The southernmost cities in the world are the beginning – or the end- for all sorts of adventures, such as: Trips to Antarctica, overland tours across Southern Patagonia, wildlife safaris, cruises between the fjords, trekking expeditions, and an uncountable pool of experiences to places that no one has stepped on before.
Nevertheless, these two hubs have an inconvenience: they are very hard to reach. How to get from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia, or from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas? It can be a little bit tricky. The thing is, Punta Arenas is at the bottom of the continent, and Ushuaia is at the very end of the Tierra del Fuego Island. Therefore, it is necessary to cross the Strait of Magellan, and then transit a long road that is not fully paved.
The distance between Punta Arenas and Ushuaia is 628 km, and these are probably the best ways to cover it:
The classic route through Tierra del Fuego
Either by renting a car, by private transfer, or by bus, the classic overland route is through the Strait of Magellan crossing point called “Punta Delgada”. Vehicles and passengers get into the ferry, and after 40 minutes of navigation they reach the island of Tierra del Fuego.
It takes around two hours from Punta Arenas to the Strait crossing point, another two hours from the beginning of Tierra del Fuego to the Argentinean border, and another five hours from the border to Ushuaia. Even though in total this adds up to 10 hours, in reality it takes around 12 (migrations, waiting time at the ferry, etc).
There are regular buses which offer this service, but it’s highly recommended to read the reviews before deciding which one to take, since some of them have old and uncomfortable coaches. A private transfer is the best choice for those travelling in a group over four people.
The landscape from Punta Arenas to Río Grande (the first 7-8 hours) is fairly flat or “Pampa” like, whereas the last 250 km are dramatically beautiful. This is because you literally cross the Andean cordillera in the only part of South America where it goes from west to east.
Regarding the toilets, there are about 4-5 stops where you can go, and some buses have facilities on board.
Reaching Tierra del Fuego through El Porvenir: the Penguins adventure
This is a route that can be taken on a private excursion (or transfer), or by yourself. The crossing is through a part of the strait that is wider than Punta Delgada: El Porvenir. The ferry takes around two hours to cross the Strait of Magellan, and the road through Tierra del Fuego has a lot of parts with rubble. Nevertheless, the great highlight of this option is the chance to take a detour to the only South American colony of “King Penguins” that is open to tourists. The population is fairly low, but they are completely different to the popular Magellan Penguins or Gentoo. They are impressive!
In total, the whole ride takes around 12-14 hours.
Flights from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia or from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas
None of the main airlines covers this route. Nevertheless, there is a Chilean company called DAP that offers regular flights between both cities. While these journeys are in small aircraft, they have been successfully accepted by travelers. The flights operate Wednesdays and Saturdays (back and forth) from November to March.
There are also private flights, which naturally are more expensive, but still available on request. Another alternative is flying from Ushuaia to Río Gallegos (Argentina) or vice versa, and from there take a transfer to Punta Arenas (around 4-5 hours). The only issue with this option is that there are no daily flights between both cities.
Cruise Ship: navigate the Chilean Fjords and reach Cape Horn!
This is a wonderful opportunity to get to know the Chilean Fjords in the best possible way. The M/V Stella Australis covers this route, and one of the main highlights along the way is the famous Cape Horn. The cruise ship from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia takes four nights, whereas the cruise from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas takes three.
This circuit follows the fjords of the southern edge of Tierra del Fuego, visiting sites full of wildlife and amazing landscapes. Usually, the ship goes through Ainsworth Bay, the massive Pia Glacier and Glacier Alley, as well as mystical Wulaia Bay and the legendary Cape Horn. Some attractions can change depending on which way you are going.
The Cruise operates with fixed departures between September and April.
The northern route via El Calafate
This option is unbeatable if you haven´t included the Glacier Perito Moreno and Torres del Paine in your itinerary. This would give you the chance of visiting three places that have been ranked as the best of Patagonia: Torres del Paine, El Calafate (Perito Moreno Glacier) and El Chalten (Mount Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre).
Visiting these attractions in a way that you can enjoy it would take around a week, and the best thing about it is that from El Calafate you have daily flights to Ushuaia. As a kick-off, you can go from Punta Arenas (by bus, on an excursion, by transfer, or by car) to Puerto Natales or Torres del Paine, which are around 3-5 hours away respectively from Punta Arenas. You can then visit Torres del Paine.
After your visit to Torres del Paine, head to El Calafate, which is around four hours by land. From there you can go to the spectacular Glacier Perito Moreno, before exploring the trails of the Fitz Roy Trek or the Cerro Torre in El Chalten (el Chalten Hiking).
TIP: you could have your international flight to Santiago de Chile, then fly south to Punta Arenas, to follow this itinerary – finishing in Ushuaia. From Ushuaia, fly up to Buenos Aires, from where you can have your international departure or continue your journey towards the North and Brazil.