After a few days in Buenos Aires and 8 days in the southern Patagonia region of Argentina and Chile, we are now in Tucumán, which is in the northwestern part of Argentina and my wife's home city. Last night we attended the wedding of a favorite niece of ours—a grand affair with some 300 guests, great food, and dancing. It was really impressive, but things here work differently than in the states. The church service was supposed to start at 9:15 pm, but there was another wedding taking place at that time that didn't finish until just before 10. But that didn't matter too much since the bride arrived at 9:55. The reception was scheduled for 10 pm, but didn't get underway until 11. After some drinks and hors d'oeuvres, we sat down to dinner at midnight. Dancing got underway at 2 am and was still going strong when we left at 5:30 am, at which time they began serving delicious little sandwiches for breakfast. This is all perfectly normal here and the sign of a successful event!
I wanted to take this opportunity to provide some details on the places we have stayed, and the person who helped us plan the Patagonian portion of the trip which proved so successful, as this may be of help to others wishing to experience this magnificent part of the world.
To begin with, Francisco (Fran) Shaw, shown here in this photo with the mountains surrounding the Perito Moreno glacier rising above Lago Argentino, was instrumental in helping us plan this trip. He is a Tucumano and a good friend of a good friend, and now lives in El Calafate, which is the gateway to Argentina's glacier district. He's in the tourist service business, like almost everyone in Calafate one way or another, and helps plan trips, suggest hotels, arrange transportation, and points you in the direction of the best activities and hikes. He can be reached at email@example.com. Be sure to tell him I sent you. He is also happy to make arrangements for tours in other parts of Argentina (e.g., Iguazu Falls (one of the great natural wonders of the world) and Bariloche).
The biggest obstacle to travel in the Patagonia region is the enormous distances that must be covered between cities and the relative lack of population. That leaves you with only two choices for getting around once you have flown into a gateway city like El Calafate: a bus or private transportation. Private transportation takes long enough (e.g., 7 hours from El Chaltén to Torres del Paine), but the buses can take forever. Fran arranged private transportation for us which, though not cheap, was relatively pain-free.
While in El Calafate we stayed at the Eolo Lodge, which was strongly recommended by Fran. It's located about midway between the town of El Calafate and the Perito Moreno glacier. It's somewhat isolated, but surrounded by beautiful scenery. The hotel is world-class and the food was five-star. It's the sort of place where everyone knows your name within 10 minutes of your arrival. You might also consider Los Notros, which is right across the lake from the Perito Moreno glacier and has a great view, but it's very isolated and relatively small. There are a number of good hotels in town with much more reasonable prices than these two I mention. Everything works as it should and the place is perfectly suited for the international tourists that constitute the bulk of tourism in the area. (My wife was the only Argentine-born guest at the hotels we stayed at.) I would note that the town is a good 45 minutes to one hour by bus from any of the popular tourist destinations, but transportation is readily available.
In El Chaltén we stayed at Los Cerros, the best place in town without question, and not very expensive compared to the alternatives. But there are dozens of smaller hotels and B&Bs, all of which are within easy walking distance of restaurants and the trailheads. We were well advised to take the "easy" trail to the Mirador Torres on the afternoon of our arrival, and the somewhat longer but far more impressive trail to the Mirador Fitz Roy the following morning. Do not miss Fitz Roy!
Our next and final stop was Torres del Paine National Park, which is just across the southern border of Argentina in Chile. You should plan on spending a minimum of two nights here, but preferably at least three, as we did. It's possible to tour most of the park in one very long day via car or bus, but if you want to really appreciate all it has to offer you should also spend at least a day on one of the many trails in the park. We took one of the more difficult trails to the Mirador Torres; it's 22 km roundtrip and about 2400 ft. of elevation gain, most of which occurs in two places—not for the faint of heart. The variety of magnificent scenery around the park (which is quite large, several times the size of Yosemite) is overwhelming. There is no regular telephone service in the park but a few of the hotels offer sporadic internet connections that didn't work while we were there. There are only a half dozen or so hotels in the park, and most are booked for months in advance during the summer season, which starts in November and ends by mid-April. There are numerous campsites however, for the many backpackers that flock to the park. Outside of November-April, you'll find that it is extremely cold and most places simply shut down for the long winter. Ditto for El Calafate and El Chaltén.
Partly because we had no other choice, and partly because of Fran's recommendation, we stayed at Eco Camp, which is considered a "refuge" rather than a hotel. It's an eco-friendly place that gets all its electrical power from a hydroelectric turbine that is fed by water from the mountains above the camp; the turbine is a bit bigger than a garbage disposal. It's a cross between a hotel and a communal camp. Each couple has a separate green geodesic dome (get one with a private bath if you can), and there are three large domes for the store, bar, and eating area. It greatly exceeded our expectations and we had the opportunity to meet quite a few people from all over the world. The price includes all meals and tours/activities. It is situated in a great spot with views of the Torres. Our dome is right behind my head.
If you wanted to create the most efficient travel itinerary, it would probably go like this: fly into Puerto Natales from Santiago, or take a boat from Puerto Montt; transfer by bus or car to Torres del Paine; transfer from there by bus or car to El Calafate; transfer by bus or car to El Chalten; return to El Calafate; fly from El Calafate to Buenos Aires. But no matter how you cut it, you will be spending many hours going by land from one place to another. Let someone like Fran help you figure out what works best for what you want to accomplish.