The Carretera Austral is a scenic road in Chilean Patagonia filled with snow peaked mountains, lakes, and rivers in every shade of blue imaginable and way too many glaciers for more than 1000km. World class rafting, the highest mountain of Patagonia, trekking on a glacier and many more adventures await.
We spent a couple weeks on Carretera Austral and wished we could stay months, if not years. Many travelers we’ve met felt the same.
For nature lovers, Chilean Patagonia around Carretera Austral is a quiet and lesser visited area compared to ultra-popular Torres del Paine National Park with very similar scenery, including gorgeous turquoise lakes and countless glaciers.
The route itself lacks marketing well known to North American countries or New Zealand. Not much information is available online and we haven’t found any useful guides or tips. That’s why we created this guide, to help you with any questions you might have.
Immerse in the most comprehensive guide to the Carretera Austral online.
First things first..why was Carretera Austral created
Issues with Argentinean border in a nutshell:
Imagine you have a neighbour that would suddenly stopped accepting the deal you made in splitting your land (Chilean and Argentinean land in this case). You realize that third of your land is not accessible by road. I bet your first thought would be to connect and protect the land.
It would take 23 years to build 1247 km long road.
Then you realize that what you built is not just any road. It is actually one of the greatest rides in the world with natural beauties which otherwise would stay hidden from travelers.
The Carretera Austral bridges northern and southern Patagonia avoiding Argentinian dullness of dry arid plains.
Facts about the Carretera Austral
The Carretera Austral (Southern Highway) or Ruta 7 (Route 7) is 1247 km long. It starts in Puerto Montt (according to some sources in Ralun), the Chilean salmon capital, and ends in Villa O’Higgins, a small remote village on the Chilean-Argentinian border.
Late dictator Augusto Pinochet ordered his army to build the road in 1976. Most of the road sections were open for traffic 12 years later, in 1988 and the last road section opened in 2003 to Caleta Tortel. Many sections of the Carretera Austral are still not fully paved, south of Villa Cerro Castillo is only gravel. It may take another 3-5 years for the road to be fully paved.
To get to Villa O’Higgins (the end of Carretera Austral), you will use four ferries which run few times a day. The road only connects about 100,000 Chileans but almost 20% of Chilean land mass.
The road was not only built for military purposes but also to decrease dependence of southern regions of Chile from Argentina. Before the road was built, people had to enter Argentina to get to the rest of Chile.
The Carretera Austral has a dead end in Villa O’Higgins because of the vast impassable Southern Patagonian Icefield.
NEWS: There is a plan in place which will connect all Chilean land by road and short ferries. Now, the southernmost branch ends at Ventisquero Montt. The Carretera should be finished in 2040 and will connect Chile through islands and fjords west of the Southern Patagonian Icefield to be even longer. Before then, continue reading to see why you shouldn’t procrastinate and start planning your trip.
And now let’s get to the more exciting part for every traveler– how to get to this southern tip of the world, when to go, what to do & what you can see.
How to get to the Carretera Austral
All international flights go to capital, Santiago. From there you can go either by plane or bus to Puerto Montt. If you book a flight Santiago to Puerto Montt in advance, it should cost around 50USD.
Bus costs around 25USD and although it takes around 12 hours, this price will give you a fully reclining seat, snacks and your own TV screen in a double-decker bus with AC. It was more comfortable than flying in our experience.
There are few options how to enter the road for a road trip by car:
- From the north from Puerto Montt:
- If you want to visit Chiloe island first, take Ruta 5 and then ferry to Chaiten to continue on Carretera Austral
- Take Ruta 7 (Carretera Austral), three ferries and arrive in Chaiten the same day
- from the east through many border crossings with Argentina
- from the south take a ferry from Puerto Natales to Tortel
- one more option is for pedestrians and bikers by boat from Argentinean town El Chalten.
- the last option is to fly to Balmaceda in the middle of the Carretera Austral.
Best time to visit Carretera Austral and Chilean Patagonia
Chilean Patagonia spreads south of the 40th parallel. Its seasons are opposite to the seasons in the northern hemisphere which makes it a great place to do the opposite most people are used to (ski in July). Also, it is the only place in southern hemisphere outside of Antarctica where you can see proper winter with a lot of snow and freezing temperatures which are from June to September.
Summer on the Carretera Austral is from December to March. This time is also the highest and busiest season. You can expect good weather and fewer people in shoulder season, November and April. January and February are South American school holidays so to avoid biggest crowds and get better deals on tours and accommodation, try to come in December (when days are the longest) or March which is the best time to visit.
Things to do on the Carretera Austral
This is outdoors heaven and possibilities are endless. As you will travel on the Carretera Austral, you’ll see that places already explored are only tiny fractions of the untouched and unpolluted vastness of Chilean Patagonia.
Below list of activities and places to visit is the most detailed you can find online.
- Rafting – Rio Futaleufú and Rio Baker
- Fly fishing – any part along Carretera Austral
- Wildlife watching – Park Patagonia, Isla Magdalena
- Hiking – Pumalín, Queulat, Cerro Castillo, Villa O’Higgins
- Road trip – any section of Carretera Austral
- Glacier walking – Exploradores, Cerro San Lorenzo, Northern Patagonian Icefield
- Glacier boat tours – Glacier San Rafael, Glacier O’Higgins, Glacier Jorge Montt
- Kayaking – Lago General Carrera, fjords, any river
- Biking – mountain biking in Coyhaique or touring the Carretera Austral
- Skiing – El Fraile south of Coyhaique
- Mountaineering – Patagonian Icefields, Cerro San Lorenzo
- Hitchhiking – national summer “sport” along the road
Places to visit on Carretera Austral
There are 9 National Parks along the road and many nature reserves. You can even call this place Ice Age of South America as clean water is frozen in countless glaciers and two giant icefields. Some travelers never left while others return every year as they fell in love with the wilderness refuge.
These places are arranged from north to south. The importance of the below places depends on your plans and preferences. Great reason to come is that you will find an enormous variety of places.
The future national park is the biggest conservation project in South America created by a private person. It is located right after the third ferry crossing coming from Puerto Montt. Stay at a campground and go hiking or sea kayaking through the fjords. Most of the hiking trails have trailheads between visitors center and the town of Chaitén. Hiking trails are short and can be done in less than half a day. You can find more info about the park here.
Town of Chaitén is the first place where you can buy food or fuel. Chaitén became famous after 2008 volcano eruption buried part of town with mud. Some parts around the river can be still seen covered by ash and dust. There is a full day hike to the crater of the Chaitén volcano from townsite.
Once you reach Santa Elena, take a small detour to get to world-renowned rafting place Futaleufú. It is only about 75 km away but the road is not paved and driving will take about 2.5 hours. Definitely worth it if you want to raft in the best white-water of Patagonia.
Puyuhuapi & Queulat National Park
Puyuhuapi is a small village at the end of Ventisquero fjord. It has less than 1000 citizens and was set up by German immigrants as a fishing village. Nowadays, Puerto Puyuhuapi is a great place for sports fishing and gateway to Queulat National Park.
Queulat National Park is awesome camping spot only 5 minutes off the Carretera Austral with picturesque scenery and Hanging Glacier (Ventisquero Colgante) with waterfall. It offers few short hiking trails. With special permission, you will have an option to hike to the top of the glacier.
Isla Magdalena National Park
The whole national park consists of one big island and few small islands on the west side. National Park was set up in 1963 to protect penguins and unique undestroyed nature habitat for marine mammals. The island is only accessible by boat and lacks the infrastructure for hiking or trekking. You can take wildlife watching tour from Puerto Cisnes or Puerto Puyuhuapi.
Coyhaique is the biggest city on the Carretera Austral. It is also the only place to which you can fly in (airport is 50 km away in Balmaceda). Don’t miss out on the opportunity to refill your supplies, the city has a big supermarket and lot of outdoor shops. You can withdraw cash here from ATM, there are only a few places where you can get cash on the Carretera Austral (see tips at the end for more info).
As you reach Coyhaique, notice the climate difference between tempered rain forest on Chilean side and arid grasslands to the Argentinian side of Patagonia. Coyhaique is a small mountain biking heaven in the center of the Carretera Austral.
Reserva Nacional Cerro Castillo
Waking up in the village Cerro Castillo with a view of the castle-shaped mountain is one of the best mornings you can have on Carretera Austral. From Villa Cerro Castillo moderate hike will take you up to the beautiful blue lake in about 4 hours. For now, 4-day hike in Reserva Nacional Cerro Castillo is the only multiday hike on Carretera Austral. You will have a rare opportunity to spot South American deer – Huemul.
The last section of paved road ends at the end of the village, from now on there is only dirt road. More beautiful places are still yet to come.
Puerto Rio Tranquilo
Biggest importance for drivers is that here is the first gas station after 200 km drive from Coyhaique and a bigger grocery store. A small village on the shore of General Carrera Lake/Lago General Carrera is base camp for some interesting activities. Kayaking on the lake, fishing for salmon, glacier walking and ice climbing on North Patagonian Icefield are close by.
General Carrera Lake and Marble Caves
Miraculously coloured lake is the biggest Chilean lake and a great resource of Patagonian freshwater (586m deep). Rocky shores of General Carrera Lake hide caves that you won’t find anywhere else in the world. Polished rocky caves were created by waves of melting glaciers during the last thaw after the ice age. Motorised boat tours are affordable and will take you right to the caves. You can also rent a kayak and paddle there. Keep in mind that water is very cold year round.
Glacier trekking and ice climbing on Northern Patagonian Icefield
Northern Patagonian Icefield is the source of water for General Carrera Lake and also a great place to see how massive a piece of ice can be. You can book an ice walking or ice climbing tour in Puerto Rio Tranquilo. We highly recommend a full day ice walking tour where you can see the highest mountain of Patagonia.
San Rafael Glacier boat tour
It starts in Puerto Rio Tranquilo where you can book the tour. They will drive you to Bahia Exploradores at the west edge of Northern Patagonian Icefield. From there you will take a boat and see how San Rafael Glacier spills in the ocean. The full-day tour is a bit pricey for Chilean attractions but compared to prices in Argentina, it’s a steal. San Rafael Glacier is the fastest moving glacier in the world flowing at speed of 17 meters a day!
Puerto Bertrand and Rio Baker
A small village on the shore of Lake Bertrand is an idyllic place for overnight stay. Get a raft tour and start your ride at pristine Lake Bertrand down the Baker River. This might be the most beautiful river in the world in regards to its colour. Mainly the upper section and confluence of Baker River with River Neff and later with River Chacabuco are pure wonders. Get a fishing rod and catch some salmon if rafting is not your thing.
Future Patagonia National Park
When you stop at the confluence of Baker and Chacabuco rivers, exit the Carretera Austral to take a detour and stop for a couple nights at Valle Chacabuco, the headquarters of future Patagonia National Park. This was a residence of Doug Tompkins (co-founder of the outdoor brand The North Face) who is now resting in peace here. It is one of his successful efforts of using private money to protect nature. Great place to spot guanacos, condors, and pumas if you are lucky.
It’s the biggest town in the southern part of the Carretera Austral and the last place where you can withdraw cash and buy a variety of supplies (food and camping). From here you can join hiking trip to Lake Cochrane, fishing trips or to see San Lorenzo Glacier. You can also enquire in town for glacier walking tour on San Lorenzo Glacier.
This small village was the last place connected to the Carretera Austral and also your last option to exit by car to the rest of southern Chile by ferry. The boat departs only once a week and takes 41 hours to get to Puerto Natales (if you want to visit Torres del Paine National Park). But before you leave there are still many great landscapes to admire such as Glacier Jorge Montt, another one that flows into the ocean; stilt houses in Tortel and visit Villa O’Higgins. Accommodation in Tortel is fairly expensive.
Southernmost village on the Carretera Austral used to be more connected with Argentina than Chile before the road was finished. There is even a big tarmac airstrip in the middle of the village. Driving from the north, you will get to the fork from which you can either go to Tortel or to Villa O’Higgins. You need to take a ferry to Villa O’Higgins and then go the same way back. The Carretera Austral finishes in Villa O’Higgins and only pedestrians and cyclists can continue by another ferry to Argentina.
Visit Villa O’Higgins if you want to hike in the mountains with glacier views, visit Glacier O’Higgins or cross the border to Argentina through Candelario Mansilla by foot or bike. There are a few grocery stores in the village but you will mostly get staples. Fresh fruit and veggies are delivered only once or twice a week.
Reaching the end of the road with a sign “The end of Carretera Austral” gives you a satisfaction and pride for accomplishing your journey in such a remote place as Villa O’Higgins is.
Bernardo O’Higgins National Park and Southern Patagonian Icefield
Icefield is the last natural wonder that is accessible via Carretera Austral. There is no road going further because of the natural barrier of the Southern Patagonian Icefield, the second biggest icefield in the world. You can admire glaciers which flow in the ocean, archipelagos, and fjords that were left behind the melted glaciers. Skilled mountaineers with permission can walk on the icefield.
The Chilean government is planning to connect the whole country by land on the western side of Southern Patagonian Icefield. This huge project will take years to finish.
Tips for planning
How much time do you need
If you’re planning to quickly drive through, Carretera Austral is not the best option as it is not a highway. This place is ideal for slow travelers enjoying solitude who wants to escape their regular daily hustle.
Due to the current road conditions (see below), it takes 3-4 days just to drive the whole Carretera Austral from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins with minimal stops. And then you need to add some time depending on where you’re going to drop off your car.
With some hiking and side trips, we recommend planning at least 10 days or 2 weeks, ideally a month. As you could see by now, the landscapes are beautiful and activities endless.
The Carretera Austral (Ruta 7) has paved and unpaved (gravel surface) sections, with northern half to be in better shape. More than half of the roads’ length is not paved so drive accordingly, mainly on tight turns or during rain, you may experience skidding. If you don’t have experiences with gravel roads, keep distance between cars and speed limits shouldn’t be your target.
Not the entire road has mobile phone coverage; therefore you might need to change a flat tire by yourself. There is some traffic on the road but during certain times you can see about one car in an hour.
As the works on paving and widening the road continues, some sections of the Carretera Austral are constantly under construction. Be prepared for some delays. During our trip in 2017, we had to wait for a few hours to pass in only two construction sites north of Coyhaique. Since the road is more than 1,000 km long, it’s fairly reasonable to expect some roadwork delays.
Don’t forget to pick up hitchhikers who are lined up along the road during summer months. Buses are very infrequent on the Carretera Austral so many Chileans and young travelers from around the world try their luck and sometimes rely on the kindness of drivers.
The area around the Carretera Austral is still developing, therefore, ATMs are only in the biggest towns (Puerto Montt, Puerto Aysen, Coyhaique, Futaleufu, and Cochrane). Most places take cash only, but you will find places such as grocery store in Rio Tranquilo or most gas stations to accept cards. Coyhaique is a proper city where you can use cards in most places. Don’t forget that ATM in Chile has a limit for withdrawal around 130,000CLP (around 200 USD) and they only accept Chilean pesos.
Car rentals for the Carretera Austral
Car rental is best arranged from Puerto Montt where is the biggest selection. There are a few car rentals in Coyhaique. Options also include campervans which give you even more freedom without the need to book an accommodation. There is no drop-off point for car rentals in Villa O’Higgins so you would either need to return to Puerto Montt or continue by ferry to Puerto Natales or exit to Argentina.
Gas stations are available in every bigger village. On average, you will find a gas station every 100km. Bigger distances between gas stations are on the southern part. From Coyhaique the closest one is in Puerto Rio Tranquilo, the next one in Cochrane. Don’t forget to fill up in Cochrane heading south as the last one is in Villa O’Higgins, which is more than 300 km away. Better to stay safe than sorry and keep an eye on your range which shouldn’t drop below 100 km.
Sleeping options along the Carretera Austral vary from free in the tent outside of town to luxurious hotels with prices above $200 a night. During high season you might have a hard time to find a hotel; we suggest booking in advance if you require a certain level of comfort. If that’s not an issue for you and you have a tent, there will be always a place to stay.
Most people we’ve met on the Carretera Austral driving rental cars had a tent and were staying at campgrounds. Camping is the easiest and cheapest option from 7 USD/night. Even though cyclists on the Carretera Austral are sometimes staying in the middle of nowhere, many of the campgrounds we stayed at were backyards of family houses with open or closed kitchen area and bathrooms with hot showers.
Restaurants are in every town, some more basic than others, and almost all of them offer a menu of the day, a budget-friendly option for lunch. Most commonly you will find local river fish or beef. Vegetarian options are available but expect basic as most places don’t have daily fresh food delivery.
Small grocery shops are also in every town. Options are limited but you will find enough food for camping cooking, fruits, and vegetables and we also found Chile has the most delicious buns in South America. The only big supermarket where you can find everything is in Coyhaique.
This always depends on your preferences when it comes to food, accommodation, and activities. People traveling on a budget can fit within 50 USD a day (excluding car rental).
We traveled along Carretera Austral for 15 days from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins and spent 35 USD a day per person. We did some tours, slept in campgrounds in our tent and cooked our own food. Our best tip for saving money is to sleep in campgrounds and not in hotels. You will have an amazing view every morning and be connected to nature, which is the main reason people travel on the Carretera Austral.
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