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The Carretera Austral is a journey for explorers and adventurers, those who want to experience Patagonia at its most remote, untouched and beautiful. From the rainforests of Queulat to the deserts of Jeinimeini and glaciers of the Patagonian icefields, few places in the world can offer such diversity.
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Upon arrival in Chile you will be met at the airport for the transfer to your comfortable downtown hotel. This afternoon head out into the thriving city with our guide to get to know Santiago - the tour is flexible and can be tailored to your interests. Note that international flights are quoted separately for this trip.
Fly south to Balmaceda, gateway to the Aysén region of Patagonia. On arrival pick up your comfortable 4x4 vehicle and set off, getting your first glimpse of the beautiful forests, fjords and glaciers of Queulat National Park. The scenic drive should take you just over four hours in total. Continue to your friendly, rustic yet warm and comfortable lodge near the fjord's edge. Later your guide will lead you into the precious temperate rainforest, an ecosystem found in only five places on earth. There is a huge variety of tree species and a very rich understory, full of mosses, ferns and lichens.
This morning you will kayak along the fjord or take a boat to an island to observe marine mammals and the rich birdlife, whilst enjoying the peace and quiet. Stop for a delicious picnic and soak in the views. Return to your lodge to relax or explore the area a little more if you are feeling energetic.
The most emblematic feature of the park is the Ventisquero Colgante or 'hanging glacier.' Spilling off the top of a cliff, the glacier contrasts dramatically with the rocky cliff face and surrounding forests. If the weather allows, you can hike the 3km path up to the viewpoint. The forest trail to get there is lovely, but the view from the top is the real star, with more or less eye level views of the glacier on the far side of the valley. For those who don't feel energetic, there is a boat along the lagoon from where you can see the glacier.
Set off south, stopping at the beautiful Bosque Encantado (Enchanted Forest) along the way. The walk is one of the loveliest along the entire Carretera. A well-maintained path leads you through a magical forest with water flowing everywhere. Take a picnic lunch to enjoy up here as there are likely to be very few people around so the views are yours to enjoy in peace. Stay in a hotel near the heart of Coyhaique, Aysén's only city, so you can wander out to enjoy dinner and a drink.
Today, a guide will take you on a long but leisurely walk through the Coyhaique Natural Reserve which sits right on the edge of the town. There are various routes to choose from, including more challenging hikes to peaks in the Rio Simpson Reserve - so the walk can be tailored to be longer or shorter to suit you.
Drive south past the airport to come to the beautiful national reserve of Cerro Castillo. In total today's drive is around four hours. The landscape gets increasingly dramatic as the day goes on and you approach your destination. The village of Cerro Castillo is a very modest place, but with an anything but modest mountain range towering over it. See ancient cave paintings and, if you are feeling energetic, you can hike up to the viewpoint over the Cerro Castillo lagoon and Ibañez river valley. Stay overnight in a more basic but welcoming hotel in Cerro Castillo.
Enjoy a private guided day walk in the newly created Cerro Castillo National Park. There are different options for your walk today, including the steep hike up and back to the lagoon underneath the main peaks of Cerro Castillo. Our favourite route leads you along an old estancia path, through the lush Southern beech forests, rich in birdlife, and into a circus of dramatic high peaks. At 20km it is a long but relatively comfortable walk, affording some truly spectacular views to reward your efforts. Return to the village of Cerro Castillo for dinner in one of the welcoming small restaurants.
Today you cross to the south side of Lago General Carrera, Chile's largest lake. Because the ferry leaves from a village just half an hour away, you can have a very relaxed start to your day. Perhaps take some time to explore the beautiful and remote Levican Peninsula - as well as pretty walks along very quiet backroads, there are simply beautiful views. This afternoon take a ferry over the remarkably blue waters of Lago General Carrera to the frontier town of Chile Chico. Spend the next couple of nights in this lakeside town with a sunny, and windy, microclimate.
Chile Chico sits in the rain shadow of the Andes which gives it a relatively dry and sunny climate. The mountains of Jeinimeini create a second rain shadow which makes parts of the reserve resemble deserts of Northern Chile. The 7km loop is a truly wonderful hike, one of the most varied and unexpected you'll do. A rocky gorge leads up to a low mountain pass from where you have lovely views towards the blue waters of the lake. On the far side of the pass, you find some of the oldest cave paintings in the region. This is an unmissable day of walking - take a picnic, and enjoy the peace and quiet.
The road along the southern shore of Lago General Carrera is one of the most beautiful stretches in all of Patagonia. It is also one of the quietest of your drives, so take time to stop and enjoy the views along the way. At the Confluencia Waterfalls, the heavily sedimented Neff River joins the Baker to create a spectacular colour of water. This afternoon you continue to the charming small town of Cochrane.
Spend the day in the countryside near Cochrane experiencing a day in the life of a local farmer. What you do will depend on the season, the weather and what's going on that week. It is very much an immersive, 'day in the life' type experience and nothing at all 'touristy' so don't expect things to be slick. It is as hands on as you want it to be. If you want to understand Patagonia, you need to meet the people who call it home.
Your destination today is Parque Patagonia, one of the largest private donations of land in the history of conservation. You will be treated to beautiful views over the whole Chacabuco Valley with the Andes beyond. Pass through native forests full of birdlife. The walk is punctuated by a series of beautiful high lakes. You have a decent change to see condors and will certainly see lots of guanacos. Less common are puma, though there is a lot of evidence of their presence.
You might start today with a self-guided walk in the Tamango Reserve. It has a series of well-marked trails for you to explore and hopefully spot a Huemul - Chile's seriously endangered dwarf deer. It is also home to the Cochrane River, one of the clearest in the world. The road south follows the Baker River to the coastal village of Tortel. The vegetation becomes incredibly green as you pass through temperate rainforest, the scenery is reminiscent of the Amazon at times. Since the road only reaches the edge of the village, leave your car and follow the maze of wooden walkways to your charming small hotel.
Full day exploring the Patagonian icefields on your own private boat, built and captained by your lovely host Noel. Set off this morning through the fjords towards the Southern Icefield, the largest non-polar body of ice. Get to a remote glacier in time for lunch and a ride in the small launch amongst the icebergs. You may be able to get off onto dry land for a walk to a viewpoint. This afternoon set off on a long navigation back through the fjords towards the Northern Icefield. Weigh anchor tonight near another little-seen glacier as you sleep on your comfortable boat.
Wake up this morning with views over the wild, forested landscapes and hopefully dolphins and whales in the waters around you. Travel along the Rio Huemules and the trailhead for your fairly flat walk to the viewpoint over the glacier, this usually takes around four hours in total. After lunch on board, you leave the icefields to sail back towards Tortel, arriving in time for a drink before dinner at your hotel.
Today's drive is fairly long at over four hours, but with lots of opportunity to stop en route. You pass Parque Patagonia again so if you want to walk for a few more hours in the park, you can. If you missed Confluencia on the way down then that is something you should see. Equally, your lodge overlooking Lago General Carrera is wonderfully welcoming, so there's no shame in simply making your way straight there.
The hills above your lodge are covered in fantastic Southern beech forests up to around 1,000m above sea level. Today's walk leads you up through these beautiful old forests and out into a treeless plateau. The views are incredible, with the icy Andes to one side, Lago Carrera ahead of you and the peaks of Jeinimeini off to the east. However, it is underfoot that things are surprisingly interesting - the entire area is a fossil bed. Return downhill for a relaxed afternoon, or you might like to have a go at riding horses, or take a helicopter ride over the ice fields!
From your lodge you look out towards the Northern Icefield. Today is your chance to get up close. The journey to the ice is itself an adventure with a fast, often bumpy, ride across Lago General Carrera on a jet boat. Shoot upriver as far as possible getting closer and closer to the huge mountains and glaciers. A gentle 45 minute walk through dwarf beech forest takes you up to the edge of a 10km long glacial lagoon. Your second small boat takes you all the way to the face of the glacier which spills beautifully down the face of the surrounding mountains. Better yet, you'll probably have the whole place to yourself.
Set off in good time to visit the Marble Caves from Bahia Mansa early in the morning. The caves are beautiful marble formations eroded by the wind and water of the vast lake. The light in the morning, when combined with the colour of the water and the rocks, makes it really very beautiful. Continue north towards the airport in Coyhaique where you hand in the keys. You should be back in Santiago this afternoon in time for a last bit of shopping or celebratory glass of wine.
Today is yours to relax and explore Santiago before your evening flight home. The Fine Arts Museum is a short stroll away, as is the Cerro Santa Lucia. Of course, a long lunch in Lastarria is no bad thing either after a couple of active weeks in Patagonia. Our Pura guide is full of suggestions for restaurants, based on our personal experiences and opinions. You will be collected from your hotel late-afternoon and transferred to the airport in plenty of time for your return international flight. Again, international flights are quoted separately for this trip.
If you appreciate going to a place where most people don’t speak English, where wi-fi works only sometimes, where roads are unpaved, where you might be delayed by an ox drawn cart, or guanacos in the road then you should love it as much as we do.
As a tailor-made holiday we can adjust things to suit you prior to your departure. There is also much of this trip where it is up to you to set the pace. There is plenty of opportunity to get out walking, but equally, if all you wanted to do is sit and stare at the landscapes, it would remain a great trip.
The driving on this trip is largely on unpaved roads but surfaces are treated. We include the largest available 4x4 vehicles, which are substantial and comfortable. Distances covered are not large - anywhere from 75km - 200km in any one go. However, you should expect to travel at around 50km/h on average for a safe and comfortable trip.
Over 20 years of travelling up and down the Carretera and following countless walking trails, we have extensive first-hand knowledge with which we can tailor this trip and make it personal to you. It might be adjusting the length of the trip or combining it with another part of Chile, or perhaps even other parts of South America. Equally, if you have specific interests or curiosities that you might like to indulge – rafting or condor-watching for example – then we can also factor that in to a personalised itinerary.
Departs any day to suit you, between October and April. For more detailed information, take a look at our when to visit Chile section.
The price is per person based on two people sharing and includes:
First-class accommodation with breakfast and some lunches and dinners
Private airport transfers
Ferry crossing to Chile Chico
Full-size 4x4 vehicle rental
Private guided tour of Santiago
Private guided walking in Queulat, Coyhaique, Cerro Castillo, Parque Patagonia and Guadal
Private kayaking in Queulat
Private overnight glacier boat trip in Tortel with all meals
Private estancia excursion
Shared Leones Glacier boat excursion
Chile Holiday Guide with personal recommendations
Chile driving guide
Pura’s expertise, local contacts, support and advice throughout
International flights are quoted separately for this holiday. Best routing is into and out of Santiago (SCL).
The hotels and lodges along the Carretera have reached a great moment whereby we have a wonderful selection of very high quality small hotels for you to stay in. These are not luxury properties, but rather very clean and comfortable owner run places where the welcome is as warm as you’ll find anywhere in the world. You should expect 3-4* standard, but given how remote all of these places are, that generally feels very comfortable indeed. The one exception to this is the refugio in Cerro Castillo, which is more basic.
For more details, please get in touch to request a detailed PDF itinerary.
This is Patagonia. It is unvarnished but for those of us who like our travels to ignite the exploring spirit in us – there can be few better places in the world. It is a source of great pride that we have such close relationships with a wonderful group of partners down here, who we entrust to introduce you to the Patagonian way of life, as well as the amazing scenery.
Over the course of your trip you will visit many of the 17 national parks protected by the world’s most ambitious conservation projects; the Route of the Parks. This project, officially launched in Europe in conjunction with Pura Aventura, protects 24 ecosystems and 60 communities, across 2,800km of Patagonia, from the Lake District to Cape Horn. Eco-tourism will offer ranchers and local people across 60 communities a more sustainable and lucrative source of income and a sensitive and considered way for us all to experience these wonderful environments.
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