How to travel in Patagonia

Stretching from the northern edges of its Lake District down to its tip in Tierra del Fuego and encompassing over one million square kilometres of both Chile and Argentina, Patagonia is, quite simply, vast. And working out how to travel in Patagonia – and still see the best the region has to offer – can be as much of a challenge as its spectacular hikes. Here we break down your options, from the convenience of a guided small group tour to the independence and flexibility of a self-drive holiday.

Guided small group holidays

Accompanied by expert tour leaders, small group holidays are an excellent option if you’re a solo traveller, or simply someone who enjoys sharing the highlights of their holiday a group of likeminded new friends. Don’t be fooled, these aren’t anonymous coach tours; group sizes are usually around 10-12 people, allowing for a more intimate adventure into the heart of the Patagonian landscape. Small groups will also benefit from the fascinating insight and specialist knowledge of a local guide on hand all the time.

All your transport around Patagonia will be included, ranging from internal flights and ferries to private buses and 4x4 adventures. Itineraries are fixed, but many will build in free days for independent hiking. Or relaxation. Whichever floats your Patagonian boat.

Self drive tours

Driving in Patagonia is as much about the journey as the destination; the roads you will take across the steppe cut through some of the most spectacular scenery in South America. So, pack your camera and a picnic; while buses ply the same routes, being in charge behind the wheel means you can leave when you want and stop, loiter and soak up those Patagonian vistas as you wish. Our top tip? Allow plenty of extra time if you’re driving within Torres del Paine National Park – the 60km trip between Las Torres and Lago Grey is utterly spellbinding.

For most self drive holidays you’ll pick your hire car up from Punta Arenas – Chile’s main Patagonian hub, or El Calafate – the Argentine equivalent. Both Patagonian towns play host to several quality car rental services and have excellent road links to both Puerto Natales (for Torres del Paine National Park) and Los Glaciares National Park.
If your trip includes the more northern (and ever-so-lovely) Lake District, Patagonia’s answer to Switzerland, then you’ll be picking up a hire car in Bariloche (Argentina) or Temuco (Chile). The drive north from Bariloche to San Martín de los Andes is particularly beautiful. If your trip continues further south, you’ll likely return your hire car to whence it came, hop on a flight, and pick up another at your next airport. While the drive would be visually stunning, it would take around 20 hours – and that’s without stops on the way.

As with most Patagonian holidays, in a car you’ll do your fair share of border-hopping between Argentina and Chile. Luckily, border formalities with a hire car are relatively straightforward and usually hassle-free. Your holiday provider and rental company will ensure you have any necessary paperwork to smooth the process.

What is it like driving in Patagonia?

Both Chile and Argentina drive on the right and the main roads are in excellent condition, with ribbons of smooth tarmac reaching towards the horizon in an oft-unwavering straight line. The few exceptions include much of the route from Puerto Natales into Torres del Paine National Park and the roads within the park itself, which are all ripio (gravel). However, these are well maintained and do not necessitate a 4x4 – simply slow down and enjoy the views.

The classic El Calafate – El Chaltén – Torres del Paine itinerary is particularly well suited to independent road trips. Distances between mighty glaciers, iconic hikes and spectacular miradores are, by Patagonian standards, relatively short. Watch your fuel carefully though and fill up whenever you have the opportunity; distances between petrol stations can be enormous in Patagonia and carrying an emergency fuel supply is recommended.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Patagonia or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Patagonia by bus

Argentina’s excellent bus network makes getting around in Patagonia a relative breeze, with trips focussed on Los Glaciares National Park and Torres del Paine National Park particularly accessible by public transport. More budget-friendly than taxis or private transfers, but still affording you the flexibility that comes with a tailor made tour, taking the public bus is an ideal alternative to hiring a car. Buses are clean, comfortable and of good quality – and they have to be; this is a country with very limited rail services, so for long journeys buses rule the roost.
Regular, efficient services link El Calafate to Perito Moreno glacier (1.5 hours) , El Chaltén (for treks in the Fitzroy Massif – 3 hours) and to Puerto Natales, the gateway to Torres del Paine National Park (4.5 hours ). These routes are well-used to tourists; buses arriving into national parks, for example, will stop to ensure all passengers can purchase entry permits before continuing to their final destination. At border crossings, buses simply stop until all passengers have completed the formalities.

Your holiday company will book your tickets for you and arrange transfers to and from the bus stations to make your journeys as smooth as the tarmac you’ll be travelling on.

Flying in Patagonia

Unless you have oodles of time, you’ll find it difficult to travel in Patagonia without flying. International flights arrive at Buenos Aires or Santiago, from where you’ll need to connect to a domestic airport in Patagonia – usually El Calafate and Ushuaia in Argentina or Punta Arenas in Chile. These flights take around 3.5 hours and use reputable airlines.

To give you a sense of scale, travelling by bus from Buenos Aires to El Calafate would take at least two days, depending on where you stopped along the way. For this reason, tours which cover decent ground usually use a combination of domestic flights and hire cars, public buses or private transfers to keep overland travel times to a minimum. Internal flights are usually included in the cost of a tour.

If you’d prefer to limit flights during your holiday you’ll need to pick one region of Patagonia and stay there. But don’t feel you’re missing out; slowing down is the best way to experience the real power of the Patagonian landscape, A popular – and convenient – option is to focus your trip around El Calafate, Los Glaciares National Park and Torres del Paine, all of which are within a few hours’ drive of each other and include some of Patagonia’s most classic landscapes.

On the water

Given the fjord-like nature of the southern Chile, the vast glacial lakes and the iconic Beagle Channel lining the edge of Tierra del Fuego, boat trips, catamarans and ferry rides will, by necessity, form part of your Patagonia holiday.

In the northern Lake District, the almost all-day journey from Puerto Varas in Chile to Bariloche in Argentina, traversing the Andes by catamaran (and a few short sections by bus), is nothing short of spectacular. You could skirt around the lakes it crosses – Llanquihue, Todos los Santos, Frias, and Nahuel Huapi – by car, but you’d be missing out on views of towering, snow-capped volcanoes. This really is one of the most beautiful journeys in Patagonia.

No visit to Torres de Paine National Park is complete without the journey by catamaran across Lake Pehoé. Not only does this afford breathtaking views of the Cuernos del Paine peaks but is also one of the only way to access trails into the beautiful Valle Francés from the lodges and camps around the Hotel Las Torres.
Written by Sarah Faith
Photo credits: [Page banner: ii7017] [Intro: R I O M A N S O] [Patagonia self drive tours: Gerrit Burow] [Patagonia by bus: H Dragon] [On the water: Juan Geracaris]