Pura's 10 minute guide to the Carretera Austral
Linking alpine lakes and temperate forests with the southern ice fields, the Carretera Austral stretches down over 1,000km through Southern Chilean Patagonia. Along the route are little-visited pockets of Chile that we have fallen in love with on our countless trips. Biased though we may be, it knocks the socks off all over road trips.
Get your kicks on Route 66? We'd rather find Patagonian heaven on Chile's Route 7.
Carretera Austral in a nutshell
The Carretera slices its path through a region of Chilean Patagonia known as Aysén. It starts in Puerto Montt, a gateway to the Lake District, and ends abruptly in the tiny Villa O'Higgins. It never did make it over the border into Argentina. South of here is Torres del Paine and then Chilean Tierra del Fuego - the end of South America.
Anyone who has spent any time browsing Chile holidays will doubtlessly be familiar with the bits above and below the road. We love them too of course, but for the true adventurous of spirt, it's in the middle where we think the real magic happens.
Everything you expect from Patagonia is present. Asados, condors and gauchos at our friend's estancia; epic glaciers spilling down snow-covered peaks and crashing into sparkling lakes; dry steppe meeting immense skies on distant horizons. Then there are the parts you might not have reckoned on; the bizarre lunar landscapes, the precious temperate forests and thrill-a-minute foamy rapids.
Visiting the condor rookery at our friends' estancia
Why the Carretera Austral is special to Pura
"Pura's three co-founders met in Torres del Paine in 1994. One of them hitch-hiked all the way back to Santiago and it was on this journey he fell in love with the Carretera Austral. He's not stopped going back."
You'll hear it referred to by its English name - the Southern Highway - and also as Pinochet's Road in 'honour' of the former dictator, who ordered it built. We've spent so much time here, and the road is such an integral part of our identity, that we feel a bit like it's also Pura's Road.
Our three co-founders, an Englishman and two Spaniards, met south of the Carretera in the Torres del Paine National Park back in 1994. Together they walked just about every trail in the park. Xabi even wrote the book which is used to train new guides. The Englishman, Thomas Power, decided that it would be a good idea to hitchhike his way back to the capital Santiago. That's around 3,000km. It was on this journey that Thomas fell in love with Chile. He was humbled by the hospitality, awed by the drama of the landscapes and amazed at the sheer diversity of it all. Why didn't anyone else know about this place? He hasn't stopped going back.
25 years on, it remains a valid question. Those same ingredients that Thomas experienced in the mid-90s remain the backbone of our itineraries in the region. Most importantly, it's still somewhere you can jump into a 4x4 and head out on an adventure, unburdened by regimented schedules, established tourist trails and the threat of tour buses and day-trippers. You won't encounter too many others down here. Those you do meet will share your same sense of adventure.
Finding liberation off the beaten track
Rainforest and river rapids in the north
"A hanging glacier sits atop of a natural mountain amphitheatre, spilling water and ice down the sheer rock face into the lagoon far below."
There are two traditional starting points for your journey. Most choose to fly into Balmaceda from Santiago (more on that below), but you can also start from Puerto Montt, perhaps following a few days on Chiloé. This involves a full (though very scenic) day of driving and two ferry crossings. Fortunately though, your efforts will be handsomely rewarded when you reach the Pumalín National Park. Described by Thomas Power's 10 year old son as "the walk of the life", you'll be exploring one of the world's rarest and most precious eco-systems - the temperate coastal rainforests. The Alerce trees are the stars of the show here. There are also volcanoes, lakes, lagoons and glaciers within the park.
Another reason to explore the northern end of the Carretera is to enjoy some of biggest river waves in the world at Futaleufú. If you want to add in a bit of vein-pumping adrenaline to your Patagonia itinerary then look no further. The rapids will do it in spades.
Continuing south will bring you to the Queulat National Park. The park's most emblematic feature is the hanging glacier, which sits atop a mountain peak in a natural amphitheatre, its ice and water crashing down the rock face into the lake far below. As you might expect, the views are incredible. There are some wonderful areas of Valdivian rainforests to hike through and linger in and your lodge looks out across a beautiful fjord, which you can explore on kayaks.
Looking out over the hanging glacier of Queulat
A bit of everything in the centre
"Jeinimeni's lunar ridges, wind-eroded rock formations and desert scenery are one the most unexpected sights in Chilean Patagonia."
Balmaceda airport is located roughly half-way down the road. This is where you might return your car and fly back to Santiago if you choose to start in Puerto Montt, a route followed in our Patagonia Uncovered itinerary. The majority of our clients actually begin their Carretera Austral adventure at Balmaceda airport, looping up to Queulat and then back to Coyhaique before venturing south. Coyhaique itself has few redeeming features and little Patagonian-charm, but it does allow you to enjoy privileged access to our friends' nearby estancia to watch condors up close on their rookery and try a proper Patagonian asado.
Driving south of here brings you to Cerro Castillo and one of the finest hikes in the Aysén region. And barely another visitor in sight.
Crossing the sparkling blue waters of the border-straddling Lago General Carrera reveals one of the most unexpected sights in all of Chilean Patagonia. In the double rain shadow of the Jeinimeni National Reserve Patagonia's glaciers, snow-capped peaks and lakes are replaced by the lunar ridges, wind-eroded rock formations and desert scenery more readily associated with the Atacama in the north of the country. It's a real quirk of the Carretera and the sort of thing that we love sharing with you.
The current Parque Patagonia covers the Valle Chacabuco, which links Jeinimeni to the north-east and the small Tamango Nature Reserve to the south. These three will soon be merged to create the new Patagonia National Park; an area one and a half times the size of Torres del Paine and with the hiking routes and diversity of landscapes to match. Cool Southern beech forests will give way to the dry steppe which encroaches into Chile from neighbouring Argentina, whilst habitat restoration and facilitated movement of wildlife will create homes for rapidly increasing numbers of guanacos, pumas, flamingos, condors and even the severely-endangered huemel deer.
What it feels like to get off the tourist trail in the current Parque Patagonia
Splendid isolation in the icefields of the south
"It's amazing how making even a modest effort takes you away from any other visitors. Never underestimate special it is to have a glacier all to yourself."
As the latitudes rise, the icefields begin to dominate the landscape. The great Patagonian icefield used to stretch the length and breadth of the Carretera Austral, covering an area the size of Spain. Now around 4-5% is thought to remain, split into two. In between these is the immensely charming village of Tortel, about as remote a settlement as you're likely to ever visit. Channels and fjords lead to both icefields and these can even be linked by visiting the Jorge Montt glacier at the top of the Southern field and the Steffan glacier at the bottom of the Northern field on an overnight small boat excursion.
This is a world away from the cosy confines of the Skorpios expedition cruises to the much more famous San Rafael Glacier. What these offer in comfort, convenience and copious amounts of whiskey, they lack for in intimacy, freedom and a sense of adventure or discovery. They very much go against the grain for Pura, diluting the experience.
One of the most picturesque glaciers in the Northern Icefield is Los Leones, reached by a bumpy jet boat ride and a short hike through dwarf forest. It always amazes us that even the most modest amount of effort takes you completely away from any other visitors. Never underestimate how special it is to have an entire glacier to yourself.
Ice calves dramatically off of the remote Leones Glacier
How and when to visit the Carretera Austral
"Having your own 4x4 gives you the freedom to explore at your own pace, staying in our favourite lodges and meeting our Pura guides en route."
So now that you have an idea of what your Carretera Austral itinerary might encompass, the next logical questions are when you should go and how we can make it happen.
We're pretty deep into the southern hemisphere in Patagonia, so the flipping of the seasons has a much more pronounced effect than it does in Peru and Ecuador. Our summer is their winter, with the whole region going into a sort of hibernation. Services start to open up again with the arrival of the spring blooms in October and the season stretches into April. The autumnal colours of the beech forests are a special sight. Peak season is December and January, in so much as visitor numbers ever do 'peak' here.
We arrange our Aysén holidays on a self-drive 4x4 basis. We think this gives you the most freedom and sense of adventure, allowing you to safely and efficiently traverse the unpaved sections at your own pace. Typically our trips last two to three weeks, depending on whether you want the full Carretera experience or just a taster, in combination with something else. Along the route you will stay with people with whom we have long-standing friendships in comfortable lodges and will be met at various intervals for guided hikes in the company of our Pura guides.
In 2018 we announced the opening of our Chile office - Pura Chile. In doing so we consolidated 25 years of experience into an operational base which allows us the greatest possible flexibility when designing your tailor-made itinerary. It crucially also solidifies the direct relationships we have with our lodges and guides, cutting out the traditional middle-men that standardise tours. No one else approaches Chile like we do. And no one else knows the Carretera like we do.
Frankly no one else is crazy enough to try hitch-hiking its entire length.