Traveling the Carretera Austral or Route 7 in Patagonia is a lifetime adventure. The legendary road in Chile offers incredible scenery, a unique ecosystem, and a thrilling feeling of being in the wilderness. If you want to go off the beaten track, discover new places, do wild hikes, and meet wonderful people, Chilean Patagonia is the right place for you.
We spent one month exploring the region. During that time we did several long-distance treks in Patagonia, spent weeks camping in the wilderness, and visited many off-the-beaten-path places. Patagonia is a region on the tip of South America divided by two countries Chile and Argentina. Chile is home to many of the best National Parks in Patagonia. We absolutely loved this unspoiled region and definitely want to come back one day to explore more of the Carretera Austral, the ultimate place to travel for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers.
If you have to choose a couple of places to visit in Chile I’d say the Carretera Austral and San Pedro de Atacama are not to miss there. On Argentina’s side don’t miss the Perito Moreno Glacier and Laguna de Los Tres, both located in the Los Glaciares National Park.
Table of Contents
Carretera Austral, Patagonia, Chile
- Total distance – 1240 km/770 miles
- Starting point – Puerto Montt
- Finishing point – Villa O’Higgins
- Road conditions – ongoing road works, half of the way has been already paved, half is still in process.
- Best season to travel – December – March, Patagonian summer
- The cost of traveling – from US$15 per person (very budget) to US$90 pp. (comfortable)
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What is Carretera Austral?
Carretera Austral or Rute 7 is a road in the Patagonia region of Chile in the extreme south of South America. The road connects the southern part of the Los Lagos Region and the Aysen Region of Chile. It’s known as a wild and beautiful region and a great place for a holiday filled with adventures.
How long is the Carretera Austral?
The total length of the Carretera Austral is 1200 km/745 mi.
History of the Southern Highway
The construction of the Carretera Austral started in 1976 when Augusto Pinochet gave the order to connect remote villages of southern Chile with the rest of the country. Building the southern road was the most ambitious and expensive project in Chile in the 20th century. Due to difficult terrain, weather conditions, and remoteness of the region the construction of the Carretera Austral took decades. The last stretch connecting Puerto Yungay and Villa O’Higgins was finished in 2000. Nowadays it’s an ongoing process of paving the road. Most parts of it are tarred but some are still gravel.
Where does the Carretera start?
The Carretera Austral starts in Puerto Montt, a beautiful town in the Lake District in southern Chile. From Puerto Montt, the road continues south to the extreme south of South America.
Where does it end?
It ends in the small village of Villa O’Higgins, in the Aysen Region in the south of Chile.
How many days do you need for the Carretera Austral?
It depends on how many stops you want to make on your road trip and how long you want to stay in each place. I’d recommend having at least 1 week to drive the Carretera Austral. It gives your time to see the highlights of the region, do a couple of day hikes, and enjoy the tranquility and beauty of Chilean Patagonia. Spending 2 weeks driving the Carretera Austral would be perfect. In fact, the more time you have the better there are so many amazing places to visit that we could easily spend there a month or two.
Is the Carretera Austral paved?
The Carretera Austral is a permanent road construction site due to difficult rocky terrain, narrow fjords, mountains, rivers, and lakes it takes a lot of time to pave the road. Add to these unpredictable Patagonian weather; snow in winter, strong wind, and rainfall in summer, and an isolated location it takes a long time to get necessary construction vehicles there.
As of August 2023, Ruta 7 can be divided into two parts. The northern part from Puerto Montt to Coihaique 660 km/410 mi is paved with a bit of unpaved road here and there. The southern part from Coihaique to Villa O’Higgins 580 km/360 mi is still mostly gravel road. It’s planned to complete paving the Carretera Austral in the next years. Some parts between the towns have already been paved. When planning your trip keep it in mind for obvious reasons it is much faster to travel on paved roads than on gravel.
Reasons we love Route 7 in Patagonia
- The Carretera Austral is an unspoiled and incredibly beautiful region with many parks and nature reserves.
- There are many outdoor activities to do here like hiking, kayaking, rock climbing, cycling, etc. It’s a real paradise for nature lovers.
- There are many amazing day hikes in Patagonia; the majority of hiking trails don’t require special permits or guides.
- Despite being a wild region there are no dangerous animals like bears or wolves to be worried about. There are pumas living in the area but they’re very shy and try to stay away from people.
- Patagonia is a relatively safe place (as safe as a wild place can be). It’s probably the best place in South America to travel solo.
- Traveling the Carretera is a lifetime experience.
When is the best time to travel?
The spring/summer months of November to March are the best time to travel the Carretera Austral. Average daily temperatures reach 20°C. At night it goes down to 15°C. It’s warm and sunny, the days are long, and all tourist facilities are open.
Patagonian weather is very unpredictable even in the peak summer season you can get days with heavy rainfalls and heil. The wind is something to consider as well. December and January are the windiest months of the year. Even if it’s warm and sunny it can be very windy. It’s not a big problem if you travel by car or buy and stay indoors. If you cycle and camp you might have to adjust your plans according to the wind forecast.
Good weather attracts a lot of people. January and February are the busiest months on the Carretera Austral it’s summer holiday time in Chile and Argentina. If you decide to come during that period it’s highly recommended to book accommodation, bus tickets, and activities long in advance.
We personally prefer traveling in November or March when the weather is still good and there are not too many tourists.
Carretera Austral travel cost
Camping is the most budget option here considering that in many places you can wild camp if you don’t mind being without basic facilities of course. You can find established campsites in every town or village on the Carretera Austral. Average price CLP 7000/US$8 per person/per tent (depending on the campsite).
Some bigger towns like Futaleufú or Coyhaique have traditional hostels with shared rooms and facilities, they cost about CLP 15000/US$17 per person.
Hotels/guest houses are very common in the area there are many from very basic cabins to luxury spa lodges, here everything depends on your budget, be ready to pay from CLP 20 000/US$23 to CLP 40 000/US$46 per person. In general, for the price you pay in Patagonia in other countries, you can get better facilities.
Hitchhiking is the cheapest option to move around though it can be a bit frustrating and time-consuming. Cycling won’t cost much money as well but it will definitely take a lot of time, to cycle 1200 km partly on the gravel road is quite a mission.
Taking buses is not crazy expensive but sometimes you might get stuck in a place due to irregular bus service or no open spots on the bus. Buses do connect the main towns on the Carretera and it’s possible to get around this way but you’ll have to plan in advance buses to some places go only a couple of times a week. In this post, you’ll find a spreadsheet with buses on the Carretera Austral. The average price for a ride is between CLP 10 000/US$11 and CLP 15 000/US$17 depending on the distance. For long-distance buses e.g. from Puerto Montt you’ll pay from CLP 20 000/US$23.
Renting a car is the most comfortable way to travel the Carretera Austral and probably the most expensive though it depends on what car you rent and how many people you share it. The longer the rental period is the cheaper it gets per day. To rent a 5-seat sedan in Puerto Montt for 5 days will cost from US$160 or US$32 per day if you’re more than two people it might be cheaper than taking buses. You can always find someone to share a car with once you hit the road.
Making your own food is by far the cheapest way to eat in Patagonia, food in shops is more expensive than in the rest of Chile but it’s still quite affordable. Eating out is quite expensive in Patagonia considering what you get, the food is pretty basic here. If you want to save some money, make sure to book places with a kitchen or to carry a camping stove (if camping). Buying food in shops will cost CLP 10 000/US$11 per person per day. Eating out from CLP 10 000/US$11 per meal.
Activities and entrance fees
Hiking is basically free on the Carretera Austral. There are places where you pay the entrance fee but it’s usually between CLP 10 000/US$11 and CLP 20 000/US$23. Other activities are more pricey, e.g. doing a boat tour in Queulat National Park costs US$40 per person, hiking on Exploradores Glacier in Puerto Río Tranquilo from US$60, etc.
Carretera Austral with different budgets
- Backpacking (camping, hitchhiking, making own food, doing free activities like hiking) – from US$20 per person per day.
- Traveling with comfort (budget hotels, buses, making food, some paid activities) – from US$50 per person per day.
- A luxury holiday (nice hotels, rental car, making food/eating out, paid activities) – from US$100 per person per day.
For the ultimate adventurous and hiking holiday combine a trip along the Carretera Austral with Torres del Paine National Park. The park offers a great variety of hiking routes from easy day-hikes to challenging multi-day treks.
The highlights of the Carretera Austral
The beginning of the Carretera Austral and the last big town for the next 660km till you reach Coyhaique so make sure to draw money and stock supplies if you drive a car I’d suggest doing a big shopping there. Besides being the starting point of the Carretera the town itself is quite nice and beautiful. If you have time we’d suggest staying here for a couple of days and exploring the area there are quite a few things to do.
There are two access points to the Parque Pumalín; Caleta Gonzalo and Sector Río Amarillo. If you coming from Puerto Montt you get first to Caleta Gonzalo, the ferry from Hornopirén arrives here. This park is an incredible place with many hiking trails and several campsites. It was a complete surprise for us we didn’t plan to stop here but in the end, we spent 5 days hiking and camping in Pumalín Park. The entrance is free.
A beautiful town on the border with Argentina, the first point on the Carretera Austral where you can cross to the neighboring country. The scenery around Futaleufú is breathtaking; pine forests, mountains, rivers, and waterfalls, are the ideal place for outdoor activities.
Things to do in Futaleufú
- Hiking, there are many trails near the town e.g. Piedra del Águila, Garganta del Diabolo, Circuit Las Escalas.
- Kayaking/Rafting on Río Futaleufú
- Horseback riding
- Rock climbing
Futaleufú is quite a detour, 77 km east of the Carretera most people stop here on the way to Argentina but even if you’re not planning to cross the border it’s well worth coming here. There are public buses from Chaitén and Puyuhuapi.
Queulat National park
Parque Nacional Queulat to come for a day, located just km from Puyuhuapi the park offers several one-day hiking trails with breathtaking views of the Colgante Glacier (hanging glacier), lakes, and rivers. Entrance fee – CLP 8000/US$9.
- Hiking, there are two trails, the longer one to the Mirador (viewpoint) and the shorter one to the lake.
- Boat ride to the glacier
It’s the biggest city in this part of the Carretera Austral with a couple of supermarkets and gear shops a good place to stock food supplies. There are not many activities you can do in the town, it’s a stopover kind of place with the best infrastructure you can find in the area. We spent two days here mainly because I lost my backpack on the way (it fell out of a truck that picked us up on the road) so we had to do quite a bit of shopping.
Villa Cerro Castillo is a tiny village on the Carretera, it’s worth stopping there only if you’re planning to hike in Cerro Castillo National Park otherwise you can just skip it. There are two trekking routes; a short day hike up to the lake and back to the village and a 4-day Cerro Castillo trek. For the second one, you’ll have to carry camping gear and food supplies. The park entrance fee for 1 day is CLP 20 000/US$23 per person, for 2+ days – CLP 30 000/US$34.
In busy months (January, February) it might be difficult to get a bus from here all buses come from Coyhaique and are usually already full when they stop. We saw some people couldn’t get in and were forced to hitchhike.
Puerto Río Tranquilo
The whole way from Villa Cerro Castillo to Puerto Tranquilo the road goes past stunning blue, turquoise, and greenish color lakes and rivers. The town itself is located at General Carrera Lake an impressive and huge emerald color lake. If you have a chance, check the lake out at different times of the day, the color changes depending on the light from dark blue to light green.
Río Tranquilo is a great place to stop for a day or two and enjoy some adventure activities other than hiking. Here you can do a boat tour to the Marble Caves OR hike Exploradores glacier wearing crampons and a helmet and carrying an ice axe. It is the cheapest glacier hike you can do in Patagonia, CLP 45000/US$65 per person including transportation and gear.
Unfortunately, the weather is very unpredictable and boat trips are often canceled due to very strong winds.
This town like Puerto Río Tranquilo is located on the shores of Lago General Carrera so stunning views are guaranteed. Chile Chico is 100 km east from the Carretera Austral on the border with Argentina, it’s the last point to cross the border before the dead-end in Villa O’Higgins.
There are several activities to do from here but you’ll need a car or a shuttle to get there first;
- Enjoy the scenery at the Laguna Verde, on the way, about 20 km before the town
- Hiking to the Jeinimeni Lake in Jeinimeni National Reserve
- Hiking the Piedra Calvada Circuit, a 10 km route with a steep ascent and a subsequent descent. This route can be combined with Jeinimeni Lake, it’s on the way.
This town is often unnoticed by tourists which is easy to explain after days of exploring the natural wonders of the Carretera Austral and several hikes travelers feel like finally getting to the end of the route there are just too many amazing places here. Though Cochrane deserves a stop for a day. I’d rather stay here than in Caleta Tortel.
The town has good infrastructure and several cozy guesthouses. It’s located close to Cochrane Lake and Tamango National Reserve another hidden gem of Patagonia. There are a couple of hiking trails in the park and along the lake that offers beautiful scenery. The entrance fee is CLP 5000/US$7.
A tiny village with a wooden boardwalk instead of streets which is the main attraction there. The landscape of this remote area is quite impressive; fjord with mint-colored water, forest, hills, etc. We walked around for a couple of hours and it was enough. Getting there without a car is a mission. If you have a car or get a ride it’s worth a short visit.
The end of the legendary Carretera Austral and the dead-end of the road. If you drive a car there is no way to go forward for you to get anywhere from here you’ll have to drive back. For people, without a vehicle, it’s possible using ferries and walking/cycling to cross from Chile to Argentina and continue your hiking adventure in El Chalten or visit the impressive Perito Moreno Glacier in El Calafate. If you like exploring off-the-beaten-track areas you might like a hiking trail to O’Higgins Glacier.
The town is tiny with only a gravel road that connects it to the rest of the world, it does give a feeling of being somewhere in a very isolated place, literally at the end of the world.
Carretera Austral road trip
This is by far the most comfortable and easiest way of traveling the Carretera Austral. Though we hitchhiked the whole way and it was fun now when we have a toddler we’re preparing for another trip on the Carretera Austral and planning to rent a car. There are so many places that we couldn’t visit because hitchhiking there was difficult and there were no buses. Having a car gives you a lot of flexibility. Keep in mind the road conditions of the Southern Highway. A short distance doesn’t necessarily mean a quick drive.
It’s more expensive than taking a bus but you’ll have the freedom to go anywhere you want considering that buses don’t go everywhere. If you’re two and more people renting a car it might be even not much more expensive than taking a bus.
Carrtera Austral car rental
Renting a car will help you to save some money on accommodation and food. It’s easier to find a place to stay if you have a car. The best option is to rent a car in Puerto Montt. There are several rental companies in Puerto Montt. You can buy a lot of stuff in supermarkets in Puerto Montt where everything is significantly cheaper than on the Carretera.
If you’re only two people renting a car you might be able to find travelers to share the cost on the Carretera, at one of the campsites or hostels. Many people try to hitchhiking and get sick of it pretty soon and buses are not always available.
Important to remember! If you’re going to travel the Carretera in the high season (end of December – January) remember about several ferries on the route, plan your trip according to the timetable, and rather try to buy tickets a day before you go to secure the spot.
Ferry crossings on the Southern Road
If you’re going to drive the Carretera Austral pay attention to the ferry crossings along the route. There are several places where driving is impossible and using a ferry is the only way to continue the trip.
Please, keep in mind that prices and times might slightly change.
Caleta La Arena – Caleta Puelche – daily, basically 24 hours a day, every 45 minutes. The crossing takes 30min. Price CLP 10300/US$11 per car, passengers/pedestrians don’t pay.
Hornopirén – Caleta Gonzalo (Pumalín park) – daily, at 10.30 am, the journey takes 4h30min. (including a 15-minute bus ride). Return daily at 1 pm. Price CLP 10000/US$11 per person, CLP 59000/US$67 per car. Strongly recommended buying tickets in advance.
Puerto Yungay – Rio Bravo – daily, from November to March at 10 am, 12 pm, 3 pm, and 6 pm. From April to October at 12 pm and 3 pm. The journey takes 45min. Price – free for everybody.
Carretara Austral by bus
It’s a good alternative if renting a car is not an option because it’s too expensive, nobody to share with, no driver’s license, etc., and hitchhiking doesn’t sound too appealing. Buses are one of the most popular ways of traveling the Carretera Austral but in high season they get very busy and sometimes it’s difficult to get a spot. It’s highly recommended to buy tickets in advance. If tickets are purchased only on a bus then you should come to the bus stop early to make sure you get in. Buses don’t go everywhere but they do go to the main towns on the route.
If you go by bus there is no need to worry about ferries your bus ticket includes any ferry ride that is on the way. We didn’t use buses but saw once how people couldn’t get on a bus because there was no space, it was at Villa Cerro Castillo, and there was only one bus a day going from Coyhaique towards Puerto Rio Tranquilo.
Ferries to the Southern Highway
There are several port towns in the area where it’s possible to get by ferry it might be a good option for those who want to get to Patagonia from Chiloe Island or those who prefer boats to buses and cars. Depending on how far you go by boat you’ll skip some parts of the Carretera, mainly the northern part.
Puerto Montt – Chaiten – leaves Mon at 12 pm. Tue, Wed, Thu, Fri, and Sat at 11 pm. The journey is 9 hours. Price CLP 33000*/US$38 per person, CLP 168 000/US$190 per car.
Puerto Montt – Puerto Natales – leaves every Tuesday at 6 pm. The cruise takes 4 days and 3 nights. It operates from the 31st of October to April. Price from US$440 per person.
Quellón (Chiloe) – Puerto Cisnes – leaves Tue and Thu at 6 pm, Sat at 5 pm. It takes 12 hours. Price CLP 50 000/US$57 per person.
Quellón – Puerto Chacabuco (makes 9 stops on the route) – leaves every Wed and Sat at 11 pm. It takes 32 hours. Price CLP 45 000/US$50.
*all indicated prices are for international adult tourists. Chilean nationals pay lower rates.
Hitchhiking the Carretera Austral
It might be the most fun way of traveling the Carretera (you’ll meet many locals, make new friends, etc.) and at the same time the most time-consuming and sometimes frustrating. In the peak season, there are so many people hitchhiking that sometimes it can take hours to get a ride.
We spent two months hitchhiking the Carretera Austral and other parts of Patagonia and loved it but as I said before one time was enough, next time we’ll rent a car and will definitely stop to pick up hitchhikers! Hitchhiking does work pretty well in Patagonia and in Chile in general just remember if you go in January, or February you’ll have a lot of competition mainly from local students that are on holiday.
Patagonia is a safe place (no place can be 100% safe though) for traveling. We saw many female travelers hitchhiking alone, and we personally never heard any bad stories from the road, all the people we met there were extremely nice and helpful. We don’t want to say nothing can ever happen to you but chances are pretty small compared to most places in South America.
Hitchhiking is a part of Chilean culture many people who picked us up told us they did the same when they were younger and now they feel they have to give the favor back.
Don’t get disappointed and give up easily. Many first-time hitchhikers after an hour of waiting on the road give up, be patient, and sooner or later someone will pick you up.
Always make a big sign saying where you want to go.
It’s easier to get a ride from a gas station where people stop anyway.
Try to be original, funny, and different so that you can stand out n the crowd. Remember, there will be many people hitchhiking there. Often Chileans are more curious and interested to chat with foreigners, making it clear you’re from far away, writing the name of your country, or painting a flag on your sign might help you to get a ride quicker.
Talk to people in hostels, campsites are nice and social, there is a good chance you’ll meet someone who will invite you to join for a trip for free or to share the petrol cost.
Many drivers told us they stop only for female travelers or couples because either they feel sorry for girls or just feel safer. If you’re a guy traveling alone try to team up with a girl or two it’ll increase your chances to be picked up.
Carretera Austral cycle
It’s probably the ultimate adventure and the best way to travel the Carretera Austral. We would love to do it one day. When we were there we were quite jealous of cyclists, it’s a completely different way of experiencing the region and seeing things. We met both first-time cyclists (not many though) and experienced travelers and for both cycling in Patagonia seemed to be quite challenging.
The weather here is very unpredictable, it gets very windy, and all of a sudden it starts raining so you must be prepared for tough days and long distances. Having the right gear and a good bicycle is quite important as well. It can be very challenging to cycle all 1200 km if you’re not a seasoned cyclist, it’s better to choose a part of the route.
Where to cross the border between Chile and Argentina?
There are several places along the route where you can cross the border between Chile and Argentina, here they are;
- Palena border crossing
- Chile Chico
- Candelario Mancilla (a ferry from Villa O’Higgins), only on foot or with a bicycle.
If you decide to extend your Patagonia adventure beyond the Carretera Austral you can get from Villa O’Higgins to El Chalten and explore the Argentinian part of Patagonia e.g. hiking routes in El Chaltén or the stunning Perito Moreno Glacier.
Credit cards and ATMs on the Carretera Austral
In larger towns there are ATMs and many places accept cards. In smaller towns finding an ATM is a problem. It’s always a good idea to draw cash every time you get a chance. Most hotels and supermarkets accept cards but campsites, small grocery stores, buses, etc. often don’t.
- Puerto Montt is a very busy town with many shopping malls and ATMs.
- Hualaihue, has two ATMs on the main square only one of them works with international cards, and supermarkets accept cards.
- Caleta Gonzalo (Pumalin Park), no ATMs, only cash.
- Chaitén, no ATMs, credit/debit cards are accepted in a few places, can buy bus tickets only in cash.
- Puyuhuapi, no ATMs, no cards accepted.
- Coyhaique, a couple of ATMs, credit/debit cards accepted.
- Villa Cerro Castillo, no ATMs, only cash.
- Puerto Río Tranquilo has no ATMs, some tour operators accept cards, and some shops accept cards.
- Cochrane, two or three ATMs on the main square.
- Caleta Tortel only cash.
- Villa O’Higgins, no ATMs, some shops accept credit/debit cards, campsites and ferries mostly cash.
Carretera Austral travel tips
Bring a tent, you’ll need it every day, it saves a lot of money and increases your chances to find accommodation during the peak season.
Always have snacks with you in case you get stuck in the middle of nowhere.
Every time you are in a place with an ATM, draw money, it can be a problem in Patagonia, in some places, it’s difficult to get cash.
If you run out of cash and there are no ATMs nearby you can try to find a petrol station (usually they accept cards). Wait for a car to come and ask the driver if you can pay by card for petrol and get back cash. In fact, you can do the same in a shop.
Always have cash enough to pay for entrance fees, camping, and food. Many places don’t accept cards.
It’s handy to have a stove and cooking set because not all campsites have a kitchen. Buying meals at cafes and restaurants is expensive, cooking will save a good portion of your budget.
Be ready to have bad or no Internet connection, if you want to download books/movies/maps do it before you start the Carretera Austral.
Everything in Patagonia is more expensive in order to save money, buy all the necessary gear and clothing beforehand.
What to pack for the trip?
Those who’re planning to camp and hike in Patagonia will definitely need camping gear and we’d recommend bringing good quality stuff, especially a tent, you’ll need one that can deal with strong winds and heavy rains.
A sleeping bag should be for comfort, we had one summer sleeping bag (14C comfort) and had to use it with a fleece inner otherwise it was too cold to sleep in it.
A sleeping pad can be either a cheap foam one or a blow-up, we prefer the second option as it’s more comfortable for sleeping and can fit in the backpack.
Cooking gear will be quite handy though many campsites in towns have some sort of kitchen you’ll still need your own pots and utensils as those are usually scares. You’ll definitely need a cooking set when going on a multi-day trek. Gas for camping stoves can be bought almost at any shop on the Carretera.
Comfortable shoes are a must-have for those who’re planning to hike, waterproof shoes are better as you can get quite a bit of rain even in summer. More details on gear and clothing you can find in our Patagonia packing list post.
Recommended books and guidebooks
- Lonely Planet Chile & Easter Island (Travel Guide). Kindle and paperback.
- Lonely Planet Argentina, Travel Guide. Kindle and paperback.
- Classic Hikes of the World; 23 Breathtaking treks by Peter Potterfield. To get some inspiration for future adventures. Hardcover.
- Patagonia on a budget by Matthew Morgante. How to travel Patagonia on US$30 a day, Kindle.
- Walking Patagonia by Caspian Ray. Don’t expect a hiking guide, it’s a fiction story about a young guy who went to Patagonia in search of adventure and love.
The pretty half of Stingy Nomads, responsible for all our land adventures (hiking, climbing, walking the Camino) and following them write-ups. Alya loves walking since she was a child, she prefers to walk 1000 km with a backpack rather than to do a 10 000 km road trip (actually any road trip). Alya is a big fan of Latin America, the Spanish language, and dancing. Every time we go away she desperately misses our dog Chile.