Options for Crossing the Border by Boat and Bus
Extending 3,300 miles, the border between Argentina and Chile is the third-longest international border in the world. There are several places where visitors can cross, and there are multiple ways to do it—you could drive or even make the trip on horseback—but most travelers make the trip by boat or bus. The border crossing you choose depends on several factors, including the destinations on your larger itinerary, your budget, your tolerance for altitude, and the amount of time you have to spend.
Note that the following itineraries describe traveling from Argentina to Chile, though, of course, the reverse option is just as popular, and the itineraries are similar.
|Route||Travel time||Pros||Cons||Best for|
|Mendoza to Santiago||7-8 hours||Scenic, affordable, and relatively quick, views of the highest mountain in the Americas||Weather can impact bus schedules; carsickness could be a problem for some||Wine lovers and travelers most interested in mountain scenery|
|Bariloche to Puerto Varas||9-13 hours||Volcanoes, glaciers, and rainforests visible from the boat; optional stops at key natural attractions||More costly; requires booking well ahead of time; not all required fees included in the ticket price||Travelers interested in boat travel, those with extra time/a flexible budget, people prone to altitude sickness|
|Salta to San Pedro de Atacama||11 hours||Easy to get a last-minute ticket, affordable, beautiful desert scenery||Weather can affect schedules; passage is less set up for tourism than the other routes; fewer departures||Desert adventurers, budget-conscious travelers, travelers interested in indigenous cultures|
Cross the Andes Between Mendoza and Santiago
This popular border crossing has much to offer: gorgeous mountain scenery (this landscape was a stand-in for the Himalayas in the 1997 film Seven Years in Tibet), not to mention vineyards on either side that stretch out as far as the eye can see. This bus journey takes travelers high up into the Andes on the Paso Los Libertadores, reaching more than 10,000 feet in elevation, passing mountain streams, endless cacti, and snow-capped peaks, including views of Mount Aconcagua (22,837 feet), the tallest mountain in the Americas. Other highlights you may spot from the bus window include Puenta del Inca, a natural rock bridge once used by the Incas.
The ride itself takes about six hours, but when you add in the time to clear customs and immigration on this route, expect to spend at least seven to eight hours to make the trip. Leaving from Mendoza, you'll spend the first few hours climbing in elevation. After clearing customs and immigration at the high-altitude border, you'll begin descending toward Santiago—note that the hairpin roads are fun for many passengers, but could cause problems for travelers prone to motion sickness.
Start and end points: Mendoza, Argentina and Santiago, Chile
Travel Time: 7-8 hours
Key features: Mountain scenery. Views of Mount Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Americas. Start or end in Mendoza, South America's most famous wine-growing region, and Santiago, Chile's cosmopolitan capital.
Practical Considerations: Book ahead of time—this is a popular route, and buses fill up, especially during high season. Note that while many companies allow travelers to buy tickets online, some only release tickets for sale about a month ahead of the date of travel. Most companies offer more than one class of service. If you're traveling overnight (which perhaps defeats the purpose of choosing this trip, as it's all about enjoying the mountain scenery), make sure to book a cama (bed) seat.
Lake Crossing from Bariloche to Puerto Varas
The Andean lake journey is more than a border crossing: it's an unforgettable travel experience in its own right. The trip combines two forms of transportation—boat and bus—to take travelers across three lakes, past national parks, volcanoes, mountains, and waterfalls. Compared with other kinds of border crossings, tickets for the lake crossing are comparatively costly, and spots fill up well in advance. But many travelers count it among their favorite South American adventures.
Departing from Bariloche, you'll travel by bus to Puerto Pañuelo, where you'll board a catamaran for the hour-long cruise across Nahuel Huapi Lake. On the other side, at Puerto Blest, you'll have a chance to observe exotic birds before taking a short bus ride to another nearby port. From Puerto Alegre, you'll board another boat for the journey across Lake Frías. Starting from this point onward, you'll spot towering mountains, volcanoes, and glaciers along the way.
Travelers go through Argentine customs and Chilean immigration, respectively, in the towns of Puerto Frías (by boat) and Peulla (by connecting bus). You'll enter Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park, known as Chile's first national park, and take a lunch break. The next part of the trip is by boat, crossing Todos los Santos Lake while taking in views of Osorno and El Tronador volcanoes. Finally, you'll board a bus for Puerto Varas, with the option of stopping at Petrohué Waterfalls along the way.
Note that this itinerary describes the one-day, one-way lake crossing. If you have extra time (and funds), consider the two-day trip, which breaks for an overnight in the Chilean town of Peulla. You can also cross the border from Chile to Argentina, enjoying a similar itinerary in reverse order.
Start and end points: Bariloche, Argentina and Puerto Varas, Chile
Travel Time: 9-13 hours (for the one-day crossing)
Key features: Time on the water as the boat crosses three lakes. A variety of landscapes, from volcanoes to rainforest. Options for short hikes and visits to natural attractions.
Practical Considerations: This is a good option for travelers who struggle with altitude sickness, as there's no significant change in elevation throughout the journey (the highest point on the trip is 3,200 feet). But the lake crossing requires more time and money than other border crossings between Chile and Argentina. And many costs, including national park entrance fees and meals, are not included in the ticket price and must be paid separately. You'll need to book ahead, especially during peak travel seasons.
Northernmost Desert Pass Between Salta and the Atacama
On par with the Mendoza to Santiago crossing is the journey between Salta, Argentina and San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. This is another high-altitude border crossing with striking scenery along the way. Paso de Jama is the name of the mountain pass that connects the two countries at this point on the map, a road that climbs to heights of almost 14,000 feet. (Note that there is another option in the region, Paso de Sico, leading between Salta and Antofagasta, Chile. Because Antofagasta doesn't offer much of interest to international travelers, and San Pedro de Atacama is a hub of activity for outdoor adventure, the Salta-San Pedro de Atacama trip is generally preferable.)
Leaving from Salta, you'll enjoy desert landscapes from the bus window on the route to Jujuy, one of Argentina's most important centers of indigenous culture. (You could also board the bus here, if you happen to be in Jujuy already.) The bus climbs higher and higher in elevation as you pass colorful rock formations, fields of cacti, and llamas and alpacas by the roadside. The journey passes through several small towns without stopping before reaching border control. From there, it's a two-hour downhill ride to San Pedro de Atacama.
Start and end points: Salta, Argentina and San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Travel Time: 11 hours
Key features: Colorful rock formations, desert landscapes, llamas and alpacas. Starts and ends in popular destinations, Salta and San Pedro.
Practical Considerations: Bus companies only make this trip a few times a week: check schedules and plan ahead. As with any passage over the Andes, weather can impact travel.
Bring your own food and drinks. Bus companies usually serve some kind of a meal or snack, but it's not much considering the length of this trip, and there aren't any places to buy things along the way.
Leaving from Salta, try to get a bus seat on the left side of the bus for the best views (sit on the right side if you're traveling the other direction, from Chile to Argentina.)
Which border crossing is right for you?
The lake crossing counts among many travelers' favorite South American experiences: it's a journey you'll likely talk about for years to come. But the overland journeys from Mendoza to Santiago or from Salta to San Pedro de Atacama also offer stunning views from the bus. Go with what's most convenient to your itinerary—you're sure to have a memorable experience.