Colombia to Patagonia overland
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 km, this is one of the ultimate overland journeys in the world.
- See also: Pan American Highway, Gringo trail
This trip can be divided into 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 90°|
|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 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-m gain in elevation. The central portion of the trip in Peru and Bolivia crosses the Altiplano, where altitude hovers around 4,000 m. 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.
Bogota, Lima and Santiago are the principal airports for those flying in from outside of South America.
Quito, Medellin and Cusco are more useful for those flying within South America.
In Northern Patagonia, Puerto Montt and San Carlos de Bariloche are good entry points, while in Southern Patagonia, El Calafate, Punta Arenas, Rio Grande and Ushuaia are exit points.
Uyuni has an airport for those unwilling to endure the hardship of Bolivian roads.
Cartagena is the principal port between Colombia and Panama. This is the only way to cross the inaccessible Darien Gap without flying.
It is also possible to arrive by Voyaging along the Amazon River. Starting from Belem take a ferry to Manaus (5 days) then change ferry to Iquitos (5 days). Once at Iquitos, three options existː Yurimaguas (2½ 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.
From Sao Paulo, Ormeño runs a bus to Lima on the Interoceanic Highway (108 hours). Get off at Cusco to save 21 hours.
From Buenos Aires, buses to Lima (72 hours), Santiago (19-20 hours), Bariloche (20-23 hours) and Rio Gallegos (36 hours).
1 Cartagena. Caribbean port city. Start of this journey.
- Cartagena to Medellin or Bogota is a long bus ride. Stop by the quaint 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.
1 Las Lajas Sanctuary. Basilica straddling a canyon. 20-min from Ipiales by taxi (COP$4,000) or cableway (COP$12,000)
Tulcán is a border town. Be careful with money changers as some may be crooks.
In Quito you can go to the historical old town or take a day trip to go horseback riding at the Mount Cotopaxi volcano.
5 Trujillo. is a sizable city to stop at in northern Peru. Near by are many sites of interest: Chan Chan (adobe constructed by Chimú), Huacas del Sol y de la Luna (largest adobe pyramid constructed by Moche).
Trujillo to Lima takes 9 hours.
- Lima to Cusco land route contains some of the best scenery in Peru, but if you are in a hurry, there are direct buses from Lima to Cuzco (22 hours)
- Lima to Paracas (3½ hours) - Spend the night in Ica or Huacachina
- Paracas to Ica/Huacachina (1 hour) - There is a direct backpacker bus (Peru Hop) from Paracas to Huacachina leaving around 11:00. Otherwise, take a bus to Ica first then take a taxi from Ica to Huacachina. Huacachina is an oasis surrounded by tall dunes. It is a popular with backpackers. If you are tired from overlanding, this is a good stop.
2 Nasca. Rather rundown but near the famous the Nazca lines. Avoid a scam hostel run by an obese man. This hostel goes by the name "Loki" (not affiliated with the famous Loki hostel chain). The hostel name changes every few years because of online feedback. Avoid him and his over priced tours as travellers have reported unwanted sexual advances by this man.
- Arequipa to Cusco (9 hours)
8 Cusco. Ancient capital of the Incas.
3 Machu Picchu. Sacred city of the Incas.
1 Puno. Sacred city of the Incas.
- Cruise Lake Titicaca
- Puno to Desaguadero (a border town)
- Desaguadero to La Paz
- Tiwanaku (Gate of the Sun)
- Isla del Sol
- La Paz via Oruro to Uyuni
- Possible detour to Potosí
4 Salar de Uyuni. Largest salt flat in the world.
From here it 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, and the famous train graveyard.
2 San Juan (Bolivia). 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 and the Árbol de Piedra.
5 Laguna Colorada. Pink lake famous for its Andean flamingoes
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.
9 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.
- Possible detour to Pampa del Tamarugal
- Antofagasta to Santiago - long bus ride on Highway 5
11 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.
12 Valdivia. Sea side German town.
13 Puerto Octay/Frutillar/llanquihue/Puerto Varas. German town by Lake Llanquihue.
- 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 14 Puerto Montt. . From here, 2 options exist:
1. Take the Navimag ferry to 15 Puerto Natales. (USD400 4 days/3 nights). This is the most straight forward option. The ferry travels through Chilean fjords en route. 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 16 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 20-km 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 17 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.
Linger a few days at Bariloche before heading south on the famous Ruta 40 (RN40) to El Chaltén (24 hours in a cramped mini bus).
Southern Patagonia (Chile and Argentina)
The three big ticket sights starting from north to south are:
6 Monte Fitz Roy (near El Chaltén). many day hikes in the surrounding area
7 Glaciar Perito Moreno (near El Calafate). massive glacier
8 Torres del Paine (north of Puerto Natales). hike famous W trek (4-5 days) or full circuit (7-9 days)
Tierra del Fuego
For those who seek to go as far south as possible. There are 3 destinations from north to south:
18 Punta Arenas. Southern-most city on the South American continent
19 Ushuaia. Southern-most city in Argentina
20 Puerto Williams. Southern-most city in Chile
From Punta Arenas, take a 30-hour ferry to Ushuaia.
Alternatively, there are bus connecting Puerto Natales and Rio Gallegos with Rio Grande. From Rio Grande there is another bus to Ushuaia.
Even through violence in Colombia has greatly subsided since the 2016 peace agreement, the section between Cali to Pasto (Mojarras) is not very safe. Avoid night buses or even being outside at night.
The only land 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