A Carretera Austral Road Trip takes you along “Route 7 Chile,” the 770-mile (1,240-km) highway between Puerto Montt and Villa O’Higgins, going through rural Patagonia in southern Chile. Winding through the Los Lagos and Aysen regions, this route is famous for dramatic snow-capped mountains, bright blue lakes, and pristine landscapes. While you may be imagining […]
A Carretera Austral Road Trip takes you along “Route 7 Chile,” the 770-mile (1,240-km) highway between Puerto Montt and Villa O’Higgins, going through rural Patagonia in southern Chile. Winding through the Los Lagos and Aysen regions, this route is famous for dramatic snow-capped mountains, bright blue lakes, and pristine landscapes.
While you may be imagining a well-paved highway through the wilderness, don’t be fooled! This route is Chile’s most challenging road trip. While some parts are paved, most of the highway is dirt and gravel permeated with potholes and ferry crossings. Not only is the highway under-developed, but you’ll find that the route’s tiny, remote towns are few and far between. As long as you’re ready for an adventure, the spectacular views more than make up for the bumpy ride.
If you’re considering doing a Carretera Austral Road Trip, read on to discover key information regarding where to start, how long to visit, and what to see along the way. Plus, we’ll touch on the history of the area and its National Parks.
We recommend doing the Carretera Austral Road Trip between November and March, the Chilean summer. In the winter, heavy snow makes sections of the highway impossible to travel and some of the parks close. Although it’ll be warmer during the summer, you can expect volatile weather, including rain and high winds. Summer temperatures in Villa O’Higgins, the southern-most part of the Carretera Austral, range from highs of 65°F (18°C) to lows of 43°F (6°C).
There are a couple of options when choosing where to start on the Carretera Austral. You can start in the north and make your way south or do the route vice versa. If you’re looking to visit only certain sections of the highway you can also start mid-way in Coyhaique. When making your choice, consider whether you’ll visit Torres del Paine National Park, your time constraints, and your general itinerary in Chile.
We recommend starting your trip through the Carretera Austral from the highway’s northern point at Puerto Montt and heading southbound, as there is a larger selection of vehicles to rent. The Carretera Austral is the only road connecting Puerto Montt and the deep south of Chile.
At the same time, many travelers who have embarked on this journey have traveled northbound instead, from the southern tip of the Carretera Austral – at Villa O’Higgins.
How to Get to Puerto Montt – Northern Starting Point
If your trip is focused around Chile, you will most likely fly into the capital, Santiago. From there, you can book a flight to Puerto Montt for around $50 USD. Flights depart multiple times a day during the summer.
If there are no flights available, another option is to travel by night bus. It takes around 12 hours to reach Puerto Montt from Santiago. But not to worry, buses in Chile are extremely high-quality, with pillows and blankets included. For the buses, seat options include a semi-reclinable seat for about $30 USD or a fully-reclinable seat for about $60 USD, depending on when you book your tickets.
The Carretera Austral ends in Villa O’Higgins. It is popular for travelers to then continue on to Torres del Paine and drop off their car in Puerto Natales. Note that this route crosses into Argentina, so if you are renting a car, you’ll need to get your paperwork sorted out beforehand.
How to Get to Villa O’Higgins – Southern Starting Point
If you prefer to start your Carretera Austral road trip at Villa O’Higgins and go north, you have several options to get there, depending on where you are coming from and if you have a car.
Currently, the only flights into Villa O’Higgins depart from Coyhaique, a town halfway along the Carretera Austral. From Santiago, you can fly to Balmaceda Airport (~$50 USD), then take an hour van ride to Coyhaique. The Coyhaique-Villa O’Higgins flights are offered by the company Aerocord only on Mondays and Thursdays, on a 7-passenger plane (~$40 USD), with preference given to residents over tourists.
From Torres del Paine to Villa O’Higgins
From Torres del Paine to Villa O’Higgins by car, you can drive up through Argentina and cross into Chile at Chile Chico through Paso Rio Jeinimeni. Then, drive south to Villa O’Higgins. Note that this driving route includes retracing your own steps by 186 miles (300 km) if you plan to turn around in Villa O’Higgins and drive north again on the Carretera Austral.
The other option from Torres del Paine or Puerto Natales to Villa O’Higgins with a car is taking the 40-hour ferry from Puerto Natales to Puerto Yungay. Find ferry information here. From Puerto Yungay, you’ll need to take another ferry across an inlet to Rio Bravo, then drive south 62 miles (100 km) to Villa O’Higgins.
Backpacking from Argentina to Villa O’Higgins
If you are an avid hiker looking for a unique way to experience the otherworldly landscapes of this area, you can reach Villa O’Higgins by backpacking from Argentina.
First, make your way to El Chalten. Then, take a bus to the southern point of Laguna del Desierto. Take a ferry across Laguna del Desierto or walk around it (7.5 miles / 12 km). Walk from the northern point of Laguna del Desierto to Candelario Mancilla, passing through Argentinian and Chilean immigration along the way (14 miles / 22 km). Take a ferry from Candelario Mancilla to the port of Villa O’Higgins, called Bahamondez. Finally, walk 4.3 miles (7 km) to Villa O’Higgins.
You can find more information about the backpacking border crossing at this couple’s blog post (in English) and this website (in Spanish). This crossing is not available for cars. For more information about how to get to Villa O’Higgins (in Spanish), click here.
Flying into Balmaceda – Starting at a Halfway Point
If you’d rather not drive the entire Route 7, you can do just half by flying into Balmaceda Airport, then renting a car and starting your Carretera Austral Road Trip. The one-way flight could be around $50 USD from Santiago.
Driving Carretera Austral by Car
Is renting a car really the best way to experience the Carretera Austral? We think so. There are so many interesting things to see, small rural towns, and national parks that you’ll want to stop at many points along the way.
Check with your country’s embassy about requirements to drive in Chile. If you are from the US, you can drive in Chile with your valid US driver’s license during the 90 days of your tourist permit (US Embassy: Driving in Chile).
Carretera Austral by Bus
It is possible to travel the Carretera Austral by bus, but be aware that buses may not be on time or even have a set schedule. The further south you go, the more difficult it is to take buses, as some only depart once or twice a week.
Be sure to have cash in Chilean pesos for the bus fare. Use ATMs in Puerto Montt and Coyhaique, as you may not find working ones in smaller towns. You’ll also want to stock up on food and other essential items in Puerto Montt and Coyhaique.
You can find daily buses from Puerto Montt to Chaitén from the main bus station in Puerto Montt. From Chaiten, you can go to Futaleufu, La Junta, Puyuhuapi, or Coyhaique.
There is no direct public transportation between Coyhaique and Villa O’Higgins. However, you can take buses between the following towns (see here under “Transporte Público” for schedules and prices):
Carretera Austral Cycling
Many cycling enthusiasts have the Carretera Austral on their bucket list. Biking is a fantastic way to take your time and experience the countryside. It’s common to bike either the northern portion of the route, between Puerto Montt and Coyhaique, or the southern part, between Coyhaique and Villa O’Higgins.
Planning a cycling adventure involves multiple variables, including deciding how far to travel each day, making sure you have enough food, and finding a place to stay. Let us take care of all the logistics and join one of our Patagonia cycling tours, such as this one covering the northern part of the Carretera Austral, or this one which goes to the southern part.
You’ll want at least 2 weeks, at minimum, to enjoy the full Carretera Austral — ideally a full month to explore this incredible route.
Theoretically, it takes anywhere from 3 to 4 days to drive the whole Carretera Austral with little to no stops. Not only will you need time to sleep, but you also should spend time enjoying the trip with some hiking and side trips included. There are just so many activities to do and landscapes to see.
However, spending a month may not be feasible, in which case, you’ll need to focus your trip around a few key spots or towns. If you plan on continuing to Puerto Natales (at least another 28 hours of driving from Villa O’Higgins, on a route that crosses into Argentina), you may want to add another two weeks since you’ll be driving through Torres del Paine—Chile’s most revered national park.
By now, you’ve probably realized that the Carretera Austral may not be the easiest or most luxurious trip. This place, or shall we say journey, is ideal for those looking to slow down and enjoy being alone in nature, escaping the unnerving pace of society.
While prices vary from a free tent outside to lavish hotels exceeding $400/night, it can be extremely hard to find accommodations in the high season (December to February). Therefore, we recommend booking in advance if you require a certain standard of comfort.
If you have a tent, you’ll have no trouble finding a place to stay. Camping in campgrounds will range from $7-12 USD a night. You can also set up camp on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. Cyclists who embark on the Carretera Austral journey are known to set up their tents anywhere along the route.
Here are our recommendations for places to stay in Cochrane, near Patagonia National Park:
Hostal Rojitas – Comfortable hostel with a variety of room types and access to a shared kitchen.
Hostal Lejana Patagonia – Cozy hostel with a 24-hour front desk and a shared lounge.
Below, you will find a sample itinerary for a 2-week Carretera Austral Road Trip, starting in Puerto Montt.
Day 1: Puerto Montt to Pumalín
As you head out on your Carretera Austral Road Trip, Puerto Montt and Coyhaique are your best chances to stock up on food and camping supplies. The 8-hour drive is beyond gorgeous, and you will be taking ferries over Chilean fjords. It is always best to book your ferries in advance—click here to reserve your tickets, check departure times, and see prices. Pumalín Park, set up by North Face founder Douglas Tompkins, is home to diverse rainforests and beautiful lakes. Browse the park’s website for more information.
Day 2-3: Futaleufú
Four hours from Pumalín, Futaleufú is the perfect destination for hiking and rafting. While it is located off the Carretera Austral, this side trip is home to one of the best rivers for whitewater rafting in Chile. However, if you prefer to stay on course, think about taking another day in Pumalín National Park to hike the volcano or explore the town of Chaiten.
Day 4: Queulat National Park
One of the most breathtaking areas along the Carretera Austral is Queulat National Park. The hanging glacier, large waterfalls and evergreen forests attract travelers from all over the world. With a $7 USD entrance fee (5,000 CLP), visitors can take the 6-mile hike to a lookout point, or witness the falls closer via boat for an extra $7 USD.
Day 5: Coyhaique
After Queulat National Park, we suggest taking the six-hour drive to Coyhaique—a large city with a population of about 60,000. Here, we recommend grabbing food, maps, and anything else you might need for the rest of your Carretera Austral Road Trip. While there are plenty of hostels, hotels, and campsites near Coyhaique, many people decide to continue another 1.5 hours to Villa Cerro Castillo—a picturesque mountain town with amazing views and authentic local culture.
Day 6: Cerro Castillo
A breeding ground for huemules (endangered Andean deer), this crown of Chilean Patagonia is often referred to as the second Torres del Paine. While there are four-day treks available, many choose the 11-mile round trip trek to Laguna Castillo.
Day 7: Puerto Rio Tranquilo
A 3-hour drive from Villa Cerro Castillo, Puerto Rio Tranquilo’s Marble Caves are spectacular. The town has a number of tourist agencies with affordable prices for a 2-hour tour of the caves. The town offers a myriad of camping spots, but if you’re looking for a hostel, we recommend Hostal Los Pinos.
Day 8: Exploradores Glacier
Located in Puerto Rio Tranquilo and part of Laguna San Rafael National Park, the Exploradores Glacier is part of the northern icefield of Chilean Patagonia. Here, you can trek from an evergreen forest into an arctic wonderland. Most tour agencies pick you up and drop you off at your hotel/campsite, and the tour lasts 10 hours. Due to their English-speaking guides, we recommend GoChile for your Exploradores Glacier adventure.
Day 9-11: Patagonia National Park
Established in December of 2018, Patagonia National Park was founded by Kristine and Douglas Tompkins to preserve Chile’s wild Patagonia. With campsites galore, you will constantly find yourself surrounded by llamas/guanacos and gorgeous snow-capped Andean peaks. Take a look at Patagonia National Park’s website and see which hikes and destinations suit your adventurous spirit.
Day 12: Villa O’Higgins or Tortel/Puerto Yungay
A long but stunning drive from Patagonia National Park, the Carretera Austral ends in Villa O’Higgins. However, many travelers finish their Carretera Austral Road Trip in Caleta Tortel or Puerto Yungay in order to continue on by car ferry to Puerto Natales—home of Torres del Paine National Park. While Caleta Tortel and Puerto Yungay are about halfway between Patagonia National Park and Villa O’Higgins, we strongly suggest visiting Villa O’Higgins if you have the time. Keep in mind, you’ll have to turn around and head back to Caleta Tortel/Puerto Yungay if you plan on going to Puerto Natales (4-6+ hours of driving).
Day 13-14: Villa O’Higgins
Whether you continue on to Puerto Natales, or finish your Carretera Austral Road Trip in Villa O’Higgins, you will collect amazing memories and meet even better people. If you can, set some time aside to explore Villa O’Higgins, for there are great trekking routes to the Huemul and Mosco glaciers and even several boating trips!
However you choose to create your Carretera Austral Road Trip, you’re sure to enjoy unforgettable adventures and breathtaking Patagonia scenery.