How to get to El Chalten, Patagonia in 24 hours

We started our 24 hours of travel headed for the Miami airport after an overdue visit to Matt’s extended family in the Ft. Lauderdale area. Our flight itinerary was Miami – Buenos Aires – Bariloche – El Calafate on Aerolineas Argentinas, then bus to El Chalten.

Aerolineas Argentinas did not let us check in online, so we made sure to give ourselves lots of time to make it through Miami traffic, return the rental car, get to the international terminal and stand in the check-in line. But there was no self service kiosk either, and we stood in line hoping that they wouldn’t actually measure our bags. We don’t travel with checked bags so normally we can skip the line. We switched bags for our South America adventure, from our trusty Tom Bihn bags to Osprey backpacking bags. They’re technically over the carry-on dimensions, but they still easily fit in most overhead bins. So we decided to risk it.

Check-in was easy! The lady even gave us our boarding passes for the Buenos Aires – El Calafate leg because we didn’t check any bags. With stow-away you would have to clear immigration, collect your bags, exit the airport and then check-in again at the domestic terminal. And the ticket lady even took the time to tell us that her favorite Argentenian wine is “El Fin del Mundo”, and we should look for it.


But our charmed travel life came to an end once through security. Our Buenos Aires (BA) bound flight was delayed about 30 minutes. The connection was getting tight. On the flight, I didn’t sleep at all. Towards the end of the 9 hour flight, serious turbulence started. BA was having a big early morning storm and we were flying through it. I could see lightning out the window. I think we circled a bit to find a hole in the storm clouds before making it to the ground. Our 2 hour connection was cut down to about an hour and we hurried up the gangway ready to book it when I heard a gate attendant calling our names. Uh-oh. She said because our connection was so tight they had issued us boarding passes for the next flight out to El Chalten (via Mendoza) which was 4 hours later. But she also said because we had no checked bags, if we hurried we could probably make the flight we booked. So we walked as fast as we could to immigration (which was slow but easy), then down the sidewalk a quarter mile to the other terminal, through security and to the boarding gate with 10 min to spare. Hurray, we thought. We’re in the right place and they haven’t started boarding (WHY HAVEN’T THEY STARTED BOARDING?)! Not 3 minutes later, over the PA system was an announcement, the airport was closing due to bad weather!!

We sighed, found a corner and waited. The room was quickly filling up with people milling around, it was about 6:30am local time. (For those of you in Seattle, BA is 5 hours ahead.) Waiting for the storm to pass, I did watch a pretty colorful sunrise. Around an hour later they started boarding planes. We waited for our section to be called and got in the rush. My boarding pass made the dreaded “rejected” noise and flashed “see agent”. We’re told we are not on this flight and we had been re-booked to the later flight. Uh, no.

I have now been awake for almost 24 hours, and those who have been near me after midnight know that I’m grumpy and my patience was gone many hours earlier. Matt and I insist this cannot be, since we were here on-time for the original scheduled departure and we did NOT ask to be re-booked. The agent says yes, this is the case. And we say, no. We have a 3 hour bus ride booked and a hotel reservation that we must get to today. The current flight would get us to El Calafate at about 1:30pm. And if we were further delayed, we didn’t know how late the bus would run to El Chalten. After a few more exchanges it became clear that were not going to accept re-booking on the later flight, the agent started talking in rapid Spanish to a lady that I assumed was the boss there. I heard a few words I recognized, one being “equipaje” meaning baggage, and I interrupted them to say we had no checked bags. They look skeptical, and asked us, “really? no bags?” No, we assure them, “only carry-on” and show them our backpacks. Also, Matt says, we don’t even need to sit together, if that would help. They turn back to each other, more rapid Spanish, then bosslady gets on the phone to see if it’s possible to get us back on this flight. We waited quietly and a few minutes later we have another set of boarding passes! Yes! We are on the flight! It’s the last row of the plane, but we’re on it!

We were second to last getting on the plane. Behind us was a family whose kid had managed to lose their ID somewhere in the boarding area. The ID had been found about the time we got our new boarding passes. In a stoke of luck, there was even still space for our slightly over-sized backpacks in the overhead bins. More luck, the flight attendant re-seated us to the empty exit row! jackpot.

The takeoff and ascent was rough, due to the passing storm. Someone a few rows up and across the aisle was struggling with the motion (I assume) and was being fanned with the emergency exit procedures laminate. Meanwhile, I was so tired that I actually dozed off for about 20 minutes at a time.

The flight was 3 hours to Bariloche, we stayed on the plane and exchanged a few people for the continuation of the flight to El Calafate. On the descent, the scenery was beautiful (lake, snow-covered mountain and blue sky) and I wanted to just stay and end my travel day. I reminded myself that we would be back here in about a month with a good friend to do some trekking and then Spanish school.

The flight attendant announced the stop-over would be about 20 minutes, then we would be on our way. But then the passenger mentioned earlier, the one having trouble, was getting medical help. I still have no idea what was wrong, but this delayed the flight an extra 20 minutes. For anyone doing the math, we’ve now been trying to get to Patagonia for the last 15 hours and I was still a plane flight and bus ride away from our destination, and seriously sleep deprived.

On the second leg we had to go back to our original seats by the toilets in the back of the plane, it was going to be a full flight. I managed to move up one row to an empty aisle and middle seat, but still close enough to smell the toilets and get bumped by the constant line.

The flight to El Calafate from Bariloche was about an hour and a half, and full of more turbulence. In Patagonia, the wind is fierce. The otherwise uneventful last leg was interesting because of the sideways wind. As we got close to El Calafate, the windy weather made the plane lose some altitude and blow sideways, like a car skidding out. I have felt this before in small Cessnas (thanks sister!) but I have never felt a larger plane blow sideways. Apparently neither had other passengers, because to my great entertainment there was actual screaming each time the plane moved up, down, or sideways, unexpectedly (aka strong turbulence).

Finally, we landed. No more plane flights for the day.

Finding the bus company we had booked was easy, and they actually had our reservation. During the 3 hour ride to El Chalten I was so tired I fell asleep without knowing it, and woke up every time my head fell to the side or the wind blew our mini-bus sideways. The ride was beautiful and normally I would have been glued to the window. The bus dropped us at our B&B at around 5pm. We had a simple room with a mountain view, it was perfect. We made plans to find the ATM, dinner, then relax with a bottle of cheap Argentine Malbec before going to bed at a normal hour, to try and get on local time. We found the ATM, bought the wine, had dinner but when we got back to our room at around 7pm we were so tired we thought, we’ll just take a nap then get up for a glass of wine. We fell asleep on top of the bed fully clothed. When the alarm went off a short while later, neither of us actually woke up, we just found our way under the blankets and re-set the alarm to make sure we wouldn’t miss breakfast. The bottle of wine would still be good the next day.

Author: Katy

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  • Robin Malcolm

    So much sympathy. I get very grumpy and short-tempered too on those long trips. It’s usually 27-28 hours in transit from the Midwest to west Africa and worse from the West Coast. I start out strong but always end up losing my cool somewhere along the way.
    Glad you made it, hope you get some good sleep, and can’t wait to read all about it!

  • David Duyker

    This was fun to read! I hope you guys are having a super rad time now that the long flights are over!

  • dude – we are having a suuuper rad time. Wanna come to south america this summer? We will be in peru/argentina and it would be super fun to travel with you!

  • Hi Robin! I gained a new appreciate for Jack Bauer…

    Did your container come?

  • David Duyker

    YES that would be so cool! I’m doing summer staff at malibu but I’ll look into it for when I’m not up there

  • Robin Malcolm

    Due in port on 3/5. Fingers crossed!

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