One of the great adventures of South America is driving the Carretera Austral. This epic north-south highway in the Chilean Patagonia runs through one of the most scenic regions in the world. Along the Carretera Austral, you will discover untouched wilderness interspersed with mighty glaciers, crystal-clear lagoons, rugged volcanic peaks, and warm-hearted people.
This guide will introduce some of the most remarkable sites along the southern part of the Carretera Austral and explain what you need to know to make this the best journey possible.
The Andes divide the Carretera Austral in the east from numerous fjords and lakes to the west. What makes the Carretera Austral such a fascinating destination is that it remains the only road connecting Puerto Montt to northern Patagonia's deep, remote regions, which are among the least populated in Chile with an average of less than one person per square kilometer. The Carretera Austral is also part of the brand new Ruta de Los Parques. This initiative stretches 2,735 kilometers from Puerto Montt to the very tip of Patagonia at Cape Horn, connecting 17 Chilean national parks.
You can find my description of the journey from Puerto Montt to Coyhaique in the post “Carretera Austral - Part 1.” In the present post, I discuss sites along the southern portion of a Carretera Austral road trip.
Located between Puerto Río Tranquilo and Coyhaique, Villa Cerro Castillo is home to the national park of the same name, Cerro Castillo. Many visitors rave that this park is their favorite spot in Patagonia and that it is even more beautiful than Torres del Paine National Park in southern Patagonia. Thanks to its three-pronged rocky spire, the main attraction here is Cerro Castillo, a castle-like mountain comparable to the Torres del Paine.
Located on the southeastern shore of Lago General Carrera, the small, tranquil town of Chile Chico has an unusually sunny, dry microclimate. This part of Patagonia even grows cherries and oranges. The region is home to five endemic cactus species—reputed to be the southernmost in the country. From Chile Chico, you can climb a small mountain with a viewing platform, from which there is a fantastic view of the town and the lake.
Near Cochrane is the sprawling Patagonia National Park. The park's two southern sectors, Valle Chacabuco and Tamango, are home to diverse ecosystems, from dry steppe to mountains populated with southern beech forests. Within this truly magical landscape is an abundance of well-marked, excellent hiking trails.
The most accessible part of the national park is the Tamango sector, just a few miles northeast of Cochrane. There are about ten hiking trails here, each taking anywhere from an hour to ten hours. The most scenic parts of the national park line the shores of Lake Cochrane.
Caleta Tortel is one of the most unique villages you can visit in South America. The village, built on stilts and containing no road, nestles snugly between the northern and southern Patagonian Ice Fields. Despite its remoteness and isolation, Caleta Tortel is a self-sufficient village with a public library, a medical center, a police station, restaurants, and even a primary school. In total, the town accommodates about 500 people. There are a few dining and accommodation options here.
Once you reach Villa O'Higgins, you'll understand how wild and rugged this corner of Patagonia is. There's a reason this tiny town didn't have road access until 1999.
Villa O'Higgins is a true Patagonian beauty, surrounded by mountains on two sides and set out on a flat plane on the valley floor. The town is also the official end of the Carretera Austral.
On our tour, “Patagonian Rail & Cruise,” we travel the northernmost part of the Carretera Austral to Lake Yelcho, crossing over to Esquel/Argentina to travel on La Trochita Steam Train. In the near future, I plan to host a trip less centered on the railway where we travel a larger portion of this incredible road.