The adventure is waiting for you in one of the most original regions of Patagonia! The journey is the reward and hitchhiking the best way to travel in this remote area. In this guide by Claudia from Backpacking Hacks you will find all substantial information about the best stops, travel planning and tips to go.
Away from it all lures a stunning landscape with snowcapped mountains, glaciers, fjords and a pristine nature. The Carretera Austral is known as one of the most beautiful roads in the world and south america. You still can find the old Patagonia with its rough atmosphere here.
Construction of the Carretera Austral
For a long time this region was only reachable by water plane or ship. In the 70s the dictator Pinochet initiated the construction of the road which took over twenty years to finalize. A remarkable challenge for the builders to find a path through the forests, mountains, fjords and rivers.
Till today the construction continues on the 1.247 km long route. Only a small part around the province capital Coyhaique is already covered with tarmac. The rest is a dusty gravel road with lots of potholes.
If you take the challenge of the trip you will be rewarded with unforgettable memories! You need patience and improvisation skills though to hitchhike the full length from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins. So let’s go!!!
8 highlights of the Carretera Austral
1. Glacier O’Higgins
Really worth it is the boat trip to the glacier. Even more if you’ve never been close to one. It’s a stunning experience to pass along the impressive 70 up to 80 meter high ice wall. You really can feel the chill and hear the cracks. The ice is alive!
The O’Higgins is the fourth largest glacier of South America. Part of the fun is the ride on the gorgeous turquoise colored lake. You don’t even loose time by this trip because the detour is on the ferry which also takes you directly to Villa O’Higgins.
2. Caleta Tortel
In 2003 the road to Caleta Tortel was built. Before you had to take the boat on the Rio Baker to get there. In the 50s they originally established the village for the timber industry and the local loggers. These days you will feel that the pioneering spirit still exists! The simple timber houses are nestled along the fjord. The green water sparkles inviting. It’s a very picturesque town! Instead of streets you will only find boardwalks.
3. Confluencia Rio Baker Neff
My insider tip: At this spot two torrential rivers unite. This is just stunning beautiful: rapids and ice blue water that end in a canyon.
The lookout lies on private property so be prepared that it’s forbidden to camp.
4. Puerto Rio Tranquilo
The valley gets wider around here and is bordered on both sides by snowcapped peaks. The Lago General Carrera shimmers in a strong turquoise. It is the second largest lake in South America and up to 590 meters deep.
From Puerto Rio Tranquilo you can take a boat trip to the marble caves. The water hollowed the rock from bottom up and shaped round curves. Now it’s a piece of art!
5. Cerro Castillo
To explore the mountains you best set your base in Villa Castillo from where you can set out for a day hike. Or even longer for the Circuito Cerro Castillo, a spectacular 4-day-hike with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and glaciers. The trek ends a bit further north on the Carretera Austral from where you can continue to hitchhike.
We had bad luck with the weather so we waited two days but it was still raining a lot and very windy. The capricious weather is typical for Patagonia, so you have to be flexible and adapt your plans eventually.
6. Parque Queulat
My insider tip: Bosque Encatado – Enchanted Forrest. Everywhere it is dropping from the trees, the underwood is dense and everything is covered by a layer of moss and lichen. Only a green twilight penetrates the branches. The tree trunks are rotting on the ground, it’s damp and muddy. In between purls a small water stream.
This wild rain forest comes completely unexpected and I’ve been really enchanted. You will find all kind of green colors with red dots of flowers. Hummingbirds are circling around your head and feed of the sweet nectar.
Just around the corner is the main attraction of the park, the Ventisquero Colgante. An impressive hanging glacier with his tongue poking over the edge of the mountain. There is a hiking path (3-5 hours return) to a spectacular outlook.
The anthracite rock and the intense ice blue create a strong contrast. The melting water falls in two waterfalls down the cliff and hits the rock wall thunderously. What a view!
Since the eruption of the volcano in May 2008 the city is a shadow of one’s former self. After 9.000 years the volcano awakened with a blast. A huge ash cloud arouse and rapidly spread. The area was overrun by a mud wave and the river changed to a new bed.
The 8.000 residents were evacuated last-minute. Only slowly some people return nowadays, but most of them moved to the island Chiloe, Puerto Montt or the close by Santa Barbara.
It’s actually a ghost town, the village hasn’t changed since the incident. The time stands still here! The houses are devastated. Everything is covered by a 50 to 120 cm thick layer of ash and mud. Everything is left behind like in the moment of the evacuation.
A morbid still life: a picture frame with a family photo still hanging at the wall, a turned over chair lies on the ground, everywhere are clothes lying around und a doll sits in the middle of the street. I can tell you, a very depressing and hostile atmosphere! No wonder, nobody wants to return. As we drive out of town we are surrounded by a grey moon landscape. Only slowly life returns.
8. Parque Pumalin
The park is a wild rain forest with huge tree giants, the Alecer. In the early 90s the private citizen Douglas Tompkins started to buy land to protect the nature. The US-millionaire was the former manager and owner of the brands of North Face and Esprit.
In the meantime the park consists of 325.000 hectare land. They support the ecological agriculture. The cutover areas are reforested and a gentle tourism established. The park has a good infrastructure, a few hiking trails and good equipped camping sites. For further information head to the website of the Parque Pumalin Website.
Guide for the Carretera Austral
1. Travel season
The Chilean summer is from December to February. Outside the high season you barely get a ride and only a few buses are still going.
2. Duration of journey
It took me two weeks for the trip. But I really recommend to take more time ideally three to four weeks (min. 2 weeks). Then you can enjoy more spots along the way and react to the unpredictable weather.
It’s by far the most expensive area of Patagonia because of the remote position and the long transport routes for all the goods. With hitchhiking and wild camping you can save a lot of money. In 2013 we spent 28 US$ per person and day. Included are the expensive boat trip to the glacier, four stays in a hospedaje and the costs of food.
The Chilean side of Patagonia gets all the rain. The weather is unpredictable and most of the time it’s windy. The summer is quite short.
5. Conditions of the road
Only between Puerto Cisnes to Villa Castillo the road is paved. The rest is a simple gravel road with lots of potholes.
If starting in the South you should organize Chilean Pesos ahead. The next stop where you’ll find a working ATM is Coyhaique.
Coming from the North you can get Argentine Pesos in El Chalten at the end of the trip. The ATM is only maintained every couple of days so sometimes it can be empty.
2. Speak Spanish
You are lost without Spanish in this remote area of Chile. It’s essential to communicate with the drivers who give you a ride. So you better learn at least the basics if you don’t want to miss all the fun of getting to know the people and country better.
A rain jacket and a warm fleece sweater are essential, also in summer. You also need a rain cover for your backpack. The tent should be built solid to withstand the strong winds and heavy rain.
I only traveled with a summer sleeping bag so some nights I was freezing. Therefore I strongly recommend bringing a warmer one. We also brought a camping stove, a pot, cutlery and plates. It was great to be self-sustaining and camp even in remote places!
4. Helpful websites
- The Official Travel Guide to Chile (english)
- Official website of the province Aysen (only spanish)
- Wikitravel (english)
The main route is 1.247 km long. It goes from Puerto Montt(North) down to Villa O’Higgins (South).
You have to take three free ferries, for one you have to pay. The one next to Hornopiren takes two hours and passes through an amazing landscape.
Coyhaique is the capital of the province and the only big city along the way.
There are several border crossings to Argentina.
In Chaiten you can take the ferry to the neighboring island Chiloe.
2. Travel direction
It doesn’t matter if you go from North to South or vice versa. At the end of summer I met more people traveling in Northern direction.
Starting point in the North
It’s easy to reach Puerto Montt and continue your way down to Hornopiren.
Starting point in the South
The Carretera Austral ends in nowhere, in Villa O’Higgins. You best start in El Chalten in Argentina to get to the Southern starting point. First you take a shuttle bus to Lago Desierto.
Now you have two options:
a) take a boat to cross the lake or
b) walk the 15 km along the lake which is a great hike (my favorite).
At the Northern end of the lake is the Gendarmeria stationed. Here you get you exit stamp. So don’t miss it or you have to come back all the way. Optional you can stay one night because it’s still a long way to go.
After another 5 km you pass two signs in the middle of the forest. “Bienvenidos en Chile” – only now you are passing the border. Another 15 km on a boring gravel road you reach finally the Chilean Gendarmeria. Here you need to register and get your entry stamp. Only 3 km more you find a house next to the ferry jetty where you can camp for the night.
For us that was a very exhausting day with overall 38 km which took us 8,5 hours. If that is too much for you then break it into two days and camp one night at Lago Desierto.
Still you haven’t reached the starting point. The next day you can catch the expensive ferry to Villa O’Higgins which takes 2,5 hours. I highly recommend paying a little bit more to visit the glacier O’Higgins.
Tips to go
1. Towns with accommodation
– Villa OíHiggins
– Caleta Tortel, there is a free camping ground
– Puerto Rio Tranquilo
– Villa Cerro Castillo, we did wild camping here
– Coyhaique, don’t spend time here it’s an ugly city
– Parque Queulat
– Parque Pumalin, there is a free camping ground
– Hornopiren, another free camping ground a little bit outside of town
Most of the time you only get basic stuff along the way. Food is in general expensive due to long transportation routes. If you are traveling by hitchhiking it’s a good idea to carry food for one up to three days with you. You never know how far you get and where you have to stay overnight.
Everywhere you get some bread. We took a jar of Dulce de Leche with us which was a life saver many times.
Most of the time you can drink the water out of the glacier streams. So there is no need to carry a lot of water with you. If you are not sure it’s best to cook it first.
3. Supply stations
Villa O’Higgins (Southern starting point): It’s a small town which was erected due to border disputes with Argentina. The last couple of years it’s growing bigger and bigger.
Cocrane is a small town. A good stopover to fill up the supplies.
Coyhaique is the capital of the province. It’s the only big city along the route. We only did our shopping and left as soon as possible. After adapting to the nature it was just too much.
We mainly supplied ourselves in supermarkets of this three spots above and only bought bread and some small stuff in the villages along the way.
ATM: We brought Chilean Pesos into the country and only refilled our cash in Coyhaique. There are now more ATMs along the way but I wouldn’t rely on them because they are not regularly refilled. The last thing you want is to run out of money in this remote area.
There are banks in Concrane, Coyhaique, Chile Chico and Puerto Aysen.
You get a ride of Chilean tourists. If you are lucky they still have a spare seat. But mostly residents pick you up. They are simple and helpful people and it’s easy to start a conversation.
A lot of times you jump on the back of a pickup. Unfortunately most of the drivers can only take you with them for a short distance and then you find yourself standing at the side of the road again. My favorite were the trucks which drove mostly long distances. It was quite comfy up there and you had an elevated view on the landscape.
2. Solo or with a friend
This is an advantage for men who can go alone. For women I downright disadvise to do it. It’s a remote area and you never know who takes you and where you can spend the night. Sometimes you have to pitch your tent in the darkness not knowing for sure if it’s a good spot.
It was easy for us to catch a ride also with the two of us. We met two Swiss women a couple of times who travelled together and made the same progress in distance. In total we were driving for 25 hours and waited 18 hours on the street. Not too bad considering the less traffic.
Alternative transport options
They are expensive, commute rarely and only in summer. Also part of the fun gets lost because you are not flexible with your stops. It’s also quite complicated to organize everything. Sometimes you can get stuck in a place for a couple of days.
It’s a popular route for Panamericana cyclist but it’s hardcore! The road conditions are fairly bad and you have to carry a lot of food due to only a few supply stations. Also you have to bring your own spare parts so you can fix your bicycle.
3. Rental car
In my opinion a normal car is sufficient but most rental companies forbid it. If money doesn’t matter it’s for sure the most comfortable way to travel. You can stop everywhere and do as you please.
Conclusion: An epic adventure in Patagonia is waiting for you!
For me personally this trip is one of the best things I’ve ever done during my travels. If you are interested in Patagonia, go there! Just take your time enjoy it to the fullest!
And afterwards send me a message and tell me how you liked it!
On her german blog Backpacking Hacks she shows you how to realize your travel dreams even without experiences. She shares her knowledge of travel planning, ingenious packing tips and smart tips to go.