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