latin america routes
Backpacking Route in Patagonia (Argentina & Chile)
A quick look at a map doesn’t quite do justice to the enormity of South America. Heading south from the Northern tip of the continent and the warm clear waters of the Caribbean Sea you have to cut through the Amazon, cross the equator and travel thousands of kilometres southwards down the Andes before you even reach Patagonia which itself covers a gigantic area of over one million km squared.
By the time you have travelled all the way down to Ushuaia and the Southern tip of Patagonia and South America, you are as close to Antarctica as it is possible to get without actually going there yourself (which you can do from Ushuaia).
Patagonia is unquestionably one of the world’s greatest natural wonders but its isolated location hidden away in the bottom left corner of our planet as you look at a map means relatively few ever make it here. Those who do, never forget it. Our backpacking route for Patagonia covers some of the most spectacular scenery and natural adventures that anyone could wish for.
TIME NEEDED – 5 to 6 WEEKS
If you are hugely into long hikes then you could probably do it in longer but for those whose priority is to marvel at and enjoy the scenery then 5 weeks is probably sufficient. There are some pretty big distances to cover and you could do it in less by taking the odd flight or skipping a couple of destinations.
POSSIBLE SHOESTRING BUDGET
£1,650 | €1,900 | $2,000
Some destinations in Patagonia are actually really quite expensive and up there with anything you’ll find on the continent in terms of accommodation (although in many places camping is possible and this will significantly reduce your costs). Then there is the travelling which by bus is time and money consuming and roughly works out about US$5 per hour of travel of which there will be many! Then there are extras on entry into national parks and paying for hiking trips and suchlike. On the positive side, food and drinks are typically pretty cheap if you avoid the tourist options.
Budget travel in Chile and Patagonia is certainly possible though and $2,000 is a plausible basic shoestring budget not including flights in/out of the region or trips to Antarctica which will increase your costs significantly! If you decide to do more trips using travel or tour companies rather than doing your own thing then it will also be more expensive.
Avoid the peak summer months and you can probably reduce your costs.
VISA REQUIREMENTS FOR ARGENTINA & CHILE
Citizens of 81 countries including all EU states, all South American countries and the USA do not need a visa to enter Argentina for up to 90 days. The situation is very similar in Chile with all EU members and US citizens getting visa-free entry for 90 days. This route hops across the border several times and you just simply get a fresh 90 days each time you enter either country.
Use our visa check tool to confirm whether or not you will need a visa in Chile & Argentina.
World Nomads are a good choice for travel insurance for trips of this nature. Healthcare is reasonably good in both countries but the remoteness of some of the locations can need you leaving lengthy transfers should you be so unfortunate to get injured or sick. Having proper cover is therefore essential.
Patagonia Backpacking Route
Getting to Santiago de Chile:
Santiago is the easiest place to start the route and as the capital city it has the best connections to other parts of South America and further afield.
- From Canada – There are flights almost every day from Toronto with Air Canada.
From USA – American Airlines and LAN offer flights from Miami, New York, LA and Dallas. While Delta Air Lines go non-stop from Atlanta and United Airlines do likewise from Houston.
From Europe – Iberia and LAN fly to Madrid while Air France has flights to Paris. It’s pretty easy to connect to these from other cities in Europe.
- From Oceania – You can cross the Pacific with Qantas who operate a non-stop flight from Sydney three times a week. LAN fly from Sydney via Auckland. LAN also have a route via Tahiti and the Chilean owned Easter Island which is popular with backpackers.
From Latin America – LAN has a large network linking the Chilean capital to almost all the main cities in Latin America and all the major national airlines fly here. International flights around Latin America are typically very expensive though given the relatively short distance covered. If you’re flying from other parts of Chile then have a look at Sky Airline who usually have the best fares and they do fly to some other parts of Latin America too.
Most travellers don’t come to South America just to visit Patagonia though. If you have time consider linking this in with our backpacking route for South America which includes a stop in Santiago. More details on how to fit this in can be found in the ‘extending your trip’ section at the bottom of this page.
Santiago de Chile & Around
Santiago de Chile
The capital of Chile is one of the most beautifully located capitals in the world with the snow-capped Andes mountains providing the backdrop. They provide plenty of great trekking opportunities and you can even go skiing. The city itself is enormous and by far the biggest on this route so it’s the best place to buy anything you might need for your trip South. It’s also developing into a thriving cultural centre and there is plenty to see and do without leaving the confines of the city.
MFT RECOMMENDS – La Casa Roja, Santiago de Chile
Cool hostel in the heart of Santiago but with a spacious garden and pool area.
Just 120km or so west of Santiago you reach the Pacific Ocean and Valparaiso, a really colourful harbour city and one of the most popular backpacking destinations in Chile. It has a big bohemian feel to it and as you roam around the hilly streets you’ll never be far from something quirky. Lovers of the arts will enjoy Valpo. It’s also surrounded by excellent vineyards that you can visit and the locally produced but world famous Chilean wine is well worth a taste.
Vina del Mar
Vina del Mar is literally only 10 minutes down the coast from Valparaiso but is another essential stop on any backpacking route in Chile. It’s home to one of the most popular beaches in the country but it can be a bit chilly unless you visit in the summer (December to February). It also plays host to one of South America’s biggest music festivals each February.
Getting from Santiago de Chile to the Lake District:
From Vina del Mar or Valparaiso it’s quick and easy to get back to Santiago and will only take around 90 minutes depending on the traffic into the capital. From Santiago you can start your trip south.
It is around 750km between Santiago and Villarrica. Most travellers opt to take a night bus (buses leave daily) and this will save you a night on accommodation. It is also possible to fly to Temuco which is about 30 minutes by road from Villarrica, the first destination in the Chilean lake district.
The Chilean & Argentine Lake District
Villarrica is surrounded by lakes, volcanoes, caves and hot springs and is a hugely popular hiking destination. In the summer it can be nice to stay in Pucon, a small beach town on the banks of Lake Villarrica. You can also explore the area by horse or go on rafting trips. The highly active Volcan Villarrica (which erupted as recently as 3rd March 2015) is a stunning sight but trips up it are very much restricted because as you might imagine it can be fairly dangerous!
Hiking, rock-climbing, ridiculous valleys and cliffs as well as some rather wonderful natural waterslides are all the rage here. You can get to Cochamo by taking a bus from Villarrica to either Puerto Varas or Puerto Montt and then transferring onto a bus into the isolated Cochamo Valley which has limited lodging options but camping is also possible for those who like it wild.
It doesn’t really matter whether you head to Cochamo or Chiloe first as to access either you need to pass through Puerto Varas or the larger Puerto Montt. Chiloe is the largest island in Chile with more incredible scenery and treks as well as some lovely little villages and plenty of intriguing ancient myths.
A compact and unremarkable town but a decent base for more Lake District adventures. Options include the Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park, home of the Petrohué falls and Lake Todos los Santos. The stunning Osorno and Calbuco volcanoes are also nearby. Mount Osorno has a pretty cool chairlift which is open all year round and is used by skiers in the winter and pretty anyone who likes a view in the summer. Kayaking and rafting is also possible close to Puerto Varas and it is your best base for getting to Argentina but it’s not a simple task!
BORDER CROSSING (Chile to Argentina)
Getting from Puerto Varas to Bariloche:
As the crow flies there is little more than 100km between Puerto Varas in Chile and San Carlos Bariloche in Argentina. However with some rather large mountains and plenty of lakes in the way, crossing the Andes is not such a simple task. It takes about 6 hours by bus with daily departures at 8:50 via Cruz Del Sur. To get between the two towns it costs 18,000 Chilean Pesos (about US$30) and includes a stop at the border post known as Paso Cardenal Antonio Samoré which is one of the better organised of the Andean crossings between the two countries.
Alternatively there are some companies that offer ridiculously named but much more direct bus-boat-bus-boat-bus-boat-bus crossings (or something like that). The deal is that you cross over the Andes via three stunning lakes and take in some truly breathtaking scenery while typically stopping overnight at a village somewhere between the two.
Cruceandino are one company that offers this trip although it’s by no means cheap at US$230. You may be able to find cheaper deals in Puerto Varas.
San Carlos de Bariloche (& Nahuel Huapi National Park)
The long trip here will soon be worth it when you start exploring the beautiful Argentine lakes and mountains in the area. It is famous for skiing, water sports, trekking and climbing. The town itself is also one of the liveliest in Patagonia, with a swanky Swiss-like vibe and some banging bars and clubs that party on past dawn. It is certainly an essential and usually very popular stop on any Patagonia backpacking route.
Esquel (for Los Alerces National Park)
Esquel is 300km or so south of Bariloche and is used as the gateway for Los Alerces National Park. It has loads of great hiking trails and is very large going right up to the border with Chile. The park takes its name from the alerce trees which are literally everywhere. The town itself is small and growing but has nowhere near as much going for it as Bariloche.
Getting from the Lake District to the Extreme South:
There is a 24 hour bus than runs between San Carlos de Bariloche and El Chalten. One of the stops is Esquel so you can hop off and hop on the bus at Esquel where you can spend a few days. Prices vary but expect to pay around US$5 for every hour of travel. The ride is long but passes through some stunning deserted scenery. Before long you realise you really have entered the weird wilderness of the far south of this continent.
The Extreme South & Tierra del Fuego
This is a major hiking destination in the Southern Andes with ambitious trekkers taking on the challenge of Mount Fitz Roy and Cerro Torres, two of the biggest peaks in Patagonia. It’s busy in the summer but pretty quiet the rest of the year apart from a steady stream of travellers backpacking through Argentina and Chile.
El Calafate (for Los Glaciares National Park)
Just 2-3 hours by bus from El Chalten, this is also a major base for trekkers in Argentine Patagonia looking to explore the fabulous Glaciers National Park. Entrance to the park isn’t cheap and is only valid for a day but plenty of different trips can be arranged in El Calafate to witness the incredible giant glaciers.
BORDER CROSSING (Argentina to Chile)
Getting from El Calafate to Torres del Paine:
There are buses that take around 5-6 hours to get from El Calafate to Puerto Natales in Chile. Some tour companies advertise direct buses to Torres del Paine but it is generally cheaper to head to Puerto Natales and make your way to the parks from there. Hitchiking from El Calafate to Puerto Natales is also very possible.
There is nothing particularly amazing about Puerto Natales but has good basic infrastructure for backpackers in Patagonia and is an excellent base for making your way to Torres del Payne and Bernardo O’Higgins National Parks.
Torres del Paine National Park
Daily buses run to the Park from Puerto Natales and take around two hours. You are now really approaching the chilly Southern tip of the continent and Torres del Paine National Park is home to plenty of stunning mountains, glaciers, lakes, and rivers. It is possible to stay in the park with extortionate $50 dorm beds available in the refugios (reserve in advance) while there are many campsites, some of which are free. Camping in non-designated areas is strictly not allowed.
You will need to head back to Puerto Natales for the bus to Punto Arenas.
Punto Arenas is the most southerly city on mainland South America. The weather can make exploring the town pretty difficult but there is a surprising amount of history and sites of interest. You can also get to the Seno Otway penguin colony where each spring hundreds of Magellanic Penguins come to breed. Meanwhile there is a good view of some incredible whales from Carlos III Island.
BORDER CROSSING (Chile to Argentina)
Getting from Punto Arenas to Ushuaia
The two southernmost cities in the world are linked by frequent bus services that take around 10 hours including a short ferry ride from mainland South America onto the island of Tierra del Fuego. There are also flights but these are much more expensive and miss out on some of the dramatic scenery.
Ushuaia (Tierra del Fuego)
Ushuaia is commonly referred to as the southernmost city in the world and a thriving tourism industry has built up in recent years focused around the cruises to Antarctica. The town is now complete with nice restaurants and given its military history there are some cool museums to visit such as Museo Marítimo set in an old prison. Nearby Tierra del Fuego National Park is also an incredible place to explore and this is fast becoming a popular stop on many backpacking routes in Argentina and indeed South America.
MFT RECOMMENDS – La Posta Hostel, Ushuaia
Accommodation in Ushuaia is on the expensive side. La Posta is a pretty good option with a 24-7 front desk offering advice on all the different trips and tours you can do in the surrounding icy wilderness.
Visiting Antarctica from Ushuaia:
From Ushuaia between November and March it is possible to take a cruise to Antarctica which it goes without saying is an incredible experience that few people get to do in their lifetime.
It’s by no means cheap to do this so you need some pretty serious dosh saved up. The cruises are often advertised at around US$10,000 but can be found in town for much less (from around $3500) and there are boats leaving every day from November onwards. Typically the cruises are 7-10 days including various stops.
Getting from Ushuaia to Buenos Aires:
Given Ushuaia is the end of the world, there is only one way to go wherever you want to ultimately get to and that is north. Invariably this involves getting to Buenos Aires from where you can fly to pretty much anywhere in the world or continue your travels in South America.
It’s about 3 hours 30 minutes to the Argentine capital from Ushuaia and like most flights in this continent it is not cheap but unless you want to spend several days on a bus, there isn’t much other option. It will set you back £160 ($240) or thereabouts and there are plenty of flights.
Budget Accommodation in Patagonia
Prices and availability fluctuate in and out of peak-season. Book hostels in advance during busier times and certainly during national holidays.
Extending your trip
Not hard to extend your trip here as Santiago and Buenos Aires are well connected to the rest of the continent and both are also stops on our main South America backpacking route. You can follow that route all the way down to Santiago and then instead of crossing the Andes into Argentina, follow this route down to Patagonia and then rejoin the other route in Buenos Aires. In other words you would miss out Mendoza, Alta Gracia, Cordoba and Rosario in favour of a much longer trip but more dramatic scenery further south. You might also want to check out our Brazil itinerary if you just want to add one more country.
In terms of adding destinations to your route, a visit to the disputed British-owned Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) as well as the possible cruise to Antarctica would be the most obvious additions but both are likely to require a sizeable increase in your budget.
Further North, our Central America backpacking route, might also be one to consider if you don’t have the time or money to do a bigger trip around South America. Central America is much more compact and more budget-friendly so it’s quicker and cheaper to get around.
There is a more detailed longer route for the entire South American continent in our Backpackers Guide to South America (Ebook).
This article was published in March 2015. Some of the prices quoted in the article may have changed since but the budget at the top was updated in January 2017.