The Carretera Austral is one of the world’s best road trips. Ruta 7 cuts through 1200 kilometres of the most picture perfect Patagonian landscapes imaginable.
From Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins, the scenery is simply out of this world. And the best thing about it? Despite its incredible beauty, hardly anyone visits!
So you get to share rural Patagonia in Chile with almost no other tourists.
Here’s how we did the Carretera Austral road trip last summer.
Carretera Austral road trip route | Overview
We drove the Carretera Austral route from north to south, a total of 1116 miles including our diversions.
You can easily drive the route in reverse if you’d prefer. We favoured driving into the scenery rather than leaving the best behind us.
Before we provide the day by day breakdown of our Carretera Austral road trip, we want to give you a few pointers about the map above and the post in general.
- You can open the map within Google Maps to give you a full scale interactive view and a little more detail on directions and driving distances.
- We use maps.me as our GPS on all our road trips, although an offline copy of Google Maps works too.
- One of our main tips for any Carretera Austral road trip is to at least have some basic camping gear with you so you can take advantage of the hundreds of wild camps along the route.
- This road trip is the one we recommend you follow. It’s (almost) identical to the one we followed in all except duration and a few diversions we included. We’ve mentioned in the post wherever our route differed to our recommendation.
- Our 21 day Carretera Austral road trip actually took 31 days, mostly because we had the time to spare and couldn’t drag ourselves away from some idyllic locations.
- This recommended road trip takes in all the main attractions along the way and included time to enjoy the great outdoors.
That is after all, what the Carretera Austral is all about.
Carretera Austral road trip | Day by day
Day 1 | Puerto Montt to Caleta Gonzalo by ferry
Distance driven | 124 miles / 198 kilometres plus 3 ferries
Things to do | Enjoy a 5 hour fjord cruise
Description | The Carretera Austral road trip kicks off with a long day. The 2nd ferry leaves Hornopirén at 10:30am so an early start is in order. The ferry through the fjords is spectacular, a taster for what’s to follow.
Where to stay | Camp at Sendero Cascada Escondido (free before mid December and after mid February)
- Make sure you’ve stocked up on supplies in Puerto Montt before you leave. It’ll be a while before you find another well stocked supermarket.
- You must book your ferry ticket in advance for the journey from Hornopirén to Caleta Gonzalo. Book here.
- Split this day into 2 so you don’t need to leave Puerto Montt so early. Spend the first night in (or near) Hornopirén.
- We by-passed this stretch of the Carretera Austral. Instead we visited Chiloe Island and picked up the Carretera Austral on day 2 (coming up next).
Day 2 | Hiking in Pumalin Park
Distance driven | 0 miles / 0 kilometres
Things to do | Hiking up to waterfalls, walk through the Alerces forest full of the southern equivalent of the redwood trees
Where to stay | 2nd night camp at Sendero Cascada Escondido
Description | Today is all about getting into the great outdoors with a couple of easy hikes to get you limbered up.
Day 3 | Hike Chaiten Volcano
Distance driven | 20 miles / 33 kilometres
Things to do | Climb a smouldering volcano
Where to stay | Santa Barbara beach (free wild camp on black sand), Chaiten town if not camping
Description | A short drive today to the start of the Chaiten Volcano trail. The volcano erupted in 2008 so continues to smoulder.
The hike was pretty hard going – at least for us – with a relentless climb to the top but so worth it.
- There’s no water sources on the volcano so bring your own reusable water bottle.
- Santa Barbara beach is a wonderful overnight wild camp and you can watch dolphins and seals playing in the shallows from the shore.
- Chaiten town is small but has a couple of convenience stores. Pick up anything you need here from the limited choice on offer.
Day 4 | Drive to Camping Ventisquero
Distance driven | 27 miles / 44 kilometres
Things to do | Chill your beans on this picture perfect campsite
Where to stay | Camping Ventisquero (free before mid December and after mid February)
Description | Still within Pumalin Park, this campsite is picture perfect. Set within well manicured grounds and designed so each pitch has privacy, you’ll feel you’re alone with nature here. A perfect place to rest your weary legs and enjoy a bbq with spectacular views of mountains and hanging glaciers.
- The showers are cold here (at least out of season). Glacier water is mighty cold! You’ll feel alive after that if you didn’t before!
- Bring all your own supplies – there’s no shops here.
Day 5 | Hike to Michinmahuida Glacier
Distance driven | 0 miles / 0 kilometres
Things to do | Hiking opportunities to the hanging glacier Michinmahuida
Where to stay | Camping Ventisquero
Description | If your legs have recovered from the Chaiten hike, take the 20 kilometre circular trail to the bottom of Michinmahuida Glacier. If not, there’s a couple of short trails to viewpoints of the glacier.
- When we stayed at Camping Ventisquero the horse flies were out in force. Wear neutral colours to lessen the annoyance.
Read these articles to help prepare for this trip:
- A guide to Pumalin Park
- 4 day hikes in Pumalin Park
- The definitive guide to Chilean Patagonia
- What to pack for Patagonia
Day 6 | Hike to Yelcho Glacier
Distance driven | 26 miles / 42 kilometres
Things to do | Hiking to Yelcho hanging glacier
Where to stay | Free camping at the trail head
Description | While this maybe another hanging glacier (and the best is yet to come), it’s the hike itself that makes us add this to our list stops on this road trip. Expect to scramble, climb over damp moss covered fallen trees and crawl under overgrown brambles.
- If the weather isn’t great , keep a watchful eye on the river levels. We got so concerned just before dark the river was rising fast that we moved to a less than favourable roadside camp a few miles up the road.
Day 7 | Futaleufú
Distance driven | 58 miles / 98 kilometres
Things to do | White water rafting
Where to stay | Free riverside camping 1 kilometre out of town (check on ioverlander)
Description | Diverting off the Carretera Austral the road towards the white water rafting mecca of Futaleufú. Turn left off Ruta 7 at the tiny village of Santa Lucía.
Santa Lucía was hit by an almighty landslide in December 2017. Many villagers lost their lives and homes. Today, the village is rebuilding and while the local shop doesn’t have fantastic choice, it does have some of the best empanadas on Ruta 7!
- We swam in the freezing cold river in Futaleufú on a blistering hot day. But be warned, the currents are strong so take care!
- Stock up in Futaleufú for at least the next 4 days.
Day 8 | Raúl Marin Balmaceda
Distance driven | 137 miles / 220 kilometres
Things to do | Soak up the views, dolphin spotting and penguin watching
Where to stay | Free wild camping on dolphin beach
Description | This is a long drive but a beautiful one. Gravel tracks and wonderful waterfalls line the route along the Rio Palena. And expect a few inquisitive dolphins and penguins to check out your arrival.
- The sand is very soft on the trails to the beach so take extra care. If you’re not used to sand driving, don’t. You’ll find camping spots on firmer ground.
- Make sure you camp above the high tide line.
Day 9 | Puyuhaupi
Distance driven | 77 miles / 123 kilometres
Things to do | German style architecture, handmade carpets and hot springs
Where to stay | We stayed at Camping Serena – the first paid campsite of the road trip – on the shore of the lake. Basic but with hot showers and ok wifi.
Description | There isn’t enough superlatives to describe the drive into Puyuhaupi. Just driving along the edge of Lago Risopatrón alone was worth the journey to get here.
Puyuhaupi itself is a pretty sleepy. We spent a few days here (the wifi was a big drawer and helped us post a few updates on social media).
We hiked up to a great vantage point overlooking the inlet and peered through the windows of the closed carpet weaving hut.
It opens for visits – so we’re told – but it was always closed when we tried.
For a real treat (if you can afford it), enjoy a spa at the Puyuhaupi Lodge and the natural hot springs. Our budget didn’t stretch too this but we’ve heard its complete luxury.
- The hike up to the vantage point is signposted. Because it crosses private land, there’s a small price of about $2 US.
- When we went, the ticket booth was unattended so we carried on anyway. It wasn’t long before a gaucho turned up on horseback for his fee.
Day 10 | Queulat National Park & Ventisquero Colgante
Distance driven | 15 miles / 25 kilometres
Things to do | Hike to Ventisquero Colgante
Where to stay | We stayed at a wild camp, hidden from the road by a huge boulder. Popular with other overlanders, 4 camping vehicles parked here at the same time. There’s also a basic campsite in Queulat National Park.
Description | If there’s only one hanging glacier to see, it’s this one. There’s a 3 routes through the park for views of the glacier.
Arrive early enough and you can fit all 3 into 1 day. We opted for the shortest one (without the boat trip). When we arrived at the top it was raining and overcast, almost obscuring the entire glacier.
As we sat it out, we were in no doubt from the thunderous crashing of ice boulders, we were witnessing climate change first hand. Eventually the cloud lifted enough and we had incredible views.
- Entrance to Queulat National Park is 5000 CLP per person. If you camp within the park , you don’t need to pay for the 2nd day.
Day 11 | Waterfalls, scenery & river camp
Distance driven | 64 miles / 103 kilometres
Things to do | A beautiful drive with loads of stopping for photos
Where to stay | We stayed at a wild camp, on a river bank about 30 kilometres north of Villa Manihuales
Description | This stretch of road was one of our favourites along the entire length of the Carretera Austral.
The weather was bleak, stubborn mist hiding the mountain peaks long into the day. This only added to the atmosphere.
In parts, the gravel track was slippery, and the roadside cambers steep demanding cautious progress.
We stopped at so many waterfalls along the way too. This is what we envisaged the Carretera Austral road trip would be like before we started.
And to top it all off, we ended our day in a wild camp beside a fast flowing river surrounded by wild lupins. Just glorious.
- The roads are quite hazardous along this stretch. They’re narrow with steep cambers and lots of blind bends. Oncoming traffic doesn’t always display the same fear factor of these hazards so proceed with caution.
- At this point, we diverted off the Carretera Austral again and visited the San Rafael Glacier on a boat trip.
Day 12 | Coyhaique to resupply
Distance driven | 71 miles / 114 kilometres
Things to do | Shopping, chores and Piedra del Indio (Indian’s Stone)
Where to stay | We stayed at the creatively named El Camping campsite, a short walk from the town centre
Description | Coyahaique is the only major town along the Carretera Austral. So take your time here to resupply for the 2nd half of the journey.
With supermarkets, laundries, bars and restaurants, Coyhaique has everything you need, albeit it a little dull as towns go.
Day 13 | Hiking in Coyhaique National Reserve
Distance driven | 6 miles / 10 kilometres
Things to do | Easy hiking
Where to stay | We stayed a 2nd night at El Camping in Coyahique
Description | Coyhaique National Reserve is home to pumas, wild cats and foxes and a wealth of maintained hiking trails.
Perhaps not as exciting as some of the hikes in Patagonia, we enjoyed the peace and quite along a trail that didn’t leave us exhausted.
We took the leisurely 11 kilometre trail rather than the 17 kilometre route to the summit of Cerro Cinchao. Although plagued by Patagonia’s infamous horse flies on the first half of the trail we somehow carried on.
It’s nothing especially challenging but it’s pleasant enough with views back into Coyhaique and 3 lovely lakes.
- You can get a taxi to the entrance to of the reserve from Coyhaique if you don’t have your own transport.
Day 14 | Drive to Villa Cerro Castillo
Distance driven | 60 miles / 96 kilometres
Things to do | Drive!
Where to stay | We stayed at a wild camping spot at the bottom of the Cerro Castillo hiking trail Description | We had a late start out of Coyhaique and drove the short distance to Villa Cerro Castillo.
Another completely stunning route. You get the idea now don’t you? Literally every turn of the entire Carretera Austral presents another wow landscape. It kind of gets boring and very repetitive!
Day 15 | Hiking up Cerro Castillo
Distance driven | 0 miles / 0 kilometres
Things to do | Hike up Cerro Castillo
Where to stay | We stayed a 2nd night at the bottom of the trail
Description | Don’t miss this. The hike isn’t easy.
We set out at 7am and finished the14 kilometre hike about 3pm. The top half is loose shale so walking poles will come in handy. And its steep, climbing over 1 kilometre in altitude over the 7 kilometre trail.
The dramatic views at the top easily match those of Fitz Roy and Torres del Paine – and shrouded in mist for us.
Nevertheless, this hike is magical and we had the entire trail almost to ourselves. Unlike anything we could hope to experience at Fitz Roy or Torres del Paine.
- It gets pretty cold at the top so make sure to wear layers and bring a hat and gloves too.
Day 16 | Puerto Rio Tranquilo
Distance driven | 76 miles / 122 kilometres
Things to do | Boat trip to the Marble Caves (Capilla de Mármol)
Where to stay | We stayed at a wild camping spot a little way out of town towards Glacier Exploradores (more on that in a moment)
Description | Yet another must-do on the Carretera Austral. Chile’s Marble Caves date back over 6000 years. The incessant waves of the brilliant blue lake carve the caves out of calcium carbonate rock.
With impossible columns of pale green, blue and turquoise swirls holding up the roof, this boat is worth every peso.
- Lago General Carrera gets pretty choppy and can make for an uncomfortable boat ride. If you have a bad back, try to go when the water is calm.
- Arrange your boat trip to the Marble Caves from Puerto Rio Tranquilo for around 10000 CLP each. For boats leaving soonest (and with space), you can probably haggle the price down a little.
Day 17 | Glacier Exploradores
Distance driven | 18 miles / 28 kilometres
Things to do | Glacier trekking, driving
Where to stay | We stayed at a 2nd night at the wild camping spot near Puerto Rio Tranquilo
Description | We had long looked forward to driving this stretch of road. Renowned for dramatic mountain peaks, hanging glaciers and crystal clear rivers the road skirts around the edge of the Northern Patagonian Icefield.
Unfortunately, a few months before we arrived, there had been a catastrophic landslide, blocking the road and creating a new lake.
The route now is impassable by vehicle. But of course tourism in the region can’t be affected by something so trivial. Excursions out the Glacier Exploradores now involve a boat trip!
We opted to drive as far as we could down this road (the X-728) and leave the glacier hiking to those a little fitter than us!
Despite the road closure, this short stretch of road was our favourite in all of Patagonia – not just the Carretera Austral. It’s simply stunning.
- If you plan on taking the excursion to Glacier Exploradores and the Marble Caves, book with the same tour company and negotiate a good price.
Day 18 | Cochrane to resupply
Distance driven | 69 miles / 111 kilometres
Things to do | Resupply, Rio Nef meets the Rio Baker
Where to stay | We stayed at the spot marked on iOverland above the town
Description | Cochrane is a small town with expensive fuel and a supermarket. So perfect for resupplying.
On the way into town, make sure to stop off at the short trail to the confluence of the Rio Nef and Rio Baker. The waters are powerful here and you can see the 2 different colours of the rivers combine.
Day 19 | Caleta Tortel
Distance driven | 78 miles / 125 kilometres
Things to do | Explore the boardwalked town of Caleta Tortel
Where to stay | We stayed at a wild camp on the shores of the wild Rio Baker
Description | We had Caleta Tortel on our must see list for this road trip. We also hoped we’d be able to arrange passage with Baloo to Puerto Natales.
Unfortunately, the gods were against us. Caleta Tortel is indeed a unique town. Build into a steep rocky hillside where the Rio Baker meets the ocean (in an inlet), no cars can enter.
Instead, pedestrians and resident negotiate the town along raised boardwalks through dense foliage.
After a short walk around and finding no room on the next ferry to Puerto Natales for Baloo, we felt we’d seen everything in the town we wanted to. It was our only anti-climax of the entire road trip.
Day 20 | Lago Bertrand and Lago General Carrera
Distance driven | 116 miles / 185 kilometres
Things to do | Swim in the crystal clear lakes
Where to stay | We stayed at a wild camp on the shores of Lago Bertrand
Description | The Carretera Austral ends a short distance from Caleta Tortel, at Villa O’Higgins. There’s no way further south from there with our camper van so we had to head north.
We opted to miss Villa O’Higgins and returned to Lago General Carrera, passing through Cochrane again.
Lago General Carrera is almost 1000 square kilometres and is the 2nd largest lake in South America, after Lake Titicaca.
After a few hours photographing the picture postcard views, we settled into a perfect camp on the shore of Lago Bertrand.
Day 21 | Chile Chico and enter Argentina
Distance driven | 74 miles / 118 kilometres
Although not strictly on the Carretera Austral, the road out to Argentina via Chile Chico was (yet) another glorious one.
In parts the road is precarious. Sheer cliffs and loose sandy, shale make for long dust trails. Unguarded hairpin bends could prove fatal for those daring to drive too fast.
But a sensible pace and a good distance from any vehicles in front make for a wonderful end to the journey.
We camped up near the border town of Chile Chico.
Over the course of a few hours, we savoured the last drops of summer sun on an isolated lakeside beach, tasted our own fine dining from the bbq, sipped a big Chilean red and contemplated just how perfect our Carretera Austral road trip had been.
What would we do differently?
In all honesty, not that much.
Although we’re glad we went to Caleta Tortel, it didn’t live up to our expectations. So while we’d definitely drive the Carretera Austral again, we’d probably skip the journey south of Cochrane.
We’d also add a visit to Patagonia National Park onto our itinerary. We’ve heard terrific things about the scenery and hiking trails in Patagonia’s newest national park.
It’s located between Cochrane and Lago General Carrera we could have done this and saved a couple of hundred kilometres.
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