The Carretera Austral in Chile is definitely the highlight of Patagonia as this 1,200 km long road takes you to the most impressive corners of the region which are still fairly unknown. I myself have already completed the entire route twice (2013 & 2016), thus having spent a total of one month in this part of Chile. With this article I sum up my personal top 10 places to visit along the Carretera Austral.
Route 7 runs from Puerto Montt down to Villa O’Higgins and represents quite a challenge as the track is mostly a gravel road. Tourism in this area is not as pronounced as it is in other parts of the country, as regular bus routes, accommodations and detailed info is hard to find.
But in this seclusion lies the attraction and a special charm. During my last trip I met very few travelers from Europe and North America. The locals welcomed me warmly and most attractions were not crowded.
1) Fjords in the North & Pumalin Park, Chaitén
When you take the route from north to south, it’s already impressive from the start. To go from Puerto Montt to Chaiten you have to make three long crossings, through the fjords of Patagonia and its temperate rainforests in the Pumalin Park.
The Pumalin Park is located between Hornopiren and Chaiten and is one of the first conservation projects by the American Douglas Thompkins (founder of The North Face), who bought particularly large areas in the region to put them under protection.
2) Queulat Glacier & National Park, Puyuhuapi
The Bay of Puyuhuapi itself is a beautiful spot to have a 2-3 day stopover. Another one is the Queulat National Park, with its hanging Glacier.
In the Queulat National Park you can hike to the lookout point which offers the best view of the enormous glacier. But be sure to start your day as early as possible in order to get there before the majority of tourists arrive. Another option to get up close to the glaciers is by boat.
3) Rio Futaleufú, Futaleufú
I ‘ve already raved about this river, but I have to emphasize once again: even though Futeleufú isn’t exactly located on the Carretera Austral, this little side trip is totally worth it. The river is considered one of the best rivers for whitewater rafting, and the landscape that surrounds it is like a painting (especially in March/April). I went rafting there in April 2013 for 3 days and can highly recommend it!
4) Cerro Castillo, Villa Cerro Castillo
On my first trip I only passed through, but I vowed to give it more time on my next trip. I followed through on this in 2016 and took on the day hike up to the Cerro Castillo. The view of the castle-like peaks (hence the name) and its glacier in combination with the front of the glacier is unique – the same applies to the view in the Ibañez River valley during ascent and descent.
If you bring more time: the multi-day circuit hike is one of the most beautiful treks in Patagonia and is a real find! The starting point of the trek is “Horquetas Grandes”: you should plan 4 days for this and be fully equipped (there are only wild camps). You can get corresponding info and tickets in Coyhaique (Tourist Info & Outdoor Shops, also guides if desired).
5) Marble Caves & Lago General Carrera
In the next 2-3 days, you should stop in Puerto Rio Tranquilo, which is right on the banks of the second-largest lake in South America. The place is known for its marble caves beneath marble monoliths that extend not far from Puerto Rio Tranquilo. You can book on-site tours by boat, for example, with my buddy Pato of Exploasur.
In addition to the caves, the Lago General Carrera itself is true eye candy!
6) Exploradores Glacier, Pto. Rio Tranquilo
The second attraction you shouldn’t miss in Puerto Rio Tranquillo is the glacier tour, on and through the Exploradores Glacier inside the Laguna San Rafael National Park. In my opinion this is one of the best places to visit along the Carretera Austral in Chile. This one-day tour requires physical fitness, but is well worth the effort. Using crampons, it takes you across the ice and through impressive glacial caves.
It is hard to find a full-day glacier tour (starting at about 9am) in Patagonia as budget friendly as this one – for the complete package with transportation, guide, equipment and food, we paid just 50€ per person!!
7) Rio Baker & Parque Patagonia, Cochrane
The biggest city in the southern part of the Carretera Austral is Cochrane. Between Cochrane and Lago General Carrera, the road passes through a picturesque river landscape where the turquoise Rio Baker winds through the valley. The Rio Baker is considered the river with the biggest rapids in the country and is therefore also very good place for rafting.
Another insider tip is one of the newest National Parks of Patagonia, and the latest project of the recently deceased Douglas Thompkins: the Parque Patagonia. The area is situated northeast of Cochrane and has several great day hikes and multi-day treks on offer – route suggestions and even maps can be found on the very informative website of the park.
8) Caleta Tortel
The only place I haven’t visited so far, but absolutely belongs on this list is Tortel. After talking with locals as well as seeing pictures and hearing reviews from fellow travelers, I realized that this timber pile founded village is worth a visit. However, it is almost impossible to get to Caleta Tortel by hitchhiking (which I did both times)…but now there is a regular minibus service from Cochrane.
9) Hiking in Villa O’Higgins
The end of the Carretera Austral has a special vibe and is surrounded by glaciers, mountains and plenty of water. It’s a paradise for hikers and mountaineers. Again, a longer stay here to take on the unknown walks and expeditions in the area around Villa O'Higgins is worth the effort.
Meanwhile, there are also locally relevant maps and routes. I recommend the hostel “El Mosco” as a base – Fili is a good soul, knows the area well and can help you plan trips.
10) O’Higgings Glacier, Villa O’Higgins
As you can see, there are countless glaciers along the Carretera Austral, but this one is particularly impressive as it calves into the turquoise Lago O'Higgins and is difficult to get to. Starting from Villa O'Higgins, there is a boat that goes to the glacier approximately every 2-3 days in the summer season.
In addition the same boat allows the trek to El Chaltén, starting from the Candelario Mansilla farm. All in all it’s a 2-3 day undertaking from Villa O'Higgins, but it is definitely worthwhile. I've done this tour twice, once coming from El Chalten and once from Villa O'Higgins. It is also possible to start the tour to the glacier from Candelario Mansilla, as the boat stops here first to leave disembarking passengers who only booked the crossing, before it goes to the glacier and then again around Candelario Mansilla back to Villa O'Higgins.
Before you go
As tourism in this region is not yet as pronounced, you will find yourself renting rooms and using the transport of the locals. Accordingly it is very important to learn Spanish (e.g. with an online course by Babbel) because you need to organize most of the things in the destination (bus connections, place to sleep or pitch a tent, food, activities) and it is difficult to get along without proper language skills.
You should also have sufficient cash on you because ATMs are only available in a few places, however, you can sometimes pay for accommodation by credit card (I have often used my Visa Card). You can get a good map of the Carretera Austral for free at the tourist office in Puerto Montt.
Beside my Patagonia Packing list I recommend my complete Chile Travel Guide where you can find more information about traveling Chile:
Backpacking in Chile: my Chile Travel Guide
This is a clear and concise 100 page eBook based on my experience from 4 months traveling through Chile.
It includes travel guides for each region of Chile as well as a complete trekking guide for Torres del Paine, plus route itineraries. Checklists are included to help make sure you don’t forget anything.
>> Learn more
More places to visit along the Carretera Austral in Chile?
Have you been traveling the Carretera Austral as well and have more to add to this list? Feel free to let me know in the comments!
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