The largest glacier outside the polar regions, deep blue lakes, snow-capped peaks, tango and gauchos, salt plains and bustling cities: Argentina and Chile have it all! In 6 weeks I visited these two countries that together form the southern half of South America. It turned out to be the perfect combination and the ultimate travel itinerary to see the best of both, also easily adjusted for shorter trips than 6 weeks. I’ll share my best tips for backpacking in Argentina and Chile, including practical information and the ultimate backpacking itinerary for Argentina and Chile.
How much travel time do you need for Argentina and Chile?
As much as possible! Argentina is about 65 times the size of my home country, the Netherlands, and my country fits 18 times in Chile. So you will never have enough time to see all the great things these two countries have to offer. On a long trip of 4 to 6 weeks, you have the chance to see the major highlights and experience the diversity of the countries.
Do you have less time? In 2 to 3 weeks you can already make a wonderful trip through Chile, Patagonia or northern Argentina. I will give you tips to put together shorter trips based on my 6-week travel route later in this blog!
How to travel around Argentina and Chile
Because of the great distances in both Argentina and Chile, I would advise against a road trip. No matter how great a trip with your own (rental) car will be, you’d need a long time – a number of weeks – for this or you’ll see a lot less of the countries. So unless you’re planning to visit a specific area such as Patagonia which is great for a road trip actually, I would recommend public transportation instead.
Tip: if you do opt for a rental car, check out Discover Car Hire. They often have the best deals and it gives you a good indication of the prices for car rentals on your trip.
As in other South American countries, domestic flights are reasonably priced and an easy way to cover the larger distances. Perfect! If you want to be a little more flexible, the bus is a good option. I did my whole Chile and Argentina trip by bus. So yes, I have spent many, many hours on a (night) bus. The upside was that we were able to book our transport shortly in advance and we liked that flexibility. The bus is also a bit cheaper than a flight.
Tip: are you crossing the border between Chile and Argentina by bus? Watch your apples! Along the border, there are so many prohibition signs with apples. Yes really. You are not allowed to bring fresh or dried food across the border, such as fruit and dairy. There are even customs dogs at the border controls to inspect your luggage for this. Another tip: beware that when travelling south you will even cross the border unintentionally, so make sure you don’t have any fresh food with you. For example, to get overland to the southern town of Ushuaia in Argentina from any other Argentine city, you will (several times!) cross the border with Chile.
The best travel time to visit Argentina and Chile
Summer – from November to February – is the most popular time to visit these countries. It is therefore quite busy with tourists and Patagonia – always quite pricey – is even more expensive. Nevertheless, I absolutely recommend visiting the countries in high season, if you also want to visit the southern areas. It is freezing cold there even in the summer. After all, you are so close to the South Pole that the boats to Antarctica depart from here and you will find the largest ice plains outside the polar regions here in the south! The cold winter would not be a great time to travel there.
Are you only visiting the north of the country or do you want to go on a ski trip? Then the low season from June to August might be perfect. The prices are lower and it is much quieter in June and August! Not in July though, as the locals usually have their holidays in that month and then go en masse on (ski) holidays in their own country.
Tip: would you love to spot the whales in Puerto Madryn? You mainly see them from June to December. The penguins in Punta Arenas are only there during the breeding season between September and March.
The perfect travel itinerary for Argentina and Chile
Even if you travel for 6 weeks, you will never have enough time to discover all the amazing sights of these countries, but you will be able to visit the highlights and experience all aspects of countries. But do you have less time? Then choose to visit only Patagonia – the south, so the first part of this itinerary from Buenos Aires to Bariloche – or travel only to the destinations in Chile. Or travel to the north and visit the capital of Chile, the wine region of Mendoza, Salta and surroundings and metropolis Buenos Aires! Then use the last part of this itinerary and head from Santiago to Buenos Aires.
If you have more time for this trip, we have so many suggestions for extending this itinerary. On the map below we have marked some other beautiful destinations with a star. We would have loved to visit these if we had had more time! The Iguazu waterfalls near the border with Brazil are actually a must see, but are very far away from almost every other destination.
#1 Buenos Aires. Book a plane ticket to this Argentinian metropolis and immerse yourself in the world of tango, empanadas, colonial architecture and bustling streets. In our city guide, you can read everything you need to know to visit this metropolis (soon online)!
#2 Puerto Madryn and the Peninsula Valdes. Time for some wildlife! Between June and December, you can spot whales during a boat trip, which is highly recommended. Is that a bit too much for your travel budget? You can even spot them from the beaches! The rest of the year you can spot other animals such as penguins, elephant seals, llamas and birds at the peninsula.
#3 Ushuaia. Travel even further south to the southernmost city on earth. Hike to a glacier, go on a ski trip and visit the Tierra del Fuego National Park. Do you want to visit Antarctica one day? From here the boats leave for the South Pole. Tip: get a Ushuaia passport stamp with the dramatic line ‘fin del mundo’.
#4 The penguins at Punta Arenas. Cross the border for your first destination in Chile and visit the huge penguin colony from Punta Arenas. This destination is only worth a trip if you can actually see penguins. So check this well in advance and skip this destination otherwise. We didn’t and we unlucky to spend a day here.
#5 Torres del Paine. A highlight of your trip! This national park is one of the most beautiful places in South America. Think of snowy mountain peaks and impressive glaciers. Hike the full five-day W trail or only visit the Torres during a day hike.
#6 Perito Moreno glacier. A little further north and back in Argentina, you’ll find the largest ice plain outside the polar regions. You’ll visit the glacier from the town of El Calafate. The glacier moves a few meters every day. Therefore most of the Perito Moreno is too dangerous to visit, but you can go a great hike of two or four hours along the edges. The view from the front of the glacier – an enormous wall of ice – is also impressive.
Tip: do you have more time for your trip? Then visit one of the national parks in Chile before you travel to Bariloche, climb the Fitz Roy in Argentina or rent a car for a road trip along the scenic Carretera Austral in southern Chile.
#7 Bariloche. A long journey to the north takes you to the popular ski resort of Bariloche. This town with German architecture lies on the edge of lake area that extends over Argentina and Chile.
#8 Puerto Varas. On the other side of that lake area is the Chilean town Puerto Varas. Go on a hike here to the snowy Orsono volcano, a beautiful sight already from Puerto Varas on the other side of the lake.
You can also extend your journey between these destinations with a visit to one of the national parks between Puerto Varas and capital Santiago. The Huilo Huilo park, in particular, seems to be an amazing place to visit. Here you can spend the night in the largest tree house in the world: Nothofagus Hotel!
#9 Santiago de Chile and Valparaíso. The capital of Chile has a great vibe. The free tours are highly recommended to get to know the city and the Chilean culture and history better. Take a day trip – or longer – to Valparaíso, the hilly town on the coast that is known for its graffiti art and beautiful views from the hills.
#10 Mendoza. Cross the Chilean-Argentinian border for the last time during the most beautiful bus tour you will make during this trip. You’ll travel from Chile to the Mendoza wine region straight through the beautiful mountains. In Mendoza, you will, of course, visit the many wineries for tastings. I would recommend a bike trip to visit a few of them on one day. Cheers!
#11 Salta and around. Make sure you have a few days to spend at this destination. With its colonial architecture, picturesque streets and interesting museum, Salta is a nice city to explore, but the area also lures. You can take day trips to salt flats in the north, the colored mountains at Purmamarca, the northern villages along the Río Grande and the canyons and mountains in Quebrada de Cafayate.
Do you have time left? Then you might want to deviate from the route for the most beautiful waterfalls in South America: the Iguazú waterfalls on the border between Argentina and Brazil.
#12 Buenos Aires. Enjoy the Argentine capital one last time before your trip ends.