We had to say “at leisure” right from the start in this title because lots of people go to Patagonia to embark on intense hiking, cycling, and camping adventures. While we admire those travelers, we didn’t do that. This is a blog post about how to explore the incredible Patagonia region at leisure when you’re short on vacation time.
We stayed in comfortable, beautiful accommodations, enjoyed one moderate hike and a boat ride and did a ton of walking — but nothing more intense than that. And to be totally honest, we only spent seven nights on the ground in Argentina on this trip because that’s all we had — and it’s really not enough time. So, we’re adding an extra three nights to this suggested itinerary to explore a little more in Buenos Aires and Patagonia.
I had the fortunate opportunity to explore the Chilean and Argentinian Lake District — the gateway to Patagonia — a decade ago and it was absolutely breathtaking. This time we went further south and just stuck to the Argentina side because it was easier to arrange domestic flights that worked with our time constraints.
Book Yourself as Much Comfort as Possible
Before we talk about the itinerary, you should note that flights from the U.S. to Patagonia are long and exhausting and require an overnight flight in each direction. You’ll be flying directly south for many hours without the big time change you get on a trip to Europe, Africa, or Asia. From Washington, DC, to Patagonia and back we flew seven legs for a total of 32 hours of flying time over 10 days — and we spent only seven nights on the ground in Argentina — and really only five days of sightseeing in Argentina and Colombia (see bonus night below).
We also had a lot of early morning flights and one 2 am flight after a 5-hour layover. That’s pretty intense. All this is to say that you should book yourself some comforts along the way, whether it’s a seat upgrade, lounge access, a posh hotel, or a massage at the end of a long travel day — it will make your trip more enjoyable. Thank goodness we had a lie-flat seat for the 2 a.m. flight. Everything else was economy or premium economy for us — but any upgrade or perk you can secure goes a long way for your state of mind.
Additionally, we booked really comfortable accommodation with gorgeous views so we could enjoy our downtime to the fullest. Was it worth it? 100% — but building naps and downtime into the schedule was also critical on such an action-packed itinerary.
With that said, we wouldn’t change a thing from our itinerary other than to add more days if you have the opportunity. Here’s what we did on our adventure to Buenos Aires and Patagonia.
1. Explore Recoleta and Palermo
We arrived in BA early in the morning and only had one night in this incredible city. There’s so much to explore but we had to narrow it down. Since we love cemeteries, we decided to stay at a lovely hotel that overlooks the Recoleta Cemetery. We splurged ($150) on a comfortable suite at Sileo Hotel, which had a huge balcony with a perfect view of the landmark — that way if we had bad weather or time constraints we’d still be able to see all its beauty.
Fortunately, we had perfect weather, so we dropped off our bags and walked over to the cemetery to explore it on foot. Note that entry used to be free but you now have to pay a small fee. It’s totally worth it. The grounds are like a city of the dead tucked inside another city and every tomb and monument is more beautiful than the next.
The Recoleta neighborhood is vibrant and safe with lots of restaurants and bars in walking distance.
In the evening, we took an Uber to the Palermo area and met up with a lovely WithLocals guide who took us to some hotspots for wine, cheese, charcuterie, and other appetizers. Such a fantastic experience!
Here’s where we would add an extra night. If you have the luxury of time, stay one more night in BA and explore another neighborhood, like Puerto Madero or San Telmo. Uber is super convenient in this city, so don’t be afraid to get out there and explore during the day. Just keep in mind that some areas are safer than others. Do your research.
2. Head to El Calafate and Perito Moreno Glacier
The next morning we had an early flight to El Calafate in Patagonia. The flight on Aerolineas Argentinas was smooth. We did have a little hiccup after we landed and our taxi driver was stopped at the immigration post for 30 minutes. We were forced to stand on the side of the road with our bags while an armed guard held our passports — but everything turned out just fine and we were soon on our way.
We stayed at Mirador del Lago Hotel on the outskirts of the main drag. The hotel had a lovely restaurant and lounge area, comfortable rooms, and great staff — and you could walk anywhere in town in 15 minutes.
What’s there to see in El Calafate? Pretty much everyone (including us) visits the area to see the Perito Moreno Glacier — which is extraordinary!
The glacier is less than 90 minutes away and there are many ways to get there. You can hop on a bus, take a guided tour, hire a taxi, or rent a car. We decided to rent a car, which worked out perfectly. There was a Hertz that was only a 5-minute walk from our hotel and the ride is just on one main road out of town.
Pro tip: You’ll drive to Los Glaciares National Park (it’s a beautiful drive), pay the entry fee, and then you’ll drive about 30 more minutes to the parking lot for the glacier. From there you can get a shuttle to the top viewing point of the glacier — which is totally accessible if you have mobility issues. However, if you are up for a moderate hike with lots of stairs, we highly recommend walking the path from the main parking lot all the way to the top viewing point and back (you can work off that insanely meat and cheese forward Argentinian food).
The hike approaching the glacier on the blue path was worth every step. We really feel like the hike made our experience so much better, and there were very few people on the path compared to the main view points.
The Perito Moreno Glacier was high on my bucket list for a decade after I saw Anthony Bourdain’s visit to the region on No Reservations. We had absolutely perfect weather and a journey that will live in our memories forever ❤️
We only spent two nights in El Calafate, which was plenty of time to see the glacier and relax a bit in town. We had our best meal of the trip — which was pricy but totally worth it — at Mako Fuegos y Vinos. This restaurant was such a pleasant surprise and offered Michelin-quality meals and service. What a treat. They also have a more casual spot across the street with good, hearty Argentine food.
AND – you have to check out Yeti Ice Bar. It’s super touristy but we love our ice bars. So much fun for 30 minutes!
3. Add 2 Nights in El Chalten
We did not explore this area but we wish we had the time. In addition to adding one night in BA at the start of the trip, we would suggest keeping that rental car after seeing the glacier and heading to El Chalten for two nights. It’s about three hours from El Calafate and located inside Los Glaciares National Park.
You can do lots of outdoor activities, including hikes, and view the famous Mount Fitz Roy which was the inspiration for the Patagonia clothing company’s logo.
4. Fly Into Ushuaia – the Southernmost City in the World
Technically Chile’s Puerto Williams has the southernmost commercial airport in the world – but it’s a stretch to say the location is much more than a military outpost (which we passed by boat on the Beagle Channel).
Ushuaia, Argentina, however, is a pretty big city for being so remote at the end of the world. This is where you’d start an expedition to Antarctica — but I always say that Antarctica isn’t a continent unless you’re a penguin, and I don’t want to spend $20k per person plus four nights round trip on the infamously rough Drake Passage to check it out. Despite being adventurous that goes too far for me!
So, Ushuaia is as far south as we ever wanted to go. And it was amazing! We had a spacious and beautiful Airbnb on a hill with stunning views of the town and the harbor.
Speaking of penguins, the highlights of our trip included taking a boat ride through the beagle channel to see a penguin colony and getting penguin tattoos!
The weather is volatile in Ushuaia, so we really lucked out by having a smooth ride to explore the channel and see the penguins. That being said, as soon as we were done viewing the penguins, a big storm came through, and we had torrential downpours the whole way back — which really didn’t matter at that point because we already saw everything on the journey. The boat was comfortable and the crew was great, so we decided to take a nap on the way back.
We did have one travel fail in Ushuaia. We rented a car to go explore Tierra del Fuego National Park and see the post office at the end of the world. But that never happened. We ran into a host of problems when we got there:
— The credit card reader didn’t work.
— The entrance fee was 4x as much as was listed for foreigners online.
— We didn’t have enough cash.
— The park website was down so we couldn’t pay online.
— The ATM was out of cash.
— They didn’t accept US dollars.
Turns out the rental car’s gas tank was nearly empty and we hadn’t noticed when we picked it up. So, we had to go back to town anyway and didn’t have enough time to secure cash and fuel and head back. Oh well. Not every day on the road will go as planned, and you just have to make the most of it! We were so happy that the boat ride and our glacier hike worked out, so we didn’t really complain. And we got a cool passport stamp on the boat rather than from the post office at the end of the world.
Pro tip: Getting money in Argentina is difficult. Cash machines are frequently out of money, and you may be limited to withdrawing small amounts (up to $100 twice a day). Bring U.S. dollars, which you can exchange at your hotel or other places. To read about the country’s blue rate and other tips, check out this article.
5. Spend Another Night in Buenos Aires on the Way Home
After Ushuaia, it was time to make the long journey back home (15 hours of flying time alone) — and we thought it was best to have some experiences along the way. While you can get a limited number of flights from Patagonia back to the large international airport in Buenos Aires (EZE), we had to fly into the smaller AEP, which is in the other side of town. So, we took an evening flight from Ushuaia to AEP and decided to briefly check out another part of BA before heading out early the next morning from EZE.
We stayed at the swanky Hotel Madero in the Puerto Madero district — which is a dockside area that’s become vibrant and trendy over the last few decades.
We only had one night, so we got a spacious room with a lovely view and had an elegant dinner at the hotel’s restaurant, Rëd Resto and Lounge.
The next morning, we made our way to EZE before sunrise to start the long journey back to Washington, DC.
6. Bonus Night in Bogota
With 12 hours of flying time left, it was nice to break up the journey with a 20-hour stay in Botoga, Colombia. We arrived at 11 am and had a flight home the next morning at 7:45. even though it was an early flight, we had plenty of time to explore the city.
We hired a driver through Viator, wandered through the historic district, went to a few museums, had a wonderful sushi dinner, and even went to a Harry Styles concert before getting a few hours sleep and taking the final 6-hour flight home.
We saw some really amazing sites on this trip. We knew the travel would be intense but it was definitely worth it. The glacier, the penguins, the wine, the insane food portions, the friendly people — all are memories to cherish for a lifetime.