Cycling the Carretera Austral

We have been cycling the South American continent for over a year and we have gathered a lot of information about many of the destinations that are popular with cyclists, none more so than the Carretera Austral. We have been asked on numerous occasions about what the cycling is like on the Carretera, the weather conditions, which way to ride it and how to cross to El Chalten (that is another article HERE) so we have created this page for anyone planning to cycle this iconic route. We have included information on the following areas (click to navigate between sections easily):

  1. Commonly Asked Questions
  2. What is the riding like? Blog and Photos
  3. Detailed Route Information: Southern Section
  4. Detailed Route Information: Northern Section
Cycling through the beautiful Patagonian landscape

 

So you want to ride the Carretera Austral and have lots of questions. We will answer the most frequently asked questions below before delving in to the route we took along Chile’s Ruta 7.

Commonly Asked Questions 

What and where is the Carretera Austral?

The Carretera Austral is Chile’s Ruta 7, a 1200km road which runs from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins. Easily accessible from Santiago, the Carretera Austral can be ridden as part of a longer trip through the continent or as a stand alone trip. Built in the 1970s under the Pinochet dictatorship, the dirt road route links many small settlements in rural Patagonia that were previously inaccessible and it is rapidly being paved.

Although there is a lot of hype around the route, it doesn’t disappoint. Whilst it might not be as remote as some Peruvian routes or at very high altitudes, the scenery is beautiful and it is a very easy route to follow if you are new to cycle touring like we were.

When is the best time to ride the Carretera Austral?

High season on the Carretera Austral is December – February (Summer in the Southern Hemisphere) and during this time you can expect to see more than 15 cyclists per day. In November, when we rode it, we saw half a dozen cyclists every couple of days on the road. However the Carretera Austral can be ridden almost all year round, the only consideration is where to go after O’Higgins when the road ends. Before November the ferry across Lago O’Higgins isn’t running and your options are to backtrack to Chile Chico, north of Cochrane, or be willing to go off-road (literally, as there is no access for vehicles) to cross at Paso Mayer. Davide Travelli, who cycled from Alaska to Ushuaia, has written a great account of the route HERE

How long does it take?

The full distance of the Carretera Austral is 1240km and can be ridden in it’s entirety anywhere from 3 to 6 weeks depending on how fast you want to go, where you want to visit along the way and how heavily loaded you are. Budgeting four weeks to ride the full route, riding around 50-60km per day and taking in some of the sights along the way is a good amount of time.

Which direction should you cycle? Is it better to ride the Carretera Austral North to South?

The best way to cycle the Carrera Austral is whichever way fits in with your overall route and direction. However if you are planning to only ride the Carretera Austral the most common direction is north to south because the prevailing wind direction is from a north westerly direction, blowing straight off of the ice fields to the west. If you ride from Villa O’Higgins heading north you might experience some headwinds or a sidewind, more than someone cycling south. 

In our experience the wind was less noticeable on the Carretera compared to say, Tierra del Fuego or around El Chalten, as much of the time the route was sheltered by the surrounding mountains or vegetation. The only noticeable headwind we had was around Lago General Carrera and Puerto Rio Tranquillo which made for a harder few days.

What about headwinds on the Carretera Austral?

See above.

What bicycle do you need?

Nearly any bicycle would be fine as it isn’t an off-road trail, the surface is not very rocky or challenging. That being said, a road bike set up would not be very comfortable on this terrain – it is still mostly a gravel road route. We rode with a French guy on a traditional four pannier touring set up, skinny tyres and he was nearly always riding as fast as us on our rigid mtbs with 2.2” tyres. There were a few times when he had to be more selective with where he rode, looking for the smoothest lines when we just followed the front wheel, but he had just as much fun as we did.

What do you definitely need to pack (or should you leave behind)?

You can expect to experience all seasons whilst riding the Carretera Austral so good waterproof gear is necessary and layer up with merino base layers if the temperature also drops off. 

Bring a camera or phone to capture all of the awesome landscapes you will be riding through and a battery pack to charge said device if wild camping or between towns.

The water in Patagonia is some of the purest water in the world so a water filter isn’t a necessity but if you have a sensitive stomach it might be a consideration. We had no problems drinking any of the water in both Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia (or anywhere until Peru).

When we were planning for this trip we were starting in Patagonia so everything we brought with us was with this terrain and riding in mind. We were happy with our choice of gear and didn’t feel as though we missed anything or brought anything unnecessary. Our kit list can be viewed HERE

What accommodation options are there?

There are paid campsites, hostels and hotels in most towns, expect to be able to stay somewhere every 50 to 100kms in the north, but distances are greater in the more remote southern section.

Camping costs around 4000-6000 clp (£4.50-6.75) per person and hostels are considerably more, expect to pay upwards of 20,000 clp (£22+) for a double room. 

Wild camping is easy enough though we were surprised with how much of the land either side of the road is fenced. We used the iOverlander app to see where it might be possible to camp or where we might need to ask permission (also an option and with some basic spanish people were very accommodating).

How often can I buy food?

In the Southern section (Villa O’Higgins to Coyhaique) if you ride around 50km per day you will be able to buy food every 3 days at most. From Coyhaique going north, as the road is paved, you’ll be passing through places with a shop more often. There are locals selling whatever they can make such as bread, cheese and honey, so keep an eye out for the small signs that say ‘Se vende…’ or ‘Hay…’ and see what local delights you can find! Also everyone is really friendly so if you need water or food and you ask at a farm, you’d be surprised at how helpful people will be. In our detailed route below we have written which places we passed through had places to purchase food.

We usually carried 2 – 5 days worth of supplies so that we could take our time. Be prepared for some boring meals and if you see fruit or veg, buy it because we found it few and far between (In Villa O’Higgins we only found potatoes, onions and apples but Cochrane and Villa Cerro Castillo had a little more variety… slightly!).

What money should I bring?

Chile is quite expensive in comparison to other countries in South America and is even more so in Patagonia (think European prices). We spent around £250-300 per month in Patagonia each (on average – mostly wild camping with a few campsites, cooking our own food and a few National Park entries)

Take enough Chilean Pesos because only a handful of places accept cards and ATMs are few and far between. You can usually take out 200,000 clp (around £225) at a time and the ATM fee varies from 4000-6000 clp (Banco Del Estado was the cheapest at 4000 per transaction and Santander was the most expensive).

What is the road surface like?

The road surface is ripio (gravel) between Villa O’Higgins and Villa Cerro Castillo and for the most part, the surface is well graded and with some washboard (bumpy) sections. With 2.2” (or wider) tyres running at slightly lower pressures you will still cover the distance pretty quickly and comfortably. If you have tyres less than 2” you might find some of the looser or dustier surfaces more sketchy but it is all still rideable, just a little slower and bumpier.

Only the last 30km before Cerro Castillo are in disrepair, with larger rocks on quite a steep gradient. From Villa Cerro Castillo it is mostly paved with only a few shorter sections of gravel, but these will no doubt be paved in the near future.

What about traffic?


In November there were less vehicles on the road than when we started again in January (from Coyhaique) after our workaway. That said, with the road being unpaved from Villa O’Higgins to Cerro Castillo most vehicles that passed us sent up a dust cloud – we’d recommend wearing a buff to cover your face and can also be used to wash the dust off in a river come evening! It never felt unsafe and the drivers gave us plenty of space, often slowing down so the dust wasn’t as bad. 

The Aysen region has a great website with distance charts, services available in each town and tourist brochures. Link HERE

Do you have any other questions? Ask us in the comments below or send us a message, we would like to hear from you.

What is the ride like? Blog and photos

For a narrative account of our time on the Carretera Austral and to see many more photos, you can read our blog posts from the ride by clicking on the links below.

The Carretera Austral South: From Villa O’Higgins Going North.

The Carretera Austral South: Cochrane to Coyhaique

Carretera Austral North: Coyhaique to Raul Marin Balmeceda

A Slice of Island Life: Chiloé to Puerto Varas

Detailed Route Information

If you want to know the more specific details about how we rode the route, read on. We have also included detours that you might like to take, places to stay and interesting things to see on the way. 

*Distances in brackets are kilometres between each days start and finish point.

*All prices are in Chilean Pesos ($ clp) correct as of November 2017 – January 2018. Accommodation prices per person unless stated otherwise. 

If you haven’t read the blog, just to give you a little background about our route, we were in Patagonia very early in the season and early on our trip so we weren’t in any particular rush when we were riding the Carretera Austral. (We even stopped for 5 weeks in the middle to do a workaway over Christmas which you can read about here.) As such we took our time, riding an average of 44km per day and taking detours or days off along the route, which is easy to do with the number of wildcamping spots near so many rivers, lakes and glaciers. It is fair to say that the Carretera Austral is one of the best rides of our trip to date and in our opinion the southern section is the most wild and beautiful section. 

Cycling Patagonia on the Carretera Austral’s Southern Section: Villa O’Higgins to Coyhaique 

Below we have broken the ride into four chunks along with any other relevant information. This is the most wild section so distances between places to stay and resupply are greater, and as such we found ourselves wild camping all of the time.

  • Villa O’Higgins to Cochrane 

Day 1: Villa O’Higgins – Refugio (53km)

STAY: El Mosco, Villa O’Higgins – $6000-9000. Excellent hostel with camping, kitchen and seating area indoor is well equipped but slow wifi.

Refugio is behind two large gates on the right hand side of the road (going north) – free. Fireplace and benches around edge of room (space for 4 cyclists), long drop toilet outside. If you light a fire, replace the wood before leaving. 

Day 2: Refugio – Puerto Yungay Hut (48km)

Free ferry (Puerto Yungay to Rio Bravo, 50 minutes) 

Small shop at Puerto Yungay (snacks – empanadas, crackers, biscuits, soft drinks…). Toilet costs 100 pesos, locked overnight.

STAY: Shelters on both sides to sleep in – free

Day 3: Puerto Yungay Hut – Wild camp before Tortel (36km)

Steep climb from Yungay hut but was being sealed with crazy paving when we were there, which made the climb easier. Fun descent down the other side.

STAY: Large patch of land between side of road and large river, free. Can camp in the trees and hidden from road, river access for water. Safe – We left tents up for a day while we cycled to Tortel and back.

Coordinates: 47° 49′ 9.8″ S, 73° 26′ 30.3″ W Take the track and turn left at the end, camping in the trees away from the entrance is quieter and most hidden. 

DETOUR: Tortel and back (18km)

Small, scenic village joined by boardwalks (vehicles park at top of village), nice views over fjord and can take boat trips from here. Number of small well stocked shops, houses selling homemade bread, few restaurants, paid campsite and accommodation options.

Day 4: Wild camp – Paradise 2 (58km)

STAY: Sheltered wild camp in trees, down a singletrack dirt path only accessible by bike or on foot, free. Next to where two rivers join, of mountains and glacier. Nice spot. Coordinates: 47° 36′ 37.2″ S, 72° 55′ 32.9″ W (On iOverlander, same name)

Day 5: Paradise 2 – Cochrane (64km) 

Number of shops including a larger supermarket on plaza (accepts card). ATM, restaurants and free Chilegob WiFi in plaza. Nice town. 

STAY: Camping Cochrane – $4000. One block from the main plaza, wifi and basic sheltered kitchen. Popular with cyclists.

  • Cochrane to Puerto Rio Tranquilo 

Day 6: Cochrane – Wild Camp near confluence (30km), free

We took a dirt road to the left before the confluence of the Rio Neff and Rio Baker and camped in some trees. Lots of opportunities around here.

DETOUR: Parque Patagonia. (Patagoniapark.org) A recently rewilded area just outside Cochrane founded by North Face founder Doug Tompkins with lots of hiking routes, wildlife and campsites. 

Day 7: Wild camp near confluence – Wild Camp Puente Canal (51km), free

VISIT: Confluence of Rio Neff and Rio Baker – free. Leave your bike at the entrance gate and walk 10 minutes to the mirador for great views of the two different coloured rivers merging in to one.

DETOUR: Puerto Bertrand, 500m off the Carretera. Very small town. Some shops but they close for lunch. Some accommodation. It was easy to wild camp after here though if you don’t need to stop in the village.

Day 8: Wild camp – Puerto Rio Tranquilo (38km) – shops (cash only) 

Puerto Rio Tranquilo is a small town with shops, hotels and campsites. Wind can pick up around the town and Lago General Carrera.

STAY: Camping La Parva – $5000. OK campsite, good indoor space but wifi barely works, gets windy and has temperamental showers. Number of campsites in town but not all were open in November, so ask around.

TO DO: Marble Caves boat trip – $5000. Very wind/weather dependent. (Wasn’t running when we were there) Lots of companies will try to sell you tours on the lake front.

  • Puerto Rio Tranquilo to Villa Cerro Castillo 

Day 9: Puerto Río Tranquilo – Abandoned house (48km), free

Old wooden house set back off the left side of the road. Two rooms, bit messy but cyclist graffiti on the walls and quiet at night.

Coordinates: 46° 16′ 44.4″ S, 72° 48′ 9.3″ W

Day 10: Abandoned house – Riverside Wild Camp (42km), free

Nice wild camp on a river bank, space on the grass or in the trees. Waterfall is just across the road, really nice area and just before ripio (gravel) gets really bad.

Coordinates: 46° 7′ 31.4″ S, 72° 29′ 7.5″ W

Day 11: Wild camp – Villa Cerro Castillo (33km)

The road to (or just out of, if coming from the north) Villa Cerro Castillo is in really bad condition for around 30km. Large rocks and loose surface on a steep gradient make for slower riding speeds. 

STAY: Camping La Arucaria – $4000. Kitchen, Inside seating area with fire and WiFi. Hot showers and lots of flat, green area to camp. Only annoyance is that the wind can be very strong but the whole town is quite windy – Find somewhere sheltered to pitch the tent!

Cerro Castillo has good shops and if you ask around, there is a local selling gasoline from his garage (can fill your fuel bottle up).

TO DO: Hiking part of the Greater Patagonian Trail – Section 32: Cerro Castillo, hike to the mountain and Laguna Castillo (8.5km, also campsites on the route. More info at the trail head or ask in town.)

  • Villa Cerro Castillo to Coyhaique 

Day 12: Villa Cerro Castillo – Conaf campsite (38km) 

Road paved from here. Climb out of Cerro Castillo on iconic switchbacks.

STAY: Conaf campsite – $5000 per tent. Shelters (can sleep in without tent), picnic benches, cold water showers and toilets. Park ranger comes around at 8am if you arrive in the evening and don’t pay then.

*Once you enter the nature reserve at the top of the switch backs (coming from Cerro Castillo) you cannot wild camp anywhere. The Conaf rangers drive around in a pickup truck and move people on. We stopped to fill water by a river and they drove over to tell us not to camp anywhere other than the official site.

Day 13: Conaf campsite – Coyhaique (62km)

STAY: El camping – $5000. Nice campsite with lots of space, good showers, wifi but no cooking facilities and down a steep hill, a 15 minute walk from town.

STAY: Aumkenk Aike Hostel – From $20000 for private room (On booking and AirBnB).

Coyhaique is largest town on route with lots of shops, ATMs, restaurants, hostels and two bike shops.

TO DO: National Park – $3000pp – Nice wooded area, can ride bike around the trails and can be easily visited in a few hours.

Carretera southern Section – 619km (Our average – 44km per day)

Cycling Patagonia on the Carretera Austral Northern Section: Coyhaique to Puerto Montt (Via Chiloé)

In Spring 2017 the village of Santa Lucia on the Carretera Austral was devastated by a landslide which not only destroyed countless houses, it also closed the road for many months. At this time all traffic was diverted to Argentina via Futalefu or on the replacement ferry from Raul Marin Balmeceda to Chaiten while the landslide was cleared and the road repaired. We chose the third option, taking the ferry from Raul Marin Balmeceda across to the island of Chiloe renown for its rolling pastoral countryside and wooden churches.

Day 14: Coyhaique- Manihuales campsite (94km)

There are two options leaving Coyhaique, Ruta 7 (Carretera Austral) or R240 (main road). We opted for the R240 as it was paved, wasn’t very busy and without very much climbing. It joins back up with Ruta 7 before Manihuales anyway.

STAY: Two campsite options in Manihuales, both on the left as you enter the village (coming from the south). We stayed at the second one ($4000) with many other cyclists. Hot shower, garage to charge devices and use internet, nice vibes.

Manihuales has a number of shops to buy a good selection of fruit, veg, bread and general supplies.

Day 15: Manihuales – Wild camp Rio Cisnes (70km)

Villa Amengual is en route – a small village with three shops with most things you’d need. We found some trees to the side of the road and set up camp, though it was high above the river – was a little more difficult to find somewhere in the forested and steep sided valley.

Day 16: Wild camp – Wild camp Rio Ventisquero (59km)

Big climb to Portazuelo Quelat (600masl). Gravel and reasonably steep, but quite short (~10km) then you get a big descent the other side (~10km then follow edge of the fjord. Beautiful views as you descent!

In Quelat National Park there is a small cafe on the side of the road serving cold drinks and food. There are two campsite options for Quelat National Park. One opposite the cafe, $4000 but no facilities or inside the National Park, $5000 with cold showers. You aren’t allowed to wild camp in the National Park (it closes at 5pm) and park rangers patrol the area.

We wild camped by the bridge just past the park entrance (if going north) – it was a steep climb down into the trees but there’s a small clearing by the river edge, mostly hidden from the road.

Day 17: Wild camp – Angostura campsite (ex-Conaf) – free

VISIT: Ventisquero Colgante (Quelat hanging glacier) $5000 entry, 9am – 5pm. Lock your bikes in the car park and walk the 2.7km trail that climbs through the dense forest, up to the mirador and marvel at the glacier, lake and waterfalls. If you are lucky you will witness part of the ice break off and hear the almighty thunder that follows – it’s incredible.

Follow the road after Quelat around the fjord and you have the option to go into Puyuhuapi – a small town on the fjord with some shops and accommodation, but it was quite sleepy when we were there.

There’s a small amount of unpaved road just after Puyuhuapi, where it climbs to a free campsite on the edge of Lago Risopatrón. Shelters, benches and lakeside camping – this is a lovely free place to spend an afternoon and night.

Day 18: Free Conaf campsite – La Junta (37km)

Unpaved road to start with but it’s soon back to paved before La Junta, which is a nice town with quite a few shops, cafes and hostels to choose from.

STAY: Hostel Casa Museo $30000 (double room). Ye Olde style decor, friendly staff and great kitchen/dining area means this is a great place to relax and meet new people. Large outside shelter for the bikes and garden. 

Day 19: La Junta – Termas El Sauce (21km)

This is where we had to detour from the Carretera Austral, taking the X-12 towards the coast – a gravel road. *Normally the Carretera continues north through Santa Lucia and Chaitén, but as mentioned earlier we were unable to ride that way due to a landslide. If you are continuing on the Ruta 7, following the traditional Carretera Austral route, this next section will be different but might be still of interest as an alternative.

Termas El Sauce – $12000pp. (Includes camping and access to the pool at night once the day visitors have left) Nice hot springs with one large outside pool and a handful of private pools too. Very basic, built in the river with a pipe that feeds the 90 degrees Celsius water into the pool, but it’s really hot and the cold river next to the termas acts as a plunge pool. Also has bathrooms, shower, BBQ area and slacklines. Really nice atmosphere.

Day 20: Termas El Sauce – Raul Marin Balmaceda (74km)

The gravel road continues to Raul Marin Balmeceda, which is a small beach town with a shop/ferry ticket office and a few hostels. You can buy basic supplies here (cash only). Raul Marin has a very chilled out, beach hippy town feel about it and if the weather is nice the yellow sandy beach is great for a day. Take Deet (or other insect repellant) with you as the tabaños (big biting flies) are really bad here.

STAY: Wild camp Dolphin beach – free. Follow the road to the end by the ferry then take the sandy track on the left. It leads to the beach where you can camp for free, have a campfire and even see dolphins playing in the waves.

STAY: Hostel El Abuelo $15000 – double room (we found it on AirBnB but turned up and asked for a room – would recommend this). It was ran by a volunteer when we were there, more like a room in a shared house but had a hot shower, kitchen and private bedroom. Best value we ever had in Chile! Address: Pasaje Palena (Follow road to the beach, take last road on left Avenida Rosselot, then first left off Rosselot (Pasaje Palena), follow road around right hand bend and will be on the right – wooden building, blue window frames, small sign by door)

Diversion and Detour: Chiloé:

Raul Marin Balmeceda – Quellon by ferry – $12,575pp. Buy tickets in the village shop, not the port.

Quellon is a fairly large town with all the services you might need and quite cheap by Chilean standards (as is all of Chiloe).

STAY: Quellon Camping Milleguan $4000 – A little outside of town but quiet at night, shelters to cook and eat under, wifi and clean bathrooms. Good views over the bay and the town at night.

Quellon – Huillinco (76km)

Join the Ruta 5 out of Quellon (The PanAmerican, which can be quite busy but with a small shoulder) then take W-80 to the west (if you continue heading west towards the coast you will reach a National Park). The ride to Huillinco is out and back on the same road, but a good detour if the weather is favourable or you want a nice place to have a day off.

STAY: Camping Huillinco $4000 – Hot showers, wifi and indoor area to cook and eat in. Nice lake views, shops and bakeries in town.

Huillinco – Chonchi – Castro (37km)

Chonchi and Castro are two of the larger towns on Chiloé. They have lovely old wooden churches, colourful buildings and feel quite different to the mainland. Castro is the biggest city with cheap food and a good vibe, we really liked it here. Visit the church on the main plaza to see models and photos of the wooden churches that Chiloe is famous for.

STAY: Camping Castro $4000 – in a school that has space for camping on grass or under shelters, with a kitchen, showers and WiFi.

Castro – Chepu Wild camp (80km)

As soon as you are off the PanAm the roads become really steep and gravel. There is lovely riding through the countryside, space to wild camp and friendly people. We didn’t go all the way down to the beach at Chepu because it was down a steep hill and the dunes were a long way out, but just above there is a grassy area which makes a nice campsite.

Chepu – Playa Mar Brava Wild camp (50km)

Playa Mar Brava was one of our favourite campsites – you can wild camp on a grassy patch behind a big sand dune and hear the waves crashing. Quiet at night and with a great view of the milky way on a clear night. There are also dolphins regularly playing in the waves near the shore. We rode to see the penguins from here and came back to camp at the same spot we liked it that much!

DETOUR: Punihuil beach – Humboldt and Magellan Penguins boat tour (28km) $7000 (Travel Hack – Wait until a boat is nearly full and you can sometimes get a better deal. All of the boats do the same tour anyway so it makes little difference. We paid $11000 for both of us and it was well worth it).

Wild camp Playa Mar Brava – Ancud (23km) 

Ancud is a big town, lots of shops and accommodation. There is a free museum just off the plaza (Regional Musuem of Ancud) which is worth a look – it has a whale skeleton that was washed up a few years ago and other items of Chiloe’s heritage on display. We stayed in an AirBnB for $20,000 double room.

Ancud – Ruta 5 service station Wild camp (60km)

It’s a short ride from Ancud to the ferry back to the mainland – $2000pp, 20 minutes crossing time (más o menos) and the ferries go back and forwards all day.

From the ferry you take the Ruta 5, which is reasonably busy but with a wide hard shoulder and felt very safe. Just watch out for glass! We camped at service station on the side of the main road – check in with the security guard before putting the tent up because sometimes they don’t allow tent campers.

Service station – Puerto Varas on Ruta 5 (58km) 

We’d heard that Puerto Varas is a nicer city than Puerto Montt (less industrial and there’s nothing to mark the end or start of the Carretera Austral other than a big, busy city) so we skipped it. The road did get a bit worse around Puerto Montt with lots of cars exiting or joining the highway, but most drivers were aware of us and we didn’t feel like it was too dangerous.

Puerto Varas has a beautiful lake with volcano views, lots of shops, restaurants and accommodation choices. It was a great end to our Chilean Patagonia journey and it reminded us of European ski town!

From Puerto Varas it is easy to ride around the lake, with amazing views, and cross into Argentina at Villa La Angostura (Siete Lagos region) in two days or continue on the Ruta 5 to Santiago (or get the bus!).

Would we ride the Carretera Austral again? Definitely! Next time we’d like to ride it north to south to see what all of the fuss is about and ride the section we missed from Puerto Montt to Santa Lucia, via Chaiten and the Cochamo National Park which we have heard has some amazing hiking routes.

Have you done this route? Do you have any additional information that we have missed out or can you update this article? Leave us a comment or send us a message, we’d love to hear from you. 

Steph and Ben

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