The Carretera Austral, also known as Chile’s Route 7, is the country’s most challenging and yet wildly beautiful road trip. Stretching 1,240 km through Chile, from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins in Patagonia, the route takes you through untamed landscapes that constantly change and evolve. One moment the road will be fringed with lush, dense forests and the next you will be driving through stark, rugged wilderness with snow-capped mountains forming the backdrop. The entirety of the area is sparsely populated, allowing visitors to truly detach from modern civilization and lose themselves in the lap of nature. There’s no doubt that a road trip along the Carretera Austral will be a trip of a lifetime.
Before you embark on your Chile road trip, it is a good idea to roughly know what you’re in for. Here are some basic facts about the Carretera Austral so you know what to expect.
- Start location: Puerto Montt
- End location: Villa O’Higgins
- Distance: 1,240km
- Duration: Depending on how much time you have, anywhere from 5–10 days.
- Best time to go: Summer (December–February) is the ideal time to go as this is when driving conditions will be best. However, Autumn (March–May) is also ok weather-wise and flaunts very beautiful landscapes.
In order to really see the beauty and experience the excitement of Carretera Austral, you have to get out of the vehicle every so often and explore the area on foot (or on boats!) Since it could easily take you months to get from point A to B if you were to stop every kilometer, you might want to be selective about choosing the best pit stops. Here is a list of some things you definitely shouldn’t miss:
- Northern fjords
If you are planning on driving the Carretera Austral from north to south, then one of your first points of interest will be the spectacular fjords. These lush mountains covered with green vegetation and engulfed by clouds will blow you away. Indeed, these stunning mountains are just a hint at the standard of natural beauty that’s yet to come on your road trip.
- Cerro Castillo
The best thing about going on a road trip is the freedom of your own pace. If you are into physical activities and would like to give your muscles a break from all the sitting in the car then the Cerro Castillo hike is for you. While the castle-like mountain is gorgeous enough to be appreciated from the road, its magnificence is best experienced from a closer range. Make time to have a wander around the base of the incredible Cerro Castillo mountains. Make Las Horquetas your base and start the hike. The main circuit around Cerro Castillo takes around four days to trek but there are also shorter routes you can do if time is of the essence.
- San Rafael Glacier
Take a boat trip to San Rafael Glacier, once you reach the town of Puerto Rio Tranquilo. This tour will take you all day but is worth both the time and the money as the sight of the glacier is truly incomparable.
- Lago General Carrera
When you’ve finished admiring the marble caves you might want to take a step back and take in the beauty of the Lago General Carrera. This gigantic lake crosses the border between Chile and Argentina. On the Argentinian side, it is known as Lago Buenos Aires. Highlights of the lake are the quaint villages along its edges that you can explore and the panoramic views of the surrounding mountains.
- The Queulat Hanging Glacier
The Queulat Hanging Glacier is one of the top must-see glaciers in Patagonia and a prime example of just how beautiful nature can be. This glacier hangs from the edge of a cliff, forming a waterfall from the water that bleeds from its underside. There are also a number of lagoons that you can visit here.
- Pumalín Park
The scenery in the Pumalín Park is some of the most spectacular in all of Patagonia. Here, lush green vegetation blankets rolling hills that careen down into sparkling blue water. The park is one of Chile’s most impressive conservation attempts and is home to a huge number of endangered and endemic plant species. The park is free to visit and accessible by land or boat.
- Rio Baker
Running through a valley just outside Cochrane is the stunning Rio Baker. Often considered one of the most picturesque rivers in Patagonia, the water here is an impossibly vivid shade of turquoise. For those looking for an adrenaline rush, the rapids along Rio Baker are some of the best in Chile for rafting and kayaking.
- La Junta
One of the best things about driving through Patagonia is seeing places that the world seems to have completely forgotten about. La Junta is a tiny village not too far from Coyhaique that epitomizes this magical, remote vibe and is worth visiting for a glimpse of authentic Patagonian life. The scenery here is beautiful and it makes for a great break to stretch your legs and take a quick stroll.
- Caleta Tortel
Just like La Junta, Caleta Tortel is a humble village, nestled away in the wilderness of Patagonia. With very few signs of modernization, visiting Tortel will transport you back to earlier days, before the tourism boom transformed Patagonia. The colourful homes and wooden structures in Caleta Tortel are ripe for photographing as is the cove that fringes the village.
- Rio Futaleufú
Rio Futaleufú is not technically on the Carretera Austral but it is only a slight detour and it is well worth the minor inconvenience. One of the many rivers in Chile that offer excellent rafting and kayaking potential, Futaleufú is as exciting as it is beautiful. If you are looking for something that is off the beaten path, then this river ticks all the boxes. A bonus: you won’t find crowds of people here so you will fully be able to enjoy the blissful tranquillity of Patagonia.
Transport: When choosing transport for this road trip, keep in mind that much of the roadway is underdeveloped or under construction. While the first 98km of the route from Puerto Montt to Villa Cerro Castillo is paved, the rest of road is gravel, and it is near impossible to avoid all the potholes. Hence, we recommend you hire a sturdy 4X4 for the bumpy ride. A bit of suspension and some power steering will make your road trip significantly more enjoyable.
There are plenty of car rentals in Puerto Montt. If you want to get on the road directly from the airport, it is very much possible too. Be vigilant when hiring a vehicle. Make sure the car is up to an adequate safety standard and that the price includes insurance. If it does, find out what the deductible is. If it doesn’t, be sure to buy some so you’re covered in case of an accident.
Note that one-way rentals can include a hefty charge of anywhere between USD 500 and USD 2,000*. There’s nothing you can do to avoid this unless you drive it back to the starting destination yourself.
Food and accommodation: While basic food supplies such as bread are available along the route, they are expensive. The main towns where you can stock up on food are Cochrane and Coyhaique, so whenever you get the chance, stock up a good amount. Jam and bread-spreads, beef-jerky and a variety of fruit are some good choices.
Decent accommodations with a room and bed are difficult to come by unless you are in a town. Take your own camping gear (including warm sleeping bags and a sturdy tent) if you don’t want the road trip to be restrained by accommodation availability. There are plenty of free camping grounds throughout the route, mostly in national parks and reserves.
What to pack: Appropriate clothing with preferably lots of layers, sunglasses, good hiking boots, slippers, food, medications, first-aid kit, torch, extra batteries and power bank are some of the essentials to pack for the road. Patagonia is known for wildly unpredictable weather, so pack for all climates. For more information check out the best time to visit Patagonia.
Stay connected: There is cell phone coverage in most towns and villages. Buy a local prepaid SIM card, Entel and Movistar are claimed to be the best network providers for Carretera Austral. For safety reasons, regularly update a friend or a family member on your whereabouts.
If driving the Carretera Austral feels like too much work, or if you don’t want to drive the road yourself, there are a number of different tour companies that offer guided trips. These tours usually last between 10 – 15 days and include a number of great stops.
- Stock up on food, as supplies in Patagonia are scarce.
- Driving in South America can be challenging. Only do it if you are a confident driver.
- Cash is your best friend for this road trip, but don’t carry a lot in one go. There are banks in major towns, where you can always withdraw some money for the journey till the next stop. Although there are many ATMs along the way, they aren’t regularly refilled, which makes them very unreliable.
- Make sure you have petty cash to pay for tolls.
- Keep your international driving license handy in case you get pulled over by the police.
- Learn some basic Spanish in case you need to ask for directions.
If you are looking for a way to make your next vacation utterly unforgettable, a road trip along the Carretera Austral should do it. With an expanse of breathtaking scenery on either side of you, every minute of driving will be a delight. Since the road trip takes you along some part of the Region de Aysen, you might also want to take a look at our list of reasons to visit the area.
*Note: Prices are as of August 2018.