The Carretera Austral, a long and winding road that travels across Chilean Patagonia, is quickly becoming one of the most sought-after destinations for the adventurous traveler. Across 1240 kilometers from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins, it is one of the most spectacular routes on the planet. Here are our top 15 things to see and do during this journey, from North to South.
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The Northern part of the road
Before even getting into the Carretera Austral, you can make several stops at Puerto Varas and Lake Llanquihue, at the beautiful Petrohue Waterfalls, and the lake Todos Los Santos. I would also recommend you to drive up to the ski resorts at the foot of Volcan Osorno, the impressive volcano that overlooks the lakes. It features some really impressive views. Then, keep going South to get away from the massive tour groups and get to Cochamó.
1) Go hiking and climbing in Cochamó, aka Chile’s Yosemite
With its huge granite cliffs surrounding a lush green valley, Cochamó Valley is one of the best places for hiking in Chile, as well as the capital of climbing in the country. It has been nicknamed the Yosemite of Chile. There is no road to get deep into the valley, so you need to hike several hours and camp there in order to get to the climbing area. Besides, considering it rains often there, allow several days to make the most of it.
2) Get into the millenary forests at Pumalin NP
Before reaching Pumalin National Park, the road is interrupted on two occasions by the sea: you need to take 2 successive ferries, the first one at the village of Hornopiren. In 3.5 hours, it will get you to the village of Leptepu; from there, you need to drive for about 15 minutes and reach Fiordo Largo. There, a second ferry will take you in 45 minutes to Caleta Gonzalo. There are two companies that operate this route: taustral.cl and barcazas.cl. You need to buy your tickets online beforehand. So, consider one full day to do that!
Once you have crossed the fjords (the two navigations get you through gorgeous landscapes, by the way), you can spend some time exploring Pumalin National Park. Once a private reserve, it has the best infrastructure of any park in Chile and offers some amazing hikes. One great feature of the park are the giant alerce trees, almost as big and old as sequoias. But if you are not that much into hiking, keep going South.
3) Go kayaking and rafting at Futaleufu
A bit further South, the town of Futaleufu takes you out of the Carretera Austral’s main road, but it’s well worth the detour! Futaleufu features a beautiful river with great rapids for rafting and kayaking. In fact, world contests have taken place there. But there are spots for beginners too! Patagoniaelements.com is one of the many reliable companies that rent equipment and offers organized tours with professional guides.
4) Dip into the hot springs of Puyuhuapi
If you have the budget to indulge for one night during this trip, do it at Termas de Puyuhuapi Lodge & Spa. It’s a luxury hotel made almost entirely of wood, in the middle of nowhere, in pristine nature, at the end of a fjord. The lodge has exclusive access to the natural hot springs of Puyuahuapi – probably the best in the entire route. The only potential downside: it may rain. A lot. But again, that’s true for the entire road!
5) Get to the bottom of the hanging glacier at Queulat NP
Right next to Puyuhaupi, this is one of the most scenic landscapes in the entire route: the hanging glacier, ventisquero colgante in Spanish, at Queulat National Park. The glacier is basically nestled between two mountains, and falls down from a huge cliff to a lagoon below, creating numerous waterfalls. It is visible from the main road, but if you want to get a really great experience, the best thing to do is to rent a kayak and cross the lagoon to get below the glacier and the waterfalls. Take a good raincoat: you will get wet, and the water is ice cold! Experienciaustral.com can organize trips to the glaciers.
Make a stop at the city of Coyhaique
After Queulat National Park, the surrounding landscapes continue to be beautiful, but there are no real highlights until you reach Cerro Castillo National Park, 300 kilometers further. So, it’s nice to stop on the way in the town of Coyhaique, the largest you will find in the entire route – at least to get a nice meal at one of the many restaurants. Coyhaique also marks the limit between the Northern part and the Southern part of the Carretera Austral.
6) Hike around the magnificent Cerro Castillo mountain
The landscape will suddenly change once you get out of Coyhaique: you will leave the green forests and get into the steppe. The reason is simple: the road gets away from the coast and behind the mountain range of Cerro Castillo, which blocks most of the rain. At some point, as the road gets higher to a lookout, you will be able to observe wide flat land for miles and miles: that’s Argentina.
Then, the road will cross the Cerro Castillo mountain range, and again, the landscapes and vegetation will change as you drive through. These mountains are probably the most scenic of the entire country, right after Torres del Paine. And it is still not touristy, so if you are into hiking, this is a real treat! You can spend up to 7 days hiking through the National Park – but there is no infrastructure, so it’s camping only!
The loop around Lake General Carrera
From Cerro Castillo, the road divides into two parts, both of them heading to Lake General Carrera, the largest – and arguably the most beautiful in Chile. The best thing to do is to turn around it clockwise. So from Cerro Castillo, drive toward Puerto Ingeniero Ibañez. This small town has little to offer, but this is where you will take the ferry to cross the lake towards the town of Chile Chico, on the South bank.
Just like at the beginning of the Carretera Austral, you need to book your tickets in advance with taustral.cl or barcazas.cl. It takes about 2 hours to cross the lake. I would recommend you to stay at Chile Chico for the night and the following one, so that you have the entire day for our next highlights – which is more of a hidden treasure, really:
7) Discover strange rock formations and beautiful Lake Jeinemini
Chile Chico is located North East of the newly-created Patagonia National Park. But even before getting into the park, there are a couple of little-visited wonders to discover. The first one is Piedra Clavada, a 40-meter high column of rock that stands out in a narrow valley. There is a difficult dirt path to get there from the main road, with little indication, but if you ask for your way beforehand (GPS won’t work there), you will be fine.
The hike to get to the big stone is moderate, and from there, you can keep going up until you reach the Moon Valley, Valle Lunar, which is not the kind of landscape you would expect in Patagonia – but yet, there it is, like a tiny little piece of desert in the middle of this green area. The trail will bring you back to the parking, making a loop.
Biking and barbecue at Lake Jeinimeni
After that, continue towards Lake Jeinimeni. As you get closer to the lake you will see again as the landscape and vegetation change rapidly, from the steppe to the forest. These landscapes are really gorgeous and yet not known by tourists, so you won’t be bothered by the crowds.
Now, for this particular excursion, I would highly recommend you to take an organized tour with patagoniaexpress.com. First, because they will get you through the difficult roads, second, because they bring mountain bikes so that you can ride around Lake Jeinimeni, and third, because while you enjoy the ride, they will prepare a barbecue with freshly-caught trouts from the lake.
8) Discover fossils on a plateau overlooking Lake General Carrera
From Chile Chico, on the South bank of Lake General Carrera, which is the next area to explore. On a clear day, the drive called Paso Las Llaves from Chile Chico toward the West to the next village of Puerto Guadal is jaw-breaking, with incredible views over the lake, Cerro Castillo and the Andes mountains. You may want to stop frequently on this road!
The town of Puerto Guadal has a lot to offer in its surroundings. You can hike to see the beautiful waterfalls Cascadas El Maqui, which are accessible from the main road before arriving at the village. But there are a couple of places that are more unique and different: a hike toward a mountain plateau which features hundreds of fossils and breathtaking views over Mount San Valentin and Mount San Lorenzo, the two highest mountains in Patagonia; and another one to get to the abandoned mine Escondida, which can be visited.
To go to both places, it is recommended to take a local guide or you might get lost. Lodge Terra Luna organizes both excursions – and plenty others as well.
The Northern part of the road
We left off at Puerto Guadal, which is a lovely village on the South Bank of Lake General Carrera. From there, we will leave the lake and keep going South. This section of the Carretera Austral is one of the most scenic, so it’s best to allow time to make frequent stops.
9) Go rafting on Rio Baker
If you didn’t get to do rafting at Futaleufu, this is the next best option! Rio Baker is a beautiful river with an incredible clear water, which is also great for fly fishing. No need to book anything: as you drive South of Puerto Guadal, you will find many places on the road that offer this activity.
I would also recommend a short stop at the cute village of Puerto Bertrand and its lake (if you don’t feel like writing, you can actually take a more tranquil boat tour on Lake Bertrand) as well as the impressive waterfall at the confluence of Rio Baker and Rio Nef.
10) Observe wildlife at Patagonia NP
As you keep driving South, you will notice again how the landscape changes. This area has a distinctive Lord Of The Rings kind of feel. Take the turn to Patagonia National Park. While you have entered the North-east end at Lake Jeinimeni, this is the West entrance of the park. This area might be the best in the entire trip to observe wildlife, as you may see guanacos, vizcachas, condors, and maybe pumas if you are lucky. This is an extensive park, with a number of trails available, but if you have just one day, you can merely drive through the scenic road X-83 until you get to Paso Roballos, and back.
11) Take a boat trip on river Cochrane
This, for me, is a hidden gem! Just a couple of kilometers East of the town of Cochrane, you can rent a cabin right in front of the river with Turismorutapatagonia.cl. It is very reasonably priced, fully-equipped, and they can organize for you to take a beautiful clear-water river tour on a tiny little boat, just for you. They will get you all the way up to majestic Lake Cochrane. It is really a treat!
Keep going, or return?
From Cochrane, I would return to the North towards Lake General Carrera. But if you have time (very important!) and feel adventurous, you can drive all the way to the end of the Carretera Austral, at Villa O’Higgins. I’ll get to that at the end of this piece. But for now, let’s drive back to the big Lake General Carrera and the main tourism hub of the area: Puerto Rio Tranquilo.
12) Kayak to the Marble Chapel and the Marble Cathedral
This is the crown of the jewel. Most people who travel to the Carretera Austral come mainly for this: the Marble Chapel and the Marble Cathedral, two tiny islands made of marble in which you can enter with tiny boats or kayak. Obviously, most tourists take the boat tours. However, you will have a more special experience if you drive just a kilometer south of Puerto Rio Tranquilo to Puerto Marmol, and rent a kayak directly there.
One important tip: It’s better to do this in the morning, as it is usually more windy in the afternoon (and winds in Patagonia are very strong!)
13) Hike on a glacier at Valle Exploradores
There are several glaciers where you can hike in Chile and Argentina, the most famous being Glaciar Grey in Torres del Paine National Park, and Perito Moreno in Argentina. But if I had to choose one, it would be Glaciar Exploradores, here in Puerto Rio Tranquilo. First of all, because in order to get there, you will drive through one of the most beautiful valleys of Patagonia, Valle Exploradores. Second, because this particular excursion is far less crowded than the ones at Glacier Grey and Glacier Perito Moreno. And third, because it’s cheaper. El Puesto, which is also a nice hostel, is the most reliable company to arrange tours to the glacier.
14) Take a boat tour to Laguna San Rafael
Laguna San Rafael is another National Park featuring a massive glacier, only accessible by boat. Until a few years ago, only cruise ships would get there. But with the opening of the road in beautiful Valle Exploradores, it is possible to go for the day from Puerto Rio Tranquilo. I mention this tour here because it is a highlight, however, it’s a very long day, and because of its location near the sea, the glacier is sometimes invisible, covered by clouds.
For a similar experience of seeing a huge glacier falling down the water, I would recommend either Glacier Grey in Torres del Paine, Perito Moreno in Argentina, or Glacier O’Higgins, which is our last Top thing to do on the Carretera Austral. But before getting to that one:
Bonus track: Discover the Marble caves at Puerto Sanchez
Did you like the Marble Chapel and Marble Cathedral? Then here is a tip for you: As you make you way back towards the North, take a detour to the village of Puerto Sanchez. Almost nobody goes there, however, this is the place with the largest amount of marble caves at Panichini Islands, with over 2 kilometers of shore covered by them. It is really impressive, and you will likely be the only ones to go there. Alencura Excursiones is the only agency with a Facebook page that organizes boat tours from the village.
Bonus track 2: Spend a night in a ghost mining town
Of all the incredible things I have done along the Carretera Austral road, this one is probably the most unique. Puerto Cristal is an abandoned mining tour on the north shore of Lake General Carrera, accessible only by boat. But the family who founded the mine has decided to keep it alive. And it’s quite something: you get to visit the entire installations with their son, have dinner cooked by the family, and spend the night in the miners bedroom. It’s really like living in the past for a day and a night. You need to contact Turismopuertocristal.cl for this.
15) Get to one of the largest glaciers in the Southern Hemisphere
This is the last part of the road, South of Cochrane. First of all, if you decide to do this, don’t forget to fill the tank in Cochrane: it’s the last town for many, many kilometers. In fact, it’s recommended to have a large can in your car to fill additional gas.
This is the last part of the Carretera Austral, and probably the wildest and most isolated section. It will get you all the way down to Villa O’Higgins. At Puerto Yungay, you need to take the ferry with Barcazafiordomitchell.cl (no reservation needed), then you will continue towards Villa O’Higgins. There is an end-of-the-world feel on this road – you may have felt it already, but it becomes more true in this uber-isolated area.
The reward for getting this far is to get to see glacier O’Higgins: 3 kilometers long, 70 meter high: it is one of the most impressive of all the Southern Hemisphere, along with the much more accessible Perito Merino in Argentina, and Glacier Pio IX – which is even less accessible. You need to arrange a boat tour with Villaohiggins.com to get to see the glacier.
Why not Caleta Tortel?
If you have read about this part of Chile, you may have found information about a tiny village called Tortel, or Caleta Tortel. To be honest, I find it rather overrated. Yes, the village is unique in the sense that it has no streets, but instead features wooden paths above the ground that connect all the houses together. It is neat. But it takes an additional drive to get there, the road is pretty bad, and my biggest disappointment was that the village is very dirty: if you look below the wooden paths, you will see all sorts of garbage, including rotten washing machines, contaminating the water. This is a big bummer, in my humble opinion.
Some final tips:
Rent a 4×4, not a regular car:
Some parts of the road are difficult, and considering that the road can get very muddy at times due to the heavy rains, it’s better to be safe and rent a 4×4. If you can, just in case, rent an additional spare tire, so that you have two spares. Also, consider filling the tank every single time you see a gas station: there aren’t many along the road.
Bring food and water:
There are only villages and small towns along the road (the biggest “city”, Coyhaique, has about 50,000 habitants). Therefore, food options are quite limited – especially if you like fruits and vegetables. So, bring that with you from Puerto Montt. And plenty of drinkable water, just in case.
Take your time:
Even though the road covers “only” 1240 kilometers, you cannot go very fast, and it happens frequently that the tracks are under repair; sometimes, they are flooded, or a tree has fallen down, and you might need to wait a couple of days to continue. I would recommend you to dedicate 15 days to the road, considering that if you rent a car, you will need to return it back to Puerto Montt – or pay a hefty price to leave it at Coyhaique report. Also, by driving back and forth, you will have a chance to see places you miss on the way the first time because of bad weather.
This is a truly unique journey, with jaw-dropping landscapes and a path into wilderness. Again, it’s best to take your time. As the locals say: “Whoever hurries in Patagonia, wastes their time”. That’s some wisdom right there!
Avid traveler, journalist and writer, he moved away from his native France back in 2006 and settled in Chile. After visiting the country North to South, learning extensively about its culture, History, gastronomy, Thomas started to work as a tour guide. He liked it so much that he ended up creating his own tour agency in Valparaiso, where he lives today. You can visit my site at: https://chileprivatetours.com/