This article has been updated on January 2, 2021
Chile’s Ruta 7 AKA Carretera Austral is a 1240km/770 miles long partially paved road that cuts through the stunning scenery of central Chilean Patagonia from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins. From a traveller’s point of view, Carretera Austral therefore offers an attractive prospect of a road trip filled with multiple rewards, ranging from stunning views of glaciers, lakes, fjords, steep mountains and forests, up to the numerous trekking options and other outdoor activities, one can pick from along the way.
How to explore Carretera Austral AKA means of transportation
Rent a vehicle
To explore the full potential of what Carretera Austral has to offer, I strongly recommend a shared vehicle rental, preferably a 4WD. Except creating your own little “road trip vibe”, it will give you full freedom, plus you’d share the considerably high rental fees with more people. The reasons why the rental rates are set quite high in the region are rather obvious and understandable if you look at the remoteness of the area as well as the conditions you’d be taking the vehicle into.
I mean that the road is only partially paved and the vehicles around here might have required more frequent maintenance investments. Tyres are also most possibly not an everlasting commodity in this part of the world so make sure that the car you’re renting has a proper one. Car rental works out roughly $50-80USD per day, depending on the provider and car quality but if you split it in between 4, it’s not that bad, given the rewards one can get on this picturesque road.
Other options: Public Transport, hitchhiking or bicycle
You could also use public transport to explore the region. The buses or vans are considerably frequent, and as we know, this kind of transportation might provide the certain social experience of conversing with fellow tourists. Another, apparently not uncommon means of transportation in the region is hitchhiking. People do pick hitchhikers in the area and it could be a great way to hear about how is life in the area first-hand if that’s your style.
I’ve also met people that took on the road with bicycles. The first time I saw one passing by, I got a little envious about that idea. But that thought only lasted a second until I’ve spotted the expression on the face of that cyclist. He was pedalling up a mild hill, which would be fine if it wasn’t in a combination with the hardcore Patagonian wind blowing guess what direction…
…so he was pedalling up the hill against the hardcore wind, on an unpaved road made of small wet rocks… …in a mild vertical rain… All that was missing was a puncture, which I’m sure he has dealt with several times during that journey. So to put it mildly, the face of the cyclist I’ve seen wasn’t exactly a face I’d cast for an advertisement about driving a bicycle on Carretera Austral 😉
Road quality and when to go
Following the military tensions with Argentina, over ten thousand soldiers begun to work on Carretera Austral in 1976, in order to be able to reach their isolated southern territories. The logistically difficult project, of which the previous attempts failed in the past was completed 12 years later up to Puerto Yungay, hence the unofficial name of the road: “Pinochet’s Highway” The last bit of 100+km to Villa O’Higgins was only finished in the year 2000.
From the road’s quality point of view, we’re talking mostly about an unpaved road, although the number of paved parts is steadily rising every year since the project’s completion. I must say that our drive was hustle-free and smooth but we were there in November, which is Austral spring and it wasn’t raining much. I mean – it’s still a road that was planned and built. Yes, it sometimes misses the asphalt coat but it’s a maintained road, rather than some muddy trail in the woods…
The locals have however confirmed my suspicion that some steeper stretches of the road could get rather slippery in winter or when it rains/pours. Most guides would recommend planning your trip for the Austral summer, which is from December to March. I personally always prefer shoulder seasons as it makes places less crowded, cheaper and mainly because spring and autumn do come with more colours. Much more colours and smells 🙂
On the other hand, some facilities or even national parks might be still closed, especially in spring, the latter due to possible avalanche dangers or not yet prepared paths, but it only happens on a rare occasion but please bear that possibility in mind, when deciding about when to go. A little research of checking the parks’ websites (see some of them below) and/or their social media updates should do the trick.
Popular and interesting stops and activities on Carretera Austral
Tip: the links highlighted in red are Google Maps locations, in case you've fancied to start creating your own itinerary. Just sign in into your Google account and if any listed place sounds like your cup of tea, just click "want to go". Personally for me, seeing the "Want to go" places helped me to determine my journey, when I was planning my trip across Latin Americas.
As mentioned above, Carretera Austral is all unbelievably breathtaking and if you have the privilege of your own transportation, pretty much any random stop is worth it. There are however the so-called “must-see places”. I’ve written them down here in north-to-south order.
FYI, the distances from Puerto Montt I state could vary, depending on which way and/or which “detours” you decide to take. For example, you might decide to drive around the Estero Reloncaví bay south-east of Puerto Montt to see the country, rather than taking the ferry shortcut, which would add a further 93km, and so on, I’m sure you know what I mean 🙂
Puerto Montt is a busy and rather uninteresting busy city of over 200 thousand people, where you should stock up. I mean really stock up as you’re about to enter beautiful but also expensive and remote lands. As far as I know, the next supermarket you’ll come across will be halfway down in Coyhaique. Don’t worry, there are small shops but they only sell the essential goods and I can guarantee that the prices will be higher than nearly anywhere you go south of here.
Hornopirén (106km) sometimes serves as a first major stop for the night for quite a few travellers, especially for those who drove here all the way around Estero Reloncaví bay. It’s a small settlement with a small national park located with few short hikes about 20km from the town. More details could be found here, on the informative Ruta de Los Parques website if you were interested.
Caleta Gonzalo/Pumalín Park
Caleta Gonzalo (184km) is an entrance to the former largest private nature reserve in Chile Pumalín Parque, which was enlarged after it was gifted to Chile, only to become South America’s largest National Park. This stunning and diverse fjord park comes with an extensive infrastructure of trails, campgrounds and visitor centres with a free entrance. More info could be found here on the park’s official site.
Chaitén (240km): is a small port town with a ferry connection to Puerto Montt. From the traveller’s point of view often serves as a stopover between the two parts of Pumalín Parque as it is located between its two entrances.
Technically it a detour from Carretera Austral, Futaleufú (391km) is a small border village with breathtaking scenery and many outdoor activities on the menu. Except trekking, you can go mountain biking, climbing, kayaking, rafting or even zipline.
Puyuhuapi (428km) is a nice small settlement at the foot of a fjord with fresh sea products in its restaurants as well as numerous lodges where one can enjoy a good night sleep after watching a magical sunset over the fjord. There are two little SPA places by the road nearby, in case you fancied dipping in a hot water by the fjord. This one is a bit more secluded (accessible by boat across the fjord) while the other one is just by the road.
National Park Queulat
Queulat Parque Nacional is only 40 minutes of driving south from Puyuhuapi. Queulat‘s major attraction is the spectacular waterfall combined with a glacier hanging over the mountain (see the pic above). Throughout my travels, I’ve seen plenty of waterfalls but this particular one could be a contestant in the top 10 waterfalls (see the pic above), which you can see from two perspectives of the two park trails (from by lake or from a viewpoint above) for CLP 5000/€5,70.
Refugio Rio Cisnes
In case you were around in a need of a little rest, Refugio Rio Cisnes (508km) just provides you with a perfect opportunity. It’s a beautiful place with accommodation by the river and a small restaurant that also serves real coffee. The place is run by a friendly Chilean couple with a cute daughter Sami. It’s about 6km north of Villa Amengual, right under the viewpoint, where you’ll definitely stop to enjoy the view if you were coming from the south. FYI: I’m not paid, nor have I received any favours or advantages sharing this info with you, it’s just was a great place…
Coyhaique (660km) could be qualified as a local travellers hub. The town itself (pop.54 000) is IMHO not too special, it’s the nature around that makes this place interesting. It’s a good place to restock and take a little social or civilisation break if needed. Restock here because it has the last supermarket on the road.
Villa Cerro Castillo
Villa Cerro Castillo (755km) is the ‘up and coming’ trekking hot spot for many travellers. It’s been called “the new Torres del Paine” by some and if fewer fellow trekkers are what’s ticking boxes on your priority list, it might be just the place for you to check out. For CLP 8000/€9,20 to enter the park, you could take upon the increasingly more popular 4-day Cerro Castillo trek. More information could be found here, on the park’s official website.
Chile Chico (814km) is a small border town with a pleasant microclimate located on the shore of the second largest lake in South America Lago General Carrera. There’s a fork in the road here. You could reach Chile Chico by taking the ferry from Puerto Ingeniero Ibáñez and the carry on towards Puerto Ro Tranquillo or by driving around the lake through Puerto Rio Tranquillo, from where you can carry on further south without making a detour to Chile Chico.
I mean that if you’re planning to make the remaining 400+km and go all the way to Villa O’Higgins, I’d suggest Chile Chico be your optional stop only. While there are few trekking options as well as the beautiful Laguna Verde (see the picture above) to be seen in the area, the town itself is very very quiet.
FYI, being the last border crossing for the next 900km, if travelling south, which is pretty much all the way down to Puerto Natales, for quite a few people travelling from southern Argentina, Chile Chico is an entry point to Chile because travelling south from here, Carretera Austral is pretty much a dead end. That’s unless you feel adventurous enough to take upon a 2-day trek, that involves taking two ferries across two lakes to cross over the Argentinian border nearby El Chaltén, which we’ll talk about later.
Puerto Rio Tranquillo (877km) is a small settlement on the shores of Lago General Carrera that is on the tourist maps mainly because of the spectacular Marble Caves one can visit for a fee of CLP10000/€11,50 with a tour. More details could be found here, in case you were interested. If you’re in the area, it’s certainly a place worth visiting.
Furthermore, if you’d like to hike on, in and around the glacier, you could check out Exploradores Glaciar if you’re in the area. More info about the glacier’s tours could be found here on the Recorre Aysen website. Well, and only a few miles away from the glacier park, there’s also Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael that is certainly worth a nature lover’s consideration, if you’re into off the beaten path kind of destinations 😉
Depending on how nature-hungry you still are at this point, I’d call Cochrane (990km) to be your another optional/pit stop only. There are few hikes in the area that would take you along Lake Cochrane‘s shoreline, which you could explore for an entrance fee of CLP5000//€5,70.
A small port town Caleta Tortel (1115km) sounds and looks like a perfect place to spend a night and get to know more about Chilean wines if your budget allows you to. The scenery is as impressive as it’s been on your way down here and I’m sure that Malbec is always widely available.
Here we are. The last stop at Carretera Austral: Villa O’Higgins (1223km). The village itself certainly looks like a dead-end, no disrespect intended to any of the 612 local citizens. There are few impressive treks in the area, including the one that takes you to O’Higgins Glaciar. More information about activities and treks could be found here.
Although 99% of visitors travel here to experience the natural beauty of the area, an excessive amount of remoteness might create a social hunger for some people. Much of the social life in the region is concentrated in Coyhaique, the unofficial “capital” of Chilean Patagonia. The pricey character of the region however often keeps many travellers socialising in hostels and take few days to break while doing so. There’s nothing wrong with grabbing a bottle of gorgeous wine for a third of a price in a shop and drink it in your hotel with friends 😉
As for safety, the whole regions is very safe. Well, I mean I still wouldn’t leave my laptop on the back seat of the unlocked car downtown Coyhaique but within normal precautions, the whole Patagonia is very safe, when it comes to crime. Any possible dangers might come from visitors underestimating the nature in the area or/and overestimating their abilities when it comes to trekking, their fitness levels and so on.
I don’t mean to sound patronising but please be aware that you’re about to go to the real wilderness with possible extreme weather conditions. Make sure that you have the right equipment for your activities and take precautions to prevent any accidents that might happen to you out there. Bear in mind that you are in a region with low population density and medical services copy that fact accordingly. In case you were interested, here’s what I’ve packed for my trip. You will certainly need some of it if you’re about to explore Patagonian nature.
If you’re about to rent a car and drive southward from Puerto Montt, as I’ve mentioned above, I’d recommend stocking up as you’re about to enter an expensive and rather remote land. Also, make sure you have enough cash as not every location you’ll stop at will have ATM, nor it is perfect when it comes to payments with cards (except the gas stations). So don’t run out of cash, ever 🙂
As for car rentals, I recommend checking one of the engines such as rental cars and comparing it to the offers companies offer in the area (various sources state that a car rental by Puerto Montt airport had reasonable prices). Make sure to get all information regarding the insurance, you know, those are usually horrible packages like covering tyres only, but if you want to include a windshield, you need to pay considerably more and so on.
Then there is the possibility to take the vehicle across the border for which you’d have to pay extra if that was your intention and so on. You know the drill. It’s as boring as much as “add-on marketing” combined with small print could be. I mean those things are always bloody boring, aren’t they? Why can’t they make them more simple and unified?
As far as your itinerary goes, my advice would be, if you can, don’t make it tight. Be flexible. There’s so much to see and explore, plus things can go south and slow you down and so on. And last but not least question to ask yourself is: ¿Hablas español? It would be also helpful if you knew at least some basic Spanish for obvious reasons. English is rather rare across all Latin America…
The tourism infrastructure has been on the rise ever since the 90s and the end of the Pinochet era. You will be able to find many accommodation options along Carretera Austral. I’ll only mention those I’ve stayed in and recommend at the same time. The rest is up to your searching skills on Airbnb or Booking sites. If you can, pls check both as they often compete.
As for myself, in Coyhaique I’ve first I’ve stayed in an Airbnb place called Aumkenk Aike. Farid, the local lad with a good sense of humour was also a rather inventive constructor, building wooden partitions in the dorm that offered some sort of privacy in the dorm. The bed was $15 a night. The place was about 10 minutes walk to the centre.
Another place I’ve stayed in town was Mckay Truqueras Backpacker. It came with let’s say fewer features (no lockers) but far more space and a tiny bit better location, considering the distance to the centre and bus stations. Maria, the charming young lady that owned the place was a great, friendly and attentive company. The bed in the dorm was $13.70.
I’ve also stayed in Puyuhuapi. It was a booking.com place called Don Claudio. The private room @ $14.60 was a shared room where I’ve slept alone. Comfy bed, shared bathroom and 3 minutes walk to the fjord. Good place.
Sort of conclusion
For me, Carretera Austral is one of the most beautiful regions I have ever visited. The Central European nature where I grew up has kind of similar landscapes, well except fjords and glaciers, which I admit add a lot of punch to the mix. I guess that for me it feels like a real nature over here. It’s the low population density, the remoteness, the feeling that humans are not the dominant force for hundreds of miles.
To me, the low amount of infrastructure isn’t ringing the adventure bell, it’s more like that works as a reminder that we’re in the real nature, rather than in some small European national park that’s surrounded by towns and cities, you can almost hear the traffic from the nearby highway. No, over here, you’re surrounded by more national parks. I think that it’s 17 of them altogether.
Over here, you’re surrounded by so much “untouched” nature, one can only explore a fraction of what’s on “the menu”. If you like nature and if you like it with smaller crowds and the remote vibe, exploring Carretera Austral is for you. That’s unless you’re from Norway or Canada or something like that because you might have this incredible option of clearing your head, recharging your batteries of whatever wilderness does to you much closer to your home…
One thing I kind of missed from the civilisation along the way a bit, was more options for a cosy pit stop, to grab a proper coffee and chill, like in Refugio Rio Cisnes for example. Chileans are for some reason obsessed with instant coffee, and even if it goes to the length of some posh instant coffee machines, it didn’t really do the job. And while I’m on the negative wave, let’s mention the money. Yep, the whole region is expensive. Unless you have your own tent, count on €40-50 per day and that’s without the car rental money. However, needless to say, checking out Carretera Austral is definitely worth it 😉
- National Forest Corporation AKA CONAF official website with extensive information about Chilean nature (in Spanish)
- CONAF Facebook page with updates and so on.
- Ruta de Los Parques (a vision for the conservation of Chilean Patagonia) website with information about all 17 national parks in the area, communities, suggested trips, tour operators, news, FAQ as well as trip planner;
- Recorre Aysen website with more useful information
- Google-translated official website of Coyhaique;
- Cerro Castillo park official website;
- Pumalín Park’s official website;
- Public transport local ferry options to discover the area from the sea’s perspective with practical details could be found here;
Other locations in the area
Only a short ride westward from Puerto Montt, there’s the largest Chilean island Isla Chiloé, where you can check out very different scenery, the island’s typical carpentry architecture as well as the less-visited National Parks. More info about Chiloé island could be found here.
Puerto Varas and Bariloche
Only about 15 minutes of driving north from Puerto Montt would get you to a pretty resort town of Puerto Varas on the shore of Lago Llanquihue right across the picturesque Volcán Osorno. Another 5 hours of the stunning ride across the Andes mountains, would get you to the Argentinian counterpart of Puerto Varas, the resort town called San Carlos de Bariloche. Both cities are known for many activities, attractions and cute Apline-influenced architecture. More details about both places could be found here, in case you were interested.
Some further-away southern Patagonian locations of interest
About a day’s drive further south, you can get to a trekking paradise near a cute little Argentinian town of El Chaltén, which’s located in Los Glaciares Parque Nacional just “under” the iconic Mt Fitzroy. More details, including the trekking, logistics and more could be found here, in case you were interested.
Perito Moreno Glacier
If you made it this far south, please do not miss out on what I guarantee would be one of the best experiences in your life, especially if you’ve never seen a glacier before. Visiting Perito Moreno Glaciar near Argentinian El Calafate is definitely worth it, even in spite of its mass tourism status. A little guide with all the information you need could be found here.
Torres del Paine
Only about 5-6 hours’ further drive back to Chile over the Andes mountains, would get you to Puerto Natales, which is a gateway to the iconic Torres del Paine Parque Nacional. More details, popular treks, logistics and more could be found here.
End of the World
In Punta Arenas, you’d be only 12 hours on a bus from “the End of the World”. You’d get nearly as south as one can get, or from where things can’t go south much more, you’d get to Tierra del Fuego‘s city of Ushuaia. More details, incl. attractions, trekking and more could be found here.
Alternative border crossing from Villa O’Higgins to El Chaltén
In case you’ve felt adventurous enough, you could try this border-crossing 2-day trek, which involves taking two ferries and a lot of trekking. By crossing Lago O’Higgins to Candelario Mansilla with a ferry that goes few times per week from November to March (so you need to time your trek well), to reach the Chilean border post. You would then have to reach the Argentinian border post by Lago del Desierto, which you can either trek around or take a ferry across.
It is recommended to inform the park rangers if you decide to take upon this little adventure, needless to say, that you should be prepared and well informed. If you were considering this trip, make sure to double-check your information locally AKA right at Villa O’Higgins because there you would get the latest updates about the weather conditions, possible shelter options, ferry time schedules and so on.
Traveller’s Guide to Chile
For more complex information about the whole country that includes basic history, cuisine, general tourism info and safety, popular as well as off the beaten path places to visit in Chile, please click here.