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June 9, 2013

To Patagonia or not to Patagonia

I spent most of April in South America’s land of icy towers. It was partly just shooting for portfolio, partly scouting it for future workshops and partly ticking a place off my bucket list. Patagonia is five times more breathtaking than any photo shows it to be. Only after about 3 days could I look towards the Cuernos del Paine and not find my mind vacated by the grandeur of its icy black and gray towers. The palette of autumn colors you can see in a single Beech tree is more than in most countries’ entire flora. The twilight colors from Alpine glow to soft warm light lasts almost 2 hours in which the peaks are painted in a variety of intense pinks, oranges and reds.  The air is crisp and the rivers and lakes are unrealistically clear. Apart from the obviously amazing landscape, the human presence is minimal. When you drive between the towns you can drive for 100km and see absolutely nothing more than a few farmsteads. It gives me great comfort to visit such pristine locations and not see a booming population that you know will inevitably lead to its destruction.

Lago de los Tres

Patagonia’s location is its best asset. It is situated only a few hundred kilometers from the Antarctic Circle on a part of the South American mainland that is like a narrow peninsula in the frigid southern seas. Its weather is much like being in a refrigerated wind tunnel. Despite the luxurious hotels’ best attempts to lure the lazy, the majority of people I saw there were keen hikers and outdoors people.

It wasn’t all just perfect and breathtaking. Patagonia is a global tourism hotspot, yet it’s difficult to find someone that speaks English. I have to point a finger of stupidity at myself though as most of South America is Spanish, so I’ll go better prepared next time! Every single meal I had, whether it was in a hotel, restaurant or coffee shop was about twice the South African price and in many cases very dissapointing.  It has to be said though that Patagonia is extremely rural and fresh produce comes from very very far away. I’d like to see Gordon Ramsay visit a certain hotel in Torres del Paine…I think he’ll morph into a dragon and destroy it in a ball of fire. It may have one of the world’s best views, but when you’re paying $100 a night for an old bed, a shower with no pressure and hot water only certain times of the day it puts you off. Add another $20 for a disgraceful dinner and you have to look at the mountains 24/7 to stay in a good mood.. Luckily that was an exception. My hostel in El Chalten was 3 times better, 3 times cheaper and I could cook for myself.

Enough moaning, I wasn’t there for the food and the hotels and it was an overall amazing experience.

Where to start? After 14 hours of flying and a night in Buenos Aires I arrived at El Calafate International Airport for the first time. I was travelling with S.A nature photographer Martin Harvey and it was his 3rd visit to Patagonia. He had been there in February and November the previous two times and the weather had been horrible. We did a bit more research before this trip and it seemed that April is the time to go. It was 4 April and our departing flight back to BA left on the 28th, so we had 25 days, give or take a few hours. One night El Calafate, 10 nights Torres del Paine, 2 nights El Calafate, 10 nights El Chalten and one last night in El Calafate.


Lago Pehoe

Will I visit Patagonia again? Absolutely, I can’t wait to get back. Will I do the trip the same? Absolutely not, it cost me $5500 for 25 nights with a twin room and a rental car split between two people. I’m confident I can do the next trip for half the price with a few slight compromises. It was an amazing experience and there’s a lot I could have done better, but I still walked away with some fantastic photos. I’ll share all the dos, the don’ts, the horrible mistakes and the highlights in a 4-part blog. Part two coming next Sunday.

Along the shoreline of Lago Nordenskjold






  1. Hi! I really love your work and the places you’ve been. It made me so happy to know you’ve been to Argentina and I felt I had to recommend you to go to Puerto Madryn and Puerto Pirámides. It is a beautiful place to do some whale watching; it is kind of desert. Although it is in Patagonia, it is so different to the mountain parts.

    Forgive my english and I know you can get better prices for the next time.



    Comment by Francisco — June 9, 2013 @ 7:51 pm

  2. Hi Hougaard. Patagonia is an amazing place for sure. It dosent seem like you trekked the W trail in Paine, and if you didn’t it is a shame because the best views are far from the hotels. Hope you post the rest soon.

    Cheers from El Chalten!

    Comment by santiago — June 9, 2013 @ 11:20 pm

  3. Awesome pics, I have a acquaintance who is planning on going there

    Comment by Bruce Meaker — June 10, 2013 @ 9:01 pm

  4. Houggard,
    Must be Lake Pehoe Hotel on the island! The Faulty Towers hotel of Torres del Paine! I was there in March and had to plead for hot water every day! We figured out it was in fact from a wood fired boiler about 40 years old!
    Patagonia is the most stunning, wildest landscape i have ever experienced. Majestic mountains, fantastic light, wind like no other, and an abundance of wildlife. A photogaphers dream. But you need to catch the light early and be prepared to hike around.
    Look forward to your next posts.

    Comment by Phil Green — June 12, 2013 @ 5:13 am

  5. Phil – spot on!

    Thank you everyone for the comments. I can’t wait to go back there.

    Santiago, I simply didn’t have the time, but hopefully I can do it next time.

    Comment by Hougaard Malan — June 12, 2013 @ 12:50 pm

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