This article is part of the Complete Guide to Photography in Patagonia
Patagonia is a huge region spread across the southern portions of Chile and Argentina, featuring flat plains in the east and high mountains and fjords in the west. At more than a million square kilometres, there's an incredible amount of landscape to cover, and you'll have to carefully plan how to travel depending on your budget and requirements.
However, visiting different parts of the region is relatively easy with a good plan and some flexibility. This is a guide to getting around Patagonia, especially if you are visiting to photograph the landscape and need to be flexible about where you go and what time of day you are there.
Driving in Patagonia
The best way for photographers to get around Patagonia is to rent a car and drive. This will allow you to be completely flexible about where you visit and ensure you can get on location for sunrise (or leave after sunset) almost anywhere you go.
Roads in Patagonia
The roads in Patagonia are a mixed experience. Towns and cities are well connected, and the flat terrain of most of the region means that you can usually get from one place to another in a relatively straight line. However, the roads are in varying states of disrepair, and you'll often pass signs warning you of deep car-destroying potholes for the next several kilometres. The only thing to do is drive more slowly and hope for the best.
In Torres del Paine, all the roads are gravel, and the route to the national park from the nearest large town (Puerta Natales) is also gravel for a large portion of the way (it is intermittently paved). Flat tires are very common, and I've met experienced visitors who said they have never been to Torres del Paine without experiencing a flat tire.
Although Patagonia is very large, the photography hotspots are clustered around Torres del Paine and El Chaltén. If you stick to these areas, driving will give you flexibility, but you'll find the distances relatively short (no more than 7-8 hours on the longest drives). If you venture further south to Tierra del Fuego, or north to Bariloche, be prepared for long journeys of 20+ hours, which you'll need to break up along the way.
Renting a Car
Most larger towns in Patagonia have car rental facilities, especially where tourists typically arrive: Punta Arenas, El Calafate and Puerta Natales. Renting a car can be very expensive, and one-way fees are incredibly high, so planning a circular route to return the vehicle to its original location will be the cheapest approach by some distance.
Car rental prices vary enormously between Argentina and Chile (I found that Chile was much cheaper). This is significant enough that, depending on the length of your visit, it might even impact the choice of flights you take to Patagonia. When deciding whether to fly to El Calafate (Argentina) or Punta Arenas (Chile), work out the costs of the flights plus a rental car to ensure you get the best deal.
It's likely you'll also need to take the rental car across the border between Argentina and Chile, which is not a difficult task but requires some planning. Contact your rental agency in advance so that they know you plan to take the car across an international border. They will need to prepare documentation that you'll have to get stamped at the border, and they might also insist that you pay for premium insurance to cover the car in a new country. This all adds to the expense.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Driving in Patagonia
The advantage of driving for photographers is the flexibility over the time you arrive on location and how long you can spend there. In Torres del Paine, self-driving is essential for capturing the best landscape photographs. There is no public transport around the parks, the photography spots are spread out across a large area, and bus tours of the park do not go to the best locations at the right time. The ideal time of day for the landscape in Torres del Paine is sunrise; outside of a dedicated photography tour, the only way to get anywhere that early is by car.
El Chaltén is a hiking town, and you won't need a car for most of your visit there. Most photography spots around El Chaltén can only be reached by hiking into the hills, and you may even find that you want to camp in the landscape. That said, a few spots are easier to reach by car; if you've already rented a vehicle in the area, it might be simpler to keep it to travel to El Chaltén and explore a little of the nearby landscape on days when you don't want to hike.
There are some limits to the advantages of driving in Patagonia. There is limited accommodation in Torres del Paine, especially in the most popular seasons, so you might still wish to book that portion of your trip in advance. This means you won't be entirely flexible about where and when you travel on sections of your journey.
Some of the best spots in Patagonia are separated by long distances (El Calafate to Bariloche is a 20+ hour drive) without much to photograph on the way. If you plan a circular route to avoid a high one-way fee for a rental car, this journey alone could deduct 4 days from your itinerary. There's an appealing dream of wandering spontaneously to photography locations all across Patagonia, but in reality, you'll need a large budget and plenty of time if you want to wander far.
Buses in Patagonia
South Americans get around by bus. It's an affordable and easy way to get from place to place, and most towns have a bustling transportation centre where you can find buses going everywhere from the next village to the other end of the country.
Bus companies are competitive; there are a few major brands, but most bus stations consist of various stands offering different times to different locations at different prices. It can be confusing, but it is the cheapest way to get around, and you can reliably travel from one town to another by bus on a budget.
As a photographer, you'll find that travelling by bus will allow you to visit Perito Moreno Glacier and El Chaltén without really limiting your experience. Tours to Perito Moreno Glacier arrive at the same time as anyone self-driving, as the National Park is inaccessible outside of opening hours; renting a car to get there will still not allow you to arrive for sunrise. In El Chaltén, most photography spots are a hike away. Plenty of buses travel between El Calafate and El Chaltén, and you won't miss having a car that much during your stay.
However, exploring Torres del Paine as a photographer is almost impossible using public transport. Most of the best spots are a simple 10-20 minute drive apart but would involve hours of hiking or looking for transportation between them. You'll want to be on location at sunrise, which will be very easy with your own car but incredibly inefficient without one.
Similarly, travelling by bus would limit your possibilities if you want to get to Tierra del Fuego or other remote areas. Nowhere is impossible to reach, especially if you are willing to hitchhike on some routes or have plenty of time to spare. Travelling by bus is the best budget option, and was my own preference when I first visited Patagonia with more time than money. However, for the flexibility needed for landscape photography, public transport will limit you in some areas.
Flights in Patagonia
You can fly between many of the larger towns in Patagonia, most of which are on the Argentina side of the border. Flying is sometimes the best solution for anyone short of time, especially if you want to see places spread out across the region. With the Patagonian towns of Bariloche and Ushuaia at least 35 hours driving apart, an itinerary that tried to cover a large portion of the landscape in Patagonia could be shorter with a few domestic flights.
However, this is not always as simple as it may seem. There are fewer direct flights between towns in Patagonia than you might expect for such a large region, and getting from anywhere in Argentina to towns in Chile is almost as expensive and time-consuming as getting to Patagonia from elsewhere in the world. Many routes will connect you back through the capital cities far to the north, making the journey time comparable to a direct bus and much more expensive.
Flights are best used in South America when they directly connect two places you already want to go. For example, you can get a direct flight from Punta Arenas to Puerto Montt (2 hours) for less than $100; that same journey would otherwise take more than 30 hours on the road.
Finding a good deal on a direct flight will take some research, and you'll need to be organised and book in advance. However, if you carefully research which cities have the best connections and use that information to plan your route, flying can save you a lot of time getting around Patagonia without adding much to your budget.
Tours of Patagonia
In the last ten years, photography tours in Patagonia have become common and popular, with many photographers and companies offering tuition and transportation to the best spots in the area. Photography tours are the simplest way to get to the best locations in the best light, and you can spend all of your time and effort working on your photography, without also needing to pay attention to logistics and planning.
There are disadvantages to photography tours. You'll always be in a group, which can be a positive or negative experience, depending on who else is on the trip. You'll have less flexibility to spend longer at your favourite spots or visit others you might prefer. Photography tours can also be more expensive than independent travel, even if you are renting a vehicle to move around on your own.
However, the benefits often outweigh the disadvantages, and you could even split your time, joining a tour for some of your trip and travelling independently for the rest.
Tours of Patagonia without a focus on photography are also easy to find, with most adapted to different age ranges or budges that will make it more likely you'll be able to choose a tour where you'll connect with the rest of the group. If photography is an important part of your journey, a general tour group could be frustrating, visiting less photographically interesting spots for less time in worse light.
However, if you want to avoid the extra stress and planning of independent travel, seeing more sights with photography as an addition, a tour of the region could be a simple way to experience Patagonia.
For such a large and remote region, Patagonia is fairly easy to navigate and travel around. You'll need to choose between spending more money or more time, with the bus network being an inexpensive (but slow) means of transport, and rental cars being expensive but efficient.
Landscape photography is always easiest with a car because getting to unusual locations at strange times of day is a particular requirement. However, with El Chaltén being so hiking-focused and Perito Moreno Glacier so well-organised, not having a car would not always be a disadvantage.