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Patagonia — the first thing I usually get in conversations is that it's a great place to experience nature at its finest, but far away and probably (too) expensive. Here's the thing: you may have to cover some ground to get there, but it most definitely does not have to cost you lots of money. In fact, I spent around a week and a half in Alaska this past spring, and a week-and-a-half in Patagonia this fall (spring down there). In short, Patagonia cost me less than half of what Alaska cost, and I found getting around to be much more straightforward!
To get to Patagonia, I booked flights out of the Washington, DC (DCA) to Punta Arenas (PUQ) for 25,000 Delta SkyMiles + $12.80 in taxes and fees with the now usual free cancellation that comes with Delta award flights. I also was able to access Delta SkyClubs along the way in DC and in Atlanta, using the SkyTeam Elite Plus status that I earned by matching from my mid-tier status in another alliance to the new Italian airline ITA.
Since only domestic flights serve southern Patagonia (on both the Argentinian and Chilean sides), my last leg was on LATAM, with the first two legs being on Delta. Due to Delta's dynamic pricing, when the long-haul flight (Atlanta to Santiago in this case) is on Delta metal, the prices can be all over the place. For reference, Last year I flew from Brazil to Florida for around 24,000 SkyMiles on Delta metal, but on other dates the price was double or triple that.
So, point of the matter is; I first booked a different routing for 25,000 SkyMiles that had me on LATAM's JFK to Santiago flight. But as often happens, that flight suffered a schedule change about a month before departure, and the Delta agent was more than happy to change me to the ATL to Santiago flight on Delta. In short: always keep track of your flight itineraries, and if there is a significant schedule change or cancellation, that means you can further change your itinerary to your liking or cancel for free. If you don't enough points/miles to take advantage of deal like that, no worries, we've also found awesome cash fares to Patagonia for less than $600, and we're sure to find more. But enough about flights, let's learn about Patagonia!
Being in the Southern Hemisphere, wintertime in the United States means summertime in Patagonia. That said, be sure to research the yearly temperature averages of where you travel (that goes for anywhere) — summer in Punta Arenas often mean 50 degrees, windy, and partially cloudy. On the other hand summer in Bariloche (towards the north of Patagonia), could be 90 degrees and sunny.
My trip to Patagonia started in Punta Arenas (Chile), and ended in El Calafate (Argentina), meaning I was only in the southern part of Patagonia. Without a particular wintertime goal in mind, I'd recommend traveling between November and February to Southern Patagonia. On top of that, to avoid peak season prices, it could be wise to avoid December and January completely.
Prices are trending back towards what they were pre-pandemic, but when I traveled there in November there were plenty of very affordable places to stay. Moreover, at this time last year, it wasn't as easy as it is now to travel to Chile or Argentina, and the number of travelers being received is still significantly lower than before the pandemic.
As far as COVID rules go, during my visit there were no longer any special rules in place in either Chile or Argentina. All National Parks and most of the tourist facilities were back in full swing, though the Chilean National Park guards were on strike for a part of my visit. It's always important to research this shortly before a trip, though, as they can come and go depending on the global situation. It's likely that next Summer will a lot more like it did before the pandemic.
Prices in Patagonia can differ massively between Argentina and Chile. For example, in Chile a night in a private room and bed and breakfast cost around $50 on average, and slightly more in Puerto Natales. In Argentina, slightly nicer private rooms cost around $25 a night.
In Chile, you can save some on accommodations by presenting your tourist entrance card to avoid paying the 19% tax on stays that locals pay. (this card is free when entering the country) Outside of that, some places may give a cash discount, but overall prices are pretty fixed in Chile, and it's far from being cheap — though still much cheaper than anywhere in the US.
In Argentina, you'll need to bring cash or look into cash withdrawal services that charge a decent exchange rate. The most important thing here is to avoid paying with foreign cards, and avoid using the "official" exchange rate at all costs. As a result of ongoing inflation in Argentina, there are two exchange rates — one set by the government, and one set by the actual value of the Argentinean Peso.
Tricky to understand? Think of it this way: during my trip the "official" exchange rate was $1 USD = 167 Argentinean Pesos. At the same exact time, the second exchange rate for cash was around $1 USD = 300 pesos, and Western Union was even offering a rate of $1 = 324 pesos. So if you're out at dinner and the bill is 5,000 pesos, which at the "official" rate would be nearly $30 USD — but I always traded dollars for pesos in cash, and thus that 5,000 peso dinner cost me about $16. That's nearly half the price!
The main costs incurred during my trip were for places to stay, food, transportation, and tours. As far as places to stay go, I booked before my trip and, unless you know someone in the area, would recommend you do the same, particularly during summer season. It's a good idea to check with anywhere you stay in Argentina to verify you can pay them in USD based on the second exchange rate, or pesos based on the official exchange rate — I found that most places preferred one of those options anyway and the standard is to pay when checking in.
As for transportation, buses are the standard (I never paid over $20 between two cities), though a car rental might make sense for larger groups. If you do plan to rent a car, keep in mind that one-way rentals are generally not a good available. Tours on the other hand, though sometimes the only way to see something, can add up pretty quickly in Patagonia. I wouldn't consider them a necessity, but if, for example, you want to visit an island full of penguins, you'll have to book one!
I took three tours in Patagonia — though there are hundreds of different ones out there, I chose these three because they meant I could easily get somewhere that I wouldn't get to without a tour. My first tour was to Isla Magdalena, a small, penguin-inhabited island near Punta Arenas. Since I was in Patagonia before peak season, there was only one company running this tour, and it cost $80 for a 6-hour tour. With no other way to see the island, I just considered it a splurge.
My second tour was a huge drive-through of the bucket-list famous Torres del Paine National Park, which cost me about $45. Normally it would be necessary to pay a park entrance fee of around $30 on top of that, but since the park guards were on strike, entrance was free. The only catch was that only tours were allowed to enter the park, and we had to stay on the road areas. The third tour I went on was a full-day to the Perito Moreno glacier on the Argentinean side, and this one cost nearly $100, but included a trek on and around the glacier, which can only be done with a certified tour guide. In all three cases, it's best to book your tours in person in Patagonia.
I spent about 10 days in Patagonia, but I'd recommend aiming for even more if you can make the time. A bare minimum for seeing the most visited sites in Southern Patagonia is about six days, but that would really be a whirlwind of travel, and you'd miss a lot still. Whatever amount of time you plan for, it'd be a shame to miss Buenos Aires on the way in or out — and Santiago for that matter, but Buenos Aires would be my pick if I had to choose between the two.
If you finish your Patagonia trip in Chile, there are good fares from most Patagonian airports to Chile — prices for Punta Arenas to Santiago start around $40. But if you finish Argentina, flight prices may be significantly more to Buenos Aires, so points and miles can become useful. I booked an Aerolineas Argentinas flight from El Calafate airport to Buenos Aires for 10,000 SkyMiles and about $6 in taxes and fees — the same flight was charging about $250 for cash fares.