There are 2,625 miles (4,225 km) between San Pedro de Atacama in Chile's northern Atacama Desert to Punta Arenas, Chile's most southerly city and one of the most southerly cities in the world. People come to Punta Arenas in order to experience the surrounding wilderness of southern Chile and Chilean/Argentine Patagonia. The city has one of the most convenient airports in the extreme south of South America. It also has a lot of culture and history in its own right.
The options for travel to Punta Arenas are by air and by road. Travel by air always involves first a journey from San Pedro de Atacama to Calama, with the nearest airport.
By Private Transfer and Plane
Duration: 8-9 hours
For flights south across Chile to Punta Arenas, first travel the one hour from San Pedro de Atacama to the Calama Airport. There are no direct flights from Calama to Punta Arenas; all flights necessitate a change or at least a brief stop-off in Santiago Airport en route. Some schedules have as little as an hour between the arrival of the flight from Calama and the departure of the flight to Punta Arenas, meaning total flying time can be 6.5 to 7.5 hours.
Once in Punta Arenas Airport, it is a 14-mile, 25-minute taxi ride south into Punta Arenas. If you are heading to Puerto Natales (for Torres del Paine) from Punta Arenas, buses from central Punta Arenas stop off at the airport on the way north and there is not always a need to go into central Punta Arenas. See here for more on getting from Santiago to Puerto Natales.
By Rental Car
Duration: 7-9 days
Chile is of course a great driving country with such huge distances between destinations. And the trip from San Pedro de Atacama to Punta Arenas is one of the greatest journeys. It is so great, in fact, that the best way to get there in fact involves heading into Argentina for much of the route, because the south of Chile between Punta Arenas and Chilean destinations further north is covered by lakes and lacks drivable roads. Because of the huge distances and remote scenery, allow plenty of days for a trip like this.
The quickest driving route, with a direct travel time of around 50 hours solid, heads almost immediately into Argentina. It runs via the appealing destinations of Salta (good for experiencing traditional indigenous culture and customs, as well as stunning desert scenery), Córdoba (a cultural capital of Argentina with access to the rich pampas or grasslands of Argentina), Puerto Madryn (with some of the continent's best whale watching nearby) and Río Gallegos. The route then crosses back into Chile to reach Punta Arenas. Allow a week to do the route and some justice to the land you are passing through.
Driving times are seven hours (San Pedro-Salta), ten hours (Salta-Córdoba), 15 hours (Córdoba-Puerto Madryn), 15 hours (Puerto Madryn-Río Gallegos) and three hours (Río Gallegos-Punta Arenas). The first three of these destinations are well worth spending at least two days in.
The slightly longer but arguably prettier route spends more time in Chile, heading via La Serena, Santiago and Temuco in Chile before crossing the mountains to San Carlos de Bariloche in Argentina, then Esquel before joining the previous route down through Argentina at Comodoro Rivadavia. Of these stop-offs, La Serena (a beautiful leafy city with the great side trip of the captivating Valle del Elqui), Santiago and San Carlos de Bariloche are all worth spending an average of 2-3 days each in. See more on the wine region around Santiago or the wild countryside treks around Bariloche. Again, allow a minimum of one week to do the route and some justice to the land you are passing through.
Driving times are 13 hours (San Pedro-La Serena), five hours (La Serena-Santiago), seven hours (Santiago-Temuco), seven hours (Temuco-San Carlos de Bariloche), four hours (San Carlos de Bariloche-Esquel), seven hours (Esquel-Comodoro Rivadavia) and nine hours (Comodoro Rivadavia-Río Gallegos).