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Carretera Uncovered

Chile's Carretera Austral in depth | View photos »

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.

19 day trip described, guide price £5,114pp i

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Sample itinerary

Arrive in Santiago

Arrive in Chile and settle into your hotel to rest after your journey and begin exploring this lively capital. You are collected for the transfer to your comfortable hotel to relax and freshen up. This afternoon is yours to relax and recover from your journey, and see something of the city. Note that international flights are quoted separately for this trip.

Fly to Patagonia

Transfer back to Santiago airport this morning for your flight south to Balmaceda, gateway to the Aysén region of Patagonia. On arrival pick up your comfortable 4x4 vehicle and set off north for the beautiful forests, fjords and glaciers of Queulat National Park. The 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.

Walk in temperate rainforest

Set off across the Queulat River by zodiac to pick up the trail which leads into the heart of the precious temperate rainforest. This is an ecosystem found in only five places on earth. One of the key characteristics of this type of forest is the large variety of tree species and very rich understory which tends to be full of mosses, ferns and lichens. Your guide will tell you the names of the most important species of flora, as well as helping you identify the various bird species you will undoubtedly spot.

Hanging glacier hike

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. For those who don't feel energetic, there is a boat along the lagoon from where you can see the glacier. 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.

Bosque Encantado forest walk

Set off south again as you make your way to Aysén's only city, Coyhaique. Stop to visit the beautiful Bosque Encantado along the way. The Bosque Encantado 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 town so you can wander out to enjoy dinner and a drink.

Condors, arrowheads and asado

From your hotel, you are taken up and away from the lowlands of Coyhaique to the higher lands next to the Argentine border. Watch the sun rise over the vast, dry Patagonian steppe and then see the condors gradually come to life as the air warms and they take to the skies. The crags on this particular ranch are a favourite rookery for the Andean condor so it is unusual not to be treated to a close encounter. Return to the farmstead in time for an asado lunch, the most traditional of Patagonian feasts: lamb roast over an open wood fire.

Cave paintings and mountains

Return south to Coyhaique and on 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 modest but welcoming hotel in Cerro Castillo.

Hiking 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.

Cross Lago General Carrera

Today you cross to the south side of Lago General Carrera, South America's second 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.

Walk in Jeinimeni's lunar landscapes

Chile Chico sits in the rain shadow of the Andes which is what gives it a relatively dry and sunny climate. The nearby mountains of Jeinimeini create a second rain shadow which makes parts of the reserve resemble deserts of the north of Chile. The 7km loop in the reserve is a truly wonderful hike, one of the most varied and unexpected you will find anywhere. A rocky gorge leads up to a low mountain pass from where you have lovely views back 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 of this great corner of Aysén.

Take the scenic road to Cochrane

The road along the southern shore of Lago General Carrera is also one of the most beautiful stretches in all of Patagonia. It is also one of the most dramatic and 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

Walk in the Parque Patagonia

Your destination today is what will become the 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.

Travel south to Tortel

Set off driving south as you follow the Baker River to the the coastal village of Tortel. This road has only existed for the last 10 years – prior to then, the village was only accessible by river or sea. 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. A pathway leads to a beautiful viewpoint over the surrounding fjords and mountains.

Private boat trip around Tortel

Full day exploring the waterways of Tortel on your own private boat, built and captained by your host. The boat itself is very comfortable, it even has a stove inside so the navigation is very much part of the fun of the day! There are several choices for today's route - perhaps explore the virgin islands in front of the village of Tortel and head upstream into the Baker River to visit the Isla de los Muertos – the strangely moving cemetery for the original pioneer colonisers. A more adventurous option is to reach the Jorge Montt Glacier, a strand of the Southern Icefield.

Drive north via Parque Patagonia

Today's drive is a fairly long one at over four hours but there is lots of opportunity to stop along the way. You pass Parque Patagonia again so if you want to walk for a few more hours in the park, you can. If you missed the 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.

Fossil beds, beech forests & helicopter ride

The hills above your lodge are covered in fantastic southern beech forests up to around 1,000m above sea level, the tree line. Today's walk leads you up through these beautiful old forests and out into a treeless plateau. The views are incredible as you have 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 flying over the ice fields in a helicopter!

Into the Northern Icefields

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.

Marble Caves & return to Santiago

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.

Return home from Santiago

Today is yours to relax and explore Santiago before your evening flight Home. Since your flights don't leave until this evening you have plenty of time to enjoy Santiago. 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.

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Map of the area

"Exceptional privilege"

"Exceptional privilege"

Every time we thought things couldn't get more wonderful, they did, culminating in the exceptional privilege of being guided to what must be one of the best places in the world for watching condors.

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"It was terrific!"

"It was terrific!"

Thank you for the excellent trip to Patagonia that we just returned from. Your information was more up to date than what I was able to learn on the ground. The trip worked very well and all of your guides and hosts were superb. John R.

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About this trip

Summary

Patagonia is one of the most diverse and spectacular parts of the world with towering mountains, deep blue lakes, dense forests and twisting glaciers. In return for your adventurous spirit, you will experience vast swathes of untouched wilderness of rare beauty and incredible variety.

And yet, driving distances are not huge, the lodges we use are eminently comfortable, your hosts warm and welcoming. This is a Chilean road trip adventure without the hair-shirt.

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.

How adventurous?

Activity
1 2 3 4 5
Comfort
1 2 3 4 5
Culture
1 2 3 4 5

Best time to go i

Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec

Level of activity

As a tailor made holiday we can adjust things to suit you prior to your depature. 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 on this holiday but equally, if all you wanted to do is sit and stare at the landscapes, it would remain a great trip.

As described above, the holiday includes a wide variety of activities, from snorkelling to ice hiking. None require you to have had previous experience to any particular level and all necessary specialist equipment will be provided.

At various stages in the journey, you have private guides who can adjust activities to suit you. The walk in Patagonia Park can be set to suit you. If you are able to manage the 21km of the Lagunas Altas route then we would highly recommend that you do this. However, there are other shorter routes available which your guide can discuss with you once there.

Level of comfort

For specific hotels we use on this trip, please see summary section, below. These are the best small hotels and lodges in each place. This holiday is comfortable throughout, starting and ending in particular style in Santiago.

The hotels and lodges in Aysén (Patagonia) 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 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.

Level of culture

Note that people here do not commonly speak good English, if any at all. You may well find that communicating with your guides takes a good deal of patience on both sides. When eating out in restaurants you will likely have to rely on whatever Spanish you have or on a translation app.

When driving, you need to be careful because cows quite often wander into the road. Gauchos ride their horses along the road, usually with their dog trotting behind. Hitchhiking is common here, locals getting from one village to another will wait patiently for a bus to pass but if you stop, they’ll be delighted. They may offer you money, that’s normal etiquette – you don’t have to take it!

Everywhere you go you will see evidence of very simple rural living. Small brightly painted houses in the most incredible surroundings – often with the windows facing the road rather than the million dollar view out back. People carry unfeasibly large loads of wood up the walkways of Tortel. Maté is the daytime drink of choice.

This is Patagonia. It is unvarnished but for those of us who like tour travels to ignite the exploring spirit in us – there can be few better places in the world.

Practicalities

The holiday price is a guideline based on two people sharing, and includes accommodation, days of private excursions or shared guides as described in our detailed itinerary. It also includes full size 4x4 vehicle rental with comprehensive insurance for 2 drivers, internal flights, private transfers, and local information. Naturally, on each and every one of our holidays, we include Pura’s expertise, local contacts, support and advice throughout, along with the reassurance of our financial protection and safety auditing.

For a more detailed description of the holiday, please contact us and we can send you our detailed pdf itinerary.

Whilst domestic flights between Santiago and Patagonia are included in the price, international flights are quoted separately. Best flight routings are to fly in and out of Santiago (airport code: SCL). Expect to pay between £600 – £800pp for flights except in peak periods.

Departs

Departs any day to suit you, between October and April

Next steps...

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The described itinerary is just a taster of what this trip could involve. We would work with you to tailor your personal trip.

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Book Subscribe to The Pothole » Horses on the Levican Peninsula near Cerro Castillo The bustling main square of Santiago. Driving the Carretera near Queulat Birdlife in the Posada de Queulat forest The hanging glacier of Queulat National Park Pathway through the Bosque Encantado in Queulat National Park Watching condors over the Patagonian steppe Ancient hand paintings near Cerro Castillo Morning light on Cerro Castillo National Park Salto Ibanez on the Levican Peninsula near Cerro Castillo Looking cross Valle Lunar, Jeinimeini Dramatic scenery by the side of the Carretera Austral Looking over the Chacabuco Valley Arriving in Tortel on foot Navigating by boat through the fjords of northern Patagonia The falls of the Baker river Fossil beds in the highlands Ice calving off the Leones Glacier The marble caves on Lago General Carrera Autumn day in Santiago