The Carretera Austral is one of Chile’s most beautiful and remote stretches of road. The highway runs about 1,240km from Puerto Montt in the Chilean lake district to Villa O’Higgins in the south through rural Patagonia.
One of the best ways to travel along it as a backpacker is by hitching rides. Hiring a car is expensive and buses are infrequent and unreliable. We did find, however, that it was useful to check out the bus schedules and combine taking them with hitching lifts. If, like us, you have never really hitch-hiked before, here are our top tips for doing it. We found the experience to be a very safe, enjoyable and interesting experience.
Take camping gear
The Carretera runs through some very wild and remote parts of Patagonia and although it is possible to travel along it without camping equipment we would advise against it. A tent, sleeping bag, mat and cooking equipment are essential, just in case you get stuck in the middle of nowhere.
Be prepared; take food
Following on from the camping advice, always carry with you at least a couple of days worth of food and water, just in case you end up stranded somewhere nowhere close to a shop or find that nothing is open when you do arrive in a town. We carried with us a bag of pasta, tomato sauce, sandwiches, snacks, fruit and a couple of litres of water.
It is important to have some money with you as there are limited ATMs en route. In Puerto Montt (and also in Santiago) there is a Banco Security ATM which doesn’t charge any fees to take out money. This is a good place to take out a couple of hundred pounds which should keep you going for a while, especially if you are camping and cooking your own meals. There are also ATMs in Coyhaique, the biggest town on the Carretera and in Cochrane near the end of the highway, if you need to get out any more.
One thing we found that really helped us was getting up early in the morning to beat the Latino hitchers. We would set our alarm for six and try to be out on the road by seven, just as it started to get light. As well as being a good opportunity to see some spectacular sunrises it also means you will make much more progress earlier in the day. Also, there are a lot of Chilean students who hitch-hike as a post-school right of passage and it is a good plan to get up before them. The early bird catches the ride!
Get out of town
You are more likely to get picked up out of town as people will be more sympathetic towards you, we managed to get short lifts around 5km out of town which also takes you away from the other hitch-hikers. Some of the towns can get quite crowded during peak season! It’s also worth walking out of town, if you can’t get a lift, not only will it make it more likely you’re picked up, but it helps to keep you warm on chilly mornings too.
Stick with one or two people
A fairly obvious one, but if it is just one or two people hitching a ride, then it is much easier than three or more. We did see groups of five Chileans getting picked up, but the chances of cars having enough space is obviously less likely. Doing it as a couple works really well as you are probably less intimidating than two men.
Give yourself plenty of time and be patient
Hitch-hiking when you have limited time or are on a tight schedule is probably not the best idea as it is so unpredictable. You also have to be very patient and a positive mental attitude is vital.
Talk to people
When you arrive in towns or at campsites in the evenings, it’s a good idea to chat to the people around you. You never know who might be driving in your direction the following morning. We had a kind offer from a Chilean family that were sharing our campsite, to take us to Coyhaique, but they only had room for one person. No good to us, sadly, but definitely worth keeping an eye out for.
Try to have some Spanish under your belt
Most people that will pick you up will either be Chilean locals or Chileans on holiday, as well as the occasional European or American couple on holiday. It helps to have some basic Spanish to be able to say where you want to go and have some small talk in the car – you might be travelling with them for hours at a time!
Wear old, warm clothes
We discovered on our first day of hitch hiking that it is very important to wear old, comfortable clothes as you will at some point be sitting in the back of a truck and because of the unpaved parts of the Carretera, or ripio as the Chileans call it, you will get very dirty from the dust that’s thrown up by cars. It can also get very cold in the back if the wind is blowing, so it is worth being prepared with a hat, gloves and coat.
We attempted to hitch hike on a Sunday from the town Cochrane to Tortel and it wasn’t a very successful day, we ended up taking the evening bus! Sundays are much quieter and you don’t get the workers heading off in the mornings. We would recommend steering clear of Sundays or looking into the buses to avoid wasting a day by the side of the road.