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Thinking about renting a car in Patagonia? Well, we just completed an incredible road trip in our Patagonia rental car, and have these 13 must-know tips to share with you!
Traveling the remote region of Patagonia means you need to organize transport. Many locations are hard to get to and while buses are available, they may only operate on select days on select routes.
I’ve been lucky enough to travel around Patagonia twice. The first time I traveled by bus and hitchhiking, and the second time, we rented a car!
I have to say, after having both experiences I much preferred renting a car in Patagonia! So in this blog, I’m going to tell you 13 things you need to know about car rental in Patagonia so you can decide if this is the right method of transport for you!
(P.S. Don’t skip #5 and end up with a disaster as we did!)
1. It isn’t as expensive as you might think
Rental cars in Patagonia are really not that expensive. In fact, they were much cheaper than I expected! We paid less than $450 USD for a rental car for 10 days. Which between the four of us actually worked out cheaper than taking busses!
We even saved money on particular tours (like the Perito Moreno glacier trekking) because the tour company gave us a $150 USD discount to drive ourselves (4 of us) to the tour starting point instead of requiring hotel pick-up! That’s a massive win if you ask me!
If you are worried about your budget, be sure to book your car in advance, get a 2wd, and make sure the pick-up and drop-off locations are the same.
You can use a rental car search engine to find the best deals between all of the companies. We always use either Discover Cars or Airport Rentals as we find these websites to have the biggest selection with the best prices! Plus, their customer service is great – and they speak English which is super helpful!
If you want a campervan or motorhome, you can rent them in Patagonia too! There are tons of different styles and price ranges. You can use Motorhome Republic to find one that’s right for you!
*Tip: When I was researching Patagonia rental car prices, I found that it was cheapest to rent a car from Punta Arenas airport over other locations. This might be something worth looking into if you are on a tight budget!
Want to save on insurance? Check out #10 on this list for info on saving money on your Patagonia rental car insurance!
2. There is next to no traffic
If you’re like me, the idea of driving in a foreign South American country is scary. All I could think about was bumper to bumper traffic, horns honking, people yelling, and pedestrians everywhere. This was enough to deter me from renting a car in Patagonia.
But it’s not like that in Patagonia. Not at all.
In fact, even in cities like Punta Arenas or the bussy tourist streets in Puerto Natales, everything is very calm. No traffic, no chaos, and great organization. People follow traffic lights and there are road signs everywhere.
My only word of caution would be to watch out for people running stop signs. Particularly on an intersection where you have the right away and they don’t, just keep an eye out!
3. Don’t rely solely on Google Maps for directions
Google Maps disappointed us a couple of times during our Patagonia road trip. We did use Google Maps every time we got in the car and while it was fine in towns and cities, it often took us on less desirable routes when we were out in the middle of nowhere.
What do I mean?
Okay, so one day we were going from Puerto Natales to El Calafate. Google Maps takes you on the shortest route, but it doesn’t account for gravel roads. So, we ended up driving for 1.5 hours on a gravel road “shortcut” instead of staying on the paved highway which although longer, was at least 40 minutes quicker.
If you are going on a long drive between destinations, I recommend looking at Google Maps in advance and asking someone at your hotel/hostel if this is the best way. Also, use the “Google street view” option to look at the road conditions. If they are gravel, I would avoid them for long distances.
Also, just use logic. If you are driving along and Google Maps tells you to turn off a nice paved highway onto a dirt track, just don’t do it.
There are also signs everywhere to help you make sure you aren’t getting lost. In fact, between most destinations, you could rely solely on the signs and not even need Google Maps at all!
4. A 4WD drive isn’t totally necessary
We rented a Hyundai Accent, a normal sedan car. We went with this style of vehicle simply because it was the cheapest. 4WDs cost much more money.
I wasn’t sure if having a simple 2WD drive was going to limit us in any way or not, but as I found out, it actually didn’t at all. Some places we went required driving on a rough gravel road, but as long as we took it slow and watched out for potholes it was totally fine.
I honestly don’t think a 4WD is necessary in Patagonia for most people’s trips. All of the roads we went on seemed like they were maintained enough for buses and motorhomes.
5. You need a special permit to cross the border
This one is HUGE! We made this mistake, so I hope you can learn from us and not make the same one!
In order to take your rental car across the border between Chile and Argentina, you need a special permit.
These permits need to be arranged and applied for by your rental company several days in advance. It is important that you reach out to your rental company directly after booking and tell them your intentions to cross the border. Tell them to organize the permit for you to pick up with the car.
Without this permit, you will not be able to leave the country.
For us, the permit costs 79,000 CLP (about $105 USD) to take our Chilean car to Argentina for 20 days. Although, for longer trips, this could be more. I am under the impression the price is similar when renting in Argentina and crossing into Chile but I do think the rental company has some determining factor over this.
I have also read horror stories about people trying to take their rental car across borders between the likes of Mendoza and Santiago, and places in the north. But to be honest, for those renting a car in Patagonia, I never met anybody who had any problems.
As long as you have the permit, your passport, driver’s license, and insurance, everything should be just fine.
*Tip: I recommend emailing your rental car company as soon as possible about getting this border crossing permit. Some companies can take a while to organize this, and it is in your best interest to sort it out in advance so you don’t end up like us, scrambling at the last minute to try and get to Argentina!
6. They drive on the right side of the road (and left side of the car)
So, for those of you from Australia, New Zealand, parts of Asia, and the UK driving in Patagonia might require a bit more focus.
If this makes you nervous, don’t worry. It honestly isn’t too hard to get used to and within a day or two, it’ll be second nature. Plus, with the little traffic and plenty of road signs you should be just fine!
7. You should book your car as far in advance as possible
If you’re planning to rent a car in Patagonia during the peak summer months of November to February I highly suggest booking your car rental a few months in advance.
The cars do sell out. And, if they aren’t sold out, generally the only options left are the most expensive.
I also noticed that prices went up closer to my travel dates. We got our rental car in Patagonia for the first two weeks of December. I booked the car in July. I kept checking rental car prices periodically after I booked (to make sure I got the best deal) and the prices increased substantially.
In fact, by September, for the exact same car that I had booked for the same dates, was double the price!
So if you can, book early!
*Tip: Discover Cars or Airport Rentals are the best rental car search engines. Here, you can easily compare all of the options and prices right on one website. Based on personal experience, their customer service is much better too! If you rent directly from one of the rental agencies the language barrier can be an issue.
8. Most cars are manual (standard)
If you’ve already started searching for your Patagonia rental car, you’ll have noticed that most of the cars have a manual gearbox (or are a standard.)
This is important to notice because if you cannot drive a manual, you need to be sure you book an automatic. And since there are fewer of them around, booking as soon as you can is highly advised!
Use Discover Cars to search for an automatic vehicle available for rent.
9. You need to watch out for wildlife
You’re going to see wildlife on your Patagonia road trip! It is amazing actually. While driving in our rental car, we saw hundreds of guanacos (similar to llamas), sheep, flamingos, foxes, horses, condors, and even an armadillo!
Seeing wildlife and being able to pull over to watch them is all part of what makes having a rental car in Patagonia so amazing. But with that said, you do share the road with them so drive carefully! We, unfortunately, saw the aftermath of a few guanacos who had collisions with vehicles and didn’t make it.
10. Buy Travel Insurance that includes Rental Car Excess Insurance
Your Patagonia rental car will likely come with a basic insurance cover. When I was researching renting a car in Patagonia I found that all of them did.
But what it won’t come with, and what it will ask you to “upgrade” and pay for, is the better insurance with a reduced excess (also known as a deductible.)
For our rental car, the excess was 999.600 CLP (around $1500 USD) for both damage and theft. This meant that if something happened to the car we would be responsible for paying this large amount. For that reason, the rental car company actually froze half this amount on our credit card before we left with the car as a “deposit”
For an extra $170 USD we could’ve significantly reduced this number and opted for an insurance policy with a smaller excess.
But we didn’t do that.
Our travel insurance covers rental car excess! This means that we had to provide the deposit upfront and if something happened, yes we would immediately lose that money. But then we could make a claim with our travel insurance and get that exact amount paid back to us!
Many comprehensive travel insurance plans include car rental excess insurance. If you plan ahead and get a travel insurance policy with this cover, it will save you on the Patagonia rental car insurance cost!
11. Potholes are a problem
The only issue we had with driving on the roads in Patagonia was the potholes on the highways. Sometimes, we would be going very fast and then out of nowhere, a massive pothole would come up!
Luckily, this never caused any problems for us or our car, but I’m sure it could have if we hit the right pothole hard enough.
They did have signs posted in areas where there were lots of potholes, but it was easy to forget.
Just be aware and pay attention. It also helped following another car as we would see them slow down or hit a pothole hard and know where they were.
12. Don’t get stuck with an empty tank
Patagonia is remote, and when you’re driving around in your rental car, the last thing you want to do is end up with an empty gas tank!
The truth is, there are plenty of fuel/gas stations around in Patagonia. But, there aren’t so many that you don’t need to do a bit of planning about it.
We generally just fueled up whenever we saw a fuel station. Even if we still had half a tank left, it was better to be safe than sorry! We never knew when the next fuel station would be and if they would even be open.
We also noticed that some fuel stations (in El Chalten in particular) only accepted cash. Now, this was strange because in El Chalten none of the ATM’s worked. So if I were you, I’d stash a bit of emergency cash in the car in case you ever have a situation where you need fuel and only cash is accepted.
How much is fuel? In Chile, it was about 900 CLP (around $1.20 USD) per liter, and in Argentina, it was about 48 ARS (around 0.80 USD) per litre (prices as of December 2019.) In Argentina, it was much cheaper, so we fueled up there before crossing the border back to Chile.
13. The freedom is unmeasurable!
Honestly, you can’t beat the freedom that comes with renting a car in Patagonia. Being able to pull over whenever we wanted and take in views and watch wildlife was amazing.
We even drove ourselves from El Calafate to Perito Moreno Glacier before any tour buses got there in the morning and enjoyed this normally busy attraction all alone – thanks to the freedom of our rental car!
We saved so much time as well. No booking buses in advance, no waiting at bus stations, and no slow buses.
We could visit any attractions without having to worry about a taxi, we could stay at remote hotels and relax without thinking about how we would get there, we could essentially do whatever the heck we wanted.
And it was fantastic.
If you want even more freedom, consider a littler campervan or small motorhome instead! There are plenty available in Patagonia, you can check out availability and prices here!
Before you go…
Do you have any questions about renting a car in Patagonia? Feel free to leave a comment below and we will get back to you!
Be sure to also check out some of our other Patagonia blogs! Some of our personal favorites include:
- Guide to the Torres del Paine W-Trek
- Everything you need to know about visiting Perito Moreno Glacier
- How to get to the Marble Caves
- Cerro Tronador: A Guide to Bariloche’s BEST Hike