Some friends of mine are convinced that I spend a lot of my time traveling. Especially those who live abroad and have little chance of getting a real picture of what my real life is. I would say, nowadays this is a rather common side effect when a lot of our communication happens through the distorted lens of social media.
Months ago, someone asked me what was the most exciting trip I ever had been on. There were a few I would have probably elected as best trips but on the spot I couldn’t pick any of them as the best one. So I turned the question over to some friends. Obviously I collected the most diverse answers: from popular, classic destinations to exotic and unknown ones. Actually, I realized that the place itself was not the only aspect or even the most important one. What seemed to count most was the human experience that came with them and granted those trips a special place in their memories.
As of me, so many trips had been unique and came with their load of great memories. If I had to name a place at all costs it would probably be Patagonia. The unexpected and wonderful places I discovered and the lovely people I met certainly played a big role. But perhaps a little more came from the fact this trip was a bizarre idea that came out the blue, that was entirely mine and regarding a place I knew almost nothing about. I didn’t really know what to expect and had no idea how the whole trip would turn out. It turned out to be an amazing journey and that’s what makes it so special to me.
My curiosity towards that region was born casually: I remember randomly googling here and there just for the sake of seeing what would come out. I remember even opening google maps and dragging the street view man onto random roads and towns. During one of those drops, the little yellow man landed on an unpaved road somewhere on the Carrera Austral road. One leading to the very end of the Chilean land. An incredible place surrounded by a blue lake, snow-capped mountains and basked in sunlight under an immense blue sky. I never got to get there but I remember spending the next days dreaming of riding that road and wondering if it would really be the way it felt when I was imagining it from my chair.
The next day I decided to take a small step forward into what could be a plan and googled some motorcycle rental sites of the area. All of them had their guided adventure tours on display on their main page, with pictures of sunny roads and mountains, maps, descriptions and testimonials. Those fascinated me so much I started thinking maybe such a holiday was possible for normal people provided with some self-organization skills and a minimum amount of common sense. More than professional survival skills or years of experience. After all experience comes with… experience!
There are so many things I would like to share about this trip, but I believe a good start could be giving some practical information, hoping it could be useful to those who want to explore the End of the World on their own.
The different faces of Patagonia
When we come across the word Patagonia it’s not immediate to realize how vast and varied this land is. In fact, Patagonia is a land whose borders are not exactly precise. Let’s say it occupies the entire southern part of South America from the region of Chilean lakes to the southern parks south and the far end of the continent. That’s where Ushuaia and Puerto William are located, in front – but not too much – of the Antarctic continent. Therefore, we are talking about what’s a more than 2000km long land. The two countries that share this territory and its beauties more or less equally are Argentina and Chile.
Apparently, there’s no common agreement on where the northern border is located. Let’s say that the Chilean Araucania and the Rio Negro region in Argentina could be considered as its northern end. My journey started in the area of the Chilean lakes, a region of unique beauty called Araucania that many elect as the starting point for their journeys. I also consider it to be the beginning of Patagonia to see. An equally famous lake area and equally popular as a starting point is just a little more to the south on the Argentinian side: San Carlos de Bariloche.
The regions south of Bariloche could be divided into three parts: an eastern one (the Argentine pampa), a western one (the green and humid Chilean Patagonia) and the southern end, where some famous national parks are located together with the most know Ushuaia and the end of the continent.
What's the best season to visit Patagonia?
Clearly, its climate varies quite a bit from one area to another. But we can roughly say that almost everywhere the good season goes from November to March: although not very hot, neither spring nor autumn are very cold periods.
The high season goes from around mid-December to mid-February. In the latter period there are many tourists, especially in the lake area between Pucon and San Carlos de Bariloche and in the region of parks in the south. Even Ushuaia might look incredibly crowded in between Christmas and New Year. I personally hate the company of hordes of noisy tourists when it comes to enjoying a vacation. I prefer much more going for “shoulder” periods, before the beginning of the high season or after the end of it. If I had to give advice, I would suggest mid-November, the beginning of December, or the beginning of March: in November it’s spring, one of the most splendid seasons, with a good amount of sun and blue skies, green and flower-covered landscapes.
In March the climate tends to be mild (by hearsay), less windy compared to summer and the splendid autumn colors begin to make their appearance, especially in the Chilean Patagonia.
Keep in mind that in the northern part and in the western Chilean Patagonia the climate is more humid. The eastern and southern lands, that are mostly pampa-like as you deduct from their look are much more arid. These two especially are constantly blown by strong and constant western winds from November to March. Something that can be seriously annoying and must be considered if you are planning traveling by motorcycle towards the very south.
Motorcycle, a few ideas on how to get it done
For my fellow motorcycle lovers, the first obvious thing that comes to mind is finding a way to obtain your two-wheeled companion. Though these suggestions are valid for almost all destinations, I would like to go into details of three possible ways to get yourself a motorcycle.
Briefly, shipping your bike over from Europe to South America has some advantages and many disadvantages. Among advantages you can certainly list comfort and familiarity with your vehicle. Also, convenience over rental, especially for long itineraries. Renting a bike in Patagonia is quite expensive. Be aware, however, that once you have found a shipping company it is necessary for you to personally take your motorcycle to the boarding pier and pack it in a crate (that you have to supply) after having emptied it of all the fluids (petrol and oils). The bike will take 30-40 days for the crossing. If you do not want to embark along with it, you should plan a flight thirty/forty days later. The best port is probably Buenos Aires – a crazy French man I met in Puerto Natales spent 40 days on a freighter that went from England to Argentina via Senegal. Think twice before doing something like that.
A guy my age I met along the trip was riding an old model of Honda bike: probably a thirty-year-old CB-something model. A motorcycle he purchased in Chile for a fair price a few weeks earlier. Buying is a possible solution but also comes with a few inevitable annoyances. It takes time to find the right model on sale: bikes for sale in Chile and Argentina are not as many as we are used to and could be in modest conditions. Once the bike has been found, you’ll probably have to go through the procedure for property transfer and for obtaining the documents that allow border crossing. I might be wrong but I had the impression that if purchased in Argentina it might not be that easy to get those documents because of the limitations imposed to export. And obviously, unless you want to take back home with you, you’ll need to sell it. In the end, it takes time, patience and you’ll need a certain amount of luck.
The most popular solution is certainly going for a rental bureau. There are several ones scattered around Chile and Argentina. They organize guided tours for all tastes – but not for all budgets I’d say – some of them rent a certain range of models for individual trips. From my point of view, this is the most comfortable solution but also the bloodiest money-wise. Renting motorbikes is generally expensive, in Patagonia it’s about a 110-120 EUR per day for some cheaper model of Honda, Yamaha or BMW, going up to around 250 EUR for high-end models like new BMW R1200. That’s rarely all you are going to spend, as you certainly will have to add the cost of insurance on the bike and third parties damage – not mandatory, but recommended. Usually, the insurance policy includes a deductible, that means it intervenes for damages exceeding a certain amount. In other words, you should pay your first few hundred euros yourself before the insurance applies. It’s not easy have an accident with somebody.
The problem is more related to the risk of falling along the numerous dirt roads of Patagonia. I never fell but at least three times I’ve been so close. The day I rented mine, I remember a group of Spaniards who were returning BMWs: one had fallen and badly dented the tank of an R1200. I don’t know how much it exactly costed him but I saw the spare parts price list and it must have been a painful amount. I must say all the motorcycles I’ve seen were new, in excellent condition, equipped with top boxes and perfectly maintained. The rental will also provide you with maps, tips and the documents necessary to make the Argentina / Chile border cross. So, if renting has the undeniable advantage of comfort the most obvious disadvantage is certainly the price.
My personal experience with it has been positive. The dealer is a big American company, but the rental agency of Villarrica, managed by Ulli, is really advisable. He gave me a new bike in perfect condition with trim and off-road tires that really made a difference. He was very kind and absolutely helpful in all circumstances.
How to get there
Arriving in Patagonia from Europe could be less expensive than it seems. Flights from Europe in a non-high season period could quoted a few hundred euros. During my flights with Latam airlines they lost luggage twice, so according to my experience it’s a good idea to get a luggage insurance, And consider not planning yor trip with a tight schedule as you might be delayed.
Flights within Chile, e.g. to Temuco, Osorno, Puerto Natales, Punta Arenas or wherever you have chosen to go generally have very affordable prices. The same cannot be said for Chile-Argentina flights or vice versa so choose the airport of arrival wisely if you have to fly within Patagonia.
Two words about Chile and Argentina
Chile is generally more expensive than Argentina. We could consider it as probably the richest and most European country of South America. Facilities and services are generally good. Though I had no particular problem, the same cannot be stated for Argentina. Political and economical instability reflect on how easily you can get your things done during a trip. In some areas it may be difficult to find gas stations, especially down south in the pampas. Do not rely too much on your credit card: while in Chile it’s usually accepted in Argentina it’s necessary to always carry cash as not many will accept credit cards.
The borders between the two states open at 8am and close at 8pm. Don’t arrive late. That said, border guards are generally kind on both sides. If the bike has all the documents there are no problems. If I remember correctly it is not possible to take fruit or vegetables across the border for regulations concerning local flora and fauna protection.
Crime in most rural places is basically zero. I would say you can safely leave the bike on the street. In some places however you need to be more careful. Bariloche is one of these as being a popular touristic resort comes along with micro criminality problems. The same goes for Puerto Montt and some other towns in northern Chile. Towns and villages south of Bariloche are generally very quiet on this behalf.
If you haven’t been warned before, traveling through Patagonia you will quickly notice how many roads are unpaved. Even on main roads such as Routa 9, Routa 40 or the road that goes around General Carrera lake it’s easy to find large traits of gravel or sectors that are still under construction.
Moreover, it’s some kind of general rule that those crossing the border between Chile and Argentina as well as those that go through reserves and national parks (Lanin, Alerces, Torres del Paine, etc.) are entirely unpaved.
Even through the pampa Argentina, every now and then the national road (Routa 40) suddenly turns into an unpaved track apparently without a reason. You will find many types of dirt roads: some are particularly annoying as they have an irregular, grooved bottomcovered with crushed stone.
I experienced many parts of these dirt roads with certain discomfort: the rear wheel constantly drifting or the bike starting to go straight on a bend having the road an odd, convex profile – that is, leaning towards the edge. You need wisdom, caution and a lot of practice before becoming familiar with them in Patagonia.
Last but not least, the wind. Especially down south and in the plains, during summer season you will have to fight against a constant western wind constantly sending your bike off trajectory. No matter what you do, this will make certain parts of your journey exhausting and dangerous.
An idea for a journey
If you are planning a motorcycle trip, several options are available. But as a first step I’d start with counting how many days you can rely on, including those you need to “return” your bike, whether it was rented, shipped and needs to be retuned or bought and need to be sold. If you have a rented bike, be aware that many dealers give you the chance of returning it to a different place and take care of shipping it back to the original one for a fair price.
Popular places where you can rent up north are Santiago, Osorno, Puerto Montt, Villarrica and others. Renting your bike in one of these will come with two advantages: you can start your journey with a visit to the splendid lakes region and you’ll be able to use a comfortable domestic flight from Santiago to reach them.
My personal itinerary started in Villarrica, one of the villages surrounding the lakes of Araucania in Chile. I was able to get there with a flight from Santiago to Temuco airport, plus a short bus trip. But the same could be easily done in case you choose a different sarting point.
I’d personally suggest that you spend a couple of days at least to visit the wonderful valley dotted with lakes and surrounded by the breath-taking snow-capped volcanos. Something I regret I wasn’t able to do. Afterwards, from the Villarrica you an easily crosscut the mountains and the Lanin park to get to Argentina (purple itinerary) and go down to Bariloche through the amazing 7-lakes trait of the Routa 40. Also the village Bariloche, the area with its blue lakes, the Llao Llao ring with its breweries are worth an appropriate stop.
Further south, after the Parco de los Alerces, I strongly suggest turning towards Futaleufù in order to cross the border with Chile. The homonimous river is a spectacle you don’t want to miss and a unique chance for rafting-lovers. From you can intercept the Routa 9 and continue your journey south along the Carretera Austral through Coyhaique and the green and wild region of Aysen. Not distant from Coyhaique you will reeach the wondreful General Carrera lake (or Lago Argentino across the border). Its famous grottos and the road going around it are amazing and will give you the chance of going back to Argentina to continue your Journey down south (blue itinerary), But if you have time you might want to delay the border crossing and explore the wild Chilean land to its end to O’Higgins. Note there is noway across the border and you will have to go back to the lake to continue your trip.
Beyond Lake Argentino I returned to Routa 40 and traveled all the desert and uninhabited Argentine pampas up to Perito Moreno (the glacier, not to be confused with the northernmost country). Then further south to El Chalten and the Fitz Roy, the Torres del Paine park. From there you can continue to Punta Arenas, Ushuaia and wanting Puerto William to say that you can really reach the bottom of the world.
A suggestion for departure
As a starting point for your journey I recommend the area of Pucòn / Villarrica. It is the heart of the Chilean region of the lakes, as well as a popular holiday destination for the locals. The area is dotted with lakes, parks, snow-covered volcanoes and within a few kilometers there are plenty of paths and valleys where you can have fun with the bike. You can get there well from Temuco airport, taking a comfortable minibus or shuttle directly from the airport.
Alternatively, a very popular starting point is Osorno. From here you can go directly to Villa La Angostura in Argentina. Note that in this way you probably skip the Pucòn area and part of the 40 Wheel of the Seven Lakes, unless you want to go back.
And for the arrival
If you have any idea of getting to the bottom of the continent, in my opinion the most convenient solution is to leave the bike there and return by plane: if you are hiring, there is almost always the possibility of leaving the bike in one of the larger inhabited centers, paying usually between 100 and 300 euros. It is a cost, but also retracing backwards 3000km has a cost, perhaps greater in terms of time, money and effort. In this case I suggest you go back and leave the bike in Punta Arenas, the largest town, or in Puerto Natales, which is a stone’s throw from the Torres del Paine park. Both countries have an airport and leaving the motorbike is cheaper than not letting it go to Ushuaia.
Perhaps not everyone knows that … Ushuaia is not the southernmost country on the continent. It is actually Puerto William in Chile that holds the title of the southernmost country in the world. But a little out of habit a little for Argentine pride Ushuaia has always been considered the place to “end of the world”.
I really liked this itinerary, because it allowed me to see all the places I wanted to see, even though for various reasons I didn’t arrive as far as Ushuaia, as I had originally proposed. However it may not be suitable for everyone: there are many alternatives and other destinations to explore: from the north, to the Chilean Patagonia (like the beautiful area that goes from Cochrane to O’Higgins), or the east coast of Argentina. I know of people who landed in Punta Arenas, rented the motorbike there, then made a round trip, from the parks to the east coast, then down to Ushuaia and back to Punta Arenas. Personally I do not consider it the best of the routes, given that the landscape in the extreme south is rather monotonous, especially from the Argentine side, the pampa is very windy and not particularly attractive.
After this series of tips and ideas, I hope to write something more detailed and humane about my journey, hoping that it will add some color to your travel ideas.