The Carretera Austral: A Backpacker’s Guide to Chile
Ruta 7, also called the Carretera Austral (meaning southern road), is a road that runs through Chilean Patagonia. It begins almost at the end of the Pan-American Highway in the city of Puerto Montt, and runs all the way down to the village of Villa O’Higgins in the south of Chile (with a few interruptions requiring ferry crossings). One of the most beautiful roads in the world, the Carretera is the only means of getting through this part of Patagonia- and believe me, you want to see this part.
Once solely gravel, more and more sections of the road are slowly being paved, making it more accessible for all sorts of travelers, whether you’re driving, biking, or hitchhiking. Although you’re bound to run into a surprise ferry or two, be forced to stop for hours at a time waiting for construction crews, and made to feel like you’re in a game of Mario Cart as you swerve to avoid holes in the road, the unbelievable scenery makes it all worthwhile. Those who take on the more than 1,000 slow kilometers are rewarded with white mountains everywhere they look, clear rivers flanked with lavender flowers, crayon-green forests, and bright blue lakes.
The local saying on the Carretera is a fitting one – those in a hurry don’t get very far.
We embarked on the Carretera in mid-November, 2017. We weren’t in a rush, and it took us and Patty (our trusted Chrysler minivan converted into a camper) two weeks to drive from Puerto Montt to the bay of Tortel (140 km north of Villa O’Higgins). Of course, you could do it much faster, but with views like that why would you want to?
If you’re planning a similar endeavor, here is our guide to the Carretera Austral.
Puerto Montt – La Arena Ferry (45 km)
From the start of the Carretera in Puerto Montt to the first ferry crossing in La Arena, it’s less than 50 km. The ferry is short and free for passengers; cars pay around 10,000 CLP. In between Puerto Montt and La Arena is Alerce Andino National Park, a nice stop if you have time but not an essential one. The park is known for its Alerce trees- one of which is over 3,000-years-old- as well as its population of foxes.
La Arena – Hornopirén Ferry (55 km)
After driving the relatively uneventful stretch of road after Caleta Puelche (where the La Arena ferry drops you off), you’ll arrive in the small town of Hornopirén, from which a ferry runs every morning at 9:00 am. You can overnight at one of several hostels or find a wild-camp near the beach. Hornopirén also has a supermarket and a gas station.
From Hornopirén to Caleta Gonzalo, the ferry ticket actually includes 2 ferries (~10,000 CLP/person and ~40,000 CLP/car). The first one is around 4 hours, then you’ll disembark, drive for 10 km, and get on another ferry for 45 minutes. Make sure you enjoy the beautiful views during the ferry crossing.
Caleta Gonzalo – Chaitén (57 km)
The more interesting part of the Carretera starts when you arrive at Caleta Gonzalo. This is the start of the huge Pumalín Park, where you can do hikes to waterfalls and up volcanoes. The campsites at Pumalín, a private park, are extremely nice and free during low season (but during high season they’re quite expensive).
We did the hike up to Volcano Chaitén, which took us 3 hours roundtrip. The climb is somewhat steep, but apart from the amazing view at the top there is also a crater lake where you can see steam rising from the cracks in the rock.
The next stopping place if you’re not camping is the town of Chaitén, just under 60 km from Caleta Gonzalo.
Chaitén – Puyuhuapi (188 km)
After Chaitén, where you can fill up on groceries and gas, do your laundry, and take a shower (recommended campsite: Camping Tierra Viva), the next big village is Puyuhuapi. Just before Puyuhuapi we had our first big surprise on the Carretera: waiting in line for hours for a ferry to take us across a small lake because the road was closed. The ferry itself only took about 15 minutes, and we laughed about the ridiculous situation with the three hitchhikers we’d picked up earlier.
Just after Puyuhuapi is the entrance to Queulat National Park, home of the famous hanging glacier. The park entrance is 5,000 CLP/person and if the ranger reaches you before you leave in the morning, the campsite is another 5,000 CLP/person. There are several hikes to different miradors for the glacier, ranging from 5 minutes to two hours. It’s definitely a stop you don’t want to miss.
Puyuhuapi – Puerto Cisnes (87 km)
Although some 30 km off of Ruta 7, Puerto Cisnes is one of the only big stops before Coyhaique. There’s not much to see, but if you or your vehicle need to refuel, it’s a good place to pause.
Puerto Cisnes – Coyhaique (193 km)
Coyhaique is considered the capital of the region, being the biggest city on the Carretera. Just before Coyhaique is Puerto Aysén, a big town but like Puerto Cisnes, lacking anything very exciting to see or do.
About an hour east of Coyhaique in Coyhaique Alto we heard that it’s possible to see condors with a guide. If anyone has any info on this, let us know and we’ll include it!
Coyhaique – Villa Cerro Castillo (100 km)
Villa Cerro Castillo is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful stops on the Carretera. You can see the Cerro Castillo peak and the surrounding snowy mountain range as you drive down towards the town.
When we were there in late November, the 3-4 day trek was still closed, but we were able to do the hike up to Laguna Cerro Castillo (although we had to wait a day because the trail was closed due to extremely strong winds). The hike took us 7 hours roundtrip and was fairly treacherous at the top, but the view at the base of Cerro Castillo was worth it. The laguna was still mostly frozen when we were there, and the cracks in the ice looked like puzzle pieces floating on the water. At the top we had a jaw-dropping panoramic view of the mountain range and the valley, and even saw a few condors flying overhead. This was definitely one of the highlights of the Carretera, so be sure not to miss it.
You can also go see ancient handprints left on a rock-face near the town. The iron-red prints on the cliff have been dated back 6,000 years.
If you don’t want to wild-camp, stay at Senderos Patagonia. For 5,000 CLP/person you have a kitchen, hot showers, 5 dogs, some chickens, and a killer view of the mountains.
Cerro Castillo – Puerto Rio Tranquilo (122 km)
The next main attractions on the Carretera are around Puerto Rio Tranquilo. Here, you can take a boat to the Marble Caves (10,000 CLP/person), go on a tour to the San Rafael Glacier (120,000 CLP/person), or drive down a scenic road to see the Exploradores Glacier (4,000 CLP/person). Although we skipped San Rafael because it was too expensive, the 2-hour drive to the Exploradores Glacier was stunning- make sure you have enough time because you’ll want to stop every five minutes to take photos. The glacier itself was quite impressive, and we found a perfect wild-camp near the river for the night.
Rio Tranquilo – Cochrane (114 km)
After Rio Tranquilo, many people choose to cross to the Argentinian side through Chile Chico, which is 165 km away. If you’re continuing on the Carretera, the next stopping point is the town of Cochrane.
Cochrane is a quaint town near several different lakes. 50 km down the X-901 road you’ll find the seldom-visited Cayuqueo Glacier. The glacier overlooks a lake, and you have a perfect view at the free mirador; a sight absolutely worth seeing.
Stay at Camping Nadis on your way out of the city- amazing views and hot showers for 5,000 CLP/person (although a bit difficult to reach without a car as it’s 10 km off the main road).
Cochrane – Tortel (150 km)
Our last stop on the Carretera Austral was Tortel, a town on stilts. Every building in this charming port is built on wooden platforms to escape the water. Cars can only go as far as the parking lot at the top, and then you have to descend down some stairs to the town. The bay is the last point for those taking the ferry to Puerto Natales (if you’re with a car and want to take the ferry, you’ll have to drive to Puerto Yungay- 40 km away).
The ferry to Puerto Natales is 2 days long and costs 120,000 CLP/person. The price for the car depends on its dimensions, but we paid 54,000 CLP for our minivan. If you have the opportunity, the crossing is beautiful and the experience quite unique.
If you’re continuing to Villa O’Higgins and the end of the Carretera, be aware that the border crossing there is quite complicated as you need to hike around 20 km. It’s not accessible for vehicles of any kind.
Total Distance (Puerto Montt – Tortel): 1,112 km
Useful Tips for the Carretera Austral
- Take out cash beforehand. The bigger towns will have ATMs, but it’s a good idea to have some on hand when you set out.
- We were told that the gas stations would be few and far between, and that almost none of them accept credit cards. We never had a problem with running out of gas before reaching the next station, and all of the ones we went to accepted card. Nevertheless, we had a 20L container of gas with us just in case- good practice if you want to explore the side roads. Also, don’t forget to fill up at every opportunity.
- Download the app iOverlander. The UI isn’t great, but it’s been essential for searching for camping spots, gas stations, hikes, mechanics, and everything else we needed while on the road.
- If you have a car with extra room, be nice and pick up the hitchhikers. If you’re a hitchhiker, make sure you have a tent and camping equipment as you never know where you’ll have to stop for the night.
- Much of the land along the Carretera is private, so apart from the area around Cerro Castillo all of the hiking trails are one-day max (and Cerro Castillo also has one-day hikes). So if you’re not into the multi-day treks, no worries.
- And lastly, don’t rush, don’t get frustrated with the unpredictable holdups, and just enjoy it.
Worth it? Yes, yes, yes, and yes again. Even if you don’t have a car, the road is filled with hitchhikers and the occasional bus. It was one of our favorite things that we did in South America, so if you have the time, DO IT.
What to bring: camping gear if traveling without a motorhome, hiking shoes/clothes, cash, camera, patience. Things like groceries, water, etc can be restocked along the route.
– Iris & Roi
Do you have questions, updates on any info in this post, or cool stories about the Carretera Austral? We’d love to read them in the comments!