Chile doesn’t always make it to the top of backpacker’s itineraries. Travel costs and a far more European culture when compared with other South American countries, have diminished its appeal. But those who give it a chance learn something that the more thrifty travellers don’t: Chile is stunning. And the best place? Patagonia’s Carretera Austral.
The Carretera Austral road trip: Chile’s most beautiful route
Yes, Chile has delivered a painful punch to my pocket, but I’ve been spellbound by the country’s diverse natural beauty and I’ve fallen head over my walking boots with this country.
Before I got to Patagonia, I was struck by the vast deserts and salt flats in the north near San Pedro de Atacama and the vineyards and snow-topped mountains crisscrossed with ski runs surround Santiago. But that was before I stumbled upon the Carretera Austral. Home to rugged nature, endless opportunities for wild camping and trekking, and some of the finest opportunities for having an adventure, Patagonia’s most incredible road trip deserve your time.
How to visit the Carretera Austral
Starting in Villa O’Higgins in the south of Chile, the Carretera Austral winds 1240km through the Aysen and Los Lagos regions to end in Puerto Montt – a town around two-thirds of the way up Chile’s epic 4,270 km coastline.
Constructed over a period of 20 years during Pinochet’s dictatorship (it seems he had one positive impact on the country), the Carretera Austral remains the only road connecting Puerto Montt and the deep south of the country.
Many hire a car in Puerto Montt or in Punta Arenas, further south than where the road starts and traverse the whole route at a leisurely place. It’s also possible to hire a car in Coyhaique and drive parts of the Carretera Austral, an option for those with less time or less cash.
A growing number of die-hard bikers have taken to cycling the Carretera Austral in its full glory, something I can imagine to be utterly spectacular. Just remember to bring a tent and cooking equipment as towns and places to stay can be few and far between along some stretches of the road.
A dedo (hitchhiking):
But without your own two wheels, it’s easy enough to experience the Carretera Austral by using the local bus network or practising the very Chilean art of the hitch hike. You’ll find local people – and other tourists – are more than happy to give you a ride, just bear in mind that traffic drops as the end of the season nears (April) and possibilities for a hitch, and indeed, to catch a bus, lessen. You can read more about what I learned hitchhiking along the Carretera Austral as well as find my top tips for safely hitchhing a ride in South America.
Unmissable sights along the Carretera Austral, Chile
When I was in Chile in 2016, I didn’t make it all the way down to Villa O’Higgins. From Puerto Montt, I took the Navimag Ferry to Puerto Chacabuco and headed directly to Coyhaique, from where I boarded a bus to Rio Tranquilo further south to begin my trip.
From my two weeks of hitch hiking, camping, walking, and taking a boat and bus or two along this stretch, I’ve put together this list of my travel tips and recommendations for the places you really should visit in this part of Chile.
Anything missing? Let me know in the comments below about your suggestions for where to travel in Chile and Patagonia and check out my guide about planning a trip to Patagonia.
Las Cavernas Marmoles and surrounding area – Rio Tranquilo
The first destination on my Carretera Austral itinerary was Rio Tranquilo. Here you can take a short (1.5 hours) boat trip out to the incredible Marble Caves, whose swirling patterns of blue, grey and black marble against the glacial blue of Lago General Carrera are picture-perfect.
I can’t recommend them strongly enough: find out more information about visiting these rock formations and bear in mind that the colour of the lake purportedly changes according to the weather, so it’s worth doing a quick forecast check before heading out on the lake. It also only costs $7.000 CLP (£9) which is a steal as far as I’m concerned.
Tourists willing to part with a lot of money can also visit the nearby San Rafael Glacier. Retreating at an alarming rate, it’s worth a visit to see the ice calving off the glacier and into the sea, particularly seeing as scientists warn it could disappear by 2030.
However, being on a fairly tight budget myself after my twenty months in South America, I wasn’t keen to part with the $80.000 CP (£80) I was quoted and opted to instead spend a day relaxing in the village.
Given it’s a one-horse town with few activities other than the aforementioned tours, a leisurely day is perhaps one of the only other choices for things to do here. Marcella, the charming owner of my hostel (Hospedaje y Camping Bellavista), suggested I took a walk up the hill behind their land (and which can be accessed even if you’re not staying in the hostel or camp site). Although not a very exciting (or lengthy walk), it does offer some rather stunning panoramic views of the lake.
An afternoon and an overnight stay in Rio Tranquilo (unless you choose to pay for a full-day Glaciar San Rafael tour) are sufficient to see the best of this tiny stop along the route.
Cerro Castillo – 70 km south of Coyhaique
On the main road between Rio Tranquilo and Coyhaique, Cerro Castillo National Park is a place that I didn’t get a chance to visit, but that a friend who had been living in the area for over a year raved about constantly and ranked as one of the places to see in Chile. Hiking here is fantastic for spotting huemules (the endangered south Andean deer) with views thrown in of Cerro Castillo and its glacier, which some even refer to as the “Second Torres”.
You can hike the main circuit in four days using a mix of CONAF campsites (paid campsites run by the national park administrator) and wild camping. Be aware that poor weather, particularly during shoulder season (September and March/April), can make the walk dangerous and requiring a speedy descent back down to the nearby town.
Buses to Coyhaique along the Carretera Austral pass along a number of different trail heads and normally also stop in Villa Cerro Castillo, from where you can do a day hike up to the mountain. There’s some great information here about the walks and if you’re that way inclined, you can even run the route.
The best place to stock up on food along the Carretera Austral (as most of the other towns and villages, such as Puyuhuapi and Futaleufú, only offer the very basics), Coyhaique is a charming, smoky Patagonian town. With free Wi-Fi in the main square, and delicious restaurants such as Mama Gaucha and Casa Tropera (a micro-brewery that also serves incredible burgers), it’s easy to do what I did and spend a week or so here.
La Reserva Nacional de Coyhaique (or Coyhaique National Reserve, 5km from the main town) is accessible by taxi, although hitchhiking is a normal, very safe way of getting around in Patagonia, so you might find it easier just to wait for a ride. Well-marked trails and glorious views of the mountains here make the reserve a fantastic day trip. Information about the park is available from the tourist information office in town.
El Bosque Encantado – roughly 150 km from Coyhaique
One of the highlights of my time travelling Route 7 was definitely the area just south of Puyuhuapi. It’s possible to hitchhike from Coyhaique to the town (which we managed by sheer serendipity, something I’ve noticed happens a lot in South America).
The first sight that’s certainly worth an afternoon is the Enchanted Forest (El Bosque Encantado). Look out for the sign about 50km before you reach Puyuhuapi as it isn’t particularly obvious coming from the direction of Coyhaique. It can be found at the top of the hill on the left-hand-side, just before the road drops into the valley and Parque Queulat.
The 1.7 km walk through the “Enchanted Forest” is characterised by moss dripping from damp virgin forest; you almost expect to see fairies reclining on fly agaric mushrooms. From the dense trees, you finally emerge into the valley and reach the shores of a characteristically aquamarine Patagonian lake, Los Gnomos Lagoon.
Fed by crashing waterfalls bleeding from a glacier above, it’s not as well-known as other attractions in the area, and it’s possible to while away an hour just absorbing these incredible, silent surroundings – before being chased down by cold that is.
We arrived in the afternoon and, although this spot is beautiful anyway, I imagine the lighting in the morning would have made it even more sensational. The hike took us around three hours (of fast walking) and contained a lot of up and down and a final short ascent to reach the lagoon itself.
Park entry is around $4.000 CP (£4), payable to the ranger in the tiny hut outside the entrance.
Parque Queulat – 22 km south of Puyuhuapi
If hanging glaciers and splendid lagoons are your thing, Parque Queulat deserves a day of your time. We camped in the CONAF campsite there ($5.000 CP (£5) pp per night in peak season – we were charged significantly less) which has a handful of trails leading up into the park. The most impressive is the path up to Ventisquero Colgante, the Queulat Hanging Glacier.
Although you find yourself a good distance from the glacier, the platform at the end of the 30-minute climb (mostly ascent but still a fairly comfortable walk) does have excellent views. Watch the ice calving from the glacier and the two glacier-fed waterfalls which drop 600 metres onto the rocks below, before washing into the lagoon.
The other walks around the park aren’t much to write home about, so a day of walking and a night spent camping (the views of the stars are impressive to say the least) is sufficient.
To enter the national park, you’re required to pay a fee of around $5.000 CP (£5). Again, hitchhiking to the park from Puyuhuapi is a possibility and a bus runs every morning from the town and returns around 6pm at night (but do check the timings with the bus driver as these things are never set in stone).
While not officially on Route 7, Futaleufú is a charming town which merits a few days of detour. Here you can pass hours climbing up a nearby hill for some astounding views, partaking in world class rafting or kayaking, or simply enjoying the peaceful ambience of the area.
We were lucky to find accommodation when we arrived, as much of the tourist infrastructure shuts down at the end of the season (April). We fell in love with Hostal Las Natalias: run by a US couple, they’re superbly knowledgeable about the area, the hostel has a fantastic communal space and very comfortable beds, and probably some of the most incredible views I’ve had from a hostel (perfect for sunrise in summer we were told). They charge $12.000 CP (£12) per night for a dorm bed which is a very reasonable amount for Patagonia.
Expert-level rafting on Rio de Futaleufú brings the crowds here during the summer, but without the necessary plata to enjoy the rafting possibility (you’re looking at $50.000 CP (£50) for a day here), we instead decided to enjoy free activities with a hike up to La Piedra del Aguila (Eagle Rock). Via a series of rather steep but ultimately worthwhile switchbacks, the path reaches the spire-like Eagle Rock and sensational views across the valley.
There are plenty of hikes that are accessible from Futaleufú without a guide and about which you can find more information here.
Parque Pumalín – around 50km north of Chaitén
Another stop on the route that I sadly didn’t have the time to visit is Parque Pumalín, the national park set up by the late Doug Tompkins, founder of the adventure brand North Face.
Here a multitude of trails and camp grounds have been created, one of which leads up to the crater of the Volcán Chaitén, the volcano that erupted in 2008 and laid waste to the nearby town of Chaitén. Including an array of lakes and waterfalls, all set in Valdivian temperate rainforest characterised by the millennia-old – and equally enormous – Alerce trees, Parque Pumalín is a fantastic spot to spend a few days, particularly if you’ve got your own camping gear. Read up on some of the treks here and here.
Access from Chaitén is possible by hitching a ride, although bear in mind that some of the trailheads are a distance from one another (if you’re lucky, you should be able to catch another hitch to get between them). Get more information about accessing the park from the official website.
- Take full camping gear including a decent sleeping bag (bear in mind that as it approaches autumn, it can get very cold in Patagonia at night time), tent, and cooking stove. This is perfect for making the most of wild camping along the Carretera Austral (it is possible to pitch up wherever you find a pretty view) and also, if hitchhiking, is a great reserve in case you don’t get the lift you were hoping for.
- Stock up with food in Coyhaique. All of the other towns mentioned in this article only sell the very basics – you will particularly struggle to find fresh food.
- Take a phrasebook or learn some Spanish before travelling. Very few people in Patagonia speak much English and, not only will it be a pain in the arse trying to get around, you’ll find you get so much more of a warm welcome when you’re hitching or just generally meeting people if you do. Chileans are incredibly friendly and seem to understand travelling much more than other countries I’ve been to, making them even more keen to talk to you about your adventures or share their own.
- Autumn on the Carretera Austral is a stunning blend of golds and yellows against a snow-white backdrop of mountain peaks. It’s also a slightly harder time to hitch and gets very cold as it draws into winter. Pack thermals and decent layers to make sure you don’t get caught out.
- The Carretera Austral is a definite must on the list of things to do in Chile, but one that requires a little preparation before setting out. I regret not visiting earlier during the season or being equipped with my own camping stove which left me less keen to hitchhike the full route. Go prepared, and you’ll have an incredible experience.
Featured Image: Bas Wallet (CC BY 2.0)
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