Before starting reading this guidebook, you must know that Carretera Austral is our favorite destination in Chile.
Each team member who had the opportunity to travel down there love this road trip through authentic Chilean Patagonia, taking place on the famous ruta 7, also called Carretera Austal.
We liked it so much that we came back several times. The first time we traveled to the South part of Carretera Austral (i.e. from Coyhaique to Tortel), whereas the second time, we explored the North (from Puerto Montt to Coyhaique via Chiloé) in a camper van.
As a matter of introduction, for those who do not know what to expect from their trip on Carretera Austral, let’s set the basis: it is a road trip to the southern tip of the continent, perfect for travelers interested in discovering authentic and rural Patagonia. Be ready to cross sumptuous landscapes, endless lakes, in different shades of blue,exceptional views,in an unforgettable atmosphere.
As mentioned in some of our Blog posts, Torres del Paine national park, lately became victim of its success. The beautiful landscapes deserve their reputation, but the logistics associated with booking accommodations (including W trek campsites) and meals, and their increasing prices, have made it a complicated trip to organize. When discussing with our customers by phone, we often consider Northern Patagonia (Carretera Austral) as an alternative to classic Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia.
That’s why we decided to dedicate an entire section on Chile’s most beautiful road trip: Carretera Austral.
Carretera Austral, is the extension of the famous Pan-American,which crosses the entire American continent, from Alaska. Its construction was ordered by Augusto Pinochet in 1976, and the roadworks have not been easy. Indeed, they had to trace a path in a dense forest,dig in the rock, build bridges … in a wet and rainy climate. Even today the mythical road is not fully paved,and alternates between tracks and paved road. Don’t expect to exceed 40 mph, unless you rent a big pick up or 4×4 vehicle.
The ruta 7 starts in Puerto Montt and ends at Villa O Higgings. And at the end of the track you will reach the Southern Ice Fields… In between: natural parks and glaciers of unparalleled beauty. Let’s identify those places on a map.
In the interests of completeness, we have taken over the main points of touristy interest of the Carretera Austral from north to south.
However, you probably won’t have enough time to do everything unless you spend a month there. Therefore, we recommend checking our itineraries on Northern Patagonia,to choose among the places that interest you most. We can also advice you directly, just drop us a call or an email. We suggest spending about 10 days there, to have time to discover some selected places at a relaxed pace.
Starting from the North, 70 miles away from Puerto Montt, you will find this charming little village called Cochamo,which is also the starting point of a 3-day trek to the Cocham valley, the paradise of climbers. It is in this natural park that it is also possible to climb on the giant granite peaks (they say it is as good as Yellow Stone without the crowd!). Beware, climbing trails are reserved for seasoned climbers. For hikers, there are several hikes available to you. The ones that lead to the amphitheater and to natural slides are our two favorites.
Continuing on the trail, you will arrive at Hornopiren,from where there is a ferry available. This ferry will take you in 3:30 to Leptepu. From here you can take a second ferry to Caleta Gonzalez via the Fiordo Largo.Once you arrive, you will be at the gates of the famous Pumalin Park.
The land, now known as Pumalin Park, was purchased by the Tompkins couple(the owner of The North Face) in 1991. Their interest has always been ecological and they have done everything possible to protect the 70 endemic species of birds and mammals. Nowadays, it is the largest private natural reserve, open to the public. The place is just fabulous.
On the practical side, the park has about 7 trails,of different difficulties. You can get a map (in exchange of a donation) once you disembark from the ferry, at the small restaurant or the ranger station if it is open. You can cross the park by driving on a stony track. All campsites are of a high standard. There are two areas in the park. We recommend two hikes:
From Pumalin to Futaleufu, it is another day of driving. Be aware that you will cross the village of Chaiten and Santa Lucia, ravaged by a landslide. The scenic road to reach Futaleufu is spectacular, and the turquoise waters of the river gives only one desire: to go rafting! Beware, that the rapids are oriented for skilled rafters: class 4 to 5. Beginners would skip.
TravelCoachChile’s advice? Take the opportunity to spend a night in a dream accommodation by the lake. The area is full of amazing hotels.
Let’s go back to the main road of Carretera Austral. Once back on Route 7, going further south you will arrive in Puerto Puyuhuapi, a typical and isolated village that is also the access place to stay at Puyuhuapi Lodge & Spa (you can reach it by boat crossing the lake). A cheaper option is to enjoy the Hot Springs of termas del ventisquero (and they are fine too), where you will try to watch dolphins from your Hot Tub overlooking the lake. A good moment of relaxation in perspective.
Once in Puerto Puyhuapi, you are only a stone’s throw from Queulat National Park and its splendid hanging Glacier. The two-hour hike to the watchtower is worth it, if the weather is clear, which is not always the case. Indeed, Northern Patagonia has a very capricious weather. We also recommend you to take the easy path that leads to the lake, from where you can kayak or take a simple boat ride to the base of the glacier.
Continuing to Puerto Cisnes (a tiny village), you can catch a 12-hour ferry to Quellon, the southern point of the island of Chiloé. Unique experience and taste of adventure guaranteed.
Coyhaique is the biggest city of Northern Patagonia, and Balmaceda is its air gateway. The city is nothing remarkable in itself, other than that it is a strategic point to stock up on groceries or to enjoy a good meal in the restaurant. We take the opportunity to mention that this is where the craft beers D’Olbek, Belgian beers, are produced. D’olbek company has been set up by the descendants of Belgian pioneers (the family named Smet d’Olbecke de Halleux) who settled there in the 50s.
62 mi south of Coyhaique, you will find the town of Villa Cerro Castillo. From this village start a 4-day itinerant trek in the Cerro Castillo mountains (an excellent alternative to Torres del Paine trekking). But that’s not the only interest. Indeed, there are ranches that offer beautiful horseback riding,and you can even push the adventure all the way by tasting a Cordero al Palo (typical barbecue of lamb cooked over a wood fire). It’s an interesting stop, to start visiting Northern Patagonia if you arrive from Coyhaique.
This small village is nestled on the shores of the turquoise lake General Carrera. This is where the excursions to the marble caves start. The more sporty will choose the kayak option which is simply unforgettable. The road to get to Puerto Tranquilo is extraordinary. It’s a lot of superlatives, but that’s what it takes to translate our feeling from this place.
It is also the starting point to discover Explorador glacier and take an ice hike with spikes and ice axe. Ideal if you want to live an experience you will remember for the rest of your life. Finally, if you have bigger budget, you will of course enjoy the cruise to the Laguna San Rafael, accessible as a 1 day boat trip. At Travelcoachchile, we even offer to sleep inside the valley, with locals.
The emerald waters of this river give you only one desire: swimming. This is an interesting spot to practice easy rafting sessions, adapted to the whole family. Fishing enthusiasts can even take a session of fly fishing lessons,as these waters are full of trout. There are several accommodation options of all range with river views… What could be better than waking up with the most beautiful view Borthern Patagonia?
Small town of little interest but useful to refuel and connect to the telephone network. It’s also the last stop before Tortel. We recommend going for a short high at Tamango reserve. Beautiful panoramas await you, especially on Lake Cochrane that has a beautiful green color. You can kayak or take a boat ride in the reserve.
This park is the second of the Tompkins. There is a long track that eads you to the welcom center where you will probably see guanacos wandering. Those animals have returned the park thanks to the incredible conservation work put in place by Tompkins NGO. The park is perfect for those who have several days to spend there and hiking enthusiasts. The campsites are of very good standing. For a day hike, we recommend Los Aviles trekking (recommended by our clients). Lagunas Altas trail is also interesting but may be a bit long so we suggest you stop halfway (to the first lake) if you are short in time.
This is a compulsory stop if you want to return to Coyhaique by ferry, crossing Lake General Carrera. From Puerto Guadal, it takes around 3 hours on scenic mountain road. The village is extraordinary, as it is located on the shores of a turquoise blue lake, close to the Argentinean border, not far from the Andean peaks. The town also gives access to the Jeinimeni Reserve, from where you can discover a superb panorama on Chacabuco Valley. A detour to Cueva de las Manos is strongly suggested for rock art lovers.
Caleta Tortel is located almost at the end of the road. This village, that is made up entirely of footbridges, is impressive and always leaves a great memory. There is a unique atmosphere, marked by the authenticity, in this small isolated village. It is almost like the time is suspended. There are short tours to do, such as a boat trip to the Isla de los Muertos. A must is to take a boat trip to Steffen Glacier or Jorge Montt, during which you will sail along fjords and approach the glacier by zodiac.
That’s it, you’ve reached the end of the road! This little part of the end of the continent is not very accessible, but spectacular. You can explore the area by foot or on horseback. And keep in mind, that the end of the road means new adventures can begin !
As you have seen, the southern road is filled with beautiful scenery. In our opinion, the most important feature of Carretera Australe is its authenticity. As off the beaten tracks travel agency, we wanted to go further, to give you a chance to experience Chilean Northern Patagonia: that is why we offer a wide range of unique travel experiences. Our goal is to give you an opportunity to experience something new and to live a unique time of your life. It’s the time to get to know the local culture and to leave your comfort zone. Let’s discover together:
Want to discover a glacier as close as possible? Are you excited by the idea to put on your cleats and go on an adventure? So take advantage of this trip to hike on a glacier (Ice trek). We offer hiking on several glaciers, depending on your interests and your level of hiking:
Of course we are not talking about big cruises with lots of tourists (like happens in Ushuaia for example). We are talking here about a day trip, in small boats of about twenty people, to discover little-known glaciers… as close as possible to the ice wall!
Again, there are several options available to you:
What to expect from this type of activity ? A trip on lagoons and between fjords, which will take you, after several hours, at the foot of the wall and sailing next to large blocks of ice (depending on the climatic conditions it will be possible to make a zodiac approach).
This gentle rafting trip is an excellent tour suitable for all water sports enthusiasts who would like to sail on the blue waters of Rio Baker while enjoying an impressive landscape made of glacier and mountains. Emotions guaranteed!
At TravelCoachChile, we recommend without hesitation to that anyone who feels ready to opt for kayaking to the marble caves in order to avoid the crowds and enjoy all the tranquility of the site for yourself. It’s a good opportunity to choose a #slowtravel alternative, and take the time to discover the marble cave, this monument of nature unique in the world.
Fishing enthusiast? Then you won’t be able to resist the temptation to try trout in the emerald waters of the Rio Baker. Want to test fly fishing? Take advantage of the expertise of our local guide, who takes tourists on his boat to introduce you to the basics of fly fishing (in Spanish). A peaceful and original program.
What if you had the chance to enjoy landscapes in a slightly different way, accompanied by gauchos? True to Patagonian traditions, these herdsmans are happy to introduce our travellers to their region on horseback. Beginners admitted. It takes about 3 hours to go. The little plus of our experience? Finish the day with an Asado al Palo (traditional Patagonian barbecue) and a good glass of red wine.
This remote region of Patagonia is a trekking paradise. If multi-day trekking is possible, we recommend day hikes. That gives you the opportunity to enjoy a comfortable night and to alternate landscapes. Several natural parks offer this option:
Imagine the following scene: lounging in warm waters with incredible views on fjords, surrounded by a spellbind fog, in a remote area? Sounds like a dream ? Well it’s possible… either at Ventisquero Hot Springs (rustic) or at Puyuhuapi Spa (luxury).
TravelCoachChile and its partner, recently added this unforgettable experience to their portfolio. We suggest that you take the immersion in Patagonia one step further. So we offer a 2-day-tour. On the program: hiking, hiking on glaciers, numerous boats to discover unique and remote glaciers, camping near to glaciers.
Now that you must be convinced to travel to Carretera Austral, I imagine you’re wondering how to get to this exceptional region? At TravelCoachChile, since our travelers often have time constraints, we offer you to take a road trip on the southern road and to rent a car. It is also possible to do it by bus, but be careful to coordinate the schedules (especially in low season), as these are not regular. Some will opt for a trip on Carretera Austral by bike. We recommend using specialized providers who can take care of the logistical aspects of this kind of trip (don’t hesitate to ask us recommendations if necessary).
First of all, it must be taken into account that Carretera Austral is not 100% paved. On its northern part (from Puerto Montt to Villa Amengual), it’s almost only dirt road. Then from Villa Amengual to Villa Cerro Castillom, passing through Coyhaique, most of the road is paved. From Villa Cerro Castillo to Villa O Higgings, more than 560 mi of stony tracks are waiting for you (particularly bad from Cochrane). You can find all the details on distances and mileage on the official website of the Aysen region.
To prepare for this road trip to Northern Patagonia, you will also need to identify the villages that have a petrol station. Indeed, it is better to refuel each time you have the possibility so as not to put yourself in a difficult situation. In addition, only towns have a telephone network. So don’t rely on your smartphone during journeys. In addition, each locality only has access to either Claro, Movistar or Entel. We recommend Entel,the Chilean national provider that has the most network coverage in the country. Finally, only certain towns have an ATM. A specific organization is therefore necessary. Read this handy summary to prepare for your road trip to Northern Patagonia:
Eventhough the road does not present too many technicaldifficulties, its local users (4×4 and trucks) do not hesitate to pass you and drive fast enough (whateverthe weather), which sometimes is a little destabilizing. Therefore, we suggest keeping reasonable speed and not to take any risks, especially when the rain is in full swing.
As far as car rental is concerned, we recommend an elevated and reliable vehicle. We do not always rent 4×4 vehicles because we do not always consider this necessary. It depends on the stretch you are travelling on. If you consider going Tortel, then 4-wheel-car is essential.
At TravelCoachChile, we recommend a loop, starting from Coyhaique, going down to Cochrane, and returning by ferry across Lake General Carrera. This itinerary allows you to make a loop, and include many tours such as: horseback riding, kayaking, glacier hiking, rafting, fishing lessons, hiking, and a relaxing day in a lodge.
If you have 10 days, then we recommend adding a few stops to the precedent suggested trip. Queulat National Park and Puerto Puyuhuapi. In 10 days, it is also possible to travel from Puerto Montt to Puerto Cisnes and to go back by Chiloé, to explore the northern part of the Carretera Austral
With 15 days you can plan to go down to Tortel, while enjoying a trip that includes the main highlights of Carretera Australe and atypical experiences.
One of the great strengths of our agency is the trustworthy relationship we have established with our suppliers and the field experience we have gained. For Carretera Austral, this allows us to offer you a wide range of accommodations, from a simple riverside cabin, to an extraordinary lodge. We also have a few hotels or shelters that offer comfortable bedrooms.
We even have a few luxury accommodation to offer for those who would like to celebrate an anniversary 😊 Some of our providers have even set up a Hot Tub, to give you a relaxing time after a big day.