Backpacking Patagonia is quite simply a nature lover’s dream. This route for Southern Argentina and Chile starts in Santiago and ends in Ushuaia, the Southern tip of the South American continent. In other words, you will be as close to Antarctica as it is possible to get without actually going there yourself (which you can do from Ushuaia!).
TIME NEEDED – 5 to 6 WEEKS
5 weeks is probably sufficient but if you have the time and funds, you can take it slower. 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
£1,550 | €1,800 | $2,000
This is based on February 2019 prices and exchange rates. Argentina has got a lot cheaper in recent years though and made our countries hot-list for backpacking 2019 so keep an eye on any economic changes reversing that trend. Some destinations in Patagonia are actually really expensive, particularly in terms of accommodation during the peak summer months. Consider upping your budget if you come then. Overall by South American standards, this is an expensive trip and the considerable cost of getting to the region is not factored in to these budgets.
Read more on the cost of travel in Chile.
It’s highly advisable to get travel insurance before any form of overseas travel. SafetyWing is one company that offers affordable and well-reviewed travel insurance for backpacking trips – including COVID-19 coverage.
Patagonia Itinerary – 5 to 6 Weeks
Patagonia is unquestionably one of the world’s greatest natural wonders but its isolated location hidden away in the bottom left corner of a world 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.
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 during the colder months. The city itself is enormous and by far the biggest on this route. Therefore 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. A trip up the famous Cerro San Cristobal is a good starting point.
Just 120 km 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 to two hours depending on the traffic into the capital. From Santiago you can start your trip south. It is around 750 km 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. As of 2019, domestic flights in Chile are much cheaper than they used to be so it’s worth checking out the prices on a flight comparison site.
The Chilean & Argentine Lake District
Surrounded by lakes, volcanoes, caves and hot springs, Villarrica 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 water-slides 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. It 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. This 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 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. There are daily departures with Andesmar 8:55am costing the equivalent of $20 and taking roughly 6-7 hours including a stop at the border post.
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 not really within the budget of most shoestring travellers. 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 300 km 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. Ambitious trekkers regularly take 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. However there is always 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. It is mostly used by those looking to explore the fabulous Glaciers National Park. Entrance to the park isn’t cheap and is only valid for a day. However 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. Hitchhiking 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 Paine 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. Check out this detailed 80 mile Torres del Paine hiking route if you fancy a longer stay in the area.
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.
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. There’s some decent info on how to visit Antarctica on a budget from someone who did the trip here.
Check out our other Latin America routes!
Backpacking Patagonia Tips
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.
Canada – There are direct flights from Toronto with Air Canada but it’s cheaper to choose a connect in the US.
USA – There are direct flights from Miami, New York, LA, Dallas, Atlanta and Houston.
Europe – The most affordable direct flights are from Madrid and Barcelona. However you can also go direct from London or Paris. Flying via Miami may be more cost-effective though in both cases.
Oceania – You can fly direct from Auckland, Sydney or Melbourne. There is also the possibility of flying via Tahiti and the Chilean owned Easter Island which is popular with backpackers and a very decent plan if you’re heading across the Pacific.
Latin America – LATAM 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 and JetSmart who usually have the best fares and they do fly to some other parts of Latin America too. They are also worth checking out if you get sick of the long bus journeys on the route above.
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.
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 around $100-150 or thereabouts and there are plenty of flights with LATAM the best value at the time of research (February 2019).
Budget Accommodation and Camping in Patagonia
Prices and availability fluctuate in and out of peak-season. Try to book hostels in advance during busier times and certainly during national holidays. Camping is a really good option for saving money in Patagonia as even dorm beds can be really pricey in places. There are loads of campsites and getting a cheap tent is worth considering for anyone on a tight budget and particularly people travelling in Patagonia during the warmer, peak summer months. In bigger towns, Airbnb is a good option.
How to keep Costs Down
- Accommodation really can be the big budget killer in parts of Patagonia. Research thoroughly the situation in all the destinations you will be visiting. For multi-day hikes or trips to more rural areas, consider leaving your belongings in storage in a hostel in one of the larger towns. Then just head out with a tent and what you need for the trip.
- Transport costs also do add up as there are some big distances to cover. Buses are roughly speaking around US$5 per hour of travel of which there will be many! Keep your eyes peeled for bargain flights as they can sometimes work out cheaper than the buses. Budget airlines are really growing in Chile in particular. You can fly from Santiago to Puerto Montt for less than $40 excluding baggage costs for example (far less than the equivalent bus). Therefore consider skipping some sections of the route above and building a plan around a couple of flights if you are restricted by time or money.
- There are extra fees for entry into national parks. Those can be hard to avoid but you can try to limit your time in the more expensive ones as there is no shortage of amazing free nature to be explored!
- Food and drinks are typically pretty cheap in Patagonia. Just make sure to avoid the tourist options where possible and locate local joints. Like in other parts of South America, there are some bargain set-meals to be found.
- Avoid the peak summer months and you can probably reduce your costs for most of the above.
Visa Requirements for Argentina and Chile
Citizens of 87 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. Canadians and Australians can also enter with no visa and no longer need to pay reciprocity fees.
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. Australians must pay a reciprocity fee of US$117 if arriving by air but there are no such charges at land borders.
Use our visa check tool to confirm whether or not you will need a visa in Chile & Argentina.
This article was last updated in February 2019.