Torres del Paine is the perfect area for a self-drive adventure.
Whilst driving through Patagonia, normal safety precautions should be taken, however, this remote and laid-back region is generally very safe for tourists. Unlike many other holidays, during a self-drive trip you will need to carry cash to pay for road tolls, as well as your passport and driving documents to show police and border officials. Always keep these to hand, but not in full view. Copies of passports are extremely useful and essential for any type of trip – remember to save a photograph or scan to your online cloud or email address just in case. Cash is also useful on the road as many roadside stops, due to their remote locations, do not accept card payments. Never keep cash in one place, spread it around, in wallets, purses, pockets, suitcases.. so that even if you lose your wallet, you will still have some cash available.
The conditions are generally excellent, particularly in Chile. Most of the roads are tarmacked and very wide, with good signage and little or no traffic. You are likely to see more trucks and coaches than other cars. There are a few sections of road which are still unpaved, however, as the popularity of this region increases both countries are working hard to get all roads sealed. On unpaved roads, normal precautions must be taken, which include driving a slower speed to avoid large stones damaging the vehicle, ensuring that the surface is safe after rain and avoiding areas of deep sand or mud.
Spanish is spoken throughout Argentina and Chile, and when driving in Patagonia it is always useful to know a few phrases – directions can be particularly useful! Keeping a phrasebook in the car (or downloading an app to your smartphone) is an excellent way to ensure you can ask for help or simply know how much to pay for fuel.
The road signs are good in Patagonia, partly because there are very few cities or villages and partly because many roads literally lead from town to town with no turn offs or diversions, making it difficult to get lost! Although modern technology is excellent when navigating in a foreign country, it is always useful to have a local map too just in case of battery failure or lack of signal. Up to date maps can be bought in most of the fuel stations for only a few pesos. Smart phones and tablets can be used for online mapping systems, such as Google Maps, to help direct you in real-time, or a GPS system (which is installed in almost all modern rental cars) can be instructed using exact locations. In the event of no signal, an excellent Mobile App that can be used is ‘maps.me’, a free off-line road navigation system.
This can vary depending on which company your hire car comes from – confirm these details when you pick up your hire car and be sure to keep the emergency breakdown telephone number to hand.
On a day when you are due to cross a border, it is good practice to leave early in the morning and get there sooner rather than later. In Patagonia’s peak season, borders can be very busy and a long wait may be a possibility. The last thing you want is to be leaving a border late knowing that you have a long drive ahead of you. Regardless of if you are crossing from Chile into Argentina, or from Argentina into Chile, the procedure is very similar. You will need to get your passports stamped, and also let immigration check your vehicle documents. You will be given a slip of paper when you enter from immigration with your details on it, and often a stamp – it is essential you keep hold of this for when you leave the country again (even if via an airport) as it will be asked for. This paper slip is also something that the police at road blockades may sometimes ask for. Borders can be a bit haphazard (particularly the small remote borders) with no clear instructions on what exactly needs to be done, but don’t panic, just ask an officer and they will soon point you in the right direction. If language is a problem, keep a phrasebook to hand. One important rule to remember at border crossings is the strict regulations on what you can and cannot carry between countries. Both Chile and Argentina are very firm on this, and will search almost every vehicle which comes through – often with specially trained sniffer dogs. They aren’t just looking for drugs however, heavy fines can be issued to people carrying fresh fruit, meat, dairy and other animal produce. Prepacked goods such as biscuits, crisps and soft drinks are fine. Cheese, any type of fruit or veg, cold cut meats, bakery goods and other ‘fresh’ foods are not. Although some border officials are more lenient than others, it’s better to be safe than sorry and only carry sealed snacks and drinks.
In some areas of Patagonia there are ferries which transport cars, trucks, coaches and foot passengers to areas which are otherwise inaccessible. In true laid-back Latin American style, it is likely that no timetable will be in place, and little information is given at the loading or unloading ports – it is simply a case of lining up and waiting. Although this can be frustrating, it is also an exciting method of getting into some of the more remote regions and a chance to chat with the locals! The ferocious winds that are infamous in the region can equally play havoc with regularity of departures, so bear this in mind when hoping to cross. Notable ferries include those that cross the Magellan Strait to Tierra del Fuego, and the many different routes that connect Chiloe Island with the mainland. Ferries are often very basic, with little or no facilities on board other than a toilet, so come prepared with snacks and a drink. Always have a reasonable supply of cash too, as you will need to pay your carrier fee at the ticket booth located inside. Once on the ferry, you can usually sit in your vehicle or go for a stroll on deck. If you are crossing the Magellan Strait, it is worth doing this as more often than not small Commerson’s Dolphin can be seen leaping in front of the ferry, and if you’re lucky (and have keen eyes!), penguins occasionally swim by.
Many of the roads in Patagonia are wide and desolate, with no sign of human settlement for miles and miles. As you get nearer to civilisation there are often police blockades set up on the roads leading into towns or villages. This are completely normal, and there is no reason to be alarmed when passing through, just drive slowly and if they ask you to pull over, do so. Often, the police will want to see your passports, driving license and international driving permit. They may want to take a quick look at what you have in the car and ask you to open the boot. If language is a problem, have a phrase book to hand, and always be polite and helpful. ‘On the spot’ fines have been banned in both countries, so if anyone tries to get money from you it is a con – if you are issued with a ticket for any reason – you should be given a slip of paper with the details on which you will have to pay at the nearest police station (and sometimes banks) when you reach your destination.