Searching for a guide on how to get to Patagonia and the stunning Torres del Paine national park from Santiago or elsewhere in Chile? You've found it!
In this post, we've outlined the three main transport routes, with an overview of the key costs and considerations.
a word of warning for budget travellers
Travelling to, from and within Patagonia is neither cheap nor convenient. In fact, for the budget conscious amongst you, you need to be fully aware that hiking the 'W' or visiting elsewhere in the region, such as the Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina, is going to cost more than your initial expectations; transport costs form a significant part of this.
We thought long and hard about whether we could afford to go to Patagonia on our two-year trip around Latin America. For the first 18 months, we had decided against it because of the associated costs. It was only when we reached Chile, and after much research, that we decided it was worth going over our budget, by quite a significant margin, to experience the region.
the transport hubs of patagonia
Click on the markers in the interactive map below to familiarise yourself with the locations of the Chilean towns we will be mentioning in this post.
The most important place is Puerto Natales, a town in the south of Chile which is the gateway to Torres del Paine and where you will spend at least a couple of nights.
#1 the thirty-three hour bus
For those on a very tight budget, this may be your only option.
Given Chile's geography, there is no direct bus from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales - instead you will need to take a 30 hour bus ride to Punta Arenas. Unfortunately, only a few companies run this route, and on a very limited schedule, so you need to plan your travel around their availability. Cruz del Sur appears to operate the most frequent service, with departures on Monday, Thursday and Saturday.
If you're American, Canadian or Australian without any plans to visit Argentina on this trip, bear in mind that the bus will zig-zag between the two countries to reach Punta Arenas and that the sizeable entry fee may be charged even if you are just passing through on a bus to the south of Chile. If such a charge applies to you, do further research into it before booking any bus journey and factor it into your budget (update August 2016 - the entry fee for US citizens has been scrapped, however do confirm before travel).
Once you arrive in Punta Arenas, you will have no trouble finding a bus to take you the three hours up the road to Puerto Natales.
Your only option within the north or middle of Chile is the bus departing from Puerto Montt. If you are starting the journey towards Patagonia from Santiago, we'd recommend you split it up with a few days in Pucón which is a nice little lakeside tourist town with a range of adventure activities on offer and some excellent D.I.Y. hiking.
if you're travelling to South America on short-term trip, you need to factor in that the bus will take at least two days out of your travel itinerary. Indeed, if you are trying to do this trip all in one go from Santiago (you are truly a masochist), total travel time would end up being at least 45 hours (not including waiting for connections).
Is that how you want to be spending your time?
At only $30,000 CP (£28/$42) per person from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas, it is an absolute bargain for the thousands of kilometres covered.
However, the cost of additional connecting buses, food and a possible overnight stay in Puerto Montt need to be factored into your plans. Also, bear in mind that this is not a luxury long-bus service, with only 'semi-cama' beds being offered.
Again, if you are charged an entry fee for Argentina, we advise you to do your research about how this works and factor it into the costs of any bus journey.
how to book
Recorrido is a good place to start to check departure information for several companies running the route, whilst Cruz del Sur's website also lists the departure and booking information for their Puerto Montt-Punta Arenas bus.
#2 the three-day boat
Sailing for four days and three nights through the Patagonian Fjords sounds like one hell of an experience. And, as this is the option we took, we can happily attest that it was certainly a memorable voyage.
Run exclusively by Navimag, their cargo ships double up as ferries which bring hundreds of tourists south every week.
So what can you expect? Passengers can pick from one bed in a 3 person shared-dormitory to a range of private cabins. You are provided with three, surprisingly good, meals a day (cold breakfast, hot lunch and dinner) and excellent hot showers. There is no internet, so most of your time is going to be spent out on deck admiring the views which, although quite repetitive, are beautiful in some stretches. If you're lucky, wildlife spottings are possible; we saw a couple of dolphins and a seal, whilst whale sightings have been recorded.
Importantly, after an incident with some drunk truck drivers attempting a barbecue in their room, there is a strict zero-tolerance policy on alcohol. There are at least two dedicated English-speaking staff on board to assist passengers.
The ferry exceeded our expectations in terms of comfort and service. The overall 'travel' experience however, although very good, fell a bit short of our high expectations.
Ferries depart from Puerto Montt on Friday evenings. Passengers must check-in at the Navimag offices and then return later when a shuttle bus will bring them to the port, around twenty minutes away.
Although the ferry's route and itinerary varies depending on weather, season and conditions, all will terminate on Monday mornings in the town of Puerto Natales, which is the gateway to Torres del Paine and Tierra del Fuego.
To return north, the ferry departs Puerto Natales on Tuesday mornings.
Three nights. Now, because one can view the ferry journey as an experience in and of itself, those three nights are less likely to be viewed as too much of a negative, unlike the above bus journey. However, if you are on a very tight time schedule in Chile, taking this option will mean you miss out on spending time in other parts of the country.
The price varies depending on season and your choice of cabin. For example, a bed in a 3 person dorm in low season (April to October) will cost $300 USD, whilst in high season (November to March) they are $450 USD. Private cabins for two range from $350-$870 pp in low season, rising to $595-$1050 pp in the busier months.
From the rooms we saw on the smaller Eden ferry (they also use a larger Evengelista ferry), we would recommend the 'Cabinas CC' to couples looking for privacy and comfort. The more expensive cabins come with a small window and, for more money, a private bathroom but the quality and space you're given is really not worth the extra money. It's worth nothing that, if the boat is not full, you may be given a free upgrade on your room once you're on board.
Whichever season you travel in, this cost includes all your food on the journey but does not include a $10 USD port tax.
Taking the ferry to reach Patagonia is definitely not the cheapest option, with a premium being charged for the 'Patagonian Fjords' experience. We felt the prices in low season (at least for the cheapest room) were just about right whilst those in high season are over-priced, for what you receive. We would absolutely encourage against paying extra for a window or en-suite (unless of course you would really like them) in low or high season.
how to book: Bookings and further information can be found on Navimag's website. If you are planning on travelling in high season, it is worth booking well in advance.
#3 the two-hour flight
Flying into the heart of Patagonia makes a lot of sense. It will save you several days of travel in comparison to the other options and, if you are lucky with your booking, won't cost the earth. In fact, from November to October, flying costs significantly less than the ferry.
You have a few different options to make the journey to Puerto Natales:
A) Fly from Santiago to Punta Arenas
Undoubtedly the most convenient option, especially for those only in Chile to visit the southern region. Some flights involve a two-hour change or stop in Puerto Montt.
One-way tickets used to cost in the range of $138,000 - $247,000 CP per person ($193-345 USD) with travel time of 3.5 - 4.5 hours. However, SKY Airlines has significantly dropped its prices for this route, with one-way tickets available for as little as $32,000 CP (£34 / $49 USD).
B) Fly from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas
If you have plans to visit some spots south of Santiago, such as Pucón, then it may be better to fly from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas. Again, there has been a significant drop in airfares for this route. One-way flights used to range from $127,000 - $167,000 CP ($178-234 USD), but are now available with Sky Airline for as little as $27,000 CP (£28 / $40). Flight time is just over two hours.
Whichever flight option you choose, you will have to take the three hour bus ($5,000 CP) from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales.
Sky Airline and LAN are two of the main providers of flights on this route, with Sky Airline offering by far the cheaper rate. So, even if you hadn't planned on flying because of expected higher costs, we'd certainly recommend that you check out the options.
At present, an airport is being built in Puerto Natales, which will obviously become a viable option for future flyers.
LIKE IT? PIN IT!
We always welcome your feedback to keep these posts relevant for future travellers. If prices change significantly or you have alternative transport suggestions, let us know in the comments. Also, if you take the bus, tell us about the experience.