Carretera Austral Perfect Road Trip Itinerary
Carretera Austral in Chile's part of Patagonia is one of the world's best road trips but given the harsh weather and road conditions, and the fact that Carretera Austral ends in Villa O'Higgins without possibility to carry on by car, it is quite hard to plan this adventure. We've created this Carretera Austral post to help you out to narrow down your itinerary and to outline options on how to enjoy this trip the best.
Traveling Carretera Austral was one of the best adventures we've ever done. The pristine nature, in combination with absolute freedom, was something we will never forget, and we will always keep fond memories on spending our time in Patagonia.
Are you planning on road tripping Carretera Austral?
You might have already noticed that creating the perfect itinerary is much harder than it seems at first glance. There are places in the world where you can arrive without much preparation and then simply go with the flow, but traveling Carretera Austral is not that case.
Good or bad itinerary can either make or break your trip - distances are vast, most of the thousand kilometers long road are not paved yet, and the biggest problem when traveling the Southern Road is that once you get to the end, you will have to either drive a thousand kilometers back (1240 km to be precise), or you will have to cross borders to Argentina at some point.
It is easy to fall head over heels with Chile's Patagonia, and it does not matter if you spend here a week, two or a month but it is better to come well prepared.
We've created this perfect Carretera Austral itinerary which will in ten-day take you from Puerto Montt to the end of Carretera Austral, Villa O'Higgins, for all visitors planning the journey in a car through the incredible scenery of Chilean Patagonia.
WHERE TO START CARRETERA AUSTRAL
Although you can start your Patagonia adventure in Argentina, and cross borders to Chile at Chile Chico, because you are reading this post, we assume your main intention is to explore as much as you can of Carretera Austral, therefore, it is better to start your journey in Puerto Montt.
In this post, we'll be focusing on a road trip itinerary from Puerto Montt to Villa O'Higgins, but we will also later explain other options you have so you can create own itinerary according to your preferences
Except for this post you might also find useful to read our Guide on things to know before traveling Carretera Austral.
HOW TO GET TO PUERTO MONTT
To start your journey, you have to get to Santiago de Chile first, and when here take either a direct flight to Puerto Montt, or you can take a flight to Pucon first (Temuco Airport is the closest), explore the picturesque town on the shore of the lake, and drive down to Puerto Montt via another pretty town with volcanoes looming in distance, Puerto Varas.
Those two destinations are great for renting a car and stocking up with supplies.
Another option is to fly from Santiago to Coyhaique - the biggest city on Carretera Austral which lies approximately in the middle between Puerto Montt and Villa O'Higgins. This option is great for travelers with a limited amount of time. From Coyhaique you can travel either north or south, explore only one part of Carretera Austral, and then fly either back to Santiago or to Punta Arenas in Chile or El Calafate in Argentina.
When looking for flight tickets you can search Skyscanner to find the best price.
Before your road trip adventure, it is necessary to rent a car. In case your plan is to get only from Puerto Montt to Villa O'Higgins and then drive all the way back to Puerto Montt, you do not need any additional documents.
In case you would like to cross borders to Argentina and continue exploring Argentinian part of Patagonia, it is necessary to contact rental car agency to make sure they will provide you with a document allowing to travel across borders.
Usually, large rental companies offer this service, but you should contact them first at the time of booking and then at least seven days in advance so they'll have enough time to issue the permit.
Pucon or Puerto Montt are two cities where you can rent a car without any problems. It is not possible to rent or drop off the car in Villa O'Higgins.
Our Tip: When renting a car, it is always good to know that it is much more expensive when you drop off the car in a different location than in a place where you picked it up. The one-way fee is quite high in Patagonia, so count well if it is worth to pay the one-way fee, or if it is, for example, better to return to the original point and take a flight from there instead.
Things to Know: When you plan on driving Carretera Austral, and then cross borders to Argentina, do not forget, that although you can rent a car in one place and drop it off in different location, you still have to return it in the same country. When traveling from Puerto Montt, the best way, if you want to see Argentinian Patagonia as well, is to drop off the car in Punta Arenas, Chile, so you will also have a chance to see Torres del Paine National Park.
To find the best rates, you can search for your rental car here. Patagonia is a pretty popular destination, so when traveling in high season, it is better to make a reservation well in advance.
CREATING CARRETERA AUSTRAL ITINERARY
Before you start creating your Carretera Austral itinerary, it is necessary to plan first what attractions along the way you want to see, what hikes you want to do, but especially what are your intentions after visiting the road - do you want to return to Puerto Montt, or do you want to continue to Argentina?
Here are some options you have when road tripping Carretera Austral with a rental car.
1. Drive Carretera Austral from Puerto Montt to Villa O'Higgins, and return the same way back. The disadvantage is that you will drive through the same scenery, on the other hand, you can skip some places when traveling south and visit them on the way back. The advantage is that you won't pay an additional one-way fee.
2. Drive from Puerto Montt to Villa O'Higgins and then return only 154 kilometers to the port town of Tortel, where you can take a ferry, and enjoy the epic 41-hour scenic trip to Puerto Natales, where you can embark with your car and continue your journey.
3. Fly to Coyhaique, drive around as long as you want, then drop off the car in Coyhaique and either fly to another part of Patagonia (El Calafate or Punta Arenas) or continue by bus to Argentina. Or drive Carretera Austral from Puerto Montt, visit all the highlights you want and drop off the car in Coyhaique, then again continue by plane or by bus.
4. Drive Carretera Austral either all way down or only a part of the road from Puerto Montt and later cross borders to Argentina at either Chile Chico or Balmaceda further north. Once in Argentina, you can do a loop back to Chile via Argentina's Lake District via another scenic driveway Ruta 40 back to Puerto Montt or Pucon, or carry on south to El Chalten in Argentina. We think this is the most popular option for travelers who have more time and want to see most of the highlights Argentina and lower Chilean Patagonia has to offer. Later, you can drop off the car, for example, in Punta Arenas in Chile.
HOW TO GET FROM PUERTO MONTT TO CHAITEN
You have two options on how to get from Puerto Montt to Chaiten when traveling by car. Personally, we consider Chaiten as the true start of Carretera Austral.
Ferry | A direct overnight ferry between Puerto Montt and Chaiten runs usually three times a week, so it is better to book your seat as soon as you can and plan the start of your journey and pick up the rental car the day when the ferry is scheduled. You need to book your ticket in advance via Naviera Austral, especially when traveling in a car because places are limited.
Car | If you are excited to drive already from Puerto Montt, it is possible as well. From Puerto Montt, drive to Caleta Arena, where you need to catch a ferry to Puelche harbor. This is a short ferry ride (about 20 minutes long), and you don't need to make a booking in advance. Once you get to the other side, you need to drive 60 kilometers to Hornopiren where you will embark on another ferry to Caleta Gonzalo. First, you will go from Hornopiren to Leptepu, where you will have to get off the ferry, drive for 10 minutes to Fiordo Largo and from here take the final ferry to Caleta Gonzalo. The ferry ride takes about five hours. Book your spot beforehand with Transportes Austral - this company runs ferries daily at 9 AM from Hornopiren (and one more ferry runs in the afternoon depending on the season), so you need to start early. This journey will take you all day when everything goes well, so decide whether you'll be rushing from Puerto Montt in a day or if you'll rather break the journey somewhere in case you have more time.
ITINERARY FROM PUERTO MONTT TO VILLA O'HIGGINS
There are so many national parks and natural highlights along the Carretera Austral, that it is impossible to create the best itinerary for everyone.
We have visited all the places on this itinerary, and you can always add or skip some destinations depending on your interests and time.
Day 1: Puerto Montt to Chaiten
First, you need to get from Puerto Montt to Chaiten.
In case you have decided to drive from Puerto Montt, you have ahead a long but scenic day. If traveling by overnight ferry, you can enjoy a leisure day in Puerto Montt and visit for example Puerto Varas, a pretty town on the lake's shore, with great views of volcanoes.
Day 2: Pumalin National Park
Traveling by car gives you freedom, so you can explore the national park close to Chaiten without thinking of unreliable transport.
You can choose one of the most popular one-day hikes in the park, El Mirador Trail or Volcano El Chaiten Trail.
Again, stay overnight in Chaiten.
Day 3: Queulat National Park
From Chaiten, drive to Puyuhuapi, which will be your base for visiting Queulat National Park and the stunning Hanging Glacier. Depending on your time and mood you can also drive a bit more south and visit Enchanted Forest dripping wit moist where you can walk a short trail.
If you prefer rafting over hiking, it is possible to drive from Chaiten to Futaleufu, which is known for majestic Futaleufu River famous for being the world's premier whitewater rivers and extend your time spent on Carretera Austral.
Day 4: Drive from Puyuhuapi to Villa Cerro Castillo
Reserve all day for driving the picturesque stretch between Puyuhuapi and Villa Cerro Castillo. You can stop in Coyhaique to buy supplies as it is the biggest city on the road.
Where to stay in Villa Cerro Castillo: Refugio Cerro Castillo
Day 5: Laguna Cerro Castillo Hike - Puerto Rio Tranquilo
One of the most amazing one-day hikes in Patagonia is Cerro Castillo trek leading from the village high to the mountains until you reach towering peaks above the insanely blue lagoon.
Once you finish the hike, you will still have time to carry on to Puerto Rio Tranquilo, a small village sitting on the shore of General Carrera Lake, the second largest lake in South America.
Day 6: Puerto Rio Tranquilo - Cochrane
In the morning take a boat tour across the lake to visit Marble Caves, and in the afternoon drive to Cochrane.
The scenery along the road is incredible, so prepare yourself to stop often. In case you have enough time, you can spend one more day in Puerto Rio Tranquilo and arrange a tour to Exploradores Glacier.
Day 7: Patagonia National Park
The youngest national park along Carretera Austral for sure deserves your attention.
It is a short drive from Cochrane to the Patagonia National Park entrance, where you can opt for one of several hikes the area has to offer.
This night stay again in Cochrane.
Day 8: Cochrane to Villa O'Higgins
Set off early in the morning, because the drive between Cochrane and Villa O'Higgins will be long, although it is only 264 kilometers. Before your departure check ferry schedule as this part of Carretera Austral requires a lake crossing.
Day 9: Villa O' Higgins
Spend a day hiking around Villa O'Higgins - there is a large number of hiking trails you can choose from.
Day 10: EXTRA DAY
This is an extra day on your itinerary in case the weather is poor, in case of a road closure or simply when you liked someplace so much that you decided to stay longer.
At this stage of your journey, you need to follow your further plan and either return back to Puerto Montt, take a ferry to Puerto Natales or return to Chile Chico and cross borders to Argentina.
Almost every larger town along Carretera Austral has a gas station or a shop where you can refill the fuel (there was even a gas station in Villa O'Higgins). Because of the remoteness, we recommend you to refuel every time you have the possibility to do so.
It is also not a bad idea to bring a spare tank with 20 or 30 liters just in case you run out of gas.
We were quite surprised that only about half of the Carretera Austral is paved.
In January 2019, the paved part covered the area between Puerto Montt and Villa Cerro Castillo. From this point, there was a construction and road repair on the way to Puerto Rio Tranquilo. Because of weather conditions, roads can be usually repaired only between November and March, so when traveling during this time of the year, you can expect delays.
Even though quite a long stretch of the road was without asphalt, the ride was comfortable enough except for some short stretches with potholes.
Always bring spare tire (check your rental car has it before signing the contract).
WHAT TO PACK FOR TRAVELING CARRETERA AUSTRAL
Even when traveling by car, you will still spend quite a lot of time outside, no matter if you decide on doing some hikes along the trek, boat tours or when only stopping along the road because of fantastic photo opportunity. Because wether in Patagonia can change several times a day, here are five essentials you should pack when road tripping Carretera Austral.
Camera | A camera is a must-have when traveling in Patagonia. You will stop a lot to take a photo when traveling Carretera Austral, so it is better to come well prepared.
Rain Poncho | It can start raining any time of the year in Patagonia's mountains, and rain poncho will protect you and your valuables as well.
Waterproof Jacket for Him & for Her | Wind in Patagonia is so strong, especially during summer hiking season, that you must pack a quality waterproof and windproof jacket otherwise the day could be quite miserable.
Hiking Boots for Him & for Her | We used waterproof hiking boots a lot when in Patagonia, and no matter if you are traveling by car, we would take them without hesitation as they will help you to stay warm.
We've also written a more detailed Patagonia Packing list if you are looking for more information on what to pack.
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