Don’t underestimate the immensity of Patagonia. It covers a massive 673,000 square kilometres, and features a huge diversity of landscapes. It is a natural wonder with endless sites to see.
Flying is fastest
Because Patagonia is so huge, it is best to decide ahead of time which area you want to visit. You will either fly into Buenos Aires in Argentina or Santiago in Chile. And from either of these head south by bus or car or domestic flights.
Driving is a way of life for Patagonians and visitors who choose to drive will doubtless encounter the famed Ruta 40 that runs through Patagonia from north to south – one of the planet’s longest road trips.
Fly to San Carlos de Bariloche or El Calafete
If you fly into the Argentine capital, you will want to then take a domestic flight to either San Carlos de Bariloche or El Calafete. Both of these are lively hubs for exploring the northern region of Patagonia. From these towns the options are either domestic flights, private vehicles or buses. The only trains in Patagonia, unfortunately, cover limited parts of this vast and varied expanse.
The choice of flying into Bariloche or El Calafate depends on what you aim to do once there. Bariloche is a great destination known for its fantastic ski field El Cerro in the winter and as the beautiful lake district in the summer.
El Calafate is much further, almost 1500 km, south. You can drive there in 18 hours, or take a plane and arrive in under 2 hours. Calafate is a hub for hikers and for many of the outdoor activities that draw visitors to Patagonia. You can reach the Chilean side to visit the Torres del Paine National Park, and there are great leisure options within Calafate itself, including horseback riding and white-water rafting.
From Calafate it is just over an hour to get to the famous glacier Perito Moreno (by car, or a bit longer by bus). It takes around three hours to get from El Calafete to El Chalten, an area popular with hard-core hikers and famous for the astonishing Monte El Fitzoy and its hike. The road trip from Calafate to El Chaltén is a highlight, with amazing views of the jagged mountains as you approach.
If you fly into Santiago de Chile, from here a good option is a domestic flight to Punta Arenas or, if available, to Puerto Natales which is closer to Torres del Paine National Park – from Punta Arenas it’s a 3-hour road trip to get to Torres del Paine.
Getting around when you are there.
Travelling between towns in Patagonia by bus is convenient, inexpensive, and easy, with several departures every day between major destinations. You just have to be prepared for long hours on the road.
But from the towns to tourist attractions, there are organised buses or private tours. These can be convenient, but there is often no alternative. And the tour companies’ price match. For instance, to get from El Calafate to the Perito Moreno glacier, if you don’t have your own car, you’ll have to book a tour group which is more expensive than the intercity buses and doesn’t include entrance to the glacier park once you are there.
To Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, or the ‘End of the World’
You can get to Ushuaia, the end of the World at the southern end of Patagonia from El Calafate by bus. But you will have to face a 22-hour bus ride. Alternatively, you can fly from Buenos Aires or Bariloche. But book well ahead to avoid peak prices and ensure availability.
In Tierra del Fuego
Once in Ushuaia, don’t miss the slow, scenic train ride, the Tren ‘fin del mundo’, (the End of the world train and station). This historic train line was built by prisoners, and used to transport the timber they chopped when the town was first built.
The train goes to Tierra del Fuego National Park, where you can take in the beautiful views of the area, and to the post office at the end of the world, which still operates. If you combine the train with hiking, you can reach Laguna Esmeralda, a teal-crystalline lake, 25 minutes from Ushuaia, by a beautiful hike (5 kms) to the lake. A major draw to this are is Martillo island to see its colonies of Megallanic and Gentu penguins. This can only be visited by tour company.