A guide to the Andes parts of Patagonia between Ushuaia and Bariloche
Heading to Patagonia with only 3 weeks to see it all? This piece is here to help you decide what itinerary to pick. Please note that I’ve only travelled by the Andes, so no Eastern Argentinian coast is much involved. So if you interested in places like Puerto Madryn – this might be a bit out of the way for you.
Arriving from Argentina: Buenos Aires – Ushuaia (optional) – Puerto Natales (Torres del Paine: Chile) – El Calafate – El Chaltén (Arg) – Los Antiguos/Chile Chico (Marble Cathedral: optional) – Careterra Austral – Cerro Castillo (optional) – Coyhaique – Puerto Chacabuco – Quellon or Puerto Montt – Puerto Varas – Bariloche – Buenos Aires.
Arriving from Chile it would be the same, except the first steps. I’d suggest to fly from Santiago to Punta Arenas and head to either Ushuaia, Argentina (12hrs bus) or taking a 4hrs bus to Puerto Natales. Of course, you can do the same trip in the reverse way, heading south from Bariloche instead.
When to go
The ideal time to visit Patagonia are shoulder seasons. It’s either spring (October – November) or Autumn (March – April). Either way, you’d avoid the crowds gathering in Patagonia in austral summer, your accomodation options will be a bit better and overall cost of the trip will be considerably cheaper. It is however possible that some places might not be open yet and some treks closed for the bad weather if you go too early, respectively too late.
If you’re landing in Buenos Aires, I’d suggest to spend few nights in Palermo or San Telmo neighbourhoods to enjoy this stunning city, its restaurants, wine, tango, galleries, museums and general character. It’s a truly stunning city with great energy and love. I’ve compiled few thoughts and semi-practical tips about Buenos Aires here.
The flights from Buenos Aires are rather cheap when flying internally with the low cost airlines if booked in advance. Skyscanner should be able to help you with your choices. The destinations you’ll be looking at are either Ushuaia or El Calafate. If you book it early, you should be able to do it from about €30+. The same applies for the flights from Santiago de Chile to Punta Arenas, except the fact that you might get a flight from €25+
1: Ushuaia. 3-4 days (optional)
If you have 3-4 days to spare and if you’re willing to spend some time on the bus, Ushuaia is a charming little town (pop approx 70 000) promotes its tourism as the southernmost city in the world AKA El Fin Del Mundo, or End of the World. The town is surrounded by a dramatic mountain range and Parque Nacional de Tierra del Fuego is 17km away.
If I were you, I would spend the first day exploring the town, including getting a End of the World stamp in your passport (by the port entrance) and I would also send exclusive post cards to my loved ones from El Fin del Mundo. Further two days, I’d spend in Parque Nacional de Tierra del Fuego and Glaciar Martial. Further information about Punta Arenas, Tierra del Fuego and Ushuaia here.
2: Punta Arenas (Isla Magdalena). 2-3 days
The biggest attraction that puts Punta Arenas on the tourist map is the town’s close proximity to Isla Magdalena, an island that hosts a large colony of Magellanic Penguins (estimated population of 120 000). You can visit Isla Magdalena with multiple agencies offering the tour for 60 000,-CLP (€80), if the weather permits. Other than that, the town comes with some museums connected to its marine exploration history, few shipwrecks and a lot of wind. Further information about Punta Arenas, Tierra del Fuego and Ushuaia here.
3: Puerto Natalas (Torres del Paine). 3 days
An approximately 4hrs bus drive (CLP8000/€ 10,50) from Punta Arenas lies Puerto Natales, the gate to Torres del Paine Parque Nacional, the place with some of the most iconic images from Chile. Two hours on the bus from the town will get you to the park for 15 000,-CPL return (€19,50) bus to the Hotel Las Torres is further 6000,-CLP return (€7,90) and the 3 day entrance to the park will cost you 21000,-CLP (€27,50).
Please bear in mind that unless you plan your trip well ahead (I’m talking two months as least), you’ll find it rather difficult to secure a spot in the camping places inside the park. Such situation would disallow you from doing the multi day “W” or “O” treks but you will still be able to make numerous day trips commuting from Puerto Natales, including the iconic Las Torres trek. More information as well as the unnecessary comparison between TdP and El Chaltén is here.
4: El Calafate and El Chaltén. 1 day + 4 days
El Calafate is a tourism-boosted town of about 20 000 people. It’s main and unfortunately only well known attraction is its proximity to the mighty Perito Moreno Glacier, about which you can read here.
About 4,5 hours (800,-ARS/€18,70) bus drive from El Calafate will get you to El Chaltén is a small charming touristy outpost that lies in the valley at the feet of Andes. It’s a well oiled tourist machine with some nice restaurants, hotels, hostels and bars with tasty wine and artesanal beers.
All major treks are accessible from the town. The two main treks are Laguna de Los Tres (my fav) and Laguna Torre. The difficulty levels are usually easy-ish (pretty much a walk in the forest) and like in TdP, it usually involves of last hour push to get to the view points.
5: Los Antiguos/Chile Chico (Marble Cathedral: optional). 1 day
In case you have time and patience for a bit of a detour that involves a long-ish night bus journey, you can grab a night bus from El Chaltén to Los Antiguos. I’ve opted for the 2090,-ARS/€49 (I know, they all were bloody expensive), 9pm – 6:30am bus that took me to the Argentinian frontier town of Los Antiguos. The bus ride involved a stunning sunset over the famous Ruta40, followed by a good night sleep in a semi-cama seat..
Crossing over to Chile is in this case a bit challenging because one has to pass through a 7km stretch of land between Argentina and Chile to reach Chile Chico and no public transport is allowed to operate this route.
From there it’s a rather expensive (€29), 3hrs drive by a 4×4 vehicle to Puerto Rio Tranquillo on an unpaved road. *It’s possible that you might get it cheaper. I was there on Sunday, when only one company was operating only this route. Otherwise, the tours are cheap – I’ve paid 10000,-CLP for my unforgettable 90minute experience. I’ve compiled more detailed description of the Marble Caves here, in case you were interested to get more details.
In case you have felt more adventurous than taking a night bus, you can alternatively walk across the border back to Chile via Villa O’Higgins (the beginning or the end of Carretera Austral) right from El Chaltén. It involves taking two ferries across the lakes and a night spent by Lago del Desierto. There’s a lot of information about this trip online and in case you wanted to find out, the most recent I found is here by Stingy Nomads.
If that is not you cup of tea either, the only other ways to get out of El Chaltén is either the previously mentioned long bus journey to Los Antiguos or head back to El Calafate’s to grab a flight to your next destination.
6: Careterra Austral. 3-4 days
Chile’s Ruta 7 is a 1240km long partially paved highway famous for its stunning views of glaciers, lakes, fjords, steep mountains and forests. From its south end, it starts at Villa O’Higgins and ends in Puerto Montt. I would personally recommend renting a vehicle to explore the full potential of what this beautiful stretch of land has to offer.
Queulat National Park is thanks to this double-cascade waterfall which is falling from the hanging glacier definitely one of the highlights but there so much more to see around Carretera Austral. More details are here.
I would just pick one other particular place into your attention. In case you are a coffee lover, you might enjoy a pit stop in Refugio Rio Cisnes, a beautiful place with a river and a real coffee, which is a rare commodity around this part of the world due to Chilean obsession with instant coffee. It’s about 6km north of Villa Amengual, right under the viewpoint, where you’ll definitely stop at to enjoy the view. FYI: I’m not paid, not I’ve receive any favours or advantages to share this info.
7: Cerro Castillo and Coyhaique. 4 days (optional)
I must admit that in this location, I was nursing my knee that gave in after overloading it during the previous days. My original plan was to take the 4 day trek in Cerro Castillo (well described here by Stingy Nomads) and take some rest and possibly short treks around Coyhaique. Instead I just enjoyed the local barley products and chatted to other travellers.
Sorry for the lack of information here. The town of Coyhaique is not extremely pleasant, nor it is an unpleasant place but I would not chose it for a pit stop if I knew what it was like before. Instead, I’d stay in either Bariloche (better social life and facilities for that) or if I wanted to be in very quiet place, Puyuhuapi would suit that a lot.
8: Puerto Chacabuco – Quellon or Puerto Montt. 2 days
This part of a journey was about taking my preferred means of transportation – a ferry travel. I’ve described multiple options of ferry travel in Southern Chile in a separate article here. The ferry I have picked took me though 2 fjords with impressive mountain ranges around and numerous waterfalls to look at. And one epic sunset inside the fjord. There’s not that many things that can beat such experience.
My goal was to get to Isla Chiloé, the largest island of Chile to find out about the local legends. More details about how I failed to do so, as well as some practical information about the island are here. If ferry travel is not for you, there are numerous comfortable and safe bus companies you can chose from.
9: Puerto Varas (2 days) and San Carlos de Bariloche (3 days)
Both of these places feel rather popular resort-like destinations and both are located on shores of glacier lakes of Lago Llanquihue, respectively Nahuel Huapi Lake. The resorty feeling and relatively close proximity are the main reasons why I’ve decided to write a joined piece about both towns here.
I personally found Puerto Varas a bit boring, less pretty and limited if compared to Bariloche but that might be due to the rather higher average age of visitors and other personal preferences. The ultimate highlight in town are Lago Llanquihue and Vulcan Osorno, the latter being perfectly shaped volcano that holds trekking as well as SKI options in the winter.
About 7 hours stunning bus drive from Puerto Varas will take you over the Andes to San Carlos de Bariloche for 18 000,-CLP (€12,90 . The town’s centre (Centro Cívico) is reminiscent of the Swiss Alpine houses and it hosts plenty of restaurants, cafés and bars.
Other than that, there is spectacular scenery and a wide-range of activities available all year round. If you are int trekking, you might consider visiting Cerros Otto, Tronador and Catedral, the last being also a SKI resort in the winter. Again, for more detailed information, please see this piece..
What would I change on my itinerary with the knowledge I have now?
I guess that I would plan better for Torres del Paine in the first place. Furthermore I would cut down time spent in Coyhaique or skip it completely.
Otherwise, I must say that except the limitations caused by my knee that gave in due to high volume of trekking and the past abuse of it from my football days, I am 100% satisfied with my itinerary, eventhough to say it sounds rather smuggy.
But I got what I wanted: a spectacular nature and a bit of solitude soul cleansing after a hard year at work at the beginning, followed by more and more constantly changing sceneries and I’ve ended up with some doses of social life in Coyhaique and Bariloche.
Whatever you do – enjoy Patagonia – it’s truly one of the most beautiful and diverse areas of our planet to visit.