How to Drive to Ushuaia, Tierra del FuegoFebruary 18th, 2014 | Posted by in Argentina | Border Crossings | Chile | How To | The Places We've Been
When we first began mapping out our drive to the world’s southernmost city, it was a bit daunting. None of the overlanders’ accounts that we read made it seem all that stressful, but they did describe poor road conditions, different routes, multiple borders, strict border regulations, and ferries that only operated during certain hours on certain days. We weren’t sure how long it would take us to get there or what obstacles we would face while so far away in what we had imagined was a distant and freezing abyss. In reality, we found the journey to be incredibly smooth. It didn’t actually feel far away from the world as we know it, the temperatures were kind despite grey skies, and the route was fairly intuitive.
We drove Ruta 3 from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia over the course of 4 days at the beginning of February, with the final day covering the segment from Río Gallegos, Argentina to Ushuaia, Argentina. Argentine Tierra del Fuego is separated entirely from mainland Argentina by the waters of the Straight of Magellan and Chilean turf. While it is possible to travel by air or sea directly into Ushuaia, the only way to drive there is by passing through Chile, including all of the bells and whistles of crossing borders each time. There are two main land routes from mainland Argentina and cities like Río Gallegos to Tierra del Fuego, Argentina and cities like Ushuaia. One is via ferry crossing at Chile’s Punta Arenas and the second is via ferry crossing at the narrowest part of the straight at the northern tip of Tierra del Fuego. We took the latter of these two routes, primarily because the Punta Arenas ferry doesn’t operate on Mondays, only runs at a few certain times in the morning, and costs more than twice as much, but we ended up being very happy with our choice and would recommend it if a traveler wasn’t planning to spend a bit of time in Punta Arenas. Our process was:
Step 1: Drive from Río Gallegos to Border
We left Río Gallegos heading south on the nicely paved Ruta 3 and arrived at the border in an hour-ish.
Step 2: Cross Border
This border station is housed in two separate buildings that are out of site of each other. The northern building processes travelers who are leaving Chile and entering Argentina; the southern building processes travelers who are leaving Argentina and entering Chile. So, skip the first building and stop at the second one. All details on and photos of this crossing can be viewed in this border crossing post. We traveled south on a Monday and enjoyed a very quick, calm, and efficient crossing that took no longer than 30 minutes; however, we have read that lines can be much longer heading south at the end of the week and during the weekend.
Step 3: Drive from Border to Ferry
The drive from the border to the ferry is a short 40 minute clip or so, all on paved roads taking Ruta 255 to the turn off for the ferry at Ruta 257. Signage is plentiful and obvious. Google maps recommends a detour towards the end of this segment that cuts closer to the water, but is also on dirt roads and adds an extra 5-10 minutes. We took this route on our way south. It was pretty and enjoyable, but nothing too astounding.
Step 4: Take Ferry
Vehicles line up to board the ferry on the road we drove in on (Ruta 257). The road itself leads directly into the Straight of Magellan, so this is a logical place to wait as no one’s way is being blocked by doing so. Payment is made on the ferry itself, so all we really needed to do was sit in line, wait for the boat to come in, and then drive on, but we did some looking around and exploring. There appears to be new construction on the left side of the road, so who knows what may be there in the next year or two, but currently, the area has a few buildings on the right side of the road and a nice big sign welcoming travelers al Estrecho de Magallanes. There is a public bathroom, some maritime offices, and also a simple, but well kept restaurant with a view of the straight where warm beverages and food can be purchased. Prices were listed in Chilean pesos; we didn’t ask if they accepted Argentine pesos, but it’s hard to imagine they wouldn’t as we saw no place to exchange money at any of the border stations. When we saw the ferry approaching the landing, we went back to the car, wondering if we were going to fit in this load (we did, easily).
Vehicles were directed onto the ferry and into one of five different rows. After parking, people immediately started getting out of their cars and heading to use the restrooms on board, pay for their passage, find a warm seat inside, or take the stairs to the upper deck for a view. We stumbled upon the ticket line, which seemed to be how everyone was finding it. The charge was 300 Argentine pesos per vehicle; no charge for passengers. We were given a pink receipt to show as we disembarked and then waited out the rest of our 20 minute boat ride at a window in the indoor waiting area. As the boat neared the southern shore, everyone ventured back to their vehicles before cruising off the ferry and onto Tierra del Fuego. Quite efficient, we thought.
Step 5: Drive from Ferry to Border
After the ferry, the paved road continues for 20 minutes or so until just passed the tiny town of Cerro Sombrero, where it turns to gravel until the Argentine side of the border. This segment was the only unpaved portion of our drive from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, and it fortunately only lasts for 2-3 hours, depending how comfortable you are driving on gravel.
Step 6: Cross Border
Again, the border station is housed in two separate buildings that are out of site of each other, though this time they are much further apart. The western building handles all Chilean needs and the eastern building handles all Argentine needs, regardless of direction. So, unlike the first border crossing, this time stop at both buildings. All details on and photos of this crossing can be viewed in this border crossing post. This step took us 20 minutes, plus another 20 in driving between the outposts.
Step 7: Drive from Border to Ushuaia
This is the longest segment of the journey, but the roads were nice and paved, there were a couple of miradors along the way, and it got prettier the further south we drove. Ruta 3, which we were back on upon reentering Argentina, leads straight into Ushuaia.
Repeat all steps in reverse when returning north. Happy travels!
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Amazing reviews. ^^
I’ve been Chapel Hill, NC about 2yrs.
Now I’m in S.Korea and plannig to go to take Pan Amrerican Highway…. from AL to Ushuaia.
Your reviews very inspiring and helpful.
Wish you have a great and safe trip!
Thanks for the note! It is a fantastic experience, and I’m glad to know the information can be useful to others. Have a great journey!
I took the boat from Punta arenas to Porvenir which is a much nicer crossing of the magellan straight and we returned
the way you came down.. So if you in tTerra del Fuego one in your lifetime then take both trips to economise
leaving out Punta Arenas is not to recommend since you already crossed the border you can continue to Punta Arenas.
Is is possible to take a rental car on a ferry from Punta Arenas to Porvenir and drive to Ushuaia from there? Any thoughts about how much driving time that would encompass?
I’m in Rio Gallegos now and will be traveling 257 tomorrow on my motorcycle. My friend will take the western route y-65. I was concerned about road conditions until I read your blog. Thanks
Agreed- Great post Briana-very helpful.
Ron- we are planning to do the same route (257) in the first week in April with a small passanger car (as it was about 1/2 the price of what I could find for an SUV rental). If you read this by any chance, I would be indebted for a follow up on the road conditions. Enjoy your journey!
Also just found a super helpful site I thought I’d throw out there as a tip:
This is an Argentinian goverment site reporting road conditions and border crossing delays that also inculdes Ruta 257 through Chile. Currently it reports the route is passable for all kinds of vehicles.
Thanks, some things might have changed in two years but I will use this information next december.
Fred – I too am interested in making this trip (on my motorcycle) in late 2017 and so far have no traveling companions. I would like to ride from Buenos Aires – Tierra Del Fuego – Punta Arenas – Santiago. I don’t have specific dates (yet) or length of travel. If you might tolerate a rider please contact me.
I am an American living in Colombia and I am also planning on riding to Ushuaia in late 2017. I am riding a BMW F800GS Adventure. Send me a message, I am still in the early planning stages myself.
Hey there…we, ( 2 of us on 1 bike (HP2 E) will be doing the same – starting in BA early December, where the bike is now. Would be cool to meet you somewhere. We will be camp and hotel, pending on the weather. Good luck and safe riding!
Thank you…real nice post about your travel experience…im dreaming to visit Tiera del Fuego..
How is the weather in late March/early April? My buddy and I are hoping to do this trip next year, 2017 around that time…
I am by no means and expert but I have been planning this trip myself for the past 3 months. The best times to travel from anywhere in South America to Ushuaia is November to February which corresponds to summer this far south. I am an American living in Colombia and my plans is to ride my F800GS Adventure from Cali Colombia to Ushuaia starting in November 2017. Feel free to contact me if you are interested in riding as a group.
I am living in Santa Catarina and this trip is on the to-do list for either late this year or early next year. Have been to Southern Patagonia a few years ago trekking but used air travel. I found your down to earth info very helpfull, thanks for sharing.
This is great, thank you so much. 4 days sounds like it’s doable. It would be great if this was on the Wikiloc app. Google maps showed that you can do this in a total of 37 hours on the road.. does that sound about right?
In theory that sounds about right, but if my memory serves me correctly we had a couple holdups when protesters shut down the highway where all you can do is wait for them to leave, so I’d recommend budgeting a few more hours than Google says. Good luck!