I’m not entirely sure when I first became aware of the Carretera Austral. It might have been a talk at the Royal Geographic Society, when Bradt Guides launched their new guide to the road, or possibly before that when we started planning our trip and realised we wanted to travel down it. Either way, I was more than a little curious to know what this famous road would hold in store for us and to work out how we would travel it.
Now, after more than a month travelling nearly the whole length and having finished it, we’ve learnt a lot, overcome quite a few hitches and truly fallen in love with this extraordinary road, the part of the world it runs through and its people.
There’s quite a bit of history tied up with the Carretera Austral, not least that it was started under the auspices of one General Augusto Pinochet in the late 1970s. To say he was a controversial character would be an understatement, but this road might just be his lasting and most positive legacy. It runs from Puerto Montt to about 7km south of Villa O’Higgins at Bahia Bahamondes, for well over 1200km and connects a number of other towns, villages and hamlets that previously were very isolated and only accessible via plane or boat.
It is perhaps most infamous for its large sections of ripio, the unpaved large bore gravel road, which are the bane of the cyclists that ride its length and is most celebrated for the stunning scenery it runs through.
In a little more detail, it runs from Puerto Montt, south, via a plethora of national parks, including Pumalin, Queulat and Hornopiren as well as towns such as Chaiten, Coyhaique (the biggest and most developed town in the Carretera), Cochrane, Caleta Tortel and essentially ends at Villa O’Higgins.
We visited most of the towns on the Carretera, although we did skip the northern section between Puerto Montt and Villa Santa Lucia in favour of travelling through Argentina via Bariloche, El Bolson and Sequel, before hopping back over the border to Futaleufu in order to continue south to Coyhaique.
Well, why is always a bit of a redundant question with travel, and one which I tend to fall back on Edward Mallory’s words for – ‘because it is there’. Having said that, for us, it made sense geographically to follow it and really suited what we were looking to experience while travelling through southern South America – it’s wild, mountainous, sparsely populated and although at times challenging to travel on, not impossible.
Perhaps the simplest reason is just that it’s so damn beautiful. When the scenery is like this, do you really need more reason to go there?
The crux of the issue, and one that at times really is tricky. The easiest way to travel the Carretera would be to hire a car in Puerto Montt and drive it. But, that’s not the cheapest way to do it and wasn’t our chosen method, largely for that reason, but also because we wanted to travel the entire length and cross from Villa O’Higgins to El Chalten, which you can’t do by car – more on that here.
So, starting the trip. Not having done the stretch between Puerto Montt and Villa Santa Lucia, I can’t comment on that, but I would definitely recommend, if you are following that route, deviating from the Carretera slightly to visit Futaleufu. There are regular, cheap, daily buses from Villa Santa Lucia to Futaleufu and it is well worth visiting, even just for a few days to chill out. There are good hostels, beautiful walks and also the fantastic river to raft on. It’s the best rafting in South America, so worth it for that, if nothing else!
From Villa Santa Lucia, the road runs through La Junta, Puyuhuapi and Manihuales before reaching Coyhaique. At this point on the Carretera there is quite a bit of traffic and if you are game, hitch hiking is pretty easy, totally safe and fairly obviously the cheapest way to do it. We managed to get from Villa Santa Lucia to La Junta in the back of some huasos’ (Chilean cowboys) truck and then from La Junta, via a combination of three lifts of 4km, 15km and 5 hours we made our way all the way to Coyhaique. Two days to travel 350km, without spending a penny is not bad!
There are buses that go from Futaleufu to Coyhaique, but owing to landslides on the roads when we were trying to travel that way, they weren’t running or were severely delayed. It’s also worth nothing that, to the best of our knowledge, they only run on a Sunday at 11:30am and cost CP$28,000pp. We heard rumours of another company running daily buses, but didn’t actually ever find them. If, like when we were there, the buses aren’t running, then you can alternatively get a 1pm bus from Futaleufu to Villa Santa Lucia, which will cost you CP$2,000pp and take 3 hours, from there stick out your thumb and hope for the best.
Coyhaique, being the biggest town, has substantially better and more reliable transport links. It’s also definitely worth spending a few days in as it has good food, good bars and plenty of shops should you need anything for the journey to come.
The next likely stop on the road for you will be Cerro Castillo, which is a tiny town home to an incredible mountain and some excellent, less well known climbing, apparently (we are not climbers, but friends who are spent 10 days there climbing). There are multiple buses that do this route, but we went with Buses Sao Paolo, which left from the bus terminal at 9:30am and cost us CP$5,000pp and takes about 1.5 hours. You might just have to prod the driver to remind him that you want to get off in Cerro Castillo though – our driver sailed on through and clearly hadn’t been told that anyone was stopping there.
From Cerro Castillo, it’s quite handy that there’s basically only one road south, so your chances of successful hitch hiking are substantially improved. We believe there are buses that run to the next logical destination, Puerto Rio Tranquilo (a.k.a. Puerto Tranquilo or Rio Tranquilo, depending on who you talk to), but we’d seen so many people being picked up when hitch hiking that we decided to just do that. Sure enough, the second car that passed us picked us up and took us the whole way.
Puerto Rio Tranquilo is home to the Marble Caves and is set on yet another of Patagonia’s beautiful lakes. It’s worth getting up early to see the sun rise over the lake, although the colours of the autumnal colours of the sunset weren’t bad either! You can either get a boat from one of the many tour operators on the waterfront in Puerto Tranquilo (CP$10,000) or you can go on a kayak excursion (CP$30,000).
The next stop is Cochrane, which is pretty easy to hitch to. Again, we believe there are buses, but we managed to get there by hitch hiking just fine. It’s around 2.5 hours and is through some spectacular scenery along the Rio Baker, which was recently saved from mega-dams. Cochrane is the last decent sized town on the Carretera and also the last place to take out money before El Chalten – so stock up!
From Cochrane, things get a little trickier, a lot wilder and altogether less well trodden. This is the point at which most people turn back north to cross into Argentina from Chile Chico and via Los Antiguos.
For those pressing on south though, you are in for a treat. From Cochrane, you can go to Caleta Tortel, which is really special. Getting there by hitch hiking from Cochrane proved to be the only time we failed completely. There’s very little in the way of traffic and it seems most of the locals use the buses. There are multiple buses a day run by Buses Pachamama and Buses Aldea and at the very least seem to go at 9:30am and 6:00pm on most days and cost CP$7,000pp. It is very advisable to get there early and be first in line to buy them, if not buy them in advance as even in low season the buses are fully booked.
It’s not hard to see why it’s a popular destination. Tortel is a tiny town that curls its way around the edges of a fjord and has no roads, only wooden boardwalks. You can walk the length, breadth and height of the town, from the mirador right at the top down to the little beachside gym, right at the far end of the town without touching the ground once. It’s well worth spending a night or two here to explore and go out to the Isla de los Muertos, an island were a group of workers died under mysterious circumstances and to visit the Steffen Glacier. Local fishermen run boats out, basically when there’s a demand. The trip costs CP$40,000 for the boat, split between however many people you can find, basically. Sadly, we found ourselves having to scramble around to catch a bus to Villa O’Higgins with about 5 hours notice, so we couldn’t get out to the Isla, but would have liked to spend more time there.
From Tortel to Villa O’Higgins is a slightly more convoluted journey as it involves backtracking to go further along the coast of the fjord to Puerto Yungay, catching a ferry and then another long drive from the other side of the fjord at Rio Bravo to Villa O’Higgins. The bus leaves from the main square at the top of Tortel on Monday, Thursday and Saturday at 4:30pm and costs CP$4,000pp all in (bargain!).
And that’s it. You’ve arrived in Villa O’Higgins. The end of the Carretera Austral. Congratulations. If, however, you’re heading on to El Chalten, which seems likely if you’ve come this far, you need to read our post on Crossing from Villa O’Higgins to El Chalten.