Ultimate Carretera Austral Cycling Guide

Photo of author
Written by
Last Updated:

One of the most beautiful cycling routes in the world, the Carretera Austral is a road stretching over 1200 km through Chilean Patagonia.

Patagonia – “the end of the world” – is the southernmost region in South America, shared between Chile and Argentina.

It is known for its beautiful scenery and is littered with dramatic mountain formations, glaciers, volcanoes, and fjords. The Carretera Austral is a partly paved, partly unpaved road spanning 1240 km, passing through some of Patagonia’s highlights.

But what are the best parts of the Carretera Austral? How long does it take to complete? What equipment do you need? And what do you need to organize in advance?

We cycled this route in March 2023, and we’ll be sharing everything you need to know about one of the world’s most unique and beautiful bikepacking routes. To get you up to speed, we’ll be covering:

  • Overview Of The Carretera Austral
  • The Highlights Of The Carretera Austral
  • How Difficult Is The Carretera Austral?
  • What To Know Before You Go
  • Logistics And Planning

Let’s dive in!

Carretera Austral Cycling: Title Image

Overview of the Carretera Austral

The Carretera Austral (“Southern Highway”), also known as Route 7, is a 1240 km road that runs from Puerto Montt, Chile, to Villa O’Higgins, Chile.

It cuts through the so-called “abandoned” part of Patagonia and is known as one of the most beautiful routes on Earth.

Although it is possible to travel the Carretera Austral by car, most travelers choose to travel the route by bike. The main advantage of this, just like any other bikepacking route, is that the lower speed at which you travel by bike entails greater immersion in your surroundings.

The route is around 50% asphalt and 50% gravel. It passes through many of the most famous national parks in Patagonia, resulting in some of the most unique scenery on Earth.

While cycling the Carretera Austral, you’ll find stunning mountains, turquoise rivers, fjords, untouched forests, and snow-capped volcanoes!

Most people choose to cycle the route from North-South, that is, from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins. The main reason for this is the infamous prevailing northerly wind that, in theory, provides a tailwind the whole way.

Luckily, the Carretera Austral is very mountainous, so it is mostly sheltered from this Northerly wind. So riding the route from South-North shouldn’t make too much difference.

View along a gravel section of the Carretera Austral cycling route.

Highlights of the Carretera Austral

The Carretera Austral is stunning from start to finish.

The whole route passes through wild, untouched landscapes, seldom visited by the swarms of tourists who visit Patagonia by public transport.

This is one of the major advantages of choosing to cycle Patagonia. The whole region is incredible, and the areas between the major towns and national parks are difficult to visit without your own transport.

Completing the Carretera Austral by bike provides the perfect opportunity to see these rugged landscapes and the culture of the people who live there in the rarely-visited villages you’ll find dotted along the route.

Having said this, there are a few highlights of the Carretera Austral cycling route in which you will likely find many other travelers, but for a very good reason. Usually, these places are areas of outstanding natural beauty that make Patagonia unique.

The lake district

View of Chile's Lake District on the Carretera Austral.

The Chilean Lake District is the start of your journey (if traveling from North-South). Puerto Montt is the largest city in the area, but many kick off their adventure from the smaller Puerto Varas.

The Lake District does what it says on the tin. It is home to some fantastic lakes with a diverse range of activities. The lakes are fringed by many small villages, only accessible by lancha (small boat).

Additionally, the landscape is unbelievably beautiful. The Villarica Volcano towers above much of the southern Lake District, providing a focal point of all the amazing views.

There is also the opportunity for many other activities in the lake district. You can hike in Villarica or Vicente Pérez Rosales National Parks, go white-water rafting in Pucón, or explore the stunning Chiloé island by foot or bike.

Puyuhuapi and the queulat hanging glacier

The Hanging Glacier at Puyuhuapi.

Further south, Route 7 passes through a small Patagonian town called Puyuhuapi.

In an extremely serene setting, Puyuhuapi is framed by a lush green valley, a beautiful river, and snow-capped mountains.

One of the biggest draws to the town is the hot springs. Especially after cycling for a long time, these come at the perfect time to relax your muscles in some naturally occurring hot water.

Slightly further afield from the town is one of the biggest highlights of the whole route: the Queulat Hanging Glacier. If you leave your bike for a day or so, you can get a short bus or hitchhike from Puyuhuapi to Queulat National Park (or you could just cycle!).

The hanging glacier sits atop a high plateau of snow-capped mountains and abruptly ends at a high cliff, with meltwater flowing down in the form of multiple waterfalls into a bright blue glacial lake that sits at the bottom of a lush, green, forested valley.

It truly is one of the most unique places on Earth, and it is worth taking a day off the bike to explore the area thoroughly.

There are plenty of hikes you can do around the national park that include the iconic viewpoint of the glacier.

Note, though, that you need to register and pay online beforehand, which you can do here. The price for an adult foreigner is $11 USD. There’s no internet at the park entrance so don’t get caught out by leaving it until you get there!

The other thing to bear in mind is that the weather is often poor around Puyuhuapi due to the surrounding mountains, and low clouds can obscure the view.

So, if you’re dead set on seeing the Hanging Glacier it’s worth leaving some flexibility in your schedule so you can stick around for an extra couple of days if the weather demands it.

Cerro Castillo

A lake in Cerro Castillo national park.

Cerro Castillo (“Castle Hill”) is a national park outside one of the biggest towns on the route, Coyhaique.

Here you’ll find some of the most beautiful and high-altitude mountains Patagonia has to offer, including the namesake mountain Cerro Castillo itself.

If you’re into hiking, you can take some time off the bike to explore this area thoroughly before moving on. There are two options by way of hiking.

There is a day hike to the Laguna Cerro Castillo that takes you to some of the most iconic viewpoints and beautiful trails the park has to offer. It’s fairly demanding, with around 1000 meters of elevation gain, but is absolutely worth the effort.

If you have more time, there is a 3-5 day loop, which is often compared to the famed W-Trek in Torres del Paine, around the national park that will cover a significant proportion of the trails.

The entrance fee for the park is rather steep, however. As a foreigner, you’re looking at around $20 for a day pass and $30 for up to 5 days. If you do have the time, and you’re keen to test your adventure limits, then this does make it more worth it to do the full hike.

A dirt road leads to the mountains on the Carretera Austral.

How Difficult Is The Carretera Austral?

Though it’s no walk in the park, the Carretera Austral should be very achievable for most reasonably fit cyclists.

If you’ve not done a bikepacking trip before, don’t underestimate the added weight of all the extra weight of food, cooking equipment, camping gear, clothes, and so on.

The largest climbs are around 600 m and can combine steep ramps and loose terrain. That’s certainly no Alpe d’Huez, but it’s not to be sniffed at either on a loaded-up mountain bike. There’s a particularly sharp one about 40 km south of Puyuhuapi, so be prepared!

What Condition Are The Roads In?

The roads on the Carretera Austral vary greatly.

From Puerto Montt until Cerro Castillo (shortly after Coyhaique, about halfway down the Carretera), the roads are almost entirely paved, and in excellent condition.

A great tip we were given by a fellow cyclist coming the other way was to take the detour on the X-50 and Ruta 240 (towards Puerto Aysén) from just after Villa Mañihuales to just before Coyhaique.

It adds about 20 km in distance, but provided some of the most stunning views of the entire journey. The road is also in much better condition than the corresponding section of Ruta 7 (the Carretera).

If you were planning on ending your ride at Coyhaique, you wouldn’t need a bike with serious off-road capability. Though there’s a 35 km section between Caleta Gonzalo and Chaiten which is unpaved, but nothing that a gravel bike or sturdy touring bike can’t handle.

From Cerro Castillo southwards to Villa O’Higgins, the road is mostly unpaved.

For long stretches, the road quality is poor, with large potholes, loose surfaces, and steep banks to either side. Broadly speaking, the quality of these dirt roads improves as you move further south from Cerro Castillo towards Villa O’Higgins.

It’s worth noting that there are continual roadworks along much of the route, and it’s likely that the entire route will be paved in the not-too-distant future.

What to know before you go

This is a trip that will be an adventure of a lifetime. Here’s some stuff you should know before committing to such an adventure and what to expect from the route:

When is the best time to cycle the Carretera Austral?

It is highly recommended to ride the Carretera Austral in the summer months, or at most, the beginning of autumn or the end of spring.

In practice, this means between November at the earliest and April at the latest.

During this time, you’ll find much more reliable weather conditions, more frequent ferry crossings, and, most of all, much longer days, between 13-18 hours of sunlight per day, giving you much more time to get the kilometers under your belt.

We rode the Carretera at the end of March, and wouldn’t have wanted to go much later in the autumn.

The northern section from Puerto Montt had perfect cycling conditions with temperatures around 18°C (64° F), but as we headed south the temperature plummeted.

We were caught in sleet on some of the higher mountain passes and woke up to frost as nights dipped below freezing at times.

We watched as the snowline descended down the mountains around us, which made for stunning views but was ominous on days we knew we were camping!

The Carretera Austral plunges into jungle.

What equipment do you need?

To cycle the Carretera Austral you’re going to need a bike capable of handling gravel roads, plenty of bikepacking storage, warm clothes and waterproofs, and camping gear.

Generally, people ride the route on rough-gravel bikes, mountain bikes, or sturdy touring bikes. This is because you’ll regularly come across rough, loose terrain that is impossible to cross on thin road tires. Sorry roadies!

Of course, you also need bikepacking bags to carry all your stuff. Most people opt for panniers and a handlebar bag.

One of the most important parts is the camping gear. Although you’ll find many different small villages along the way, they’re not necessarily regular enough to bank on a hostel every night without extensive planning.

If you can’t bring any of this stuff with you because you’re doing it as part of a larger trip, then you can actually hire everything you need, but it will need to be arranged in advance.

Austral Bikes offer bikes for hire in Puerto Montt, Coyhaique, or Villa O’Higgins. The bikes come with a full bikepacking setup.

For an extra fee, Austral Bikes and a few other companies will allow you to pick up the bikes in Puerto Montt, Coyhaique, or Villa O’Higgins and drop them off at any of the others. They will also send your bags ahead for you for another extra fee.

A section of tarmac road on the Carretera Austral.

Logistics and planning

Like every bikepacking trip, the Carretera Austral requires some fairly detailed planning before you get pedaling. Here’s what to think about in particular.

How Long Does It Take To Cycle The Carretera Austral?

The amount of time it takes to ride the entire Carretera Austral depends on your fitness, how much extra time you want to give yourself for other activities such as hiking, and how many rest days you want.

60 km per day should be an achievable target for most bikepackers to balance progress with time to take in the views, but you could aim to go faster if you’re confident in your fitness and are willing to spend more hours on the bike each day.

Realistically, you will probably move a little slower on the more challenging road surfaces south of Cerro Castillo, so you should take that into account too.

We’d also recommend factoring in rest days. You should be a little generous with these to provide yourself with a little leeway for bad weather or mechanical issues – although don’t kid yourself that you won’t be cycling in the rain at times regardless!

All told, a month should be a comfortable amount of time to cover the entire Carretera Austral by bike.

Experienced, fit bikepackers will be able to go significantly faster, but that amount of time would allow you numerous rest days and time to explore hikes and other activities along the way.

If you can’t spare that much time, there’s also the option to just ride half of the Carretera Austral, stopping (or starting) at Coyhaique, which has Balmaceda airport nearby.

If push comes to shove and you need to skip a section because of injury, mechanical trouble, or because you’ve been overambitious in your planning, you have a couple of options – but none that are very reliable.

You might be able to persuade a bus to take you, but it will be dependent on how much space they have in their luggage bays. Some also come only twice a week, or less in the off-season.

Hitchhiking in the back of a lorry is also an option – and we managed with three of us and our bikes on an evening we found ourselves in a particularly tight spot – but is obviously luck of the draw by its nature.

Overall, you’re much better off being conservative with your planning so you don’t find yourself relying on a Plan B. It would be a shame to miss any of the Carretera anyway, after all!

A dirt road by a lake on the Carretera Austral.


There are a few options for your ferries en route, but they’ll likely need to be booked in advance. The ferries you choose can significantly alter the length of your route.

  • Puerto Montt-Chaitén: This is the longest possible ferry and the best to take if you’re short on time. The ferry takes 9 hours overnight and can be booked at Naviera Austral.
  • Castro-Chaitén: If you’re keen to see Chiloé island but a little short on time, this is the one to go for. You’ll get to see some of the most beautiful parts of the northern island on route 5. The crossing takes 5 hours and can be booked at Naviera Austral.
  • Quellon-Chaitén: If you want to see the whole of Chiloé Island, then this is the one to go for. It requires the most cycling and least ferry of any of the options, and you’ll pass through almost the entirety of the island. It is 4 hours and is booked at Naviera Austral.
  • Hornopirén-Caleta Gonzalo: The most popular option, and it needs to be booked well in advance. You’ll miss out on Route 5, but you’ll maximize your time on the Carretera Austral. The crossing is 3 hours and can be booked at Somarco.

If you plan on cycling to/from Puerto Montt in any way, you need to take a ferry at some point. There is no way to circumvent the lake, but you can take any of these options.

Crossing into Argentina from Villa O’Higgins

Most people, if doing a longer trip, are looking to get to El Chalten in Argentina straight from Villa O’Higgins. Unfortunately, there is no public transport that does this.

If you need to leave your bike in Villa O’Higgins and can’t take it across the border, there is one available option.

You can hike it!

Yes, you can really hike across a border through beautiful scenery. This is probably one of the nicest border crossings you’ll come across.

You can also cycle this route if the bike you have is your own. Here is a detailed look at the hiking route you need to take, and you will need to take an additional ferry, too.

Enjoyed this Carretera Austral Chile guide? Check out more from the BikeTips experts below!

Terms of Use

This cycling route guide, including any maps, GPS, or other navigational information, is provided for informational purposes only. By using this guide and cycling this route, you accept all responsibility and risk associated with your participation.

Before cycling, you should assess your own fitness level and ability to handle the physical demands of the route. It is your responsibility to review current local weather conditions and road closures, as well as any public or private land use restrictions and rules, and comply with them during your ride, and to ensure you carry proper safety and navigational equipment. Always follow "Leave No Trace" principles to ensure you leave your surroundings as you found them.

The information contained in this guide is not guaranteed to be accurate, and the author makes no representations or warranties about the completeness, reliability, suitability, or availability of the information provided. The author and any contributors to this guide are not liable for any injuries, damages, or losses that may occur during your ride or as a result of using this guide, including but not limited to personal injury, property damage, or other harm.

By using this guide, you acknowledge and agree to release and hold harmless the author, BikeTips, Broadsea Media LTD., and any contributors to this guide from any and all claims or damages arising out of your use of the information provided. This guide is not a substitute for your own due diligence, and you should always exercise caution and make informed decisions when cycling.

Photo of author
Jack is an experienced cycling writer based in San Diego, California. Though he loves group rides on a road bike, his true passion is backcountry bikepacking trips. His greatest adventure so far has been cycling the length of the Carretera Austral in Chilean Patagonia, and the next bucket-list trip is already in the works. Jack has a collection of vintage steel racing bikes that he rides and painstakingly restores. The jewel in the crown is his Colnago Master X-Light.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.