South America

Highlights of the Carretera Austral

Laura Pattara

Laura Pattara  |  3 April 2018

An approach of South America's most epic road-trip route 

Explore the best highlights of the Carretera Austral and discover why this is rated as South America’s most epic road-trip route.

Starting in Puerto Montt in the north and stretching all the way to Villa O’Higgins in the southern Lakes District, the Carretera Austral  stretches 1,200 spellbinding kilometres and connects some of Patagonia’s most remote communities. A road-building feat of great proportions, Chile's Routa 7 has been completed – for the most part – against formidable odds and spending a few days covering some or all of its distance by expedition vehicle is one of the most exhilarating experiences you can have in South America. Untamed forests, pristine valleys, stunning fjords, glaciers and ever-present imposing mountains are among some of the road’s best highlights yet if there is ever a route that very much delivers both on the destination, and the journey, this would have to be it.

The Carretera Austral

For the intrepid adventurer and the curious traveller, the explorer who loves to get off the beaten path and the return visitor who simply can’t get enough of Patagonia: the Carretera Austral is the ultimate challenge. Notwithstanding plans to extend and seal the road, a road trip on the Carretera Austral delivers bucket loads of adventure, mesmerizing nature and endless discoveries.

 Here are just some of the fantastic highlights of the Carretera Austral you can look forward to:

Marble Caves & General Carrera Lake

The turquoise-hued Lago General Carrera is South America’s second-largest lake, home to spectacular marble monoliths and caves that have been carved by glacial waters over the course of 6,000 years. Partially submerged and showcasing an astonishing shades of green and blue, the caves are spellbinding in every way, thanks to their remote location, their fantastical shapes and their breathtaking colour. The reflection of the lake’s waters on the walls of the caves is out of this world, especially if you visit on a clear and sunny morning. The Marble Caves are only reachable by boat and are the most coveted site – and best visual feast – of the northern section of the Carretera Austral.

The Marble Caves

Pumalin National Park

The brainchild of revered late conservationist Douglas Tompkins (of clothing brand ‘Patagonia’ fame) the Pumalin National Park is the first reserve you come across when you start your road trip in Puerto Montt and offers some of the Carretera Austral’s most astonishing scenery. As the road cuts right through the heart of the park, you’ll enjoy sensational vistas, whether or not you stop to hike for a few days. Vertiginous granite peaks are framed by luscious forests, all of which tumble into glacial waters forming truly magnificent fjords. The park is essentially divided in two sections (north and south), with most of the north only accessible by boat, either on a multi-day kayaking trip or single day sightseeing cruise, and do keep in mind that when driving on the Carretera Austral, you’ll be crossing one of the park’s many fjords by vehicle-ferry. The southern half of the park, on the other hand, is a trekker’s paradise and a host of one-day and even half-day trails offer you the chance to immerse yourself in Pumalin’s stunning wilderness, reaching hanging glaciers, sparkling waterfalls and smouldering volcanoes, which you may just have all to yourself. Whether a first – or last – highlight of a Carretera Austral road trip, the Pumalin National Park remains one of Patagonia’s most hidden of treasures.

Pumalin National Park

Chiloe Island

Renowned for its array of charming and colourful stilt wooden houses dating back to the 1600s, picturesque Chiloe is the main island of a glorious archipelago just off the coast of Chile. A prominent penguin nesting site and revered rest spot for migrating whales, Chiloe boasts both natural and man-made attractions and makes for a great side-trip off the Carretera Austral. Take the ferry over to the quaint town of Castro and explore its archaeological and colonial past, photographing the many UNESCO-listed stilt churches in town centre, tackle one of the many hikes on offer in the Chiloe National Park, take a boat trip in search of Humboldt penguins and visit the local museum to learn more about the island’s seafaring and deeply traditional natives. A popular local retreat for vacationing Chileans, Chiloe is still often overlooked by foreign tourists and that simply adds to the appeal. Whilst admiring the unique architecture, sampling the gastronomic specialties and exploring its wilderness, it feels as if you’re the very first outsider to have ever laid eyes on it. Another stellar secret highlight along the Carretera Austral.

Queulat National Park

Just over 1,500 square kilometres of virgin forests accentuated by steep glaciated mountains combine to create  the Queulat National Park, arguably the most known highlight along the entire stretch of the Carretera Austral. The world-famous hanging glacier of Queulat has graced magazine covers the world over yet its startling beauty is not the only reason for the noticeable increase in crowds here. Aside from the fact that Queulat’s stunning array of forests, mountains and wildlife are, quite frankly, drop-dead gorgeous, this is arguably Chile’s most accessible national park in Patagonia and, considering the sheer number of day hikes (all of which deliver an enormous array of diversity) the park is a coveted destination by visitors who are short on time but big on wishes. Travelling along the Carretera Austral, however, you’ll have the very best of Queulat at your fingertips. The road runs through a 70km stretch of the park in what some consider the toughest terrain of the entire stretch. Luckily, a slow driving pace is just the ticket for really soaking up the spectacular scenery.

Of all the highlights of a tour on the Carretera Austral, the one that is most often mentioned by previous travellers is one that isn’t nearly as tangible as all those mentioned above. The feeling of freedom, remoteness and complete disconnection from the outside world are the most cherished highlights of this amazing road trip. We totally get where they’re coming from and completely share the awe-inspiring feeling: aboard a fully equipped and independent expedition vehicle, one that’s equipped to deal with all sorts of terrain, tackling the Carretera Austral is like taking a journey into another world, where you’ll visit remote destinations not besieged by crowds and feast your eyes (and all your other senses) in some of Patagonia’s lesser known treasures.

Ready to pack your bags and hit the road? We offer two phenomenal tours that include the best highlights of the Carretera Austral: a 15-day Discovery Tour and a longer Explore Patagonia tour that links the Carretera Austral with the southernmost town of Ushuaia, over 27 utterly unforgettable days of adventure.

If you wish to know more about these tours, the Carretera Austral or any other destination in Patagonia, contact one of our VivaExpeditions experts now and start planning your own epic road trip to the end of the world.

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