The Carretera Austral – traveling through Patagonia, Chile

Hitchhiking Carretera Austral
Stunning scenery of Carretera Austral, Patagonia, Chile

Hitchhiking Carretera Austral can become a lifetime adventure for any traveler. The legendary Southern road offers amazing scenery, unique ecosystem and thrilling feeling of wilderness around. This part of our 13 months trip through Latin America became our favorite because of its nature beauties and amazing people. In total it took us about 4 weeks to go all the way from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins. But not because the hitch wasn’t great, not at all, because there are so many places to visit and things to do. If you are still deciding between Argentinian and Chilean Patagonia go for Chilean, it’s more beautiful and interesting and even cheaper.

Carretera Austral facts

  • Total distance – 1240km/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 waiting its turn.
  • Best season to travel – December – March, Patagonian summer.

Reasons to travel the Carretera Austral

Two best ways to travel Carretera Austral are hitchhiking or cycling. Cycling is more challenging and exciting, and gives you more freedom. Cycling Carretera Austral easily can become you lifetime journey.

If you want to go off the beaten trail, discover new places, do wild hikes and meet wonderful people, Chilean Patagonia is your place. Travel Carretera Austral from it’s beginning to the very end and even beyond it, you won’t regret! Even now in South East Asia, thousands kilometers away every time when the wind blows I close my eyes and travel back to Patagonia. I imagine myself somewhere on the top of the mountain looking at the glacier or torques lake and not being able to believe it’s all real! Now wind is my strong association with traveling Patagonia and Carretera Austral.

Hitchhiking Carretera Austral
Chilean gauchos (shepherds) with their herd. Hitchhiking Carretera Austral

A history of the Carretera

Until the 80s there was no road in Chilean Patagonia, to get anywhere you had two options to fly or to go by boat. The construction of Carretera Austral started in 1976 and in the 90s a dirt road connecting Puerto Montt with Villa O’Higgins was finished, total distance – 1240 km.

Partly the road is paved and partly still dirt road. In the nearest future the road will be all paved so it will make Carretera Austral accessible for any car because nowadays you need a proper 4×4 to drive through some parts.

What to pack for the trip – camping and hiking gear

You’ll find all the detailed information on camping and trekking gear with prices and comparison in this post.

Travel insurance for Patagonia

Whether you’re going to hike, cycle or just travel around Southern Patagonia is a very remote area which is make it a very exciting place for exploring. Traveling the Carretera Austral like any other adventure involves a risk of getting injury or losing some of the gear due to unpredictable weather conditions e.g. very strong wind that Patagonia is famous for or just losing your backpack like it happened to me while hitchhiking in Patagonia. It’s always advisable to have travel insurance especially if you’re going on an adventure outside your own country. World Nomads insurance company operates all over the world, they have special packages for outdoor and hiking lovers. It doesn’t matter where you live or where you are at the moment, it takes less than 2 minutes to get a quote and you can buy it online even if you are already traveling. We advise always to read the small print and be sure you buy the correct policy. Be properly covered for injury, evacuation, gear loss, trip cancellation and trip delays. Want to know what other travelers say about World Nomads? Find out more in this post.

Different ways of traveling

By bus

The most popular way of traveling the Carretera Austral though buses in season get very crowded and sometime it’s difficult to get a spot if you get on not in a biggish town but in a small village somewhere in between. We saw once how people couldn’t get on a bus because there was no space – at Villa Cerro Castillo, there was only one bus a day going from Coyhaique towards Puerto Rio Tranquilo and there were too many tourists.

Might be difficult to get by bus

Some places that are a bit of a detour from the Carretera might be difficult to get to by bus e.g. Caleta Tortel (three or four buses a week from Cochrane), Villa O’Higgins (there are two or three buses a week going that way), some National parks (difficult to get to an actual entrance or beginning of a hiking trail). In this case you can try hitchhiking or if you’re planning to do a long hike to get in and out rather arrange a shuttle nothing can be worse than getting stuck on the road in the middle of nowhere after hiking in the woods for a week or so.

By car

This is bay far the most comfortable and easy way of traveling the region though the most expensive as well. If you’re planning to travel the entire Carretera we’d suggest to rend a car in Puerto Montt where you’ll have more options. Remember, on the way, especially in the north of Chilean Patagonia there will be several ferries involved, plan your trip according to the timetable and in season rather buy tickets a day before you go to secure a spot.

Hitchhiking

The fun way of traveling the Carretera you’ll meet many locals, make new friend and may visit some amazing places that you would never think of going to. We spent 2 months hitchhiking through Carretera Austral and other parts of Patagonia and absolutely loved it but I know it’s not everybody’s cup of tea and some people would never consider spending a couple of hours at the road hoping to get a ride. Hitchhiking does work good in Patagonia and in Chile in general just remember if you go in high season (January, February) you’ll have a lot of competition mainly from local students that are on summer holiday.

Tips for hitchhiking

  • Patagonia is quite a safe place we saw many young girls hitchhiking alone, we never heard any bad story from the road, all people we met there were extremely nice and helpful. In fact 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. I don’t want to say nothing can every happen to you but chances are pretty small compared to most other places in South America.
  • First of all don’t get disappointed and give up easy. Many first-time hitchhikers after an hour of waiting on the road give up. Don’t be like that first of all because sooner or later somebody will stop for you. You are in Chilean Patagonia people here are used to help and share.
  • Always make a sign where you want to go.
  • Try to be original, funny, different that you can be easily spotted between dozens of other hitchhikers. Chileans treat foreigners very well. Make it clear you’re from far far away, write name of your country or draw a flag on your sign.
  • Talk to people around, there is a good chance you meet someone in a camping and they invite you to join them for the trip.
  • Advice for guys – many drivers told us they stop only for female travelers or couples. Either they feel more sorry for girls or just feel safer. Anyway guys, try to find girls to join you, more chances to be picked up and more fun!

Cycling

It’s probably the ultimate adventure on the Carretera Austral, when we were there we were quite jealous of cyclists, it’s a completely different way of experiencing the region – slower and more thorough. Here you must remember sometimes it gets quite tough to cycling through strong wind and rain proper gear and good bicycle are the must have. It can be very challenging to cycle all 1200 km if you’re not seasoned cyclist, better choose a part of the route.

Accommodation on the Carretera Austral

Depending on your budget and preferences you can choose between camping in your own tent, which is the cheapest option, staying at hostels – more expensive but more comfortable or having more privacy and paying more for staying at guesthouses or hotels. Most of the towns and villages have all the listed option though hostels might be difficult to find in smaller places. For camping you’ll need your own gear; tent, mat, sleeping bag – most of the campsites provide camping space, kitchen and ablutions but they don’t rent tents etc. We camped a lot and it was great and very social especially in the evenings but sometimes after hiking and camping for a week in the wild you don’t feel like pitching a tent again and sleeping on the ground, we’d suggest to combine camping with staying at hostels/hotels to get a bit of a break.

Where to stop on the Carretera Austral

Prices for campings, food, entrance fees and more details about each place you can find using links for related articles.

We started in Puerto Montt, actually on Chiloe island, from where we hitchhiked to Puerto Montt. On first  day after 4 cars we reached town Hualaihue, where stayed overnight. Apparently there is a beautiful National park nearby where you can do a hike. We decided to skip it, too many parks to visit in Patagonia.

Next day we caught a ferry to Caleta Gonzalo, entrance to Pumalin park, where we camped for 5 days, more information in our article Pumalin park, Patagonia.

Between two parts (North and South) of Pumalin we stayed one night in Chaiten, small sleepy town.

Hitchhiking Carretera Austral
Our first ferry on Carretera Austral from Hualaihue to Pumalin park (Caleta Gonzalo).

Puyuhuapi and Queulat

From Pumalin Southern entrance we hitchhiked to Puyuhuapi, where camped for two days, we were very lucky, got a ride after 10 min. of waiting, the first car stopped. Puyuhuipi is a beautiful place on a lake, very small and quite.

Near Puyuhuapi there is a National park Queulat with short hiking trails, the main attraction – hanging glacier Queulat. We hitched there and camped one night at the camping next to the road, there is a camping inside but more expensive. The camping was full with mostly Chilean students, we were there right on summer holiday. The day we arrived there were many backpackers on the road, hitchhiking both ways. I became a bit negative about our hitchhiking prospects.

Hitchhiking Carretera Austral
Ventisquero Colgante (hanging glacier), Queulat National park, Carretera Austral

Coiyhaique

Next morning we woke up very early, broke down our tent and went to the road. We hope to be the first but there were three guys already hitchhiking, so we stopped behind them. Again luck, a car drove past them and picked us up (check our Hitchhiking tip for guys below). First car dropped us off after an hour drive, we were on the road, it started raining. Five cars drove past and finally one car stopped. It was full, with a family going on holiday, we threw our backpacks on the back (it was a big mistake) and jumped inside. They drove all the way to Coiyhaique where on arrival we discovered that my backpack disappeared, it’d fallen from the car! Our disaster story of losing my backpack HERE.

Cerro Castillo

After three days in Coihaique and some necessary shopping, we continued south to Villa Cerro Castillo, got there in two cars, first with a local farmer, second with Dutch tourists. Here we did a 4-day hike in Cerro Castillo National reserve, check out our article about it.

Hitchhiking Carretera Austral
Loops of Carretera Austral on the way from Coiyhaique to Cerro Castillo

Puerto Rio Tranquilo

From Cerro Castillo it looked even more difficult to hitch. When we arrived at the road there were already 10 hitchhikers and more were coming. For this reason we decided to use our magic sign “Mexico a Usuaya a dedo” (“a dedo” means hitchhiking). And it helped indeed, 15 min. later a car stopped for us! Our driver was a local man from Coiyhaique, a very nice person and he told us he always picks up tourists. He drove us all the way to Puerto Rio Tranquilo where we spent two nights. After we heard some stories from people who got stuck in Cerro Castillo for a day or two.

In Puerto Rio Tranquilo you can do a boat tour to Marmol cathedral and hike on the glacier, we did neither of them, bad weather for the boat tour and very expensive for the glacier. The town is famous due to recent death of Douglas Tompkins (North Face) in nearby lake General Carrera.

Hitchhiking Carretera Austral
General Carrera lake, Rio Puerto Tranquilo, Carretera Austral

Caleta Tortel

From Puerto Rio Tranquilo we hitched towards Villa O’Higgins. First ride was just one hour out of the town. Our second ride was with two Chilean friends on holiday. We needed cash so they drove us to the ATM in Cochrane. After that they invited us to go with them to Caleta Tortel. We went there and on the way back they dropped us at the road split to Caleta Yungay. Here we met 4 Chilean hitchhikers, we pitched out tents in the bush next to the road. There was no point in hitchhiking the last ferry from Caleta Yungay had already left.

Hitchhiking Carretera Austral
Caleta Tortel, Carretera Austral, Chile

Villa O’Higgins

Next day we kept hitching towards Villa O’Higgins. Again no long waiting, a family from Santiago picked us up. After one short ferry ride and 4 hours fast driving we arrived at Villa O’Higgins, the end of Carretera Austral. From O’Higgins you can continue south by bike/on foot and ferry. Check our articles on epic 42 km walk from O’Higgins to El Chalten with all our luggage and hike to El Chico glacier on the way.

Hitchhiking Carretera Austral
Lago O’Higgins, Villa O’Higgins, Chile

General tips for Hitchhiking Carretera Austral

Bring a tent, you’ll need it every day, it saves a lot of money and increases your chances to find accommodation in the peak season. Average for campings you pay 7$ per person, for bed in dormitory from 15$. You can find hostels with dorms only in big towns. Plus sometimes hitchhiking you can get stuck in the middle of nowhere, with your own tent you can camp anywhere in Patagonia, we found it safe. To find out more about camping and hiking gear for Patagonia check our article What to pack for hiking in Patagonia.

Always have some kind of food with you for the same reason mentioned above.

Every time you are in a place with 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 a driver if you can pay by card for his petrol and he pays you back in cash, explain your situation. In fact you can do the same in a shop, just amount probably will be smaller so you’ll have to do it couple of times.

It’s handy to have a stove and cooking set because not all campings have a kitchen. Moreover to buy  meals in 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 downloads books/movies/maps do it before you start the Carretera Austral.

Everything in Patagonia is more expensive in order to save some money buy all necessary gear/clothing etc. beforehand.

Hitchhiking Carretera Austral
Beautiful scenery on the way. Hitchhiking Carretera Austral

Where to find ATMs on the Carretera Austral?

  • Puerto Montt – very busy town with many shopping malls and ATMs, try to draw as much as you can here not to worry about cash for next weeks.
  • Hualaihue, two ATMs on the main square, only one works with international cards, supermarket accepts cards.
  • Caleta Gonzalo (Pumalin park), no ATMs, only cash.
  • Chaiten, very small village, no ATMs, credit/debit cards accepted in few places, can buy bus tickets only by cash.
  • Puyuhuapi, tiny village, no ATMs, no cards accepted.
  • Coyhaique, the biggest town and the capital of the region, couple of ATMs, credit/debit cards accepted.
  • Villa Cerro Castillo, small village, no ATMs, only cash.
  • Puerto Rio Tranquilo, no ATMs, some tour operators accept cards, can make a deal with them, pay more for your tour and they will pay back the difference in cash. Some shops accept cards. There is a petrol station, we used it to get some cash (how explained in General Tips for Carretera Austral).
  • Cochrane, two or three ATMs on the main square.
  • Caleta Tortel, nothing to do without cash.
  • Villa O’Higgins, no ATMs, shops accept credit/debit cards, campings and ferries only cash.

You pay entrance fees to all National parks by cash.

In our hitchhiking experience Carretera Austral is one of the best hitchhiking places, we already miss it and one day will come back, maybe with bicycles!

Recommended books and guidebooks

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3 Comments

  • Hello,
    Thank you for your posts, they’ve been a huge help in planning my backpacking trip next month! I’ve never hitchhiked before and am wondering how safe it for a woman to hitchhike alone throughout Chile and Argentina? Or even Peru? Also where did you get the materials to create your signs? and did you carry them with you on your hikes?
    Thanks so much for your help,
    Christelle

    • Hi, Christelle! We’re glad our posts were helpful!
      We think Patagonia both Chilean and Argentinian sides are safe for hitchhiking for a girl, at least we’ve never heard from anybody about any problems. Chile in general is safe, drivers tend to stop for girls more often than for guys or couples. In Argentina I would hitchhike alone but not to the north from Buenos Aires towards Brazil that area looked a bit dodgy for us. We haven’t hitchhiked in Peru at all, bus prices were not that bad but my girl friend did and she was robbed twice hitchhiking in Peru, the second time she lost everything including her passport. So in Peru we wouldn’t recommend to do it alone.
      We used a pen marker and cartoon boxes to make our signs and made every time a new one there were enough old boxes everywhere. If you have more questions don’t hesitate in asking!
      Good luck!

      • Awesome, thanks so much for your reply! Im sorry to hear that about your girlfriend in Peru, definitely will not attempt.

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