Wheelchair accessible transportation options vary from city to city in South America. Below you will find a South America City Accessibility and Transportation video as well as my individual city comments.
The international airports in Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires and Santiago are all fully wheelchair accessible including elevators, jet ways and wheelchair accessible restrooms. I would still recommend you leave plenty of time if making a connecting flight since loading and unloading wheelchairs may take an extended period of time and the vast majority of airport and airline staff do not speak much English.
As you might suspect South America doesn't have the U.S. equivalent to ADA, and the term accessible in South America is not very well understood. Wheelchair accessibility has a long way to go. Buses for instance almost always show that they are wheelchair accessible. The problem is the ramps don’t work, the buses don’t lower (or knell) and the driver’s have not been trained on how to operate the ramps. And I found no fully accessible tours, cars or van rentals anywhere in South America, and only a couple wheelchair accessible taxis.
Government budgets in many cities have been severely limited and public service transportation, including accessible transportation, cannot yet be guaranteed. Be cautious and don't rely on public trains or buses in planning your travels.
South America City Accessibility and Transportation Overview
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Shuttle Buses from cruise ships to main cruise terminal: There were multiple shuttle buses and almost all were clearly marked with the international wheelchair logo including signage on the side of the shuttle bus for a wheelchair ramp. Yet none of the ramps worked. The terminal official told me most of the accessible buses with ramps in Buenos Aires did not work. Terminal workers picked up the wheelchair with me in it and lifted me into and out of the shuttle bus.
Taxis: From the cruise terminal into Buenos Aires (which is about 20 blocks to the closest downtown area) there were no wheelchair accessible buses or taxis. While there were a couple dozen available taxis, most of the taxis were small 4 door sedans holding 4-5 persons maximum. None of the drivers we spoke to understood English.
Taxi Cost is very negotiable. One of our cruise passenger friends told us they paid US$50 for 2 hours so they could travel from the cruise terminal to the Metropolitan Cathedral and Plaza de Mayo with the taxi just waiting until they returned. We tried the same approach and the taxi driver wanted US$100. He later reduced the price to $80, then $70. We found another driver who accepted US$50. Taxi drivers preferred payment in US dollars, not Argentinian Pesos.
Although most of the local taxis are very small, there are also many low riding vans which were a bit more spacious with additional trunk space for the folded wheelchair. If you're patient, these will be available.
Rail: Buenos Aires offers an extensive rail and subway system. I did not explore this mode of transport but it appears very promising.
Ferry: Buquebus runs the main ferry system from its huge cruise terminal, and it's as sophisticated and efficient as any in the world. We took the Buquebus between Buenos Aires and Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay (SEE my video in the Attractions tab and my Colonia de Sacramento comments below). You should purchase your tickets a couple days in advance, and can do so either from the cruise terminal or at their downtown Buenos Aires office. We took the 8:15am (returned 4:00pm) fast ferry which takes an hour. It was $90 per person round trip. There is a slower ferry, less expensive, which takes 3 hours. There are large wheelchair accessible terminals in both Buenos Aires and Colonia with accessible elevators and restrooms. The fast ferry are very large with plenty of space to walk or roll around and include food and a tax free retail area. The fast ferry we took had a large wheelchair accessible restroom. You can also drive your car onto the ferry (more expensive) but by law you must park your car on the ship and come upstairs during sailing.
SEE our Attractions tab for more information and videos on Buenos Aires, the Tigre Delta and Estancia (Gauchos).
Ushuaia (Tierra del Fuego National Park), Argentina
The dock is located directly in the heart of this small port town so no Tender craft are required, and no shuttle or long walk is required to get into town. It was an easy, generally level walk (roll) along the dock and throughout town.
Just 1/2 block from the dock is a taxi booth where you will find a few small 4 door sedans but they are not wheelchair accessible. Our driver agreed to give us a tour of the National Park, which is one of the most beautiful in the world. Our round trip tour took about 3 1/2 hours and cost U.S. $120 for 2 (Bring Argentine Pesos not U.S. dollars or Chilean Pesos for both the tour and National Park entry fee).
The tour buses are not wheelchair accessible.
SEE our Attractions tab for more information on Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego National Park and the End of the World train.
Puerto Madyrn, Argentina
The cruise ships docks in a large harbor with a very long pier. No Tender craft are required here and the town is located at the end of this long pier. You catch the tour buses and vans directly from the pier. There are no local shuttle buses required to get into town.
Unfortunately the tour buses and vans are not wheelchair accessible. Although the English-speaking organizer at the booth next to the cruise ship on the pier stated the tours were accessible for me, we later determined that their idea of accessible meant picking me up and throwing me in a large 24-passenger van.
So we walked (rolled) along the very level pier for perhaps 1/3 of a mile to the main street in town. There we quickly waived down a 4 door sedan and asked the driver to fold up the wheelchair, place it in the trunk and we pointed to the intended Punta Loma destination. Interestingly our taxi tour cost US$40 per person vs. US$80 for the dockside tour. And FYI- the Punta Loma park entry fee was 100 Argentina Peso each (US$7.25). Remember, to bring Argentina Pesos as they don't take US dollars, credit cards or make change.
SEE our Attractions tab for more information on Puerto Madryn and the fabulous attractions on (i) the Valdes Peninsula (designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site), (ii) the Penguin Rookery at Punta Tombo and (iii) Punta Loma, which is where we chose to visit, where there’s a cliff-top vantage point for panoramic views of the Argentine coast and a significant population of breeding sea lions
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
The Rio airport is huge, has 2 renovated terminals, and is fully wheelchair accessible with elevators, jet ways and restrooms. Terminal 1 is more complicated for wheelchair travelers with a few hidden passageways to avoid steps but our air carrier Aerolineas Argentina was terrific and provided assistance from the plane through baggage and customs including getting a taxi. But be sure to ask for assistance.
After you exit baggage claim and customs in Terminal 1, there is a taxi booth that provides for an accessible taxi between the airport and your hotel destination. This staff person spoke English (at least when we arrived). Cost is about US$47 compared to $65-70 for private transfers and they do accept U.S. credit cards. We used a previously booked private transfer so I did not inspect these accessible taxis.
Buses: All the Metro buses buses showed that they were wheelchair accessible prior to the 2016 Olympics but they were not accessible. The ramps didn’t work, the buses didn't lower and I was told the drivers had not been trained on how to operate the ramps. I saw no wheelchair accessible bus tours.
Rail: I did not explore whether Rio offers rail service, but given the government budget cut backs and fact that there are certain "unsafe" areas of the city, I would not suggest this mode of transit for wheelchair persons visiting Rio.
Taxis: I found no wheelchair accessible taxis anywhere in Rio.
SEE our Attractions tab for more information and videos on Rio and Sugar Loaf Mountain.
Santiago's a very large city (perhaps 6 million people) The airport was a bit of a mad house and I saw no wheelchair accessible buses or taxis. I'd recommend using a travel agent or request your Santiago hotel concierge arrange a private hotel transfer (about U.S. $40) in a sedan rather than a van. The airport personnel did not speak much English.
Buses: there were many buses marked as wheelchair accessible within the city but I was not able to determine is the ramps worked or if the drivers were trained on operating the ramps. This was our 1st South American city visit and I hadn't yet learned the issues from Rio or Buenos Aires. I believe these buses are best left for city commuters, not tourists.
Rail: The city stopped offering a public rail system several years ago along with many government budget cutbacks so this is not an option.
Tour Vans: Most of the private tours have new, air conditioned vans but they are not wheelchair accessible. Even when I requested a sedan, and had a sedan confirmed, I received a van. So be especially vigilant if you want a sedan.
Walking/Rolling: Although Santiago is a big city surrounded by mountains, much of Santiago is quite level and easy to navigate. The area between La Starria (where we stayed) to the Central Fish Market, the downtown government buildings, the Cathedral and Plaza was reasonably easy to roll - perhaps a mile. Get your map before you start.
Puerto Montt, Chili
Puerto Montt is an anchorage port so the Cruise ship uses ship Tenders. The Tender craft arrive at the Puerto Montt pier. You catch the tour buses and vans directly from the pier. There are no local shuttle buses required to get into town. You can also walk (roll) into town which is a level walk about 3/4 of a mile along the very scenic waterfront. There are no local accessible buses or shuttles into town. No wheelchair accessible taxis.
When arriving in Puerto Montt at the pier there's a fury of activity with several private tour companies trying to get your attention. Although the fast talking organizers (who speak a little English) say the tours and vehicles were accessible ("no problem"), the buses and vans are not wheelchair accessible. The vans were relatively new, air conditioned and quite nice - just not accessible. They had to pick me up from the wheelchair and throw me into the van at each stop. If I were to do this again, I'd just be firm and ask for a sedan or taxi where the transfer to the vehicle is easier on everyone.
SEE our Attractions tab for more information and videos on Puerto Montt, Puerto Varas, the Petrohue River Falls and the Lake District.
Falkland Islands (Stanley)
Stanley, located on the East Island, is an anchorage port so the Cruise ship uses ship Tender craft. The Tender craft arrive at the Stanley pier about 15 minutes from the ship. The general public can catch the tour buses and touring 4x4 vehicles directly from the pier. There are no regular taxis, shuttle buses or sedans available and none of the vehicles are wheelchair accessible.
The good news is that this very small town of Stanley (population of only a couple thousand) is located directly at the end of the pier. Then it's an east stroll (or roll) of several blocks (perhaps 3/4 of a mile) along the very scenic level waterfront.
Penguin Colonies: There is really no access to the various penguin colonies. The tour vehicles are not wheelchair accessible, but even if you could get to the drop-off spot the walk to the beach is narrow rough terrain and not wheelchair accessible. There is really no wheelchair accessible entry or viewing areas.
SEE our Attractions tab for more information and a video on the Falklands.
The Cruise ships dock at the pier so no Tender craft are required. There are no wheelchair accessible tours, buses or taxis in Montevideo. We arranged a day trip through Tours by Locals (see Travel Tips tab) and they provided a relatively new, air-conditioned 4-door Honda sedan. It was not wheelchair accessible but rather a comfortable sedan where I could transfer into the front seat.
Although much of the city is very level and easy to get around (albeit there’s a relatively steep hill between the cruise pier and the old city), it’s also far too large a city to see without a vehicle. SEE our Attractions tab for more information and videos on Montevideo.
Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay
Colonia is much closer and easier and cheaper to access by ferry boat from Buenos Aires. Buquebus runs the main ferry system between Buenos Aires and Colonia de Sacramento. As mentioned in my comments on Buenos Aires on this tab, the ferries and terminals are very modern, efficient and wheelchair accessible with elevators and accessible restrooms. The "fast ferry" takes about an hour.
When you get to Colonia, the “old city” is within walking distance of the terminal, but it’s principally heavy cobblestone streets, so it's probably best to rent a Golf Cart which is located directly across from the Colonia Terminal; Rental was $80 for 6 hours (summer rate). These are standard golf carts so you must be able to transfer into the cart. We folded up the wheelchair and placed it in the back seat of the cart.
There are no wheelchair accessible tours, buses or taxis in Colonia.
SEE our Attractions tab for more information and a videos on Colonia de Sacramento.