By Cathy Brown
I love traveling and adventuring through Argentina. I currently live in Argentine Patagonia, and am fiercely opinionated that it is one of the best places in the world for getting close with nature. So when ATTA ( Adventure Travel Trade Association, www.adventuretravel.biz) and Tourism Chile invited me to participate in their inaugural AdventureWeek Chile to get to know what Chilean Patagonia has to offer in terms of adventure travel, I snobbishly found myself thinking ‘okay, but fair warning everyone, I’ve been to Chile a few times and I’m still a die-hard Argentina fan…’
The Chile I had been to previously was definitely not the Chile that I was shown this time around. I got my socks knocked off. I was shown firsthand why Chile currently holds the #1 position in Emerging Markets in the Adventure Travel Development Index (ATDI). I left a believer, and have already planned my next (few!) trips back there.
I white water rafted. Skiied. Wine tasted. Off-road quad biked. Hiked the remote and untouched Isla Navarino, which even lies further south than Argentina’s so-called ‘end of the world’ Ushuaia. Mountain biked. Lounged in fjord-side hot springs. Ate more fresh seafood than I had previously eaten in all of my years combined. Perhaps indulged in a little too much pisco from time to time (hey, just immersing in the culture…). Met locals operators who are eager, enthusiastic, and ready to bring more sustainable tourism to Chile.
Obviously something that kept running through my head throughout the trip was ‘why Chile over Argentina?’. If an adventure traveler needs to make a choice between the two countries, what are the benefits of picking one over the other? Here is my breakdown of some factors to take into consideration:
Chile currently sees fewer tourists. Take this as a plus or a negative. Outside of Torres del Paine in peak season, Chilean Patagonia will have a lot fewer people running around it than Argentine Patagonia – a plus in my opinion. But, because they see fewer tourists, certain business skills may be lacking by some Chilean operators. Fewer speak English, fewer regulations for guides are in place than there are in Argentina, fewer agencies are set up to take credit cards, etc. I do have a feeling that this will be changing drastically in the next few years as tourism in Chile begins to grow.
Chilean Patagonia is greener. Again, this could be a plus or a negative. It’s green because it rains. Significantly. Once you get further south than Argentina’s lakes region, Argentina Patagonia is arid, windier, and much drier than Chile – the steppe/desert counterpart to Chile’s rainforests and wetlands. Also, in Chile, you are always close to the ocean. Look at a map – it’s not rocket science that with the country being so narrow, the ocean is always nearby. For me, this is a definite plus for Chile.
Getting There and Around
If you plan on flying to Patagonia, flights are easy and flight times are reasonable. The only thing that needs to be taken into consideration is whether you prefer to start in Buenos Aires or Santiago. For me, colorful and vibrant Buenos Aires offers much more for tourists than the very business-centered Santiago. But in massive Argentina, distances between places are huge. If you are bussing it or planning on driving, you better have a lot of time and patience on your hands in Argentina, whereas from Santiago, by road, you can arrive in Puerto Varas or Pucon fairly painlessly. Both countries offer legendary routes to drive – Argentina has its famous Route 40 and Chile has the Carretera Austral. Southern Chile offers a lot more in terms of boat trips, for those who like water travel. LAN airlines is the main carrier for both countries, www.lan.com, and for getting around Chilean Patagonia by air, look into DAP airlines, www.aeroviasdap.cl. Long-distance bus travel in Chile is comfortable, and both Tur Bus, www.turbus.cl, and Pullman, www.pullman.cl, offer extensive routes.
Chile is without a doubt more stable economically. Argentina has notoriously high inflation. Go ahead and plan your Argentina trip for next year on a certain budget – but once your trip comes along next year, don’t be surprised to find out that prices may have gone up 25-30%.
Attitude towards Americans
In my experience, as an admittedly complete and total generalization based on nothing more than one person’s experience, it seems like Chileans like the US. When I am in Chile, I always feel a lot of influence by US culture and by the government, both economically and politically, and people from the states will probably feel incredibly welcomed and very highly respected. Argentines in general won’t give a shit that you are from the US. They will happily take your dollars, sure, but they won’t kiss your butt just for being from the states. They will be much more vocal in their opinion about the states, which may or may not be favorable, and as world famous conversationalists, you can expect in Argentina to be engaged in more than one heated conversation about international politics.
Chile: Fresh seafood, wonderful wine, and the tradition of curanto. Argentina: Succulent beef, wonderful wine, and the tradition of asado. It’s a win-win either way, unless you are vegetarian or vegan, in which case you are pretty much screwed in either country once outside the capital cities.
Adventure/ Wildlife Activities
Rafting favors Chile (the Futaleufu is one of the world’s most famous rafting rivers), and the Baker River for kayaking is a must-do. Serious rock climbers head to Cochamo or Coyhaique in Chile. Amazing trekking can be done in both countries, but the Aysen region in Chile and the Lakes district in Argentina stand out as great places to start. Both countries have penguins and whales (Argentina around the Puerto Madryn area and there are many colonies around Chiloe island in Chile). For surfers, Chile wins all the way. Check out the Pichelemu area for big waves. Skiiers may like Bariloche in Argentina for its long runs, gorgeous powder and stunning views, but lift tickets and lodging come with a high price tag. Chile is home to some smaller, less commercial resorts that still offer great skiing. As for glaciers, Argentina has famous Perito Moreno, and Chile has lesser-known but still spectacular San Rafael.
All in all, anyone planning a Patagonia trip should definitely not rule out Chile. If this Argentina-lover can’t wait to go back again and again, you know it has to be good.
My top 8 places to not miss in Chilean Patagonia:
- Take a boat trip through the Marble Caves at General Carrera lake. Gorgeous. Check it out: http://www.amazingplaces.com/
- Hike Isla Navarino (home of Puerto Williams, the REAL ‘southernmost city in the world). DAP airlines can get you there, http://www.aeroviasdap.cl/, www.lakutaia.cl
- Aysen. Whether by car, horse, or trekking, the entire region is gorgeous, scarcely populated, lush. For me, this is Patagonia at its finest. www.cincorioschile.com
- Kayaking the fjords – then relaxing in some hot springs there. http://www.termasdepuyuhuapi.com/portal/, www.patagonia-connection.com
- Torres del Paine National Park. Touristy, yes, but there’s a reason it attracts so many people. Go in the spring or the fall to run into fewer people and catch the intense color changes in the flora. http://www.torresdelpaine.com/, www.ecocamp.travel
- Canyoning waterfalls outside of Puerto Varas with KoKayak: http://kokayak.cl/.
- Luxury travelers with a big checkbook who are looking for an exclusive experience, getting to arrive in some of the world’s most isolated places by helicopter should put a 8 day yacht cruise of Patagonia by Nomads of the Sea on their bucket list. www.nomads.cl
- Huilo Huilo Reserve: www.huilohuilo.com, an incredible 250,000 acre nature reserve/eco resort, has activities ideal for families and adventurers, and offers great accommodation including Magic Mountain Lodge, consistently named one of the World’s Most Interesting Hotels. Hike, bike, horseride, kayak, and get to know the areas native Indian culture.