The “Carretera Austral”, in the South of Chile, is one of those mythical roads that scream for a road trip. It’s a great way to experience Patagonia, especially if you stop along the way to visit the stunning national parks. So prepare for breath-taking views! In this post, I’ll explain what to expect and what the highlights are along the road; and how to prepare for an unforgettable road trip on the Carretera Austral. And as we didn’t have a car during our trip in 2022, I’m giving all the info you’ll need to plan your road trip route using public transportation.
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Why the Carretera | Orientation | How to get there | How long on the Carretera Austral | Transportation | Accommodation | Highlights of the Carretera: north | middle | south | Best time to visit
Where and what is the Carretera Austral in Chile
The Carretera Austral (or Ruta 7) is the main road in Chilean Patagonia, the southern tip of South America. It stretches for 1240 km (770 mi) between Puerto Montt at its northern point, and Villa O’Higgins in the south.
Although the Carretera Austral crosses a big part of Chilean Patagonia, it doesn’t cover all of it. The deep south of Patagonia –which hosts the iconic Torres del Paine National Park– and Navarino Island are further to the South.
The Carretera Austral isn’t continuous. In the north, there are 3 instances where the road gives way to a short ferry crossing:
- between Caleta La Arena and Caleta Puelche
- between Hornopiren and Caleta Leptepu
- between Fiordo Largo and Caleta Gonzalo
(I bet you’ve already figured out that caleta means port.)
The road was built in the 70’s by the infamous dictator Augusto Pinochet. Before that, Patagonia was hugely cut off from the rest of Chile and was rarely visited. Despite the Carretera Austral, Patagonia is still a remote area with long travel times and ferry crossings. Therefore prices (for everything, from accommodation to food) are higher than in the rest of the country.
Why travel the Carretera Austral
The Patagonia road offers a unique landscape: it runs among snow-capped mountains and pristine national parks. Therefore, many outdoor lovers decide to travel its length, or part of it, for a real city-life detox. Nowadays, it boasts a fame somewhat similar to the one of Route 66 in the USA.
Besides its exceptional natural landscapes, Patagonia offers slow life, charming little towns that should be added to any Carretera Austral itinerary, and super friendly locals drinking mate.
Mate doesn’t sound familiar? Learn all about it in our article about mate.
The road can be divided into 3 sections:
The northern part of the Carretera starts in Puerto Montt. It encompasses the Los Lagos (“the lakes”) region and stretches until Chaitén town (not to be confused with El Chaltén, a town in the Argentine Patagonia).
This area is dominated by lakes and a rocky landscape. Traveling here entails the 3 ferry crossings. Thanks to its milder climate, it’s a good destination for winter travel as well.
Further south, the next big town is Coyahique, at the middle point of the Carretera. In my opinion, the town itself is not very interesting for outdoor lovers; but since it’s close to Balmaceda Airport, a popular transportation hub with low-cost airlines, it’s still a good starting/ending point for a Carretera Austral road trip.
The south of the Carretera Austral spreads out around the settlements of Cochrane and Villa O’Higgins. Visitors there enjoy the calm, real small-town feeling, beautiful snow-capped-mountains-at-the-end-of-the-street sort of views. Plus, the two towns are good gateways to some awesome national parks (more about that below)!
How to reach the Carretera Austral without a car
At the northernmost point of the road, Puerto Montt is connected to the rest of Chile via an airport (called El Tepual) and several long-distance buses.
The last place in the south that is connected to the rest of the country is Caleta Tortel by ferry. The inexpensive, public ferry boat transports people (locals and visitors) between Puerto Natales and the Carretera.
The town of Villa O’Higgins, the southernmost settlement on the road, is only linked to other parts of Chile via the Carretera.
Between Puerto Montt and Caleta Tortel, there’s more than 1240 km / 770 mi. Good news is, we don’t have to start or finish our trip at either of these points if we don’t want to; there’s also an airport in Balmaceda, near Coyahique.
Both Puerto Montt and Balmaceda Airports are served by Chilean airlines: JetSmart and Sky (both low-cost) and Latam, from the capital Santiago and from other Chilean cities. Puerto Montt also receives flights from Argentina.
Start planning: Read our tips on how to organise your trip to Patagonia in 2022
How much time do you need on Carretera Austral?
The time you need on the Carretera Austral in Patagonia largely depends on the activities you want to do: how much hiking you want to do, how many national parks you want to visit, how fast you travel.
It’s easily possible to spend a month hopping from multi-day hike to multi-day hike, or slow-traveling by bike, or even hitchhiking the Carretera Austral!
If you don’t have so much time on your hands, it’s also perfectly possible to travel only part of it; for example, from Puerto Montt to Balmaceda, or the other way round like we did, from Caleta Tortel to Balmaceda in 2 weeks. That time was enough for us to visit 3 national parks and go on a boat tour to see the Marble Caves, while traveling by bus and hitchhiking.
Carretera Austral by bus
Traveling by bus is a cheap and perfectly possible option on the Carretera Austral in Patagonia, both in high season (Jan-Feb) and shoulder season (Oct-Dec, Mar-Apr). There are several bus companies riding different parts of the route.
It’s difficult –if not outright impossible– to find information or a timetable online, as these bus companies in Patagonia are very much offline businesses. But don’t be afraid to go somewhat unprepared in that respect. It’s part of the magic of the Carretera!
When we were there in the shoulder season, at least 2 companies connected the towns, with buses mornings and afternoons. You will find up-to-date bus timetables at tourist info points as well as at the bus station, printed on paper and hanging on the wall.
You can buy tickets at bus stations or directly from the driver; although I’d advise to buy them on the day before, as buses may get fully booked.
Many of the buses serving the area aren’t exactly modern. Driving on the Carretera is also quite slow, so you’ll be spending 4-5 hours on board. Some buses stop and leave time for passengers to enjoy the views and take pictures.
Ticket prices vary according to the distance. As a matter of example, we paid 8000 CPL (9.5 USD) per person for a 4-hour trip in April 2022.
Get prepared: Our tips to survive long bus rides
Carretera Austral by bike
Cycling and bikepacking the Carretera Austral is the ultimate experience: you travel at your own pace in the most stunning scenery. The Patagonia road is not much trafficked, and in shoulder season even less so.
It’s not all rosy though. There are a lot of curves, elevation and strong winds, especially in the high season. The asphalt is damaged on some segments of the road, and on the side roads there’s simply none.
To get you prepared, I strongly recommend this blog about bikepacking this mythical road.
Even during COVID times it was very easy to hitchhike the Carretera Austral. Locals and travellers alike are happy to pick you up. As in general with hitchhiking, locals often give you short lifts – so allow enough time to arrive at your destination.
For us, it was always a great experience where we shared nice conversations, goodwill, sometimes a mate with our drivers.
Carretera Austral by car or campervan
Many travellers choose to rent a car or a campervan to move around, as it gives the most freedom and possibilities to reach remote places. Some hikes in national parks (for example in sector Jenimeni in the Patagonia National Park) are reachable only with a drive, so renting a car could give you more opportunities.
Bear in mind though, car and campervan rentals are expensive compared to the other options. If you consider renting a car, I recommend taking a look here at rentalcars.com which offers car rentals at promotional prices from renowned international car hire brands.
Where to stay on your road trip
Along the Carretera Austral in Patagonia, there are hotels, hostels (or hostals, as they’re called locally), camping, and cabañas. Cabaña usually refers to self-catering accommodation, like a guesthouse.
Hostal / hostel / hospedaje
For the smaller towns, online accommodation booking platforms show nothing but a couple of the most expensive hotels. So you’ll likely need to look around upon arrival.
Here’s the Green Mochila way to do it: we use maps.me (probably the best free offline map out there!) to find and mark down the cheapest accommodation; then we simply walk in upon arrival. If the first place cannot host us, they can usually direct us to another place.
It’s good to have several options, and also a benchmark price: we paid 35,000 CPL (37 USD) for a 2-person room with, or sometimes without, a bathroom.
To give you a good starting point, these are the hostals we stayed at during our trip:
- In Cochrane: Hostal Lejana Patagonia
- In Rio Tranquilo: Hostal Bellavista
- Villa Cerro Castillo: Hospedaje Gemita
In bigger towns, like Coyahique and Puerto Montt, there are more hostals, and you’ll find them on accommodation booking portals.
If you can bear with the cold (e.g. 0°C / 32°F at night in April), sleeping in a tent is a real Carretera Austral experience! And the cheapest of them all no doubt.
Wild camping is permitted. Every town also offers camping options but it’s good to bring your own tent and a proper sleeping bag –that goes until minus 10°C / 14°F–, even in the high season. The price at a campsite is around 5000 CLP (5 USD) per person. No need to book beforehand, just show up and say ‘hola’.
Hotels and cabañas
In rural Patagonia, hotels and cabañas look really luxurious next to the basic hostals. They are often modern, and offer great views on mountains and lakes – a real treat!
Here are the best hotels / cabañas along the Carretera Austral:
★ Best hotel in Futalefu: Hotel el Barranco — a hotel labelled as sustainable, with a swimming pool, a sauna, and garden views.
★ Best cabaña in Villa Cerro Castillo: Casa Cerro Castillo — a wooden chalet with stunning mountain views.
★ Best hotel in Hornopirén: Hostería Catalina — a comfortable hotel near the lake, labelled as sustainable, featuring a fireplace and incredible views.
★ Best cabaña in Chaitén: Chucao Bosque y cabanas — an accommodation labelled as sustainable, in a new building surrounded by nature.
Highlights of Carretera Austral to reach without a car
With no less than 17 protected areas along its stretch, the Carretera Austral is known as “the Route of Parks” of Chilean Patagonia. Therefore it doesn’t come as a surprise that the main activity around here should be hiking.
But worry not, every park offers treks for different abilities: from easy walks to day treks to strenuous multi-day hikes. In this section, I’m listing the most important highlights from north to south along the Carretera Austral. You can reach them all without a car.
In the north
Alerce Andino National Park
|Nearest town:||Puerto Montt|
|Distance:||42 km / 26 mi or 2 hours with a bus from Puerto Montt|
Why go: wander through temperate rainforest to find lagunas, waterfalls and maybe wild animals, like the Chilean fox. On the day-hikes that are available, you’ll witness ancient and giant alerce (Patagonia cypress) trees in their last natural habitat. The park can be visited all year round.
|Nearest town:||Puerto Montt / Cochamo|
|Distance:||121 km / 75 mi or 3 hours with a bus from Puerto Montt|
Why go: hike though peaks and valleys, marvel at waterfalls, lush trees of an ancient forest, granite mountain walls, and see the river pouring down on rocks at the Toboganes / La Junta. Both day-hikes and multi-day hikes are available.
Hornopirén National Park
|Distance:||123 km / 46 km or 3.5 hrs bus from Cochamo|
Why go: it’s a very special national park as half of it is covered with lush forest, the other half is a rocky landscape with mountain lakes and snow. Several day-hike routes are available to lagunas and waterfalls, with beautiful views on nearby rivers. The climate is rainy but the park can be visited all year round.
Pumalín National Park
|Distance:||135 km / 83 mi or half a day with a bus from Hornopirén – this route involves 2 ferry crossings|
Why go: the Pumalín Douglas Tompkins National Park offers day hikes to several precious mountain and lake views, including a glacier and a volcano. It’s accessible directly from Chaitén.
In the middle
Futalefu National Reserve
|Distance:||151 km / 91 mi or 3 hours with a bus from Chaitén|
Why go: Futalefu National Reserve is accessible through a side road from the main Carretera Austral. This side road then leads further to Argentina and a border crossing. Go on day-hikes or multi-day hikes among pristine lakes. The multi-day hike extends to Argentina.
Queulat National Park
|Nearest town:||Puyuhuapi Cisnes|
|Distance:||188 km / 116 mi or 3 hours with a bus from Chaitén|
Why go: the top attraction at Queulat National Park is a hanging glacier with a waterfall (Ventisquero Colgante). You can either do a day-hike or reach the bottom of the waterfall with a boat tour.
In the south
Cerro Castillo National Park
|Nearest town:||Villa Cerro Castillo / Coyahique|
|Distance:||100 km / 62 mi or 2,5 hours with a bus from Coyahique to Villa Cerro Castillo|
Why go: amazing views of the peak of the park which resembles a castle. The most famous trail (which can be done as a day-hike or part of the 4-day Horqueta trail) leads to a glacier lake among snow-capped mountains.
The Horqueta trail made it on our list of best multi-day hikes in Patagonia. Check it out!
|Nearest town:||Puerto Río Tranquilo / Chile Chico|
|Distance:||120 km / 74 mi or 2.5 hours with a bus from Villa Cerro Castillo|
Why go: the Marble Caves or Marble Chapels (Capillas de Mármol) is a unique natural phenomenon near the shore of General Carrera lake. Parts of the marble rocks have been carved by water and wind; depending on the weather, the walls will show rainbow colours.
Laguna San Rafael National Park
|Nearest town:||Puerto Río Tranquilo|
|Distance:||120 km / 74 mi or 2.5 hours with a bus from Villa Cerro Castillo|
Why go: this national park is only accessible with a tour starting in Puerto Río Tranquilo. Many tour operators offer day-trips with glacier walking, which is truly a unique experience. The Laguna San Rafael glacier is part of the Northern Ice Field.
Patagonia National Park
|Distance:||114 km / 70 mi or 3 hours with a bus from Puerto Rio Tranquilo to Cochrane|
Why go: Patagonia National Park is the newest national park in Patagonia. It was formed in 2018 by joining the 2 natural reserve areas: Tamango and Jenimeni. In both reserves, there are day-treks and multi-day hikes. But although Tamango is easily accessible from Cochrane, Jenimeni requires your own transportation.
Caleta Tortel town
|Distance:||125 km / 77 mi or 3 hours with a bus from Cochrane|
Why go: a port town built on wooden planks above the bay where it rains pretty much 365 days a year. The ferry from Puerto Natales stops here. Discover the town by walking the wooden pathways, which started as a local initiative.
Villa O’Higgins town
|Distance:||151 km / 93 mi or 4 hours with a bus from Caleta Tortel|
Why go: the southernmost settlement on the Carretera Austral offers great Patagonian scenery with pristine lakes and snow-capped mountains. You’ll feel like you’re at the end of the world and will enjoy being so close to some of the most wonderful natural phenomena. It is also a gateway to neighbouring Argentina.
Best time to go
The best time to go on a road trip along the Carretera Austral is during the Patagonian summer (Jan-Feb) or the shoulder season (Nov-Dec, Mar-Apr). That’s when the weather is the most pleasant (below 20°C / 68°F), although the wind is also the strongest in the summer.
Southern summer is also the peak season; so count with more people on treks, more competition for bus seats and car lifts. On the other hand, many services (accommodation, tours) close down in the low and shoulder seasons; also some national parks are inaccessible due to snowy conditions.
Traveling the Carretera Austral in winter
If you plan your Patagonia road trip in the winter months (May-Oct), better choose the northern Los Lagos region. That area has a milder (rainy) climate, and most of the national parks are accessible all year round.
Bear in mind that bus services and accommodation options along the Patagonia road will be more scarce in that season.
Interested in more Patagonia road trips?
Read about our 2018 road trip in Argentina’s Lake District!