Buenos Aires to Santiago: the backpackers route

Will Hide
18 January 2011

You've got two weeks to travel through Argentina and Chile on a tight budget. Where do you start? Right here with Will Hide's tried-and-tested trip


The trick is to balance packing in plenty without doing so much that you need another holiday at the end of it - and, of course, not having credit-card meltdown. Touch down on an Iberia flight from Madrid or BA's daily service from London (which is nonstop from the end of March), and you'll find straight away that Buenos Aires — Latin America's most European capital — is a wallet-friendly city. The Subte (metro) is cheap, and a taxi across town won't cost more than a few pounds. The lunchtime set menu at a neighbourhood parilla (steak house) consisting of melt-under-the-knife steak and chips, with a glass of palate-pleasing Malbec and a cortado (coffee), will cost around the same as a burger in London.

One of the great pastimes here is people watching (Buenos Aires natives are called Porteños), which is free, of course. You'll have ample opportunity to do so in Palermo Soho, where café culture thrives, boho mooching is a sport and there are dozens of small boutiques — aim for Armenia, Gurruchaga and El Salvador streets. Base yourself at the Esplendor hotel on Calle Guatemala, which is friendly, hip and has just 27 rooms (£98 per double a night).

If you want to tour the city, contact Cicerones, a fantastic, free English-speaking guide service run by locals. Tell them by email what you want to do and they'll show you around (you pay for any meals and drinks). Get them to take you to their favourite ice-cream shop — the legacy of thousands of Italian immigrants means you'll find the best gelato this side of Capri. As for tango, milongas (dance halls), such as the Armenian Cultural Centre — who knew Armenians were into tango? — in Palermo, host fun, unpretentious, cheap evenings.

Time to head 1,300km northwest and take the overnight bus from Retiro terminal to Salta. Ask for coche cama class, where the seats recline 180° (tickets: £30). It's a 20-hour journey, so you could fly with Lan for £145. Salta, founded in 1582, lies in a valley surrounded by peaks (you can take a cable car up one of them). It's a good spot in which to relax with a fresh empanada (stuffed bread or pastry), or plan a day trip on the switchback ‘train to the clouds', to the cacti-strewn plains of Los Cardones, passing by spaghetti western-style villages or, further afield, to high-altitude vineyards around Cafayate. For accommodation, try Hotel del Antiguo Convento, a small, quiet hotel just a few minutes walk from the centre (£60 per double a night). You'll need about three nights here.

For those who believe the journey is the holiday, the next leg — a spectacular ten-hour bus journey over mountains and high plains, past salt flats and alongside azure lakes to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile — will bolster your belief or cause bottom-aching, altitude-induced coach rage.

Bed down at the La Casa de Don Tomas hotel, an unpretentious place (£115 per double a night), from where you can embark on trips to the Valle de la Luna, a surreal area where the mountains have been eroded away. Or go to Toconao, near the Salar de Atacama, the third largest salt pan in the world with a colony of flamingoes, and the geysers at El Tatio, 4,200m above sea level. At night, grab a pizza by the fire in the courtyard of the Café Adobe back in town.

Unless you really want to spend 24 hours on another bus to Santiago, I suggest you fly there on Lan from Calama (£235 one way), then transfer for two nights at the Bonaparte hotel (£120 per double per night). It's a pleasant place in the Providencia neighbourhood of the capital. Once you've explored downtown, pause for a drink at buzzy Liguria Manuel Montt on Avenue Providencia, and spend your last day dabbling your toes in the Pacific at Valparaiso, which is a 90-minute bus ride (every 15 minutes from Terminal San Borja).


For this two-week journey, budget from around £1,800pp for international BA/Iberia flights to Buenos Aires and back from Santiago, and B&B accommodation in the above hotels (based on two sharing).

Day trips work out cheapest when booked locally. In places such as Salta and San Pedro de Atacama, you'll find plenty of tour operators — in Salta along Buenos Aires Street, and in San Pedro de Atacama, try Expediciones Cactus Tour.

If you'd like someone to guide you along the way and book your itinerary, try Journey Latin America (+44(0)20 8747 8315).

For buses in Argentina, go to Expect to pay from around £30 one way from Buenos Aires to Salta.

For more details, go to,, or the Latin American Travel Association.