How to Travel Through Carretera Austral – the Most Remote Region in Patagonia
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This is part one of a comprehensive guide for a road trip through Carretera Austral. This post focuses on how to travel through the Carretera Austral using various transportation options including buses, self-driving, hitchhiking, taking the ferry, and border crossing.
Note: this post was created based on my experience on Carretera Austral in November 2017 and extensive research. Schedules and the cost of public transport may change from time to time. If you find there are discrepancies in the information provided here, please drop me a line and I will update the post accordingly.
I spent two weeks on Carretera Austral, which covers 770 miles from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins. It is the most remote part of Chile’s Patagonia with a total number of 100,000 inhabitants. I took the bus from Puerto Montt, stopped in many rural villages along the way, and eventually exited the Carretera Austral in Chile Chico.
Although the Carretera Austral is one of the most beautiful highways in the world with endless beautiful natural sites off the tourist radar, planning this journey is in no way easy. The bus has no fixed schedule online and clear information about how to travel through this road is scarce in the guidebooks.
Related Post on Traveling in Chile:
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For weeks, I was left in the unknown on where and how to take the bus and purchase the tickets, where I should begin the trip, and where I wanted to get off the road and how. With my Argentinian tourist visa application pending approval (I received it halfway through the trip), my travel plan was restricted to Chile’s side, and that added more frustration.
Despite the lack of information and long hours of planning, I decided to take the road trip and it turned out to be the best adventure I had in Patagonia; it was totally worth all the effort and the cost.
Entering and Leaving the Carretera Austral
There are several ways to get to the Carretera Austral depending on your timeline and your budget. Different people have different ways of traveling through this route and every option has its advantages and cons.
The only airport you can use to fly to the Carretera Austral is Balmaceda Airport in Coyhaique. A daily flight is available between Puerto Montt to Coyhaique in the high season and the airfare can be as low as $22. For the schedule and airfare, visit Skyscanner here.
To get to Puerto Montt airport, ask your hostel and hotel in Puerto Varas to call you a taxi. Upon arrival at Balmaceda, you will find shuttle buses taking passengers to the city center of Coyhaique for $7,000 CLP.
Puerto Montt airport is midway between the city of Puerto Montt and Puerto Varas, so it takes the same amount of time to reach the airport from both places. I recommend that you not spend too much time in Puerto Montt and only treat it as a place for transit. The city is ugly and it is not worth spending a night there.
I did not take the flight to Coyhaique. The city is located halfway along the road and I did not want to miss the scenery on the other side or double back, so I chose to travel using public transport from Puerto Montt.
By bus from Puerto Montt
I originally planned to travel all the way to Coyhaique, then return north and take a flight to Punta Arenas. As my Argentinian visa was accepted when I got to La Junta, I decided to continue the trip further south and here is my route:
Puerto Montt – Chaitén – Futaleufú – La Junta – Puyuhuapi – Coyhaique- Puerto Rio Tranquilo – Chile Chico (cross the border to Argentina towards El Chalten/El Calafate)
Puerto Montt – Chaitén – Futaleufú
In Puerto Montt, Kemelbus leaves for Chaitén at 7 am and travels 9 hours alongside the national parks, fjords, turquoise-blue lakes, and colorful mountains. I went to the Puerto Mott bus station and purchased the ticket a day in advance and the bus fare to for adult foreigners was $20,000 CLP.
From Chaitén, the daily bus leaves from the bus station to Futaleufú twice at 11-12 am and 4 pm. The 11-12 am bus drops passengers in Futaleufú and continues traveling to Coyhaique. I did not find the information on whether the 4 pm bus terminates at Coyhaique. Once you arrive at the Chaitén station, you can purchase your ticket to Futaleufú in advance.
Futaleufú – La Junta – Puyuhuapi – Coyhaique
There is no timetable for the bus from Futaleufú onwards. The only way to find out the departure schedule is to ask the people at the bus station when you arrive in town.
In Futaleufú, the bus travels southwards once a week on Wednesday at 11 am to La Junta, stops in Puyuhuapi, and terminates in Coyhaique. The ticket is expensive owing to the rarity of the bus and this is where I experienced an increasing number of travelers hitchhiking to the south and crossing the border.
In Puyuhuapi, the bus makes one trip to Coyhaique during the weekdays and two trips on weekends. The additional bus on weekends leaves in front of the tourism office at 6 am and the bus fills up quickly. The reason is that Coyhaique is the first place on this road to have access to banks, ATMs, currency exchange, many restaurants, huge grocery stores, and a mall. Everyone needs to stop there to get cash and stock up on provisions for their remaining trip.
The ticket to Puerto Rio Tranquilo and Cochrane can be purchased in advance at the Coyhaique bus terminal, which is two blocks away from the main street. The bus leaves to Puerto Rio Tranquilo once a day in the early morning.
Once in Puerto Rio Tranquilo, the bus stops for a while to drop off passengers and continue onto Cochrane. From Cochrane, you can connect with another bus that takes you to Cartel Tortel and Villa O’Higgins.
There are six ferries operating on different routes on Carretera Austral and the most popular one is the Quellón (Chiloe) to Puerto Cisnes (Puyuhuapi). The ferry departs Quellón once or twice a week and the duration of travel is 18 hours. To get to the ferry terminal in Quellón, you can take the bus from Castro or any other city in Chiloe. To book the ferry, visit the tourism office in Chiloe and ask them to make a reservation for you online.
In the south, Austral Broom provides a weekly ferry service between Puerto Yungay (Caleta Tortel) and Puerto Natales (Getaway to Torres Del Paine). The length of this ferry crossing is 41 hours and costs $120,000 CLP for adult foreigners, but don’t let this stop you. The journey takes you into one of the remotest regions in Patagonia and stops in a small town, Puerto Eden, which only you and other passengers on the ferry have the opportunity to access. For a detailed schedule and reservations, check out the website here.
Hitchhiking in Carretera Austral is a common way of traveling among backpackers. I have seen people standing on the side of the road and flagging down a car, and I have hitchhiked a few times as well. The most effective hitchhiking tip is to start talking to people and asking around when you arrive in town so you do not lose time waiting for a ride.
The Carretera Austral only goes in two directions so you will definitely meet people heading in the same direction as you are. In Puyuhuapi, someone offered me a five-hour ride to Coyhaique after we talked at the hostel. Put yourself in the driver’s perspective, do you prefer to take someone you know or a stranger standing on the side of the road?
Drive your own vehicles
Self-driving through Carretera Austral comes with many advantages. It offers you more flexibility and anywhere you want to appreciate the world-class landscape. However, car rental is expensive, there is no insurance coverage, and 70% of the road is unpaved, so you need to be very cautious. There are travelers biking and motorcycling through Carretera Austral as well.
Border crossing to and from Argentina
You can enter and leave Carretera Austral overland via Argentina as well. There are several borders between Carretera Austral and Argentina that are accessible by vehicles, and they are Futaleufú and Esquel, Chile Chico and Los Antiguos, Balmaceda/Coyhaique and Rio Mayo, Palena and Corcovado, Puerto Ibanes, and Perito Moreno.
I crossed the border in Chile Chico and it was not a regular border crossing I experienced. The immigration offices between Chile and Argentina are seven kilometers apart and public transport is not permitted from Chile’s side, so I resorted to a combination of taking a taxi, walking, and hitchhiking.
When I arrived at the Argentinian border, I found public transport to the bus station was not available either and that I had to walk another two kilometers. It is not easy as you need to walk with all your travel possessions.
Border crossing between Futaleufú and Esquel are among the popular ones. Buses are available from Esquel taking passengers to Futaleufú but I am not sure about the other way around. Hitchhiking through this border is fairly easy as well, as most cars are heading in the same direction so it is not difficult to get a ride. For a detailed schedule and information on the bus from Esquel to Futaleufú, you can check here.
The end of the road: what happens when you get to Villa O’Higgins
Villa O’Higgins is a town at the southernmost end of the Carretera Austral and it is where the road abruptly ends, which means it is impossible to travel further south in Chile from this place.
To get out of Villa O’Higgins, you have two options. You can either travel back north to Chile Chico and further, or use a combination of boat, horse, and walking 22 kilometers in the forest to Argentina towards El Chalten (there is no vehicle access on this border). The journey to Argentina takes a few days. The first 16 kilometers is easy to walk and bike, and then it gets steep and muddy with swamps and a few river crossings. If you choose to cross this border, start early and take it easy. The scenery on this road is out of this world, and you can even see the Fitz Roy from its back.
For more information on what you need to expect on a trip between Villa O’Higgins and Argentina, check out this post here.
Things to know when traveling through the Carretera Austral
-The bus does not always arrive and leave on time, so be sure to exercise patience, and you need to purchase bus tickets by cash.
-It is highly likely that you will experience rainy days during this trip and that will obscure the gorgeous scenery on the road. The first day when I traveled from Puerto Montt to Chaitén, it was raining all day and what was supposed to be a world-class view of mountains and glaciers during the ferry crossing was replaced by the gloomy sky and the fog. Patagonia’ weather is famous for being unpredictable so make the most out of the sunny days when you can.
-Travel insurance is not required but considering the remoteness of the place and the multiple activities like hiking, camping, hitchhiking, and walking on the glaciers, it is recommended to purchase international travel insurance just in case. I purchased my travel insurance through the World Nomad. I did not use it once, but it is always great to give you peace of mind when traveling.
-Southern Carretera Austral (from Coyhaique to Villa O’Higgins) offers real beauty that you will not see anywhere else, so try not to sleep on the bus. The remote landscape from Coyhaique to Puerto Rio Tranquilo and Chile Chico will make you stare out of the window wide-eyed. Depending on the route and the bus driver, you are allowed to get off the bus midway and take pictures. Moreover, the bus driver will offer you the history and insights of the region.
-Despite the remoteness of the region, you will meet other travelers, cyclists, and locals that you will spend time chatting, hitchhiking, sharing meals, and going out on day trips, and you will probably meet them again somewhere in Patagonia. If you hitchhike, the driver will stop in some beautiful areas and encourage you to get out and take pictures.
-It is impossible to see everything on the Carretera Austral and you will definitely miss some beautiful places that you wish you did visit. I ended my trip in Chile Chico and did not get the chance to see several beautiful towns in the south, and some attractions were too expensive for me to visit. There were backpackers flying to Coyhaique and they missed parts or all of the north. The Carretera Austral takes long to travel and is expensive, so budget wisely, be flexible, and choose your stops carefully.
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