Ellie Švrlanská: Carretera Austral - the most beautiful road in Chile
02. 06. 2023
CARRETERA AUSTRAL - The most beautiful road in Chille
Carretera Austral is the name of Chile's Ruta 7, which runs south from Puerto Montt to Villa O'Higgins for 1,240 kilometres. The diverse natural beauty and national parks hide endless opportunities for camping and trekking. Trekking into the rugged depths of the national parks, hiking to high vantage points over vast landscapes of lush rainforest, massive waterfalls, stunning glaciers in the mountains and crystal clear lagoons and lakes. No wonder Carretera Austral is one of the most famous road trip destinations. As well as the multitude of activities you can do along the way, there are many ways how to travel through Carretera. I guess everyone can think about a car or a van. However, the fact that there are often more cyclists than cars to be seen, gives credence to the fact that more and more cycling enthusiasts are embarking on the 1,240km journey through Patagonia. However, even without a car or a bike, the journey is manageable. There are bus connections between towns, or like me (and many other backpackers) you can hitchhike the whole way. In general Patagonia is considered popular and safe destination for hitchhiking.
Don't be fooled though: the Carretera does translate from Spanish to English as road or a highwat, but its mainly southern half is more like an unpaved dirt road. Partly due to its poor condition, the Carretera Austral has achieved such a high status in the imagination of travellers. Unpaved, leaky and impassable due to the elements: all of these characteristics have contributed to making the Carretera Austral one of the most remote - and therefore most enticing - roads in South America.
From south to north
Although most people come to Patagonia from the north and make the journey from Puerto Montt to O'Higgins, I'm doing it the other way around as I've made my way from Argentina to Chilean Patagonia at its southernmost point. So after 5 days of trekking in Torres del Paine, I'll be heading north right away. However, in this part not by road, but by ferry!
Ferry (Puerto Natales - Caleta Tortel)
From Torres del Paine National Park, the easiest way to get to the start of Carretera Austral (and vice versa) is to take a two-day ferry from Puerto Natales, or a detour through Argentina.
But the ferry ride is worth it! The ferry passes through the Patagonian fjords, so you'll have spectacular views from the deck for two whole days. In addition, the captain often reports on which areas are being passed and what we can see from the deck. As well as snow-capped peaks, lighthouses and a waterfall, there are shipwrecks and small villages completely cut off from the rest of the world.
The passengers are locals as well as many backpackers and travelers with caravans or mountain bikes. We find that most of us (who don't have a bike or a car) have a pretty similar plan: to hitchhike north across Patagonia. Well, there's really only one way north, and according to the locals, it's the end of the season and there aren't that many cars. We joke about how in a few days we'll become rivals instead of friends because we'll all be fighting over that one moving car.
Caleta Tortel and Villa O'Higgins
Around 3am we disembark at the small port of Tortel. None of us have any idea where we will be staying for the night. No one has booked accommodation as the ferries are often several hours late and don't arrive until the morning. The locals are used to this and so often wait by the dock and offer accommodation to weary travellers.
An elderly gentleman standing at the harbour exit tells us that we can camp at his place. The biggest surprise of the evening comes when we discover that he has set up campsite right in his living room. He says we have to put up a tent on the lower floor but sleeping bags are enough in the upper living room. There are over 20 of us camping there. Although we are all tired, we are amazed to explore this unconventional concept of camping and watch others setting up tents.
In the morning we wake up to foggy and rainy weather. Tortel has a very magical atmosphere, a small village on the water surrounded by mountains, islands and thick fog. The classic streets are replaced by wooden walkways over the water and instead of cars, everyone owns a boat.
The road starts at the end of the harbour. But not many cars drive here. So we start our journey by bus. Most of us buy a ticket to Cochrane, heading north. But some go a little further south to Villa O'Higgins, which is the official end/start of Carretera Austral.
Rio Baker & Patagonia National Park, Cochrane
The first major town I visit is Cochrane, the starting point for visiting Patagonia National Park. The park offers some great day and multi-day hikes - you can find suggested routes and even maps on the park's very informative website. Both the trails and campsites here are beautifully maintained, and the whole park feels much more peaceful and natural than the tourist-crowded Torres del Paine. In addition, cougars are often seen here. According to the locals, they are harmless and used to humans (which I had trouble believing).
High season in Patagonia is from December to February. Although this is the summer season, the weather will still be erratic and quite windy. Windproof and rainproof clothing should be essential.
What I would definitely recommend is to keep an eye on the weather forecast both before the actual trip and before every trekking. Conditions can change quickly and treks can become difficult to complete in a matter of moments. Most national parks often close some routes due to rain, and the Carretera Austral can be impassable for several days as well.
The Rio Baker, flowing through this area, is considered the river with the largest rapids in the country and is therefore also a very good place for rafting.
The Cochrane is the first time I've seen how many people hitchhike. Sometimes some people give up after a few unsuccessful hours. The reason is not so much the cars as the fact that they often hitchhike in pairs or groups, which is a lot more difficult because they don't always build cars for more people. I'm on my own, so it's much better and faster.
Puerto Rio Tranquilo and Marble Caves
Located right on the shores of the second largest lake in South America, Puerto Rio Tranquilo is at least a one-day stop for anyone passing through Carretera. The place is famous for its marble caves, where hundreds of visitors kayak daily.
It's a really unique place, but it's also very popular. If you want to kayak your way to the caves without the crowds and also have the chance to paddle through them peacefully, I recommend heading out at sunrise. There are countless providers of these kayaking experiences in Rio Tranquilo, but perhaps only two companies offer a cruise and visit to the caves this early.
So at 6am I wake up and go out of my tent at one of the many campsites located around Rio Tranquilo. The mornings and evenings are particularly freezing in Patagonia. Apart from my favourite hat TONIA-W, I layer on a JUNIE-W sweatshirt, a PAPILON-W down jacket and a MAMBA-W waterproof jacket. I'm very lucky, it rained all day yesterday but this morning is perfect for kayaking on the lake!
The second attraction you shouldn't miss in the area around Puerto Rio Tranquillo is the Exploradores Glacier in Laguna San Rafael National Park. This day hike requires physical fitness, but is well worth it. With the help of crampons, you'll make your way across the ice and through impressive glacial caves.
From Rio Tranquilo, I hitchhike again. As I mentioned at the beginning, the Carretera Austral is not always paved. Especially in the southern part, it looks more like a dirt road than a real road, which is nerve-wracking, at least in my case, as cars only go about 30 kilometres per hour at most here, so when I googled the way to Puyuhuapi, it was about twice as long than I thought due to the state of the road.
Carretera Austral is surrounded by many national parks. In the national park Cerro Castillo is particularly recommended multi-day trek passing lagoons, glaciers and waterfalls. The circuit is a little over 50km and 3 to 4 days and full equipment are usually recommended (there are only wild camping options). The starting point of the trek is "Horquetas Grandes" and relevant information can be obtained in Coyhaique. However, if, as in my case, it is really rainy, the trek is closed for safety reasons.
Hanging glacier in the Queulat National Park
The national park is located at Puyuhuapi Bay, which is itself a beautiful place for a few days stop. There are two campsites available for use in the park, one right at the entrance but with only small shelters for tents. The other campground is right in the park and there are cabins for rent in addition to tent sites.
In Queulat National Park you can hike to the viewpoint of the Ventisquero Colgante (Hanging Glacier). Which really seems to hang between the rocks and the lake. It takes about three hours to get to the viewpoint. An alternative is a boat trip on the lake, which puts you directly under the glacier.
In the national park, you can see how much nature has changed since the beginning of the Carretera. The original rugged and windswept Patagonia is now a temperate rainforest. It should be noted that the weather still hasn't improved for me. I'm camping at night in terrible rain and thunderstorms. In the morning, even though the rain has stopped for a while, I trek to the glacier in my MAMBA-W waterproof jacket just in case.
I hitchhike in the rain, which I don't find very pleasant. However, there are very few buses that go that way, so I have no other choice. Fortunately, both my BIGGY 70l and ROLLER 40l backpacks have a raincoat. Two travellers from the United States stopped me and they are heading to Puerto Montt, just like me. So it looks like I'll have a company for the rest of the Carretera Austral. Along the way we see countless travelers hitchhiking in the horrible rain and we hope someone will give them a ride soon too. In the evening we arrive in the town of Chaiten, where we try to find a hostel for the night. As in the previous towns, this takes some time as many of them are full.
The fjords in the north and Pumalin National Park
Between the town of Puerto Montt and Chaiten, there are three long ferry crossings to be made across the fjords of Patagonia and its temperate rainforests in Pumalin National Park. Pumalin National Park is one of the first conservation projects of Douglas Thompkins, who bought up particularly large areas in the area to put them under protection.
The alternative, instead of the Carretera Austral with its three crossings, is to have only one ferry trip, directly from Chaiten to Puerto Montt (and vice versa).