There are three ways to make your way around Patagonia, as far as we can tell: hitchhiking, taking buses and renting a car. We chose our own set of wheels, largely out of convenience: There we four of us traveling together, making it a relatively affordable option in pricey Patagonia. And, as backpackers are wont to do, we didn’t want to plan our trip months ahead, which is necessary in order to book campsites in Torres del Paine, our main destination.
At this point in our South American journey – only a month in – we also needed a break from buses. While reliable and cheap, they limit your ability to set your own schedule and, well, let’s not talk about the variety of smells – and other tourists – that come with them. So, rental car it was. We booked ours online about two weeks in advance with no problems, even though it was high season.
After an ungodly overnight flight from Santiago, we arrived at the tiny Punta Arenas airport during the 5 o’clock hour. Punta Arenas is the southernmost city of the American continent, sitting on the famed Strait of Magellan. We headed for the rental-car counter but were told we’d have to pick up our mystery sedan downtown, about 20 minutes from the airport. We were advised to take a van there, but at 5,000 Chilean pesos (about $8.50 USD) per person, it didn’t make sense for our group. Instead, we grabbed a tourist taxi who quoted us at 10,000 Chilean pesos (about $19) for all four of us. We hopped in while the driver piled our bags into the tiny trunk and secured it with a rope. It was immediately clear that we’d pay more for less in Patagonia, as one would expect in the remote bottom tip of the world.
After waiting hours for our rental car – which turned out to be a crossover SUV, not a sedan, yay! – we started the drive on Ruta 9 to Puerto Natales. Navigating the highways in the region is delightfully easy, as there are only two main highways: Ruta 9 (also known as the Ruta del Fin del Mundo, or the “End of the World Route”) and Ruta 40, which heads to Argentina. After three hours, we arrived in Puerto Natales, a tiny, sleepy port city best known as the gateway to Torres del Paine National Park. As we drove the streets around the Plaza de Armas, we noticed adventure stores, coffee shops and what appeared to be a budding restaurant scene, where we imagined ourselves enjoying well-deserved burgers and beers after long days of trekking. Of course, as we’d come to expect in South America, there were also mutts of every variety cruising the sidewalks and roads.
We parked on the street outside our hostel and checked in. Not long after, we noticed a parking official putting white receipts on each vehicle. Did we just get a ticket?, we wondered. As it turns out, that’s how parking in Patagonia (and Chile at large) works – an official logs the time you arrive and places a receipt on your windshield. They then keep an eye on your vehicle, and when you leave, you pay them based on the length of your stay. Good to know, good to know.
Torres del Paine National Park
The next morning, we set off to Torres del Paine. Again, it was an easy drive on Ruta 9 – that is, until we started to near the park. The road became rocky and bumpy in certain sections – really bumpy – and we were grateful we hadn’t ended up with a sedan. It was also incredibly dusty at times, especially when locals in trucks and buses whizzed by. Thankfully, the road was mostly lonely, with other cars few and far between. We took it slow, sometimes coming to a complete stop to let guanacos, a relative of the camel, wander out of the roadway.
There are two main entrances to the park from Ruta 9, but during our trip in February 2018, the Y-290 was closed. We went around to the Y-150, which only added a few minutes to our drive time, and entered near Laguna Amarga. Just past the lagoon, we were stopped by friendly park officials who instructed us to head inside and pay our fees. We each paid 21,000 Chilean pesos (about $35 USD) for three days of admission – the standard rate for foreigners during high season – grabbed our maps and headed into the park.
Inside the park, the number of vehicle roads is relatively limited – trekking trails reign supreme. Still, many trail heads and lookouts are reachable by road. Most of the roads are winding and unpaved, so it’s important to go slow, especially around turns, and stay to the right of the road. Sadly, accidents are common in the park and are often fatal, as it can take days for first responders to arrive.
From north to south, here are the trekking starting points that are accessible by road, as far as we can tell:
- Laguna Azul, a leisurely hike that ends at Cebolla Lagoon. Strangely, the map doesn’t indicate how long it’s likely to take, but it took us about three hours each way. Alternatively, you can head south past Macho Canyon, which takes about two hours each way.
- Las Torres, the starting point for four amazing treks:
- The O Circuit, the big daddy of Torres del Paine. This trek typically takes eight days and seven nights, allowing intrepid travelers to see the best of Torres del Paine, including the backside away from the crowds.
- The W Circuit, an incredible five-day trek that is Patagonia’s most famous. The W Circuit is part of the O Circuit, and, like the O Circuit, requires ample preparation and campsite reservations months ahead of time.
- Base Las Torres Lookout, a challenging but rewarding hike that ends at Base Las Torres, arguably the most famous lookout in the park. It takes about 4.5 hours on the way up and 3 hours on the way down. Read about our experience here.
- Nordenskjöld Lake, a mild trek alongside beautiful blue water that takes about 4.5 hours to reach several camping zones, where you can stay the night (with a reservation) and then continue on, or turn back to Las Torres.
- Laguna Amarga to Lago Sarmiento, which passes Goic Lagoon. It takes 1.5 each way, and is accessible by road on both ends.
- Salto Grande, which starts at a waterfall and takes only one hour to reach the Cuernos Lookout, where you can get a great view of Paine Massif.
- Pehoe, where you can reach Condor Lookout in 45 minutes to see the massif and the French Valley.
- Lago Gray Ranger Station, which gives access to a trail that goes to the far end of Gray Lake (one hour each way) or Ferrier Lookout (two hours each way).
- Laguna Verde Ranger Station to Toro Lake, which takes about four hours (one way). Because both ends are accessible by road, you can start at either end. From Toro Lake, there is also a 45-minute hike to Toro Lake Lookout.
Cueva del Milodon Natural Monument
On a day we weren’t trekking Torres del Paine, we visited Cueva del Milodon, a natural monument just 30 minutes from Puerto Natales. We had read mixed reviews, but in the end, we enjoyed the few hours we spent there and felt it gave us a richer understanding of the region’s history. The main road there, the Y-290, was closed in February 2018, so we took a detour that was unpaved the entire way. Again, we took it slow and encountered few other vehicles.
The monument is comprised of three caves and Silla del Diablo (“Devil’s Chair”), and it takes a few hours to leisurely walk from one to the other and explore. The largest cave – Milodon Cave – was discovered in the 1890s by explorers who found and eventually identified a large, seemingly fresh piece of skin that belonged to a mylodon, an extinct animal that died over 10,000 years ago. The cave is more than 650 feet (200 meters) deep, 260 feet wide (80 meters) and 98 feet (30 meters) wide. While scientists are still learning about the cave, it’s thought that it was home to large extinct animals, like the mylodon and the jaguar, and that the earliest in habitants of Patagonia hunted there. The two other caves are smaller and less remarkable, but were pleasantly cool to explore on a hot summer day.
The day before our flight back to Santiago, we headed back to Punta Arenas. Aside from them opening up shop late, we had no problems returning the rental car. We hadn’t caused any damage, but we weren’t worried about them giving us trouble, anyway: They had assured us during pickup that they would only take issue with scratches they could feel with their fingertips. Overall, we were very happy with our decision to rent a car, felt it saved us money in the end (due to the size of our group) and loved the freedom we felt taking on the open roads.