06/10/2022

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The Carretera Austral, Chile – a 2022 travel guide

The Carretera Austral, Chile – a 2022 travel guide

Traveling the Carretera Austral or Route 7 in Patagonia is a lifetime adventure. The legendary road in Chile offers incredible scenery, a unique ecosystem, and a thrilling feeling of being in the wilderness. If you want to go off the beaten track, discover new places, do wild hikes and meet wonderful people, Chilean Patagonia is the right place for you.

We spent one month exploring the region. During that time we did several long-distance treks in Patagonia, spent weeks camping in the wilderness, and visited many off-the-beaten-path places. We absolutely loved this unspoiled region and definitely want to come back one day to explore more of the Carretera Austral, the ultimate place to travel for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers. If you have to choose a couple of places to visit in Chile I’d say the Carretera Austral and the Atacama desert are not to miss here.

The Carretera Austral, Chile – a 2022 travel guide
Beautiful scenery on the Carretera Austral in Chilean Patagonia

Carretera Austral, Patagonia, Chile

  • Total distance – 1240 km/770 miles
  • Starting point – Puerto Montt
  • Finishing point – Villa O’Higgins
  • Road conditions – ongoing road works, half of the way has been already paved, half is still in process.
  • Best season to travel – December – March, Patagonian summer
  • The cost of traveling – from US$15 per person (very budget) to US$90 pp. (comfortable)

Where does the Carretera Austral start and end?

The Carretera Austral starts in Puerto Montt, a beautiful town in the Lake District in southern Chile. From Puerto Montt, the road continues south for 1200 km/745 mi. It ends in Villa O’Higgins, a small town in the Aysen Region of Chilean Patagonia.

How long does it take to drive the Carretera Austral?

It depends on how many stops you want to make on your road trip and how long you want to stay in each place. I’d recommend having at least 1 week to drive the Carretera Austral. It gives your time to see the highlights of the region, do a couple of day hikes, and enjoy the tranquility and beauty of Chilean Patagonia. Spending 2 weeks driving the Carretera Austral would be perfect. In fact, the more time you have the better there are so many amazing places to visit that we could easily spend there a month or two.

Is the Carretera Austral paved?

The Carretera Austral is a permanent road construction site due to difficult rocky terrain, narrow fjords, mountains, rivers, and lakes it takes a lot of time to pave the road. Add to these unpredictable Patagonian weather; snow in winter, strong wind and rainfalls in summer, and an isolated location it takes a long time to get necessary construction vehicles here.

As of July 2022, Ruta 7 can be divided into two parts. The northern part from Puerto Montt to Coihaique 660 km/410 mi is paved with a bit of gravel road here and there. The southern part from Coihaique to Villa O’Higgins 580 km/360 mi is still mostly gravel road. It’s planned to complete paving the Carretera Austral in the next years. Some parts between the towns have already been paved. When planning your trip keep it in mind for obvious reasons it is much faster to travel on paved roads than on gravel.

Reasons we love Route 7 in Patagonia

  • The Carretera Austral is an unspoiled and incredibly beautiful region.
  • There are many outdoor activities to do here like hiking, kayaking, rock climbing, cycling, etc. It’s a real paradise for nature lovers.
  • There are many amazing day hikes in Patagonia; the majority of them don’t require special permits or guides.
  • Despite being a wild region there are no dangerous animals like bears or wolves to be worried about. There are pumas living in the area but they’re very shy and try to stay away from people.
  • Patagonia is a relatively safe place (as safe as a wild place can be).
  • Traveling the Carretera is a lifetime experience.

When is the best time to travel?

The spring/summer months of November to March are the best time to travel the Carretera Austral. Average daily temperatures reach 20°C. At night it goes down to 15°C. It’s warm and sunny, the days are long, and all tourist facilities are open.

Patagonian weather is very unpredictable even in the peak summer season you can get days with heavy rainfalls and heil. The wind is something to consider as well. December and January are the windiest months of the year. Even if it’s warm and sunny it can be very windy. It’s not a big problem if you travel by car or buy and stay indoors. If you cycle and camp you might have to adjust your plans according to the wind forecast.

January and February are the busiest months on the Carretera Austral it’s summer holiday time in Chile and Argentina. If you decide to come during that period it’s highly recommended to book accommodation, bus tickets, and activities long in advance.

We personally prefer traveling in November or March when the weather is still good and there are not too many tourists.

If you’re planning to visit Torres del Paine and to hike the famous W trek November to March are the best time to visit the park.

Alya climbing the ladder to get to the waterfall, Pumalin park, Carretera Austral
Alya climbing the ladder on the Cascada trail in Pumalín Park, Caleta Gonzalo, Carretera Austral

Carretera Austral travel cost

Accommodation

Camping is the most budget option here considering that in many places you can do wild camping if you don’t mind being without basic facilities of course. You can find established campsites in every town or village on the Carretera Austral. Average price CLP 7000/US$8 per person/per tent (depending on the campsite). 

Some bigger towns like Futaleufú or Coyhaique have traditional hostels with shared rooms and facilities, they cost about CLP 15000/US$16 per person. 

Hotels/guest houses are very common in the area there are many from very basic cabins to luxury spa lodges, here everything depends on your budget, be ready to pay from CLP 20 000/US$20 to CLP 40 000/US$40 per person. In general, for the price you pay in Patagonia in other countries, you can get better facilities.

Transport

Hitchhiking is the cheapest option to move around though it can be a bit frustrating and time-consuming. Cycling won’t cost much money as well but it will definitely take a lot of time, to cycle 1200 km partly on the gravel road is quite a mission.

Taking buses is not crazy expensive but sometimes you might get stuck in a place due to irregular bus service or no open spots on the bus. Buses do connect main towns on the Carretera and it’s possible to get around this way but you’ll have to plan in advance buses to some places go only a couple of times a week. In this post, you’ll find a spreadsheet with buses on the Carretera Austral. The average price for a ride is between CLP 10 000/US$10 and CLP 15 000/US$15 depending on the distance. For long-distance buses e.g. from Puerto Montt you’ll pay from CLP 20 000/US$20.

Renting a car is the most comfortable way to travel the Carretera Austral and probably the most expensive though it depends on what car you rent and between how many people you share it. The longer the rental period is the cheaper it gets per day. To rent a 5-seat sedan in Puerto Montt for 5 days will cost from US$160 or US$32 per day if you’re more than two people it might be cheaper than taking buses. You can always find someone to share a car with once you hit the road.

Sunset at the lake in Puyuhuapi, Patagonia
Beautiful sunset at the fjord in Puyuhuapi, Carretera Austral

Food

Making your own food is by far the cheapest way to eat in Patagonia, food in shops is more expensive than in the rest of Chile but it’s still quite affordable. Eating out is quite expensive in Patagonia considering what you get, the food is pretty basic here. If you want to save some money, make sure to book places with a kitchen or to carry a camping stove (if camping). Buying food in shops will cost CLP 10 000/US$10 per person per day. Eating out from CLP 10 000/US$10 per meal.

Activities and entrance fees

Hiking is basically free on the Carretera Austral. There are places where you pay the entrance fee but it’s usually not too much CLP 10 000/US$10 or so. Other activities are more pricey, e.g. doing a boat tour in Queulat National Park costs from US$40 per person, hiking on Exploradores Glacier in Puerto Río Tranquilo from US$60, etc.

How much to budget for the Carretera Austral

Backpacking (camping, hitchhiking, making own food, doing free activities like hiking) – from US$20 per person per day. 

Traveling with more comfort (budget hotels, buses, making food, some paid activities) – from US$50 per person per day.

Comfortable holiday (nice hotels, rental car, making food/eating out, paid activities) – from US$100 per person per day.

Chilean Gauchos riding horses and many sheep on the gravel road
In some parts of Patagonia, it looks like life hasn’t changed much in the last 60 years

Travel insurance for Patagonia

Whether you’re going to hike, cycle, or just travel around, Southern Patagonia is a very remote area which, of course, makes it very exciting to travel here but when going to such places, it’s recommended to have travel insurance in case something unexpected happens.

Traveling the Carretera Austral like any other adventure involves risks of getting an injury or losing some of the gear due to unpredictable weather conditions or just unfortunate circumstances. I know what I’m talking about I lost my entire backpack with everything in it while hitchhiking on the Carretera Austral, it fell out of the truck. We had to spend a couple of extra days in Coyhaique doing shopping.

World Nomads travel insurance company has special packages for outdoor and hiking lovers that cover you in case something goes wrong. Their insurance policy is very flexible you can buy it online while traveling for the whole period of a trip just to cover a specific activity. It takes only a couple of minutes to fill out the form online and get your insurance.

For the ultimate adventurous and hiking holiday combine a trip along the Carretera Austral with Torres del Paine National Park. The park offers a great variety of hiking routes from easy day-hikes to challenging multi-day treks.

Campbell with a backpack at the small green lake on the Cerro Castillo hike in Patagonia
Campbell at the beautiful Laguna Cerro Castillo, Patagonia

Carretera Austral road trip

This is by far the most comfortable and easiest way of traveling the Carretera Austral. Though we hitchhiked the whole way and it was fun but now when we have a toddler we’re preparing for another trip on the Carretera Austral and planning to rent a car. There are so many places that we couldn’t visit because hitchhiking there was difficult and there were no buses. Having a car gives you a lot of flexibility. We’ll probably rent at car in Puerto Montt and from there drive south.

It’s more expensive than taking a bus but you’ll have the freedom to go anywhere you want considering that buses don’t go everywhere. If you’re two and more people renting a car it might be even not much more expensive than taking a bus.

Renting a car will help you to save some money on accommodation and food. It’s easier to camp if you have a car. You can buy a lot of stuff in supermarkets in Puerto Montt where everything is significantly cheaper than on the Carretera.

If you’re only two people renting a car you might be able to find travelers to share the cost on the Carretera, at one of the campsites or hostels. Many people try to hitchhiking and get sick of it pretty soon and buses are not always available. 

Important to remember! If you’re going to travel the Carretera in the high season (end of December – January) remember about several ferries on the route, plan your trip according to the timetable and rather try to buy tickets a day before you go to secure the spot. 

Ferry crossings on the Carretara Austral

If you’re going to drive the Carretera Austral pay attention to the ferry crossings along the route. There are seveal places where driving is impossible and using a ferry is the only way to continue the trip.

Please, keep in mind that prices and times might slightly change.

Caleta La Arena – Caleta Puelche – daily, basically 24 hours a day, about 2 ferries every hour, the crossing takes 30min. Price CLP 10300/US$11 per car, passengers/pedestrians don’t pay.

Hornopirén – Caleta Gonzalo (Pumalín park) – daily, at 9 am, the journey takes 4 hours. Return daily at 3 pm. Price CLP 9200/US$10 per person, CLP 55000/US$60 per car. Strongly recommended buying tickets in advance.

Puerto Yungay – Barcaza Rio Bravo – daily, from November to March at 10 am, 12 pm, 3 pm, and 6 pm. From April to October at 12 pm and 3 pm. The journey takes 45min. Price – free for everybody.

A small town of Hornopirén from the ferry
On the ferry from Hornopirén to Caleta Gonzalo, Pumalín park

Carretara Austral by bus

It’s a good alternative if renting a car is not an option because it’s too expensive, nobody to share with, no driver’s license, etc., and hitchhiking doesn’t sound too appealing. Buses are one of the most popular ways of traveling the Carretera Austral but in high season they get very busy and sometimes it’s difficult to get a spot. It’s highly recommended to buy tickets in advance. If tickets are purchased only on a bus then you should come to the bus stop early to make sure you get in. Buses don’t go everywhere but they do go to the main towns on the route.

If you go by bus there is no need to worry about ferries your bus ticket includes any ferry ride that is on the way. We didn’t use buses but saw once how people couldn’t get on a bus because there was no space, it was at Villa Cerro Castillo, and there was only one bus a day going from Coyhaique towards Puerto Rio Tranquilo.

Torquoise lake surrounded by the lush green mountains with a hanging glacier on the background, Queulat Park, Carretera Austral
Hanging glacier in Queulat National Park, a great stop on the Carretera Austral

Getting to the Carretera Austral by ferry

There are several port towns in the area where it’s possible to get by ferry it might be a good option for those who want to get to Patagonia from Chiloe Island or those who prefer boats to buses and cars. Depending on how far you go by boat you’ll skip some parts of the Carretera, mainly the northern part. 

Ferry routes

Puerto Montt – Chaiten – leaves Mon at 12 pm. Tue, Wed, Thu, Fri, and Sat at 11 pm. The journey is 9 hours. Price CLP 30000*/US$32 per person, CLP 170 000/US$180.

Puerto Montt – Puerto Natales – leaves every Tuesday at 10 pm. The cruise takes 4 days and 3 nigths.  It operates from mid-October to April. Price from US$550 per person.

Quellón (Chiloe) – Puerto Cisnes – leaves Tue and Thu at 6 pm, Sat at 5 pm. It takes 12 hours. Price CLP 25 000/US$27 per person.

Quellón – Puerto Chacabuco (makes 9 stops on the route) – leaves every Wed and Sat at 11 pm. It takes 32 hours. Price CLP 39000/US$42.

*all indicated prices are for international adult tourists. Chilean nationals pay lower rates.

A small town of Villa O'Higgins and the gravel road of the Carretera Ausstral
Villa O’Higgins, the last kilometer of the Carretera Austral

Hitchhiking the Carretera Austral

It might be the most fun way of traveling the Carretera (you’ll meet many locals, make new friends, etc.) and at the same time the most time-consuming and sometimes frustrating. In the peak season, there are so many people hitchhiking that sometimes it can take hours to get a ride.

We spent two months hitchhiking the Carretera Austral and other parts of Patagonia and loved it but as I said before one time was enough, next time we’ll rent a car and will definitely stop to pick up hitchhikers! Hitchhiking does work pretty well in Patagonia and in Chile in general just remember if you go in January, or February you’ll have a lot of competition mainly from local students that are on holiday.

Hitchhiking tips

Patagonia is a safe place (no place can be 100% safe though) for traveling. We saw many female travelers hitchhiking alone, and we personally never heard any bad stories from the road, all the people we met there were extremely nice and helpful. We don’t want to say nothing can ever happen to you but chances are pretty small compared to most places in South America.

Hitchhiking is a part of Chilean culture many people who picked us up told us they did the same when they were younger and now they feel they have to give the favor back.

Don’t get disappointed and give up easily. Many first-time hitchhikers after an hour of waiting on the road give up, be patient, and sooner or later someone will pick you up.

Always make a big sign saying where you want to go.

Try to be original, funny, and different so that you can stand out n the crowd. Remember, there will be many people hitchhiking there. Often Chileans are more curious and interested to chat with foreigners, making it clear you’re from far away, writing the name of your country, or painting a flag on your sign might help you to get a ride quicker.

Talk to people in hostels, campsites are nice and social, there is a good chance you’ll meet someone who will invite you to join for a trip for free or to share petrol cost.

Many drivers told us they stop only for female travelers or couples because either they feel sorry for girls or just feel safer. If you’re a guy traveling alone try to team up with a girl or two it’ll increase your chances to be picked up.

Breathtaking sunset at the General Carreras Lake, Patagonia
View of Lago General Carreras on the way from Río Tranquilo to Cochrane

Carretera Austral cycling trip

It’s probably the ultimate adventure on the Carretera Austral and we would love to do it one day. When we were there we were quite jealous of cyclists, it’s a completely different way of experiencing the region and seeing things. We met both first-time cyclists (not many though) and experienced travelers and for both cycling in Patagonia seemed to be quite challenging.

The weather here is very unpredictable, it gets very windy, all of a sudden it starts raining so you must be prepared for tough days and long distances. Having the right gear and a good bicycle is quite important as well. It can be very challenging to cycle all 1200 km if you’re not a seasoned cyclist, it’s better to choose a part of the route.

Where to cross the border between Chile and Argentina?

There are several places along the route where you can cross the border between Chile and Argentina, here they are;

  • Palena
  • Futaleufú
  • Balmaceda
  • Chile Chico
  • Candelario Mancilla (ferry from Villa O’Higgins), only on foot or with a bicycle.

If you decide to extend your Patagonia adventure beyond the Carretera Austral you can get from Villa O’Higgins to El Chalten and explore the Argentinian part of Patagonia e.g. hiking routes in El Chalten or the stunning Perito Moreno Glacier.

Are there ATMs on the Carretera Austral?

Yes, bigger towns have ATMs in smaller places finding one is a problem. It’s always a good idea to draw cash every time you get a chance. Most hotels and supermarkets accept cards but campsites, small grocery stores, buses, etc. often don’t.

  • Puerto Montt is a very busy town with many shopping malls and ATMs.
  • Hualaihue, has two ATMs on the main square only one of them works with international cards, and supermarkets accept cards.
  • Caleta Gonzalo (Pumalin park), no ATMs, only cash.
  • Chaitén, no ATMs, credit/debit cards are accepted in a few places, can buy bus tickets only by cash.
  • Puyuhuapi, no ATMs, no cards accepted.
  • Coyhaique, a couple of ATMs, credit/debit cards accepted.
  • Villa Cerro Castillo, no ATMs, only cash.
  • Puerto Río Tranquilo, has no ATMs, some tour operators accept cards, some shops accept cards.
  • Cochrane, two or three ATMs on the main square.
  • Caleta Tortel, nothing to do without cash.
  • Villa O’Higgins, no ATMs, some shops accept credit/debit cards, campsites and ferries only cash.
Caleta Tortel, green lake, mountains covered in the forest
Caleta Tortel is a picturesque village on the Carretara Austral

Carretera Austral travel tips

Bring a tent, you’ll need it every day, it saves a lot of money and increases your chances to find accommodation during the peak season. 

Always have snacks with you in case you get stuck in the middle of nowhere.

Every time you are in a place with an ATM, draw money, it can be a problem in Patagonia, in some places, it’s difficult to get cash.

If you run out of cash and there are no ATMs nearby you can try to find a petrol station (usually they accept cards). Wait for a car to come and ask the driver if you can pay by card for his petrol and he pays you back in cash, explain your situation. In fact, you can do the same in a shop.

Always have the cash to pay entrance fees to the park, none of them accept cards.

It’s handy to have a stove and cooking set because not all campsites have a kitchen. Buying meals at cafes and restaurants is expensive, cooking will save a good portion of your budget.

Be ready to have bad or no Internet connection, if you want to download books/movies/maps do it before you start the Carretera Austral.

Everything in Patagonia is more expensive in order to save money, buy all the necessary gear and clothing beforehand.

What to pack for the trip?

Those who’re planning to camp and hike in Patagonia will definitely need camping gear and we’d recommend bringing good quality stuff, especially a tent, you’ll need one that can deal with strong winds and heavy rains.

A sleeping bag should be for comfort, we had one summer sleeping bag (14C comfort) and had to use it with a fleece inner otherwise it was too cold to sleep in it.

A sleeping pad can be either a cheap foam one or a blow-up, we prefer the second option it’s more comfortable for sleeping and it can fit in the backpack.

Cooking gear will be quite handy though many campsites in towns have some sort of kitchen you’ll still need your own pots and utensils as those are usually scares. You’ll definitely need a cooking set when going on a multi-day trek. Gas for camping stoves can be bought almost at any shop on the Carretera.

Comfortable shoes are a must-have for those who’re planning to hike, waterproof shoes are better as you can get quite a bit of rain even in summer. More details on gear and clothing you can find in our Patagonia packing list post.

Recommended books and guidebooks

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