Minefields, Guanaco, and the Magellan Strait – Ushuaia to Punta Arenas by Bus

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I’ve received nearly a dozen messages over the past few weeks from travelers seeking details on bus travel between various points in Patagonia, so I decided to begin publishing what info I’ve collected so those who need it can hopefully find it here. And pictures, if I have some, too.

It didn’t take me long to learn that it can be a challenge getting good updated transportation information, particularly in smaller towns, where the type of organization some of us are accustomed to doesn’t seem to always come into play. So that said, I’m not making any claims that the information presented here is complete, but it is accurate as of the date(s) listed. If you have additional or more recent info, please share it in the comments section.

First up:

Ushuaia, Argentina, to Punta Arenas, Chile.

Driving distance: 616km/383 miles
Duration: 8-12 hours*
Travel date: 04-Feb-2013
Highlights: Guanaco and nandu sightings galore, crossing the Magellan strait, and driving alongside Chilean minefields.
Last Update: May 2014 (prices updated with more recent information)

The Nitty and the Gritty

Ushuaia, the city at the end of the world, has no central bus terminal or station. That’s something I’ve found to be the case in many cities and towns I’ve visited or passed through over the past five weeks. Instead, you depart from the company office. There are two companies located at opposite ends of Avenida San Martin, Ushuaia’s main drag, that provide service to Punta Arenas.

Guanaco, on the road between Ushuaia and Punta Arenas

Guanaco, on the road between Ushuaia and Punta Arenas

There are departures daily, but they’re not operated by the same company. Only TMT makes the trip on Mondays, the day I left; the fare was 350 pesos (70 USD/53 EUR).

Unlike many other Argentine long distance carriers, no meals are provided, so bring your own drinks and snacks. But be careful with what you pack: Chile does not allow any fresh fruits or meats to enter the country. All bags are put through an X-ray machine at the border, and items are confiscated.

The Route

My departure was at 07:00 sharp; going on less than five hours sleep ensured that a nap would come soon. It did, just as we pulled beyond the checkpoint at the city limits, a dreamy farewell to the southernmost Andes that was followed by a restful ninety-minute sleep.

When I woke I found a wildly different landscape. The Jagged Andean peaks were gone, making way for the wide, largely flat expanse that is the infamous Patagonian steppe. Hills and outcrops are visible, but they tend to grow less pronounced and more distant as the journey continues.

Along the road between Ushuaia and Punta Arenas.

This is grazing country, where cows and sheep –especially sheep– are King. Sightings of nandu, the South American ostrich, are fairly common. Guanaco, the cousin to llamas, will also make an occasional appearance. The landscape tends to bore some travelers quickly, but not me. In a dreamy, drowsy state, I like seeing nandu and guanaco flicker across the TV screen that is the dirty bus window.

Along the road between Ushuaia and Punta Arenas.

Every once in a while, a small settlement appears, a horse here and there, a lone ranch, or estancia, in the distance. About two hours into the trip you’ll pass the sprawling Silesian mission that changed the face of this part of Tierra de Fuego soon after it was established some 150 years ago.

Along the road between Ushuaia and Punta Arenas.

The neighbors won’t bother you here.

Gauchos on the plain. Tierra de Fuego

Gauchos on the plain. Tierra de Fuego

On both sides of the border you’ll see several miniature chapel-like memorials for those who have died on the road. They’re common in Europe but not in this form. Here, in construction and architectural style, they resemble doghouses you find in the U.S., only smaller.

The most disturbing thing you’ll pass? Several minefields in Chile, many of which are laid right up to the edge of the highway, a gruesome remnant of the country’s military past. Between 1974 and 1978, dictator Augusto Pinochet’s armed forces set up 293 minefields along Chile’s sparsely populated and rugged borders with Peru, Bolivia and Argentina that contained between 250,000 and 1 million anti-personnel and anti-tank landmines. More than three decades later, many have yet to be cleared.

Along the road between Ushuaia and Punta Arenas.

Deadly remnants of Chile’s recent past.

The highway on the Argentine side is paved, two-lane and well-maintained. Virtually the entire length of the Chilean road is now paved as well.

There are big skies here but the colors that stand out most in the southern summer are the wide and attractive variety of shades of brown.

The journey also included a 20-minute ferry trip across the Magellan Strait at the narrowest (but still quite wide) part of the waterway at Bahia Azul. Only then did I realize how big an island Tierra del Fuego actually is. Be sure to check out the outdoor mural exhibit on the Tierra del Fuego side while you wait for the ferry.

Magellan Strait, looking west.

Magellan Strait, looking west.

Ferry at the Magellan Strait.

Waiting for the ferry. I bet Magellan wishes he had it this easy.

Border Formalities

The Argentine border post is reached in about three hours; the formalities took only about 20 minutes, very quick for a busload of passengers.

The Chilean post is reached about 15 to 20 minutes later. Here we passed quickly as well, roughly 30 minutes start-to-finish. This is where the X-ray machine comes into play; in the customs building you’ll be given the option to eat what you can’t bring in before it’s thrown in a pile. Chile issues all visitors a tourist card. Keep it in your passport and don’t lose it; you’ll need it when you exit the country.

*Arrival? Most sources I consulted, both animate and inanimate, estimated that the trip would take 11 to 12 hours. We arrived in Punta Arenas at 15:35, more than three hours ahead of schedule.

And finally, a general closing bit of advice. The first thing I usually do when I arrive at a bus station is to purchase, whenever possible, my ticket for my next destination. In high season, buses on this Patagonian route sell out quickly and you will get stuck. In Punta Arenas I had to cut my stay short due to a sellout on the day I had planned to leave. As always, be sure to check schedules in advance of making reservations as all routes are not served daily.

Last modified: May 29, 2015

26 Responses to " Minefields, Guanaco, and the Magellan Strait – Ushuaia to Punta Arenas by Bus "

  1. Thanks for taking us with you! I would have had a hard time sleeping while the landscape was zipping past my window! What contrast to go from Andean landscape to the flatland/steppes.

  2. […] much of the Ushuaia-Punta Arenas route, this too is primarily grazing territory, but slightly more hilly with more lakes and rivers […]

  3. frizztext says:

    “Waiting for the ferry. I bet Magellan wishes he had it this easy…”

  4. Anonymous says:

    I worked on a US Antarctic scientific research vessel in 1971-74. We were based in Punta Arenas until the political unrest came to PA, courtesy of Allende.

    The Chilean government nationalized our warehouse in PA, so we shifted our supply base eastward to Ushuaia, a more isolated, but infinitely safer, operating base — and just about equidistant from our Antarctic destination, Palmer Station, on the Antarctic Peninsula.

    Michael MULCAHY
    Washington, DC

  5. […] Minefields, Guanaco, and the Magellan Strait – Ushuaia to Punta Arenas by Bus ~ Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales by Bus ~ Los Libertadores Pass – Mendoza to Santiago by […]

  6. sedapst says:

    This is very helpful – especially the pictures. I’m thinking of doing the trip in reverse (i.e., Puerto Natales / Punta Arenas to Ushuaia) – would you which other companies besides TMT ran this route? Many thanks.

  7. […] 1. Minefields, Guanaco, and the Magellan Strait – Ushuaia to Punta Arenas by Bus […]

  8. Sharon says:

    Wow that looks so desolate! I always imagined that that part of the world would have lots of trees and rolling hills.

  9. Looks like an isolated place. Thanks for good advices.

  10. Elena says:

    Sheep, nandu and guanaco… Thats how I remember my bus trip from Punta Arenas to Ushuaya too 🙂
    Didn’t feel long though, those buses are so comfortable!

    • Peter says:

      I was thinking of taking bus from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia sometime in the end of February, but I don’t want to pay Argentine reciprocity tax which would add some $130 to my travel expense. Do the border guards on Argentina’s border required you to have a proof that you have paid?

      • Bob R says:

        I can’t speak for this particular crossing since I was going in the opposite direction, but based on my experiences at three other land crosses, you won’t be able to enter the country without paying it. Immigration officials check and request a receipt as a matter of routine. On one bus crossing, I did see two people turned back at one border.

  11. Anonymous says:

    In a windy day you may find yourself waiting to the ferry six hours and more, like we did.

  12. John Carollo says:

    Hey Bob. I wonder if you could help me out. My son and I are in Ecuador right now and are making our way down to Patagonia. I am struggling with one thing in particular that I would like your input on. Also, I have a couple of general questions for which I would appreciate your opinion or advice. Let’s start with my quandary. I would love to visit PN Torres del Paine for a 5 day expedition, however, I don’t camp – really not interested in sleeping in a tent, especially in those winds. My option is to stay at the refugios with a bed and full board. The cost, though, is $810.00 per person plus the $38.00 park entrance fee. I really don’t want to pay this. I was thinking, instead, to take a day trip there and try to see a highlight or 2. The cost would be about $100 pp (including the entrance fee). I thought I would then travel north to visit Mt. Fitz Roy, staying in a hostel in town for 2 or 3 nights. From the hostel we could take day walks/hikes and return to town to sleep. The cost would be substantially less that Torres del Paine. What do you think? The other question I have is as follows: We are flying into Punta Arenas and plan to stay for two nights. Ultimately, I want to end up in Buenos Aires. From P.A., should we route ourselves south to Ushuaia and then go north again to Puerto Natales and Mt. Fitz Roy continuing on to Buenos Aires? OR Should we first go north to the parks and return south to Ushuaia and travel north again, but along the coast of Argentina stopping to spend a night or two along the way? I understand that either way we will be back tracking some, but I was just wondering which direction would be best to go first. I guess the basis for my question is the ability to travel. Is it just as easy to travel by bus in Chile as it is in Argentina? Would really love your advice on this. We will be in P.A. on March 11, 2015. Thanks. John

    • Bob R says:

      Hi John,

      Coincidentally, I’m in Ecuador at the moment, too, in Quito for a bit. If you happen to be here too, drop a line. Would be happy to get together for a drink.

      I skipped Torres del Paine so can’t help there. From what I understand the easiest and best day trip options are from Puerto Natales, but my memory may be wrong on that. For the area around Fitz Roy, there are some very nice day hike options from El Chalten for those who don’t like to camp or haul equipment. I wrote fairly extensively about a couple. If you haven’t seen them, they’re here:

      http://www.pirancafe.com/2014/02/25/hiking-fitz-roy-trail-21-photos-pair-videos-el-chalten-day-hike-1/
      http://www.pirancafe.com/2014/02/28/patagonias-laguna-torre-trail-el-chalten-day-hike-2/
      http://www.pirancafe.com/2014/03/03/laguna-torre-glaciar-grande/

      Since you’re flying to Punta Arenas, I’d suggest you head to Ushuaia from there; that would result in slightly less backtracking. In that case though you’d have to decide whether to head all the way back from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas / Puerto Natales and back to Argentina via Calafate and El Chalten OR north to Buenos Aires via Rio Gallegos.

      Or you could skip the eastern part of Argentina and just continue north through Patagonia bopping back and forth between Chile and Argentina a few times, and then work your way back to Buenos Aires via Santiago (a very nice city) and Mendoza (heart of wine country!). That would require crossing a beautiful mountain pass through the highest peaks in the Andes. That too depends on how much time you have. I’m a huge fan of Patagonia; that stretch north through Chile along the Carretera Austral is truly one of the most beautiful corners of the planet.

      As for bus travel, long distance rides through both Chile and Argentina are quite nice. In 2013 I traveled from Ushuaia to Cartagena on buses and about 95% of those were nicer rides than when I went Greyhound from Portland, Ore. to Cleveland later that same year.

      Hope this helps.

  13. Judy says:

    Hi Bob
    Hoping you can give me the answer to this question as we are thinking about taking this bus from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas. Does the bus have a toilet or does it make stops along the way. If so how often. I’m afraid I have a weak bladder so its kinda important to me. Also being a woman I often find the stops on bus routes are men to one side of the bus (easy) and women – go hunt for the non existent bush to hide behind. Thanks in advance

    • Peter says:

      I just returned from Patagonia, where I took several buses getting around. Even though I haven,t taken that particular bus from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas, all the long distance buses in Chile, as well as in Argentina have toilets in the back.

    • Bob R says:

      Hi Judy –
      There are at least two companies who service this route, so I can’t speak for both, but mine did have a toilet on board. As Peter just pointed out, it’s standard in the vast majority of long distance bus companies.

  14. Maggie G says:

    Hi Bob,

    Thanks for the great pictures and advices. I’ve found this article very helpful. I wanted to ask about safety and to get advice about my itinerary. I plan on going next year in February, alone, how safe are the buses for a 27 year old girl? I plan to fly to BA and then fly to Ushuia, spend 2 days there and take the bus to PA. I will be doing a 5 day trek in Torres del Paine, but I’d like to go to Calafate after. Is it easy to get a bus from PA to Calafate, or should I fly from BA to Calafate, then after my 5 day trek take the bus from PA to Ushuia? I have to option to start and end my trek at either town, but I’m just not sure where to start. Also, are there any local airlines you could recommend?

    Thanks in advance

    Maggie G

    • Bob R says:

      Hi Maggie –
      The buses and these routes are very safe, so that shouldn’t really be a concern. They’re also modern and very comfortable — in general the vast majority of all buses I’ve been on in more than half a dozen South American countries are much nicer and more comfortable than Greyhound in the US.

      I flew from BA to Ushuaia, and then covered the rest of the spine of South America on buses, in this area as such: Ushuaia-Punta Arenas, Punta Arenas-Puerto Natales, Puerto Natales-Calafate, then Calafate-El Chalten. I was forced to skip Torres del Paine, but as I understand it, the vast majority of people begin the trek from Puerto Natales since it’s closer than PA. Buses are readily available but bear in mind that February is probably the busiest time so it’s always best to buy your onward ticket on the day you get to town.

      Airlines serve most of these areas but other than BA-Ushuaia, I chose not to fly at all in Patagonia so can’t help with that. That said, it really is a uniquely beautiful corner of the planet. I suggest you stay on the ground and take in as much of it as possible. 🙂

  15. Peter Kapa says:

    This is one more for Maggie G. I’ve been in Patagonia this February/March. Punta Arenas is quite way off. You have all the buses for Torres del Paine leaving from Puerto Natales. You can buy a ticket to Torres directly at PN bus station, as soon as you arrive in PN. I strongly recommend attending a lecture about trekking in Torres at the Erratic Rock/ Base Camp hostel/bar, where experienced guides tell trekking-in-the-park secrets every day at 3 PM. And the draft beer is great. Also 5 days in Torres del Paine is kind of hoping for good weather. I got stuck in one place (Paine Grande) for four days in cold and rain and gale force wind. In Calafate , as in the whole Argentinian Patagonia, you can find cheap lodging. I paid about $US 9 per night for a bed in a 6-person dorm room . Also, if you in that area I strongly recommend visiting El Chalten. I liked it a bit more than Chilean side. At last: I don’t see any danger for a 27 year old female travelling alone. I met some of them and never had the impression of them being in danger. I found travelling in Patagonia very safe. The buses are excellent. If you go in February you might have to compete for everything with natives. March seemed less crowded to me. And last; you’re gonna have a best vacation ever. I know I had.
    Peter.

    • Maggie G says:

      Rob and Peter,

      Thank you for your quick responses. I am very excited to go! I think I will go in mid-late March then, less hectic and cheaper too. I am doing the Torres del Paine W trek with “Eco-Camp Patagonia” so they can pick me up in Punta Arenas and drop me off in El Calafate. My main concern was to make sure I could get from Ushuia to Punta Arenas, as I had looked for tips and bus company names in other blogs and couldn’t really find any.
      Any places you can recommend for me to stay in Ushuia, Punta Arenas and Calafate?

      Thanks much!

      Maggie

      • Peter Kapa says:

        Maggie:
        As I never went to Ushuaia, I can’t tell anything about lodging there. But people I met who’d been to Ushuaia in Feb/ March ’15 never had problems with finding a hostel with vacancies. The secret is to do it early in the day when you get to the town, and then do the rest you have planned. Also, once you get to Ushuaia try to buy ticket in advance to PA. You shouldn’t have problems in February. And, I met some Americans in Paine Grande in Chile who were part of Ecocamp tour and they liked it. Also, I met some Ecocamp guide on the trail to Valle Frances in Torres National Park, with a middle-aged Australian couple in tow. His name was Diego, and he adopted me for a half a day, sharing his trail food and freely dispensing information about flora, fauna, geology and history of the park. Very positive experience. Although weather prevented me from completing even the W circuit, I never regretted anything and feel that I’ll be back one day. If you’re interested you can see some of my pics from Patagonia at: http://www.rangefinderforum.com/rffgallery/mygallery.php.
        Peter

Thoughts?

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