3 Weeks Spent Driving the Carretera Austral – The Ultimate South American Road Trip

We spent 3 incredible weeks on a Carretera Austral road trip through iconic Patagonian landscapes. The road runs from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins through Chilean Patagonia. This Carretera Austral road trip itinerary will take you through roughly 1250 kilometres of mostly unpaved dusty roads. Money, food and phone service can often be hard to come by and delays are common, but they all add to the adventure. All of this makes driving the Carretera Austral one of the best road trips in the Americas.

Hiking in Parque Patagonia

Day 1 

Carretera Austral Road trip itinerary

Arriving in Chaiten

Acommodation – Hostal y cabana – Casa Grande

Distance – 10kms

We arrived at the beginning of our Carretera Austral road trip in Chaiten after taking a ferry across from Chiloe Island. After arriving late at night we were warmly welcomed at the lovely Hostal y Cabana – Casa Grande. It is a cosy place with a lovely garden which we enjoyed wandering around with our coffee in the morning. We set out the next day driving 70kms north to Caleta Gonzalo. The terminal that connects the Carretera Austral with Puerto Montt by a system of ferry’s.

Day 2 + 3 more if possible

Carretera Austral Road trip itinerary

chaiten ↠ parque pumalin (north)
Distance – 80 kms
Camping – Sendero Cascadas Escondidas & Camping El Volcan – Parque Pumalin (both free outside of summer school holidays)

This 70km section of the Carretera Austral is within Parque Pumalin. Whether you choose to come via Chiloe Island or Hornopiren / Puerto Montt this magnificent park is the first destination. Established by Doug and Trish Tompkins (He was the founder of the north face and she the CEO of Patagonia) this has to be one of the most picturesque and well maintained parks I have ever visited. The entire park has free entry and fees for camping are only charged from December 15 – mid March. We spent 3 days here, hiking, relaxing and enjoying the beautiful campgrounds as we slowly made our way back to Chaiten. Our days were easily filled with stunning hikes. The Volcan Chaiten Crater trail and the Sendero Cascadas were fantastic hikes and our favourites. They also have campgrounds close by (some are better for cars than others).

For a shorter, less strenuous hike. I highly recommend the Los Alerces circuit. It is an easy 20-minute walk through ancient 2000 plus year old Alerce trees. These trees are some of the oldest and tallest in the world. Yet they grow remarkably slow. Only 2cm every 5 years.

You can read more about all of the incredible trails on Parque Pumalin website here.

Walking between the lumpins on a stop on our carretera austral road trip, chile

Day 4 + 5 

Carretera Austral Road trip itinerary

Parque Pumalin (north) ↠ Chaiten ↠ Parque Pumalin (south / Ventisquero)
Camping – Ventisquero campground – Parque Pumalin (again free but dependent on time of year)
Distance – 65km

After restocking on food and fuel in Chaiten we continued 20 kms further south towards the southern sector of the park. Here there are only a handful of walks and one campground that is well suited for vehicles; Ventisquero campground. To get to the campground you need to take the 4wd track. You definitely don’t need a 4wd to get here though! However, if you wish to continue on past the campground and complete the full circuit, then you will need one. But most people simply return via the same road they entered through. Which is a gravel road in great condition. The Ventisquero Amarillo hike to Michinmahuida Glacier leaves from this campground and is a long but very flat hike that takes 7 hours. Both the hike and the campground were incredible and highlights of our Carretera Austral road trip.

Day 6 + 7 

Carretera Austral Road trip itinerary

Parque Pumalin ↠ Futaleufu
Acommodation – Hostal Las Natalias
Distance – 135km

Passing through Villa Santa Lucia you can see the devastation that has been left from the 2017 land slide. A stark reminder of the power of mother nature around here.

100km off the main road from Santa Lucia. The small mountain town of Futaleufu has a surplus of raging white-water rivers. It is a mecca for rafters and kayakers who travel from all over the world for the rapids here. The rivers here and the trips run on them are all top notch. Some of the best you will find in South America for both the adrenaline rush and the safety standards implemented. We had great fun on the full day rafting trip.

Whilst in town we stayed at Hostel Las Natalias. It was a wonderful option that came highly recommended from other travellers. The owners are lovely and speak English. You are able to walk to town and just up the road you can go to the banks of the Azul river. This was a great spot where we could take advantage of the beautiful weather. We spent the afternoon and morning swimming in the river and lazing around on the grass.

Day 8 + 9 + 10

Carretera Austral Road trip itinerary

Futuleufu  Queulat NP
Distance – 215km
Acommodation –
Option 1 Queulat NP ($5,000pp) + entry fee
Option 2 Hostal Scarlett.

From here we headed back to the Carretera Austral and onto Queulat National Park. With an unfortunate turn of weather our hike to the hanging glacier was a bit of a disappointment. Like everywhere though, on a sunny day i’m sure it would be amazing.

Bosque encontado is also meant to be another spectacular walk in national park. It was one that we were really looking forward to. But due to the weather the hike was closed.

There is a campground inside of the national park if you would like to camp. But thanks to a recommendation from some friends of ours, we stayed at Hostal Scarlett to hide away from the terrible weather. It’s only 5.5km from the National Park and has cosy rooms with hot showers. There is also a small bar which was a great place to meet other travellers and share our stories so far.

A bridge inside of Parque Pumalin the straddles the Carretera Austral

Day 11

Carretera Austral Road trip itinerary

Queulat NP ↠ Puerto Cisnes
Distance – 70km
Camping – Balneario Medialuna (free but no tents allowed)
Acommodation – Hostal Bellavista

We took detour from driving the Carretera Austral here to head out to Puerto Cisnes. A quaint sea side village that was very friendly and welcoming. The drive here was beautiful and reason enough for visiting on its own. There is a fantastic free camp site with shelters and toilets in this town. Luckily we had good weather here so we decided to camp out. A security guard took our details but was happy for us to stay, so long as we were sleeping in our car. If you prefer acommodation or have a tent and can’t camp at the free spot, we heard Hostal Bellavista is the place to be. From here you can take a local boat over to some of the islands just offshore to spot dolphins, fish or relax in the natural thermal pools. Just ask at one of the local shops for information. They will point you in the right direction.

Day 12 + 13

Carretera Austral Road trip itinerary

Puerto Cisnes ↠ Villa Cerro Castillo
Distance – 300km
Acommodation – Refugio Cerro Castillo

From the junction of the Carretera Austral to Coyhaique you once again get to enjoy the peacefulness of sealed roads. This is another section of road that is incredibly beautiful. You will be stopping for photos around almost every corner. Coyhaique is the place to get any car maintenance / tyre fixing done and restock on all of your supplies. It’s the largest town on the Carretera. Fuel is once again reasonably priced and fruit and veggies are finally in good supply.

We didn’t spend long in town and continued on south to Villa Cerro Castillo. A tiny town with the most incredible hike up to a view point of the same name. The hike was remarkable and one of the best we did in all of Patagonia. The multi-day treks around the back of the mountain are also very popular but everyone seemed to agree that the view from the day walk was by far the best in the area. Although, steep, long and tough it is worth all of the aches and pains you will feel in the next couple of days.

We stayed at Refugio Cerro Castillo. It is a quiet and a beautiful place with the most amazing views of Cerro Castillo. We could see condors flying from our window! The beds were very comfortable and warm and we slept so well. The breakfast was a treat and well prepared. The best thing about Refugio Cerro Castillo was the lovely owners who gave us invaluable advice for the rest of the trip.

A hike to the Laguna lookout at Cerro Castillo on our Carretera Austral road trip. One of the best day hikes in Patagonia

Day 14 + 15 + 16 

Carretera Austral Road trip itinerary

Villa Cerro Castillo ↠ Puerto Rio Tranqillo
Distance – 120km
Accommodation – Turismo Don Hugo

Continuing on our Carretera Austral Road trip we arrived in Puerto Rio Tranquillo in the late afternoon. Another dry and dusty town that had a lot less services than I expected. This is where all of the tours leave for the famous marble caves and cathedral rock. All of the companies offer the same experience and will charge around 10,000 CLP per person. I had my heart set on kayaking here but I couldn’t convince any of my travel buddies to fork out the extra 30,000 CLP per person. So I went along with them on the boat and was pleasantly surprised. I have to admit that the boat was a lot better value for money than the kayaking would have been.

We stayed at Turismo Don Hugo for two nights and it was a lovely place to relax. Puerto Rio Tranquilo is small but Turismo Don Hugo is in the heart of it. Our host Fabiola was very friendly, she helped us to find the cheapest tours and best restaurants in the town. The kitchen was fully equipped should you want to self cater.

Day 17 

Carretera Austral Road trip itinerary

Puerto Rio Tranquillo ↠ Cochrane

Distance – 110 km
Accomodation – Residencial Rubio

Cochrane was the next stop for us to once again refuel and resupply. We planned to head out to Parque National Patagonia next and onto Argentina from there. This is the last border crossing to Argentina for vehicles so even if you plan to drive the entire length of the Carretera down to O’Higgins you will need to retrace your steps and cross here or slightly further north at the more popular Chile Chico.

We stumbled upon the lovely Residencial Rubio. Here, the hospitality and breakfast were unreal. Blanca is a wonderful hostess and will provide you with an impressive homemade breakfast, complete with her own freshly baked bread. The home is a bit rough around the edges and could do with a fresh coat of paint, but the rooms and shared area are clean and inviting. We were surprised with fast WiFi and a reasonable price to stay.

a Guanaco family on the side of the road on the carretera austral

Day 18 + 19 + 20

Carretera Austral Road trip itinerary

Cochrane  Parque Patagonia

Distance – 30 km to Westwind’s Campground
Camping – Westwind 8000CLP per person

Parque Patagonia is incredible. It has a similar set up to Parque Pumalin as it is a Tompkins Conservation reserve. The facilities are amazing, and the tracks very well maintained. There’s an excellent restaurant, gift shop and museum at the park entrance.

Westwinds campground is the closest to the visitor’s center and the busiest in the park. It’s not the most ideal campground for a car as you are restricted to the parking lot. But it does have beautiful grassy fields.

There are 3 more campgrounds in the park as you head towards Argentina. They all have solar hot water and your own private camping shelter. Read more about camping options and the beautiful Lodge within the park here.

Even without setting foot on a single trail you can still see so much here. Herds of Guanaco (Llama like animals) are everywhere. We also spotted Armadillos, Foxes, Skunks, Condors and the endangered Huemul deer. Puma are even regularly spotted at the Westwinds campground. The further you travel away from the visitor’s centre the less and less people you see. We had campgrounds and trails to ourselves. Even in the middle of summer. Which is such a contrast to other parks in Patagonia that are seemingly over run with tourists at this time of year. This really is an undiscovered paradise and I couldn’t recommend it enough

Continuing to Argentina

After Driving the Carretera Austral

From here we ended our adventure of driving the Carretera Austral as we crossed over the border to Argentina and made our way down to El Chalten for more trekking. If you plan on doing the same make sure you a prepared for the remote stretch between Cochrane and the Ruta 40 in Argentina.

From the junction of the Carretera Austral it is 75 km to the Argentinan border. Then a further 100km of remote dirt roads to Bajo Caracoles. Which is no more than a gas station in the middle of the desert. It is another 230km to the first real town with any sort of supplies at Gobernadora Gregores. It’s a long, bumpy and remote stretch of road.

A lot of the gas stations in this area only except cash. If you can, bring some Argentinian Pesos with you. Or like we did organise a Western Union Money transfer to pick up cash in Gobernadora Gregores. ATM fees here are high and withdrawal limits low (40USD with a transaction fee of $10 when we were here!).

Booking.com

Essentials before leaving

Carretera Austral Road trip

Before setting out on your own Carretera Austral Road trip itinerary adventure download some kind of offline navigation systems like MAPS.ME. The I-Overlander APP was also essential for us with all kinds of useful information from reputable mechanics to campgrounds and restaurants. All of the free and paid campgrounds that we stayed at can also be found on there.

Budget

Carretera Austral Road trip itinerary

Our budget for this trip was AU$100 a day for the both of us. We came in well below this most days without trying too hard. Thanks to the countless opportunities to stay in beautiful free campsites along the way. The main portion of our money was spent on fuel and when we decided to splurge on a warm bed, wifi and hot shower. We were lucky to have a range of around 800km which allowed us to avoid filling up in more expensive towns. If you can stock up on fuel and food supplies in the bigger towns of Chaiten, Coyhaique and Cochrane. This will help keep costs down. Bare in mind the resources and effort taken for things to reach where you are. Expect them to be more expensive than other areas of Chile. For more detailed information about our budget check out this post.

We also had bought a car in Chile which saved as a lot money as we didn’t have to hire one. Here’s our how to guide.

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The Carretera Austral is surrounded by ancient forests, glaciers, raging rivers and spectacular scenery. Along the way there are countless opportunities for exploring the national parks that straddle the road. And some of the most spectacular free camping spots you could imagine. We hope that this Carretera Austral road trip itinerary helps you make the most of your Chile road trip. 

Thanks for taking the time to read this. If you have any questions or your own tips / experiences from road tripping in Chile let us know in the comments.

Ruby & Josh

Two Lost Feet

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Ryan

    Hi there, your trip sounds great, thanks for the description. What time of year did you go? We’re planning to go in december 2020. How busy does it get in December? Thank you

    1. Ruby Hodgetts

      Hi Ryan

      It’s a beautiful trip. We went in December also. It never gets too busy like other parts of Patagonia.

      Enjoy your travels!

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