The Carretera Austral is a 1,247 km long road through a remote part of Chilean Patagonia.
It’s a real delight for the eyes and a heaven for outdoor enthusiasts and off-the-beaten-path travellers.
Although it’s a well-known part for local Chileans, only the adventurous foreigners visit.
The reason is quite simple though, the route lacks any form of marketing, and you won’t see it heavily promoted anywhere.
Suppose you’d like to see anything else in Chile other than the famous Torres del Paine National Park.
In that case, I highly recommend Carretera Austral and Puerto Williams, the southernmost city in the World.
Prepare to see an endless amount of glaciers, lakes in all shades of blue imaginable, untouched nature, waterfalls, and gorgeous mountains.
This guide covers all the beautiful places you can experience along the Carretera Austral with tips about transportation, accommodation, and more.
Transportation Tips For Carretera Austral
Carretera Austral stretches from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins near the Argentinean border, and you can start in either one.
Short-term visitors would find starting in Puerto Montt easier as it’s a city with an airport and car rentals (buses don’t run frequently on Carretera Austral).
On the other hand, Villa O’Higgins is a tiny town in the middle of nowhere and requires several ferries to get to.
You also have an option to start in the middle of Coyhaique, the only city along Carretera with an airport and car rentals.
Either way, plan to rent a car with pick-up and drop-off at the same place; otherwise, you get charged a hefty transfer fee.
If starting from Puerto Montt, the first stop going south is at La Arena ferry.
You drive along the fjords and taking several ferries until Caleta Gonzalo, where you can choose to stay and hike in the rainforests of Pumalin Douglas Tompkins National Park. Driving from Puerto Montt to the national park takes around 7 hours.
Suggested Road Trip Itinineary For Carretera Austral
The next town Chaiten is known for its tragic past when buried under the lava from Chaiten volcano in 2008. There’s a hike to the volcano crater, a few guest houses, campgrounds, and small grocery shops.
Queulat National Park is the next point of interest. From my experience, it’s where the magic starts.
Although the park is tiny, there’s a campground and an almost 10 km hike to Hanging Glacier’s viewpoint with a waterfall.
Carretera Austral is not fully paved and travels through small fishing villages and towns.
So when you stop at Coyhaique, make sure to fill your tank and buy supplies at the supermarket.
If you need any outdoor gear, Coyhaique is the only place where you can buy it. There are also hotels, restaurants, and tourist agencies for trips nearby.
Continuing south, stop at the Cerro Castillo village.
The hostel and campground Senderos Patagonia is the cosiest place I’ve stayed at, with the most stunning view from the campground.
Choosing the right spot on the hill, you can see the castle-shaped mountain you can hike.
I highly recommend the 18 km hike to Laguna Castillo.
It’s not a difficult hike, but if you’d prefer some help, the hostel can arrange a horse transport that can take you half-way up the trail and hike the rest.
To get to the next village, Puerto Rio Tranquillo, takes about three hours and deserves a longer stay.
It’s located on General Carrera Lake’s shore, where you can go kayaking, fishing, or visit colourful caves.
Marble Caves are a true wonder of nature. I haven’t seen anything like it before.
The boat tour costs around USD 15 per person and leaves twice daily.
It takes you across the insanely turquoise lake to colourful caves where your jaw drops, I guarantee you.
Another reason to stick around in this tiny village is glacier trekking.
Glacier trekking is a very popular activity in Patagonia and usually quite pricey, but not in Puerto Rio Tranquillo.
Several agencies in town can arrange a glacier trekking tour to Exploradores Glacier.
It’s a full-day tour with a guide who provides you with crampons and instructions on how to walk on the glacier.
Let me tell you, it feels like a zombie walking for beginners. You carefully lift one foot then the other and sometimes even jump between snow waves.
The Exploradores Glacier is massive, and the snow waves will tire you quickly, but lunch with a view of Patagonia’s highest mountain is definitely worth the effort.
Going south from Puerto Rio Tranquillo, you pass many blue lakes, and each is worth a photo stop.
This road will leave you speechless and wondering how you can see so much beauty in such a short amount of time.
I highly recommend a small detour to Patagonia National Park.
Since the park is close to the Argentinean border, you will notice climate change immediately, from greenery and glaciers to dry land.
Patagonia National Park has the best campground along Carretera Austral and also a luxurious lodge.
t’s a great place to watch condors or guanacos, which roam around all day. Go on a 22 km hike to La Vega & Lagunas Altas, passing eight lakes, and you will surely spot a lot of wildlife.
You’re almost at the end of Carretera Austral with the last stop in either Caleta Tortel or Villa O’Higgins.
Travellers who continue south to Puerto Natales tend to choose Caleta Tortel. The ferry runs once a week and takes 41 hours.
If you’d like to continue to Villa O’Higgins, take a ferry from Caleta Yungay and then take your time.
Drive slowly to Villa O’Higgins as this road stretch has the biggest amount of glaciers and breathtaking views.
Villa O’Higgins is the actual end of the Carretera Austral. If you reach it by car, you will need to drive back the same way.
The ferry from Villa O’Higgins continuing south to Argentina is for pedestrians and cyclists only.
Spend a couple of days in Villa O’Higgins and hike the trails with endless glacier views.
You’re literally in the middle of nowhere and might not meet another human on the hike.
PLANNING TIPS For Carretera Austral
Carretera Austral has paved and unpaved/gravel sections.
The paving continues so that you might experience some delays.
Expect to have mobile phone coverage and wifi only in towns, and no coverage between them.
ATMs are only available in Puerto Montt, Puerto Aysen, Coyhaique, and Cochrane, with a daily limit of 130,000 Chilean pesos (around USD 200).
Most towns and villages only accept cash, except for hotels and gas stations.
Puerto Montt has many car rentals, even for campervans.
If you rent a campervan, you can stay in campgrounds along the way.
Due to lack of service, I recommend downloading a map of Carretera Austral in Puerto Montt so you can use it offline later.
During the high season, December to February, you need to book your car rental and hotel stays in advance.
I’ve visited in March, so hostels and campgrounds always had free spots. Camping is around 7USD/night.
Small grocery shops in towns offer veggies & fruits and staples for bigger variety, stock up in Puerto Montt or Coyhaique.
You will find several restaurants on Carretera Austral, either in villages or at big junctions.
They usually serve a menu of the day consisting of fish or beef.
If you’re planning to travel on a budget, stay in campgrounds and try all the above activities, your budget would be around 35USD/day (excluding car rental).
If you’d like to see the natural beauty in all its glory and also take time to hike around, I’d recommend spending two weeks on Carretera Austral, but three weeks would be ideal.
You won’t regret road-tripping Carretera Austral no matter how long you’ll stay!
Author: Maya is an adventure athlete and world traveller. After her 2-year trip around the world, she returned to the Canadian Rockies.
Apart from adventure sports, she loves travelling to places beyond the beaten path which are not often visited. She shares her travel stories and comprehensive adventure travel guides on her blog Travel with the Smile.