Dreaming of a trip to Patagonia? We did too for many years, and this year we finally took the plunge. Or maybe you've already been with a tour and now want to go back and spend time exploring on your own? Traveling to this remote southernmost region of Chile and Argentina can be a daunting task given its sheer size. After all, Patagonia is a place where you can get lost...and some folks go to hide.
Unless you’re taking an organized tour (which we were not), planning an independent trip through to Patagonia can be tricky. Our biggest challenge was how best to get around without breaking the bank but still allowing us flexibility. We’re not hitchhikers or backpackers, though we found out from many on the road who were, that they felt safe doing this, even solo female travelers. We travel comfortably - somewhere between Budget/Backpacker and All-Inclusive/Luxury, saving money where we can but still with occasional luxurious splurges here and there. When I first started planning our month-long trip, I had no idea what we were in for. The more I researched, the more questions I had.
After much discussion and changing our minds about where to go and what to see, we finally settled on an itinerary which hit the most important places we wanted to see: Chilean Patagonia and Torres del Paine (pronounced PIE-nay) National Park, Argentinean Patagonia and the End of the World in Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego, the Atacama desert in the far north of Chile, and finally Santiago. We left the 4,000 mile side trip to Easter Island for another time!
We generally prefer traveling independently. As a photographer, its difficult being constrained to the schedule of a large tour. The other tour-goers may not like (would probably throw me out given) the number of stops I like to make along the way. So if you like to travel on your own and have dreamed of exploring this remote part of the world, here are a few logistical things to consider as you make your plans.
1. The Distance Between
Patagonia is huge! To say we’ve traveled there seems almost absurd given the enormity of the entire region - and we covered a lot of ground. Have you seen Chile and Argentina on a map?
Chile is a long, narrow country - 2,653 miles long (4,300 km) but only a little over 100 miles wide. It appears to be squeezed to the westernmost edge of the South American ice cream cone by Argentina. By comparison, Argentina is 2,268 miles long (3,650 km) and takes up nearly the entire peninsula. Patagonia falls south of Puerto Mont in Chile. One could easily spend years here exploring just Patagonia. Tourism to Chile is just developing, and each year there are more opportunities for remote adventures all around the country. But it's still developing.
The point is this: the vast distances between places means it takes a good amount of time, money, and coordination to get around. Travel to Patagonia isn’t cheap but it’s so worth it.
When it comes to getting in and out of Patagonia, your choices are to fly, take a bus, rent a car, ride a bike, or hire a private transport. It all depends on your budget and how you want to experience it.
Santiago To Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales
You can get to Patagonia by plane, boat, bus, bike, or car. Santiago is roughly in the middle of the country, and driving from there to Patagonia will take you 31 hours, unless you stop to take in the unbelievable scenery - which of course you have to - so add another few hours on to that.
We wanted to get to Patagonia right away so we flew from Santiago to Punta Arenas at the southern tip of Chile via LAN Airlines. (Don’t confuse Punta Arenas with Puerto Natales near Torres del Paine - they are very different and three hours away from each other. Also, Torres del Paine National Park is another hour west past the town of Puerto Natales).
Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales (Torres del Paine)
Everyone planning a visit to Torres del Paine must pass through the backpacker town of Puerto Natales, and there are several ways to get there from Punta Arenas.
Fly - A short 25-minute hop from Punta Arenas lands at Gallardo Airport (PNT), 6 miles from the town of Puerto Natales. Flights into here have been sporadic at best but that's rumored to change as plans to expand it unfold. But for now, SKY Airlines offers flights a few times per week in the high season through the end of February.
Private transport - around $60-$75 USD per person.
Bus - several buses provide service between Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales, Puerto Natales and El Calafate, Punta Arenas and Ushuaia, and Puerto Natales and Ushuaia. Buses Fernandez, Buses Pacheco, and Bus Sur are three of the best, with clean safe, and comfy rides. Reserve your tickets online. There are no direct buses from Punta Arenas to Torres del Paine National Park; first you must stop in Puerto Natales.
Rental Car - There are several to choose from at the Punta Arenas airport with all sizes of 2WD/4WD cars. Check online and your own auto policy and insurance to see what rates/restrictions/coverages apply.
RECOMMEND! Rental Car
We rented a 2WD, compact car for a week, with a specially-arranged early morning drop-off in Puerto Natales, for $400 USD/week. We booked online ahead of time with EMSA Rent A Car, a subsidiary of AVIS, and were very pleased.
We were so glad we rented a car for this drive. It’s one of the most beautiful scenic drives in Chilean Patagonia. Pick up the two-lane highway to Puerto Natales right next to the airport. The road is flat, in good condition, and with very mild traffic (but enough if needed, in the event of an emergency). Driving independently means you can stop whenever you want for as long as you want.
Here’s what you’ll see along the way:
To Ushuaia, Argentina
Many travelers combine a trip to neighboring countries when visiting either Chile or Argentina. The Perito Moreno Glacier, El Calafate, and nearby El Chaltén in Argentina are hugely popular, and an easy 4-5 hour bus ride from Puerto Natales. But for us, we couldn’t imagine coming all this way to Torres del Paine in southern Chile without seeing The End of the World - Fin del Mundo - in Ushuaia, Argentina. This port city in Tierra del Fuego is the jumping off point for travelers heading to Antarctica and considered by most people to be the true ‘end of the world’ city. Sounds great, right? It’s 14 hours away from Puerto Natales!
Argentina Reciprocity Fee - American, Australian and Canadian citizens are required to pay a non-refundable fee to enter Argentina at the point of entry. The fee is $160 and lasts for ten years. (At the time of this writing, however, the Argentine government has temporarily suspended this fee collection from American citizens traveling to Argentina for less than 90 days. Check the Argentina State Department website to get the most up-to-date info.)
Your options to get to Ushuaia are to fly, take a bus, or rent a car and drive.
Fly - Flights to Ushuaia from Punta Arenas are very expensive, ranging from $600-$1200 depending on the time of year, and number of stops. Very often you'll fly to Santiago first, and then back down again, making for a longer trip than ground transportation.
Rental Car - Renting a car and driving across international borders carries additional fees from car rental companies and potential fees from Argentina.
Bus - There are several first-class tourist buses with service to Ushuaia out of both Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales. Bus Sur offered good rates, so we reserved our tickets online months ahead of time.
RECOMMEND! Take the bus if you can spare two days!
Our round trip cost, per person was $122 USD (Puerto Natales - Ushuaia, $67 USD; and Ushuaia - Punta Arenas, $55 USD). We were already in Torres del Paine and didn’t want to drive back to Punta Arenas, so the early morning bus from Puerto Natales to Ushuaia worked for us, and we returned to Punta Arenas.
Don't let the 14 hour ride dissuade you. Bus Sur was more comfortable than our economy class flight, plus it was air-conditioned and curtained to keep out the bright sun, and made plenty of stops along the way. You could stretch out and sleep, grab lunch, cross on the ferry over the Straits of Magellan, and take in the sites of the Argentinean countryside. Honestly, I thought it was a great way to travel - we saw a part of the country we'd never have seen if we flew.
3. FUEL AVAILABILITY
Here’s the thing. If you’re used to having a gas station on every corner or at least within a mile or so from your home, consider that petrol in Patagonia can be hard to come by. I don’t know why exactly. Not only are petrol stations few and far between there, but occasionally they'll run out of gas. Drivers are encouraged to tote along bottles of gas for the road especially if you’re planning on driving great distances. If you plan to stay in one region, like the southern region between Puerto Natales/Torres del Paine and Punta Arenas, a tank of gas will get you safely between the two.
4. It's Expensive To Get Around
The ginormous size of Chile and Argentina means it can be expensive to travel around. You’ll see lots of intrepid backpackers with their thumbs stuck out along the road, or carrying all of their belongings on their back and walking from place to place to save on expenses. That’s great if you have the time, youth, or inclination to do that - we did not.
That said, however, there are ways to keep costs down. For example, consider a hostel or Airbnb if you're only spending a day or two in jumping off points like Puerto Natales. We found two excellent accommodations in Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas for a few nights with low rates and great locations. Also, get restaurant recommendations from locals and eat where they eat. The prices should be lower and you'll likely get a great meal.
5. Credit Cards and ATMs
Credit cards are widely accepted in both Chile and Argentina and most banks also have ATM machines, however you should expect fewer bank locations in certain areas.
Punta Arenas has numerous national and international banks around the city and you can access your accounts for a small fee. Puerto Natales had only a handful of bank locations with an ATM machine. There are no banks located inside the Torres del Paine park so take enough cash with you while you’re there. Ushuaia also has numerous national and international banks with multiple ATMs around the city.
However, when we arrived in Ushuaia from Chile late on a Saturday night, four different banks we visited had already run out of cash, leaving us and dozens of other travelers wondering what to do next. Thankfully our cab driver accepted US dollars and we were able to take a cash advance the next day. This problem wasn’t unique to Ushuaia or Argentina. We understand this happens from time to time around Patagonia. Best to always have a small amount of local currency on hand.
These 5 logistical items were the most common questions that arose again and again in our months of planning for Patagonia. Thanks to help from fellow bloggers and lots of great information we received, our first trip most definitely will not be our last!
I'm happy to help with any details you might be wondering about. Just shoot me an email through the Contact box on my homepage. Trip planning can be overwhelming, but no one can write the details of your own travel story like you!