In spite of the area’s great economic potential and its geopolitical importance, its lack of accessibility left this area all but isolated from the rest of the country until the Carretera Austral was completed.
The 1,240 kilometer highway links Puerto Montt to the north with Villa O'Higgins at its southern end. Running through Chilean Patagonia, the Carretera Austral is the main overland transport route in Aysén as well as Palena Province in Los Lagos region, connecting these areas with the rest of the country.
Activities on the Carretera Austral
The first stretch of the Southern Highway is in the Alerce Andino National Park, notable for its forest of huge ancient alerces; some of the trees are over 3,000 years old. For the more adventurous, the Hornopirén National Park is a must see: access is more difficult and the park has only the most basic services, but it has beautiful hidden lagoons and excellent fishing.
From Caleta Gonzalo you can visit Parque Pumalín, some 58 kilometers north of Chaitén, with camping zones, a cafeteria, hiking trails, cabins, picnic areas, and a shop selling handicrafts.
Puerto Cárdenas sits on the Highway between Chaitén and Cohaique. This is one of the best spots on the highway for fly fishing. Carrying on southwards, the road goes through Queulat National Park, known for the “Salto Padre García Hurtado” waterfall and for its hanging Glacier seen from a lookout area on the highway.
Other places you must see on the Carretera Austral:
Other beautiful spots along the Austral Highway include the Lago Las Torres National Reserve; the Rio Simpson National Reserve; the Cerro El Fraile Ski Area, with two lifts and five slopes; the Cerro Castillo National Reserve, home to protected ancient native forests; Lago General Carrera, the second largest lake in South America; Tortel, a lovely seaside village with colorful houses and wooden walkways; the Tamango National Reserve, famous for its population of huemules, an endangered native deer, and Lake Cochrane.
There are dozens of opportunities for adventure tourism along the route, including rafting on the rapids of the Futaleufú River and trekking around Cerro Castillo (2,320 m)
Another highlight is a boat trip on Lake General Carrera, to the “Marble Cathedral”, where the water has carved an impressive series of marble caves. We also recommend a visit to the Queulat National Park and its Hanging Glacier, some 25 km south of Puyuhuapi, on the banks of the Ventisquero river, and also, right at the end of the highway, that you see the beautiful scenery around Villa O'Higgins.
Outstanding spots along the highway include: Pumalín Park, Puyuhuapi, Queulat National Park, Coyhaique, the Futaleufú River, the Palena River, Espolón and Loncolao Lakes, Laguna San Rafael, Cerro Castillo, General Carrera Lake, the Baker River, Caleta Tortel Cove, and Villa O'Higgins.
Where to eat on the Carretera Austral
Restaurante Brisas del Mar
All types of food
Corcovado 278, Chaitén, Chile
Restaurant Entre Amigos
Sargento Aldea 1077, Puerto Aysén, Chile
Tel.: (56-67) 333433
Regional food, specializing in fish and seafood.
21 de Mayo 655, Coyhaique
Tel.: (56-67) 211826
Flora and Fauna of the Carretera Austral
The Southern Highway covers large expanses of temperate rainforest, national parks, glaciers, huge ice fields, lagoons, fiords, rivers and lakes. It is an ideal place for adventure tourism, fishing, trekking, kayaking, extreme sports, rafting and for the observation of flora and fauna in its most natural state.
Along the Carretera Austral you can see floating icebergs, and have the chance to see the most spectacular regional fauna, such as Magellanic penguins, albatross, ducks and sea lions. There are also trails for hiking and horseback riding with almost constant views of glaciers, mountains and volcanoes.
The most outstanding flora includes the giant Alerces, Tepú, Cypress of the Guaitecas, and shrubs. There are also lengas and the leafy green coigües. Wildlife includes several endangered species. The most outstanding birds are the Andean condor, the flamingo, chucao, tiuque, upland geese, bandurrias or black-faced ibis, falcons, humming birds and a wide variety of marine birds such as cormorants, Humboldt penguins, and albatross.
Climate of the Carretera Austral
The climate is rainy and cold. It is warmer and sunnier in summer, but in the afternoon and at nighttime it is still quite cold. From Chaitén to Mañihuales the proximity of the highway to the sea means that rainfall is high (over 3,500 millimeters per year), with average temperatures that never drop below zero degrees throughout the year. From Coyhaique to Cochrane, the climate is dry and cold.
How to get to the Carretera Austral
The Southern Highway starts in Puerto Montt (Region X) and ends Villa O’Higgins (Region XI). It is a mostly gravel road with ferry crossings in a few places. If you are travelling along the road by car, make sure you fill your gasoline tank whenever possible as gas stations are few and far between.
The highway begins some 1,116 kilometers south of Santiago in Puerto Montt. You can get to Puerto Montt by road via Route 5 (The Panamerican Highway).
By sailing with Navimag Ferries you can travel by sea on our Puerto Montt to Puerto Chacabuco ferry, or vice versa, on a one-day trip through Patagonia’s channels and islands, and from there, continue on to the Carretera Austral.
Navimag Ferries sail from Puerto Montt to Puerto Chacabuco and from Puerto Chacabuco to Puerto Montt, on a voyage through beautiful Patagonia scenery.
Departures from Montt to Puerto Chacabuco are on Wednesdays and Saturdays throughout the year.
(Navimag only provides transport on the aforementioned routes and does not provide a transport service between the ports and the Carretera Austral)
Where to stay on the Carretera Austral
Hotel Aysén Patagonia
Sargento Aldea 560, Puerto Aysén, Chile
Tel.: (56-67) 330928
Hotel Diego de Almagro Coyhaique
Avda. Ogana 1320, Coyhaique, Chile
Tel.: (56-67) 215200
Hostería Don Carlos
Almirante Riveros 53 Chaitén, Chile
Tel.: (56-65) 73128