" you might not be able to contact that service easily. Which leads us to the subject of a rental cell phone. Some of the car rental agencies can provide cell phone/Smartphone rental as an option (assuming you don't bring your own) and that will increase your flexibility still further by being able to call ahead for reservations and whatnot.
Thanks again Errata--we'll sort out what we want to do and then contemplate the logistics of buses/cars for each place. As to driving in this region, after 3 weeks of driving very sparsely populated Namibia's gravel and sand roads last May, I feel pretty good about my chances. I will remember your advice on tire checking. If we run into any issues, we will have usable cell phones for when there is cell service, and our pretty faces and charmingly bad Spanish for when it is not! :-)
I'll probably be working in Puerto Natales at the time of your travels so plan to bring those pretty faces and bad Spanish here and we will investigate the better cappuccino and eating places, while making mid-course corrections for your next stops.