Travel Diary: El Calafate to Torres del Paine (and back!)

If you are travelling from Sydney to Latin America, it seems that the routes divide between your frequent flyer plan. If you are with One World, you go through Santiago (and from there to anywhere else) and if you are with Star Alliance, you go through Buenos Aires.

We’re Star Alliance!

So, in organising our trip to Latin America at the end of 2016 and 2017, we based ourselves out of Buenos Aires. With a priority to see a bit of Patagonia, this meant a particular itinerary: driving from El Calafate (in Argentina) to the national park, Torres del Paine (in Chile).

It seems that not too many people do this travel, and the research that we found on the net is a bit out of date. So, a few words of advice:

  • Yes, it’s worth it. Seeing the amazing Perrito Moreno Glacier near El Calafate was fantastic. It’s an amazing glacier. A wonder!
  • I read a review online that said it’s not worth it to drive from El Calafate to Torres del Paine, and it’s true: the landscape it barren at times.

  • But if this suits you, it’s fine. The freedom of having a rental car instead of having to go on a bus tour is great, and it’s only a couple of hours, and you’ll see the fabulous guanacos (the local llama) en route, and some pretty amazing views.
  • Gas (the local fuel needed is called nafta, we needed Nafta Super 95) is limited. Fill up in El Calafate (if there’s no fuel shortage) and again in La Esperanza (where you can also buy junk food to eat for the travel). Then, if you’re heading to the park right away, be careful. There’s no gas at all in the park. The closest is Puerto Natales. Some folks fill up extra plastic tanks with gas to help out. We just made sure we had enough.
  • On the Argentinean side, before the border crossing, the turnoff isn’t that evident. There’s a big sign that shows the different provinces of Argentina! But it doesn’t say: this way to the border! However, you will go off the paved highway and go onto a gravel road (except they were doing work on it, so maybe it will be paved by the time you get to it).

  • We drove around the park over two days, not long distances, and were OK to get from there to Puerto Natales.
  • There’s huge confusion about how to pay to enter the park. As of January 2017, it’s 21,000 Chilean pesos for foreigners (about 40 Australian dollars). Everywhere on the net, it says that credit cards aren’t accepted, but at the moment, they are. The time is limited, something like 9am to 12pm and then 1:30pm to 4:30pm… (I’m not 100% sure of this).
  • If you are coming from Argentina, there is also the possibility to change currency, at a terrible rate, at the souvenir shop just after the Chilean border crossing.
  • My recommendation. Plan in advance (we didn’t). And get at least 21,000 pesos per person in Chilean currency, just in case you don’t arrive at the right time at the park, or if their internet (which connects to the credit cards) isn’t working.
  • Or have enough US dollars or Euros (Argentinean pesos don’t cut it).
  • But you could also take your chances to try and pay with credit cards.
  • I went through unnecessary worry with the outdated information that the park doesn’t accept credit cards, and that it’s hard to change Argentinean pesos to Chilean pesos en route…
  • Otherwise, Torres del Paine is absolutely beautiful and well worth the journey.

  • Our last night, as a change of pace, we stayed overnight in Puerto Natales and found it very pleasant indeed.
  • The border control process can feel chaotic if there are lots of people there, but we found that the border crossings in each direction weren’t terrible.
  • It might be terrible if you’re stuck behind a tour bus, and it can be a little confusing, but overall was fine.
  • If you’re in a rental car, you have to show your special rental car papers (and get them stamped) by the customs desk (only one person per group has to do this). You MUST get the permits to bring the rental car across stamped by customs going in and out of each country, so you’ll rack up four stamps by the time you get back.
  • Also, each person has to show their passport (there are two lines, entrada to go into the country and salida to exit). On the way into Chile, you also have to do an agricultural inspection. They might check your car, or might ask you to bring your luggage into the building for a check. Don’t bring salami or fruit!
  • So… two steps when exiting Argentina and then soon after three steps to enter Chile. And on the way back, two steps at each border.
  • Good luck! Feel free to ask questions!
  • Don’t drive too fast and kill the beautiful local animals…

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