50 Days and 11 Tips: A Backpacking Itinerary for Argentina and Chile

 | Teaching House Nomads Blog

After spending a full month backpacking in the high altitudes of Bolivia, I was ready to breathe normally again. So, my solo adventures continued as I headed for Argentina and Chile with the intention of border-hopping between the two…and I picked up a few travel tips along the way, which I’m thrilled to share.

Day 1-2: Desert Delights

Backpacking through Argentina and Chile is a great way to witness their beautiful natural wonders and landscape
Photo by Shaun McDonald

I dropped out of the Bolivian salt flats and into the desert border town of San Pedro, which is nestled in the Atacama Desert, the world’s driest non-polar desert. One of the Australians in our group was a photography and space nut, and he talked our group into going on a star-gazing outing. We signed up for a tour with SPACE, owned by Frenchman Alain.

His passion for space is contagious and he has an amazing gift for explaining the night sky in layman’s terms. The Atacama’s dry climate is ideal for spotting stars and planets. But the real star was the moon. While I’ve been stargazing before, I’ve never before seen a brilliant full moon like this pop over the horizon, lighting up the desert and blotting out everything else in the sky.

Tip #1: For US$33, SPACE (http://www.spaceobs.com/) offers a unique experience, free transport, delicious hot drinks, and extra coats/blankets for the cold

Day 3-8: Mecca of Food and Wine

When the sun rose, we crossed the border into Salta, Argentina. I was surprised at how different Chile and Argentina seemed with just one border hop. The Spanish, the food, the appearance and attitude of people were all noticeably distinct.

Trying delicious food and wine is an important part of the backpacking in Argentina and Chile itinerary
New York’s hot dogs might have some competition!

Funky Salta has a strange vibe that´s part artist community, part border outlaw town. It was here that I tried my first Argentine steak, so soft the waiter cut it with a spoon. I also rode a cable car to the highest point of the city and wandered through squares shaded by fragrant orange trees. But my senses were mostly seduced by the Argentine hot-dog. As a dirty-water-dog girl from New York, the idea of multiple toppings on a frank seemed an affront. Until the vendor passed me a foot-long topped with roasted eggplant, spicy onions, and marinated peppers. It never ceases to amaze me how a strange melody of flavors can come together to create magic.

Wiping the crumbs from our mouths, our international delegation rented a car and drove three hours south, past stunning desert formations to Cafayate, home of Argentina’s other white meat: Torrontés. This scrumptious white wine was a delicious surprise, when all I had previously known of Argentina’s wine culture was Malbecs. We visited three bodegas, or wineries, before decamping to our hostel to nibble cheese and swill wine.

Travellers in Argentina have to try their delicious wines during their trip
Enjoying a glass of wine with Carmelo Patti at his charming winery

The next day, we ditched the car and hopped a bus south to Mendoza, home of the Malbec. I had been expecting a charming wine village, not a buzzing metropolis that was miles away from the closest vineyards. Luckily, one person in our group wasn’t a wine drinker, so he agreed to be our designated driver with a rental car. This allowed us to see three very different types of wineries: a massive conglomerate that charged US$10 for five delicious tastings; a midsized, family owned vineyard which also hosted a spectacular chef-tasting lunch with wine parings for US$65 and a small operation run by Sicilian-born Carmelo Patti, who still makes some of his internationally renowned wines out of his garage and offers tastings for free.

Tip #2: Argentina’s wine country is best seen by rental car or organized tour. There is no shuttle bus to the vineyards. Biking is also an option if you’re not drinking.

Day 9-15: Mystery in the Pacific

It was time to dry out, so I said goodbye to my friends and hopped a plane to Easter Island.

Easter Island offers enchanting natural landscapes and the mysterious statues of Moai that are worth a visit
Mingling with the Moai–can you spot me?

Here, I would live out a small travel dream, visiting a place I had first seen in cartoons and had always seemed so mysterious. One of the most remote islands in the world, Easter Island is expensive. And like most people, I figured I would see a few heads and be on my way.

But I was surprised by the wild beauty of this island, which had so much more to offer: lava tubes, wild horses and dormant volcano craters that had become lakes. It is the kind of place that makes a level playing field between travel junkies and retirees, scholars and dreamers. A couple I met from the U.S., Bart and Beverly, had dreamed for years of coming here; Bart was an Easter Island junkie and knew more about the history of the statues (Moai) then most tour guides. Like me, they were here for longer than the standard three-day trip and were glad for the extra time. Don’t be fooled by the dormant heads – there is magic on this tiny spit of land.

Tip #3: Easter Island IS expensive, but it is worth every penny.

Day 16-25: A Chilean Metropolis

I flew back to Santiago to meet my Australian friend, Natasha, who had crossed the Pacific to travel with me.

Once travel friends, always travel friends!

Flanked on its eastern border by the snow-capped Andes, Santiago is a pleasant city to cool your heels for a day or two. We did a “free” walking tour, escaped the horrid Nescafe that Chileans call coffee by ducking into a lone Starbucks, and even got a lift in a police car to the nearest ATM – that’s what I call service!

Tip #4: If you love coffee, Chile will disappoint. If you love food and wine, it will delight.

Travelling to Argentina and Chile provides a great opportunity to learn about other cultures and cooking methods
Cooking classes were just one of the many things we loved about the fantastic Mapuyampay

Natasha loves wine and food as much as I do, so it was a no-brainer to head south to Chilean wine country. We chose our landing spot with precision: Mapuyampay. Lovingly built by Belgium chef Ruth and her Chilean husband, Vincente, they offer cooking classes (even for beginners), visits to local wineries and blissful relaxation and five-star meals in their spectacular gardens. The bonus was that Ruth taught me during one cooking lesson that I do, in fact, like lamb AND mussels, two foods I could have sworn I hated! It appears ingredients and preparation are indeed everything.

Tip #5: Mapuyampay (http://www.mapuyampay.cl/index.php) has several pricing options, from one-day cooking classes to a multiple-day retreat. Not a foodie? You still won’t regret your time spent here.

Fat and sated, we reversed course to the north, to the colorful, seaside town of Valparaiso. Built into the cliffs, the multicolored houses and globally recognized graffiti made for a vivid display. Another “free” walking tour had us climbing ink-covered stairs, riding funiculars and snapping away at facades covered in street art. We ended our day at a wine bar, chatting up two older ladies. Anne and Sarah were retired flight attendants hailing from Hawaii and the U.K., who despite their geographical distances, still meet up to travel, just like Natasha and me.

Tip #6: Cherish the people you meet on the road. Exchange info – you never know when you might run into them again one day.

Day 26-30: Travel is always a win, even when you lose

The next day, I put Natasha on a plane home and boarded my own flight for Chilean Patagonia. I had some time before meeting my parents in Argentine Patagonia, and I was looking forward to the lack of a schedule.

(I should be careful what I wish for!)

Chilean Patagonia is stunning, like something from Middle Earth, with plunging waterfalls, lush, jagged mountains and a local population that is neither friendly nor rude, and thus immediately intriguing. Unfortunately, it lacks a stable tourism infrastructure for Spanish speakers and none for English speakers.

So, why bother heading to this part of the country?

Tip #7: The Marble Caves – GO THERE.

The Marble Caves is a must-visit destination in Chile

Never heard of them? Neither had I. But another traveler mentioned them to me, and once I saw pictures, I vowed to put them on my list. And nothing was going to prevent me.

Not their extremely remote location. Not a serious of flight mishaps. Not a lost hostel reservation, which resulted in a temporary lack of lodgings. Not the perpetual rain. Not the lack of a Sunday bus schedule in the jumping-off town of Coyahique. Not the completely full bus that eventually showed up.

This is how I found myself begging the driver of the only packed Sunday bus to let me sit on the floor, which I did for three hours, while he drove over the mountains on a winding, dirt road, before depositing me to the village of Puerto Rio Tranquillo, home of the Marble Caves. At the first hint of a break in weather, I hired a local fisherman to take me out to the caves.

And they were amazing, luminous, and spectacular. Pure marble formations slowly eroding form wind and water, to create the most magnificent shapes.

Day 31-35: Surprises (The Good Kind)

My Marble Cave obsession left me stranded for two days because of rain. The weather also prevented any tours to the glaciers, the other major sight in this area. I spent a lot of time and money to get here, but despite my air of nonchalance regarding schedules and commitments, I was now in danger of missing my next flight.

Did I regret going? No way.

But by the time I broke out of the schizophrenic weather to make it back to the border town of Puerto Varas, I had travel fatigue. I was tired of making decisions, tired of looking for a place to lay my head at night, tired of boning up on the must-see sights.

However, the secret of travel is that, just when it’s mashing you under its heel, something happens to yank you free.

There I was, walking in the rain, wet, morose and mentally drained. I couldn’t find the hostel I wanted, so I walked into a random hostel just to get out of the rain. And who should be there, breakfasting on toast and jam?

Anne and Sarah, the lovely ladies that Natasha and I had shared a glass of wine (or two) with in Valparaiso!

Tip? Well, let’s revisit tip #6 about cherishing friends you meet on the road!

They insisted I join them over the border in Bariloche, Argentina, a town I previously forfeited to see southern Chile. With just 15 minutes to make a decision before the bus left, I shook off the rain and my mood and joined them for a trip over the Andes.

Having great travel companions can make your trip even more memorable
Soaking up the beauty of Bariloche with my wonderful new travel companions

Bariloche is a dream: Swiss-chalets, fondue, calming vistas and chilly nights meant for sitting before roaring fireplaces with a warm, red vino. While the nature in southern Chile is aggressive and howling, here it was gentle and comforting. Hiking around the lake, I could hear the trees creaking in the wind and the water lapping against the rocks. And on my second day, I ran into my two South Africans that I had parted ways with in Santiago!

Anne, Sarah and I took a boat-bus combination back to Puerto Varas. While costly, it paid us back in full with turquoise and moss colored glacier lakes, and fields of wildflowers that climbed higher until they gave way to snow. Back in Chile, I felt revived and ready to tackle the architecture and strudel of the German town of Puerto Varas, before flying down to Torres del Paine.

Tip #8: It is easy to cross the border multiple times, just don’t bring produce, spices, etc., into Chile or you will face steep fines.

Day 36-38: If you only have one day, is it worth it?

Backpackers can take a day-trip to visit the gorgeous Torres del Paine in Chile
Gorgeous Torres del Paine

This national park is on most travelers’ hit lists, who all dream of doing multiple-day treks across the famed “W” trail. I was about to commit the cardinal sin of adventurers everywhere: a day trip. But I had chosen to devote more time to earlier portions of my trip and I couldn’t change the past.

So, I hopped onto my little tour bus with eight others, and off I went to see the park’s floating icebergs, to stand against winds with a force only befitting the end of the earth, and to listen to the slender guanaco munching fuchsia wildflowers.

Tip #9: If you want to see something, no matter what anyone says about it, go see it. Regret is worse than wasting time.

Day 39-50: Traveling with the ‘Rents

The next day I took a six-hour bus ride, back over the border once again to El Calafate  This is also where my parents were flying in to travel with me for two weeks as a 40th birthday present. I was not only getting a temporary travel upgrade, but I was seeing some of my “people” for the first time in 9 months.

After hugs and tears, my parents and I tackled the Perito Moreno glacier, which is what most people flock to see in El Calafate. The sight is a fairly organized affair, with a boat option to ride up close to the looming glacier wall. And if you’re lucky as we were, you will get to hear the ear-splitting crack of a piece of ice calving off into the frigid water.

Next, we hopped a plane to one of the world’s most southern cities, Ushuaia. If I thought the wind roared in Torres del Paine, it was a gentle breeze compared to the gale forces blowing around this tip of splintered land at the end of the world. In fact, the wind rarely let up the entire two days we were there, and the look on my mother’s face when we stepped out of the airport was priceless. But we all agreed it was worth it once we visited Tierra del Fuego, one of the most barren and wild parks I have ever stepped foot in.

Exploring Chile's wildlife is a good way to end the adventurous backpacking trip
One of the cute little inhabitants of Punta Tombo

From Ushuaia, we flew north to Puerto Madryn, a city located halfway up the country along the Atlantic Ocean. Here we were able to travel to the Punta Tombo Peninsula to see masses of Magellanic Penguins hatching their young and waddling to and fro. Why are penguins so hysterical to watch?

We also stopped for afternoon tea in the old Welsh town of Trelew. However, the highlight of this area was Peninsula Valdes, where we took a boat into the protected bay to sidle up along Southern Right Whales with their newborns. Mother and babe were happy to frolic and flirt with boats full of tourists shrieking in glee each time these giant beasts broke through the surface to bellow out of their blowholes. If any of us had been brave enough, we could have reached out to pat their briny heads.

After this, my parents dropped me off in Buenos Aires, where I would spend two weeks celebrating my 40th birthday, be reunited with my boyfriend, and receive a visiting friend from the U.S.

I couldn’t think of a more beautiful city to wrap-up my three-month journey in, but it did leave me with a few final tips in mind, for those of you thinking of doing a similar journey, which I entirely recommend. You’ll find ways to make your trip your own, but here are a few final words to ease you into the experience…

Tip #10: Chile is more expensive than Argentina, so watch your budget closely.

Tip #11: Every major city in South America offers a “free” walking tour; you choose the amount to tip at the end, so don’t forget to reward your guide for their hard work.

Got any favorite spots in Chile and Argentina to add? Help our readers out and contribute your tips in the comments below!

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