The road trip has long been a compelling way of traveling and finding adventure. There’s nothing quite like navigating a country at your own pace, able to take an interesting detour or stop to admire a stunning landscape as and when you please. While road trips have long been a quintessentially North American pastime, great stretches of asphalt and gravel in South America have grown in status as unmissable adventures in their own right. The Carretera Austral or Ruta 7 in Chile is one of these.
Where is the Carretera Austral?
Comprising stretches of both tarmacked and gravel road, the Carretera Austral is the only highway that runs through the northern stretch of Chilean Patagonia, starting in Puerto Montt in the Lakes District and ending 770-miles (1,240km) south at Villa O’Higgins.
The history of the Carretera Austral
Before the construction of the Carretera Austral, the southern Lakes District and Aysén regions were practically cut off from the rest of Chile, with few roads and little land or even sea transport.
In 1976, the building of the road commenced, only being completed in 2000. The Carretera Austral now connects over 35 towns in the region and acts as the main route along which tourists travel to explore what remains a truly off-the-beaten-path destination in Chile.
Since 2016, workers have been improving the road surface with the plan for it to be fully asphalted by the end of 2017.
Why take a road trip along the Carretera Austral?
Despite its huge scale, this part of Patagonia is very sparsely populated and only around 100,000 people live in the small scattering of towns and villages found along the Carretera Austral.
However, this scant lack of habitation and development is the reason why so many travelers are drawn to Ruta 7. The road passes alongside over 18 reserves and protected natural areas, many of which combine barely-touched and utterly splendid nature with accommodations and hiking trails, the latter allowing visitors to experience these unique wild places at their very best.
Where should you visit on the Carretera Austral?
Top highlights along the Carretera Austral include:
- Parque Pumalín: A 290,000-hectare (715,000-acre) protected park near Chaitén in the north of the Carretera Austral, Parque Pumalín was established by Tompkins Conservation. A series of hiking trails introduce visitors to scenery ranging from fjords to volcanoes and to rare Valdivian temperate rainforest.
- Puyuhuapi: This picture-perfect town is located on the edge of Puyuhuapi fjord and surrounding by a majestic landscape of dense forest and hot springs. There’s not much to see in town (although watching the tide go out on the beach is certainly a way to pass the time), but a trip to nearby Parque Nacional Queulat and its dramatic hanging glacier makes a few days spent in Puyuhuapi more than worthwhile.
- Coyhaique: The largest town along the Carretera Austral, Coyhaique is the main base for most visitors to the region. Find good restaurants and comfortable lodgings combined with access to the nearby Coyhaique and Río Simpson national reserves, both of which have short trails through verdant forest – all with snow-flecked mountains in the background.
- Puerto Río Tranquilo: This tiny community sat on the shores of grand Lago General Carrera is best known as the jumping off point for a series of tours into truly magnificent natural formations. First and foremost there’s San Rafael, one of Patagonia’s most striking – and rapidly shrinking – glaciers, accessible from the village. A boat excursion across the lake to the colorful, weather-eroded Marble Chapels is another unmissable activity.
How can you explore the Carretera Austral?
For the ultimate road trip in Chile, rent a car in Puerto Montt and drive the full length of the route, stopping in Chaitén, Puyuhuapi, Coyhaique, Puerto Río Tranquilo, Cochrane and ending in Villa O’Higgins.