An adventure once deemed impossible, the Carretera Austral whisks you into the heart of Patagonian Chile. In a trip that is over 1,200 km long, it can take anywhere from one to three weeks to complete. Starting in Puerto Montt and finishing in Villa O’Higgins, this journey across a rocky terrain will introduce you to this country’s rugged wilderness. It is impossible not to be charmed by Patagonia’s peace and solitude, as you drive alongside the epic Andes.
What to expect
Also known as Route 7, the Carretera Austral today is the connecting point of 35 towns in Chilean Patagonia. Despite being opened to traffic in 1988, the Carretera Austral has undergone constant construction since. This is due to a combination of factors: primarily that the weather and terrain in this part of the world is largely isolated and difficult to navigate.
Highway conditions have improved over time, and in 2000 they were even able to connect Villa O’ Higgins as the last stop on the highway. With that said, this road trip is more suited to drivers who have some experience behind the wheel.
Whilst the Northern half of this journey (Puerto Montt to Coyhaique) is mostly paved, you should still expect gravel road on the Southern half (Coyhaique to Villa O’Higgins). But hey, it adds to the experience.
Aside from some bumps in the road, Chilean Patagonia is relatively safe. Regarding what you should be driving, it comes down to what you feel most comfortable with. Some people encourage a 4x4 vehicle, although this is really only needed if you plan on driving up narrow mountain roads or crossing the border to Argentina.
It is fairly easy to rent a car in Puerto Montt, as there are multiple companies that operate in the area, and listings available online on websites like Kayak. Prices do vary, and if you are between 21 and 24 you may also be expected to pay a ‘Young Renter Fee’. The national driving age is 18 in Chile, but you have to be 21 to rent a car.
On average, renting a car for 14 days with the same drop-off point comes to €400+. Please note that registering a different drop-off point will likely cost you more.
If a standard car is not your style, then you have other options. It is possible to take a motorbike along Route 7, or even to cycle it! This will naturally take you longer to complete: anywhere from 3 to 4 weeks depending on your average km per day and number of rest days.
Planning your trip
Generally, the best time for visiting Chile would be when the weather is at its warmest — so from December to March. But with the Chilean summer holidays falling between December and January, and these two months being notoriously windy, here is our suggestion of when to go instead.
The ideal time for exploring Chilean Patagonia is between the end of September to November, or February to the start of April. With few crowds and mild weather, this means that you have more freedom when travelling.
In terms of how long your trip should be, that again depends upon your holiday preferences and limitations. Do you prefer a slower pace, or are you all about action-packed travelling? How long do you want to spend at certain destinations?
Anywhere from 2 to 3 weeks is ideal: as it will give you enough time to explore stops along the way, and accommodate for any last-minute changes to your itinerary. Technically, this road trip could be completed in a week. But then you would be spending all your time driving!
Chilean Patagonia is home to some truly incredible (and underrated) destinations that you do not want to miss out on. Here are just a few.
Start your journey in Puerto Montt
As one of Chile’s finest port hubs, Puerto Montt is a great place to begin your Carretera adventure. The city’s fresh salmon is a real catch; and the restaurants here are authentic but varied. If you have ever wanted to try Chilean cuisine, now is your chance. But if you have simpler tastes, Tomi’s Pizzeria is right around the corner.
Just outside the city is where you will find the best scenery. Only 90 minutes away by car, day trips to Osorno Volcano are popular for good reason. Its tranquil beauty is almost reminiscent of Mt. Fuji as snow-capped peaks meet crystal waters. If you need to reset before hitting the road, then look no further: the sound of Petrohué’s rippling waves will do that.
Explore Pumalín Park
If you still feel zen, then Pumalín Park is right up your alley. Famous for its steep and green landscape that stretches over 4000 km, the eco-activities here are in abundance. Founded in 2018 by the late businessman philanthropist Douglas Tompkins, this park was part of an effort to restore Chile’s natural landscape. Belonging to the epic Route of the Parks, Pumalín is one of 17 players in the biggest conservation project in the world.
Its landscape is ethereal, somehow managing to be both exhilarating and alleviating. The forest tells stories from centuries ago, as it is the home of ancient Alerce: some of the oldest trees in the world. Whether you want to pitch a tent or lounge like a hobbit, Pumalín Park is well-suited to all kinds of campers.
Hike the rolling hills of Coyhaique
Coyhaique feels like a small town, but has the excitement of an up-and-coming city. With several quality restaurants and bars under its belt, this is a truly cosy destination.
But as tempting as those menus are, the best reason for visiting has more to do with the outdoors. A trip to Coyhaique’s national reserve is a must here, as its great lakes of water and sloping mountains is exemplary. The hiking trails at Coyhaique are perfect for travellers looking for something more gentle.
And if you find yourself short of activewear clothing, there are plenty of places where you can top up.
Kayak in Marble Caves
Despite their surreal appearance, these marble caves are indeed real. They are unique to the province of Patagonia, and are over 6000 years old. Time and water has worn away at the caves, resulting in something that can only be described as a labyrinth.
These hidden gems are difficult to access, but not impossible. Boat tours operate regularly in Puerto Rio Tranquilo — some that allow you to sit back and relax, and others that encourage wading your way through the water! After all that time spent on the road, a change in vehicle never hurts.