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It seems that not too many people do this travel, and the research that we found on the net is a bit out of date.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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18 Responses to Travel Diary: El Calafate to Torres del Paine (and back!)

  1. Danny says:

    Hello, we will be doing that same drive and are concerned about gasoline for a rental car? Did you have trouble finding gas, should we fill a gas can for extra gas?



    • andyq says:

      Hi Danny. Have a great trip. It’s soooo beautiful. But you’re right to be concerned about gas.

      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. So you should either plan carefully… or fill a gas can or two with extra.

      Safe travels!

  2. Danny says:


    Thank you for the advice. We are leaving Colorado in a few days to do the same trip.

    Do not out think there will be any problem getting plastic containers in El Calafate?

    Have a great New Year.


  3. Ankit Parikh says:


    I am undertaking the same trip in March. I’m planning on driving from El Calafate to TDP via RN40. I read the portion of the road is unpaved and cases of flat tires, car breakdowns, etc. What is the road condition overall? Also is 4×4 a must for this trip?

    Thank you!


    • andyq says:

      Hi Ankit. On the Argentinean side, the road is paved but there are sections of the road on the Chilean side which were not paved. But we did not see any car breakdowns or flat tires, and don’t think you need a 4×4. The road condition is pretty good. The big thing is to make sure you have gas before you get to the park! Have a great trip. I still remember how beautiful it is there.

  4. Angela says:

    I am planning a trip to Argentina/Chile in December this year from Vancouver. I’m not sure if I’m flying into Santiago or Buenos Aires. I definitely want to visit Torres del Paine. If I do fly into Buenos Aires and then to El Calafate, I would have to go by Road to Torres Del Paine. If we do drive directly to the park, how long does it take via RN40. Is it feasible? Is there a direct bus from El Calafate to TDP?
    Thank you.

    • andyq says:

      We loved our drive from El Calafate to Torres Del Paine. Read about it more in the blog post and do more research on the net. Yes, there is a bus between the two places, though a car would give you much more freedom. Yes, the trip is feasible. That’s what the blog post was about. I can’t remember how long it took us!

  5. Nikolas says:

    Greetings Andy,

    We are planning a trip to Patagonia coming March. Due to tight schedule we are contemplating a same-day self-driving road trip to TDP from El Calafate. Google maps estimate 2h32min El Calafate – Cerro Castillo, then 1h17min Cerro Castillo – Salto Grande (72.6km northbound Y-150 route) and finally 1h51min Salto Grande – Cerro Castillo (95.3km southbound Y-290 route). It totals up to 8h16min net driving roundtrip.
    Per your experience, and taking into consideration 12 hours of “safe” daylight, is this feasible? Are road conditions OK, and can they be trusted on a rainy day? Is the trip rewarding? Is route Y-290 worth the extra 30 minutes?

    I thank you in advance for your reply

    • andyq says:

      Hi Nikolas.

      So, the roads once you cross the border to Chile are not great. It didn’t rain when we drove. It can take an hour at the border for the crossing. So, our recommendation is that this would be a gruelling trip, and the biggest issue is that once you get to Torres del Paine, you’d want to have a look around. It’s absolutely stunning and to spend only an hour or so in this stunning park, and eight hours to drive there and back doesn’t seem like a very good ratio. The drive there and back has pretty parts but nothing compared to being in the park. That’s what we think!

      • Nikolas says:

        Thank you Andy for your prompt response.

        Unfortunately we do not have the luxury to spend an extra day in TDP. Therefore the question is: a challenging short visit to TDP or no TDP at all?

        As this will probably be the one and only time we shall visit Patagonia, would you say that TDP is worth the effort?

        • andyq says:

          For a challenging trip like that and a possible wait at the border in both directions and having to make sure you have enough gas at the right times, nope, we wouldn’t recommend it. We’d do something easier and more enjoyable to get to closer to El Calafate and put TDP on your bucket list!

  6. Magdalena Whitney says:

    Great info!
    We are going in March 2020. Our plan is to rent a car in El Calafate and drive down to TDP, spend 2 nights there and then drive down to Punta Arenas to drop the car off. Do you know if car rental companies allow this?

    • andyq says:

      Oh, it will be a wonderful trip. It’s so beautiful there. We did a round trip from El Calafate to Torres del Paine and back, so no idea about being able to drop off your car in another country. It’s often difficult though.

  7. John from Oz says:

    thanks for your help and tips.
    We are hiring a car in El Calafate and then 3 – 4 nights in TDP.
    Is there any value in having a car in TDP or will be paying for the car to sit and do nothing?
    Also did you get out to Grey Glacier and was a car helpful for that?
    Finally do you know if there are any budget accommodation options in TDP

    • andyq says:

      So, we found TDP one of the most beautiful places EVER. We used our rental car (from El Calafate) the whole time were were in TDP, driving around to different spots to start our hikes.

      We got on the hire boat to see the Grey Glacier, so didn’t use the car for that. Amazing though.

      We stayed in the park, in a place with the most amazing view, but I don’t know about budget accommodation. Have a great trip!!!

  8. Laurens says:

    Hi Andy,

    Going from El Calafate to the the park, did you go from the border to Laguna Amarga directly?


    • andyq says:

      Sorry, it’s been too long. I can remember that we went directly from the border crossing to the closest park entrance, and we would have visited Laguna Amarga once inside the park, but I can’t remember if we went directly from the border to that lake! Happy travels!

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