In 2012 I had a great road trip together with my friend Philippe along the Carretera Austral in southern Chile. Last year I returned to Patagonia. This time my friend Mark joined me. Our main focus was the southern part of the Carretera including several side trips that I hadn’t done on my 2012 trip.
The Carretera Austral is one of the most beautiful roads in the world and runs about 1250 km through Patagonia from Puerto Montt to Villa O’ Higgins. It was built in the 1970ies under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. If you want to know more about the history of this highway, Justin Walker’s The Dictators Highway with its comprehensive list of sources in the appendix is highly recommended as a starting point.
We drove 3735 km in two weeks on the Carretera including all the side trips. We started and finished our trip in Coyhaique, which is in the middle of the Carretera Austral. From there we went south and then back to Coyhaique. Our rental car was a Toyota 4Runner. Since the Carretera south of Coyhaique is completely unpaved with some huge potholes a 4WD car with high ground clearance is useful. The 4Runner was definitely a good choice.
The flight from Europe to Coyhaique is quite long and takes more than 30 hours. Sadly Mark’s checked bag didn’t arrive together with him and it took us three full days until we finally could pick up his bag with all the necessary camping equipment at the Balmaceda Airport near Coyhaique.
Due to this we couldn’t start our road trip as planned but instead had to stay in Villa Cerro Castillo for the first three days. We used the time to explore the Reserva Nacional Coyhaique, Lago Elizalde, Lago Claro, Reserva Nacional Cerro Castillo, Puerto Ingeniero Ibáñez and the Levican Peninsula.
Since there are no gas stations in this area, neither in Villa Cerro Castillo nor at the airport of Balmaceda we got into trouble after three days of making day trips with our car. Luckily some very small store in Villa Cerro Castillo was selling gasoline in bottles.
Finally, after three days, the missing bag arrived and we could start our road trip. The next destination was Puerto Rio Tranquilo at the beautiful Lago General Carrera.
As an interesting side trip, we drove to Puerto Sanchez, a small fishing village that can be reached by a small winding mountain road offering nice views over the lake.
One of the highlights at the Carretera Austral are the spectacular marble caves at the Lago General Carrera. Several different caves can be reached by boat from Puerto Sanchez and Puerto Rio Tranquilo. We did altogether three boat trips, two group tours from Puerto Rio Tranquilo and one private tour from Puerto Sanchez.
Most nights we slept in our tents on campgrounds, but we didn’t bring any cooking equipment. Our plan was to use the available restaurants along the Carretera. Don’t expect any gourmet food in that part of the world. Best case you get some salmon with potatoes, but often sandwiches or chewy pieces of meat are all that’s available. Exceptions worth mentioning are the restaurants Puesto Huemul in Villa Cerro Castillo and Cerveceria Rio Tranquilo in Puerto Rio Tranquilo which belong both to the same owner and offer a nice spicy salmon salad.
From Puerto Rio Tranquilo we continued further south.
One of my favored places along the Carretera Austral is the lovely Rio Baker and its confluences with the Rio Neff and Rio Chacabuco. In certain light and weather conditions, the Rio Baker can show a really intense blue/turquoise color.
Our next stop was Parque Patagonia in the Valle Chacabuco, a short side trip from the Carretera Austral. This park was founded by Douglas and Kris Tompkins (who also initiated the better known Pumalin Park further north). Sadly Douglas died 2015 due to a kayak accident on the Lago General Carrera. I think he has done a great job protecting the nature of Patagonia. To support his work I donated the revenue from my National Geographic publication about Patagonia to the Tompkins Conservation Fund.
The landscape at the Valle Chacabuco is quite different compared to other parts along the Carretera Austral. It is much drier and looks more like the pampas on the Argentinian side of Patagonia. One big attraction of the Parque Patagonia is the abundant wildlife.
From the Valle Chacabuco we drove via Cochrane to Caleta Tortel.
Caleta Tortel is a slightly derelict and always wet fishing village. There are no roads in the village, instead, they have numerous wooden staircases and boardwalks. Not long ago this village could only be reached by boat. On my 2012 trip, Philippe didn’t like this place at all, but I find its somewhat mystic atmosphere (if you manage to ignore the other tourists) quite fascinating. We spent the night in a hostel in Caleta Tortel since the only campground is at the end of the boardwalk on a muddy field without any infrastructure.
Shortly after Calera Tortel, you have to take a ferry at Puerto Yungay to continue on the Carretera Austral further south. The ferry is free and runs several times each day. In 2012 I turned here around to have enough time to explore the northern part of the Carretera. On this trip, our goal was to reach the southern end.
The section between Puerto Yungay and Villa O’Higgins is very wild with some really spectacular landscapes.
Finally we reached Villa O’Higgins, the last village before the end of the Carretera. We stayed there at the campground and did some nice day hikes.
From Villa O’Higgins, it’s just a short drive to the end of the Carretera Austral at the Lago O’Higgins.
We were happy to have reached our goal and managed to drive all the way to the Lago O’Higgins without any big problems. If you reached Villa O’Higgins either by bus, hitchhiking, or bicycle you have the attractive option to continue further south. There is a (passenger) ferry running across the Lago O’Higgins. After a two day hike, you reach another lake (and ferry if you are lucky or have pre-booked) on the Argentinian side and finally arrive in El Chalten next to the famous Fitzroy and Cerro Torre mountains. But with a rental car, your only option is to turn around.
On our way back we stopped in Cochrane and explored some interesting sidetracks, like the Valle Castillo, the many waterfalls along the Rio El Salto and the Reserva Nacional Tamango
At the Rio Baker, we took an interesting shortcut by using the Balseo Baker ferry and an extremely small suspension bridge to get back to Carretera Austral.
From Puerto Bertrandt we did a beautiful side trip along the Lago General Carrera to Chile Chico and the Reserva Nacional Lago Jeinimeni via Puerto Guadal and the Lago Verde.
Back in Puerto Rio Tranquilo we drove in the spectacular Valle Exploradores where we joined an Asado at Cafetria La Nutria,
Another highlight along the Carretera Austral is the Laguna San Rafael, which can only be reached on a boat trip.
The last stop on our road trip was again Villa Cerro Castillo, where some 3000 years old hand paintings from Tehuelche people can be visited on a guided tour.
After 2012 this was another great road trip along the fascinating Carretera Austral. I really love this place.
You can find the best images of both my trips in my Patagonia gallery.
Finally, a couple of tips if you want to replicate this trip:
- be prepared for very strong winds and lots of rain
- rent a robust 4WD with high ground clearance (or hitchhike if you are adventurous and/or on a low budget)
- if you speak Spanish it really helps a lot (thanks Mark!)
- the best time of the year for visiting is February-April (in December/January are too many tourists and in winter it’s cold and many restaurants and hotels are closed)
- use every gas station for refueling and get some jerry cans (we bought two 20 liters and used/needed one)
- plan enough time to do some of the interesting side trips (for the whole Carretera plan at least 4-6 weeks)
- by far the best guidebook for this area is Chile: the Carretera Austral – the Bradt Travel Guide written by Hugh Sinclair and Warren Houlbrooke