This post is part 18 of 18 in the series Carretera Austral Travel

A Carretera Austral road trip is one of the most iconic adventure travel experiences in the Patagonia region of southern Chile for people who want to enjoy remote forests, fjords, glaciers, and waterfalls. We spent more than two months on the Carretera Austral during explorations of the route in 2020 and 2023. We ultimately drove the entire Carretera Austral (much of it twice) and we learned a lot along the way. Here’s what you need to know to have your own Carretera Austral road trip adventure including travel tips and direct links to all of the detailed posts in our 17-part comprehensive Carretera Austral travel series.

Carretera Austral views

Just another lovely day on the Carretera Austral in southern Chile.

What is the Carretera Austral?

After decades of failed attempts, constructing a road connecting southern Chile to the rest of the country began in earnest in 1976. For the next nine years, the engineering corps of the Chilean Army used thousands of soldiers as road workers.

Carretera Austral Pinochet monument La Junta

In the early 1990s, the Carretera Austral reached La Junta. Before that, there was no overland connection between this region of southern Chile and the rest of the country. This monument along the highway in La Junta commemorates the Carretera Austral and the man who got it done: dictator General Augusto Pinochet. You don’t see many memorials, monuments, or statues dedicated to the brutal dictator. In fact, we’ve spent years exploring Chile and this is the first one we’ve ever seen.

 The road work was a pet project for dictator Augusto Pinochet, who was in power in Chile between 1973 and 1990. Pinochet wanted to be the one to connect the entire country by road and the project was unofficially known as the Augusto Pinochet Highway–though we never, ever heard anyone use that name.

The Carretera Austral (aka Ruta 7) was completed in 1985 stretching 775 miles (1,247 km) from Puerto Montt in the north to Villa O’Higgins in the south passing through sparsely-populated Aysen Province and part of Los Lagos Province.

Carretera Austral sign

So many adventure travel options on the Carretera Austral…

It should be noted that while a Carretera Austral adventure is primarily a road trip, travelers who do the entire length of the Carretera Austral will also need to traverse more than 50 miles (80 km) of waterways aboard four different ferries.

Carretera Austral road trip adventure travel tips

The old adage “getting there is half the adventure” is usually a trite cliche. On the Carretera Austral, however, it’s absolutely true. Here are some crucial “getting there” travel tips for driving the Carretera Austral.

Carretera Austral road conditions

The Carretera Austral is a combination of paved sections and long tracts that are still just gravel (ripio in Spanish). Every year, more of the road is being upgraded and much of the highway in the north between Puerto Montt and Coyhaique is now paved except for the section passing through Pumalin National Park, over the Queulat grade, and a few other short sections that remain unpaved. The southern half of the Carretera Austral below Coyhaique is mostly unpaved. The road is always a work in progress, with sections being rebuilt, upgraded, paved, or graded. The condition of the road changes and is affected by weather and wear and tear. If left unmaintained, the paved sections can be even more brutal than the gravel sections.

truck damage Carretera Austral

Just a few of the many, many ways the brutal road conditions along the Carretera Austral beat up our truck.

Be prepared for rough going along the Carretera Austral, sections of which beat our truck up badly and caused a long list of damage including: two flat tires (one was gashed open by a rock and was unrepairable), a broken front grill done in by prolonged sections of washboard (it’s now held in place with zip ties), a busted headlight, missing front end pieces (these are decorative, but we now have gaping holes in the front of our truck), a broken back license plate light, a cracked bug deflector on the front of our hood, snapped metal brackets that held our PIAA Auxiliary lights in place (both brackets eventually snapped off and we drove with one light dangling over the pavement until an oncoming driver pointed it out), broken PIAA fog light brackets which also needed to be secured with zip ties, and general grinding wear and tear to shock absorbers and our front end alignment.

drive villa ohiggins

Much of the Carretera Austral remains unpaved.

Also, bear in mind that repair shops are few and far between along the Carretera Austral. The city of Coyhaique (see below) may be the only place with limited parts and mechanics available. So, bring two spare tires and as many basic spare parts as you can. Drive slowly and carefully at all times. And we do not recommend driving at night. The road is dark and the obstacles are many. Though a 4X4 vehicle is not technically necessary on the Carretera Austral, you may need or want 4X4 during side trips off the main route.

Finding fuel on the Carretera Austral

Fuel is generally available in towns along the Carretera Austral. However, we still recommend filling the tank whenever you have the opportunity. This handy graphic shows the mileage between all of the gas stations along the Carretera Austral. Fuel gets appreciably more expensive the further south you go. When we were driving the Carretera Austral in 2023, fuel was about US$1 more per gallon in Puerto Rio Tranquilo than it was in Puerto Montt and fuel was US$2 more per gallon at the southern end of the Carretera Austral in Villa O’Higgins than it was in Puerto Montt at the northern end.

Lago Las Torres National Reserve carretera austral

The Carretera Austral is famous for the lovely terrain it passes through. A standout, for us, was a stretch through the Lago Las Torres National Reserve between Queulat National Park and Coyhaique.

Best time for a Carretera Austral road trip

Remember that seasons in the Southern Hemisphere are the inverse of the Northern Hemisphere. Also remember that weather conditions in southern Chile can be extreme at any time of the year with rain, wind, and big temperature swings always possible. Pack accordingly. That said, the Patagonian summer months (November through March) are the best time to tackle the Carretera Austral with less wind, warmer temperatures, and the greatest number of services open. Outside that seasonal window, however, many hotels and restaurants along the Carretera Austral are closed.

One final tip: Be ready for high prices for fuel, food, tours, park entrances, and lodging along the Carretera Austral.

glaciers queulat national park

Our truck in Queulat National Park along the Carretera Austral.

Towns along the Carretera Austral

The Carretera Austral passes through many, many, many miles of wild and remote landscapes but there are also towns, villages, and even cities along the way.

Coyhaique

Nomades Hotel Boutique-Coyhaique Carretera Austral road trip

Our room at the stylish and friendly Nomades Hotel Boutique in Coyhaique.

Coyhaique, roughly in the middle of the Carretera Austral, is the second largest city on the Carretera Austral after Puerto Montt. Coyhaique has a wide range of services, including the Nomades Hotel Boutique which is a stylish year-round option run by a local family with a lot of local knowledge and a large and secure parking lot. The restaurant selection in Coyhaique is broad as well, including La Esquina Tropera which serves local craft beer from Casa Tropera and beloved dishes from long-standing favorite Mama Gaucha restaurant. Coyhaique also has big supermarkets for restocking and it’s a good place to look for vehicle parts (start at a store called Recasur). When we were in Coyhaique, the city had a real Patagonia store as well, so if you need gear you can get it there.

Puerto Montt

Puerto Montt Angelmo Market

Scenes from the Angelmo Market on the waterfront in Puerto Montt.

In the city of Puerto Montt, which marks the northern gateway to the Carretera Austral, we stayed at Casa Ankulenmo where 40,000 CLP (about US$42) got us a clean private room with a clean shared bathroom, Wi-Fi, breakfast, and a large and secure parking area. Hostal staff will do your laundry for 2,500 CLP (about US$3) per washing machine and 2,500 CLP (about US$3) per dryer load. We tried to find the KM Zero road sign marking the northernmost point of the Carretera Austral in Puerto Montt, but road work had displaced the sign. If you’ve got the time, wander around the Angelmo Market on the waterfront, a short distance from the center of Puerto Montt, to see local handicrafts (of varying quality) and appetizing displays of fresh fish and seafood. as well as restaurants.

Hornopirén

hornopiren chile

Hiking to the Rio Blanco Waterfall in Hornopirén National Park (top) and waiting for the ferry that carries passengers and vehicles to Caleta Gonzalo and points south on the Carretera Austral.

The town of Hornopirén is the jumping-on or jumping-off point for the ferry that connects to Caleta Gonzalo and the Carretera Austral south from there. In Hornopirén you’ll find hostals and cabin accommodations plus supermarkets for restocking. If you don’t have a kitchen where you’re staying, head to Cocinas Custumbristas in the Hornopirén market area where “traditional kitchen” restaurants serve up homemade plates at decent prices. We enjoyed two large pieces of pan-fried fish with a large mixed salad for 8,000 CLP (about US$9) per plate. To reach the trailhead to the nearby Rio Blanco Waterfall, drive about 5.5 miles (9 km) out of Hornopirén to a gate just before the Blanco Bridge. Here, you’ll have to pay to access private property (5,000 CLP / US$5 pp to enter) and then drive to a parking area. From there, it’s a 2-mile (3.2 km) walk each way to the waterfall along a dirt road (bring water and wear a hat and sunscreen). Near the waterfall, you’ll reach a small ranger station for Hornopirén National Park (no additional entrance fee). From there, continue on the trail through forests and across wooden walkways and stairs down to the river bank for a top-to-bottom view of the falls.

Magellanic penguins raul marin balmaceda

Magellanic penguins seen during a boat tour from the town of Puerto Raul Marin Balmaceda just off the Carretera Austral.

For details about other towns along (or slightly off of) the Carretera Austral in Chile, check out our complete posts about the following worthy stops and side trips along the way.

You’ll have to venture about 45 miles (75 km) off the Carretera Austral via a scenic dirt road and free ferry to reach Puerto Raul Marin Balmaceda which rewards with a small-town vibe and ample natural beauty on land and on the sea (there will be penguins).

A quaint mountain setting, a surprisingly great restaurant, a wide range of accommodations, and some of the most epic whitewater river rafting in the world make the town of Futaleufú, essentially on the border with Argentina about 47 miles (75 km) off of the Carretera Austral, is a must-stop.

Located on a dramatic fjord, surrounded by glaciers, and designed on stilts and hillsides, car-free Caleta Tortel, 14 miles (22 km) off the Carretera Austral, is one of the quirkiest towns in Chile.

The Carretera Austral runs right through the town of Villa Cerro Castillo which is your gateway to hiking and rock climbing that draws adventurous nature lovers from around the world.

end of carretera austral

Our truck at the southernmost terminus of the Carretera Austral which is just outside the town of Villa O’Higgins.

The southernmost terminus of the Carretera Austral is located in the remote (but compelling) village of Villa O’Higgins. You may want to stay longer than planned. We did. Remember that the Carretera Austral dead ends in Villa O’Higgins. This means that, unless you want to live in Villa O’Higgins, you’ll have to double back north on the Carretera Austral for more than 200 miles (320 km) to reach the closest border crossing into Argentina and off the Carretera Austral.

The small town of Puyuhuapi is a scenic stop on your way to or from Queulat National Park offering a waterfront location with a range of accommodation and restaurant offerings.

We liked Puerto Cisnes–with its waterfront promenade, craft beer, and great-value workaday eatery–so much that we stayed an extra night.

Busy, bustling Puerto Rio Tranquilo is full of tourists who use the town as a basecamp for Marble Caves trips and trips to see the Exploradora Glacier.

If you ask us, serene and little-visited Puerto Sanchez makes a better basecamp for Marble Caves boat tours.

Located 71 miles (114 km off the Carretera Austral, Chile Chico has ample services and marks the turn-off point for travelers who want to visit the Jenimeni area of Patagonia National Park.  Chile Chico is also near the Paso Jenimeni border crossing that’s frequently used by drivers who want to connect the Carretera Austral in Chile to Argentina’s Ruta 40.

National parks on the Carretera Austral

The main draw along the Carretera Austral is the chance to see and explore the natural beauty in this part of southern Chile–there’s so much of it that an organization called Ruta de los Parques was formed to present information about the 17 national parks in the Patagonia region of Chile, including national parks along the Carretera Austral.

Quelat hanging glacier

The Ventisquero Hanging Glacier is the centerpiece of Queulat National Park on the Carretera Austral.

During our Carretera Austral road trips, we hiked hundreds of miles of trails and explored six national parks, each of which we covered in the following detailed posts.

Queulat National Park is home to the Ventisquero Hanging Glacier and the best way to see it is from a tiny viewpoint up a steep trail in this popular national park.

Rainforest, rare trees, and one recently active volcano (plus fantastic camping) make Pumalin Douglas Tompkins National Park a wet and wonderful stop.

You’ll find a hike and a campground for everyone in the main sector of Patagonia National Park while the Jeinimeni sector of Patagonia National Park is all about lovely lakes.

laguna cerro castillo

The Laguna Cerro Castillo Trail in Cerro Castillo National Park is extremely steep and exposed but hikers are rewarded with views of jagged Cerro Castillo and the glacial lake below the peak.

By far the hardest day hike we did along the Carretera Austral was the steep and exposed huff up (and back down) the Laguna Cerro Castillo Trail in Cerro Castillo National Park. Worth it? Totally.

The San Rafael Glacier is an icy icon in the Northern Patagonian Icefield and the centerpiece of Laguna San Rafael National Park.

And we did a short but sweet walk to a lovely waterfall in Hornopirén National Park as we described in the paragraph about the town of Hornopirén, above.

It’s not a national park (and not technically on the Carretera Austral but on an alternate more scenic route between Puerto Montt and Hornopiren), but it’s worth the tangent for some hiking and camping in the Cochamó Valley to see why some call this gorgeous area “the Yosemite of Chile”.

careterra austral bridge

A bridge along the Carretera Austral.

Other things to do on a Carretera Austral road trip

You’ll spend plenty of time driving and hiking during your Carretera Austral road trip, but make time for these other activities as well.

Near the town of La Junta, Carretera Austral road trippers will find the Tepaluma Gin distillery where guided tours in Spanish and English are available along with a cocktail bar and bottles for sale.

class V Casa de Piedra rapids

Rafting on the Futaleufú River lived up to the hype, including this churner in the Casa de Piedra (Stone House) rapid during which our raft nearly flipped and raging water pushed Karen into the center of the raft.

Many outdoor adventures along the Carretera Austral take place on land, but one of the most famous ways to get your adrenaline pumping is a whitewater rafting trip down the Futaleufú River.

The naturally-eroded Marble Caves area along the shoreline of the massive Lago General Carrera is one of the most famous destinations along the Carretera Austral for a reason.

For a more adrenaline-filled adventure on Lago General Carrera, spend an action-packed day traveling to and from the Leones Glacier by jet boat.

The many rivers in the Patagonia region of southern Chile weave and braid and converge as they descend to the sea, including at the very accessible and very dramatic confluence point of the Rio Baker and the Rio Nef.

The map, below, shows our driving route with highlights directly linked to our posts.

Here’s more about travel in Chile

Here’s more about Carretera Austral Travel

Here’s more about Patagonia Travel

 


Series Navigation:End of the Road on the Carretera Austral – Villa O’Higgins, Chile >>

Share via