After a few days in El Calafate we were ready to head to Torres del Paine in Chile. We had tried to find information about the drive prior to our trip and managed to figure out that it was possible although we were a bit unclear on the state of the roads. We did manage to gather that the drive was possible with certain rental car companies (like Hertz) and that it didn’t require a four wheel drive vehicle.
Hertz was helpful in providing us with the paperwork we needed to cross the border, and we were somewhat comforted to see stamps indicating the car had made it across the border before since it didn’t exactly feel like a rugged vehicle. They had also given us guidance on the best roads to take — from the map there looked like two options. The rental car rep had recommended we not take what looked like a shortcut (the unpaved section of Ruta 40 that bypasses Esperanza) because of poor road conditions and the need to fill up at the gas station located on the longer route. She also mentioned another station closer to the border that we should stop at. “They may not have gas here. But if they do, you should get it.”
On the morning of January 5th we ate breakfast and went to fill up our gas tank before leaving El Calafate. Unfortunately, the gas station near our hotel was out of the gas we needed (Super) and when we drove to the other station in town they were also out and said they wouldn’t get more until 5:00 that evening. We were estimating the drive would take at least 5 hours but didn’t want to head out so late. We had half a tank of gas but were unsure if that was enough to get us to the next town, so we drove to Hertz to ask what they recommended and they were kind enough to call ahead to Esperanza (fittingly “hope” in Spanish) to see if they had gas. They did, so we jumped in the car and made it to the town, which didn’t seem to consist of much more than a truck stop. But they did have gas.
The road from El Calafate to Esperanza and from there to Cancha Carrera was paved and in good condition. We stopped in Estancia Tapi Aike for gas, having learned our lesson about getting gas when we could. It turned out the small store did have gas, the attendant just had to run out to turn on the generator in order to pump it for us.
About four miles before reaching the Argentine border crossing we turned onto a dirt road that continued most of the way to the park (although there was a brief span of pavement just after the Chile Border crossing).
When we came to the Argentine border crossing were at first unsure if we needed to stop both there and at the Chile border crossing, but after some broken Spanish exchanges we figured out that we did need to stop. The office was small and a bit chaotic, but we made it through, drove a bit more, and then reached the office for the Chilean border. That office was bigger, a bit more orderly, and had public bathrooms (the first of which we’d seen since Esperanza).
Nearby there are several small gift shops/convenience store type shops. We stopped in one in order to change some US dollars to Chilean pesos (they only accepted US dollars or Euros for exchange — we had come to realize that the cross-border relations were a tad chilly). The exchange rate seemed reasonable, but they would only change our pristine bills; they didn’t even take a clean $20 that had been folded.
Once in Chile we drove for about another hour on pavement and dirt roads before encountering the park entry office, where we stopped to pay entrance fees. From here on the road became significantly more sinuous and the scenery more impressive. From the park entry it probably took us about another hour to get to Hosteria Pehoe, where we were staying.
- Route (here’s a map): Ruta 11 east out of El Calafate, continue after the road connects with Ruta 40. When Ruta 40 splits off to the right (and turns into dirt) continue to Esperanza on Ruta 5. From Esperanza drive west on Ruta 7 and atEstancia Tapi Aike Ruta 40 rejoins the road. Continue on the paved road to the Cancha Carrera turnoff, where the road again turns to the west. After the two border crossings turn right and drive north to Torres del Paine.
- Timing: The drive going there took us 8 hours, it was closer to 6 on the way back. You could do it faster if you want to drive like the Argentinians at insanely high speeds. However, it’s good to allow a full day as the Argentine border crossing was crowded and slow.
- Borders: We crossed at Cancha Carrera (called Rio Don Guillermo on the Chilean side), which is less frequented than the border crossing near Rio Turbio, but shorter from El Calafate so a better bet if you are on your own. They were doing some construction on the Chilean side of the border, so it may be expanding. At the border crossings we had to wait in lines to show first our passports at one window and then the documents for our car at another window. This process was more clear at the Chilean border, but harder to figure out at the Argentine border which was packed with a lot of people who weren’t exactly patiently waiting in an orderly line (on the way back we were more ready to throw some elbows to hold our position).
- Maps: We bought road/hiking maps at one of the gas stations in Calafate and got a map of Torres del Paine from the park entry office.
- Get gas when you can! We aren’t sure if running out of gas in Calafate was an anomaly, but it made us understand why our rental car rep recommended filling up when we could. We had enough gas for getting into the park for driving around the park/returning. We met a couple who had managed to buy a little gas off of someone once inside the park, but it was for a premium ($18 per gallon!)