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Driving from Santiago to Ushuaia?

Delaplane...
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Driving from Santiago to Ushuaia?

Considering driving in a reliable diesel 4x4 from Santiago to Ushuaia in January. Anyone done this before? Reliable fuel stops? Hotels or inns? etc...

Lunenburg, Canada
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for Saint John, Foz do Iguacu, Iguazu National Park
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1. Re: Driving from Santiago to Ushuaia?

Hi Brian!

Ask me!

We're Canadians from Nova Scotia. We rented a car in Buenos Aires and drove to Ushuaia, as well as Punta Arenas, Chile, Torres del Paine National Park and El Calafate in January. Ask me any question.

A word about gas. With elections coming up, Buenos Aires has slapped price controls on gasoline. Stations in Patagonia are required to sell for for unreasonably low prices. When we went, it cost about US$2.65/US gallon. Of course, dealers lose money when they sell at this price, and so one by one the gas stations were closing down. Only the state-owned YPF and Brazilian government-owned Petrobras were managing to stay in business. The combination of high demand (caused by the cheap gas) and reduced supply means gas lines. In Patagonia, sometimes you now have to drive a hundred miles between stations that are still operating.

Unless something radically changes, gas lines will grow more common. Try to keep your tank full, especially if you happen upon a station without gas lines. The best time to buy is early morning. The worst time is late afternoon on weekends. Here's a trick that may save time. You may see a long queue at a regular-gas pump, but no one waiting for the high-test. It's probably not because the high-test is empty. It's just that the locals are trying to be economical. Try asking the attendant if he can offer high-test, and if so you may save yourself 15 minutes in the line. Even high-test costs less than regular does in the United States.

Here's an article I wrote from someone asking about the drive from Torres del Paine to Ushuaia. The part from the Strait of Magellan to Ushuaia may interest you. I've edited it for you, and I apologize to those who may already have seen it:

We actually did the drive you're asking about, in January. It's quite feasible. We drove a Chevrolet Aveo. There's no need for a 4x4. Naturally, you need to be people who like to drive, as we do.

Be mindful that one-way rentals in South America can be quite expensive. The car rental firm will likely insist that you pay for a car jockey to deadhead the car back to your point of origin. Renting the car in one country and leaving it in another is said to be impossible, or so my car rental company said. (At one of the customs posts, we struck up a conversation with a car jockey who actually was returning an El Calafate car from Ushuaia.)

Most of the roads on your route are good, except in Torres del Paine National Park, and on Chilean Tierra del Fuego. It's 175 miles from El Calafate to the Chilean border at Cerro Castillo, where you go across to Torres del Paine.

In the National Park, you have about 60 miles in and 60 miles out along dirt roads, where you'll be lucky to maintain 30 mph. Also, there are no filling stations at all. The last gas station before Puerto Natales, Chile, is in Argentina, about 30 miles before the border. Do not pass this station, near Tapi Aike, without filling the fuel tank.

Once you leave Torres del Paine, drive to Puerto Natales, Chile, where you can refuel and get money for the Chilean leg of your trip. You can overnight in Puerto Natales or in Punta Arenas. There's plenty of hotels in both, but not much outside these cities.

Thirty miles north of Punta Arenas is a bifurcation, where you'll choose whether to go to Punta Arenas, or drive east toward the Strait of Magellan ferries. You could get the ferry from Punta Arenas too, but the sailing from Punta Arenas takes about two hours, it costs more, and there's just one crossing a day. The drive on the island is longer this way too.

Most people drive east along the Strait of Magellan, a scenic trip on an excellent paved road, to the ferry at Punta Delgada. (Caution: there are no services for a tourist in Punta Delgada. Once again, don't pass a filling station without topping up the tank.) The ferry dock itself has a little canteen selling chocolate bars. There's no restaurants or other tourist services, except a bathroom. Ferries run every 45 minutes, and the crossing takes 20 minutes each way. Delays are always possible, sometimes because of high winds in the Strait (we had to sit through a 4-hour delay because of a 50 knot gale). The fare is about US$30 for a car and passengers.

The first 30 miles in Chile on Tierra del Fuego, between Bahia Azul where the ferry lands and Cerro Sombrero, is excellent paved road. Then you face about 60 miles of dirt road, which takes two hours to drive. Chile is in the process of paving more of this stretch, adding a paved section south of Cerro Sombrero and another north from Onaisin, but even when this is completed you've still got over 35 miles of gravel.

At the Argentine border in San Sebastian, you go to the customs posts on each side, once to check out of Chile and again to get stamped into Argentina. (For Canadians, Australians and holders of US passports, keep proof that you've paid the arrival tax by internet. They're not supposed to let us in unless we can prove we paid the "tasa." For European Union and related states, I do not believe you pay this tax, but check your country's Foreign Affairs website ) Refuel once again as soon as you're into Argentina.

There is one hotel, the Hosteria la Frontera, on the Chilean side of the border at San Sebastian. ("Hosteria" means inn. It isn't a youth hostel.) That's all there is between Rio Gallegos, Argentina, and Rio Grande, 35 miles away in Argentine Tierra del Fuego.

The road is paved in Argentina all the way from the border post to Ushuaia, about 200 miles. From San Sebastian, the scenery is mostly flat Patagonian plateau sagebrush country, with thousands of guanaco in or near the road. As you round Lake Fagnano, the great lake of Tierra del Fuego, you change to a different continental plate and completely different scenery. (The lake is the boundary between the South American tectonic plate and the Scotia Plate, where lies Ushuaia).

The final sixty miles features a splendid drive of mountain scenery with snowy peaks, even in late summer, narrow valleys, beaver lakes and southern beech trees. The road is wide and good, but winding as mountain roads tend to be. Then you make your final descent into Ushuaia where, with no exaggeration, there's about a hundred hotels. In summer, they still fill up fast. The Ushuaia Welcome Center, downtown on the water, can help you find a room if, like us, you're foolish enough to roll into town with no reservation.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, in Argentina, is another 10 miles BEYOND Ushuaia. The road is gravel and, frankly, we were a bit disappointed. The scenery was more majestic on the main road coming into the city. Still, you could hardly come without seeing it. Another remote spot in Argentina's remotest corner is Estancia Harberton, 30 miles down a dirt road. The turn-off for Harberton is about halfway between Lake Fagnano and Ushuaia, and it's about an hour in each direction on the dirt road. You could also take an all day boat tour on Beagle Channel to Harberton, but with the near-perpetual gale-force winds, don't expect the boat to be smoother than driving the dirt road!

You can take a boat ride down Beagle Channel to Puerto Williams, Chile, the town south of Ushuaia. (Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world, but not the most southerly town.) The honor of the most southerly settlement of all is Puerto Toro, Chile, about 20 miles east of Puerto Williams, the only permanent village south of the 55th parallel. There's no practical way to bring your rental car across Beagle Channel.

Happy travels!

David

capetien10@gmail.com

Ottawa, Ontario
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2. Re: Driving from Santiago to Ushuaia?

Hi David,

Great information about driving to Patagonia. I will be traveling there this January with four of my children.

When you are driving do you have to cross back and forth between the Chillian Border and Argentina, I am trying to avoid the entrance tax into Argentina because with five people at $150.00 each it becomes very expensive.

Thanks!

Lisa

Lunenburg, Canada
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for Saint John, Foz do Iguacu, Iguazu National Park
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3. Re: Driving from Santiago to Ushuaia?

Hi Lisa!

Yes, or almost yes.

In southern Chile, glaciers run all the way down to the Pacific from the Argentine border around 50° S latitude, that is, the other side of the Andes from Perito Moreno glacier. The southbound road in Chile ends at a station called Villa O'Higgins and can go no farther. For that matter, most of Chile's southern highway, Route 7 the Carretera Austral south from Puerto Montt, is dirt road with lengthy unfinished segments, connected by inconvenient ferries.

That leaves you with two choices: you drive through Argentina, like most Chileans do, on fast, paved highways; or one other bare possibility. The Chilean ferry system, Navimag ("mag" as in Magellan) runs a car ferry down the Pacific coast to Punta Arenas, avoiding Argentine territory. It's really long, though, several days, and expensive. I've never done it, and I don't think I'd want to. They don't call the winds here the "Roaring Forties" for nothing.

On the other hand, lots of Chileans and foreign tourists round the Horn on cruise ships. We saw at least three on the docks in Ushuaia, and of course new ones come all the time in austral summer.

For a still price they'll also take you, in style, to Antarctica. I once believed that visiting Antarctica was only for wealthy environmentalists, not for the great unwashed like me. Wasn't I surprised when one of my friends came back bragging about his visit! Cruise ships don't have to worry about hotels when you get there. And their big, sumptuous vessels make this sail easily, even in howling winds.

Happy travels!

David

Ottawa, Ontario
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4. Re: Driving from Santiago to Ushuaia?

Thanks David,

I will be in South America for four months with four children and after researching I found it was just way cheaper to rent a car. I will be starting and ending in Lima, and am not in a hurry so I can go as slow as I want.

I checked the cost of the entrance fee for Argentina is only $75.00 each for Canadians. I wish I could do one of the cruises to Ant Artica but with five people my whole budget would be gone. We are going to Galapagos, and found a great little place to stay.

Thanks

Lisa

Lunenburg, Canada
Destination Expert
for Saint John, Foz do Iguacu, Iguazu National Park
Level Contributor
3,649 posts
6 reviews
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5. Re: Driving from Santiago to Ushuaia?

Hi Lisa!

Did you say that it's cheaper to rent a car for four months? Please tell me more! I may be interested myself!

Usually, car rental in South America is expensive compared with North America and southeast Asia, and much more expensive than Europe and Australia. In my experience, there's not much change left from US$100/day, even for compact cars. The companies also charge border fees for the insurance valid in both countries and the necessary papers for taking the car through customs.

I've never seen a Peruvian car on the road at all in Chile. Better check to see that your car rental guy will permit cross border travel from Peru.

I would have thought that the best deal might be lease-buyback, a system that works well in Europe for travel in excess of 21 days. In Europe, you technically buy the car in a contract that guarantees the company will buy it back at an agreed price when you're ready to go home. This avoids a lot of tax, and also has the benefit that as the owner, you don't have to argue with the boss about crossing borders, because the owner is you.

You're right that we Canadians (but not US passport holders) have the option of paying a Reciprocity tax of US$75 for about ninety days of cross border travel into Argentina. You must pay by credit card over the internet, then print out the receipt of payment and keep copies in your passports. You cannot simply drive up to the border and pay. You have to do it in advance on the website.

This only applies for trips into Argentina, at least the last time I looked. Chile has a Reciprocity tax as well, but charges it only for international flights arriving at Santiago Merino Airport (SCL), not for people coming into Chile by car. When we visited Chile by car from Argentina in February, without any Chilean visa, all we needed was passports. No charge!

Check the Canadian External Affairs website if you'll be doing this for more than 90 days. For travel in excess of a normal tourist visit, you may need fancier visas than simply paying the tax.

David

6. Re: Driving from Santiago to Ushuaia?

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