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Carretera Austral, the unforgettable roadtrip

I don’t even like driving cars. Nor buses, though slightly more comfortable for long-distance trips and I at least don’t have to drive myself. But God, would I love to drive myself down or up the Carretera Austral, one of the most beautiful roadtrips in the world.

The road cuts right through the northern section of the Chilean part of Patagonia. This wonderworld of nature, changing at every corner. This land of fire and volcanoes, glaciers and steppes, and vast swaths of water.
It was a decision by the former dictator Gustavo Pinochet to construct the Carretera Austral, through this remote area where the rare village was often not even connected to other rare villages. At least not by a road, maybe by boat.
Until the Chileans started to dig and shovel their way through Patagonia. Starting in Puerto Montt in the north, the Ruta 7 is 1.200 kilometres long until the end in Villa O’Higgins. Connected on some stretches by ferries. If you want to go to the southern part of Patagonia (where Torres del Paine is), then a multi-day ferry from Puerto Montt or Caleta Tortel (near the southern end) are your best options. Or drive through Argentina of course.


It’s not exactly a highway. Two lanes, one in each direction. Huge parts are gravel roads, so they are slow and sometimes uncomfortable. But that is the point of the entire trip, to slow down and take in the beauty. To have a stop in several places and hike even deeper into this Chilean heartland. Or enjoy one of the many spas.
There are many ways to enjoy the Carretera Austral. There are shortcuts (the ferry to/from Chaiten-Puerto Montt for example) possible. But again, that is not the point of it. Relax, and follow every corner until the next stunning view.

Possible itinerary

How long you need depends of course also on what you want to do. But if you don’t want to take shortcuts and will enjoy almost every kilometre, you already need four days at least, without any additional activities. Here is a possible itinerary, from north to south, but it can be done in the opposite direction as well of course.

Puerto Montt-Chaiten: assuming you do this by car or bus (early morning departure, several days a week by Kemel Bus), you start in the city center of this industrial town. After an hour along the eastern coast, the first ferry awaits: from La Arena to Puelche, around 30 minutes.
It is pretty important to catch that one pretty early. Because once on mainland again, you continue to Hornopiren. And this is where the bigger ferry departs, in my case around 10.30am. In high season there are two or three departures a day, so if you are late you need to wait a long time.
You also need to make

Chaiten-Coyhaique: the bus connections are becoming more infrequent here. This part will take you further away from the coast. Through some barren lands, shaped by massive landslides in the past couple of years.
In the middle of this stretch is Puyuhuapi, which is an excellent relaxed small town for a stop-over if you want. There are many hikes in the area, and one of the more famous spas as well. If you don’t have the direct bus from Chaiten to Coyhaique (only twice a week), you have to stay at least a night here and continue the journey the (early) morning after. It’s a lovely quaint village.
But if you are in a rush, continue. A fascinating part lies ahead, again a long stretch of gravel roads along the water this time. Because Puyuhuapi can be reached by boats as well. After this long day you end up winding along the Rio Simpson, past the entrance of national park Coyhaique, near the city with the same name. Again all in all a ten-hour trip…

Coyhaique-Cochrane: this bus goes almost daily. Of course, by car you can set your own pace and stop frequently for photos and excursions. But then you have to get rid of the car at the end, so there is no ideal solution here.
The first two hours is a curving road towards Villa Cerro Castillo. That village is small, located in a steep valley near the impressive mountain of the same name. You can stop here for a dayhike, or a multi-day hike and stay for a sleep.
Or you continue for what is arguably the most beautiful part of the Carretera Austral. From here on it is 200 kilometres of dirt road, along snowy peaks and massive and amazing lakes. Especially the part after Puerto Rio Tranquilo is nothing short of mind-blowing. Only near Puerto Bertrand you can calm down again, but only shortly. The final part to Cochrane, near the Chacabuco valley, will not fail to impress you as well.

Cochrane-Villa O’Higgins: the small village of Cochrane can be your base for trekking or adventure sports in Patagonia National Park. If you continue with one of the few bus connections, you have the last stretch to Villa O’Higgins ahead of you. Gravel roads again of course, and this part is so remote you wonder who the hell is living here.
You can drive to the end point, where you can continue for a hike to El Chalten in Argentina. Or turn around and do the same 1.200 kiloimetres again. Or you end the roadtrip a bit earlier. In beautiful Caleta Tortel with its wooden walkways everywhere. It is a nice detour for everyone, but for bus passengers also the best gateway to the once-a-week ferry to Puerto Natales in the south of Patagonia, which takes almost two days to reach its destination. Car drivers can move onwards to nearby Puerto Yungay. There is hardly any sleeping accommodation there, but you can take the car onto the same ferry there as well, which is not possible in Tortel.


The possibilities are endless of course. You need to be prepared though, as especially the northern stretch needs to be booked in advance. And you need to be flexible when with public transport, because connections might not go as frequently as expected. And you cannot always check everything online, and have to go to a bus terminal in person to buy tickets.
Whatever you do: take your time if you can. For me personally the Carretera Austral was the most beautiful part of the entire Chile trip. And with the competition of the desert around San Pedro de Atacama, that says a lot.

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