It’s no surprise that the Carretera Austral has been featured in so many articles and documentaries, attracting explorers from all over the globe; this route is considered the most beautiful scenic route in Patagonia and among the top in the world.
To explore it you’ll need to combine sections of pavement with others of gravel and even short ferry sections to cross some fjords and lakes. Along the route you’ll encounter small towns and villages, incredible natural areas and lots of interesting people. We are not exaggerating when we tell you that every meter of your journey along the Carretera Austral you will find something new and different to photograph, see, taste, smell and feel. On sunny days the light is brilliant and on rainy days, it seeps through the clouds producing amazing rainbows and a spectrum of colors. Forests, teeming with mosses and lichens, which fill the air with their smell of sweet, fresh earth. Lakes that seem to have no end, and astonish with their spectrum of turquoises, greens and blues. And tiny details like an Andean condor floating along the air currents, the fresh butter melting on your home-baked rolls at breakfast, or the friendly smile of a settler welcoming you.
It is all of these experiences that make the adventure of traveling the Carretera Austral the trip of a lifetime. And it IS an adventure; there are several stretches of road that are narrow, steep curves abound, and there is little signage. Between improvements and repairs, the Carretera Austral is permanently under construction, and at times, you will probably encounter delays. When you do, be patient and proceed with caution; remember the gaucho saying, “He who hurries, loses time”.
Transverse and Scenic Routes:
If the Carretera Austral is the backbone that runs north to south through Aysén, you can imagine the transverse and tourist routes running east to west as the veins and the arteries that join the pampas in the east, the mountains and valleys of the central zones and the fjords and channels of the Pacific in the west. The majority of these roads are unpaved, with complex curves and stretches; however, they are brimming with views, trails, rivers and homesteads, all waiting for you to explore.
Palena – Queulat Area:
- Heritage Route between La Junta and Raúl Marín Balmaceda: (X-12) - 73 Km, 100% gravel with a short ferry section. Highlights include: Palena River, Natural Hot Springs, Raúl Marín Balmaceda, Melimoyu Volcano. Take into account the hours for ferry crossings (from 8.30 to 12.00 and from 14.00 to 17.30, Monday to Sunday). Fuel up in La Junta because there are no services along the route.
- Rivers and Pampas Route between La Junta and The Pampas - Lago Verde Border Crossing: (X-13) - 76 Km, 100% gravel. Highlights include: Río Palena, Lago Rosselot, Lago Verde (the town and the lake). Fuel up in La Junta because there are no services along the route.
- Scenic Road through the Mirta, Cuarto y Quinto Valleys: (X-11) - 30 Km, 100% gravel. Highlights include: the Mirta, Cuarto y Quinto Valleys, Aillapán Trail, and Lago Claro Solar. The route has a very narrow suspension bridge crossing over the Quinto River.
- Route to La Tapera and Alto Río Cisnes: (X-25) - 107 Km, 100% gravel. Highlights include: Río Cisnes, Villa La Tapera, Alto Río Cisnes, Río Frías – Appeleg Border Crossing. Fuel up in Puyuhuapi or Villa Mañihuales because there are no services along the route.
- Road to Puerto Cisnes: (X-24) - 34 Km, mixture of asphalt and gravel. Highlights include: Río Cisnes, Puerto Cisnes. You can refuel in Puerto Cisnes.
Aysén – Simpson Area:
- Road between Puerto Chacabuco and Balmaceda: (X-240, R-7, X-245) - 135 Km, 100% asphalt. Highlights include the Simpson River National Reserve, Puerto Aysén, Balmaceda Airport, and the Huemul Border Crossing.
- Road between Coyhaique and Coyhaique Alto: (X-243) - 49 Km, mixture of asphalt and gravel. Highlights include: the buildings of the SIA (Historical Monument), Dos Lagoons (Natural Monument), Coyhaique Alto Border Crossing.
- Roads to the lakes and inner sectors: There are several routes that can be explored, both physically and in a virtual way using Google Maps, which allows you to estimate the kilometers, get an idea of the terrain, and find out the names of the roads. Almost all of these roads are unpaved, curvy and steep, so drive with caution. They’re worth it! The landscapes, rivers and lakes are beautiful.
- Side route to the Ingeniero Ibáñez - Pallavicini Border Crossing: (X-65) - 49 Km, mixture of asphalt and gravel. Highlights include: General Carrera Lake, Puerto Ingeniero Ibáñez, the ferry between Ibáñez and Chile Chico, and the Ingeniero Ibáñez - Pallavicini Border Crossing.
- The scenic route through Las Ardillas Sector: (X-723) - 39 Km, 100% gravel. Highlights include: Tamango Lake and Lagoon, Laparent Lake, Redonda Lagoon, Claro River, the Levican Peninsula, the Ibáñez Falls, Ibáñez River, and General Carrera Lake. Fuel up in Villa Cerro Castillo or Puerto Ingeniero Ibáñez, because there are no services along the route. There are no gas stations in these towns; however, there are providers authorized to sell fuel from barrels. Look for signs in front of their establishments advertising sale of “combustibles”.
- Side route to Bahía Murta & Puerto Sánchez: (X-731) - 57 Km, 100% gravel. Highlights include: General Carrera Lake, Bahía Murta, the Panichini Islands, and Puerto Sánchez. Fuel up in Bahía Murta because there are no services along the route. There are no gas stations in town; however, there are providers authorized to sell fuel from barrels. Take note that the first kilometers of this route, once you leave the town of Bahía Murta in route to Puerto Sánchez are for the adventurous only; it’s gravel, narrow, steep and windy, especially in the sector “the Candonga”, where you’ll find an intense S-Curve, with the lake far below on one side and a huge stone cliff wall towering above you on the other.
- Road between Chile Chico and Puerto Guadal: (X-265) - 115 Km, 100% gravel. Highlights include: Puerto Guadal, Mallín Grande, General Carrera Lake, the Keys Pass, Bahia Jara Sector, and Chile Chico. Fuel up in Puerto Guadal or Chile Chico, because there are no services along the route. Drive with extreme caution in the sector of the Keys Pass (Paso las Llaves), where there are 90° curves and enormous precipices.
- Scenic Route between Puerto Río Tranquilo and Bahía Exploradores: (X-728) - 74 Km, 100% gravel. Highlights include: the Exploradores Valley, River, Glacier and Bay, Deshielo River, La Nutria Waterfall, Bayo and Tranquilo Lakes. Fuel up in Puerto Río Tranquilo, because there are no services along the route.
Baker - O’Higgins Area:
- Branch of the Carretera Austral that leads to the town of Caleta Tortel: (X-904) - 23 Km, 100% gravel. Highlights include: Baker River Delta and Caleta Tortel. Fuel up in Cochrane, because there are no services along the route.
- Scenic Route through the Chacabuco Valley to the Roballos Border Crossing: (X-83) - 74 Km, 100% gravel. Highlights include: Valle Chacabuco, typical fauna like condors, guanacos, foxes and hares, the Entrada Baker Sector and the Roballos Border Crossing. Options for hiking and camping. Fuel up in Cochrane, because there are no services along the route.
- Route to the San Lorenzo Area and the Calluqueo Glacier: (X-900, X-903) - 40 Km, 100% gravel. Highlights include: San Lorenzo Cordillera and the Calluqueo Glacier. Options for hiking and camping. Fuel up in Cochrane, because there are no services along the route.
- Route toward the Jorge Montt Glacier area (under construction): (X-906) - 18 Km, 100% gravel. Highlights include: Cypress of the Guaitecas, lakes and rivers. Fuel up in Cochrane or Villa O’Higgins, because there are no services along the route.
- Route to the north shore of the Mayer River and its back-country Border Crossing (X-905) - 20 Km, 100% gravel. Highlights include: Mayer River, Estancia Las Margaritas, Father Ronchi’s community chapel, Christie Lake, Claro Lake and River, Pérez River, Mayer River Border Crossing. Fuel up in Cochrane or Villa O’Higgins, because there are no services along the route.
Added bonus! Ferries
As you travel through Patagonia and Aysén, you will find several areas where you will need to take ferries:
- Palena – Queulat Area: Road X-11, Crossing of the Palena River to get to the island of Raúl Marín Balmaceda, at Km 63 of the route between La Junta and Raúl Marín Balmaceda. Take into account the hours of the ferry crossing (from 8.30 to 12.00 and from 14.00 to 17.30 from Monday to Sunday). Free service.
- Chelenko Area: Crossing of General Carrera Lake between Puerto Ingeniero Ibáñez and Chile Chico, aboard the Tehuelche. Optional Route with Cost. Information and schedules are available at: www.sotramin.cl.
- Baker - O’Higgins Area: Mitchell Fjord crossing between Puerto Yungay and Port Bravo aboard the Father Antonio Ronchi. Information and schedules are available at: www.barcazas.cl. Free service.
These crossings are all relatively short and allow you to experience the lakes and the fjords and take in a little fresh air. The crossing of General Carrera Lake is the longest trip (2 hours), but it is a good opportunity to rest and enjoy the scenery. There are lounges on board, where you can have a snack.
When it comes to driving...
As a general recommendation, always drive on the defensive and plan your route so that you have sufficient time to avoid unnecessary rushing. Why hurry if you are on vacation? Take into account that you are going to stop several times to take pictures or to admire the scenery and that the average speed on the roads is between 45 - 70 km/h, because they are curvy, gravel and narrow. Gravel becomes slick and unstable at high speeds, rain can form large puddles and it is impossible to gauge depth by simply looking, and washboards, created by erosion and traffic and cause vibrations that can lead to loss of vehicle control. Expect low levels of visibility in curved areas and that frequently, you will encounter animals in the route. To minimize risks, always travel with your vehicle’s lights lit and maintain proper distance from vehicles in front of you, in order to avoid loose stones that can jump up and break windshields or mirrors.
Fuel and repairs
A few considerations before you head out on the roads of Patagonia. Your car’s fuel performance will be less than normal along the Carretera Austral and given the road conditions, it is not unlikely to experience flat tires. The distances between gas stations and mechanics are extensive so it’s important to fuel up every time you have opportunity and consider carrying an extra fuel container if you can do so safely (containers should be metal and comply with all security measures). If you run out of gas you can try to buy enough to get to the next town from other travelers, in nearby farms or from the construction teams that are always on the roads. You should carry a hose with you for siphoning, if needed.
In case of tire punctures, you should only attempt repairs in places where you and your vehicle will be visible to other vehicles. Turn off the engine, turn on the emergency flashers, and engage the emergency brake. Before traveling, verify that your vehicle has all the necessary elements for repairs, including a jack, lug wrench, spare tire, reflective triangles, a flashlight and a fire extinguisher. We suggest a practice session before leaving to make sure you know the proper steps. People in Patagonia are helpful but, not accustomed to running into others who are NOT used to these situations. Therefore, they don’t usually stop if you don’t wave them down. In the case of more serious mechanical situations, you will probably have to work with a mechanic in one of the larger towns, like La Junta, Coyhaique, Puerto Aysén, Chile Chico or Cochrane.
It’s the most economical alternative for touring the region and helps to reduce your carbon footprint; it’s also a good way to meet local people and forget the hassles of driving. Hypothetically, your biggest worry during the journey is to enjoy the landscapes. In reality, there’s a bit more worry to the process; spaces and frequencies are limited, so often, you end up spending a lot of time waiting around and since the first objective of public transport is to transport passengers and not to provide options for sightseeing, you zoom past some of the best places so it is not the ideal choice if you want to concentrate on photography.
To move between the larger towns of the region, like La Junta, Cochrane, Puerto Cisnes, Coyhaique and Puerto Aysén buses can work well, as they run daily and there are several operators. Smaller towns can be a bit complicated because there are fewer options and you need to coordinate things well to get from one point to another. Definitely buy your tickets as soon as you arrive in the region, because trips fill up fast and you can end up waiting for days.
Biking the roads of Patagonia
The Carretera Austral is a legendary route for bike-touring and the transversal routes provide interesting day routes and connectivity with Route 40 in Argentina. Between December and March it is common to see dozens of adventurers pedaling mountain bikes, tandems (for two people), recumbents, and everything in between. Last year one young woman rode the entire length of the Carretera Austral by unicycle!!! Imagine.
The first thing you need to know is that here there are no special lanes for cyclists and the sides of the road can be narrow or non-existent, so you’ll need quite a bit of dexterity to navigate the challenges of the roads: loose gravel, oncoming traffic, steep slopes and dust. Take all the necessary steps to increase your visibility using reflective clothing, flags, headlights, and taillights, among others.
In most towns you can find basic supplies, but it’s not likely that you’ll find spare bike parts or people who know how to do repairs; always carry spare parts, tools and enough food for 1 or 2 days, because in isolated areas supplies are limited. Count on the fact that the travel times are longer than expected and can vary greatly depending on the weather (wind and rain are important factors to consider), the conditions of the route, your physical condition and mechanical problems; basically your itinerary should be flexible and you should be prepared to be self-sufficient along the way. If possible, we recommend that you disassemble and reassemble your bike before the journey, so that you can familiarize yourself with all of the parts and their repair; thus, preparing for possible problems in the route