Chile’s iconic Carretera Austral or Southern Highway is widely regarded as one of the world’s top 10 biking routes by both specialized publications and seasoned adventurers.
Also known as Route 7, the Carretera Austral stretches over 1,240 kms (770.5 miles) from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins, through rural Patagonia.
Despite its length, the area along the Southern Highway is sparsely populated.
Only about 100,000 people live in Puerto Montt and Coyhaique, the two largest urban centers in Chile’s General Carlos Ibáñez del Campo and Los Lagos regions.
However, the Carretera Austral provides a rich variety of great biking opportunities if you’re looking to really experience everything Patagonia has to offer.
Here are 6 tips for a great bike tour through the Carretera Austral in Chilean Patagonia.
1. Stock up in Puerto Montt
This is the start of your adventure, so make sure you start on the right foot. TDA Global Cycling recommends to get spare parts and adventure clothing in Puerto Montt before hitting the road.
The Carretera Austral is roughly 40% paved –more pavement is slowly added every year– so it will definitely put your bike to the test. Don’t forget to indulge in some pisco sours and seafood while you’re at it, though.
2. Visit the Termas del Amarillo hot springs
These thermal waters are located in the Pumalin National Park, some 25 kms to the south of of Chaitén. This town strategically close to the northern end of the Carretera Austral, where the highway goes inland.
Chaitén was evacuated in 2008 when when the Chaitén volcano erupted for the first time in more than 9,000 years.
El Amarillo is open all year round and offers the biggest camping site in the Pumalin National Park. The site is surrounded by rivers, mountains, woods and prairies ideal for mountain biking.
3. Factor the weather into your biking trip planning
Be warned, it takes a strong constitution to brave the Patagonian winter. The weather is ice-cold and winds can reach in excess of 100 km/h.
That is why virtually every guide out there recommends visiting Patagonia from December to February, when the weather is warmest and driest.
Temperatures range from a maximum of 13 degrees to a minimum of 5 degrees Celsius.
If visit in the summer you must, do not skimp on the sunscreen.
However, March is almost in the middle of autumn in Patagonia and the best time to visit according to locals, as the temperature is only lower by a few degrees.
Shoulder season in Patagonia –the period between peak and off-peak seasons– is October-November and March-April.
4. Get a good map
While Patagonia is a perfectly safe place, getting lost in the wilderness is a risky affair. You absolutely need a good map of Patagonia.
Lonely Planet recommends Hostería El Mosco in Villa O’Higgins as the hub for those going all the way, with plenty of travelers trading tips and a stock of detailed topographic maps.
Copec.cl is another good source for maps and tourist guides. Once in the home page, click on Mundo Copec and then Rutas de Chile.
For bike travels in Chile, including the southern part, you only to google “Chile and biking” or “biking carretera austral”.
5. Choose your bike wisely
The Carretera Austral will punish your bike like no other road. The unpaved sections are a never-ending stretch of dust, loose gravel and changes in road surface.
Some seasoned riders recommend buying a sturdy bike in Santiago and then selling it at the end of your trip.
You'll need time to advertise them long before your return fly date. Be sure to check out Mercadolibre.cl and Yapo.cl for used bikes and get an idea of what's available for your princing range.
6. Mind what you eat
According to Italian cyclist Tomas Balzk, the hardest part isn’t pedaling the terrain. It’s ingesting enough calories. Lonely Planet says locals can be exceedingly generous to bikers, often offering a space to camp or homemade bread.
Worldly Adventurer recommends to stock up with food in Coyhaique. All the other nearby towns only sell the very basics – you will particularly struggle to find fresh food.
For long-distance riders all over the world, the Carretera Austral is a badge of courage that’s earned with grit, sweat and good planning.
You probably will not conquer the entire expanse of the Southern Highway in one trip. That’s why many travelers return on multiple visits.
The Carretera Austral is a definite must on the list of things to do in Patagonia, but it requires a little preparation. Use the tips in this blog to get yourself set-up, and you’ll have an incredible experience.
* Blog image courtesy of Chile Travel.