How to Get Around Patagonia: Taking a Bus vs. Renting a Car
Let me start off by saying that if you are planning a trip to Patagonia you are about to experience some amazing things that very people will see. The cascading mountains, open land, change in landscape, isolation, harsh environments, they have it all. This place is for adventure travelers, people who want to take all of nature in, and even families who love nature. What you experience is up to you and which mode of transportation you decide on can give you a different experience. Here are some tips, pros and cons of taking a bus versus renting a car in Patagonia. Subscribe to our newsletter for other travel tips.
Taking a Bus in Patagonia
Buses in southern Patagonia are reliable and professional. We took Bus-Sur from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas (12 hours), Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales (3 hours) and from Puerto Natales to El Calafate (6 hours). We had a great experience. When you are on the bus for any parts of the legs, all you have to do it sit back and relax. Here are some tips for taking the buses in Patagonia:
- Print hard copies of your ticket. They only accept paper copies. I don’t understand why they don’t take the digital ticket, hopefully that changes soon.
- They give you some snacks. But for the long hauls, be sure to bring you own water and meals as they don’t stop at any rest stops and I’m pretty sure there are none.
- There is a bathroom on the bus.
- They make crossing the border pretty simple. They’ll give you paperwork for customs and anything you have to declare. You just jump off the bus, go through customs and hop back on. They do a great job with this and they are really efficient. If you bring fresh fruits, be sure to eat them before going through customs. They will make you throw them out or you’ll have to fill out another form to declare them.
The overall bus system experiences we had with Bus-Sur was overall great and highly recommended if you wanted to take this route.
Pros of Taking a Bus
- You can sit back and relax since you’re not responsible for driving.
- You only pay for the bus ticket, you don’t have to pay for gas.
- The buses don’t stop, expect at border or waterway crossings. So your arrival times are pretty accurate.
- You can take pictures from the bus.
- They lead you efficiently through customs.
Cons of Taking a Bus
- You are at the mercy of the bus timetable and you go and stop with the bus.
- No special stops will be made to jump off and capture the amazing views.
- You have to deal with anyone around you who has motion sickness.
- Also, if you to extend your stay, you have to sort that out by buying a new ticket or seeing if you can change your times.
- Sometimes the bus station is out of the way from where you are staying.
- You don’t have as much privacy as you would renting a car, so other people may be loud. You will hear the occasional click click sounds from a passenger who is trying to capture the beautiful shot as the bus zips pass it.
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Tips for Renting a Car in Patagonia
Renting a car gives you a totally different experience in southern Patagonia. You have the freedom to stop when you want to take in the amazing views. We rented a car for a day in Puerto Natales, however many rental car companies require two days. But we were really only there for a day and a half. We booked our car when we arrived there after we realized, because of low season, many tour operators weren’t doing any day trips to Torres del Paine.
We also rented a car in El Calafate, which we booked ahead of time. We took a bus to El Calafate and arranged to pick up a rental car at the airport and return it to the airport because we were leaving from there to go to Mendoza. So, we had a car for three days and drove to Perito Moreno and to El Chalten. Here are a few tips for renting a car in Patagonia:
- Drive the speed limit and don’t harm the wildlife. Beautiful guanacos are everywhere and they are cute, so stop and snap that awesome photo. You can also see wild horses on farms and sometimes on the gravel roaming around. It’s amazing not to see anyone in the beautiful open landscape. It really gives you a sense of where you are and how little you are on this beautiful planet.
- Try to book your car ahead of time, especially during low seasons.
- Go with one of the more established companies like Avis or Budget.
- You are driving pretty much in the middle of nowhere and you need to make sure your car is in tip top order because there is no cell phone coverage.
- Be sure you know how to drive a manual car because it’s very rare to find an automatic transmission.
- Make sure you have a full tank of gas before you start your trip. You don’t want to run out of gas here.
- Check your tires and make sure all of your fluids are in order. The rental car companies will not be most likely looking at them before they hand the keys to the next person who is eager for their adventure. I saw them immediately rent the cars which was just turned in with just giving it a short glance.
- Bring enough water and food.
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Pros of Renting a Car
- You have complete freedom to go and stop as you please.
- You can stop to take photos at your pace.
- You’re on your own schedule.
- If you have a change of plans, it’s easy to be flexible because you don’t have to rely on public transportation.
- You can stop for food or a restroom break if you need to. However there are hardly any “rest stops” along the way. There’s only one from El Calafate to El Chalten and it’s a pretty touristy spot.
Cons of Renting a Car
- You must know how to drive manual.
- There is no cell phone coverage so it’s difficult to contact anyone if you get stuck somewhere.
- There are no gas stations on the way to the parks.
- You have to be a careful driver because of the animals on the roads, loose gravel, potholes and other road hazards.
- It’s just a bit more expensive than taking the bus and public transportation.
- You have to get your own petrol or gasoline.
Patagonia Transportation Recap Advice
Bus-Sur was a really good experience from one city to the next. It was reliable and good service. I was happy we got to rent cars along the way once we arrived to a few cities. Depending on how long you will be here it might be worth renting the car the entire time and seeing it all on your own pace. We met a few people who rented a car for 20 days and made a loop. They said they got a discount after renting it fore more than 15 days. We also met a few people who bought vans or SUVs and drove around South America with it for a few months.
For us we started on the southeastern side of Patagonia and made our way back up, so the combination of taking buses and renting cars within some cities worked perfectly.
Either way is great. If you are planning a visit to Patagonia, just consider yourself lucky to have this experience.