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  • Writer's pictureMarion Marquardt

Traveling on the Carretera Austral – Chile’s "dream of a road"

Updated: Apr 22, 2023

Parque National Patagonia - diverse landscape and intact ecosystem
Rugged mountains, lush green forests and imposing volcanoes - the variety couldn't be greater
Dolphins on our doorstep in Puerto Raul Marin Balmaceda - a paradise at the end of the world
Beautiful sandy beaches and perfect sunsets on the west coast of Chile

We have been traveling in Patagonia for a long time, roughly in northern direction. Again and again we change the border from Argentina to Chile, depending on where longing places call us. Sometimes, however, the path or in this case the street is the main highlight. The Carretera Austral is a 1,247 km long road in Chile, from O'Higgins to Puerto Montt. Actually it ends in O'Higgins, in the south. We're going in opposite directions. By the way road is a relative term, most of it is unpaved. It is a gravel road in fairly bad condition, thats why we love it. It's called Ripio here. That means the car and its contents are being shaken up quite a bit :-)

Carretera Austral Toyota Overlander Buschtaxi
Eines der wenigen geteerten Stücke auf der Carretera

At Paso Roballos we cross the border. Even if this is not officially the Carretera Austral, we can already guess the beauty. The path takes us almost 200 km through the Parque National Patagonia, in the heart of the picturesque Valle Chacabuco. The landscape in Argentina is pretty dry. There is not much vegetation here, only a few green patches can be seen near rivers. We found a really nice campsite on the banks of the Rio Blanco, somewhat sheltered from the wind by tall trees. The further we drive, the greener and hillier the landscape becomes. In the middle of nowhere, however, a border crossing awaits us. Here the Migration officers still work analogously. The border officials enter our passport numbers in their books, forms are issued by hand. Upon entering Chile, a query is sent to the PDI - we must wait for a positive response. Depending on the internet connection, this can take an hour, like in our case. Nevertheless, the border officials are super nice and we picked up one or the other travel tip.

In the Chilean part of the national park we make our way to the Mirador Doug Tompkins. This is where the environmental activist is said to have been sitting when he decided to found the park. Understandable when you look at the view. Incidentally, the viewpoint can only be reached via a 4x4 route several kilometers long (or on foot). Here we have a clear advantage with our Toyota Landcruiser. The path is not really a highlight. Therefore we save the energy by driving as far as possible to the viewpoint and starting from there a loop hike of13km to Lago Chico. A beautiful Patagonian landscape!

The remote national park is definitely worth it. There are a couple of official campsites where you can stay overnight for reasonable prices. It is said that pumas are seen uite often in Valle Chacabuco. With around 90 animals, the population is unfortunately not quite as dense as in Torres del Paine National Park. Unfortunately we have had no luck with sightings...

Carretera Austral Chacabuco Valley Paso Roballos Parque Nactional Patagonia
Beautiful Landscapes and incredible vastness

Valle Chacabuco  Carretera Austral Chile Traumstrasse Highlights schöne Natur
Valle Chacabuco at Sunset

After four days we leave the park and at km 987 we meet the actual Carretera Austral for the first time. We don't drive back to O'Higgins, which would mean a detour of about 150 miles (double). Given the road conditions, that's a driving time of 15 hours. Also because of the season, we plan to speed up on our way to North. The days are getting shorter, the weather cold and unstable. Fall is coming. Our Next Stop was Villa Cerro Castillo. Unfortunately, we couldn't do the multiday hikes on our agenda in the way we wanted. But that story has been told in a sepparate Blog.

Villa Cerro Castillo - A Story about water and Park Closure

The landscape now changes dramatically. From barren mountain landscape to taiga with lots of coniferous forest to jungle-like vegetation. We're blown away. This is how driving is fun. However, our next destination is again a bit off the actual Carretera Austral. The sleepy town of Raul Marin Balmaceda, on an island in the Corcovado Gulf. It can only be reached via another 75 km long gravel road and a ferry across the Rio Palena. What we've heard about this place is enough to go there. The place is so beautiful that we stay here for 5 days... and it deserves its own blog :-)

Raul Marin Balmaceda Carretera Austral Geheimtip Chile Fischerort Must See
A true paradise - isolated from everything

Heading north we pass Corcovado National Park - a 2,940 square kilometer nature reserve of Valdivian temperate rainforest, high peaks, alpine lakes and rivers. The landmark is the volcano of the same name, which last erupted in 1835. Unfortunately, the park is only accessible from the sea, so we can't explore anything here. Unlike in the adjacent national park Pumalin. Like so many other nature reserves in Chile, this was founded by Doug Tompkins. Our first stop is a café of a special kind - El Avión. A plane wreck serves as the backdrop for this special place. Ignacio has recently opened a lovely café on his property, with excellent cakes and espresso italian style. We can't let this rarity pass us by. Once there we got told the extraordinary story of the plane that crashed in 1974. Its history stretches from World War II to South Pole expeditions to beeing Queen Elizabeth's private plane during her 3-month visit to Chile in the 1970s. Ignacio has plans for the future, wants to expand the café and do a photo exhibition about the story. It is already a meeting point for travelers from all countries. We also made new friends here :-)

The next day we explore the Pumalin National Park. We hike up the Chaiten volcano, near the town with the same name. In 2008 the volcano surprisingly erupted after about 9,000 years of "sleep". As a result of the eruption, the neighboring port city was flooded with debris and lava masses. The city, which previously had several thousand inhabitants, was evacuated for many years. Now life has returned. Clouds of smoke can still be seen rising from the volcanic crater - a very mystical sight. From the edge of the caldera you can also see the coast in good weather, even as far as the island of Chiloé.

Chaiten Vulcano Vulkan Pumalin National Park Chile Highlights aktive Vulkane Vulkanwanderung
Clear traces of activity on Chaiten Vulcano

To explore the northern part of Pumalin NP we first have to take a ferry. The Carretera Austral is "interrupted" here. It takes 5 hours by sea from Caleta Gonzalo to Hornopiren. And this is where our journey on Chile's dream road, which officially leads to Puertto Montt, ends. However, we decide to skip the city of 200,000 inhabitants in favor of natural highlights. Hence beautiful valleys, volcanoes and mountain landscapes are waiting for us :-)

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