The island of Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America is split between Argentina and Chile and there are two border crossings on the island. About 99% of people use the main border. We headed to the tiny and remote Paso Bellavista border.
One of the reasons we prefer to travel between countries at small, out of the way border crossings is because they’re less crowded and, therefore, less hectic than major crossing. Another good reason to use off-the-beaten-path borders is that their remote locations often mean we get a gorgeous drive thrown in for free.
Date: January 4, 2020
Lay of the land: From just south of the city of Rio Grande, we cut off Ruta 3 and took Ruta B. This gravel road was in good shape and a new bridge at the border had been added which eliminates the sometimes tricky river crossing.
The route took us past iconic Estancia Menendez which is the largest and oldest sheep farm in Argentina. It was founded by the Menendez family who pioneered settlement in the region and got rich doing it. As we drove along the road that cuts through this vast estancia, we got the chance to watch the workers moving massive herds of sheep from one pasture to another. When the sheepdogs hit their stride, the herds moved like schools of giant, fluffy fish.
At the Argentinean border facilities, it took exactly four minutes to cancel our visas and the temporary importation permit (TIP) for our truck. The Chilean border facilities are 1 mile (2 km) further along. This stretch of Ruta B remained lovely and we saw many gray foxes, two condors on the ground about 100 feet (33 meters) from a dead sheep that smaller caracaras were feeding on, then at least 12 condors at once circling up into the heights. There were hundreds of llama-like guanaco around too.
At the Chilean facilities, there’s a bathroom and the officials were very friendly and efficient. Our truck got a reasonable going through, and then we were on our way after about 10 minutes of formalities. We saw no one else at either border facility.
Elapsed time: An hour and a half including the drive from Tolhuin, Argentina
Number of days given: 90 for us and 90 days on the TIP for our truck
Vehicle insurance needed: You must have third party insurance for your vehicle to drive legally in Chile and Argentina. When we crossed into Argentina from Bolivia we bought a long-term policy that covers us in the MERCOSUR countries of Argentina, Chile, Perú, Brasil, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Bolivia.
Where to fill up: Generally speaking, fuel is more expensive in Argentina than it is in Chile. But when we crossed this border, an economic crisis in Argentina meant that fuel was cheaper in Argentina than in Chile for those with dollars or euros or pounds as home currency.
Need to know: Even if we didn’t need to cross this border, we would be tempted to make the journey just to enjoy the gorgeous drive. Be aware that you will not find any money changers, restaurants, fuel stations, or other services anywhere near this border. There’s practically nothing between Tolhuin and Porvenir on the far side of Tierra del Fuego island. And remember that you gain an hour in the South American winter when entering Chile from Argentina because Argentina does not observe daylight savings time but Chile does, so check the time. The Paso Bellavista border is only open seasonally. Check the status of border crossings in Chile here. And check the status of border crossings on the Argentina side here.
Overall border rating: Lovely and low key
Paso Rio Bellavista Border crossing travel tips
We spent the night before this border crossing in the small town of Tolhuin, Argentina about 1.5 hours north of Ushuaia. This place is famous as the home of Panaderia Union where a Spanish immigrant has made a mega business out of a humble bakery. The place is almost always packed with people eager to eat his pastries, cookies, breads, pre-made sandwiches, empanadas, and more. A sign on the door claims the place is open from 6 am to midnight every day. We stocked up on fresh empanadas for the drive across the border.
Just south of town is Hosteria Kaiken sandwiched between Ruta 3 one side and Lake Fagnano on the other. The hotel has rooms within the main building and a few separate cottages on the grounds. The place looks and feels like a spruced up motel, but the lake views are lovely, the staff speaks English, and the onsite restaurant is decent. Just don’t show up even a few minutes early for breakfast. We got yelled at. Note that the hotel was working on a new Wi-Fi system to service all rooms and cottages when we were there.
On the Chile side of this border, the road becomes Y-769 which joins with Y-85 a few miles later and remains just as scenic. Soon we were climbing up and over two small mountain ranges that separate the north part of Tierra del Fuego from Lago Deseado. At a roadside viewpoint, we got our first look at Lago Deseado which reminded us of Muncho Lake which we visited along the Alaska highway way back at the beginning of our road trip: rugged and welcoming.
The Chilean government has spent years trying to construct a road off of Y-85 that would cross the Darwin Range to reach Yendagaia National Park and the Beagle Channel. The road was supposed to be done in 2010 and the project is now being delayed by the need to protect the habitat of the Giant Woodpecker.
Back on Y-85, we continued to the end of the road at a spot called Caleta Maria where the wind was whipping up whitecaps on the bay. Then we backtracked on Y-85 to Lodge Deseado which was one of the top hotel surprises of the year.
Big blue Lago Deseado (Desire Lake) is ringed by dark green forested hillsides. The bungalows and restaurant of Lodge Deseado are the only structures on the lake and the peace and quiet here is a big draw.
The hotel opened as a fishing lodge in 2005 but was recently transformed into a luxury adventure hideaway that still offers fishing along with hikes and boat adventures lead by passionate English-speaking guides. Accommodations now include six very spacious Standard rooms constructed with two walls of windows to maximize lake views. There’s a king-size bed, a wood-burning stove, reading chairs facing the lake, and a shared furnished patio between two rooms.
The three Premium rooms have the same features, but are a bit bigger and have private patios or decks. All rooms have wood and slate floors, rain showerheads, copper lamps, and decor in natural tones and textures including modern tapestries. Large pieces of woven art also decorate the rustic main lodge building which houses the restaurant and a library and reading room with a welcoming fireplace. Overall, Lodge Deseado presents the very best dilemma: Sleep in? Read by the fire? Or go out and explore? Maybe all three. Lodge Deseado is open November 1 through April, so plan your visit accordingly.
Here’s more about travel in Argentina
Here’s more about travel in Chile