Here is the Route I took through Patagonia hitting the highlights with a focus on day hiking. I took more time than needed but wanted extra time in case I lost days for weather. This route can be done in either direction. I prefer to only have a car when necessary and avoid round trip across border driving and expensive one way fees. The buses are all proper coaches and are comfortable with assigned reclining seats.
Note: I did this trip in January 2020 prices are quoted in US dollars as currencies were fluctuating greatly. I paid in advance by card for most transportation. This means prices reflect the official exchange rate. Additional discounts could be found exchanging on the blue market and paying cash in Argentina.
This route allows you to spend time in both Santiago and Buenos Aires. If you are flying round trip to one city consider flying between the two capitals before or after time in Patagonia. Buenos Aires to Santiago flights can be cheap and frequent. Conversely flying from a Patagonian city to the capital of the other country (i.e. from El Calafate to Santiago) can be very expensive. You typically will save several hundred dollars in flight tickets traveling overland to the country you need to fly within.
Fly into Punta Arenas- We stayed 3 nights
I flew to Puna Arenas from Santiago. There are many flights a day. I booked on LATAM Chilean site which was far cheaper than the US site. These cheaper tickets cannot be booked to coincide with an international ticket. Tickets were $75 hand luggage only leaving Santiago in the afternoon. Early morning flights (think 6am) were cheaper but I don’t like having to leave my lodging at 3am.
I spent 3 nights Punta Arenas. This was actually my 3rd time in Punta Arenas. My primary reason for returning was to visit the King Penguin colony described here. I spent the extra day visiting the Nao Victoria museum with the replica of Magellens and Darwin’s ship and walking around town and relaxing. If it was my first time I would have added a trip to the other penguin colony.
Bus Punta Arenas- Puerto Natales
I booked a ticket and a seat ahead of time on the Bus Sur busline. Cost was $10.50USD time 3 hours and 15 minutes.
In both towns I easily from the bus station to my accommodation. There are route taxis circling town for 500 pesos as well.
Puerto Natales/ Torres del Paine 4 nights
The reason to come to Puerto Natales is to stage for visiting Torres del Paine National Park. Give yourself a few days as weather can change and I believe you need a minimum two days to see the highlights, 3 for some longer hikes. We stayed 4 nights.
The next morning we collected a rental car in Puerto Natales. We drove to Torres Del Paine daily which was about 90 minutes in one direction. This was not ideal, but I had a nice apartment for the two of us for $60 in Puerto Natales. The cheapest lodging closer to the park, by the time I got around booking, was $270 a night for two dorm beds. Driving cut into our time but was worth it to us to save. We ended up still seeing and doing the day hikes we were interested in. Days are long in January so if you have the energy the drive and a long day hike is possible. Camping is a great alternative. We did not have gear or inclination for overnight hikes or the ability to camp.
We returned the car to Puerto Natales when finished with park days having paid around $50 a day for a very small car that got excellent fuel economy. A bigger car was never needed in the park.Insurance was mandatory everywhere I checked. We used Hertz but it had converted to a local operator MITTA. We had no issues except a long wait in the morning for collection paperwork. Note there is no gas inside the park we filled up each evening when returning to town.
Even if staying in the park you will need a car to get to and around Torres Del Paine unless you are doing the W hike. There is a way to time public buses to trail heads for the W hike but you will need to be exact. There is no transportation throughout the park.
Leave early! We left Puerto Natales around 6:30 in the morning. This allowed us to see highlights and be on longer trails before the bus tours arrived at view points. Buses tend to be at Grey Glacier at lunchtime and in the afternoon.
Puerto Natales is a fine little town with lots of car hire, tours, restaurants. However you do not need to plan extra days here.
Bus Puerto Natales, Chile to El Chaltén, Argentina
I took Bus Sur from Puerto Natales to El Calafate $24USD time 6 hours. Time varies based on border formalities we arrive just slightly ahead of schedule. Note the bus left from the main bus station not the Bus Sur terminal in downtown Puerto Natales. Definitely confirm these details.
Since I was already on the bus and at the station I decided it was most efficient to push through and make it all the way to El Chalten in one day. I took Taqsa bus line from El Calafate to El Chalten 3 hours and $12USD. It was a long day but meant we didn’t add an extra bus day. We had 3 hours between buses in El Calafate. I was too nervous to buy an earlier ticket but could have made the earlier bus. Another alternative would be to stop in El Calafate at this point and then go direct from El Chalten to the airport by bus.
El Chaltén 5 nights
El Chaltén was a highlight for us. A very relaxing few days. More about this wonderful town here.
Bus El Chaltén to El Calafate
I took Chalten travel for the bus back to El Calafate at $14 and 3 hours it was a little bit more than Taqsa but I was choosing based on times.
El Calafate 4 nights
The highlight for El Calafate is going to Perito Moreno. We booked transport only, walked the boardwalk, and did a boat trip. We used the same company Chalten Travel to book the bus to the glacier. Since it leaves early booking a day ahead is a good idea but you don’t need to book weeks in advance. They ran many buses to the glacier the day we went. They gave us a discount for booking a boat tour too. The boat tour did turn out to be worth it to us as the glacier calved right by the boat. It was a different perspective and I am glad I did it but would have also been fine spending more time on the boardwalks.
4 nights was not needed but we wanted extra time if the weather was extremely bad. Even though we picked the best day by the forecast still on our afternoon at the glacier it turned rainy and foggy. There are lots of other excursions horse back riding etc in El Calfate that can fill the time. Many of them go to El Chaltén which of course we didn’t need. There are some additional glacier that can be visited. Spending a day to walk by the lake is a nice option too. The town is comfortable with lots stores, restaurants, Breweries etc.
Flight El Calafate to Buenos Aires
I booked on LATAM airlines on the Argenina site. This was cheaper than Aerolinas Argentina but there are less flights. I pay $120USD for the less than 3 hour flight with hand luggage only. We landed at the domestic airport which meant a cheap quick taxi ride to our accommodation.
Related Post: Detailing El Chalten https://fishearsoup.com/el-chalten