The Carretera Austral is a 1,240-km (770 Miles) road that runs through the northern part of the vast Chilean Patagonia. Much of the road is unpaved, which is also part of its appeal. Also known as Ruta 7 or "Ruta Austral," this road connects its northernmost point, Puerto Montt (in Chile's Lakes District), with its southernmost point, Villa O'Higgins (in the Aysén Region). The highway was one of the most important infrastructural legacies and prestige projects of the Pinochet dictatorship.
The Carretera Austral expresses everything Patagonia represents: adventure, solitude, and deep reverence for nature. Along its path you can expect endless camping and hiking opportunities, an appreciation of nature at its most pristine, and the opportunity to be lucky enough to experience Patagonia's – and maybe South America's – most incredible road trip.
One of the most important things to learn about Patagonia is the unpredictability of its weather. Locals joke that there's no point in checking the weather forecast, as it's never accurate anyway. There's some truth in this because it is possible to experience all four seasons here in one day.
Generally speaking, though, the best time to visit the Carretera Austral is between November and April. This period includes the end of spring, all of summer, and the beginning of autumn. At this time, the driest and warmest weather (between 10 and 20˚C in January and February) is expected (but not guaranteed!), and all tourist facilities are open.
I recommend visiting the Carretera Austral in November or March/April, as these times fall within the off-season for tourists and the weather is still more often good than not. In contrast, during the winter, between May and October, snow and ice dominate the region, and many facilities and parks are closed.
Places and sights along the Carretera Austral
I've put together the following list of must-see spots along the Carretera Austral based on my many great experiences along this route. Join us on this magnificent north-to-south road trip.
Located in the Southern Lake District, Puerto Montt is the last major city before one enters Patagonia. It's not officially on the Carretera Austral, but it marks the northernmost point of the road. The port city itself isn't really worth seeing, and there's little to see beyond gazing at Volcán Osorno and Volcán Calbuco (both of which lie to the northeast). However, there are several ferry services to Patagonia, and Puerto Montt is also the main departure point for southbound buses.
The 'biggest' settlement in the far north of the Carretera Austral is Chaitén, a dusty five-street-long town of ramshackle wooden houses. Chaitén is the gateway to one of Patagonia's most beautiful national parks: Parque Nacional Pumalín, one of two protected areas in the region established by Douglas Tompkins, the late founder of The North Face brand.
Various scenic campgrounds and hiking trails have been established here, cutting through the lush, temperate Valdivian Rainforest. The trails lead to enchanting lakes, waterfalls, and towering Alerce trees that are thousands of years old.
One of the highlights of the northern Carretera Austral is Puyuhuapi. Often shrouded in a mystical mist, this fjord town feels as remote and Patagonian as one can only imagine. The legacy of German architecture and sometimes even the language heard spoken here remind visitors of the German settlers that colonized the area in the 1930s.
If hanging glaciers and gorgeous lagoons are on your bucket list, then Queulat National Park deserves a day of your time.
Coyhaique is the best place to stock up on groceries along the Carretera Austral. It's a charming Patagonian town; however, apart from the excellent comfort of the facilities, there isn't much to do here. The village is the central transport hub connecting destinations north and south and is an unavoidable stop for road trips that cover at least half of the Carretera Austral.
Despite the sleepiness of the town itself, the area around the city is fantastic. If you're planning to spend a day or two here, I'd recommend a day trip to the Reserva Nacional Coyhaique, five kilometers north of town. Well-marked hiking trails (from one to seven hours in length) and beautiful views of Coyhaique and the deep valley make the reserve an unforgettable destination.
We travel a portion of the northern part of the Carretera Austral on our tour “Patagonian Rail & Cruise.” The Southern Part of the Carretera Austral will be described in next week's post.