Travel the Carretera Austral, the essential guide

In this complete guide to travel the Carretera Austral you will find information to travel the scenic Chile’s Southern Highway, one of the most beautiful in the world.

The Carretera Austral starts in the city of Puerto Montt, crosses scenic landscapes between lakes and mountains, culminating after 1230 km in the town of Villa O’Higgins. Let’s describe it in this complete guide.

Getting to some of the starting points of the Carretera Austral

There are several alternatives to travel the Carretera Austral. Taking into account that normally the starting point is from the city of Puerto Montt in the north or from the region of Aysen in the extreme south.

– Arriving at one of the starting points by plane

  • Getting to Puerto Montt: It is possible to get to Puerto Montt, the starting point for visiting the Carretera Austral in the north, on a flight from Santiago de Chile, Punta Arenas or Balmaceda. There are regular flights every day.

✈️ Check here for cheap flights to Puerto Montt.

  • Getting to Balmaceda: The airport is located on the southern part of the Carretera Austral, very close to the border with Argentina and 57 kilometers from the town of Coyhaique. There are direct flights from Puerto Montt or Santiago de Chile.

– Can it be done by bus?

Visiting the Carretera Austral by bus is not impossible. You just have to take into account the infrequency of public transport. In addition, you often have to make several combinations to get from one place to another. If you arrive in Chile via Santiago, the best way is to get to Puerto Montt by bus or plane and from there rent a car.

– Visiting the Carretera Austral in your own or rented car

It is clear that the best option to travel the entire Carretera Austral and stop to enjoy the landscapes is either in your own car or a rental car.

It must be taken into account that the route is cut in three sections due to the accidents of the terrain.So you have to do part of this route aboard a ferry. The three navigable stretches are:

  • Caleta La Arena to Caleta Puelche: 45 minutes of navigation.
  • Hornopirén to Leptepu: 4 hours of navigation.
  • Fiordo Largo to Caleta Gonzalo: 45 minutes of navigation.

🚗 See here the prices of rental cars in Puerto Montt.

– Doing the Carretera Austral by ferry

If you are going to travel the Carretera Austral, there are options to arrive by ferry to different points. And by the way, you can see the fjords and the entire coast of southern Chile:

  • Route from Puerto Montt to Chaitén or to Puerto Chacabuco: in the first case, it is about 10 hours of navigation and in the second, it is a day of navigation.

🚢 Check the route from Puerto Montt to Chaitén with Naviera Austral (in Spanish).
🚢 Check the route from Puerto Montt to Puerto Chacabuco with Navimag.

  • Route from Quellón in Chiloé: if you are on the island of Chiloé there are several ferries that connect Quellón with different ports of the Carretera Austral such as Chaitén, Puerto Cisnes or Puerto Chacabuco.

Check the route from Chiloé with Naviera Austral (in Spanish).

  • Route from Puerto Natales: it is possible to travel by ferry through the Ice Fields region from Puerto Natales, passing through Puerto Eden and arriving at Puerto Yungay.

🚢 Check the route from Puerto Natales with Transbordadora Austral.

So, what is the best option?

As we have already commented before, the best way to visit the Carretera Austral is to do it by own or rental car, unless you want to visit only a section or navigate. Public transportation between cities is limited and there is no service every day.

Keep in mind that if you visit the Carretera Austral by car, the further south you go the greater the distance between towns, although fortunately gas stations are no longer a problem as you can fill up in most of the towns along the Carretera Austral (Hornopiren, Chaitén, Futaleufú, Palena, La Junta, Puyuhuapi, Puerto Cisnes, Puerto Aysén, Puerto Chacabuco, Villa Maniguales, Coyhaique, Puerto Río Tranquilo, Villa Cerro Castillo and Chile Chico). La Junta, Puyuhuapi, Puerto Cisnes, Puerto Aysén, Puerto Chacabuco, Villa Maniguales, Coyhaique, Puerto Río Tranquilo, Villa Cerro Castillo and Chile Chico, Cochrane, Tortel). However, many sections of the Carretera Austral are still gravel roads, although they are gradually being paved.

Along the Carretera Austral, there are several border crossings with Argentina. These are: Futaleufú in Chile with Esquel and Trevelin, Chile Chico with Los Antiguos and Balmaceda with Estancia Valle Huermules.

Are there ATMs to withdraw money?

Yes, fortunately many of the cities and towns on the Carretera Austral have ATMs for withdrawing money. Puerto Montt, being the largest city, has the most ATMs. But places like Puerto Río Tranquilo, Coyahique, Puerto Cisnes, Chile Chico, Chaitén and Puerto Aysén also have ATMs for cash withdrawals.

You can pay by card in many gas stations and shops, but keep in mind that in remote places the connection is often unstable and therefore sometimes you can’t pay by card even if the shop has a device to do so.

Do you need to carry enough cash to do the Carretera Austral? Our advice is not to skimp on this. If you stop at a petrol station to fill up and the system fails, you will have to pay in cash. The same goes for shopping or eating in a restaurant. The advantage is that you can pay for items such as hotels and excursions in advance by credit card.

Best time to travel the Carretera Austral

The best time to visit the Southern Highway is during the summer, late spring and early fall (from November to April) when the weather is pleasant during the afternoon. In addition, the length of the day, in terms of sunlight, is long. As the route is so vast, the further south you go the weather will tend to be colder, so it is recommended to bring warm clothes, even if the visit is in summer.

There are certain places where the visit should be done outside the summer season. This is the case of the Marble Chapel (Capillas de Marmol). During this time of year the lake water rises considerably due to thaws and it is not possible to go into the caves.

In the southern part of the Carretera Austral, the frequency of rains is constant, so it is recommended to bring a raincoat. It can even snow in summer.

From May to September the weather is very cold and, added to the fact that most of the activities are outdoors, it is difficult to visit the sites.

Accomodation in Southern Highway

🏨 Check here where to stau in Carretera Austral and get your ideal accommodation.

Must-see sights and attractions in Carretera Austral

Activities to do in Carretera Austral

  • Take a break at the hot springs
  • Trekking
  • Mountain biking
  • Kayaking
  • Rafting
  • Navigation through channels

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Travel the Carretera Austral, the guide to Chile's Southern Highway