Traveling by car provides greater autonomy and flexibility. It allows you to experience that wonderful feeling of visiting places at your own pace, without rushing and having the freedom to stop and look at whatever catches your eye.
However, this type of adventure requires more organization and research about the destination than you might think.
Traveling through one the most southern spots in the world is an unforgettable experience, but it is not as simple as getting in the car and setting off.
The area stands out for its wild and pristine landscapes, making it necessary to think about its remote and rustic conditions, its infrastructure and services. So, if you are thinking about this possibility, the following tips will help you organize your trip to tour Chilean Patagonia by car.
1- Plan your route
You must determine several issues that will shape your trip: time, budget, vehicle type and traveler profile, among others.
Where will you start your tour? Patagonia is a large area, but there are options to save time. For example, you can fly to the city of Puerto Montt and rent a car or motorhome there. You can also begin the road trip in Santiago and drive over a 1,000 kilometers from the capital city to the very start of Chilean Patagonia.
Part of the road that runs through Patagonia is the Carretera Austral, the so-called “Southern Highway,” which is a route that goes from Puerto Montt to the town of Villa O'Higgins. It may surprise you to find that it is not actually a highway as many stretches are unpaved; the gravel roads are sometimes so narrow and tight that a vehicle can barely pass.
If your goal is to reach the city of Puerto Natales to visit Torres del Paine National Park, you will need to consider details such as connectivity, since Chilean Patagonia begins to break up into fjords, meaning you have to plan your route ahead of time. To get from Villa O'Higgins to Puerto Natales, for example, one of the most common courses is a detour through Argentina.
There are alternatives such as the Navimag ferry, which shortens the road between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales. This is an option allows the driver to rest during the voyage.
With whom will you travel? This point is fundamental when making travel decisions especially when the destination has a more outdoor profile like Patagonia. For example, if you are going with children or people with mobility issues, we recommend you do not drive long distances and identify places to rest and stay before you set off again.
2- Decide the places you want to visit
If you are short of time, it is essential to define the main points of interest. This is one of the most important factors when deciding your route.
Seeing all of Patagonia’s attractions would take months. The best is to make a list of your Top 10 unmissable spots, find them on a map and estimate the time you need to move from one place to another. This will give you a quick idea of whether your itinerary is compatible with your time and budget.
If you want to work out a rough budget, it is worth knowing that in addition to the price of tolls, fuel, accommodation, and food, you must include the entrance to parks or national reserves where the tourist attractions are. You can find a price list here.
3- Anticipating unforeseen events
It is always good to have a contingency plan in case something happens to your car or to any of the passengers. This planning may include:
- Use an odometer: every time you pass a sign to a town or a reference point activate it, so you know how many kilometers you are from that spot.
- Likewise, although the roads are in good condition, some stretches are gravel. That's why we recommend a 4x4 drive. Also, try to slow down while driving on these areas, as you can find animals or people on the road.
- It is a good idea to have a GPS or a downloaded map because in many areas there is no telephone signal or Internet.
4- Reserve accommodation in advance
Although you can travel to Patagonia all year round, it is best to visit between October and April when the climate is more stable.
Remember that it is high season in Chile between December and February, doubling the number of visitors and increasing demand for attractions and accommodation.
Also, keep in mind that there is a limited hotel supply in the more isolated areas, so we recommend that you book your accommodation in advance. If you want to camp out, prepare your equipment ahead of time also. Not every tent works in this hostile climate. Make sure it is resistant to wind, snow, and rain, has a double skin and is light (if you are going to carry it for several days).
If you are prepared well, touring Patagonia by car can be a magical experience.
Although improvisation can be part of the charm of the adventure, we recommend that you plan for inclement weather and unforeseen events. Planning is not incompatible with taking a trip at your own pace.