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Travel to Chilean Patagonia for Beginners

Updated: May 12

Patagonia covers the entire southern part of South America in Chile and Argentina. It is filled with unique wildlife, epic views and outdoor adventures. Many people use it as a jumping off point for Antarctica excursions, or to hike the famous W trek of Torres del Paine or go penguin/whale watching in the southern fjords of Punta Arenas or Ushuaia. If this is your first visit to Chile Patagonia, and you don't know where to start, keep reading for travel tips for beginners!

jordan standing in front of the torres del paine mountains with a lagoon in the middle

Can you visit Patagonia and not hike?


Yes, there are many areas in Patagonia you can simply enjoy the views. On our week-long excursion through Chilean Patagonia, we decided to start in Punta Arenas, travel to Puerto Natales and then spend 2 nights in Cerro Castillo to be closer to Torres del Paine for our daily treks into the park. You can drive along Ruta 9 for epic views on the hunt for guanacos, stop at lagunas for a picnic lunch or do a little day trekking around the area.

Do you need a car at Torres National Park?


Renting a car is not required to visit Torres del Paine, but it certainly makes your experience easier. You can check the best prices for your car rental here. Unless you are only doing a guided trek (like the W or O circuits), you will likely be driving into the park each day. There are buses that go to various park entrances from Puerto Natales almost every hour, but having a car makes getting to some of the viewpoints MUCH easier and gives you the flexibility to change your plans. However, please note, there are NO gas stations in Torres del Paine National Park, nor in the small town of Cerro Castillo nearby.


We stayed for two nights at the El Ovejero Hotel and they did sell guest gas. We got 15 liters from a Coca-cola bottle! 😉 But otherwise, you will have to drive back to Puerto Natales (almost 100 kms from inside the park).


Renting a Car


It’s important to note that car rentals are only good for your specific country of origin. Should you choose to drive the car from Chile to Argentina (or vis versa) you will need to register for a permit in advance (usually 2-3 weeks in advance and with a substantial additional costs). For us, renting a car in Punta Arenas and trying to drive it over into Argentina would have almost doubled our costs, so we decided to keep the car in Chile only. The cars all come with GPS so they will know if you try to get around the permitting. You should also know how to change a tire! We stopped at 9:30 pm in Torres National Park to help two Swiss guys who had a flat tire. They didn't drive in Switzerland and had no idea how to change a tire. Without cell phone service, they would have been there a while trying to figure it out. So, know before you go!


Europcar: I have rented 14 cars in 12 countries in the last year and have never had any issues (knock on wood), but I feel it’s important to warn others of Europcar at Punta Arenas airport. Our flight arrived at 9 pm (the latest pick up available for Europcar, though other rental companies are open until 10 pm). During our flight, we had a medical emergency and had to sit on the tarmac for the passenger to be escorted off by medical professionals before we were allowed to deplane. As such, we go to the car rental counter at 9:30 and the representative was still there! Which was great! Except we got charged a $50 “waiting fee” without being notified that would occur. I told the representative that I was aware they closed at 9 pm and figured he would be gone and I would just have to come back in the morning to collect the car. He told me if I didn’t pick it up that evening, my reservation would have been cancelled and I wouldn’t have had a car to collect the next day. So how does that work Europcar? I was extremely upset at the additional fee, no communication of it and no option for a later pickup or control over the situation. So now, you have been warned! (side note: I have used Europcar several other times with no other incident, but this policy in Punta Arenas is asinine). Check rental car options and prices here!


Torres Del Paine National Park


As of Jan. 1, 2024, all tickets must be purchased online in advance. We traveled just a few weeks after this change and the park entrances had computers set up (since no Wifi) to allow guest to make purchases upon arrival; however, I’m not sure they will still be in operation. You can buy your tickets and save them on your phone before entry. They have two ticket options – 3 days or less or 4 days or more. They also offer discounts for youth and those over 60 years old. Each day, you need to stop at an entrance and have the park rangers scan your tickets. If you don't want to do the W-trek or are short on time or simply want some nice views, check out my top 4 day hikes in Torres del Paine National Park.

Punta Arenas

You can easily fly into Punta Arenas on Latam Airlines. It's a little irksome that they have a U.S. website and a Chilean website, with differing prices. Be sure to book your flights into Patagonia early to save money. As always, I love when finding the best places to stay on the cheap!

If you use Punta Arenas as your starting point for Chilean Patagonia and want to splurge on a "mini Antartica" trip - check out Solo Expediciones' Full Day Whale Watching, Glaciers & Penguin Guided Tour. We had the best time on this full day adventure. The guides explain all about the natural fauna and wildlife in the area, spotting amazing birds and other species we didn't even notice. We saw dozens of whales, colonies of penguins and schools of sea lions. Having lunch within view of the magnificent glacier was such a highlight! Don't forget to enjoy your glacier ice pisco sour or whiskey on the top deck.


Puerto Natales

Many people elect to use Puerto Natales as their base for exploration into Torres del Paine National Park. If you have an extra half day, be sure to check out the Milodon Caves. If you are short on time, you can do this combined day tour of the caves with the national park.

There are many ways to enjoy Patagonia. Even if you aren't a serious hiker, you can enjoy the natural beauty and wildlife. Traveling to Chilean Patagonia is not just for the experienced traveler - even beginners can enjoy visiting Torres del Paine, Punta Arenas and the surrounding areas. Enjoy!


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Feb 07
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Really good review. The short treks post is also a must read before you go. Thanks for all the tips.

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