Patagonia calls to the adventure seeker, but the Carretera Austral seldom gets the answer. A lesser known treasure and the greatest road trip in South America, it extends from Chile’s Lake District to the unpassable Southern Patagonia Ice Field. Unspoiled, pristine nature runs for these 1240 kilometers through Chile’s wildest region. Through dense Valdivian rain forest and evergreen woodlands. Passed ancient glaciers, craggy mountains and snow capped volcanoes. Across glacial fjords and turquoise lakes. By misty hot springs, high speed rivers, marble caves and isolated communities. There is something for every adventurer and here is the guide to it all. My Ultimate Guide to the Carretera Austral.
Comprehensive Guide to the Carretera Austral
A Little History on the Carretera Austral
The construction began way back in 1976 under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The idea was sparked when a territorial dispute began with Argentina and the goal was to connect remote southern communities of Chile by road. This made them more accessible relying less on Argentina as well as connecting others previously accessed solely by boat or plane.
In 1988, most of the roads opened and by 1996, the road reached Puerto Yungay. The last stretch to Villa O’Higgins was completed in 2000. The side road X-904 to Caleta Tortel was finished in 2003.
Planning Guide to the Carretera Austral
Patagonia is a place that doesn’t necessarily require a fully thought out plan, but a basic outline at the least sure goes a long way. While planning wasn’t always my forte, to do a largely self-sufficient road trip for a few weeks requires some. Aa basic outline was laid out and the next thing I knew, we were at Santiago airport and renting a Hyundai Creta. Could we have been prepared? Definitely, but no matter the plan, the Carretera Austral will probably throw a few kinks in the road. Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins, here is my Master Planning Guide to the Carretera Austral.
When to Go
High season generally runs November through February. The South American summer, these months provide warmer temperatures and less rainfall. March is where things begin to taper off. Less cars on the road for hitchhiking and buses run less frequently.
Method of Travel
The limit on the Carretera Austral is really your own sense of adventure. The way in which you travel it depends entirely on the adventure you want (or can afford 😉 ). With more than one way to tackle this beast of beauty, not one of them is wrong.
Road trips in my opinion are the best way to travel. While generally more expensive, the freedom it presents is unparalleled. So for myself, it is clear. Car Rental. Econorent was the choice we made, but do your research when it comes to this. There are numerous companies so search around for deals or promotions. While we rented in Santiago, this is not the norm. The majority of travellers will rent in Puerto Montt, at the north end of the Carretera Austral.
Cost: Approximately 1500 USD with insurance for 1 month
Wicked Campers is a very popular choice as well. Known in multiple countries, they provide a range of options, most notably the camper vans with the unique murals painted on them.
For two wheels instead of four, but still with an engine, motorcyclists braving the loose gravel road were quite common as well.
Buses are a popular way to get down the Carretera Austral, but can be sporadic and not necessarily reliable. Some buses run once daily or possibly weekly. In high season this can result in full buses leaving no room for passengers at later stops especially with gear.
A good option, but I would keep hitchhiking as a plan B.
If you’re a passionate cyclist, this road would be a dream and challenge to face head on. If you don’t travel with a bike, there are rentals in Puerto Montt and ferries returning from Puerto Chacabuco.
The Carretera Austral isn’t exactly considered cheap and only gets more expensive the further south. That being said, budget travel makes hitchhiking quite prevalent here and it is a very safe area. Many people will pick up travellers for the simple payment of conversation.
Not that I’m an expert on the topic, but a few tips.
- don’t expect this to be a speedy endeavor and get discouraged
- make a clear sign for your destination
- solo travellers and pairs/couples are much more likely to be picked up. Pairs or groups of men may have a more difficult time
- chat among travellers at campsites and you might just score a ride
Organization is a virtue when traversing the Carretera Austral regardless of how you choose to travel. While it’s nearly impossible to think of everything needed for such an excursion, here is a packing list that that will surely help. Apart from personal bags the gear consisted of:
Tent – This isn’t vital while road tripping as there are hostels along the way. This largely was for budget as accommodation isn’t cheap and for the experience wanted. If you’re not driving and there is no guarantee you will make the next town, a tent will be key.
Sleeping Bags – Lightweight, but be sure it is suitable for temperatures in Patagonia.
Mats – My preferred choice here is a thin inflatable “mattress” that weighs next to nothing and takes minimum space, but another option is thin, roll up sleeping pads.
Pillow – Another couple options here, there is small inflatable pillows matching the advantages of the mat. Personally, I use a plane pillow that comes nearly everywhere with me.
* A head lamp will be vital for those late night washroom breaks.
Hiking Boots – A good quality pair of hiking boots should be common sense. If you’re on the Carretera Austral, I only assume that being outdoors and hiking are a passion.
Rain Gear – This is an absolute must. Without a horse shoe shoved somewhere, there is no way rain will not be a part of this trip.
Clothing – Patagonia being known for it’s temperamental weather means you need to be prepared for anything. This stretches from a warm jacket to a swim suit. Pack quality hiking socks.
*Baby powder can be a hikers best friend for those who chafe.
*Don’t forget a small amount of environmental laundry soap for hand washing.
(first aid/ toiletry items)
While these can be bought as a kit, I’ve always built a compact kit with a minimalist in mind.
- Antiseptic wipes/cream (PolySporin)
- Non-adhesive sterile pads
- Blister Pads
- Tensor Bandage
Being overprepared can be a blessing in disguise, but also sometimes a nuisance. These items may just pull you out of an even stickier situation.
- Tow rope – for yourself or helping another or a clothes line at the least.
- Spare tire
- Roadside tire repair kit – almost guaranteed to come in handy
- Small jerry can
Quite a bit can be done with the bare minimum of cooking equipment.
- Pocket rocket burner (x2)
- Camping fuel, lighter
- Small pot and omelette pan
- Paring or pocket knife
- Small plastic cutting boar
- 1 plate, bowl, fork and spoon
*Don’t forget a small amount of eco-friendly dish soap in a travel shampoo container. A dish cloth is a nice addition.
For more on simple, but good camp cooking, check out my post Camp Cooking 101.
Groceries and Restaurants
There are a few factors at play here and it depends largely on the your plan and method of transportation. Is cooking even part of the plan? If not, there are plenty of restaurants, roadside empanada sellers and shops for on-the-go snacks. These do get increasingly more expensive and by no means does quality go up.
If the plan is camping, what equipment do you have and how much can you carry? Hitch hikers presumably have the bare minimum equipment and space. Another reason to road trip. Space in the vehicle allows for more flexibility to add a splash of “luxury” to the trip.
Groceries along with the restaurants get more expensive the farther south. Dry goods shouldn’t be a problem along the length of the Carretera, but fresh produce leaves much to be desired in many shops. Coyhaique is a great place to restock. Not only is it the biggest city on route, but is approximately half way to Villa O’Higgins.
*Another perk of a road trip – driving through Chilean wine country on the way to Puerto Montt and picking up a case… or two.
Patagonian weather is a fickle beast. It is a place where 4 seasons can be seen in a single day changing in a heartbeat. Winds can be strong and rain fierce so be prepared for anything. Volcanoes are ever-present and landslides are a possibility. All these can cause delay, detour and the closing of certain areas. Keep up to date with the weather and natural disasters as best as possible, but know that you are at their mercy.
Driving the length of Carretera Austral twice, I was truly amazed by the road conditions. I really didn’t know what to expect, but definitely imagined more gravel at a barely manageable roughness. There were patches, but overall was quite impressed.
Construction is a constant along Ruta 7, so be prepared for delays and detours.
Ultimately though, be sure to drive with caution. This is an isolated area and no one wants to ruin their trip or endanger lives.
**Consistently be checking road conditions.** We stopped checking about a month prior to our departure. In that time a catastrophic landslide destroyed a large section of road south of Chaiten. This caused a bit of a rerouting issue and could have been avoided had we kept informed and booked the detour ferry ahead.
COPEC is the main gas station this far south although there is a couple others at random. Fuel is far from cheap and as with everything, only gets more expensive the further south. Filling up whenever possible is a great tip. This may seem excessive at first, but skip a gas station in the south and you may not make it to the next.
*Purchase a Ruta 7 map pamphlet at COPEC. This will indicate gas stations and be reliable when the almighty phone is not.
Each town along the way has hotel/guesthouse options. These can be fairly expensive for a basic room. Many accommodations can’t be booked until arriving in town, so do not fear if you can’t get a place to stay in advance.
Camping is the cheapest (and best) solution to accommodation. Campsites vary greatly in price from 4000 pesos per person to 15,000 per tent. All the campsites I stayed in seemed well maintained and made the Carretera Austral experience what it was.
*Keep an eye out for wild camping as free is very cost effective.
Money, money, money… CLP!
Currency is obviously a necessary evil of any trip and here in Chile, it is the Chilean Peso or CLP.
Unfortunately, ATMs can not be found in every town along the way and cash will be a requirement more often than not. A lot of shops and tour operators take card, but do not count on this. Be sure to withdraw a sufficient amount when possible.
Espagnol is the language here and a hard dialect to understand from what I’m told even by native Spanish speakers. Considered by some, it is almost a different language. Either way, having some level of fluency in Spanish will make your time in Chile and Latin America much smoother.
From speaking with locals and developing a more meaningful connection to the area and it’s people to simply getting around and asking questions. Speaking or attempting a foreign language is one of the joys of travel so have fun with it.
The two most popular companies for a SIM card are Movistar and Entel. I went with Movistar which proved useful to a certain point. From the advice of Chilean travelers, Entel is the right choice with service in the more remote areas. Recharging minutes or data is a simple process and can be done at numerous convenience shops.
Wi-Fi can be found at some cafes and restaurants, but in general is unreliable. Service for data is satisfactory in most towns, but gets spotty the further south you travel.
There are multiple hiking apps out there so do your research and find one that suits you.
Maps.me is an offline map that I have found very useful in multiple situations and countries. Download before heading off as much of the trip will be spent offline. I can’t recommend this one enough.
Google Earth, Gaia GPS, iOverlander and AllTrails are a few other suggestions. With no light pollution, a star map would be fun.
Wildlife in the wild is often hard to spot, but it is abundant. It is good to know that the largest predator is the Puma. That being said, pumas are shy and sightings are rare. If you find yourself facing one, be sure not to turn your back. Shout loudly and make yourself seem bigger.
Patagonia is home to the world’s smallest deer, the Pudu deer, as well as numerous species of birds.
Between Valdivian rainforest and evergreen woodlands, the landscape changes dramatically from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins. While absolutely stunning, it is also host to numerous wild edibles along the way which shouldn’t be missed. El Calafate and Chaura berries to name a couple.
Check out my post Foraging Patagonia for more wild foods.
The Carretera Austral
Puerto Montt to Hornopiren
2.5 – 3 hrs/106 km
Car, bike or bag packed, it’s time to hit the road. Heading for the waterfront, the number 7 highway awaits. While this is technically where the Carretera Austral begins, I personally consider it the introduction of what is to come.
Before reaching the isolation of the mountains, civilization is still ever-present. Small coastal villages round the waters edge. The atmosphere reminds me of what I would expect when I see old European travel ads about the Mediterranean. Busy, overcrowded and umbrellas everywhere. Vehicles spilled out onto the road as people battled for spots. Luckily, I was just passing through, as the world was left behind.
About 20 minutes after the town of Lenca is the first ferry. Short and sweet, but an idea of what to get used to in the coming days. Once across the Reloncavi Estuary it is another short 10 minutes or so to Contao. It is here the highway turns inland toward Hornopiren.
What to do in Hornopiren
Shortly before arriving in town there is Pichicolo Thermal Baths. Have a nice soak to loosen up before this journey truly gets underway.
Hornopiren town has small hotels, restaurants and grocery. Camping is an option with plenty of choices around. The small town is otherwise known for Hornopiren National Park. The area boasts many trails through the forest under the watchful eye of the nearby volcano.
While hopefully nothing is wrong with the vehicle yet, it’s a good time to get in the habit of checking tires and filling up on gas. The next gas station is in Chaiten.
Hornopiren to Chaiten
4 – 5 hrs/135 km
To continue south head towards the ferry port. The boats leave at 10:30 am daily and requires advanced booking. Also, be sure to print those tickets as they must be presented for boarding approximately 2 hours prior. The first ferry will take 3 hrs.
From Leptepu it’s a short 25 minute drive between transit stations to Fiordo Largo. The next ferry takes about 50 minutes straight to Caleta Gonzalo.
The prices varies depending on your mode of transport. The cost of a vehicle with 2 passengers will be approximately 40, 000 CLP.
For more information, up to date prices, times, delays and purchasing be sure to check out Somarco.
Caleta Gonzalo to Chaiten
1 hr/56 km
Drive off the ferry and into Parque Pumalin. This National Park is not only a stunningly beautiful area of land, but it has a special story as well. Created by the vision of Douglas Tompkins with his conservational ethics and love of Patagonia, Parque Pumalin is now a nature sanctuary with over 400, 000 hectares.
This hour long stretch of road was my first true taste of the Carretera Austral as I ferried over from Quellon, Chiloe to Chaiten. In the process of being paved, the majority was loose gravel with pot holes galore lending that more authentic back country vibe. (You will appreciate paved road when you are done here.)
Climbing the once considered dormant Volcan Chaiten is the main draw here, but there are numerous other trails, waterfalls, hot springs and lakeside camping.
For a much more in depth look into the area, check out my post What to do in Chaiten, which covers where to stay and eat as well.
Chaiten to Futaleufu
3 – 4 hrs/151 km
Split into two parts, Futaleufu requires a bit of a detour heading towards Argentina. Villa Santa Lucia is the junction to turn off the Carretera Austral and head east oh Highway 235.
Chaiten to Villa Santa Lucia
1 hr/75 km
The southern entrance or exit in this case to Parque Pumalin is about 20 minutes out of town. There is a small junction leading to a sparsely used hot spring. Treat yourself and stop in at Termas el Amarillo after hiking Volcan Chaiten. It’s perfect for a morning soak with cabanas for lunch before carrying on.
Parque Pumalin behind, the road is beautifully paved and leads into a valley with a devastating recent history. In December of 2017, a massive landslide destroyed much of Villa Santa Lucia along with 2 km of road and left 16 casualties in its wake.
At this time there was an emergency ferry from Chaiten to Port Raul Marin Balmaceda. This was a 7 hour ferry with an additional 3 hours of rough road to get back on track to the Carretera Austral. While the road is reopened, there may still be some gravel and construction.
The company that provided the free emergency ferry was Naviera Austral.
While this particular road block is no longer an issue, I thought I’d mention it as Patagonia can be unpredictable with natural disasters. If planning a trip, be sure to constantly check up on road conditions and issues throughout the area. It will no doubt help make a smoother journey.
Villa Saint Lucia to Futaleufu
2 – 3 hrs/76 km
Turning towards the Argentinian border, the next couple hours consist of true back country roads. Winding through the forested mountainside on pot hole ridden gravel doesn’t make for the smoothest drive, but the scenery makes up for what the road is lacking. The thunderous roar of the Futaleufu River can be heard from the road as the final warning for those about to raft it.
What to Do in Futaleufu
Sitting on the edge of Laguna Espejo, the streets run in a simple grid pattern making it easy to navigate. The town proper has the setting of a quaint European ski village tucked into the mountains. The main difference other than this is South America is that the main attraction here is rafting.
Known as one of the best places in the world to white water raft, Futaleufu boasts a growing adventure tourism industry. This includes fishing, hiking trails, mountain biking and cayoning making it a perfect spot for the adrenaline junkie as well as those who want to relax in pristine nature.
For rafting on the mighty Futaleufu River and more, check out Patagonia Elements.
*Before making the journey, be sure to keep up to date with river conditions. Higher than average water levels caused many cancellations throughout the season.
Recommended Campsite – Camping El Amigo Patagon
Futaleufu to Queulat Nacional Parque
4 – 5 hrs/212km
Futaleufu to Puyuhuapi
3.5 – 4 hrs/189 km
Backtrack to Villa Santa Lucia and turn left back onto the Carretera Austral, heading further south. The road here will be a reprieve as it has been paved in recent years. In less than a hour, the valley widens just before coming to La Junta.
La Junta is a small town largely based around ranching, there is little to stop for other than necessities.
(La Junta was more of a landmark for myself, as the turning point to Port Raul Marin Balmaceda was here for the emergency ferry. This was only necessary due to the road closures as stated above, but the side road, X-12, was an incredibly beautiful drive.)
45 minutes further south along the edge of Lago Risopatron, Puyuhuapi appears. This is a common stop for the hitchhikers of the Carretera Austral with plenty of lodging and food in town. The Puyuhuapi Lodge and Spa is another common pit stop for some. Isolated on the northern end of the fjord, it is only a short boat ride from town. If you are looking for some R&R before hitting the trails further, this is the place to do it.
Puyuhuapi to Queulat National Park
30 min/24 km
Who isn’t always amazed the size, age and lifelike qualities of glaciers. Especially when they are gravity defying, hanging glaciers. The hike into Queulat National Park is one that simply can’t be missed and is directly on route, not too mention a great spot to camp for the night.
Alternatively, return to Puyuhuapi for the night or make a late drive towards Coyhaique (not recommended).
Queulat National Park
There are a few short trails through the park but the main and longest is Sendero Ventisquero Colgante. The park closes at 5pm so depending on your arrival is whether or not hiking the same day is an option.
Distance: Roundtrip, the 3.3 km trail takes approximately 2.5 – 3 hours plus time spent gazing at the glacier. Another option is a 30 minute boat ride towards the glacier costing 6000 CLP.
Entrance Fee: 8000 CLP
Camping: 5000 CLP
*all fees are per person
Queulat to Coyhaique
4 – 4.5 hrs/214 km
Queulat – Villa Amengual
2 hrs/69 km
Leaving the hanging glacier behind, it isn’t long before the beautiful paved road is left behind as well for a little while. This next section is one of those more precarious bits. Tracing the edge of the fjordal inlet, to the mouth of the Rio Queulat, the road quickly takes its steepest incline with a total of 21 switchbacks.
The Queulat Pass is one of the toughest sections of the drive and I can only imagine for the cyclists. The mountain road is steep, covered in loose gravel with ample pot holes. The corners are blind and the locals, the world over, tend to drive a little wild in their own backyard. That said, simply be cautious.
Descending from the height of the pass, take a break and reward yourself with a hike into the Enchanted Forest. A short 3.5 km trail through an evergreen forest leading to a viewpoint with unobstructed views of the glacier and small lake that it feeds.
Another handful of kilometers and the smoothness of pavement returns at the fork in the road. Keep left unless Puerto Cisnes (32 km) is on the agenda. The Rio Cisnes leads the majority of the way until reaching Villa Amengual.
Villa Amengual – Coyhaique
2 – 2.5 hrs/145 km
This section of road all the way to Cerro Castillo is probably my favourite on the whole route. I say probably, because ultimately, it is hard to choose.
Immediately after leaving Villa Amengual, there is yet another fork. Keep right this time, as left leads to the Argentinian border. Inside the untouched and pristine Lago Las Torres National Reserve, there is minimal to no infrastructure here. The route cuts through a short section on the west side of the reserve while closely flirting with the edge of Lago de Las Torres itself.
About twenty minutes before reaching Villa Maniguales, the road exits the rainforest into a semi-cultivated valley of fields, pasture and patches of forest. It is here that the landscape begins to change dramatically. The transition is quite vast in a short 200 km, where northern Patagonia becomes southern.
From here until Coyhaique, the landscape bounces back and forth between agriculture amidst the most amazing spiked backdrop and patches of lush forest. Before reaching Coyhaique though, there is a choice to be made. Eleven minutes south of Villa Maniguales another fork awaits. Left or right?
Right is the suggested route veering away from ruta 7 and onto X-50. This route is a touch longer by distance, but the paved road provides a faster travel time. Keeping on the Carretera Austral is the path less travelled, but this whole road trip is kind of just that!
What was once a small agricultural town, has now grown to be the largest city in the south of Chile. Nestled in between the Rio Simpson and Rio Coyhaique, there isn’t much to do here necessarily within the city. It seemed more of a hub for nearby adventure travel. Tours launch from here whether it be day hikes, trekking, world class fly fishing or horse back riding.
For the roadtripper, Coyhaique is the ideal place to restock on supplies. Groceries, gear and in my case, tire repairs. Take advantage of the amenities and treat yourself after roughing it. There are plenty of hotel and Airbnb options for a proper rest and restaurant choices for a good meal. In the morning get breakfast at a café and stop by the handicraft market across from the Plaza de Armas.
Coyhaique to Villa Cerro Castillo
1.5 hrs/96 km
Leaving Coyhaique, the first half of the drive is through the fertile Simpson Valley. Turning right at the junction shortly after El Blanco, Cerro Castillo National Park awaits.
The hills roll into mountains and snow capped peaks loom to either side of the pass. Exiting the park, Cerro Castillo stands tall to the right, while ahead the road snakes into a series of switchbacks. The view is worth staring at briefly before continuing the last 10 minutes to town.
The trail head closes at 1 pm, so if you get a late start out of Coyhaique, hiking the same day may not be an option. That said, set up camp, relax and prepare for an early morning climb.
Recommended Campsite: Camping La Araucaria
This campground has a few options from pitch your own tent to private bunk houses. Shared washrooms and a large indoor dining area, they also offer horseback riding with the many animals on property. Villa Cerro Castillo is small and easy to walk around with a handful of dinner options.
Hiking Cerro Castillo
Directly across from the junction of Ruta 7 and O’Higgins is a small gravel road that leads across the river to the trailhead parking and toll booth. This was my personal favourite hike I got to do during my time in Patagonia.
Length: Approximately 5 km one way *primarily uphill*
Time: 5.5 hour + time spent at the laguna/viewpoints
Cost: 10, 000 CLP
Check out my post on the Cerro Castillo Day Hike for a more in depth look.
Cerro Castillo to Puerto Rio Tranquilo
2.5 – 3 hrs/121 km
I hope you enjoyed that last stretch of very smooth asphalt leading into Villa Cerro Castillo. Now forget it. The rest of the way is gravel and this next section in particular was especially sh!#@y. The gravel is loose and the pot holes are constant. If it’s dry, dust clouds fill the air and if it’s wet, mud swamps the tires.
Once you can see the glacial blue of Lago General Carrera, there will be a sign for the lake and small area to pull over. A beautiful view and well deserved break. 30 minutes following the lake and you’ll be on the main strip of Puerto Rio Tranquilo.
Puerto Rio Tranquilo
A seasonal lakeside town, Puerto Rio Tranquilo largely closes it’s doors in the off season. On the flipside as the base for the famous Catedral de Marmol, it can become quite flooded with tourists in high season. There are camping and hotel options, but it may require some looking around or advanced booking.
For a pint and plate of amazing chorrillanas, pop into the Cerveceria Rio Tranquilo.
Directly across from the COPEC gas station, there are a couple buildings selling tours to the Marble Caves. There are both boat and kayak options. The benefit of the kayak is being able to explore up close where as the boats are more limited.
Alternatively, drive 10 minutes south of town to Puerto Marmol, Bahia Mansa. Tours can also be booked here and is closer to the Marble Caves. I heard that they are cheaper from here, but cannot vouch for that myself.
Laguna San Rafael National Park
Getting to the glacier is a journey in itself. Down a long rugged road and accessible only by boat, it is said to be one of the most impressive glaciers to watch.
There is also a day hike to Glacier Exploradores that can be arranged in town. The route takes you to the receding edge of the glacier where with crampons you can experience walking on the ice and newly formed ice caves.
Puerto Rio Tranquilo to Caleta Tortel
5 – 5.5 hrs/239 km
Puerto Rio Tranquilo to Cochrane
2.5 hr/114 km
Wrapping around the south western edge of Lago General Carrera, the road forks. Turn right to remain on the #7. The turquoise glacial water of the Rio Baker will show you the way to the cow town of Cochrane and ultimately Caleta Tortel. Left at the junction traces the southern edge of the lake leading to Chile Chico. (discussed in Alternate Routes)
The roads are loose gravel of mediocre quality, but this is an upgrade from the previous section. The vistas are extraordinary while the landscape is clearly more stunted of growth with barren peaks more dramatic on the horizon.
There is little to do in Cochrane other than visiting Tamango National Reserve. The trails and scenery can be worth the stop. Alternatively, it acts as a sufficient pit stop for gas and lunch.
Cochrane to Caleta Tortel
2.5 – 3 hrs/125 km
Settling into the gravel roads, a few drops of rain was actually a reprieve, helping to keep the dust down. The roads are a touch narrow, but the traffic is nearly nonexistent at this point. For a short time, the road leaves the Rio Baker. Shortly after being reunited with the countries largest river, turn onto road X-904. In 45 minutes of tracing the last length of the Rio Baker to its estuary where it meets the Pacific, the road comes to a dead end parking lot. From this point it may look deceiving, like a simple roadside attraction, but don’t be fooled. This is the entrance to Caleta Tortel.
Welcome to the boardwalk empire of Caleta Tortel. Looking over the stilted town, I thought I’d discovered a hidden cove, the headquarters of the underbelly for the pirate world. I swear it came out of a movie like Pirates of the Caribbean.
Accessed only by boat up until 2003 with the completion of the Carretera Austral and X-904, this fishing village is still new to the tourism world. Parking at the top of town, one must meander their way down the wooden staircases to the bay and into town. The pathways stretch for kilometers snaking along the steep rock walls this town is built on.
Accommodation is minimal as tourism is just picking up steam. There are a handful of little restaurants and homestays as well as camping options. Tours are offered in the area such as a boat trip to the mysterious Isla de los Muertos or to the Patagonian ice fields with a handful of hiking trails in the area as well.
Caleta Tortel to Villa O’Higgins
6 – 7 hrs/154 km
Caleta Tortel to Puerto Yungay
1.5 hrs/43 km
Retracing the Rio Baker back to the #7, turn right and continue south. This is the final section of the mighty Carretera Austral. In 20 kilometers, Puerto Yungay appears with a small section of pavement.
The short 1 hour ferry across the fjord runs a few times daily and is free to board on foot or wheels. This is probably the biggest concentration of vehicles you will see until reaching Villa O’Higgins. Be sure to check the ferry schedule to avoid wait times.
Embarcadero Barcaza Rio Bravo – Villa O’Higgins
3 – 4 hrs/102 km
This is one of the longest sections with almost nothing in between. If you didn’t get gas in Caleta Tortel, be sure to at the gas station just off the ferry. Literally carved from the mountains, the road is narrow and rough with embedded rocks that could fall anytime. Drive with caution.
Waterfalls sporadically burst from the craggy rock face as the road hugs the mountains to the right. Reaching Lago Cisnes means the end is near. Rounding the western and southern side of the lake with stunning views the road crosses the Rio Mayer and loops back into Villa O’Higgins.
You made it!!! The Carretera Austral, one of the world’s best road trips is complete… Well technically, the road finishes about 7 kilometers south of town ;). It may not be the end of the world, but it sure gives off that vibe.
Now you are here and what to do? Relax for a day and soak up the snow capped surroundings and wander around the town. You deserve it. As always through these mountains there are numerous hiking trails in the area as well as the option to get on the water in a kayak.
The biggest attraction is Glacier O’Higgins. Unfortunately, when I arrived in Villa O’Higgins there were no tours available. This was due to maintenance on the boat, but weather can play a factor as well. The full day tour takes about 12 hours stopping at Candelario Mancilla both to and from Glacier O’Higgins. Robinson Crusoe and Villa O’Higgins Expediciones are the only two operating.
For current information on delays, schedules, prices and booking check out these two links.
Recommened Camping: Camping Los Nires: 5000 CLP per person. On the righthand side of the main road shortly after entering town.
Spacious tent area with ample trees (Look carefully. You might find a rare wild mushroom!). The lounge indoor fire and cooking facilities are perfect for relaxing and warming the bones.
Quellon to Chaiten
4 – 7 hrs
This is actually the route I took deciding to explore Chiloe Island. There is a ferry just outside of Puerto Montt to the northern tip of the Chiloe. Heading to the Carretera Austral, there is ferries from both Castro and Quellon to Chaiten. For more information on Chiloe, check out my itinerary post, 3 Days on Chiloe.
Ferry Price: 95, 000 CLP per vehicle, 17, 000 CLP per person (available 3 days a week)
Check out the website Naviera Austral to book this ferry.
Bariloche to Futaleufu
5 – 6 hrs/358 km
If travelling down the Argentinian side, perhaps from Mendoza to Bariloche and onward to some of the Carretera Austral, then this is your border crossing. Futaleufu sits only 15 minutes (10 km) from the border and starts Chile off with a rush of white water rafting.
There is also a border crossing north of Bariloche. This will lead to Osorno, Chile, north of Puerto Montt.
Puerto Rio Tranquilo to Chile Chico
3 – 4 hrs/164 km
Many people with vehicles and bikes often go this route. Instead of finishing the Carretera Austral in its entirity, trace the south side of Lago General Carrera leading to Chile Chico. This crosses into Argentina approximately 10 hours north of El Chalten.
Villa O’Higgins to El Chalten
1 – 2 days
This route is popular among hitch hikers and trekkers. Following through to the end of the Carretera Austral leaves you seemingly stuck in Villa O’Higgins. Instead of backtracking, board the boat across Lago O’Higgins to Candelario Mancilla Border Crossing. Here, there is camping and the immigration into Argentina.
There is also camping on the Argentinian side at Lago del Desierto Punta Norte. The option here is to get another ferry across the lake to the bus that leaves for El Chalten or save money and hike around the lake to the bus departure point.
The border is open from November 1st to April 30th, and boats may not always be on schedule due to weather or repairs.
Carretera Austral Conclusion
The moment the mountains disappear becoming a flat horizon is the very moment the longing for Patagonia begins. This is a symptom of visiting one of the most outrageously beautiful regions in the world. Wild and raw is a description that resonates with few locations, but the Carretera Austral owns it. It is one of the great road trips of the continent, if not the world and paves itself into your mind and soul. Don’t miss out on the adventure of a lifetime that leaves you exhausted and refreshed.
I’ve played in to the myth that if you eat an El Calafate berry that you will inevitably return to Patagonia and I’ve been slowly driving my way back since the day I left.
I hope this Guide to the Carretera Austral helps you in the most epic road trip. Let me know any thoughts on the Carretera Austral in the comments below.