Carretera Austral ~ What We Have Learned

24 March – 28 March, 2018

Ruta (Route) 7, aka the Carretera Austral, is the only highway that runs through the northern section of Chilean Patagonia. Part of the Aisén region, starting in the Lakes District in Puerto Montt and ending 770 miles south at Villa O’Higgins, it is the least populated region of Chile, with only about 100,000 inhabitants scattered throughout its towns and villages. We had read that it is a natural wonderland of islands, mountains, fjords, lakes, and forests, crossing many protected natural areas, so of course we wanted to visit. We envisioned renting a car or “Wicked Van” in Puerto Montt and traveling leisurely at our own pace, stopping when Mother Nature’s wonders called to us.

After reading some less than flattering reviews of the condition of the Wicked Vans and calculating the cost of renting a car for 6 weeks, we scratched both of those options. Since we were traveling in the shoulder season, if we had van problems, who knew how long before another vehicle came along to assist us. Also, the drop-off fee for a rental car, if not returning it to the place you rented it, was at least as much as the total rental fee…wow! Our next option was to take buses through some stretches and rent a car for shorter periods in others.

Balmy day along Lago General Carrera

Our two-day stop in Chile Chico was relaxing and the apartment we rented right next to the ferry, which we would be taking into the interior of Chile and part of the Carretera Austral. Walking the quaint little town and enjoying happy hour from our living room, looking out onto Lago General Carrera, was a nice little respite.

Departure day to Puerto Ibanez was sunny but chilly, and very windy, not surprising for Patagonia. It was so windy that whenever I stood on deck for photos I had to wrap my arm around the rail to stay upright. The wind never ceases to amaze me here.

After a 2.5-hour lake ride, we hopped into a van and were whisked away to Coyhaique, a city where we had hoped to rent a car and spend a few days exploring. The weather forecast was nothing but rain for the next several days, so time to go to Plan C or D, as we didn’t want to be traversing mud-slick roads in a remote part of Chile, particularly because this is what we had read about the Carretera Austral:

“While this may be one of the continent’s loveliest roads – there’s no bad scenery – it’s still one of the most hazardous. Paved segments are steadily increasing, but blind curves in dense forests and sheer mountains, narrow segments with steeply sloping shoulders, and frequent loose gravel all require drivers to pay the closest attention to avoid head-on collisions, rollovers, and other accidents.”

 Coyhaique is a city of roughly 50,000, nothing remarkable and felt a bit gritty and run-down, so we were glad we were only doing an overnight here. The next morning, bright and early, we hopped a bus to Chaiten, and some of the rainiest weather we had experienced yet. We agreed that letting someone else maneuver these winding, mud-slick roads was best.

Queulat National Park

For someone who loves to be out in nature taking photos, this was a lesson in patience for me, as we traveled through Queulat National Park, known for its waterfalls and hanging glaciers, and I had to be content with watching the scenery move by through rain-splattered windows. The vegetation was changing from windswept steppe to something resembling a Costa Rican cloud forest, with elephant-ear foliage, broad-leaf ferns, and lichen clinging to everything.

The bus dropped us in Chaiten, a sleepy little town, where we had two days to decompress. We enjoyed getting to know Frederico, the proprietor at our hotel. He had spent time with the World Gymnastics Organization in Moscow in 1972 and 1973 and had lived and worked with Olympic hopeful gymnasts for 6 years in California, in Temecula of all places, very near where we now live. Frederico generously offered us a lift to the bus station the day of our departure.

Some sights we missed due to weather:

What we have learned…

  • Patience is an absolute must when traveling in Patagonia.
  • Weather is consistently unpredictable. Expect rain and high winds.
  • Transportation is also unpredictable, probably more so when you leave the busy season behind. Buses that ran several times per week may only run once a week, or no longer run for the season. If you don’t want to be stranded in a small village for a week, you may have to go to Plan B.
  • Always have a Plan B, C, and D.
  • If the weather forecast is promising, having your own vehicle is probably the best approach, although not the least expensive. If we did this trip again we would probably rent a car and focus on the Carretera Austral for 6-8 weeks, bringing a tent along when we couldn’t find accommodations in some of the smaller villages.

Even with all the twists and turns, Patagonia is magical.  Lots of adventures to come, so please check back. 🙂

39 thoughts on “Carretera Austral ~ What We Have Learned

  • I appreciate so much, the time and effort you put into writing about your travels. You’ve given a clear picture of your time in Patagonia (and Europe before!). Love your photos, too. Patagonia seems like quite an exciting place with many opportunities to be flexible!

    • Thanks Julianne! The one thing we have discovered about Patagonia is that you have to be flexible. You could sit in a little village and wait for the weather to improve but that may take several days so the decision then is whether to do that or move on to other adventures. And there always seem to be plenty of them in Patagonia.

  • I need to have the map up when reading so I can get a feel for just where you are. The area of Chile you traveled in during this blog is full of so many little places and so much water! I just shake my head as I read at your sense of adventure. Being patient and open has allowed you to enjoy whatever come your way. I would most definitely not do well. Following Route 7 looks like it would have been awesome. But traveling alone in more remote areas on unknown road surfaces probably wasn’t wise. Glad you went to plan B:) Your photo from the bus of the falls and glacier in Queulat National Park is stunning! It is such a small world to meet someone who not only knows of Temecula but has been there! Safe travels!! Can’t wait for your next set of adventures!

  • Thanks, LuAnn, for your posts and lovely photos. Enjoy Mendoza and Salta in Argentina after some wet and windy time in Patagonia! I was in Chile in mid-March but went North to the Atacama desert and explored Santiago for a few days and a day to a winery, Vina del Mar and Valparaiso. The Atacama desert was very dry and warm, with some amazing moonscapes. I don’t know if you’d head there from Salta. Safe travels!

  • It’s too bad the weather has kept you from some of the places you were hoping to visit, but what you’ve done so far looks amazing! Glad to hear you are having some warmer weather.
    See you soon!

    • We knew that the weather would prompt a change in our itinerary. We could have waited for several days in a small village and hope for the weather to change but that seemed counter-productive and more expensive, paying for hostels/hotels in small villages with nothing to do while it rained. We opted to move on and see other sights.

  • I think it’s wonderful, that you are going with the flow. If you were not so flexible, you would have been home by now. I have never been in these areas, only in southern Brazil, but I was fortunate, that I was with someone who lives there. I don’t think I would have the patience, that the two of you have. By the way, your photos are soooooooooo beautiful, as usual. Stay safe, my friend!

  • What an adventure! Sometimes I think it’s the most difficult journeys that are the most rewarding. Or at least leave us with the most vivid memories! I’m in awe of your patience and flexibility. Your photos continue to be stunning. I can’t help but wonder…despite the challenges, do you think you’ll return to Patagonia?

    • We often say when we aren’t able to see something during a visit that we will leave it for the next visit. Honestly, we have so many places in the world we would like to see that I seriously doubt we will ever be back here. But you know the expression “never say never”.

  • Oh we also went to Mendoza to thaw out from Patagonia! Patagonia is challenging for sure, especially for you guys going of the beaten path, and in shoulder season. Intrepid travellers indeed. I don’t think I’d have been driving that Carretera either! And I’ll never forget the wind.

  • It sounds like you faced the disappointments of uncooperative weather and transportation challenges with flexibility and grace. So much learning that goes on with travel and I agree one must pack a bucket load of patience. The photo of Queulat National Park and the waterfall is jaw dropping.

  • Your trip so far is nothing more but lots of adventure, challenges and weather. But with all the amazing scenery, your patience and flexibility is really tested to the max. Isn’t it surreal when you meet somebody from where you came from! It is a relief for sure talking to somebody that has a connection.
    Keep those beautiful photos and adventures coming, we are enjoying it from our laptops 🙂

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