Driving the Epic Carretera Austral Chile: Everything You Need to Know
One of the most dynamic and epic road trips in South America, if not the world is the Carretera Austral Chile in the county’s southern Patagonian region. If you’ve always longed to experience the vast landscapes, glacial fields and mountains of Patagonia, following Ruta 7 (the Austral Highway) is one of the best ways to do it. Along the way, you’ll be able to stop off and experience some of Chile’s best trekking, white-water rafting, kayaking, boating and ice-trekking. This is a landscape that’s a beautiful as it is unforgiving and around every curve, you’ll find yet another landscape to gawk at. In this Carretera Austral itinerary guide you’ll find everything you need to know to plan and drive this infamous Patagonian highway.
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WHAT IS THE CARRETERA AUSTRAL CHILE?
The Carretera Austral, Chile is a legendary road in the South of Chile or Chilean Patagonia. The Carretera Austral is just another term for Ruta 7 (Route 7) which starts in Puerto Montt and finishes in the Villa O’Higgins. It’s 1240km (770 miles) long, most of which is now paved (Puerto Montt to Villa Cerro Castillo at the time of writing). Driving the Carretera Austral is experiencing Chile’s if not South America’s finest road trip through the wild, rugged landscapes of Patagonia. The best time to visit Patagonia and drive the Carretera Austral is Chilean summertime (December-March). January and February are the busiest times so plan your trip around these months if you prefer not to travel during the high season when the most popular places get crowded.
WHY VISIT PATAGONIA AND THE CARRETERA AUSTRAL?
There are so many reasons why you might want to visit Chile and Patagonia but here are just a few that might convince you to finally book that trip.
↠ Patagonia and the Carretera Austral Chile is a beautiful, natural and completely unspoilt region to visit so if you’re a nature or outdoors fan, it doesn’t get better than this.
↠ There are many adventure, active and wellness activities to choose from in the area including kayaking, rock climbing, rafting as well as thermal baths and spas along the way perfect for relaxing in.
↠ It’s a very safe place to be and the people are very friendly.
↠ There are many national parks and so many trekking opportunities you could literally do it everyday.
↠ It’s one of the most iconic road trips in the world and being able to experience it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
HOW TO TRAVEL ALONG THE CARRETERA AUSTRAL CHILE
There are many ways to experience the epic Carretera Austral, Chile and how you do it will depend on many factors, notably time and budget. This guide focuses more on driving the Carretera Austral which is the most comfortable way to do it but there are other ways, especially if you’re on a budget or have a more adventurous spirit.
RENTING A CAR
Renting a car is by far the most popular, the easiest and most comfortable way to approach your Carretera Austral itinerary. Having a car will allow you to get off the beaten path and visit National Parks and sights along the way where buses don’t go. You’ll also have the freedom to set off when you wish and stop driving when you wish. It can also save you a lot of time compared to hitchhiking and waiting for buses.
The best place to rent a car is in Puerto Montt, where you can find some of the best car rental deals in Patagonia. Stocking up on all your food in Puerto Montt is also a good idea as it’s considerably cheaper than elsewhere along the way. Another option is renting in Balmaceda/Coyhaique however you’ll have to double back quite a bit if you’re planning on driving the whole Carretera Austral as these towns are located in the middle of the route. Renting from Balmaceda can also be quite a bit more expensive compared to Puerto Montt.
If you plan on returning the car to a different destination to the one you picked up from you’ll also be paying considerably more for the rental.
While you don’t need a 4×4 for your Carretera Austral itinerary it is definitely advised to rent a car with a higher clearance. From Villa Cerro Castillo southwards the road is still a gravel track so it’s a lot more comfortable having a larger car that’s more accommodating to unpaved roads.
You should also know that in order to cross the border into Argentina at any point you’ll need additional insurance. It’s also a good idea to check with your rental car company if their insurance covers you in Argentina. If you do need additional insurance you can compare policies and buy it here. It costs about $25 for 10 days.
RENTING A CAMPER
Renting a Camper is another great way to travel the Carretera Austral and while they are more expensive to rent compared with cars, you’ll be saving money on accommodation by sleeping in the car. There’s also something very comforting about being able to pull over next to a stunning, crystalline lake and pop in the back to make a cup of tea.
Note that most of the land adjacent to the highway is privately owned and almost all of it is fenced off making camping and pulling over for the night difficult. You probably will have to spend the night at designated camping spots.
Along the Carretera Austral, Chile there a few ferry crossings that you’ll have to consider. Most of them are in the northern part of the highway with one just before Villa O’Higgins.
CALETA LA ARENA – CALETA PUELCHE- This is the first ferry crossing and it’s a short one. The ferry is available every 45 minutes and it runs almost 24 hours a day in high season. Check here for the schedule, prices and to buy your ticket ahead of time.
HORNOPIREN – CALETA GONZALO – This next crossing is the longest one, taking about 4 hours to get to Caleta Gonzalo. The services leaves at 9am and there is just one service a day, however more than one company does the trip. Check here for more information and make sure to book your ticket in advance.
PUERTO YUNGAY – RIO BRAVO – The last point before getting to Villa O’Higgins, this short ferry crossing takes just an hour to reach Rio Bravo. Services are available from 10am-7pm in high season and 12pm-4pm in low season. Check here for more information about services. From Puerto Yungay or Caleta Tortel it’s also possible to get a ferry all the way to Puerto Natales to continue your Patagonia road trip.
Hitchhiking is definitely a popular way to go about a Carretera Austral itinerary. Though it’s never 100% safe, drivers in Patagonia are used to picking up hitchhikers. That’s doesn’t mean you’ll always get a ride straightaway, however. In high season (Dec-March) be prepared for long waits as you’ll be competing for rides with many other travellers. Make sure to get an early start and always carry snacks and plenty of water with you in case you’re left standing for quite a while. Hitchhiking is also not the best option if you want to explore places a little further afield- it’s often very difficult to get a ride to a place that’s not on the main highway.
The Carretera Austral Chile is one of South America’s finest road trips but if you aren’t able to rent a car, going by bus is also an option. Buses now run from and to all the major towns and destinations along the Carretera Austral. Departure times are limited however and normally there is just one departure a day, so you’ll have to pay close attention to bus timetables.
Make sure to book your bus ticket at least a day in advance especially during high season as spots do sell out quite fast. It’s probably not a good idea to take the bus if you have a limited amount of time.
The Carretera Austral is one of the most popular touring cycling roads in the world and it’s just as popular with cyclists as it is with drivers. As a cyclist, you’ll meet any other bikers along the way. When cycling, make sure to bring all your equipment with you, or at least from Santiago and be aware of designated camping spots and campsites as you’ll find that most of the land is fenced off so camping by the side of the road isn’t easy.
Other things you’ll have to deal with is a gravel road from just after Villa Cerro Castillo all to the way to Villa O’Higgins and the infamous Patagonian wind which in open stretches can make for exhausting cycling.
WHERE TO STAY
The Carretera Austral isn’t known for its selection of luxury resorts, boutique hotels and the like. Instead, you’ll find a variety of simple guesthouses, cosy lodges with all the winter chalet feels, eco-domes and of course campsites.
Compared with North America and Europe accommodation in Patagonia isn’t great value for money. Don’t expect anything close to the same standard for the price you’d pay at home, except perhaps at the higher price point.
Having said that, however, there are some seriously amazing places to stay along the highway. From rustic, wooden cabins with the most splendid lake views to cosy eco-domes that offer experiences truly at one with nature.
Here’s are some of my favourite wellness-focused stays perfect for your Carretera Austral itinerary which I’d highly recommend you check out:
Hacienda Tres Lagos – Located right in between General Carrera Lake and Black Lake, this beautiful property has rustic, wooden cabins with lake views and log burners for those cold nights. On site you’ll also find a nice restaurant, gym, garden and a lake beach. Choose one of their lake view rooms with balcony or opt for the floating room- a homely suite in a gorgeous boathouse right on the lake.
Mallin Colorado Ecolodge– For the log cabin of your dreams, the Mallin Colorado Ecolodge is located right on General Carrera lake with dreamy views you can’t escape from. Each room oozes that ski-chalet cosiness where you can relax with a steaming mug of hot chocolate looking at the turquoise lake beyond. In the lobby, you’ll find a warming fireplace and they also have a good onsite restaurant.
Patagonia Acres Lodge – One of the best budget options around General Carrera Lake, this lovely property has stunning lake views and cute wooden cabins with balconies. Spend the afternoon relaxing, get a quick workout in at the fitness centre and make the most of the garden and lake beach, especially when the weather cooperates.
Puyuhuapi Lodge & Spa – This hotel/spa is one of the most famous places to stay or visit on the Carretera Austral. Located on the other side of Puyuhuapi Fjord, it can only be accessed by boat, so you’ll have to leave your car at their designated pier. The beautiful lodge faces onto the fjord and there’s no escaping the refreshing mountain and lake views. On-site there’s not much else to do but truly relax and get pampered. Choose from their indoor spa or outdoor thermal pools and spend the day floating, soaking and sipping champagne from the side of a thermal pool looking out at the view. If you’re not planning on staying the night you can also visit for the day and use the outdoor thermal pools. There’s nowhere in Patagonia quite like this place.
Terra Luna Lodge – Skirting General Carrerra Lake, just a few miles outside of Puerto Guadal lies Terra Luna Lodge, a gorgeous and peaceful option to really allow you to relax for a few days. The property has many different wooden apartments and bungalows to choose from, all of which have balconies and majestic lake views. On-site there’s also a spa and hot tub to truly unwind in after the long drive.
Andes Lodge– Located in Cochamó, this is a great option for your first night on the road. From standard rooms to panoramic suites all rooms are clean and super cosy. Spend your time here exploring the estate and the beautiful gardens that fringe the lake. It’s a stunning landscape surrounded by volcanoes and snow-covered peaks.
Pared Sur Camp– This unique eco-lodge located right on General Carrera lake offers a number of different and incredibly unique accommodation options, Patagonia glamping-style. The best option at Pared Sur Camp by far is opting for the eco-domes right by the lake for unique yet comfortable accommodation with simply outstanding views to match. Did I mention there’s also a hot tub right on the lake too?
MAJOR STOPS ALONG THE CARRETERA AUSTRAL CHILE
Hornopirén is a lakeside town and the first major stop along the Carretera Austral. This cute Patagonian town deserves a stop and a walk around so make sure you give it some time before taking the ferry across to Caleta Gonzalo. Some highlights include the rather cute church and the scenic walk along the shore of the lake. If you have some extra time its also worth using Hornopirén as a base to explore the nearby national park of the same name. Here you’ll find cascading turquoise rivers, mighty waterfalls and steep mountains with streams running down them everywhere you look. There are also ample trekking opportunities if you have the time.
PUMALÍN NATIONAL PARK
A must stop in the Northern part of the road trip is Pumalín National Park- one of Chile’s best National Parks. If you’re an avid trekker this is not a stop you’ll want to miss. Founded by Douglas Tompkins, American businessman and The North Face founder, Pumalin Park was Tompkins’ first conservation project which expanded over the years. After his death, it was given as a gift to the Chilean Government. The park has many trails which can be explored in half a day, a day or more and you can easily spend three days here. You’ll see mighty volcanoes, free-falling waterfalls and acres of native forest. If you’re looking for an experience in nature, it’s hard to beat this beautiful park. Check here or more information about visiting.
Chaitén makes a great overnight stop and base to explore Pumalín National Park. You might also want to consider stopping for food and fuel. If you need to stretch your legs I highly recommend taking the quick walk up to the Chaitén viewpoint in the north side of town where you’l get a viewpoint of the whole town and estuary beyond.
It may look like a rather long detour from Ruta 7 but it’s definitely worth it and you’ll want to stay here for at least a couple of days. Base yourself in the town of Futaleufú and explore the area which includes so many amazing viewpoints, treks and activities like rafting. Climb to Piedra de Aguila for jaw-dropping views of the area, trek along the many trails in Reserva National Futaleufú and raft or kayak down the Futaleufú river.
PUYUHUAPI & PUYUHUAPI HOTSPRINGS
QUEULAT NATIONAL PARK & VENTISQUERO COLGATE HANGING GLACIER
The sleepy village of Puerto Cisnes is another great detour off of Ruta 7. This is one of the best places in Chile for salmon fishing but if you aren’t into fishing then take a lovely waterside walk to Playa Faro and check out the old lighthouse and don’t forget to eat at De La Raiz Restuarant, one of the best plant-based options you’ll find during your Carretera Austral itinerary.
While it may look like a sleepy little Patagonian village, Puerto Aysen does actually have a good handful of things to do. Home of the infamous Presidente Ibañez bridge, a red iron structure that has become a symbol of these parts, there’s also plenty of horse riding and walking opportunities in the area. Take a half-day trip to Bahía Acantilada and explore more of the fjord, or head to Los Palos river from some kayaking.
VILLA CERRO CASTILLO & NATIONAL PARK
PUERTO RIO TRANQUILLO & MARBLE CAVES
Reaching the last stop on the Carretera Austral itinerary really is reaching the end of the world. There is nothing past Villa O’Higgins but pure nature; lakes, mountains, fjords, glaciers and ice fields. With nothing more than a petrol station, a few guesthouses and restaurants, Villa O’Higgins is a tiny hamlet with not much to do apart from ponder where you are… and plan how to get back to reality.
If you’re driving you’ll have to drive back up to Chile Chico to be able to cross into Argentina or to Puerto Yungay to get the ferry to Puerto Natales. Sometimes Paso Rodolfo Roballos, the border just south of Patagonia National Park is open, but make sure you confirm it is before travelling.
If you’re hitchhiking or cycling, you can actually cross into Argentina at Villa O’Higgins. You’ll need to take a local bus to Bahamondez Pier and then the ferry across to Candelario Mancilla from which you’ll have to walk or cycle to Punta Norte de Laguna del Desierto. From here you can continue walking or take the ferry to Punta Sur de Laguna del Desierto and from here the bus to your next Argentine destination.
Note that you’ll definitely need some adventure spirit for this crossing and the willingness to walk with your luggage. From Candelario Mancilla, it’s a 22km walk to the Argentina border. For a small fee, the Chilean carabineros (police) can give you a ride for 17km but you’ll have to walk the last 5km.
For cyclists, the route is no more difficult than the rest of the Carretera Austral Chile.
WHAT TO PACK FOR YOUR CARRETERA AUSTRAL ITINERARY
What to pack for Patagonia really does depend on how you will travel but here are the basics that you should not leave home without. For us these were all items we used regularly throughout our trip.
Rain jacket – It rains in Patagonia and I mean it really rains so a good waterproof is vital as you’ll be outside for quite a bit. Umbrellas simply aren’t practical due to the wind so you won’t see anyone here using them. Find my favourite lightweight summer rain jacket here.
Walking/Trekking Boots – You’ll need a good set of boots if you plan to explore a few national parks. It also helps to have high ankle boots as you’ll encounter quite a bit of mud and water on the trails. Make sure to always wear new boots in before going out on the trails. Find mine here, which I’ve been using for years.
Waterproof Trousers – Not the most fashionable of things but essential for trekking through National Parks in the rain. Find them here.
Warm Fleece – A warm layer in Patagonia is a must so I highly suggest investing in a good quality fleece or fleece jacket. Find one here.
Reuseable Water Bottle – In Patagonia, there is absolutely no reason or place to buy plastic bottles of drinking water. Most of the water from the lakes, rivers and streams is so pure it’s drinkable so don’t be afraid to drink with mother nature puts right in front of you. To be on the safe side it’s a good idea to invest in a water bottle with a filter. I personally prefer a UV filtering system as they don’t affect the taste of the water and Patagonian water is delicious, by the way. Find my UV, self-cleaning water bottle here.
A Good Digital Camera – The area is so photogenic so if you’re a photographer or you want to up your Instagram game then I highly suggest investing in a good DSLR or Mirrorless Camera. There are so many cameras to choose from nowadays to fit your budget. I personally shoot with this Nikon 750D but this Sony a7R III is on my wishlist.
TOP TIPS FOR TRAVELLING THE CARRETERA AUSTRAL CHILE
↠ When renting a car do your research and go for the most economical model. Fuel in Patagonia costs considerably more than anywhere else in Chile (in some cases almost double). You can save yourself a lot of money by going for an economical vehicle.
↠ Opt for an Entel SIM card over any other company as Entel have the most coverage. I used WOM and I got no signal outside Puerto Montt, Cochrane and Coyhaique.
↠ Rent a car with high clearance. You don’t need a 4×4 by any means but it’s a good idea to have a larger vehicle with good clearance. At times we encountered big boulders on the road and there’s always the possibility of loose gravel hitting your windshield, so the higher up you are the better.
↠ Pack for all seasons. Even in summer, the average temperature is about 15°c/ 60°F, and at night it can go down to as low as 5°C/40°F. We experienced freezing temperatures a couple of mornings and highs of 26°C/80°C some days.
↠ Bring cash. Not everybody will take credit cards, especially not international ones so bring enough cash to cover a few days.
↠ If you’re planning on camping, bring a solid waterproof tent, a good, warm sleeping bag and base layers. It can get really cold in summer. Camping in winter isn’t advisable.
↠ The best places to shop for food along the Carretera Austral Chile are Puerto Montt and then Coyhaique where you’ll be able to find large supermarkets. It’s a good idea to plan your meals so you have enough food until the next stop.
I’d love to help you if you have any questions about planning your Carretera Austral itinerary trip. Leave your questions and comments in the box below.
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