How bad are the roads in Patagonia?
February 17, 2007 10:46 AM   Subscribe

Are the roads in Patagonia really that bad?

I'm going on a hiking/camping trip next month in Southern Argentina and Chile. Planning on driving from El Calafate to El Chaten, Puerto Natales, and Torres del Paine. I would just take buses, but time is precious on this trip, and I don't want to lose a day because I've missed a bus. I've read a lot in travel books about how bad the the gravel roads can be down there, but all the car rental agencies want to rent me tiny little cars with very little clearance.

Is it worth spending the extra money for a monstrous 4x4?
posted by MattS to Travel & Transportation around Argentina (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I drove from Puerto Natales into the Torres del Paine park in some kind of non-4x4 sedan. We stuck more or less to the beaten track, and while we had no trouble, it wasn't pleasant. If you are going at all off-road you'll appreciate something with higher clearance. Caveat: this was 6 years ago, and I don't know what's happened to the roads since.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 2:25 PM on February 17, 2007

Driving a 4 X 4 on rough terrain is more than a matter of engaging the 4WD and slowing down. If the going were to get particularly rough, you'd need some skills and knowledge to drive even the best 4WD vehicles through terrain to the maximum of their capabilities. So, if you don't already have such experience, you might want to think about getting it beforehand. Many Land Rover dealerships now have an artificial "obstacle" hill, to give you a feel for what its like to point a 2 1/2 ton vehicle down a 30 degree slope, with a high side obstacle.

So, the basic question is, if you got to territory rough enough to need a 4WD, would you be able to use it? The second question is, if you're schedule is so tight, should you even think of heading into terrain where the roads could be that bad, as delays due to combinations of weather/terrain could make impassable for days terrain that by itself, under better weather conditions would be passable.

Generally, it's really bad planning to try big adventures if your schedule is tight, as you start making decisions under schedule pressure, that can be unrealistic. Check your premises, friend.
posted by paulsc at 3:39 PM on February 17, 2007

You can rent a 4x4 jeep cherokee in El Calafate. Look up the place in the Lonely Planet guide. And cash only! The roads weren't nearly as bad as we expected and we drove all over Patagonia, from west to east. And the place in El Calafate will let you return it someplace else. We only really needed a 4x4 in Perito Moreno National Park. The actual highways are really just fine. There are dirt roads in the western U.S. that are way worse. We met a couple who had rented a regular car (a Kangoo) and they had little trouble. Just take it slow and don't go anywhere without two spare tires! DON'T TAKE THE BUS! Driving yourself in Patagonia is the only way to go. It's expensive, but you will have the time of your life. I'm so envious -- you're going to have a great time!
posted by Lockjaw at 3:59 PM on February 17, 2007

By the way: "gomeria" means tire repair shop!
posted by Lockjaw at 4:00 PM on February 17, 2007

I disagree with Paulsc-- or rather, I think he's misreading the spirit of the submitter's question. Whenever one is planning a big trip/adventure you have obviously have to be flexible with the inevitable things that don't go according to plan (weather, cars breaking down, faulty bus schedules, etc) and not let those things ruin the trip, but I don't think that trying to pre-emptively figure out the best way to minimize wasted time is "bad planning." Just the opposite, actually, as long as the traveler knows that delays are going to be inevitable in some form.

If you only get two weeks off from work a year, and you want to go on an unusual adventure, I think it is imperative to find ways to maximize your time there. It doesn't make you "unrealistic," or un-spontaneous-- you're just trying to make smart decisions before you go. I've found while backpacking myself that there is this strange snobbery about pre-planning a trip. I understand that it can close you off from some impromptu experiences, but it can also save you a TON of unpleasantness if done in reasonable doses. Whatever a person's travel style is, is their style.

(My two cents.) Oh, and I think you should go for the 4x4 as long as money isn't a big issue.
posted by np312 at 6:22 PM on February 17, 2007

I was there last November. I did part of the trip in a sedan with 4WD, a part of it in buses, and a part of it in a real 4WD with high clearance. The road from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine is in construction, don't even think about attempting it without a 4WD with high clearance.

Throughout the trip, you should take all your estimates for driving time and double them. High winds, torrential rain, and gaping holes in the roads can appear at any moment, and you never know when you'll stumble on something beautiful that makes you want to stop and spend an hour.

Driving on gravel roads is also exhausting, since the vibrations tire you quickly. Don't plan on driving a lot and then doing stuff for the rest of the day. The buses are actually very comfortable and they vibrate a lot less.

You need to get a lot of extra paperwork done to be able to take a rental car across the border. Most places will charge you extra for that. Check carefully. It might be cheaper and easier to take the bus from Calafate to Puerto Natales, and then rent another car on the Chilean side.

Calafate is a crowded tourist trap, and it's the most expensive city in Argentina. Get out as fast as you can. You only need one day to see the Perito Moreno. Do the mini-trekking on top of the glacier, it's worth it. Don't bother renting a car that day, it's a long, boring drive and the parking is hell once you get to the glacier. Take a bus trip instead, they'll pick you up at your hotel. The boat trip to the 5 other glaciers is another amazing day out, but it's really crowded and touristy.

Puerto Natales is also a pretty uninteresting town, but the Torres del Paine is worth an entire week if you've got it and you love hiking. You'll need to plan that part of the trip very carefully, since some of the really good hikes (Valle del Frances, Glaciar Grey) require a boat trip that you'll need to reserve in advance. Accomodation inside the park is scarce as well, and it's more than 2 hours from Natales, so you don't want to use Natales as a base.

Except for the Torres del Paine, I improvised for hotels, calling them directly a day or two in advance, and I was able to get at least a 30% discount on most hotels just by asking. I'm not sure, but I imagine that March will be even more out of season than November.

If you're planning to camp in the park, bring serious bad-weather gear. In a single day, the temperature can go from 70 to 35, the winds get up to 100mph, and it rains at least part of every day.

Have a great time! It's some of the most awesome natural scenery I've ever seen, and the people are incredibly nice.
posted by fuzz at 2:57 AM on February 18, 2007 [2 favorites]

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