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Too many glaciers? Mare Australis or Torres del Paine?

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We are a group of 6 friends with age ranging from 50 to 60. We're planning to visit Chile and Patagonia for 2 to 3 weeks in Dec. After reading piles of travel guide books and communicating with some travel agents based in Santiago, we've come up with an 18-day itinerary as follows:
Day 01 Fly to Santiago. Half day City tour of Santiago.
Day 02 Fly to Punta Arenas. Bus ride to Puerto Natales
Day 03 Puerto Natales- Torres del Paine
Full-day excursion: Milodon Cave, Lakes Sarmiento, Nordenskjold and Pehoe, Salto Grande waterfall, Lake Grey.
Day 04 Free day at Torres del Paine
Day 05 Torres del Paine - Perito Moreno Glacier - Calafate
Day 06 Full-day excursion to Upsala and Onelli Glaciers.
Day 07 Fly to Ushuaia. Afternoon city tour visiting the World's End Museum.
Day 08 - Board the M/N Mare Australis.
Day 09 M/N Mare Australis: Cape Horn National Park. Wulaia Bay.
Day 10 M/N Mare Australis: Pia Glacier. O'Brien and Ballenero Channels, Desolada Bay, Aguirre Passage and Cockburn Channel.
Day 11 Disembark M/N Mare Australis. Fly from Punta Arenas to Puerto Varas
Day 12 Chiloe Island visiting Ancud and the Penguins Puñihuil
Day 13 Puerto Varas - Excursion Peulla
Visit Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park which features Petrohué Falls. Sailing through Lake Todos Los Santos to Peulla.
Day 14 Puerto Varas-Santiago-Calama-San Pedro de Atacama
Tour Puerto Montt including Pelluco Beach and Chinqihue Beach. Fly from Puerto Montt to Santiago then connecting flight to Calama. Transfer to San Pedro de Atacama.
Day 15 San Pedro de Atacama
Morning: Pucara of Quitor, LePaige Museum, the barren Salt Mountain Range and the Tulor Ruins. Afternoon: tour of Toconao, Liparita stone quarry, Atacama Salt Flats, Chaxa Lagoon.
Day 16 San Pedro de Atacama
Geysers of Tatio, towns of Caspana, Chiu Chiu, Lasana.
Day 17 San Pedro de Atacama-Calama-Santiago
Day 18 Santiago to Home
The problems: we think there are too many glaciers and too much travel time. We badly need commetns on this itinerary. Should we give up the Australis cruise, or choose between Torres del Paine and Los Glaciares National Park? Or other glaciers? Do we miss any must-see in Atacama? The quoted price for the itinerary is around $5400, even more expensive than our 18-day Ecuador and Galapagos tour last year. Is it reasonable? Where can we save a few bucks? Can we take buses instead of flying? Really need some advices. I've started to headache.

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    Planning our trip to Chile was headache inducing. It's such a long country that travel is time consuming and difficult. We did the majority of the planning ourselves, but used a Chilean born, CA-based travel agent for some of our bookings. Chile was surprisingly expensive. R u using Sky Air as an alternative to LAN? There flights are considerably less expensive. Our TA wouldn't book them only LAN, so your agents may be the same. R u traveling on your own without guides (u don't need guides.) But I can't really comment on your total price

    Torres del Paine was one of my favorite parts of our trip last year to Chile.
    (Our TR is here
    http://www.fodors.com/community/south-america/southward-ho-adventures-in-chile-arg.cfm )

    We looked into doing the Australis cruise but decided against it. it was very expensive and we got feedback that there was a lot of time sitting on the boat-beautiful scenery but not a very active cruise. I think el Calafate and TdP are very different and I would not choose one over the other. There's a lot more to TdP than the glaciers and you could skip the glaciers in TdP if u stay with elCalafate. el Calafayate is a cute little town and Perito Moreno was fabulous. We did a trek on the glacier which was memorable.

    R u visiting Chiloe for just one day? Its a bit of a drive for just one day. Thought it was a lovely bucolic island, but it could be skipped. We did not visit the Penguins Puñihuil.

    We did the full day boat crossing into ARgentina and the portion of that u will be doing is really beautiful.

    We ended up dropping the Atacama for our trip to allow more time to the other portions of the trip. Your day 14 sounds really packed. Day 5 will be a long one. I assume u r going directly from TdP to el calafate? We took the bus from Puereto Natales and it was 3-4 hours. The trip to Perito Moreno is about 45 minutes from el Calfate. We left round 8 am did the mini trek, went to the viewing platform and then returned to el calafate for the later afternoon and night. I also recall that going directly to el Calafate from TdP was a lot more than going back to PN, but it does save time.

    Be happy to answer any other questions.

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    Hi, I think that your plan is overambitious for what you want to see.
    I have been in Patagonia 3 times for a total of about 6 weeks, most recently 8 weeks ago. This trip we took the Via Australis starting from Punta Arenas which was very nice, our first "cruise". The boat has twice per day Zodiac excursions with easy hikes, beautiful sights, landing on Cape Horn and animal watching so you are not just sitting on the main boat all day. We definitely enjoyed it and could recommend it. It isn't physically difficult but I personally wouldn't use that as the way to judge a boat trip. We then spent 3 nights at Hosteria El Pilar 1/2 hr by dirt road outside of El Chalten to see Fitz Roy. This area has scenery that is quite similar to Torres del Paine which is much more about the rock/mountain formations and not so much up close with glaciers. Glacier Gray in Torres del Paine is the exception and if you are going to see the other glaciers, you may want to skip it and focus on other areas in the park. It is nice, we saw it in the past but it is about 45 min-1 hr each way in a different direction from the Cuernos and Torres.There are plenty of other things to do-hikes, horseback riding. You won't be bored.
    This trip we also spent 3 nights at EOLO, 1/2 hr west of El Calafate so that we could see the Perito Moreno and do the 1 day boat ride to see Upsala etc. The Perito Moreno/Upsala glacier tours are much more spectacular to see than the relatively distant view that you will get of most of the glaciers from the Australis in that you go right up to them and can even arrange to walk on them. They are enormous. We thought that the Australis and the Perito Moreno were complimentary trips and we definitely were not "glaciered out" but everyone likes something else. We spent 5 days in Torres del Paine 11 yrs ago and loved it, staying at Hosteria los Torres but went back for only one day this trip because we didn't have enough time to stay there and we just wanted to see it again. We used Puerto Natales as are base this time because of the timing of our cruise which worked OK, the drive is only 2 hrs, depending upon where you are going in the park. One road is now paved. If you can, staying in the park is much better, however. They did have a tremendous fire and the vegetation in the central part of the park is burnt. It is still a beautiful place, however because of the mountain formations.
    I have been in the lake district on both the Chilean and Argentine side. Have stayed in Puerto Varas as a base for the Chilean lake district and spent 4 days there, I believe, 11 yrs ago-lots to see, many volcanos, lakes, national parks. Puerto Montt is a relative big city-didn't tour it just caught the Navimag freighter there. We spent several days on Chiloe 11 yrs ago to see the World Heritage churches and more traditional towns. I would skip it if you only have one day. You will get virtually no feel for the place. You will likely see penguins on the Australis, we did.
    You have to check the flights between El Calafate and Ushuaia. They don't fly every day. We flew it in the opposite direction and there was no flight on Sunday. The Perito Moreno is not 45 min from El Calafate. It is about 1 1/2- 1/3/4 hrs away. We loved staying at EOLO which is 1 hr from the Perito Moreno and 1/2 hr from the boat ride to Upsala. I personally wouldn't stay in El Calafate-just a tourist town. Not terrible but EOLO is on a 4000 hectare ranch with amazing views. It is expensive, however, they included all meals and had perfect service. Driving from Torres del Paine to El Calafate is very long, I understand. Didn't do it. Just so you know, many of the hotels will arrange transportation from the nearest big cities. We also rented a car and drove several legs ourselves.
    With respect to the Atacama, I have never been and am dying to go there but I personally would say that I would try to see Patagonia as well as you can and not try to mix in too many locations. It is spectacular and is so remote and so far south, it warrants weeks on it's own as you may not get back very often. I arranged all 3 trips myself. Australis is expensive as are most of the hotels in Torres del Paine so your price doesn't sound that far off. You can directly email all hotels and the Australis cruise people will even call you and talk with you in English if you go to their website and click on that link.
    I hope that this info is useful.

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    Boy - what great comments above from yestravel and gazelle1. I concur with them and will add a bit.

    We took the Mare Australis in 2006 from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas - enjoyed it very much ... particularly the excursions off the boat - as yestravel said we found it a little passive (but still beautiful). This year we returned to Ushuaia and took a 10 day cruise to Antarctica and after went to El Calafate to see Fitz Roy and Perito Moreno. I wasn't sure if we would be glaciered out after Antarctica but we LOVED Perito Moreno (and I'm sure we would have loved Fitz Roy had it not been completely shrouded in cloud!)

    We went to Chiloe for 3 nights and left after 2....as yestravel says it takes time to get there and we found it pleasant but not quite the mystical experience it had been billed as (our mistake, not theirs).

    Here are some links to our blog

    http://lizandrichardsa.typepad.com/liz_and_richard_in_south_/2006/03/rounding_cape_h.html

    http://lizandrichardsa.typepad.com/liz_and_richard_in_south_/2006/03/the_lake_distri.html

    If you are foodies the market in Puerto Montt is not to be missed....see pics in the link above.

    Here's a wild card - as much as I love deserts I would seriously consider substituting Easter Island for Atacama....I know it adds cost but you are so close and it is such an amazing destination - blog link here

    http://lizandrichardsa.typepad.com/liz_and_richard_in_south_/easter_island/

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    Thanks yestravel, gazelle1 and Elizabeth for sharing with me your wonderful trip reports and opinions. We dont speak Spanish and we are not renting a car. So we need the travel agent to arrange all transfer. I really have no idea about the long travel time. Thanks for reminding me. Is it possible to explore Torres del Paine without a car? I think I'll skip Ancud & Penguins Punihuil(day 12). Can I skip Upsala and Onelli Glaciers (day 6) as well? I really am stressed out as I am the only one to plan and arrange everything among our lazy group of 6 (>0<).

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    Lachat –

    Good luck with planning & if your current plan becomes overwhelming - make fewer stops - just stick with your "must-do"s.

    I am keeping an eye on the responses to your questions because I am also planning a trip for later this year.

    yestravel, gazelle1 & Elizabeth_S – thank you for such detailed replies.

    Elizabeth_S – have you posted on your recent travel to SA? I am especially keen to hear about your Antarctic cruise with Quark!

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    While we had a car in TdP, I think many, if not most tour it without cars. Hotels arrange various day hikes and tours. I'm sure the TA u r working with can set some up for you.

    Good to skip Ancud and Penguins -- u just cant do everything. "Can I skip Upsala and Onelli Glaciers (day 6) as well?" how into glaciers r u? U can see Glacier Grey in TdP and will be seeing Perito Moreno and possibly on the cruise, so do u really want to c more? Only u can decide that.

    I really think el Calafate is a cute little town even if it is touristy. It was fun to walk around and check it out. We were there in March and it was not crowded at all. Good restaurants too.

    Going from TdP to el Calafate there are tours which go directly from TdP to el Calafate. Ask your TA about them. Otherwise u need to go back to Puerto Natales and take the bus from there which adds a lot of time. It's approximately 4-5 hours from PN to el Calafate. Time can depend upon how long the border crossing from Chile into ARG takes. So while it will cost more $$ it will save u time. We went back to PN cause we had lots of time on our trip. I am sorry that we didn't go to Fitz Roy as its supposed to be wonderful, but once again, impossible to do every single thing.

    I agree with m_bran-just think about what u really want to do and eliminate the other stuff. Try not to stress--its very nice of u to plan this for your friends.

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    everybody for all suggestion and advice. Yes, I understand that I can't have it all. So I've modified my itinerary to skip the lake District. Does this itinerary still look exhausted? I've read 6 guidebooks and read numerous posts but I still feel like clueless. Please please please, any comments / recommendations are welcome. We are not doing long hikes in TDP so perhaps staying there for 3 nights will be good enough. Without a car which is the most convenient hotel to stay? I know Explora is good but it's really expensive.
    Day 01 Toronto - Santiago
    Day 02 Santiago – Calama –San Pedro Atacama – Valle de Luna –Sunset
    Day 03 San Pedro de Atacama
    Morning: Pucara of Quitor, Tulor Ruins.
    Afternoon: Toconao village. Atacama Salt Flats.
    Day 04 San Pedro de Atacama
    Morning: Geysers of Tatio.
    Afternoon: Free time
    Day 05 San Pedro de Atacama-Calama-Santiago –Punta Arenas
    Day 06 Punta Arenas- Otway Sound Penguin Colony - Puerto Natales
    Day 07 Puerto Natales- Organized day trip toTorres del Paine
    Overnight in Torres del Paine.
    Day 08 Torres del Paine
    Overnight in Torres del Paine.
    Day 9 Torres del Paine – Calafate
    Day 10 Calafate – Perito Moreno Glacier
    Day 11 Calafate - Ushuaia
    Day 12 -14 (Wednesday to Friday) M/V Mare Australis
    Day 15 Dismembark - PUNTA ARENAS
    Day 16 Punta Arenas – Isla Magdalena - Santiago
    Day 17 Santiago –valparaiso -Santiago
    Day 18 Santiago - Toronto
    I've read good reviews about La Casa de Don Tomas in SPA and Hotel Orly in Santiago. Anyone been staying in these hotels? Help please!!!!

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    "I've read good reviews about La Casa de Don Tomas in SPA and Hotel Orly in Santiago. Anyone been staying in these hotels? Help please!!!!"

    Both are good choices. As both are very popular, book as soon as you have your dates.

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    I don't know if your trip is already planned and therefore too late to comment again. We thought that the Hosteria los Torres was a very convenient place to stay in Torres del Paine. They will pick you up from major cities nearby, they have trips you can arrange at the hotel to take around the park so you need no car if you don't want one, they had good food and the rooms were nice enough. It wasn't fancy but it was clean and pleasant. They have horses you can ride and they are also near the trailheads for both long and short hikes if you want to hike. It has been enlarged since we stayed there 11 yrs ago (we saw it on our recent visit) and now they have a bar and nighttime entertainment apparently. It has gotten more expensive but is still less money than Explora. It is next to the Torres, Explora is across from the Cuernos. Explora has gorgeous views, Hosteria has very nice views but we were pleased with it and would choose it again.
    By the way, it is no problem not to speak Spanish. I made all arrangements in English and basically had no problems communicating with anyone when in Chile or Argentina.
    Would I skip Upsala and Onelli? Well, I think that is why one goes to the Southern Ice Fields-to see glaciers. I think that you have scheduled day 8-11 too tight. It is going to take many hrs to get between Torres del Paine and El Calafate and you will spend so much time travelling back and forth, you won't get to see very much. Perito Moreno itself can be seen in just a few hrs but basically you are going to have to drive 2 hrs each way from El Calafate to see it, not to mention the many hrs to get from Torres del Paine to El Calafate and on to Ushuaia. I guess that if I only wanted to see the Perito Moreno, I would see if I could get a day trip out of Torres del Paine to see it rather than waste the time in El Calafate which is cute but just has hotels and restaurants. Alternatively, I might just see Glacier Gray and skip the Perito Moreno for this trip. It is a pretty glacier too. My rule of thumb is not to spend more time in transit than I am going to spend at the site I am travelling to.
    You may also want to flip the boat part around and go from Chile to Argentina and see if that has less travel time involved. The itinerary is also very different in that direction so you would have to see which way appeals to you most.
    Good luck. I'm sure you will have a lovely trip however you decide to do it

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