How to go wild camping in Argentina when you don’t have a tent? Most of the time, to camp or not to camp is a decision that you take before even flying over. Either you decide to pack the cumbersome tent the best you can, happy to carry the extra weight. That’s when you’ve got something in mind; maybe you’re up for hitchhiking Chile’s Carretera Austral or visiting Torres del Paine National Park to do the W trek. Or you decide against it and leave home both the tent and your hopes to ever (wild) camp. Well, in Argentina we came up with an alternative, thanks to this wild camping adventure we had in northern Patagonia.
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Call us softies if you want but we didn’t want to backpack 6 months in South America carrying a tent. It’s the kind of items that comes in extremely handy every now and then; the rest of the time, you swear by all the gods that you’ll throw that goddamn thing away. That’s if you don’t forget it somewhere, when you’re couchsurfing or hitchhiking.
Our South American trip eventually lasted 10 months. And I’m sure that the fact that our arms weren’t sore from carrying extra weight helped in the decision making. So all in all, we were very happy that we didn’t bring a tent to South America. But we got even happier when we managed to get one anyway, right at the time when we needed it. This is how the story goes…
We know. (Don’t you?) In many places it’s possible to rent a tent for a few days. Tour operators and many outdoor shops in towns and cities offer this service; and the most famous hiking trails usually have a few tents for rent too. But, you know, we’re budget travellers: so the cheaper the better.
Step 1: Finding a tent
During our trip in Argentina, and later on in Chile, we met many people who were wild camping in Patagonia and we grew jealous of them. Yes, jealous.
We listened eagerly to their travel tales filled with wild names, like Perito Moreno and Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas. We even started thinking “they’re having a real adventure while we’re wasting our travel time”. Oh lord, aren’t we silly when we don’t have that one thing we dearly want?
It was clear from the start that we wouldn’t go as far as Ushuaïa and Tierra del Fuego. We didn’t have the proper clothes for it, and were maybe not psychologically ready either. We did enter Patagonia though, and were rewarded with the natural wonders of the Lake District of Argentina. It might not be the wildest part, but it’s a land of fairy tales all the same. A bit like a “backpacking Patagonia for beginners”.
When we hitchhiked from San Martín de los Andes to Bariloche, we met Franco. Franco picked us up, telling us he was in a rush and had no time to stop. But he did actually, so we could take in the most magnificent views along the so-called “7-lake road”.
But that’s another story: Our hitchhiking trip in the Lake District of Argentina
Talking about this and that, we told Franco about our desire to camp (and possibly to free camp). He was very knowledgeable about the different camping sites around the various lakes; the parts that accepted wild campers; even how to get into a national park without having to pay. But the point of paramount significance for us: Franco could lend us his brother’s tent!
Once we arrived in Bariloche, we all rested in a park next to the cathedral, sipping mate in Argentine Spanish. That’s where he gave us the key to our memorable Patagonia wild camping adventure.
Step 2: Finding a wild camping spot in Patagonia
We spent a couple of days enjoying the most stunning mountain landscapes. This region, far from the turmoil of Buenos Aires, is really a treasure-trove of crystal lakes surrounded by the massive snow-topped peaks of the Andes. Everything seems crisp and pure, like the volutes of our breath against the azure sky.
There are many trails for all levels, day hikes and multi-day treks, and each one is honestly more breathtaking than the next.
Start planning: Our favourite hikes around Bariloche
After Bariloche, we hitchhiked to El Bolsón, a small hippy town tucked between the mountains and the River Azul. It’s very easy to hitchhike in that part of the world, as long as you smile. Don’t underestimate the power of a smile.
We planned to hitchhike back to Bariloche and stop on the way, on the shores of Lake Mascardi. Franco had told us the best way to get there and how to avoid paying the park entrance fee.
Wild camping is not illegal in Argentina, except in some national parks. People can just pitch their tent almost anywhere. In the case of Lago Mascardi, there’s officially an entrance fee; but if you tell the guards at the entrance that you’re going to one of the campsites, they don’t charge you. The fee is supposed to be included in the camping price.
In our case, there were no guards so we didn’t need to lie. We had to walk a lot inside the park, following the road and adventuring off-track towards the lake when we could. Worried it would become dark, Anthony wanted to take the easiest solution, close to the roadside. But I insisted on finding a trail that would lead to secluded camping spots.
And eventually, that’s exactly what I found; we were rewarded with a beautiful beach just to ourselves!
How it was to wild camp in Patagonia
The night was very cold, around 5ºC (40ºF), and we were wearing all our clothes even in the sleeping bag. I had about 6 layers on and that still wasn’t enough.
Still, the next day was so sunny and fantastically beautiful that we decided to stay for another night. We spent all day lazying around on the beach: drawing, reading together, going on short walks along the beach. Swimming was difficult with those temperatures, but I had a dip while Anthony stayed safely on the shore.
The view was really incredible with the deep blue colour of the sky and the lake and the snow-capped top of the Andes mountain range… I think the photos speak for themselves!
Luckily, we had brought enough food and water for 2 days, but we couldn’t have stayed longer than that on our Patagonia camping trip. We didn’t have any camping equipment of course, so fruits and crackers had to do the trick. Otherwise, there’s supposed to be a small shop in a camping site further along the lake; but I don’t want to imagine the prices there.
Read more: Where to go in Argentina’s Lake District
Step 3: Leaving the place
After packing and making sure we didn’t leave any rubbish, we were so cheerful on the way back! We walked like kings and sang like we owned the place – you know the feeling?
That lasted about 30 minutes, until we got really hungry and no one was picking us up. We had hoped for a yummy breakfast in one of the famous chocolate shops in Bariloche. But that didn’t work out and we had to walk until a roadside cafeteria for our daily dose of dulce de leche.
The woman at the cafeteria told us that this was old Mapuche territory, and there had been problems recently; confrontations between the police and Mapuche activists who are trying to reclaim their land. The death of an activist a year before was still on everybody’s lips and kept people on edge. In fact, we passed by an occupied land with the Mapuche flag, and burnt tires on the side of the road where a blockade had probably taken place.
If people were too scared around there to pick us up despite our smile, so be it. We just hopped on the next bus to Bariloche, happy about our wild camping experience in Northern Patagonia, the superb outdoor playground of Argentina.
Have you ever wild camped in any country? How was the experience?
Share your anecdote with us in the comments section!
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