Road Trip Patagonia
Have you ever fancied driving to the end of the world? (Or going there on a bike?) The road from Santiago de Chile to Ushuaia in South America combines unpaved wilderness with fast highway and awe inspiring natural attractions. It’s an incredible journey, crossing in and out of two countries that seem to be made of fire and ice. Fifteen years ago a cycle tour through Patagonia formed the backbone of our six month honeymoon. In this post, brought to you in collaboration with TAM airlines, we’ve been thinking about a few good reasons to go back…
It was the year that everyone thought their world might end with a bug. No not bird flu. The Millennium bug. But Stuart and I put away our computers and went on an adventure; the adventure of marriage. We gave each other rings and gave up our jobs. We hopped on our bikes. And rode, south through South America.
A long and winding road, and an exhilarating bike journey, blasting through an unknown and vibrant continent. Despite a bumpy start in Ecuador when one of the bikes took a hike and roads were sometimes unpassable, we really got into our stride going south from Santiago.
Travel down the finger of the world
If the world was a person then the long strip of land south of Santiago and wiggling down to Ushuaia would be its thin, pointy index finger. The dramatic coast, high mountain ranges and sweeping valleys are sure to be busier than when we biked Patagonia way back when. And they will appear on even more bucket lists when they feature in the next Top Gear annual expedition, (Clarkson and co were recently out and about in South America collecting cars and controversy) but the rich landscape of this part of South America is still one of the last places on earth you can really be alone.
How to get there
Getting to Chile is straightforward from just about anywhere in the West thanks to the Brazilian airline TAM which flies to more than 150 destinations in 22 countries and has an eye opening range of flights to many South American cities. We flew to Quito and tackled part of Ecuador by bike first, before setting off from Santiago, but if you have less time you’ll probably want to fly to and from the Chilean capital.
What to see
According to the route you choose, you may need to put in the miles on some badly maintained and even unpaved roads. Route 40 (Ruta 40) is stony and remote, and there is no escaping the wind, but you won’t find anything like it anywhere else in the world. Anyway, you should be able to make up time around it on the faster Pan American highway. Here some of our favourite things to see on the way to the world’s most southern town.
Spend at least a day in Santiago de Chile if you have the time. It is a beautiful city with the Andes providing a spectacular backdrop for exploring its history and heritage. In recent years an investment into its infrastructure has resulted in a cultural explosion, with numerous galleries, museums and gardens keeping you occupied until it is time to hit the road.
Pucon forms part of Chile’s glorious Lake District. There’s nothing like waking up in the morning, opening the shutters in your hotel room and seeing Villarrica, the perfectly shaped snow capped volcano in all its glory. Pucon is a lakeside town and you can enjoy the spa facilities and luxury hotels, but you won’t be able to laze around for long because it’s is also an all action destination. There are hundreds of companies giving you the chance to climb Pucon; to jump off it, mount it, or ride it. It is super popular for winter sports so it’s advisable to give it a miss around February as it heaves with boarders. Chile is wine country, and the magnificent surroundings of Pucon deserve a toast or two at the end of a busy day.
This could be the best part of the best journey of your life. Crags and waterfalls reaching from the heavens and touching the gravel road form the DNA of this Patagonian wilderness. When we rode through it much of it was unpaved (back then less than ten cyclists had reached the end of the line in Villa O’Higgins.) Apparently it’s a bit more car and bike friendly these days, but probably no less spectacular, unexploited and remote.
The Southern fjords
One of my favourite parts of our trip was sailing down the fjords south of Puerto Montt amongst the incredible National Parks of Chilean Patagonia. We hooked up with a boat looking for crew in Puerto Montt and joined them for a week of sailing and family fun. You can go all the way to Torres del Paine National Park by boat.
Torres Del Paine
Torres Del Paine perches on the edge of the South Patagonian Ice Cap and its instantly recognisable granite cliffs are a magnet for adventurous travellers to Patagonia. But there’s much more to it than a peak on a postcard so make sure you allow time to stay in the park and don’t just become another day visitor. A base at a central camp means you can wake each morning under the iconic peaks. You can hire a yurt in a luxury camp on the shores of Lake Torro. Or if you are feeling rich you could stay in style at one of the luxury hotels in the park. Be sure to fill up with petrol before going in though. Unless, like us you are on a bike. In which case your fuel will be bread and delicious dulce de leche caramel spread.
Los Glaciares National Park
Bordering Torres Del Paine National Park to the south, but situated in Argentina, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Los Glaciares National Park is also a must see. (You can stay in El Calafate and do the park as a day visit.) Los Glaciares is the second largest national park in Argentina and a whopping 30% of it is frozen, so you won’t have much trouble having a snowball fight, even in summer. Its ice cap, the largest outside of Greenland and Anarctica, feeds over 40 glaciers but the one you will want to see is Perito Moreno. At 97 square miles, this is one of the most captivating natural wonders I have ever stumbled across (although climate change means it may have melted significantly by now!) and we spent the best part of a day staring out to the horizon, watching chunks of glacier falling off into the surrounding lake in front of our eyes like in this video. It’s more giant art installation than real life.
The Magellan Strait
You are well into your journey now but there are still some real treats in store. Most people drive east along the Magellan Strait. This is a very scenic route to the ferry at Punta Delgada which will drop you into the landscape of Tierra Del Fuego, with its narrow valleys, high peaks, and both paved and unpaved roads.
Ushuaia is the busy, functional capital of Tierra Del Fuego, with an amazing view of the edge of the world, and easy access to Tierra Del Fuego National Park. To celebrate your arrival and completion of this long and incredible road, have an Asado, an all meat barbecue that the locals eat when they get out for a meal. Or celebrate with a bottle of fizz. You made it. Your road trip is done. After a visit to the National Park, just a handful of miles away, it is time to grab a flight home.
We flew back to the UK via Buenos Aires, with an initial flight from Ushuaia to the Argentinian capital. Buenos Aires really comes alive at night, so you might want to hang around for a couple of days. If you have rhythm and a willing partner then a tango lesson is a must. Try out this passionate dance in one of the night sports afterwards.
You have fallen in love with South America. Now fall in love with each other. We did.
Disclosure Note: This post was brought to you in a collaboration with TAM airlines. The views, opinions and trip planning were, as ever, all our own.