Chile's Carretera Austral

The road trip from Cochrane to Chaitén on Chile’s famous Carretera Austral. Tiny villages, turquoise rivers and lakes. Mountains with huge glaciers and ice fields on their top. And the feeling to be very far away from the world as we know it normally.

Cochrane 2 Chaitén

Puerto Rio Tranquilo, 8th January

1 night in Cochrane is enough to experience everything in this place. Including its nonexistent nightlife.

We’re driving Chile’s famous Carretera Austral northwards. The road connecting the south of  Patagonia from Puerto Montt in the north to O’Higgins near the Argentinian village of El Chaltén. Nowadays mostly paved, still remain 400km of rather rough gravel road in the southern part of the road. 

We’ve never been sure whether or not we should visit its southernmost point – tiny O’Higgins. It’s more than 400km on a corrugated and potholed road. 

Finally, we say no to O’Higgins, instead head for Puerto Rio Tranquilo. Some 100km to the north. The road 1st follows turquoise Rio Baker, then along the shores of Lago General Carrera.  

Tiny Puerto Rio Tranquilo: a cluster of houses in the outskirts, tourist infrastructure in the center. Somehow evident what is essential for the survival of the place. No wonder, the famous Catedrales de Marmol are just next to the village. To add its location as the gateway to Valle Exploradores.

An interesting observation we make: they seem to have a pretty modern sky pilot. Looks like he connects directly to his boss by satellite.

The next morning. We’re getting up quite early. Today we have the pleasure to go on a tour. Don’t think we really insisted on a tour because we like that much having a guide thinking for us and telling us the whole day what to do and what’s the punishment if we don’t follow his strict rules. Whatever, there’s no way to sneak on Glaciar Exploradores without a tour. And we’d definitely like to walk a few meters on Chile’s famous Campo de Hielo Norte.

Thus, we’re on the way to the travel agency. There we get all equipment we need to conquer the glacier. Finally, we’re perched into a minibus with 5 other victims and driven 1 ½ h to the entrance of Parque Nacional Laguna de San Rafael.

Arriving there we discover that we’re not the only tour with the very same program. Some more visitors seem to be as enthusiastic as we are about an expedition on the glacier.

Before starting our adventure, the guides explain to us that we have to wear a helmet for the whole day. Even if sneaking thru the forest. No idea who invented this nice rule. Probably the guys of the national park want to make us feel being on a really dangerous pioneer trip. True, these guys are sometimes a little weird in Chile.

The 1st part of the hike thru the forest. Soon we arrive at a viewing platform. Unfortunately, we cannot get to it. It’s simply too crowded with fellow hikers from other tours.

Then the trail follows the glacier’s moraine. True, sometimes we have to queue up on the trail. There are at least 300 people – all on the same expedition to Glaciar Exploradores. And, as usual with South American tours they strictly follow the imagined law obliging them to arrive all at the same location at the very same time. At least, each tour uses a different color of their helmet. To distinguish between the different expeditions (tours) to the glacier. Great, we love their concept.

Nevertheless, a marvelous view of the glacier in front of us.

After 1h we reach the zone of the glacier which is covered with stones. True, when sneaking on the trail we still feel a bit like a gnu on its seasonal migration in the Serengeti.

Then, 2 ½ h after entering the park we reach the ice. Now we have to sneak on it. Thus, to move on we need to put on our crampons.

Then we finally have our lunch. You already know it – this extremely important ritual on each tour. The 1 where everybody tries to get enough energy to survive the adventures planned in the afternoon. This is especially important on expedition tours.

After lunch, the guide discovers a pretty spectacular ice cove. By all means, we have to explore it.

After that, we’re already on our way back. 2 ½ h to the park entrance, and 1 ½ h in the minibus to reach Puerto Rio Tranquilo.

As usual there’s the question whether or not going to the glacier is worth the effort?

We definitely have mixed feelings about it. Going on the glacier, exploring it, and seeing it from near is great. Not often do you have the opportunity to sneak on ice. Taking a tour for that is pretty messy. Mainly because there are more than 10 minibuses – all arriving at the park at the very same time. Of course, that leads to congestion on the trail and the feeling you’re just in another mass tourism event. Visibly, many people don’t care for this, for them, it’s ok having 150 people in front and 150 behind them when hiking. For us, it’s not. Then these strange regulations of the national park just allowing visitors with a helmet to enter the park and guides obviously tired of their job, just unwinding their program. Definitely, that leaves a pretty bad impression. Still, it’s the glacier tour most travelers recommend. Especially, compared to the 1 to Perito Moreno in Argentina.

Villa Cerro Castillo, 10th January

The next morning. As by now we’re a little bit used to tours – the next 1. To the Catedrales de Marmol on Lago General Carrera. These caves can only be visited by boat, thus exclusively with a tour of 2 ½ h.

To start with we’re getting equipped with ponchos, waterproof trousers, and life vests. Then we’re ready for today’s adventure of our life.

We cross the lake to an island in the east, near Puerto Sánchez – fortunately today there’s no wind so it’s very quiet. To see some ships ensuring transport for persons and cargo on the lake in the good old times. Before the roads were built.

Then on to the marble caves. They’re the result of erosion of the marble hills in this area due to the stormy lake and strong winds prevailing most of the time of the year. In a few places, we can even drive into some caves by boat.

Back to the westside of the lake. To the most famous of these marble caves.

Then back to Puerto Rio Tranquilo. The last part in pouring rain.

And what about this tour? Definitely worth it. Of course, mass tourism. At some places, boats queue up for getting into the marble cave. Still, it’s done in a more pleasant way than yesterday.

We drive on. Despite the rain. Some 100km to the north. Gravel road. 100km of mudslinging.

Villa Cerro Castillo – just another tiny nothing in an immense nowhere. Hence, a typical Patagonian village. But absolutely ok for a night. We find a nice’n’waterproof cabaña.

Coyhaique, 11th January

We’re on the way to the nearby village of Puerto Ingeniero Ibañez. Another tiny nothing. But at the shores of Lago General Carrera. And the gateway to the Salto del Rio Ibañez. A place not to be missed.

Then on to Coyhaique. Some 150km, now mostly on good tarmac. What a relief. Even for Prado.

At certain viewpoints, it gets quite visible that the local holiday season is in full action. Even if you don’t feel it that much on the road.

Coyhaique, the biggest town and regional hub for Chile’s Patagonia. And the opportunity for Prado to have an extended spa. What else? A good Unimarc supermarket to complete our provisions, a good’n’nice eatery for a change to the ever same lomo or pescado a la plancha.

Puyuhuapi, 13th March

We’re on the way further north. To the village of Puyuhuapi some 200km away. Mostly on a pretty new tarmac. Still, a few km of the road they forgot to improve.

The landscape changes considerably. Looks like we’re getting out of the Antarctic influence. Forests and green grassland are getting predominant.

Shortly before arriving in Puyuhuapi we cross Parque Nacional Queulat with its incredibly dense rainforests. Unfortunately, they closed their best hike thru the forest due to rock falls.

Late afternoon we’re in Puyuhuapy. Many cabañas to rent. Just most of them fully booked. To keep the locals happy the village organizes a summer event that everybody who ever heard of Puyuhuapi has to attend. To us, their Disney-related parade looked slightly weird. Nevertheless, their perception seems to be pretty different. For us, this important issue leads to an extreme shortage of accommodation. Well, finally we discover a not perfectly maintained cabaña in the backyard of the local shop repairing tires and offering the latest fashion.

Walking thru the village we discover at the bus stop the ultimate proof that the perception of the Puyuhappies is really pretty different from ours.

Next morning: weather has a huge potential to improve. Our tyre–fashion shop’n’cabaña landlord is convinced that it will significantly improve a little bit later. Thus, we’re on the way to Ventisquero Colgante. This famous hanging glacier in the Parque Nacional Queulat.

The place is definitely another tourist hotspot. Thus, we need a reservation on internet – so that the national park’s high authorities are aware of grandma’s allergy to strawberries and grandpa’s mustache before our arrival.

After showing our reservation number at the gate we’re allowed to pay the exorbitant entrance fee especially created for foreign tourists, then we’re permitted to walk to a viewpoint 1 ½ h away and to do some minor hikes. Chile’s bureaucrazy at its best.

A nice but muddy hike thru dense rainforest. And the opportunity to socialize with quite a lot of local holidaymakers.

Arriving at the viewpoint we’re not the only 1s. Still, we don’t need to queue up for a very long time until everybody has taken her ultimate Insta-pic.

And the ultimate view – definitely no longer a hanging glacier. Maybe 20 or 30 years ago when the glacier still covered part of the rock in the abyss. Nowadays it’s an ordinary glacier with a huge waterfall below. But still sold as Patagonia’s most beautiful hanging glacier.

We’re pretty lucky when arriving that we even see the glacier. A few minutes later it just disappears behind the clouds.

Then back. A short side trip to the glacier’s lagoon. The glacier still hidden in the clouds.

Back to Puyuhuapi. Time to taste some local beer.

Chaitén, 15th January

We’re on our last leg on Carretera Austral. To Chaitén. About 220km on a good road. Thru a pretty laidback area.

On the way a hike in Parque Nacional Corcovado to a viewpoint for Ventisquero Yelcho. 2h on a pretty flat trail to see the glacier.

Then on to Chaitén. On the way a heavy thunderstorm.

Arriving in Chaitén we face the next event to maintain the local’s humor: a rodeo. Again, everybody who has ever heard that the village of Chaitén exists has to participate. And, again we only find a slightly strange cabaña in the backyard of a house.

The village – doesn’t look very inviting. Spread over a large area. Huge roads, few houses, no life at all. Chaitén has been relocated in 2008 due to the continuous eruption of the nearby Volcán Corcovado. And that’s definitely still visible.

Anyway, no time for an extended visit. We’re busy booking the tickets for the ferry to Castro on Chiloé Island. Astonishingly there’s a lot of space left. Despite the rumors that all ferries in this part of Patagonia are constantly sold out during holiday season.

The next morning we’re ready for the next hike. To the crater of Volcán Chaitén in Parque Nacional Pumalin. It’s not very long – just 2 ½ h to sneak but 700m up. Therefore, it’s famous for its very steep’n’tiring ascent. Mainly stairs the whole way up.

Arriving at the parking lot, we already see the fumaroles of the volcano high above us.

Because of its eruption 14 years ago, you still see the remains of the forest that once covered the whole area.

After 1 ½ h we’re up. On the ridge of the crater. Unfortunately, some clouds cover the volcano. But a bit later they disappear.

Then of course, we have to sneak back. All these stairs down. Not really easier than the ascent. Arriving at the parking it’s quite busy00

. Well, holiday season in Chile.

Dear reader, that’s it for this post. Tomorrow we’ll head for Chiloe Island on our way to the north.

We wish you a lot of jealousy and ask you to impatiently wait for the next post.



On the Way to Carretera Austral, Argentina
Out of Patagonia