In February of 2020, we traveled through Northwest Patagonia, including visits to Bariloche, San Martin de Los Andes, and Pucon. We had originally intended to begin this section from El Bolson, but had to amend our itinerary to fit in a last minute Antarctica deal. It’s always important to remain flexible!
For ideas on where to visit before Northwest Patagonia, read our blog: Nine Days in Southwest Patagonia.
- IVA Tax: In both Argentina and Chile, foreigners do not pay the IVA tax on hotels IF they pay with a foreign credit card. However, we have found that you must DEMAND that you not pay the IVA. Most hostels and hotels, no matter how friendly, will try to boost their rate by not mentioning it. Additionally, if you pay with a card, expect that they will offer their own made up conversion rate to boost the cost as well. We have usually found it impossible to argue against this one…
- Exchange Rates: In Argentina, Western Union continued to have the best exchange rate (see previous posts for explanation of the blue dollar); however, in Chile, your best bet will be to use a no foreign transaction fee credit card when possible. ATMs are plentiful, but they all charge a hefty fee for each withdrawal and limit you to 200,000 pesos (~$250 US). Note that many hostels will only accept cash, especially in smaller towns, so you should always have some cash.
- Expect everything to be more expensive than it says in online resources, even direct websites for activities, museums, etc. With recent inflation, costs have risen across the board in both Argentina and Chile. And…Patagonia is EXPENSIVE.
- Border Crossing: Some people have been surprised at how often we’ve chosen to cross the border thinking it would be difficult. It is not; the bus drivers are all helpful and will guide passengers swiftly through the process (unlike in Paraguay!). The only major downside is getting your passport filled too quickly. Transitioning to Chile is usually more difficult as they do not allow any produce, meat, or cheese across their border, so choose your bus snacks wisely. Additionally, they will give you a slip of paper labeled “PDI.” You need to keep this and turn it in when you exit the country.
- In Argentina, Spanish speakers use the “sh” sound for “y” and “ll.” In Chile, they use the “y” sound for “y” and “ll.” When traveling back and forth, it can become confusing to code switch this linguistic difference.
In Argentina and Chile, you will need a power converter. We travel with a Universal Converter and have found it helpful everywhere.
5:30pm Sailing Trip
We arrived in Bariloche the evening before this itinerary starts from Punta Arenas, Chile via Puerto Montt. After a long day of traveling, it was nice to have a later mid morning start on a tour with a local Airbnb Experience.
Our “treasure hunt” with Fito was a great experience. He took us on several hikes to viewpoints around the Chico Circuit, finishing at a craft brewery. It was a really nice way to learn about the area, especially because he is very knowledgeable about the local plants!
I put “treasure hunt” in quotes above because the idea of the tour was that we would be geocaching, but there was only one cache and he found it for us, lol.
The best part of this tour was that we met two new friends with whom we traveled for the next couple of weeks, Danny and Carl!
After our morning tour, we asked Fito to drop us off at the marina for a sailing tour on Lake Nahuel Huapi. We originally scheduled it for the following evening, but saw it was supposed to rain so rescheduled it for the afternoon. However, that day there was actually no wind, so we couldn’t really sail anyway! In any case, it was a fun way to get out on the lake and feel fancy with a charcuterie plate and wine with views.
After our ride, we actually didn’t have a good plan for getting back to Bariloche, since both tours took us to the Chico Circuit area. There are public buses in Bariloche that require the same SUBE cards that most Argentina cities use, but we didn’t have one yet! We tried our luck at thumbing it (common in Patagonia in touristy areas) and were successful within a minute! Some nice young men in town for church camp picked us up and took us back to the city, where we were given some lovely views of the city as night fell.
8:00am Breakfast/Buy Snacks/Buy Bus Cards
9:00am Take Bus 55 to Cerro Catedral
10:00am Begin Refugio Frey Hike
6:00pm Bus Back to Town/Dinner/Buy Snacks for Bus Ride Tomorrow
After meeting our new friends Carl and Danny the day before and hearing about their wonderful hike to Refugio Grey, we changed our original plan (biking around the Chico Cicuito – I mean, we saw the whole thing the day before anyway…and…umm….we kind of like to hike!)
So, after breakfast, we set out to buy SUBE Cards so we could take Bus 55 to the starting point for the hike, Cerro Catedral. However, finding SUBE cards proved more challenging than expected because the whole city was apparently having a shortage. After trying ten different stores, we finally found one and boarded the 55 bus, which takes about 45 minutes to get to the Cerro Catedral ski resort. Pro Tip: We boarded the bus on the eastern side of town and got seats but most people got on in the central part of town. The bus was crowded and at least 15 people had to stand the entire distance.
Upon arrival, we made a beeline for the chairlift office because our plan was to hike the loop (#2 option), but the young woman suggested that we hike the traditional out and back since it was so cloudy it wouldn’t be worth it to hike the loop. She saved us about $30!
The trek is 24 kilometers (or 15 miles) round trip. The time suggested is 8 hours, but we completed the hike in 5 hours, even stopping for lunch and a beer at the top. Keep in mind that we are fast hikers. The trek is rated “easy” but I would call it “moderate” because it is very steep in places!
Along the route, you pass by beautiful fields of flowers, river valleys, and streams.
Once you near the top, the trees falls away revealing spectacular mountains en route to the Grey Refuge, situated just inside a cirque lake. Camping is allowed at the hut and is popular with many climbers. You can also buy beer and pizza!
Once we climbed back down the mountain, we caught the 4:10pm bus back to town (buses leave Cerro Catedral every hour at 10 past). This time we had to stand, however, because it was again very crowded!
Once back in town, we explored the actual town a little. It is full of tourist shops and people, but a very cute town indeed. We found dinner somewhere Google recommended before heading back to our room for a much needed shower and rest.
7:30am Breakfast/Ask Where to Catch Taxi
8:00am Check Out/Taxi to Bus Station/Message Airbnb Host
9:00am Bus to San Martin/Enjoy Views of the 7 Lakes During the Ride
12:40pm Arrive in San Martin/Walk to Airbnb
1:00pm Walk to Mirador Bandurrias y La Islita
To be honest, we actually spent two days in San Martin, but we used it as a refuge for a bit of rest after some long days…and super chill San Martin was perfect for that! However, everything we did could be done in one day, so this is that itinerary.
From Bariloche, there is a 3 hour bus to San Martin de los Andes that travels along the 7 Lakes Road, a famously beautiful ride. Pro Tip: Book your bus tickets well in advance through Busbud.com so you can get the front seats on the second level for the views!
Upon arrival in San Martin, you will first notice the impeccable landscaping, especially the roses! They are everywhere. The entire town is just super cute.
We honestly can’t recommend that many things to really do here because tours were not readily available online and most hikes are not within walking distance. Renting a car is not a bad idea if you have some time to explore the area. There are tour agencies in town, but they don’t have a web presence and when we went to visit, they were all closed for siesta.
However, there is one hike you can do right from town: Mirador Bandurrias and La Islita. The hike is neither difficult nor long (about 7km round trip if you only do an out and back from town) and much of it is actually on a road. Plan to take a bathing suit and a towel if you want to swim in the lake at La Islita at the end. You can also camp there!
Our favorite thing about this hike was finding a small restaurant in the middle of nowhere in a local farmer’s yard! We had the place to ourselves and the food was delicious! You can find it by following signs from the road once you’re on the hike. If it seems like there can’t possibly be a restaurant in the direction of the signs, then you’re on the right path!
4:00am Wake Up/Breakfast
5:00am Walk to Bus Station
6:00am Bus to Pucon
11:00am Arrive in Pucon/Walk to Lodging/Drop Bags
12:00pm Lunch/Check in with Summit Chile/Explore
4:30pm Rafting Tour with Danny and Carl
5:00pm Return from Tour/Shower/Dinner
Our next stop in Northwest Patagonia was one of our favorite places on our entire trip so far: Pucon, Chile’s Adventure Tourism Capital.
The bus to Pucon from San Martin leaves EARLY, but the five hour journey is another delight for the eyes, so be sure to book your bus tickets early to the the front top level seats!
Upon arrival in Pucon, our first priority was to head to the Summit Chile office to ensure that our scheduled Villarica Volcano climb was set to go for the following morning in case of expected foul weather conditions. Then, we checked into our hostel, where our friends Danny and Carl from Bariloche were waiting for us!
Before heading out for an afternoon of rafting with the boys, we took a spin around the city and grabbed some lunch. Pucon is a busy, touristy, but very cute city. The streets are lined with tour companies (over 300), restaurants, and gear stores. There is also a black beach very popular with locals and tourists alike for sunbathing, jetskiing, parasailing, etc.
Before arriving in Pucon, we booked our rafting experience online through getyourguide.com. The price seemed very comparable to what I had seen online for other tour companies and they had an afternoon slot available. I was worried we wouldn’t be able to find a tour in time upon arrival. However, with 300 tour companies, you can always find something to do when you want to do it…and even haggle the price down. Pro tip: Book your outings in Pucon in person. Additionally, other companies offer photography as part of the purchase, but the company GetYourGuide booked us with (Patagonia Experience) did not.
All that being said, we had a great time on the Class IV rapids and our guide was super funny! We probably went over 10 death defying rapids, along with several other smaller ones on our journey. We started by suiting up, learning a few techniques, and away we went! In the middle of the ride, the river crosses over some extreme Class VI rapids, so we had to walk around then jump off a cliff to get back to the boats!
4:00am Wake/Breakfast/Pack Snacks
6:00am Arrive/Wait for Summit Trek
Climbing Villarica Volcano was primary reason we wanted to visit Pucon. First of all, we got to climb an active volcano. Second of all, we got to slide back down it!
The day began early with a 6am meetup at the office to get our gear prepped for the day: ice axe, gloves, helmets, boots, etc. We were not excited about wearing boots, especially someone else’s, but it was necessary for the crampons. Pro tip: Wear a pair of liner socks. Reuben got a nasty blister but I didn’t.
Next, we drove out to the Villarica National Park as the sun rose to begin the trek up the mountain. Upon arrival, they will give you the option to take the chairlift or hike up the first part. We had already discussed this and decided to walk, but then caved to the pressure of the guides who insisted it was better to take the chairlift. A few folks chose to walk, and I watched them regretfully, feeling as though I was missing out on something. However, as I rode the chairlift over their heads as they climbed a steep, ugly trail with thick dusty dirt, I let go of that regret. There was still plenty of climbing and that group had to push hard until they caught up to us…in someone else’s boots!
The first part of the climb is just on a rocky soil. Our lead guide, with 30 years experience climbing mountains all over the world, was very strict about pacing, yelling at the man behind me to keep up (he had kept stopping to take photos). I appreciated this. He said, “pace is sacred.”
Once we reached the glacier, we got out our ice axes and put on crampons for the long snow covered trek up the mountain. Another thing I appreciated about our guides is that they took us away from the MASSES of people also climbing the mountain.
Once we got to the false summit, the terrain became rocky again with fresh volcanic material from the 2015 eruption, so we ate a snack, took off our crampons, grabbed our gas masks, and continued to the very top.
The top was spectacular! The volcano actually smokes and grumbles…scary!
But the scariest and most thrilling part of the Villarica adventure is going down: on your butts! At first, one of our guides pointed to the sliding tube and said we were going down that…and I laughed, thinking it was a joke. It wasn’t! It seemed straight down. However, they give you good training on how to break with your ice axe and hold your body, so after the initial shock, you adjust your fear levels. The sliding lasts for about an HOUR and is actually quite an abdominal workout!
When the sliding is done, you still have to finish the hike back down (no chairlift this time) through the thick dusty dirt to the parking lot. But, as we have learned, Patagonian hikes tend to always end with beer, even if it’s just a man selling beers from a cooler!
The typical Villarica Summit gets you back to town about 3pm, so we had plenty of time to rest and shower before going out to dinner with our friends Danny and Carl!
10:30am Drop Off Laundry
After the volcano climb, we didn’t want to tax ourselves too much, so had a bit of a down day with only one activity scheduled, aside from taking our laundry to be cleaned. For travelers like us, who tend to stay on the go, laundry has been challenging since the majority of towns we visit only have laundry services with 24 hour turn arounds. So, here in Pucon, we took advantage of our longer stay to get some much needed cleaning done!
We also wanted to take advantage of the numerous adventures offered in this fun fun city and landed on canyoning (AKA repelling down waterfalls). I had looked into this activity through several companies, most of which take you on 2 different rapels down 22m and 12m waterfalls. So, we decided to book our trip with Summit Chile, since they were so fantastic on our volcano climb. I didn’t exactly realize that we would be repelling down an 80 METER WATERFALL (that’s 262 feet for you Americans…almost as tall as the Statue of Liberty!).
The journey began with a drive out to the Salto el Claro Waterfall, where we suited up and received instructions on how to belay ourselves over the cliff.
As we approached the edge, I saw how far down 80 meters really was and started to panic. Carl and Danny bravely opted to go first and second…and then I was third and Reuben fourth!
Carl went over smoothly, sliding backwards off the cliff then disappearing!
After you slide off, there are about 10 meters of rock to walk down and the guides ask you to take your hands off the rope for a picture…I am barely smiling in this photo I was so scared. I refused to take my hands off the rope…but Reuben didn’t!
However, after the ten meters, you are then hanging and swinging around in circles about 70 meters in the air as you get blasted with the spray from the waterfall…and it’s scary as bleep!
But, we all survived and had a great time!
7:30am Check Out/Store Bags
8:00am Buy Bus Tickets
8:30am Take Bus to Huerquehue National Park
9:30am Day Hike on Tres Lagos Trail
2:10pm Take Bus Back to Pucon/Pick Up Laundry
3:30pm Return to Hostel/Shower/Pick Up Gear
7:50pm Night Bus to Valparaiso
Another great day (or two) adventure in Pucon is visiting the Huerquehue National Park. Many people choose to overnight there at there many camping spots, but we opted to just make it a day trip.
You can buy bus tickets at the Carburgua bus depot (it’s on Google maps) at any time, but you can’t get a guaranteed seat on a specific bus. Pro tip: Go early and wait near the ticket office where the bus or buses will pull up so you can get on first. During the busy season, they will have two buses. Don’t worry…everyone will get on, but some will have to stand. if you have camping gear, they stow it in the back. Below is the view of all the folks waiting to get on a bus after we were already seated!
Once you arrive, make a beeline for the park office to pay for your passes. The line will be long…
There aren’t many hiking options in the park, but the best day option for most people is the Tres Lagos Hike, which we also opted to do in order to make it back in time for the 2:10pm bus back to town.
Although there were many people in the park, we quickly got ahead of the crowd and were able to have a fairly isolated nature experience! The trail climbs fairly steeply to the three lakes and then returns on the same route. Once at the top, you can choose to do a small loop or large loop of the lakes. We opted for the small loop to make sure we had enough time to take the fairly disappointing side trails to waterfalls on the way back down.
After the hike and stop for lunch by one of the lakes, we barely made it back in time for the bus, but we made it! From there, it is an hour back to town, where we picked up laundry, took showers at our hostel, and ate dinner before a night bus to Valparaiso, Chile!