After backpacking around Peru and northern Chile utilizing every mode of transportation imaginable, my mom and I made it to the end of the Earth in Chile’s Southernmost region of Patagonia. This guide to visiting Patagonia will help you plan an epic trip to Torres del Paine National Park and Tierra del Fuego to visit a rare King penguin colony.
Southern Patagonia spans Chile and Argentina and offers snow-capped mountains, fjords, forests, icebergs, and massive glaciers.
When you visit Patagonia, you expect ice, snow, general coldness, and maybe unfamiliar creatures. However, what I didn’t anticipate was the wind. There was so much wind coming from every direction. Strong wind, fast wind, sideways wind, cold wind, wind with rain, and wind that can literally take you off your feet. So don’t forget to pack a windbreaker.
The region’s top highlight to visit in the Chilean side of Patagonia is Torres del Paine National Park.
Visas & Money
U.S. citizens traveling to Chile for less than 90 days for recreation do not need to obtain a visa. If you are not a U.S. citizen, check if a visa is required for your nationality.
Chilean peso (CLP) is the national currency in Chile. The exchange rate is roughly $1 USD = 717 CLP.
When to Go
Hotels are normally operating inside the park from mid-September to early May. January and February are the busiest months. December-February (the summer) has the mildest weather, temperatures rarely go above 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and the wind is strong!
To avoid crowds and to get the best chance at good weather, visit in October or sometime between mid-March to late April.
Fly into Puerto Natales or Punta Arenas. Puerto Natales is a 1-hour and 15-minute drive up to a 2-hour drive from Torres del Paine Park (depending on which park entrance you visit). Punta Arenas is about a 4 to 5-hour drive from the park, and it’s a little less than a 3-hour drive between Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas.
LATAM Airlines has year-round daily flights between Santiago and Punta Arenas. The flight is around 3 hours long and round-trip fares start from $130 USD. Sky Airlines also offers limited flights from Santiago to both Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas.
Once you arrive in Punta Arenas or Puerto Natales, you have a few transportation options.
Rent a Car
Since everything is very spread out and far apart in southern Chile and Patagonia, I highly recommend flying into Punta Arenas and renting a car at the airport (this is what I did), and make a road trip out of it. Road tripping around this region was actually really affordable, fun, felt safe, and was the most convenient option I could find.
Car rentals start at $31/day.
Travel by Bus
Otherwise, you can get a bus through Bus Sur in Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales and from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine.
Luxury hotels typically include transfers to and from the airport and provide transportation for daily excursions.
Pro Tip: I usually book my flights and car rentals through Skyscanner, and I use a VPN (which creates a barrier between you and artificially high rates based on your location and internet search history) to ensure that I’m getting the best rates when making any sort of travel bookings online.
Visiting Torres del Paine National Park
Torres del Paine is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and stretches across 181,000 hectares of stunning landscapes.
Since we rented a car, we drove leisurely through Torres del Paine on the impressively well-maintained windy unpaved roads of the national park, stopping periodically to admire the viewpoints and take short hikes.
The park has no shortage of lakes of various blues, greens, and grays. Viewpoint signs will teach you about the sediments and volcanic processes that make the water glow and form in beautifully vibrant colors.
Scattered around the park, you’ll also observe hundreds of rheas (the largest South American flightless bird) and Guanacos (a camel-llama-like animal). You might also notice the upland geese, who all seem to be partnered off and traveling in couples.
Don’t miss Grey Lake where you can admire the tip of a glacier and hundreds of icebergs that have eased their way into the skyscape, framed by the rugged peaks of Paine Massif.
Scenic day hikes you can do:
- Salto Grande waterfall
- Mira dor Nordenskjöls (an overlook with great views)
The park is also home to the famous “W” Circuit (a 43-mile, four to five-day trek) which flaunts epic views of glacial lakes, lagoons, ice floes, and glistening glaciers. You can do self-guided or guided backpacking tours on the W trek that will take you through the park’s best attractions and can be done with overnight stays in basic campsites or in refugios (dorm-style shelters).
You can also stay in one of the many expensive hotels and lodges offered inside Torres del Paine, which cost $200 USD/night and up, and most operate from September through April.
Additionally, there are campsites owned by three different companies in different parts of the park:
Visiting a King Penguin Colony in Tierra del Fuego
If you’re already going to journey as far as Patagonia, then I highly recommend extending your trip and going a little further south to Tierra del Fuego. It is a long journey, but it is well worth it to see the colony of King penguins that live in the well-hidden Parque Pinguino Rey.
Tierra Del Fuego is a group of islands claimed by both Chile and Argentina. On the Chilean side, Porvenir is the main “city.”
To get to Tierra Del Fuego, you can take your rental car on the TABSA ferry from Punta Arenas to Porvenir or from from Punta Delgada to Bahía Azul, then drive to the Parque Pingüino Rey.
Otherwise, you can book a tour or hire private transportation that will arrange everything for you.
Pingüino Rey Natural Reserve
Parque Pinguino Rey is a nature reserve, educational center, and home to a rare King penguin colony. King penguins are the second-largest species of penguin and they are usually found in Antarctica.
Watching the penguins interact with one another in their natural habitat, despite the prevailing winds carrying temperatures below freezing was undoubtedly worth the obstacles we overcame to get there.
Witnessing their sharp coloring and playful personalities combined with their total disregard for the humans examining them was truly an experience of a lifetime.
There are two accommodations in Porvenir that you can book through Airbnb:
- 644 Backpacker – Hostel ($14 USD/night)
- Cabañas Pulegan -Cabins ($34-$41USD/night)
Alternatively, you can stay in Punta Arenas, where you can book a private room through Hostelworld at Hospedaje Costanera for $22USD/night or a dorm room for $18USD/night.
There are also several Airbnb options in Punta Arenas (ranging from $26/night to $60 USD/night).
If you’re planning a big South America trip, I highly suggest the guide book below, which helped me backpack through the continent on a tight budget.
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|Logistical Tips for Booking Your Trip|
I typically use Skyscanner to book my flights because it allows you to search through websites and airlines worldwide all in one convenient search engine. You can also get price alerts for flights you’re interested in.
I always book my hostels through Hostelworld. If I’m not staying in a hostel, then I often book an
|Using a VPN for Online Bookings|
I also use a VPN (a powerful virtual tool that provides you with a private, anonymous, and secure internet connection) when searching for flights, accommodation, and rental cars. Since websites track your online activity and location, then use these factors to make the rates you are given dramatically higher than their true value, a VPN ensures that you get the best rates, by eliminating artificially high prices based on your country and internet search history. I recommend an affordable VPN like Surfshark to make sure you are getting the best travel deals online!
|Global Wifi Hotspot|
I personally have the Skyroam Solis Lite, which is a power bank and wifi hotspot for up to 10 devices. It is basically a virtual sim that can be used to connect to 4G LTE in over 130 countries, and it automatically finds the best network for you! It allows you to stay powered-on all day long with 18+ hours of WiFi battery life and keeps your data secure by avoiding risky public WiFi. It’s also compact, lightweight and hassle free. The best part is there are no contracts. You can get unlimited WiFi by the day or month, or buy data by the GB.
I always travel with insurance, because I know all too well how many things can go wrong while traveling (and sometimes even beforehand). Travel insurance protects you against certain cancellations, theft, medical emergencies, and more. I have been using World Nomads for the last seven years, and they haven’t disappointed me yet.
|Other Travel Resources|
Check out my Travel Resources Page to see the best companies, apps, jobs and other resources I use when traveling on a tight budget.