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!