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?
Don’t worry! We’re here to tell you 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
- What To Know Before You Go
- Logistics And Planning
Let’s dive in!
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, and so it is mostly sheltered from this Northerly wind. So riding the route from South-North shouldn’t make too much difference.
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
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 queutal hanging glacier
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 Queutal Hanging Glacier. If you leave your bike for a day or so, you can get a short bus (or cycle and lock up your bike) from Puyuhuapi to Queutal National Park.
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.
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 that takes you to some of the most iconic viewpoints and beautiful trails the park has to offer.
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.
Beyond Coyhaique (further south), you’ll find that the road conditions are much more “unkempt”. This means that to go beyond this point, you’re going to need some more off-road capable bikes and allow for more time to traverse the loose terrain.
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 end of spring. In practice, this means between November and April.
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.
What equipment do you need?
The Carretera Austral requires some fairly specialist kit.
In particular, you’re going to need an off-road capable bike, plenty of bikepacking bags, 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 some pretty 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 is a highly-regarded company that will hire bikes 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.
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.
Crossing into Argentina
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.
There are a few options for your ferries en route, but they’ll likely need to be booked in advance.
- 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. There is no way to circumvent the lake, but you can take any of these options.