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How to get around Patagonia by bus: a backpacker’s guide

Patagonia is growing in popularity as a travel destination. But with limited transport options and huge distances separating the hotspots on the backpacking trail, it can be tricky to get around.

It’s difficult to convey the sheer scale of Patagonia. The vast region occupying South America’s southern tip covers an area three times the size of Germany. To drive from its northernmost city (Bariloche) to its southernmost city (Ushuaia) it’s more than 2,000km by road. Even the most seasoned backpackers can find the distances overwhelming. This guide tells you everything you know about how to get around Patagonia by bus.

How to get around Patagonia: an overview

Hiring a car in Patagonia is notoriously expensive. Prices for a month’s car hire in Ushuaia with a drop-off in Bariloche begin at about 3,000 US dollars. That’s before you even think about the cost of petrol for the 2,280km Andean mountain drive.

The region does have a handful of small airports, but flights are irregular and often expensive too. For backpackers mindful of budget, this leaves little option other than to travel by bus.

The good news is that bus travel in Patagonia is generally very comfortable. In our experience during a trip along the classic backpacker route, the buses were all fairly plush and spacious.

It’s important to be well organised, however. Bus services don’t always run every day between the main locations, and the low frequency means they are often fully booked.

It’s best to have a clearly planned itinerary so you can book ahead and avoid getting stuck. Read on to find out the routes that are the trickiest, and when the services run.

A quirk of bus travel in the region is that long-distance journeys tend to only run in the daytime. We usually seek to take overnight buses so we can save on accommodation costs and avoid losing activity time. This was rarely an option in Patagonia.

How to find and book buses in Patagonia

It’s often possible to book Patagonia buses in advance online. It’s best to do this whenever possible, especially in peak season between November and February.

Busbud is an excellent online service that helps you find and book your Patagonia bus journeys in advance.

In some locations we found that it was fine to book transport a day or two before, either through our accommodation or the bus station. This was especially the case for services that ran several times per day, such as between Bariloche and El Bolsón.

I discuss this in more detail below for each of the bus journeys on the typical Patagonia backpacker route. Our itinerary begins in the far south in Ushuaia and works north through Punta Arenas, Puerto Natales, El Calafate, El Chaltén, Bariloche and El Bolsón.

Note that the route information below is based on travelling through Patagonia from south to north. The services operating in the opposite direction are similar.

Getting to Patagonia: where do you begin?

Before we get onto bus transport within Patagonia, let’s take a moment to look at the best ways to get to Patagonia in the first place.

The best way to reach Patagonia depends on the starting point for your travel in the region. The three most popular places to begin are Ushuaia in the far south, Bariloche in the north, and El Calafate, which is midway along the backpacker route.

Flying

Whichever your starting point, you’re in for a long journey if you do anything other than fly, as we will see below. The most common hubs for transport into Patagonia are Santiago in Chile and Buenos Aires in Argentina.

We flew from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, and then back to Buenos Aires from El Calafate three weeks later. As always, booking in advance is highly recommended; we ended up paying higher than average for our return flight as we left it late.

The table below shows some of the flight routes with typical prices (in US dollars) and frequency:

As you can see, Buenos Aires is usually the most cost-effective base for flying to Patagonia. To find the best and cheapest times to fly, use Skyscanner and set the search parameters to show the whole month view.

We flew from El Calafate to Buenos Aires with Aerolíneas Argentinas
We flew from El Calafate to Buenos Aires with Aerolíneas Argentinas

Buenos Aires to Bariloche: the 24-hour bus

Before our main Patagonia backpacking trip, we spent a week in the north of the region around Bariloche. Our journey there from Buenos Aires remains the longest bus journey we’ve ever taken on our travels. We left at 12:30pm from the main bus terminal in Buenos Aires, and arrived in Bariloche 24 hours later.

There are usually two or three buses that cover this route daily, with some taking slightly longer than others. We travelled with Via Bariloche, but it’s also possible to do the route with El-Valle or Crucero Norte.

If you plan ahead for a long bus journey like this, it’s often possible to get special deals. Check the company websites for offers, or ask at the local bus station. As we were flexible with our dates of travel, we were able to benefit from a half-price discount available only on Sundays on the buses between Buenos Aires and Bariloche.

For a shorter bus journey into Patagonia, you can travel to Bariloche from Mendoza. The route is operated by CATA Internacional and takes approximately 18 hours, departing at 7:30pm and arriving at 1:30pm.

For everything you need to know about preparing for long journeys like these, check out our guide to taking overnight buses like a pro.

Via Bariloche is one of the companies that runs a direct bus service between Buenos Aires and Bariloche
Via Bariloche is one of the companies that runs a direct bus service between Buenos Aires and Bariloche

Bus down Argentina’s east coast?

One other option for getting into Patagonia is to take the bus from Buenos Aires down the east coast of Argentina. If you want to go all the way down to Ushuaia, you can achieve this through separate legs stopping at Bahía Blanca, Puerto Madryn and Río Gallegos on the way.

Each leg of this journey is long, and it would need to be broken up over several days. An advantage of this route is that Puerto Madryn is the perfect stop-off for Punta Tombo, where you can see the world’s biggest colony of Magellanic penguins.

At Río Gallegos you also have the option to cut across into central Patagonia, towards El Calafate and Puerto Natales.

Ushuaia to Punta Arenas

  • Journey time: 12 hours
  • Price: around 40 US dollars

The Ushuaia to Punta Arenas leg of our Patagonia trip was probably the trickiest to plan. Buses do not always run every day of the week, and the timetable tends to vary. There is usually no service on Sundays.

There are three companies that operate the route between Ushuaia and Punta Arenas: Bus Sur, Taqsa and Buses Pacheco. You can book online, or alternatively they all have offices in Ushuaia within a few minutes’ walk from the bus terminal.

The buses typically leave Ushuaia at 5am or 8am. A small part of the journey is by ferry over the Magellan Strait close to Punta Arenas. The crossing takes a couple of hours.

You can also expect a short delay for crossing the border from Argentina into Chile. Make sure you don’t have any fresh fruit or vegetable produce – it’s illegal to bring into Chile and will likely be confiscated.

If you are looking for some inspiration for your time in Ushuaia, take a look at our recommendations for things to do around the city.

The bus journey from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas is partially broken up by a ferry transfer across the Magellan Strait
The bus journey from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas is partially broken up by a ferry transfer across the Magellan Strait

Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales

  • Journey time: 3 hours
  • Price: around 12 US dollars

Punta Arenas, Chile, is a useful place to stop when travelling in Patagonia. While breaking up the journey neatly, the city has a tax-free shopping zone called Zona Franca, which is great for stocking up on food, clothing and equipment for trekking.

The bus journey from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales (the closest town to Torres Del Paine National Park) is a fairly short one of around three hours.

Bur Sur runs the service several times a day, and for this leg it’s usually ok to book your tickets at the station on the day. In the busiest summer months you may want to consider booking ahead, but a day before will be fine in any case.

If you are planning to undertake the famous W Trek in Torres Del Paine, you may be interested to read our complete guide for first-timers.

Puerto Natales to El Calafate

  • Journey time: 5 hours
  • Price: around 30 US dollars

The journey from Puerto Natales in Chile back into Argentina at El Calafate is served by a bus every day of the week apart from Sunday. While it’s only about three and a half hours on the road, in total the journey takes about five hours because of the border crossing.

The route is operated by Turismo Zaahj on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays departing at 8am, and by Bus Sur on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays departing at 7:30am.

We did this leg with Bus Sur and booked it through our hostel in Puerto Natales, Lili Patagonicos. Alternatively, you can buy your tickets at the station in Puerto Natales or online in advance.

Due to the popularity of Puerto Natales for trekking in Torres Del Paine, and El Calafate for the Perito Moreno Glacier, places go quickly on these buses, so book well ahead.

El Calafate to El Chaltén

  • Journey time: 3 hours
  • Price: around 18 US dollars

The route between El Calafate and El Chaltén is one of the shortest and easiest on the classic Patagonia backpacking trail.

The journey takes just three hours. There are multiple daily services run by Chaltén Travel, Cal Tur, Turismo Zaahj and Taqsa. We travelled with Chaltén Travel who stopped at El Calafate International Airport on the way (we went with them again from El Chaltén to the airport a few days later).

This journey is also one of the most beautiful in the region. From El Calafate you coast past Lago Argentino and Lago Viedma before approaching the peaks of Los Glaciares National Park.

If you’re planning some hiking while in El Chaltén, check out our guide to the local trails for the essential information.

How to get around Patagonia: El Calafate is a hub for transport in the region
How to get around Patagonia: El Calafate is a hub for transport in the region

El Calafate to Bariloche

  • Journey time: 26 hours
  • Price: around 80 US dollars

If you’re planning to include Bariloche in your itinerary for Patagonia – which we would highly recommend – it is possible to do the journey in one leg from El Calafate.

This is a truly epic one, though, taking around 26 hours through landscapes of mostly desert. The service is run by Taqsa, but only operated daily through the main hiking season from October to April.

Some people choose to break the journey up in the town of Perito Moreno (not to be confused with the Perito Moreno Glacier). However, with little to see and do there, you may prefer to go for the long haul if time is short.

This is one leg of the Patagonia journey for which you might want to consider flying. You can get flights from El Calafate to Bariloche from about 120 US dollars, and the journey takes less than two hours.

Bariloche to El Bolsón

  • Journey time: 2 hours
  • Price: around 5 US dollars

If you have a good few days to spend in the Bariloche region, it’s well worth taking a trip to El Bolsón for a while. The chilled-out little mountain town is a popular hangout for artists and has some brilliant hiking trails nearby.

Buses run between Bariloche and El Bolsón several times a day operated by Via Bariloche. You rarely need to book in advance but it’s worth doing anyway to be sure.

How much does Patagonia travel cost?

If you want to know more about the general costs of travelling in Patagonia, you can read our breakdown of what we spent during our trip.

We kept a record of all our costs, and this articles delves into our expenditure on accommodation, food and drink, transport and activities. We also give some handy tips on saving money in Patagonia.

Have you been to Patagonia and have something to share about your transport experience? Let us know in the comments below.

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Patagonia is growing in popularity as a travel destination. But with limited transport options and huge distances separating the hotspots on the backpacking trail, it can be tricky to get around. This guide covers everything about how to get around Patagonia by bus.

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