Colombia to Patagonia overland
- This article is an itinerary.
Colombia to Patagonia overland is an epic continental journey along the Andes across South America. This route starts from the sunny beaches of the Caribbean and crosses Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina before terminating on the icy shores of the Antarctic Ocean. Crossing 6 countries, spanning over 10,000 kilometers, this is one of the ultimate overland journeys in the world.
This trip can be divided up three similar sized segments each with its own characteristic.
- Cartagena to Lima (4000 km)- Tropical highland and rainforest (Humid and warm to hot all year around)
- Lima to Santiago (3800 km)- Altiplano and Atacama Desert (Extremely dry and large day/night temperature variations)
- Santiago to Patagonia (3400 km taking RN40)- Temperate to sub-arctic (Pleasant marine climate)
Although it is entirely possible to do the entire journey in chicken buses, it is the balance of cost and comfort that makes overlanding fun. To the purpose, long distance buses fall under 3 general comfort levels: Semicama, Cama, and Cama Suite. These names tend to shift from country to country.
|Country||Semicama (Half bed)||Cama (Bed)||Cama Suite (Bed Suite)|
|Argentina||Semicama 40°||Cama-Ejecutivo 55°||Cama Suite 85°|
|Chile||Semi Cama 60°||Cama 65°||Cama Premium 90°|
|Peru||Semicama/Imperial/Especial 40-50°||Cama/VIP 70-75°||Super Cama 180°|
|Brazil||Executivo 40°||Semi-Leito 55°||Leito 80°|
Spanish is the official language in all countries on this trip. Various indigenous American languages such as Quechua are also spoken in some areas, especially of Bolivia and Peru. Speakers of those languages may or may not be bilingual with Spanish.
Climate along the Pacific coast is mainly affected by latitude with the temperature getting colder the further south you go. Colombia and Equador are tropical. Once into Peru, the humidity starts to decline. South of Lima, the environment becomes very arid. The Atacama Desert, known as the driest place in the world, lies in Southern Peru and Northern Chile. Around Santiago desert gives way to subtropical rainforests. In Patagonia, climate gradually shifts from temperate to sub-polar, with evergreens gradually dominating the landscape.
In the Andes, altitude matters more than latitude. The rule of thumb is that temperature decreases by 6°C for every 1,000-meter gain in elevation. The central portion of the trip in Peru and Bolivia crosses the Altiplano, where altitude hovers around 4,000 meters. Daytime temperature is pleasant while nights can be freezing.
Dress in layers to adapt to the diverse climates you will encounter along this trip. Start with T-shirts, bring a fleece or down sweater for the cold, and cover it all up with a water proof outer shell. Be sure to bring comfortable shoes/boots for the plenty of hiking opportunities you will encounter. Wear comfortable (loose or stretch) pants on the long distance buses.
Uyuni has an airport for those unwilling to endure the hardship of Bolivian roads.
It is theoretically possible to arrive by boat from the Amazon. Starting from Belem take the ferry to Manaus (5 days) then change ferry to Iquitos (5 days). Once at Iquitos, three options existː Yurimaguas (2.5 days), Pucallpa (4 days) and Coca (8 days). All three cities have motorable roads to the west of the Andes.
Since every major city west of the Andes has been covered in the Routes section below, the only remaining starting points lie far beyond the Andes on the eastern Atlantic coast. These bus rides are epic journeys in and of themselves.
Cartagena. Caribbean port city. Start of this journey.
- Cartagena to Medellin or Bogota is a long bus ride. Stop by the quint town of Santa Cruz de Mompox immortalized by the great Latin American novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his book The General in His Labyrinth. The town is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Tulcan is a border town. Be careful with money changers as some may be crooks.
Trujillo. is sizable city to stop in northern Peru. Near by are many sites of interest: Chan Chan (adobe constructed by Chimú), Huaca del Sol (largest adobe pyramid constructed by Moche).
- Lima to Cuzco (22 hours)
- Alternatively, break up this trip into smaller segments:
From Nasca. you can see the Nazca lines and the lost city of Cahuachi.
Cusco. Ancient capital of the Incas.
Machu Picchu. Sacred city of the Incas.
Puno. Sacred city of the Incas.
- Border to La Paz
- La Paz via Oruro to Uyuni
- Possible detour to Potosí
Salar de Uyuni. Largest salt flat in the world.
From here on is a 3 day jeep ride to San Pedro de Atacama.
First day you will be traveling on the salt flat and spend the night in San Juan. The sights are the cactus island, train graveyard.
San Juan. Tiny road side town.
Second day you will be traveling parallel along the Chilean border through Desierto de Siloli and spend the night by Laguna Colorada. The major sights are Laguna Hedionda, Árbol de Piedra.
Third day you will be traveling in the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve before crossing the border to Chile at Hito Cajon. The major sights are Sol de Mañana, Termas de Polques hot springs and Laguna Verde.
San Pedro de Atacama. Good place to rest and recuperate after the road trip. The lunar landscapes of Valle de la Luna is just outside the city.
Santiago. Capital of Chile. Two thirds of this journey.
- Santiago to Puerto Montt take 12 hours. Valdivia or Frutillar are good stop overs to break up the journey.
Valdivia. Sea side German town.
- Due to the difficulty of the terrain and the amorphous nature of the southern Chile-Argentina border, traveling overland in Patagonia requires at least 1 border crossing.
Northern Patagonia (Chile option)
The starting point here is the port city of Puerto Montt. . From here, 2 options exist:
1. Take the Navimag ferry to Puerto Natales. (400 USD 4 days/3 nights). This is the most straight forward option. The ferry travels through Chilean fjords en route. Note, Puerto Natales is close to Torres del Paine. You will see the Southern Patagonia sights in the reverse order (south to north) as they are listed.
2. Overland on the Carretera Austral (Southern Road) to Villa O'Higgins. . This is the more difficult option. Most of trip will be on pot holed roads with occasional ferry crossings. Towns are few in number and far in between. Taking this road all the way down will arrive at Villa O'Higgins. From there on it is a ferry ride across the border on Lago San Martin. From there on is a 20km hike until Laguna del Desierto. Taking another ferry across the lake will get you to a road that leads to El Chaltén.
Northern Patagonia (Argentina option)
The starting point here is the beautiful mountain resort town of Bariloche. .
- Arriving from Puerto Montt or Puerto Varas takes 4 hours by bus or 1-2 days by ferry/bus combination.
- Arriving from Buenos Aires takes 21 hours by bus.
Southern Patagonia (Chile and Argentina)
The three big ticket sights starting from north to south are:
Monte Fitz Roy (near El Chaltén). many day hikes in the surrounding area
Glaciar Perito Moreno (near El Calafate). massive glacier
Tierra del Fuego
For those who seek to go as far south as possible. There are 3 destinations from north to south:
Punta Arenas. Southern most city on the South American continent
Puerto Williams. Southern most city in Chile
The only thing further South is Antarctica
Alternative ways back
- Head to Rio Gallegos for a 36-hour (Cama Suite) bus ride north to Buenos Aires
- From Buenos Aires, head further north to visit Iguaçu Falls
- Continue to São Paulo
- From São Paulo take 108-hour bus across the Amazon to Lima