Into No Man’s Land: How to Cross the Border from Chile Chico to El Chalten/El Calafate (Argentina)
Chile Chico to El Chalten and El Calafate involves a remote border crossing post in South America. For all the backpackers who travel south on Carretera Austral and feel uneasy walking 22-kilometers in the forest to Argentina from Villa O’Higgins, this is the last border you can cross before the road ends.
Note: if you plan to travel from El Chalten/El Calafate to Chile Chico, just go through the entire process in reverse. You need to be ready to walk and hitchhike from Argentina’s border to Chile’s side. Once you are in Chile Chico, you can take the public bus to Puerto Rio Tranquilo at 10 am daily in the high season and the journey takes three to four hours. Please visit Martin Pescador in Chile Chico town center for the departure schedule and price. You need to pay cash for the bus tickets and the bus is not frequent during the low and shoulder season.
Chile Chico is on the south shore of General Carrera Lake, the second largest lake in South America after Lake Titicaca. The facility in this town is basic but still makes it a beautiful stop to walk on the waterfront, which is filled with a blue and turquoise colored lake. This will be the last time you take in the remote beauty of Carretera Austral before you enter Argentina.
The complications of this border crossing are nothing compared to the one in Villa O’Higgins but it still proved to be difficult because of the heavy luggage I was carrying and the long walk under the intense heat. The main tip is to start early, take it easy, and enjoy the remote Patagonian landscape.
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How to get to Chile Chico
A budget-friendly option is hitchhiking but be sure to exercise patience. There are not many cars along the southern part of Carretera Austral and not every car will take you. It depends on your time, the number of people in your group, and your luck. Sometimes there is no waiting and other times it takes days to get a ride.
In Puerto Rio Tranquilo, there is a daily bus leaving for Chile Chico at 3:30 pm for 15,000 CLP. If possible, try not to sleep on this route because the landscape is absolutely surreal. It is the place where mountains surround the valleys, the emerald-colored General Carrera meets the horizon, and trees and flowers show their varied colors. The scenery touches your soul and offers you the best of Patagonia’s remote landscape as a farewell.
Cards and cash in Chile Chico
You need cash to pay the bus to Chile Chico and your accommodation. A Visa card is acceptable in most shops. Try changing Argentinian pesos in Martin Pescador at Chile Chico town center, as there are no money exchangers at the border.
Where to stay in Chile Chico
There are several hostels and hotels in town. An advanced booking is not necessary and you can walk into the hostel and ask for a room. I stayed at the Don Luis, which is close to the main road and I don’t recommend that anyone stay there.
The hostel is basic and offers a shared bathroom, kitchen, Wi-Fi, and a private room for $10,000 CLP. Nothing happened the night I arrived but the following day the owner disappeared until 12 pm while another traveler and I waited for her in the common area for check-out. She firmly asked us to pay for another night as it was already past the check-out time of 11 am. We refused. She was not happy and asked us to leave the hostel immediately.
Chile Chico to Argentina towards El Chalten/El Calafate: the entire route
- Chile Chico to the Chilean border (immigration), 5km
- Chile’s border to Argentina’s border(immigration), 7km
- Argentina’s border to Los Antiguos bus station, 2km
- Overnight bus from Los Antiguos to El Chalten/El Calafate: 11-14 hours
Chile Chico to Chile’s border
The border is five kilometers away from the town center and there is a collectivo taking passengers to Chile’s border at 11 am and 5 pm daily. Be aware that the border closes at 8 pm and it is not advisable to cross the border on the same day of arrival to Chile Chico from Puerto Rio Tranquilo. If you have time, check out Lago Jeinimeni National Reserve and around Chile Chico town center; there is a waterfront for you to walk around.
The next day, you can start early and get a taxi to the Chilean border. There are not many taxis on the street. We tried hailing a taxi from the town center and only found them whisking by. We walked a few blocks to Martin Pesdador and the owner called us a taxi immediately.
The taxi costs CLP $5,000 and you should not pay more than that. The taxi will drop you off at Chile’s border and you will see an old building line up in front of you. Just walk straight to the left side and you will find Chile’s immigration office.
Because of the remoteness of this border, the immigration office is fairly empty and there is no line. They will stamp you out and take away your PDI card. Then, you are on your way to Argentina.
Road to Argentina: a seven-kilometer no man’s land
Unlike most borders in South America with the immigration office within a few-hundred-meters reach, the border between Chile Chico and Argentina is actually a 7-kilometer paved road that is flat and deserted. Bus and taxis are not permitted to travel through this border from Chile’s side, so you have to walk and hitchhike through this route.
There is no separate part for pedestrians, so we walked on the right side of the road, which can be described as a walk into no man’s land. Seven kilometers after is Argentina’s border and this part is neither Chile nor Argentina. It is like being in neither country or both countries at once.
It takes a while to walk through this border with all your travel possessions. This is where we had to start hitchhiking. There were travelers getting a ride immediately after they left the Chilean border and the car took them all the way to the bus station. We did not get that lucky. We walked for an hour till we saw a car stop and offer to take us to Argentina’s border. The drive takes a while and, at some point, we saw the blue-and-white colored flag fluttering in the air next to Argentina’s immigration office. This is the sign that you have arrived in Argentina.
The immigration office on Argentina’s side was empty. Few policemen stood outside the building and there were no money changers or taxi drivers around the area. The bus station on the Argentinian side is two-kilometers away from the border. With no public transport or another choice, we had to walk that length with our luggage. There is not much information on how to get to that bus station and locals do not have the same information, so you need to keep asking around.
Bus to El Chalten/El Calafate
Once you are at the bus station, you can purchase bus tickets to El Chalten and El Calafate leaving at 8:00 pm and 8:30 pm. The bus to El Calafate takes 14 hours for $1,100 pesos. You can purchase tickets with a credit card or cash. Being totally exhausted after all the walk and hitchhike, I slept through the night and woke up to the Fitz Roy looming in the distance on Ruta 40.
Arriving in El Calafate, I was surprised by how expensive Argentina’s Patagonia is. Chile’s Patagonia already blew half of my South America travel budget and the price on the Argentinian side, from food, attractions, public transport to accommodation, was twice and three times expensive. A typical example is that I paid $1,100 pesos ($600 pesos for an hour bus trip and $500 park entry) to visit Perito Moreno Glacier. The astronomical costs to travel on Argentina’s side convinced me to return to Chile after two days. Luckily, the border crossing from El Calafate to Puerto Natales was surprisingly easy.
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