The Carretera Austral: The Ultimate Driving, Bus or Hitching Guide [2021 ] Skip to Content
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The Carretera Austral: Patagonia’s Most Magnificent Road Trip

Chile doesn’t always make it to the top of traveller’s itineraries. Travel costs and a more European culture compared with other South American countries have diminished its appeal.

But those who give it a chance learn something that the thriftier travellers don’t: Chile is stunning. And the best place? Patagonia’s Carretera Austral. 

The Carretera Austral road trip: a true Patagonian adventure

When I first arrived in Patagonia back in March 2016, it was in the back of a purpose-built overlanding truck.

Little did I know that this was the start of a love affair that would see me spending the next three years visiting the length and breadth of Chile. Its diverse natural beauty and welcoming culture saw me falling head over my walking boots in love.

Sign for Chile's Carretera Austral
The Carretera Austral: probably South America’s finest road trip

Before I got to Patagonia, I had been struck by the adventurous possibilities of the vast deserts and salt flats of the Atacama Desert in the north and the vineyards and snow-topped mountains crisscrossed with ski runs that surround Santiago.

But then I stumbled upon the Carretera Austral.

Why I love Chilean Patagonia’s Carretera Austral

I’ve since returned practically every year to explore even further and deeper into what is northern Chilean Patagonia’s only highway.

I’ve taken almost all of the ferries that you can to get here. I’ve travelled by bus and car; I’ve hitchhiked and even gone on foot along stretches of this famed highway.

I’ve trekked into the rugged depths of its various national parks, climbed to lofty viewpoints above sweeping landscapes of lush temperate rainforests, sat in the spray of powerful waterfalls and stood in awe beneath egg-blue glaciers that seem to tumble from cliffsides as you watch.

For me, the Carretera Austral is the pinnacle of why Patagonia holds its travellers in an indescribable awe. It beats the allure of Torres del Paine National Park in the south and is packed with enough glaciers and pristine lakes to give the Perito Moreno glacier and Parque Nacional Los Glaciares in Argentina a run for their money.

The Ventisquero Queulat (Queulat Hanging Glacier) Queulat National Park near Puyuhuapi along the Carretera Austral
The Ventisquero Colgante (Hanging Glacier) in Queulat National Park. No, I’d never seen anything quite like it either.

What you can expect to discover here are endless opportunities for camping and trekking, appreciating nature at its most remote and untouched and being fortunate enough to experience Patagonia’s – and perhaps South America’s – most incredible road trip.

What, and where is the Carretera Austral?

The Carretera Austral (which means “Southern Highway”) refers to the 1,240-kilometre road that runs through the northern stretch of Chilean Patagonia.

Also known as Ruta 7 (“Route 7”) or the “Ruta Austral” (the “Southern Route”), this road connects its northernmost point, Puerto Montt (in the Chilean Lakes District), and its southernmost point, Villa O’Higgins (in the Aysén region).

It spans a territory that is divided from Argentina in the east by the Andes Mountains and bookended in the west with the narrow channels and fjords of the Pacific Ocean.

What makes it so captivating a destination to visit is the fact that the Carretera Austral remains the only road connecting Puerto Montt and the deep, remote regions of Northern Patagonia.

This region is among the least inhabited in Chile, with – on average – fewer than one person per square kilometre living here.

What you’ll quickly realise is that this lack of habitation is evidenced in other ways: namely through the state of the road.

Don’t be fooled: the name The Southern Highway disguises the fact that the Carretera Austral remains a work in progress, with vast tracts of the road still unpaved.

And why is it so famous?

It’s partly because of its poor state that the Carretera Austral has reached such elevated status in travellers’ imaginations. Unpaved, pot holed and impassable due to the elements: all of these are qualities have helped secure the Carretera Austral as one of South America’s most remote – and therefore most beguiling – road trips.

Another feature of the road’s infamy is the fact that it was one of the main infrastructure legacies of the Pinochet dictatorship (which also killed and “disappeared” over 40,000 people).

A dog in the road in Puyuhuapi, along Chile's Carretera Austral
The locals are friendly across the length and breadth of the Carretera Austral

Prior to the 1980s, this part of Patagonia was practically unconnected from outside civilisation, with no roads linking the majority of the settlements that were beginning to grow.

Construction of the road took twenty years and locals still refer to it as “Pinochet’s Highway”. You can even find a monument to the dictator in La Junta.

The Carretera Austral is also part of the brand new Ruta de los Parques, an initiative stretching 2,735 kilometres from Puerto Montt to the very tip of Patagonia at Cape Horn that aims to join up 17 Chilean national parks.

Although international press has reported it as such, this is not a contiguous hiking route. Instead, the Route of the Parks is a marketing exercise to showcase the wealth of nature that Chilean Patagonia contains.

If you want to explore it, the Carretera Austral is an excellent place to start: 10 of the 17 national parks are located here and the majority are accessible by car or bus with day and multi-day hikes awaiting.

Key facts about the Carretera Austral:

Length: 1,240 km/770 mi

Driving time from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins: 29-35 hours (depends on road works)

Main towns along the Carretera Austral: Chaitén, Puerto Aysén, Coyhaique, Chile Chico, Cochrane

Location of supermarkets: Coyhaique (UNIMARC)

Location of ATMs: Chaitén, Futaleufú, Coyhaique, Chile Chico, Cochrane

Location of gas stations: Hornopirén, Chaitén, Futaleufú, La Junta, Puyuhuapi, Puerto Cisnes, Mañihuales, Puerto Aysén, Puerto Chacabuco, Coyhaique, Puerto Río Tranquilo, Chile Chico, Cochrane, Villa O’Higgins

Location of camping equipment rental: Coyhaique (Rent A Tent Chile)

Listen to me talking about the Carretera Austral

In September 2020, I joined Chris from The Amateur Traveler discussing my favourite itineraries and destinations along the Carretera Austral. You can listen to the episode here:

Driving the Carretera Austral, Chile – Amateur Traveler Episode 720

How to explore the Carretera Austral: a Patagonian road trip, bus-to-bus or hitchhiking

The Carretera Austral is the perfect place for a journey and there are plenty of different ways to approach this road.

For those with larger budgets, a rental car is the ideal means; for those on smaller budgets, buses can help you hop between the different towns. Hitchhiking – if you’ve got plenty of time and patience – is another rewarding choice.

You can get plenty more information in my guide to car hire for the Carretera Austral and Patagonia.

Where to hire a rental car in Patagonia

As a prime spot for a Patagonia road trip, the Carretera Austral is approached by many via car, as you can traverse the whole route at a leisurely place and enjoy its various ferry crossings.

In the north: Aeropuerto Internaciónal El Tepual, the airport just outside of Puerto Montt, has some of the cheapest car rentals I’ve found in Chile, with rental rates starting from $20,000 CLP ($30 USD) per day. I recommend booking through Rental Cars, a comparison and booking site I’ve used on numerous occasions.

Along the Carretera Austral: Another option is from Aerodromo Balmaceda. Prices are much higher than in Puerto Montt and you can expect to pay at least $560,000 CLP ($768 USD) for a week’s rental. You can check up-to-date prices with Rental Cars, the company I use when hiring cars in Chile.

Sign for Chile's Carretera Austral
Driving along the Carretera Austral promises a real adventure

In the south: The cheapest place to pick up a rental vehicle is in Punta Arenas, although there are also rental companies in Puerto Natales.

From my experience, prices are cheaper if you rent from the Chilean side rather than the Argentine side of Patagonia, but it’s worth shopping around.

Hiring a car for the Carretera Austral

Rental Cars find the best deals for car rental in the region. I’ve used it in Chile on numerous occasions and have found it both pins down the cheapest prices and they send you your insurance documents in English!

They also have plenty of different vehicles to hire. Youu don’t need a 4WD for the Carretera Austral unless you plan on driving the tiniest mountain roads or cross the border to Argentina through any of the crossings not mentioned in this guide (of which there are a number, but the state of the roads themselves is generally poor).

It’s important to note that you will need additional insurance if you plan on continuing your trip beyond the Carretera Austral and taking the vehicle across the border into Argentina.

This should cost around $80,000 CLP ($117 USD) and must be organised at least 10 days prior to your trip; the car rental company can organise all of this for you. I’ve had a reader report that they struggled to organise these insurance documents when booking via Rental Cars. However, I didn’t find out exactly what happened – so if you’re planning on doing this, be sure to check with the rental company you have chosen that they are able to do this.

You should also consider that prices are also significantly higher if you rent from one destination and return to another.

Where to hire a campervan for the Carretera Austral

Hiring a campervan for the Carretera Austral is also very popular – particularly as it allows you to stop as and when you wish along your journey.

In the north: The best place to pick up your new wheels is from Puerto Varas (a 30-minute drive northeast of Puerto Montt) with Chile Motor Homes or Wicked Campers.

Expect to pay $483,000 CLP ($662 USD) for a one-week rental. Prices will be significantly higher if you rent from one destination and return to another.

Along the Carretera Austral: You can also pick one up in Coyhaique from Recasur. Prices will likely be higher here because of lack of competition.

In the south: Punta Arenas has a number of rental agencies; Chile Motor Homes, Wicked Campers and Holiday Rent have depos here. Expect to pay $480,000 CLP ($658 USD) for a one-week rental.

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Top tips for a road trip along the Carretera Austral

The Carretera Austral is widely considered Patagonia’s finest road trip. Part of the appeal is how beautiful the landscapes are and the fact that, with your own transport, you can stop practically anywhere you wish for a photograph, for a picnic or even to camp overnight.

As a route in constant construction and facing less-than predictable weather, it’s essential to be well-prepared before you set off:

  • Allow yourself a flexible itinerary. In Patagonia, things don’t always go quite to plan.
  • Two weeks is enough time to drive, and enjoy, most of the Carretera Austral; three weeks is even better. However, because of the prohibitively high costs of one-way rentals, it makes financial sense to hire and drop off your vehicle in the same place. As a result, you could start in Puerto Montt and head south to Puerto Río Tranquilo, before turning around and driving back to Puerto Montt. Alternatively, fly into Balmaceda (where you can rent a car using Rental Cars) and head north to Puyuhuapi, south back down to Caleta Tortel, with plenty of time to explore the attractions en-route, before returning to Balmaceda to drop the car. If you’re keen on seeing those within striking distance of Coyhaique, a week is enough to drive up north to and from Puyuhuapi and south to and from Cochrane, both of which are a day’s drive.
  • A 4WD vehicle is not essential but a high-clearance vehicle and patience are indispensable.
  • Around 90% of the road from Puerto Montt to Puyuhuapi is now paved. South of Puyuhuapi, you’ll encounter gravel roads and plenty of construction projects This portion is less pleasant to drive, but the scenery and the feeling of remoteness are incomparable. Road construction on the stretches directly south of Puyuhuapi, Coyhaique, and Villa Cerro Castillo, can add up to an hour of driving time and 1pm through 5pm is peak time for road closures. You can check for this information in the tourist information offices in Puerto Montt (Oficina de Turismo, San Martín 80) or Coyhaique (SERNATUR, Bulnes 35).
  • You can find updates on the state of the roads here (English).
  • This site (English) gives you information about the different border crossings along the Carretera Austral.
  • Avoid driving faster than 60 kilometres per hour. Possible hazards include tire punctures, chips to the windscreen from gravel, and unexpected wildlife on the road. Pack food, water and a sleeping bag in case of breakdowns. When picking up your vehicle, double-check it has its spare tire – you may well want it!
  • Pack food, water and a sleeping bag in case of breakdowns. When picking up your vehicle, double-check it has its spare tire – you may well want it!
  • Fill up with fuel every time you see a gas station. While there are now plenty of gas stations along the Carretera Austral, the rule of thumb is to fill up whenever you see one.
  • Pick up a copy of the COPEC Rutas de Chile map. This map of all of Chile and Argentine Patagonia is indispensable for anyone driving in Patagonia. You can theoretically pick it up from any COPEC gas station for around $3,000 CLP ($4 USD) – in practice, many places don’t stock it, so you may need to visit a couple. It has all COPEC gas stations marked on it; as the most frequent of all the companies selling fuel in Chile, this is useful stuff. They don’t have Argentine fuel stations marked, however.
  • Download Maps.me before you set off. This free app allows you to download maps of the Carretera Austral to your phone (do this while you still have a wifi connection!) that can then be used offline. Their maps use OpenStreetMap data so generally have accurate hiking trails marked on them.
  • Download the ioverlander app. This free app is a crowd-sourced guide to road conditions and campsites as compiled by overlanders (people who travel overland). It is an indispensable resource for helping you to find good wild camping spots, as well as up-to-date information about the state of the Carretera Austral. You do need internet to be able to access the maps in the app. 
  • Wild camping is generally permissible.In most cases, you can pitch up practically where ever you want along the Carretera Austral, although ioverlander should give you a good sense of where you can’t and where it’s recommendable to stay. Practice leave no trace principles and make sure that whatever rubbish you bring in you take out with you. If the land is clearly privately owned and there’s a dwelling nearby, be sure to pop in and ask for permission before settling down for the night.
  • Make sure your normal sim card works or pick up a local pay-as-you-go sim card. If you plan on booking accommodations and doing other logistical stuff en-route, don’t expect to be able to rely on the internet along the Carretera Austral. The internet reception through my phone is invariably faster than what you can pick up through WIFI at most hotels and hostels, so do yourself a favour and sort this before you get to Patagonia. Along the Carretera Austral, Entel has the most coverage (Claro comes in second) and can be picked up from booths manned by these companies in big shopping malls in cities such as Santiago or even in some corner shops. You top it up in pharmacies (don’t ask me why!).
  • The Carretera Austral is still in the process of being asphalted. The best and most up-to-date list of road conditions that I’ve found is available here (and it’s in English!). Note that road works can cause sections of the road to be closed, normally between 2pm and 5pm during the day. This information is best found by consulting the tourism office of the town you’re in and then planning accordingly.
  • Consider picking up hitchhikers. The vast majority are your fellow travellers just looking for a kind stranger to give them a ride. They’ll be ever so grateful if you do!
  • Get additional insurance if you’re crossing into Argentina at any point. See the rental car section in this article for further information.
  • Make sure your car insurance covers transit along the Carretera Austral. I had a company in Coyhaique who tried to rent me a vehicle but said it wasn’t covered for the road. Go figure.

Top tips for taking the buses along the Carretera Austral

As it’s regularly cited as one of Patagonia’s finest road trips, it certainly feels like a bit of a shame not to drive the Carretera Austral. However, if you have a limited budget, this may well not be a possibility.

Luckily, the bus system has become far more robust and reliable over the past few years and you can generally find daily departures for most destinations along the Carretera Austral.

I’ve included bus timetables throughout this article. Further tips are:

  • Always book your bus at least a day in advance. If travelling the longer, less frequent routes such as Chaitén to Coyhaique, book as soon as you get to whichever of the towns you’ll be departing from. Tickets can run out, particularly in January and February.
  • Take snacks and plenty of water. Distances are far and journeys can take a long time. Unlike most of South America where you can expect to be offered food from vendors by the side of roads on a regular basis, places where you can pick up food and few and far between along the Carretera Austral.
  • Don’t expect luxury – or toilets. For longer-distance rides (such a Coyhaique to Chaitén), the bus will stop for lunch and a toilet stop half way along the journey. For middle-distance rides (such as Coyhaique to Cochrane), you may get a toilet break in Puerto Río Tranquilo, but otherwise you’re in it for the long-haul and there aren’t toilets on the buses.

Top tips for hitchhiking along the Carretera Austral

Hitchhiking or going a dedo is a popular way for backpackers to travel along the Carretera Austral.

Not only is it cheaper (local buses can be expensive) but it’s a great way of meeting some of the local people, who are generally very open to giving a lift to friendly travellers.

Hitchiking on the Carretera Austral in Chile
Waiting for a ride just north of Coyhaique

I’ve personally hitchhiked a couple of stretches of the Carretera Austral (including from Coyhaique to Puyuhapi, which we managed by sheer serendipity) and would recommend the following:  

  • Competition for rides is fierce, particularly in January and February. You can expect to spend hours waiting for a lift – so start early to get out onto the road before other hitchhikers. Be persistent and someone will pick you up.
  • Couples and individuals are significantly more likely to get picked up than larger groups.
  • A lift for a short distance is far easier than for a longer one. This should hopefully be obvious, but finding a vehicle that’s going from Coyhaique all the way through to Chaitén is highly unlikely. Expect to to travel to the next town or two with each ride.
  • Hitchhiking solo is safe. Or at least has been in my own experience. Use your judgement and your gut feeling and read these tips for staying safe hitchhiking in South America
  • Drivers don’t expect payment but they do expect conversation. If you get picked up, the deal is you chat to the driver. If you don’t speak any Spanish, learn some – it’ll enrich your experience and be a welcome reprieve from the quietness of the drive for the driver.
  • Taking a tent and plenty of food with you is a sensible idea when you hitchhike. As you never quite know where you’ll end up, it’s a good idea to have your own accommodation at hand in case you do end up stranded in the middle of nowhere.

For more information about the different means of getting into Patagonia (think plane, bus, car and ferry), read this logistical dream of an article: Getting to Chilean and Argentine Patagonia (both north and south).

Equipment to take for a Patagonia road trip along the Carretera Austral

The Carretera Austral is known for its five-star hiking, including the breathtakingly wild landscapes of the dozen-or-so national parks found within its environs. Because of this, you’ll want hiking clothing and equipment to keep you both comfortable and safe on the trail.

In general, you’ll want to pack:

  • Sturdy hiking shoes: I love my Salomons (for women: REI|Backcountry|Amazon / for men: REI | Backcountry| Amazon)
  • A waterproof raincoat: I love my Alpkit waterproof jacket (only available in the UK), but these jackets from The North Face (for women: REI| Backcountry|Amazon / for men: REI |Backcountry| Amazon ) and Arc’teryx (for men: REI|Amazon) are a great alternative.
  • Warm outer layers for night: A warm fleece (for women: REI |Backcountry|Amazon / for men: REI|Backcountry|Amazon) or a down jacket are versatile items that should keep you cosy and warm.
  • Clothing that can be layered: Items that can be layered up in cold weather and stripped down in warm weather are versatile for any temperature.
  • A water bottle and water filter: Water is potable in Patagonia, however, if you have a sensitive stomach, it’s best to err on the side of caution. A Grayl Geopress (REI|Backcountry|Amazon) or Steripen Adventurer (REI|Amazon) are my recommendations (read why they’re my favourite portable water filters), while a Nalgene water bottle (REI|Backcountry|Amazon) is a great addition to your bag.
  • A power pack: Essential for charging up your cell phone if you’re out hiking and using GPS all day or on a multi-day trek (check them out on Amazon).
  • A copy of Moon Chile, my brand-new guidebook that covers the Carretera Austral in extensive detail (even more so than this article!).
  • Toilet paper: Public toilets are few and far between! Be sure to come prepared instead.
  • A local sim card: This is mostly helpful if you’re planning on driving and need to be able to make emergency phone calls. Entel provides the best coverage along the Carretera Austral.

If you plan on camping in any of the national parks or want to wild camp as part of your road trip, I would strongly recommend packing a good quality and light backpacking tent (read this review to find out why I recommend the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2 tent), along with other camping equipment.

In every town and village along the Carretera Austral, you can find a range of accommodation, from camping through hostels and more luxurious options, so this is only for the most adventurous. 

  • A tent: I strongly recommend the lightweight Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2 tent (buy it on REI|Backcountry|Amazon), the North Face Stormbreak 2 (buy it on REI|Backcountry|Amazon  or, for a little more space, the North Face Stormbreak 3 (buy it on REI), which has a little more space as it’s a 3-man rather than 2-man tent.
  • A sleeping bag: Bear in mind that regardless of the month, it can get very cold in Patagonia at night time. I recommend the Marmot Trestles 30 Mummy for women on (buy it on REI|Backcountry|Amazon) and for men, the Sierra Designs Cloud 800 (buy it on Backcountry|Amazon) or the Marmot Trestles Elite Eco 30 (buy it on REI|Backcountry), all of which should be comfortable down to around 35-40°F (2-4°C).
  • A sleeping pad: Get a cheap foam pad (REI|Backcountry|Amazon ) or a more comfortable Therm-a-rest Prolite (buy it on REI|Backcountry|Amazon).
  • A cooking stove and gas: My favourite is the MSR Dragonfly (buy it on REI|Backcountry|Amazon) because it works fast, is economical with fuel and also you can fill the gas bottle up at a fuel station rather than hunting out a gas canister (which can be hard to find outside of big towns). The cheaper MSR Pocket Rocket 2 (buy it on REI|Backcountry|Amazon) is great value for those on more of a budget.
  • Cooking pots: I recommend the MSR pots set (buy them on REI|Backcountry|Amazon).
  • Plates, a mug and cutlery: A collapsible bowl is a great space saver (check out the Sea to Summit on REI|Backcountry|Amazon); I recommend a cheap, plastic mug (buy it on REI|Backcountry|Amazon ) and for cutlery, a multipurpose spork is a good choice (check them out on REI|Backcountry|Amazon).
  • A headlamp: Useful for midnight toilet visits and early morning starts (buy one on REI|Backcountry|Black Diamond).

I’ve written about everything that I took when I visited Patagonia in 2017 and 2018, so check out this guide to packing for Patagonia to make sure you don’t forget any essential gear.

When is the best time to visit the Carretera Austral?

One of the first things you must learn about Patagonia is how unpredictable the weather always is. The locals joke that there’s really no point in looking at the weather forecast – it’ll like not be accurate.

However, saying that, the best time to visit the Carretera Austral is between November and April. This period covers the very end of spring, all of summer and the beginnings of fall. It’s when you can expect (but not guarantee!) the driest and warmest weather (between 10˚C (50˚F) and 20˚C (68˚F during January and February) and for all tourist facilities to be open.

However, January and February are the peak months for visitors exploring the Carretera Austral and hotels – and mountains – can be packed as a result.

I would therefore recommend visiting either in November or March/April (the shoulder seasons) for reduced tourist numbers and still mostly good weather.

A shot of the main mountain in Cerro Castillo National Park, taken from along Chile's Carretera Austral
Cerro Castillo National Park taking on the colours of fall

Note that May through October sees practically all hotels and tour agencies and many restaurants closed for the season, while roads can become impassable due to rain and even snow and ice.  

Other planning recommendations for the Carretera Austral

  • If you plan on self-catering, it’s worth stocking up with food in Coyhaique. All of the other towns only sell the very basics – you will particularly struggle to find fresh food. Prices are also significantly elevated outside of Coyhaique.
  • Take cash out of any ATM that you come across. ATMs can and do run dry along the Carretera Austral and you may well find that they don’t accept your card. I would stock up with Chilean pesos before reaching the Carretera Austral and also bring plenty of US dollars with you. US dollars are generally accepted throughout Patagonia and will often grant you a tax discount on hotel accommodation and tours if you pay with them. They’re also the easiest currency to exchange at exchange houses. ATMs are currently available in: Chaitén, Futaleufú, Coyhaique, Chile Chico and Cochrane.
  • Take a phrasebook or learn some Spanish before travelling. An increasing number of people speak English; however, not only is it significantly easier to get around if you have some Spanish available, but you’ll get so much more of a warm welcome 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. Lonely Planet has a great phrasebook specific to Latin American Spanish (which, yes is very different to Spanish from Spain!).

Unmissable sights along the Carretera Austral, Chile

When I first arrived 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.

Since then I’ve been back to explore the full length of the Carretera Austral, starting in Caleta Tortel and Villa O’Higgins in the south and gradually making my way up north to Puerto Montt. Altogether, I’ve spent at least two or three months in the region (most recently for my research for the Moon Chile guidebook).

Dense temperate rainforest in Queulat National Park near Puyuhuapi along the Carretera Austral
Valdivian temperate rainforest drips with moss in Queulat National Park

From these glorious days of road tripping, hitchhiking, camping, walking, and taking a boat and bus or two along this stretch, I’ve put together this list of the absolute unmissable places to visit along the Carretera Austral.

Anything missing? Let me know in the comments below about your suggestions for where to travel in Chile and Patagonia and check out my fully comprehensive guide to planning your trip to Patagonia for information about the rest of the region.

Puerto Montt

Puerto Montt lies around two-thirds of the way down Chile’s epic 4,270 km coastline. It isn’t officially along the Carretera Austral, but it does mark the very northern tip of the road. As such, many travellers – whether they’re hoping to explore the full length or only a portion – begin their journeys here.

This port city in itself is a little rough around the edges and with little to appreciate beyond the views of Volcán Osorno and Volcán Calbuco (which lie northeast) that you experience on a clear day.

The church in Puerto Montt, Chile
Puerto Montt’s pretty wooden church

However, it is home to an array of ferry boat journeys into Patagonia and beyond and is the main departure point for buses heading south.

Getting to Puerto Montt from Santiago

Puerto Montt has the largest airport along the Carretera Austral. Aeropuerto Internaciónal El Tepual (also known as Aeropuerto de Puerto Montt; PMC) is located a one-hour 40-minute flight from Santiago, with flights departing more or less hourly from the capital and costing from $15,000 CLP ($23 USD) one-way.

Jet Smart, Chile’s budget airline has the cheapest fares; Sky Airline and LATAM also operate along this route.

For the cheapest fares, I always check Skyscanner and then book directly through the airline.

The crater of Volcan Chaiten taken from the air with the valley in the background inside Pumalin National Park along Chile's Carretera Austral
Spectacular views of Pumalín Douglas Tompkins National Park from the top of Volcán Chaitén

Chaitén and Parque Nacional Pumalín Douglas Tompkins

  • Distance south of Puerto Montt: 240 kilometres
  • Distance north of Coyhaique: 421 kilometres

The largest town in the far north of the Carretera Austral is Chaitén. A dusty, five-street place of ramshackle wooden houses huddled inland from a wide bay, it’s the gateway to one of Patagonia’s finest national parks: Pumalín Douglas Tompkins.

A waterfall in Pumalin National Park reached by a hiking trail
A gushing waterfall along the Sendero Cascadas Escondidas hiking trail

One of two in the region that were set up by the late Doug Tompkins, founder of the adventure brand North Face, Pumalín National Park (free) is exactly what you pictured when you thought about hiking in Patagonia.

Here a multitude of picturesque campgrounds and trails have been established, the latter passing through lush Valdivian temperate rainforest to reach spellbinding lakes and waterfalls and towering, millennia-old Alerce trees.

My personal favourite hike is the one leading up to the crater of Volcán Chaitén, a volcano that erupted in 2008 and laid waste to practically the entire town of Chaitén.

The views from the top, of both the surrounding countryside and the still steaming peak and ragged crater, are equally incredible.

Pumalín Douglas Tompkins National Park is a fantastic spot to spend a few days, particularly if you’ve got your own camping gear, although you can stay in Chaitén and hitch a ride out to the park each day if you don’t.

Another option is in the pretty – but very expensive – cabins located in the very north of the national park.

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).

You can also visit as part of a day trip (where you’ll hike to a number of the trails) with tour agencies based in Chaitén; I recommend local expert Nicolás La Penna of Chaitur Excursiones (expect to pay $10,000 CLP pp ($14 USD)).

The red Volcan Chaiten in Pumalin National Park, near Chaiten
The breathtaking peak of Volcán Chaitén as seen from the air

You can also get full information about the different trails and lodgings from Pumalín’s official website (English).

Where to stay in Chaitén

Few lodgings are on sites such as Booking.com, so you’ll need to call or just turn up (and hope for the best!).

Where to stay in Chaitén: Hotel Mi Casa ($57,500 CLP ($79 USD) double) sits on a low hill above the town with beautiful views of the bay from the breakfast rooms – but none from the guest rooms. Rooms are a mishmash of modern decor but double-glazed windows and central heating ensure the hotel is welcomingly warm.

Where to stay on a budget in Chaitén: Hospedaje Don Carlos ($30,000 CLP ($41 USD) double) is a great choice. Their 23 rooms vary significantly in size; opt for the newer wing on the west of the house for substantially larger and superior rooms, all with private bathrooms and central heating. Rooms are plain but spotless, but wooden floors do mean you can sometimes hear your neighbours.

A wet wooden ladder on a hike in Pumalin National Park along Chile's Carretera Austral
Hiking trails in Pumalín Douglas Tompkins National Park can get very wet following rainfall – but it just helps to make everything look even more magnificent!

Getting to Chaitén

From the northern Carretera Austral: by car

From Puerto Montt to Chaitén: From Puerto Montt, the Carretera Austral officially starts on its eastern edge, heading southeast as it clings to the coastline. You have a 46-kilometre (one-hour) drive before you reach Caleta Arena, the first of three ferry journeys along the northern Carretera Austral – and part of the run of this road.

Transportes del Estuario charge $10,300 CLP ($14 USD) per vehicle for the 45-minute ferry crossing in their 20-vehicle car and passenger ferry. Boat depart roughly every 45 minutes for the ferry landing at Caleta Puelche. Booking ahead is not possible; the service operates on a first-come first-served basis, so you can expect delays in high season.

  • Price: $10,300 CLP ($14 USD)
  • Journey time: 45 mins plus one-hour journey from Puerto Montt to Caleta Arena
  • Website with up-to-date information: For the Transportes Del Estuario ferry here

From Caleta Puelche, continue to Hornopirén (55 km, one hour), a village with a handful of lodgings and a national park. From here, you need to take the SOMARCO ferry across to Leptepu (3.5 hours), drive for around 10 minutes and then take the second ferry from Fiordo Largo to Caleta Gonzalo (45 minutes), from where it’s a further 1.5 hours to reach Chaitén.

Before booking, see the information on the more direct route below.

  • Price: $34,300 CLP ($43 USD) per vehicle (includes driver), plus $5,700 CLP ($7 USD) per additional passenger*
  • Journey time: Seven hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: Here for the SOMARCO ferry and buy tickets here

*This is a subsidised fare but can be purchased by foreign visitors

A more direct route: As of 2020, they now have direct boats from Hornopirén to Caleta Gonzalo, without the stop at Leptepu and Fiordo Largo. These only operate in November and December (at 11.59pm from Hornopirén) and January and February (7am and 11.30pm from Hornopirén).

Information about these boats is only available in the Spanish language version of the SOMARCO website.

  • Price: $48,000 CLP ($61 USD) per vehicle, plus $9,000 CLP ($11 USD) per passenger
  • Journey time: Five hours plus 1.5 hours to Chaiten
  • Website with up-to-date information: In Spanish only for the SOMARCO ferry here and buy tickets here

Taking the SOMARCO ferry from Hornopirén to Caleta Gonzalo: Both the first ferry from Hornopirén to Leptepu and from Fiordo Largo to Caleta Gonzalo are included in your ticket, which costs $34,300 CLP ($43 USD) per vehicle (includes drive) plus $5,700 CLP ($7 USD) per additional passenger. The boat leaves twice-daily in summer but be sure to check their website for prices, itineraries and to buy your tickets. In January and February make your vehicle bookings at least three weeks in advance. The first ferry (Hornopirén to Leptepu) has a cafeteria and seating area on board. You need to be at the terminal between two and three hours before departure, so make sure you give yourself plenty of time for the drive from Puerto Montt (including the first ferry). As of 2020, there is a new, direct ferry from Hornopirén to Caleta Gonazalo for dates in January and February only; full info in the drop down above.

From the northern Carretera Austral: by bus

From Puerto Montt: It’s possible to take a bus all the way to Chaitén. Kemelbus leave daily at 7am from the bus terminal in Puerto Montt. It’s a scenic journey, with four hours of your time spent on the ferry boat that connects Hornopirén with Caleta Gonzalo (just north of Chaitén), during which you can stretch your legs and appreciate the view as the ferry plies the fjords of northern Patagonia.

  • Price: $20,000 CLP ($29 USD) – includes ferry ticket
  • Journey time: 10 hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: Here
From the northern Carretera Austral: by ferry

From Puerto Montt: Taking roughly the same amount of time as driving from Puerto Montt to Chaitén, but leaving at the less-than-friendly time of 11pm, the ferry from Puerto Montt to Chaitén is favourable in that it allows you to stretch your legs – but you won’t get a chance to appreciate the scenery (unless you take it in the opposite direction, which departs at 10am).

This vehicle and passenger ferry is operated by Naviera Austral and leaves at 11pm Mondays through Saturdays from Puerto Montt. You get a reclining seat in an open area, with access to a cafeteria (but the quality is questionable, so bring your own food). You dock on the outskirts of Chaitén (around a kilometre’s drive) around 8am the next morning.

Book tickets online or in their Puerto Montt office (Angelmó 1673) and aim to make reservations at least a few weeks in advance in January and February.

  • Price: $17,300 CLP ($24 USD) foot passengers, $114,000 CLP ($148 USD) vehicles (including passengers)
  • Journey time: Nine hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: Here
From the southern Carretera Austral: By bus

From Coyhaique to Chaitén (stopping at Puyuhuapi and La Junta): Buses Becker operate this route weekly, leaving Coyhaique on Tuesdays and Saturdays at 8am.

  • Price: $24,000 CLP ($33 USD)
  • Journey time: Nine hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: Here

From Puyuhuapi to Chaitén (via La Junta): Terraustral leave Puyuhuapi (from outside the Nido de Puyes minimarket) on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 6am.

  • Price: $6,000 CLP ($8 USD)
  • Journey time: Three hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: Here

Futaleufú

  • Distance south of Puerto Montt: 391 kilometres
  • Distance north of Coyhaique: 422 kilometres

While not officially on the Carretera Austral, Futaleufú (aka Futa to the locals) is a charming town which merits a few days of detour.

Views of a lake near Futaleufu in Patagonia and reached by a hiking trail
Hiking in the mountains surrounding Futaleufú

Here you can pass hours hiking along trails for sublime mountain and lake views, partaking in world class rafting or kayaking, or simply enjoying the peaceful ambience of the laid-back town

Expert-level rafting on the Rio Futaleufú brings the crowds here during the summer, particularly as this is considered one of the best places in the world for this water sport. Kayaking along tributaries of the Futa river can also be arranged.

Plenty of companies lead tours; I would recommend either Patagonia Elements or Bochinche Expediciones. You’ll pay around $60,000 CLP ($82 USD) for a half-day tour.  

Hiking trails are also numerous. One I did was the route up to Piedra LaAguila (Eagle Rock), where, via a series of rather steep but ultimately worthwhile switchbacks, the path reaches the spire-like rock and sensational views across the valley to boot.

The Piedra La Aguila rock, reached by a hiking trail from Futaleufu
Taking the views from the top of Piedra La Aguila

You can do all of the trails without a guide, but I recommend checking out the information here or staying with and chatting to local hiking (and kayaking) experts, Hostal Las Natalias.

Where to stay in Futaleufú

Where to stay in Futaleufú: Hostal La Gringa Carioca ($89,000 CLP ($123 USD) double) sits within lovely gardens that overlook the Río Espolón. The owner, Adriana, knows plenty about the region and also provides guests with a superb breakfast to keep them going for a busy and active day.

Where to stay in Futaleufú on a budget: I fell in love with Hostal Las Natalias ($32,000-$36,000 CLP ($44-$55 USD) double, $15,000 CLP  ($21 USD) dorm room) on my first visit to Futa. Run by a US couple, they’re superbly knowledgeable about the area and can advise on hiking and other activities. The hostel has a fantastic communal space (with a roaring fire for cold nights), very comfortable beds, and probably some of the most incredible mountain views I’ve experienced from a hostel (perfect for sunrise in summer I’ve been told).

Getting to Futaleufú

From the northern Carretera Austral: By car

From Chaitén, head south along the Carretera Austral, until you reach the town of Villa Santa Lucia (which was practically flattened beneath a mud slide in 2017). Here you come off the Carretera Austral to take Ruta 235 and then Ruta 231 heading east.

  • Distance: 150 km
  • Journey time: 3.5 hours
  • Gas station access: In Chaitén and Futaleufú
Six dogs in the back of a truck in Futaleufu
Watch out for fluffy hitchhikers along the Carretera Austral!
From the northern Carretera Austral: By bus

By bus from Chaitén to Futaleufú: Buses Cárdenas leave Chaitén at 5pm daily. They leave Futaleufú at 11am daily from their stop outside Supermercado Flores (Prat s/n) on the western side of the Plaza de Armas. Buses DyR leave from Chaitén at noon and from Futaleufú (Hermanos Carrera 280) at 6am daily.

  • Price: $2,500 CLP ($3 USD)
  • Journey time: 3.5 hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: Here (Spanish) and here (English)

Top tip: Outside of Chaitur Excursiones in Chaitén is the makeshift bus terminal for Chaitén. This tour agency is a font of knowledge about bus timetables and transport.

From the southern Carretera Austral: By bus

By bus from Coyhaique to Futaleufú (stopping at Puyuhuapi and La Junta): There is no direct bus service between the two; instead, you’ll need to take the bus from Coyhaique to Chaitén, get off at Villa Santa Lucia and wait for the Buses Cardenes bus to pass.

  • Price: $20,500 CLP ($28 USD)
  • Journey time: 10 hours.
  • Website with up-to-date information: Here
From Argentina

Paso Futaleufú: The second most important border crossing along the Carretera Austral is Paso Futaleufú. This connects the Argentine town of Esquel (around 284 km south of Bariloche) with Futaleufú, in the north of the Carretera Austral. The border lies 10 kilometres east of Futaleufú.

By car: The border is open from 8am until 9pm daily and border formalities should be fairly quick, although you might find yourself stuck behind other travellers in January and February.

By bus: You can hop on a bus in Esquel to take you across the border (where you’ll be swapped onto a Chilean bus) and onwards to Fuatleufú. Note that these buses don’t necessarily leave every day, but you can find this information out from the tourism office in Esquel.

  • Price: $2,500 CLP ($3.5 USD)
  • Journey Time: Two hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: None

Puyuhuapi and Parque Nacional Queulat: Ventisquero Colgante (Hanging Glacier)

  • Distance south of Puerto Montt: 428 kilometres
  • Distance north of Coyhaique: 233 kilometres

One of the highlights of the northern Carretera Austral is Puyuhuapi. This fjordside town, normally shrouded in equal parts mist and wood smoke from the burners that heat the locals’ homes, feels as remote and Patagonian as they come.

Wooden houses and a wooden road side in Puyuhuapi, along Patagonia's Carretera Austral
The pretty wooden houses of picturesque Puyuhuapi

What you’ll quickly notice, however, is both German architecture and language here – a legacy of the German settlers who colonised the area back in the 1930s.

If hanging glaciers and splendid lagoons are your thing, then Queulat National Park ($5,000 CLP ($7 USD)) deserves a day of your time. Within striking distance of the town, this national park is crowned by the Ventisquero Colgante (the Queulat Hanging Glacier).

It’s best appreciated from a spectacular viewpoint, reached by the short path (6.5 km round-trip, 2.5 hours, medium) that begins at the park entrance.

The Ventisquero Colgante (Queulat Hanging Glacier) Queulat National Park near Puyuhuapi along the Carretera Austral
The Ventisquero Colgante (Queulat Hanging Glacier) in Queulat National Park is up there among my all-time favourite glaciers

Although it’s a good distance from the glacier, the platform at the end of the 30-minute climb (which is 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 here is sufficient. You can camp in the official park campsite ($5.000 CLP ($7 USD) pp), which is run by Turismo Experiencia Austral and from where all trailheads begin.

Hitchhiking to the park from Puyuhuapi is a possibility and a minibus (also operated by Turismo Experiencia Austral) leaves Puyuhuapi at 8.30am daily and returns from the park at 6.30pm.

Where to stay in Puyuhuapi

Where to stay in Puyuhuapi: My personal favourite in town is the grand old Casa Ludwig ($30,000-$50,000 CLP ($31-$69 USD) double) is in a beautiful and historic German building that’s been owned and run by ageing host Luisa Ludwig for nigh on two decades. There’s guest access to a communal kitchen and grand living room, too.

Where to stay on a budget in Puyuhuapi: For those self-catering, Hostal Aonikenk ($44,000 CLP ($61 USD) double) is a great option, thanks to a communal kitchen. The best rooms here are the newest ones, which are spacious and have electric, rather than paraffin, heaters.

Where to treat yourself in Puyuhuapi: For a treat and the opportunity to soak weary limbs, take a few days to spend in the astonishingly beautiful Puyuhuapi Lodge & Spa ($202,000 CLP-$538,000 CLP ($278 USD-$740 USD) double).

Puyuhuapi Lodge and Spa near Puyuhuapi along the Carretera Austral
Puyuhuapi Lodge & Spa has a spectacular setting

It’s accessible only by speedboat and it’s likely you’ll spot a dolphin from your bedroom window. The star attractions are the three outdoor thermal pools, which have stunning views across the fjords towards the national park.

Getting to Puyuhuapi

From the northern Carretera Austral: By car

From Chaitén you head practically due south along the Carretera Austra, passing La Junta after 150 km (two hours) before you continue south to Puyuhuapi.

  • Distance: 195 km
  • Driving time: Three hours
  • Gas stations: In La Junta and Puyuhuapi
From the northern Carretera Austral: By bus

From Chaitén to Puyuhuapi (via La Junta): Terraustral leave Chaitén at 4pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. They leave Puyuhuapi (from outside the Nido de Puyes minimarket) on the same days at 6am.

  • Price: $6,000 CLP ($8 USD)
  • Journey time: Three hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: Here
From the southern Carretera Austral: By bus

From Coyhaique to Puyuhuapi: Terraustral leave Coyhaique daily at 8am and 3pm. Outside of January and February, bus frequencies drop to one daily.

  • Price: $9,000 CLP ($12 USD)
  • Journey time: Five hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: Here

Coyhaique

  • Distance south of Puerto Montt: 661 kilometers

The best place to stock up on food along the Carretera Austral (as most of the other towns and villages, only offer the very basics), Coyhaique is a charming but smoky Patagonian town – which regularly tops the pollution index for Chile.

A view across Coyhaique from the Coyhaique National Reserve
Views of Coyhaique from Coyhaique National Reserve

With free wifi 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 understand why I always end up spending longer here than planned.

Aside from the relative comfort of its facilities, there’s not an awful lot to do here. It’s the main transport hub, connecting destinations in the north and south and most will pass through after landing at nearby Aerodromo Balmaceda or sailing into port at Puerto Chacabuco, while it’s an inevitable stop if you’re covering at least half of the Carretera Austral.

If you do end up spending a day or three here, I would recommend a day trip out to Coyhaique National Reserve (Reserva Nacional Coyhaique; $3,000 CLP ($4 USD)), which lies five kilometres north of the town.

Well-marked trails (ranging from an hour’s hiking up to seven) and glorious views of Coyhaique and the deep valley in which it sits make the reserve a fantastic destination.

Full information about the trails and a map of the park is available at the entrance (or to download here). You can get here by hiking (it’s steep!), taxi or hitchhiking (although the latter is hard to do because the entrance is up a side road.  

Where to stay in Coyhaique

Where to stay in Coyhaique: You won’t get more attentive service than at the modern Raices Bed and Breakfast ($82,000-92,000 CLP ($113-$127 USD) double), where 12 large bedrooms have access to cosy communal areas and an outdoor terrace. Bilingual owner Cecilia is on hand to offer information and can organise regional tours.

Where to stay in Coyhaique on a budget: I really liked my stay at Aumkenk Aike ($25,000 CLP ($34 USD) double). Rooms are dated and it’s a 10-minute walk to the Plaza de Armas, but the English-speaking owner is very knowledgeable about the local area and is super friendly – as is the resident cat. There is laundry service, a bar and games area and kitchen access.

Getting to Coyhaique

From Santiago and the Carretera Austral north: By flight

From Santiago to Balmaceda: From Santiago, you can fly directly to Balmaceda, the largest airport along the Carretera Austral. Aerodromo Balmaceda (BBA) is a 2.5-hour flight from Santiago; it has two direct flights daily from Santiago. Situated an hour’s drive south of Coyhaique, a city around half way down the Carretera Austral. Jet Smart has offered flights here for as low as$7,000 CLP ($11 USD)) but only fly here November through February; prices normally cost anywhere between $22,000 CLP ($35 USD) and $66,000 CLP ($104 USD) one-way.

From Puerto Montt to Balmaceda: You can also land here from Puerto Montt, with three direct daily flights (1 hour), operated by Sky Airline and LATAM. Prices cost anywhere between $13,000 CLP ($18 USD) and $36,000 CLP ($50 USD) one-way.

For the cheapest fares, I always check Skyscanner and then book directly through the airline.

By bus or transfer from Balmaceda: To get to from the airport to Coyhaique (one hour), from where regional buses depart, you can take Buses Suray (Arturo Prat 265, Coyhaique), who leave twice daily Tuesday through Sunday – although I’m not exactly sure what time. Transfer T&T (Cruz 63, Coyhaique) and Transfer Velasquez (Lautaro 145, Coyhaique) also have direct hotel transfers from outside the arrivals hall of the airport. If heading back to the airport, book the day before.

From Puerto Montt or Chiloé Island: By ferry

From Puerto Montt: I took the ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Chacabuco a few years back, with no idea what to expect. It’s a basic ferry, with shared (or private) bunk rooms, cold showers and three-course meals.

As it only takes 24 hours to sail from Puerto Montt to Puerto Chacabuco, there’s not an awful lot of time to appreciate the scenery (which is what sets it apart from their other route into Southern Patagonia), but it’s an experience of travelling with the locals, who use this ferry to transport themselves, their families and sometimes their herd of cattle, back and forth between Puerto Montt and the Carretera Austral.

You can read my full review of the Navimag ferry to Puerto Chacabuco, but the main information is that a bed in a four-person shared cabin starts from $51,000 CLP ($70 USD) or $65,000 CLP ($108 USD) per person for a private, two-bed cabin.

It leaves Puerto Montt Thursdays and Sundays at 6am, arriving in Puerto Chacabuco 24 hours later and three meals are included. You’ll want to book tickets three months in advance if travelling between December and February*.

  • Price: $51,000 CLP ($70 USD) or $65,000 CLP ($108 USD)
  • Journey time: 24 hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: *As of August 2019, Navimag aren’t showing this route on their website. I’ll keep you updated if I find any further information.

From Quellón: From Puerto Montt, it’s possible to drive (five hours) or catch a bus to Quellón, in the far south of Chiloé Island. From here, you can catch the Naviera Austral passenger and vehicle ferry south to Puerto Chacabuco.

I’ve written in detail about the journey in this article comparing the Naviera Austral to the Navimag ferry, but the TL;DR version is that it leaves from Quellón on Thursdays and Sundays at 1am. You can buy tickets online or in their Puerto Montt office (Angelmó 1673). There are no cabins on this ferry, instead you purchase a chair, and you’ll need to bring your own food or make the most of the (limited) on-board cafeteria.

  • Price: $17,450 CLP ($24 USD) foot passengers, $141,000 CLP ($196 USD) vehicles
  • Journey time: 31 hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: Here

Bus from Puerto Aysén to Coyhaique: Buses Ali (Aldea 1143, Puerto Aysén) and Buses Suray (Ibar 630, Puerto Aysén) have hourly departures (between 7am and 8pm) between Puerto Aysén and Coyhaique. To get to Puerto Aysén from Puerto Chacabuco and the Navimag or Naviera Austral dock, there should be taxis waiting to pick you up.

  • Price: $2,200 CLP ($3 USD)
  • Journey time: 1.5 hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: Here
From the northern Carretera Austral: By car

From Puyuhuapi, take the Carretera Austral heading south. It climbs into the mountains before dropping back down to sea level near Puerto Cisnes. Just after the town of Mañihuales, continue towards Puerto Aysén and then take Ruta 240 towards Coyhaique. It rejoins the Carretera Austral (which isn’t paved for the stretch described above) just before you reach Coyhaique.

  • Distance: 235 km
  • Journey time: 4.5 hours
  • Gas station: In Puyuhuapi and Mañihuales
From the Carretera Austral north: By bus

From Chaitén to Coyhaique (stopping at La Junta and Puyuhuapi): Buses Becker operate this route weekly, leaving Chaitén on Wednesdays and Sundays at 11.30am and leaving Coyhaique Tuesdays and Saturdays at 8am.

  • Price: $24,000 CLP ($33 USD)
  • Journey time: Nine hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: Here

From Chaitén to Coyhaique (stopping at La Junta and Puyuhuapi): Buses Becker operate this route weekly, leaving Chaitén on Wednesdays and Sundays at 11.30am and leaving Coyhaique Tuesdays and Saturdays at 8am.

  • Price: $24,000 CLP ($33 USD)
  • Journey time: Nine hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: Here

From Futaleufú to Coyhaique: There is no direct bus service between the two; instead, you need to take one of the services to Coyhaique and get off at Villa Santa Lucia (where the road for Futaleufú and the Carretera Austral meet) and catch the 1pm bus south to Coyhaique, which leaves on Wednesdays and Sundays.

  • Price: $20,500 CLP ($28 USD)
  • Journey time: 10 hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: Here

By bus from Puyuhuapi to Coyhaique: Terraustral leave Puyuhuapi (outside the Nido de Puyes minimarket) at 6.20am and 1pm daily.

  • Price: $9,000 CLP ($12 USD)
  • Journey time: Five hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: Here

From Futaleufú to Coyhaique: There is no direct bus service between the two; instead, you need to take one of the services to Coyhaique and get off at Villa Santa Lucia (where the road for Futaleufú and the Carretera Austral meet) and catch the 1pm bus south to Coyhaique, which leaves on Wednesdays and Sundays.

  • Price: $20,500 CLP ($28 USD)
  • Journey time: 10 hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: Here

From Puyuhuapi to Coyhaique: Terraustral leave Puyuhuapi (outside the Nido de Puyes minimarket) at 6.20am and 1pm daily.

  • Price: $9,000 CLP ($12 USD)
  • Journey time: Five hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: Here
From the southern Carretera Austral: By bus

From Cochrane to Coyhaique (via Puerto Río Tranquilo and Villa Cerro Castillo): Buses Acuario 13 for Coyhaique at 6.30am Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Buses Sao Paulo leave for Coyhaique at 6.30am daily. Buses Aguilas Patagonicas leave for Coyhaique at 7am daily. Buses Don Carlos leave for Coyhaique at 9am Monday through Saturday.

  • Price: $14,000 CLP ($19 USD)
  • Journey time: Six hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: None

From Chile Chico to Coyhaique: Minibuses are timed to connect with the arrival of the Naviera Austral ferry that plies Lago General Carrera and connects Chile Chico with Puerto Ibáñez. Waiting at the latter to pick you up will be Buses Alejandro (tel. 9/7652 9546), Miguel Acuña (tel. 67/2411 804), Buses Carolina (Diego de Almagro 1633, Coyhaique, tel. 67/2219 009) and Transporte Lukas (tel. 9/89568 6587, [email protected]) who offer transfers from Puerto Ibáñez and on to Coyhaique.

  • Price: $6,000 CLP ($8 USD) +$2,250 CLP ($3 USD) ferry ticket
  • Journey time: Four hours (two hours boat from Chile Chico Puerto Ibáñez; two hours on minibus to Coyhaique)
  • Website with up-to-date information: Here for buses (includes boat information) and here for the boat

Villa Cerro Castillo and Parque Nacional Cerro Castillo

  • Distance south of Puerto Montt: 757 kilometres
  • Distance south of Coyhaique: 98 kilometres

Lying between Puerto Río Tranquilo and Coyhaique, Villa Cerro Castillo is home to its namesake national park, Cerro Castillo ($4,000-$10,000 CLP ($6-$14 USD) depending on the section of the park). Before I visited, I’d heard many rave about this park, ranking it among their favourite places in all of Patagonia.

Lago Cerro Castillo and the Cerro Castillo range shrouded in mist in Cerro Castillo National Park, along Chile's Carretera Austral
Lago Cerro Castillo and the eponymous mountain peak shrouded in cloud

The main attraction is Cerro Castillo, which, thanks to its three pronged-peak has been compared to Torres del Paine in Southern Patagonia. I’ll admit that this mountain isn’t quite as picturesque, but it’s certainly a spectacular national park and – best of all – frequented by far fewer visitors.

Hiking here is also fantastic for spotting huemules (the endangered south Andean deer) and other native wildlife.

There are two main trails: The most popular is the steep, 14-kilometre, six-eight-hour hike up the Sendero Mirador Laguna Cerro Castillo to Lago Cerro Castillo (which sits beneath the peak). The trail head is a kilometre northwest of the village.

The second is the four/five-day, 51-kilometre hiking circuit known as the Cerro Castillo Traverse or the Travesía Las Horquetas. The latter is a challenging trek through a series exposed of exposed mountain passes with panoramic views of glacier-studded peaks.

Aerial shot of a waterfall in Cerro Castillo National Park, along Chile's Carretera Austral
The waterfalls in Cerro Castillo National Park are as picturesque as the mountains

Only those with trekking experience and camping equipment suitable for cold and wet weather should attempt this alone and poor weather can close the trails – you can check conditions using Mountain Forecast. November through April are the best months for hiking; outside of these months, you’re required to request permission from CONAF before attempting any of the treks.

The best website for English-language information about this longer circuit is this one, written and updated by Villa Cerro Castillo locals. There are also park maps to download here.

Where to stay in Villa Cerro Castillo

Where to stay in Villa Cerro Castillo: Set down a track on the southeastern edge of the village, La Araucaria ($4,000 CLP ($6 USD) camping, $10,000 CLP ($14 USD), $50,000 CLP ($70 USD) 4-person cabin or 2-person dome) has everything from a large, grassy camping area to domes with dormitory beds (but no heating), a two-bed dome with private bathroom and gas heater, and four self-sufficient cabins for four people, with kitchens.

Where to stay in Villa Cerro Castillo on a budget: Accommodation is very, very basic at mountain refuge-style Senderos Patagonia ($5,000 ($7 USD) camping, $10,000 CLP ($14 USD) dorm). It attracts backpackers and hikers, making it a good place to swap notes on local trails with fellow travellers, particularly in the expansive kitchen. The dorms are large and bed linen is charged at an additional $2,000 CLP ($3 USD. The Spanish- and English-speaking owners run high-end horse riding and trekking excursions in the national park and farther afield.

Getting to Villa Cerro Castillo

All buses heading north and south pass through Villa Cerro Castillo; the bus stop is on the main road that slices through the village.

From the northern Carretera Austral: By car

From Coyhaique, take the Carretera Austral heading due south to reach Villa Cerro Castillo.

  • Distance: 100 km
  • Journey time: 1.5 hours
  • Gas station: In Coyhaique
From the northern Carretera Austral: By bus

From Coyhaique to Villa Cerro Castillo: They should pass through Villa Cerro Castillo two hours after they depart from Coyhaique.

  • Price: $5,000 CLP ($7 USD)
  • Journey time: Two hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: Here
From the southern Carretera Austral: By bus

By bus from Cochrane to Villa Cerro Castillo: They should pass through Villa Cerro Castillo four hours after they depart from Cochrane.

  • Price: $10,000 CLP ($14 USD)
  • Journey time: Four hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: Here

Puerto Río Tranquilo and Las Cavernas Marmoles

  • Distance south of Puerto Montt: 877 kilometres
  • Distance south of Coyhaique: 216 kilometres

When I first visited the Carretera Austral, the destination top of on my itinerary was Puerto Río Tranquilo. There are few other places quite like it in Patagonia: the incredible Marble Caves, whose swirling patterns of blue, grey and black marble against the glacial blue of Lago General Carrera must be seen to be believed.

What’s more, the journey along the shoreline of the lake to reach Puerto Río Tranquilo is truly fantastical.

The Marble Chapel on Lago General Carrera near Puerto Rio Tranquilo, along Patagonia's Carretera Austral
The Marble Chapel on the bewitchingly blue water of Lago General Carrera

Luckily, it’s easy enough to visit. You can book onto a speedboat tour (1.5 hours) from the harbour in Puerto Río Tranquilo for just $10,000 CLP ($14 USD). Aim to take a tour in the early morning for the best lighting – although this isn’t as easy as you might think, as departures depend on weather conditions and the waves in the lake can be fierce.

For an additional $10,000 CLP ($14 USD), you can extend your tour to become a three-hour trip that goes across the lake to Puerto Sánchez, where there are further spectacular caves that are even more accessible by boat and fewer tourists.

If you’re feeling more energetic, you can also kayak to the caves for $40,000 CLP ($55 USD), although only when the water is calm.

Aerial shot of Lago General Carrera along Patagonia's Carretera Austral
Lago General Carrera is truly astounding in beautiy

Tourists willing to part with a lot of money can also visit the nearby 30-metre-high Ventisquero San Rafael (San Rafael Hanging Glacier), in San Rafael National Park. Retreating at an alarming rate, it’s worth a visit to watch the ice calving off the glacier and into the sea, particularly seeing as scientists warn it could disappear by 2030.

Río Exploradores in the village can set you up on a one- or two-day tour (starting from $150,000 CLP ($206 USD)) on a small vessel, including a drink of whisky with shaved glacial ice. Cheers!

Another option is ice trekking on Glaciar Exploradores. Not only are the tours cheaper than those on the Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina, but you’ll likely be surrounded by fewer other trekkers as you climb over deep crevasses and into the profound blue depths of the glacier.

Tours start $70,000 CLP ($96 USD) and local outfits such as 99% Aventura will give you a discount if you do both the kayaking tour and the ice trekking.

A view of Lago General Carrera through trees, taken along Patagonia's Carretera Austral
The lake is picturesque from all angles

Where to stay in Puerto Río Tranquilo

As a one-horse town that occupies a small stretch of land along the skirts of Lago General Carrera, there isn’t a tonne of options when it comes to accommodation.

Where to stay in Puerto Río Tranquilo: My favourite option, but only for those with their own wheels as the lodge is 48 kilometres south of Puerto Río Tranquilo (an hour-or-so drive), is to stay at lovely Mallin Colorado Ecolodge ($101,000 CLP ($139 USD) double, $158,000 CLP ($216 USD) two-person cabin). All of the rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows with striking views across Lago General Carrera. Meals are available on request, as are horseback riding tours and hikes around their extensive grounds, while the staff and owners are wonderful. You can read all about my stay at Mallin Colorado Ecolodge.

Where to stay in Puerto Río Tranquilo on a budget: Hospedaje y Camping Bellavista ($5,000 CLP ($7 USD) camping, $12,000 CLP ($16.5 USD) dorm, $25,000 CLP ($34 USD) double) is both comfortable and friendly, with private bedrooms in their chipboard guesthouse and a huge field for campers. Kitchen access and hot showers are included.

Getting to Puerto Río Tranquillo

From the northern Carretera Austral: By car

From Villa Cerro Castillo, take the Carretera Austral as it continues west and then as it curves south along the shores of Lago General Carrera to reach Puerto Río Tranquilo.

  • Distance: 120 km
  • Journey time: Three hours
  • Gas station: In Puerto Río Tranquilo
From the Carretera Austral north: By bus

From Coyhaique to Puerto Río Tranquilo (via Villa Cerro Castillo): Terraustral leave Coyhaique at 8am and Puerto Río Tranquilo at 4pm daily.

  • Price: $10,000 CLP ($14 USD)
  • Journey time: Five hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: None
From the southern Carretera Austral: By bus

From Cochrane to Puerto Río Tranquilo: All buses travelling this route north should pass through Puerto Río Tranquilo 1.5 hours after they leave Cochrane. 

  • Price: $7,000 CLP ($10 USD)
  • Journey time: 1.5 hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: None

Chile Chico and Parque Nacional Patagonia

  • Distance south of Puerto Montt: 814 kilometres
  • Distance south of Coyhaique: 154 kilometres

Lying on the south eastern shore of the ultramarine Lago General Carrera, Chile Chico bathes in an unusually sunny and dry micro climate. Bizarrely, this part of the Carretera Austral cultivates cherries and is home to five endemic species of cactus – the latter of which are considered the southernmost in the country.

But beside the town’s favourable weather, Chile Chico is mostly a transition points for travellers either leaving the Carretera Austral for Argentina or for those coming in the opposite direction. Beyond this, it’s the gateway to the barely-visited Sector Jeinimeni ($3,000 CLP ($4 USD)) of Patagonia National Park, about which little has been written.

The ferry boat at dawn from Chile Chico to Puerto Ignacio Ibanez
For most visitors, Chile Chico is reached by a ferry boat across Lago General Carrera

I’ve personally never been, but I’ve heard that there is some pretty hiking through a privileged landscape of milky-hued lakes, glacial-scoured mountain peaks and rolling expanses of rough-edged Patagonian steppe.

The best place to find information about this sector of the park is via the Ruta de los Parques official website, which has hiking trail and camping information.

You’ll need to scroll down past the trails in the Valle Chacabuco section of the national park to reach those pertaining to Jeinimeni, which start from “Piedra Clavada, Cuevas de las Manos, Valle Lunar Trail”). You can also download a map of the park here.

There’s more information about what you can do in and around Chile Chico here (Spanish only).

Where to stay in Chile Chico

Where to stay in Chile Chico: My favourite accommodation in town is the intimate and charming Hostería de la Patagonia ($5,000 CLP $7 USD) camping, $65,000 CLP ($80 USD) double), situated on the far eastern edge of the town, close to the Argentine border. Their most unique lodgings are their boat room – literally a converted boat that used to sail on the lake.

Where to stay in Chile Chico: An affordable option is the B&B Brisas del Lago ($30,000 CLP ($41 USD) double, $45,000 CLP ($62 USD) two-person cabin), which has the novelty of central heating for its seven bedrooms, plus a couple of cabins in the back.

Where to stay in Chile Chico on a budget: When I stayed in Chile Chico it was at backpacker hangout Campamento Nandú ($14,000 CLP ($20 USD) dorm, $40,000 CLP ($55 USD) double), which is reasonably central (it’s about a ten-minute walk to the ferry terminal) and a toasty communal area with a wood fire, plus a large kitchen. It’s a great place to meet other travellers.  

Getting to Chile Chico

From the Carretera Austral north: By car

From Coyhaique: From the north, the quickest route to Chile Chico is aboard the ferry boat operated by Naviera Austral. It leaves Puerto Ibáñez one daily and you disembark at the ferry ramp on the northwestern edge of Chile Chico.

Ferry schedules change occasionally, so it’s best to refer to the website for up-to-date information and to book tickets. Between November and March, make vehicle and passenger reservations at least one week in advance.

You can book online or at the Naviera Austral office in Chile Chico (Av. O’Higgins 209).

  • Price: $19,500 CLP ($26 USD) vehicles
  • Journey time: 2 hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: Here
From the Carretera Austral north: By bus

By bus from Coyhaique to Chile Chico: Minibuses are timed to leave from Coyhaique at least 2.5/three hours before the departure of the Naviera Austral ferry that plies Lago General Carrera, between Puerto Ibáñez and Chile Chico.

Buses Alejandro (tel. 9/7652 9546), Miguel Acuña (tel. 67/2411 804), Buses Carolina (Diego de Almagro 1633, Coyhaique, tel. 67/2219 009) and Transporte Lukas (tel. 9/89568 6587, [email protected]) offer transfers to Puerto Ibáñez, from where you walk onto the ferry; the terminal in Chile Chico is a two-minute walk into the centre of town.

You must also purchase your ticket for the ferry from the Naviera Austral office (Av. O’Higgins 209) or online.

  • Price: $6,000 CLP ($8 USD) +$2,250 CLP ($3 USD) ferry ticket
  • Journey time: Four hours (two hours minibus to Puerto Ibáñez; two hours boat to Chile Chico)
  • Website with up-to-date information: Here for buses (includes boat information) and here for the boat
From the Carretera Austral south: By bus

From Puerto Río Tranquilo to Chile Chico: Martín Pescador leave from opposite the COPEC gas station, at 3.30pm.

  • Price: $15,000 CLP($21 USD)
  • Journey time: Four hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: None

From Cochrane to Chile Chico: Buses Marfer leave Cochrane at 8am Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The schedule sometimes changes to Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays; confirm at the bus terminal.

  • Price: $15,000 CLP($21 USD)
  • Journey time: Five hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: None
From Argentina via Paso Río Jeinimeni

The busiest crossing along the Carretera Austral is at Paso Río Jeinimeni, 4.5 kilometres east of Chile Chico, about two thirds of the way down the Carretera Austral. 

By car: This border is open 8am until 10pm daily and you can expect it to be busy during January and February, so be prepared to wait.

By bus: Chilean company Martín Pescador have minivans that leave the Terminal de Ómnibus (Av. Tehuelche 157) in Los Antiguos at 8.30am, 1pm and 6pm daily November through March (frequencies drop outside of these months), while Argentine company TAQSA Marga do the same, leaving at 9am, noon and 5pm Monday to Friday (9am and 12.15pm Sat.).

  • Price: $3,500 CLP ($5 USD)
  • Journey time: One hour
  • Website with up-to-date information: None

Cochrane and Parque Nacional Patagonia

  • Distance south of Puerto Montt: 991 kilometres
  • Distance south of Coyhaique: 330 kilometres

An hour’s drive south of Lago General Carrera, Cochrane is Patagonia’s next big adventure destination. It makes me think of what El Chaltén must have been like before the tourists arrived, with its laid-back vibe and wealth of adventure pursuits literally at your fingertips.

A lake along the Lagunas Altas hiking trail in Patagonia National Park, along the Carretera Austral
A lake along the Lagunas Altas hiking trail in Patagonia National Park yields enormous rewards

The finest is undoubtedly Patagonia National Park, the second of Doug Tompkins’ great legacies to the Carretera Austral.

The southern two sectors of the park, Valle Chacabuco (free) and Tamango ($5,000 CLP ($7 USD)) are home to varied ecosystems, from arid steppe to low mountains populated with southern beech forests. Beyond this truly spellbinding scenery is awealth of excellent and well-marked hiking trails.

In Valle Chacabuco, my personal favourite was the Lagunas Altas trail (23-km loop, 6-8 hours, medium), which climbs up into the mountains for viewpoints across pristine lagoons and the valley that contains much of the park.

A lake along the Lagunas Altas hiking trail in Patagonia National Park, along the Carretera Austral
The scenery in Patagonia National Park is spectacular

There are a handful of other short day hikes but you really need a car to get here (hitchhiking is possible – I did it – but can take a long time) and also for driving between the trailheads, which are spread out across a large area.

You can camp in the pretty Los West Winds Campground (at the trailhead for Lagunas Altas) or at one of the other campgrounds; information about all of the hikes is on their their web page (English) including maps, which you should also be able to pick up from the visitors’ centre when you arrive into the park. There’s also an excellent guide to hiking in the park here.

A far more accessible part of the national park is Sector Tamango, which is situated just a few kilometres northeast of Cochrane.

There are around ten trails here, ranging from one-hour through ten and the most picturesque parts of the national park are those lining the pristine waters of Lago Cochrane, while the forests are inhabited by a small population of the critically endangered huemul.

You can find a map of the trails in this section of the park here.

Guanaco in the grasslands in Patagonia National Park, along the Carretera Austral
GUanaco are a common sight in the park

Where to stay in Cochrane

Where to stay in Cochrane: A little smarter and larger than most options in town is Lejana Patagonia ($30,000 CLP ($41 USD) double), with decent-sized bedrooms and kitchen access, although the whole building is made of wood so noise between the rooms can be an issue.

Where to stay in Cochrane: The most hotel-esq is the utilitarian in style Ultimo Paraiso ($86,000 CLP double). Rooms feel a bit gloomy, but have large, modern bathroom suits and wood burners to keep them warm and do represent a cut above the other options in Cochrane. They can organise day tours to fly fish on local rivers and lakes.

Where to stay in Cochrane on a budget: When I visited, I stayed in the oh-so-homely Hostal Beraca ($25,000 CLP $34 USD) double), a very basic B&B fronted by the wonderful Marlen, whose family home she has converted. She makes probably the best breakfast along the Carretera Austral and is just a joy to be around – although she only speaks Spanish but will do her best to communicate if you don’t!

Getting to Cochrane

From the northern Carretera Austral: By car

From Puerto Río Tranquilo, take the Carretera Austral heading south to reach Cochrane.

  • Distance: 115 km
  • Journey time: 2.5 hours
  • Gas station: In Puerto Río Tranquilo and Cochrane
From the northern Carretera Austral: By bus

From Coyhaique to Cochrane (via Villa Cerro Castillo and Puerto Río Tranquillo): Buses Acuario 13 leave for Cochrane at 8.30am Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Buses Sao Paulo leave for Cochrane at 9am daily. Buses Aguilas Patagonicas leave for Cochrane at 9.30am. Buses Don Carlos leave for Cochrane at 9am Monday through Saturday.

  • Price: $14,000 CLP ($19 USD)
  • Journey time: Six hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: Here (only for low season currently)

From Chile Chico to Cochrane: Buses Marfer leave Chilea Chico daily at 4pm, stopping to pick up from Puerto Guadal an hour and 45 mins later. They return to Chile Chico at 8am daily from Cochrane.

  • Price: $13,000 CLP ($18 USD)
  • Journey time: Four hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: Here
From the southern Carretera Austral: By bus

From Caleta Tortel to Cochrane: Aldea Caleta Tortel at 3pm Tuesday-Thursday and Saturday-Sunday and at 6pm on Friday. Buses Cordillera Tortel leave Caleta Tortel at 8am Monday and Thursday and 1.30pm Saturday. Buses Katalina leave Caleta Tortel at 8pm Tuesday through Sunday.  (departing for Caleta Tortel. Pachamama (Merino 499, Cochrane) leave Caleta Tortel at 8am and 9pm Monday, 10am Wednesday and 3pm Saturday.

  • Price: $7,000 CLP ($10 USD)
  • Journey time: Three hours.
  • Website with up-to-date information: Here (only for low season currently)

From Villa O’Higgins to Cochrane: Buses Aguilas Patagonicas leave Villa O’Higgins at 8.30am Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.

  • Price: $12,000 CLP ($16.5 USD)
  • Journey time: 5.5 hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: Here (only for low season currently)

Caleta Tortel

  • Distance south of Puerto Montt: 1,116 kilometres
  • Distance south of Coyhaique: 455 kilometres

Nothing really prepares you for the sight of Caleta Tortel, officially the Carretera Austral’s most quirky town. Clinging to the forested edges of a small hill and overlooking the milk-blue waters of the sound below, this settlement is unique in that it contains not a single road.

The Plaza de Armas, on a boardwalk in Caleta Tortel, along the Carretera Austral
Even the Plaza de Armas (the main square) is on stilts

Instead, wooden boardwalks provide access from one side to the other. It’s truly magnificent in the sunshine, when the sun casts the place into relief and you can wander along the pathways practically hovering above the water.

Beyond its picturesque aspect, the town also has access to a handful of glaciers, Ventisquero Steffens and Jorge Montt.

You can visit by boat tour with one of the local people – expect to pay from $70,000 CLP ($96 USD) and tours only leave when there are eight passengers, so it can be difficult to organise one outside of January and February.

An aerial view of the wooden boardwalks in Caleta Tortel, along the Carretera Austral
The boardwalk platforms hover above the water

You can also arrange kayak excursions or take a short boat tour out to the bleak Isla de los Muertos, an island shrouded in infamy. It’s where the 33 pioneering settlers of Caleta Tortel were buried – having been poisoned by their employer, or so the locals claim. The trip costs $40,000 CLP ($55 USD) per boat, with space for four passengers.

Where to stay in Caleta Tortel

Caleta Tortel is larger than it looks and it can take a long time to walk from its northern to its southern edges. All buses heading out of the town leave from the Estacionamiento (the parking lot) where all vehicles must be parked.

An aerial shot of Caleta Tortel, along the Carretera Austral
Caleta Tortel as seen from the air

Where to stay in Caleta Tortel: Caleta Tortel’s most comfortable option is Entrehielos Lodge ($103,000 ($142 USD) double). It has five modern bedrooms, central heating, a pretty sitting room with views across the fjords and a dining room where you can request delicious Chilean meals. They also can sort you out with tours of the glaciers and the surrounding area.

Where to stay in Caleta Tortel on a Budget: Situated very close to this is Hostal Nunatak (Sector Rincón Bajo, tel. 9/8113 452, $35,000 CLP ($48 USD) double) is a basic, family-run guesthouse with unsightly chipboard walls, but is kept warm by a wood stove and the owners are very friendly.

Getting to Caleta Tortel

From the northern Carretera Austral: By car

From Cochrane, take the Carretera Austral heading southwest. After almost three hours, take the signed turning along the X-904 to reach Caleta Tortel

  • Distance: 125 km
  • Journey time: Three hours
  • Gas station: In Cochrane
From the northern Carretera Austral: By bus

From Cochrane to Caleta Tortel: Aldea leave at 9.30am Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday and at 2pm Friday. Buses Cordillera Tortel leave from Cochrane at 6pm on Monday, Thursday and Saturday.  Buses Katalina depart from Cochrane at 5.30pm Tuesday through Sunday. Pachamama (Merino 499, Cochrane) leave for Caleta Tortel at 6pm Sunday and Monday and 10am Wednesday and Saturday.

  • Price: $7,000 CLP ($10 USD)
  • Journey time: Three hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: Here (only for low season currently)
From the southern Carretera Austral: By bus

From Villa O’Higgins to Caleta Tortel: Vultur Patagonia (Lago Cisnes 215) offers minivans that leave Caleta Tortel at 4.30pm; services reduce to once weekly between May and October. In high season, book a day or two in advance.

  • Price: $4,000 CLP ($5.5 USD)
  • Journey time: 3.5 hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: Here (only for low season currently)
From Puerto Natales in Southern Patagonia: By ferry

By ferry from Puerto Natales: The easiest way to get between Southern Patagonia and Northern Patagonia is by taking the ferry that connects the two: the TABSA boat between Puerto Natales in southern Chilean Patagonia and Caleta Tortel.

This ferry has only been operating since 2016 and so few tourists yet know about it, but I travelled this route back in 2018 and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

The ferry leaves weekly from Puerto Natales at 5am, although all passengers and those with vehicles are required to board the previous night. If you’re travelling between December and February, book your seat or vehicle reservation in October. Outside of these months, it’s often possible to get a seat and even a space for your car a week or two in advance.

This boat actually takes some of the same route as the four-day Navimag ferry from Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt, before entering some blissfully remote parts of the Chilean fjords.

The blue Crux Australis ferry from Puerto Natales to Caleta Tortel
Aboard the ferry boat from Puerto Natales to Caleta Tortel

It’s a 41-hour journey on what is effectively a cargo boat with space for passengers in semi-cama bus-style seating (seats that recline to 160˚), with blankets provided (but bring an eye mask, ear plugs and plenty of layers). Three meals a day are included, although portion size isn’t extensive, so bring snacks.

The arrival time of the ferry depends entirely on weather conditions and it’s not uncommon for the boat to land at Caleta Tortel in the middle of the night. Confirm with your hotel that they will come and pick you up from the harbour at Caleta Tortel, as the town can be very disorienting at night time.

Book online or at their office in Puerto Natales (Av. Pedro Montt 605).

  • Price: $125,160 CLP ($174 USD) for foot passengers and $120,000 CLP ($167 USD) for vehicles – includes the fare for the driver
  • Journey time: 3.5 hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: Here

Villa O’Higgins

  • Distance south of Puerto Montt: 1,224 kilometres
  • Distance south of Coyhaique: 563 kilometres

The time you reach Villa O’Higgins, you truly begin to appreciate quite how wild this corner of Patagonia really is. There’s a reason that this tiny town didn’t have road access until 1999 – and it doesn’t really feel any more accesible now that it does.

Sign saying "the end of the road" at the end of Patagonia's Carratera Austral near Villa O'Higgins
The end of the Carretera Austral – officially

Ringed by dramatic mountains on two sides and set on a flat plain in the valley floor, Villa O’Higgins still feels owned by the landscapes onto which man has encroached. It’s also the official end of the Carretera Austral.

The biggest draw here is the access to the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, which lie south of the town. The most accessible glacier in this range is Glacier O’Higgins, whose cobalt face of ice can be watched crashing into the gleaming waters of its namesake lake from aboard a sailboat.

You can organise excursions with local tour agency and hotel Robinson Crusoe. There arethree or four tours per week in high season (and you book online here), with the cruise costing $72,000 CLP ($99 USD).

My personal highlight when I was in Villa O’Higgins was a fly-over of Glacier O’Higgins. Vicente Beasley of WINGS (tel. 9/9162 5137 or 9/9357 8196) can take you over the glacier in his six-seater light aircraft. It’s an incredible flight, where you can appreciate the height of the surrounding mountains (including Mount Fitz Roy across the border in Argentina, if you’re lucky) and the depths of the crevasses in the ice.

Inside of a light aircraft with views out of the window at the mountains surrounding Villa O'Higgins along the Carretera Austral
Flying over Villa O’Higgins’ magnificent landscapes

We actually dropped to just 20 metres above the glacier for an incredible close-up experience. For a one-hour flight, expect to pay $190,000 CLP ($262 USD) per person and note that turbulence is common – I didn’t have to use the provided sick bags, but other members of my group weren’t quite so lucky.

Where to stay in Villa O’Higgins

Where to stay in Villa O’Higgins: For cosy cabins and comfortable yurts with their own private hot tubs, check out Entre Patagones ($40,000 CLP ($55 USD)- $50,000 CLP ($67 USD) 2-person cabin, $65,000 CLP ($90 USD) yurt). Their two modern yurts are the most comfortable, hidden away into the forest, and they have a fully equipped kitchen.

Where to stay in Villa O’Higgins: The most luxurious choice in town is Robinson Crusoe ($166,000 CLP ($228 USD) double). Stylish bedrooms, access to hot tubs looking west across the mountains and a beautiful clubhouse heated by a welcoming wood-burning stove make this the ultimate place to relax in Villa O’Higgins. I thoroughly enjoyed staying here and the staff have excellent knowledge of the region and its activities.

Where to stay in Villa O’Higgins on a budget: A meeting place for backpackers, cyclists and road trippers, El Mosco ($6,000 CLP ($8 USD) camping, $12,000 CLP ($17 USD) dorm, $45,000 CLP ($62 USD) cabin or double) is basic but affordable and very sociable. Dorms and private doubles have access to a large kitchen with attached living area on the ground floor; for more space, opt for a cabin, which has its own private kitchen and bathroom. The staff are very knowledgeable about activities in the region and the border crossing to El Chaltén.

Getting to Villa O’Higgins

From the Carretera Austral north: By car

From Caleta Tortel, return to the Carretera Austral and continue southeast along this highway until you reach Puerto Yungay one hour later. From here, there is a free vehicle and passenger ferry which crosses the fjord across to Río Bravo, from where the road continues southward to Villa O’Higgins.

Barcaza Padre Antonio Ronchi (tel. 9/6586 6626) operates the route, with space for 15 vehicles. Between November and March, ferries cross four times daily in each direction (free, 45 minutes); outside of these months, the boat operates Monday through Saturday, at noon and 3pm (towards Río Bravo) and 1pm and 4pm (towards Puerto Yungay).

  • Distance: 150 km
  • Journey time: Six hours
  • Gas station: In Villa O’Higgins
From the Carretera Austral north: By bus

From Cochrane to Villa O’Higgins: Buses Aguilas Patagonicas leave Cochrane at 8.30am Monday, Wednesday and Saturday.

  • Price: $12,000 CLP ($16.5 USD)
  • Journey time: 5.5 hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: Here (only for low season currently)

From Caleta Tortel to Villa O’Higgins: Vultur Patagonia (Lago Cisnes 215, tel. 9/9350 8156) offers minivans that Villa O’Higgins at 8.30am Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Services reduce to once weekly between May and October. In high season, book a day or two in advance.

  • Price: $4,000 CLP ($5.5 USD)
  • Journey time: 3.5 hours
  • Website with up-to-date information: Here (only for low season currently)
From Southern Patagonia: On foot

On foot: Despite being just 100 kilometres south of Villa O’Higgins as the crow flies, El Chaltén, across the Argentine border, is further away than you would think. This is namely due to the fact that, by vehicle, there is no direct route; the insurmountable barrier of the Northern Patagonian Ice Field puts paid to any attempts at crossing.

It is possible, however, on foot. It’s a two-day, one-night journey, although it’s not for those with strict time limits as weather can cause serious delays to ferry crossings on the Chilean side.

It combines a minibus, boat and hiking to cross Lago del Desierto on the Argentinean side and Lago O’Higgins in Chilean territory via the border crossing Portezuelo de la Divisoria.

Note that this crossing is only possible November through April.

  • Price: $106,000 CLP ($146 USD)
  • Journey time: Two days (more if weather is poor as this can delay the boat across Lago O’Higgins).
  • Website with up-to-date information: Robinson Crusoe lodge has this itinerary showing you timings for the different elements of the journey; this website has the same and updated prices. With both, you can book the entire trek, but this website allows you to reserve in advance different sections of the trek (I’ve never used this, so I don’t know how well it works). Plenty of hikers do turn and book the different parts of your journey as they do them, however.

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Ard Jan Van Breugel

Sunday 26th of April 2020

Hello, thanks for this great guide! I've a question regarding the flight over the southern patagonian icefields.. Is WINGS nog active anymore? I can't find their website.. Or do you just have to show up and book a tour directly in o'higgins?

Kind regards,

Ard Jan van Breugel

Steph Dyson

Thursday 14th of May 2020

Hi Ard, yes it does seem their website is down! I've just added some telephone numbers into the information above and you can contact them through Whatsapp that way. Alternatively, when you get to Villa O'Higgins you can drop into Robinson Crusoe lodge where they should be able to help you arrange a flight. Steph

Julio Hernandez

Friday 7th of February 2020

Well written and detailed post, thank you for sharing.

FYI, the updated prices and schedule is as follow (I booked yesterday one way).

HORNOPIREN TO CALETA GONZALO -Automovil 5m, +2 passengers = $66,000 (48,000 vehicle & 9,000/per passenger) -Departs @ 07:00 & 23:30 Regular price & 12:30 Subsidized price* CALETA GONZALO TO HORNOPIREN -Departs @ 06:00 & 18:00 Regular price & 15:30 Subsidized price* *I went with the regular price 7am ferry because I don't know who qualifies for "subsidized price".

Steph Dyson

Sunday 9th of February 2020

Thanks so much Julio! I thought the subsidized was for local people but I've just checked with the company and actually it's just subsidized for anyone - so you could have used it. I'll update the information above. Steph

allan kaplan

Saturday 1st of February 2020

a quick question (your site is amazing) - is it possible to fly out from somewhere on the Carretera Austral if necessary? i'm not talking about emergency but a friend who may be traveling with us cannot stay for the full three weeks we will be going, and wants to fly out after 12 days - could this be arranged?

Steph Dyson

Sunday 9th of February 2020

Hi Allan, yes, Balmaceda airport near Coyhaique has direct flights to Santiago. Steph

Tom

Thursday 23rd of January 2020

Hi, thanks for the post! I am looking at doing the trip one way but can't find much information about how much it costs to drop off the car in a different location (other than it being expensive). Do you know roughly how much the additional charge is and also which location you would have to drop it off if the plan was to walk from villa o'higgins?

Steph Dyson

Saturday 25th of January 2020

Hi Tom, that's something you can easily find out by just using one of the rental car companies and seeing what prices they offer you. I personally use Rental Cars. Steph

Jessica

Tuesday 7th of January 2020

Hi, did you try the craft beer of patagonia, there are several brands with limited production and some are made with glaciar water. I tried some of them and are amazing

Steph Dyson

Monday 13th of January 2020

Hi Jessica, yes I did and you're right - it's delicious!