The Carretera Austral Highway is a picturesque road that leads through a portion of Patagonia in the southern part of Chile.
What makes this highway so special is the incredible scenery along its route. Snow covered mountains, glaciers, colorful caves, turquoise alpine lakes – you name it! It has it all.
The Carretera Austral Highway starts in a Chilean port town called Puerto Montt and follows south for 770 miles until its ending point at Villa O’Higgins.
While the route has a few sections that are not accessible through land and travelers will need to take ferries in order to continue traveling along, overall the route is pretty straight forward and quite the popular road trip adventure for Chilean and international visitors alike.
We spent a whole month on a road trip along the Carretera Austral Highway zig zagging up and down in search of the best outdoors attractions.
While this region offers endless hiking and outdoors options, our guide covers 10 of our absolute favorite places to visit along the Carretera Austral Highway from north to south:
- Pumalin National Park
- Queulat National Park
- Rainforest Waterfalls
- Laguna Cerro Castillo
- Marble Caves
- Pared Sur Camp
- Confluencia Rio Baker & Neff
- Patagonia National Park
- Villa O’Higgins
Pumalín National Park
The first impressive stop along the Carretera Austral Highway is Pumalín National Park, which starts right at the dropoff point of the second and longest ferry.
While most people that arrive on the ferry zoom through Pumalín National Park on their way to some of the more popular attractions in Patagonia, we spent considerable time at Pumalín and hiked 7 of its 12 available trails.
For us, one of the major park highlights was a hike to an overlook of Volcán Chaitén – an active volcano that erupted in 2008 causing violent mudflows destroying portions of the forest along its way.
The park offers a hike to an overlook of the Chaitén volcano and the recovering landscape around it. This trail feels a bit apocalyptical with smoke and steam coming out of the volcano, burned down tree stumps, and Mars-like landscape surrounding it all.
Another popular day hike at Pumalín National Park is the Gonzalo-
If you have limited time, we highly recommend starting with these two hikes. As of now all of the trails at Pumalín National Park are free to hike and the park offers a variety of treks from short 30 minute hikes to challenging all day hikes.
For complete information on visiting this park, check out our detailed Pumalín National Park guide here.
Queulat National Park
Queulat National Park is one of the most visited parks along the Carretera Austral Highway. In fact, we almost didn’t get to hike this park because when we arrived at Queulat in February, the park was completely overcrowded.
We had to wait outside the park for a few hours until enough people had left before we could enter and it was a pretty messy process with no real tracking system or a waitlist. From what we saw, the more you bugged the rangers, the sooner you got to enter the park.
What makes Queulat National Park so special is a hike that leads to an overlook of the Ventisquero Colgante hanging glacier. The trail to the viewpoint is around 2-3 hours long and goes up to a clearing in the woods where visitors can take a peek at the hanging Ventisquero Colgante glacier and a waterfall plunging down from the base of it.
The cost to hike this trail is 5000 Chilean Pesos ($7.50 USD) per person. The park also offers boat and kayaking tours to get closer to the glacier from the nearby lake but from what we heard the viewpoint from the hike is much better.
After seeing the hanging glacier we did quite a bit of driving. To break up the driving we stopped at two waterfalls – Sendero Padre Garcia & Salto El Condor.
These two waterfall hikes are super easy, free to do and perfect to take a break from an otherwise long drive along this section.
The Cascada Sendero Padre Garcia is a short 5 minute trail to a waterfall overlook near the Queulat River. The waterfall is quite beautiful and reminds me of the scenery from some of the waterfall hikes we did in Oregon. The trail leads through an overgrown rainforest and ends at a wooden viewing platform overlooking the Padre Garcia waterfall.
The Salto El Condor is another quick and beautiful waterfall hike located 30 minutes south from Sendero Padre Garcia waterfall. This hike leads to a tall waterfall where a few quick hops over rocks can land you at the base of it.
The Ultimate Guide To Patagonia National Park
Laguna Cerro Castillo
If the weather plays nice, the Cerro Castillo Laguna is one of the most scenic hikes to do along the Carretera Austral Highway.
A few years back the Cerro Castillo lake was a little known gem in Southern Chile. There was no obvious trail leading there and very few people ventured into the Cerro Castillo National Reserve to hike it. But that is not the case anymore.
The local landowners have now set up quite the organized operation for visitors to hike the Cerro Castillo Laguna.
Although the reserve itself is owned by Chile’s Government, all entry points leading to the Cerro Castillo Laguna are blocked off by local Chilean landowners. The only way to hike the Laguna Cerro Castillo trail as a day trip is by paying these landowners in order to get access into the trail through their land. Fair enough.
In the last few years this trek has become increasingly more popular and the entrance fees have risen quite a bit. As of 2019 it costs 10,000 Chilean pesos ($15 USD) per person to hike the Laguna Cerro Castillo trail making it the most expensive hike we’ve done in Chile.
But it’s not every day that you get to hike to a turquoise blue lake with a glacier as its backdrop. Was it worth it and would I do it again? Heck Yes!
The Cerro Castillo Laguna trail is 8.5 miles long and the suggested hiking time at the entrance is listed as 7-8 hours. We were able to hike this trail in 6 hours but we were pacing ourselves quite a bit since a rainstorm started hovering over us as we neared the top.
In fact, we only spent about 30 minutes at the actual lake because the weather had taken a turn for the worst and the winds in combination with hail were making it almost impossible to take any photos or walk around.
While I did think that the Cordillera Castillo Lake was an absolute beauty, I do wish we had hiked it in better weather conditions. If you decide to hike this trail, make sure to plan for cold weather and bring plenty of warm clothing for the top since the winds up there can get pretty brutal.
Also, I highly recommend wearing good hiking boots with sturdy high tops like these Vasque ones to prevent your ankles from rolling on slick rocks. We saw a lady near the top that injured her ankle and had to be carried down for 4 miles.
The Marble Caves (or Capillas de Mármol) was one of the most surreal places that we visited in Chile’s Patagonia region. Located by Puerto Rio Tranquilo town, the Marble Caves are a natural wonder and a must-visit spot along the Carretera Austral Highway.
These colorful caves are located along the coast on the General Carrera Lake and are only reachable by a boat or a kayak. Thankfully the little Puerto Rio Tranquilo town offers multiple
The most popular way to see the Marble Caves is through an organized boat tour. These tours run all day long during the busy season from December to March so you don’t need to book the Marble cave tour ahead of time.
The town has a street with little huts where visitors can arrange outgoing boats with tour agents for the same or next day. The cost to do a boat tour is 10,000 Chilean pesos ($15 USD) per person and is mostly on a cash basis unless you can find an agent that has a credit card machine.
Once you pay for the tour, these agents will assign you to a boat and lead you to the dock. The boats are pretty small but thankfully they did not seem overstuffed with people like on some other boat tours that we have done in the past.
The tour is 1.5 hours long and passes by colorful marble caves and a standalone rock island. We saw different types of rock formations, caverns and our boat captain even took us inside some of these cave tunnels.
In general, we try to avoid any type of tours because they usually feel pretty rushed and we don’t get a whole lot of photo opportunities but we really enjoyed this tour and thought it was well worth it.
My only suggestion is to do the earliest possible tour – the winds in this region can pick up quite a bit in the afternoon, making for a bumpy ride through never-ending waves, and everyone returning from the afternoon tours looked pretty miserable on their way back.
Pared Sur Camp
The entire area around the Lago General Carrera is absolutely stunning and makes a great place to spend some time. When we got to the relaxing Pared Sur Camp, we could have stayed in this dream land forever.
The Pared Sur Eco-Camp is very luxurious and quite possibly one of the best eco-camps I’ve ever seen. The site offers 8 white eco-domes overlooking the pristine aqua-blue lake, each with beautifully decorated interiors perfect for couples. The property also has 4 bigger lodge style rooms that can house families or bigger parties.
My favorite parts of the eco-camp were their awesome outdoors wooden hot tubs overlooking the lake. The hot tubs can also be rented for day use but notice is required since it takes a while to get them heated up.
The eco-camp also offers guided tours to nearby attractions like the Marble Caves. One of the most popular packages of the lodge includes an all-inclusive week-long stay that covers lodging, food, and daily tours. For Pared Sur Eco-Camp reservation availability and pricing see more here, or by emailing them directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Confluencia Rio Baker & Neff
Confluencia Rio Baker & Neff is a fun short stop along the Ruta Austral highway where visitors can see two rivers join up – Rio Baker & Rio Neff.
The cool thing about this viewpoint is that both rivers that join are different in color. While Rio Neff is milkier and greener in color, Rio Baker is super blue. When these two rushing rivers clash it creates a unique fusion of colors that can be seen from the overlook.
The hike to this viewpoint is very short and only takes about 15 minutes. If the clashing rivers
Patagonia National Park
Patagonia National Park is perhaps one of the best hidden gems along the Carretera Austral highway in southern Chile.
Patagonia National Park is one of the newest National Parks in Chile and hence also one of the least visited. If you seek out remote places that offer incredible treks without the crowds that some of the more popular places experience, you’ll love Parque Patagonia.
We ventured into Patagonia National Park after hearing some recommendations from other travelers in this region. They all had the same thing to say – the park offers amazing views and empty trails.
Patagonia National Park is still in its early stage but a few treks are available in the park along with a chance to see plenty of wildlife.
The most popular trail is the Lagunas Altas trek that starts near the visitor center. This 14-mile long trail leads up to the top of a mountain offering jaw-dropping panoramic views of the park and Chacabuco valley from the distance.
After doing this beautiful (but tough) hike visitors can relax at the Park’s upscale restaurant and bar located next to the visitor center. For all the best things to do in Patagonia National Park, read more here.
The next notable stop along the Carretera Austral drive is a small town called Tortel. Although you will pass a lot of small towns along this route, Tortel is quite special and unique – the entire town is built on wooden stilts on the side of a hill overlooking the water.
Prior to having a road
The town has a beautiful wooden path that leads next to the lake and connects all of the residential houses, schools, hostels and local businesses. Tortel’s visitor center also offers a boat tour out to O’Higgins glacier nearby, although the tour often depends on weather conditions and, oddly, if the boat’s motor is working or not.
Villa O’Higgins is the official southern ending point of the Carretera Austral Highway and even has a sign to prove it!
The town of O’Higgins is very remote and cut off from the rest of Chile, so we had to hop on our third ferry along the Carretera Austral Highway to get there. The ferry runs every few hours and was free to use, a part of the president’s promise to connect all of the Carretera Austral.
Although the town itself is only a few street blocks in size and lacks tourism amenities (like bathrooms, internet or public transportation), this area has a few amazing hikes offering dramatic views of the surrounding landscape.
The most popular trail near Villa O’Higgins is Sendero Altavista that leads to 3 different overlooks of the surrounding lakes, rivers, and glaciers. We attempted to hike this trail after arriving at O’Higgins, but the weather was not cooperating and it started raining after we reached the first viewpoint. We couldn’t complete this hike, but that’s the thing about the weather in this region – you never know what it will throw your way.
In the end, we came, we saw, we attempted and that’s just as much part of the experience as the destination itself.
The Carretera Austral is often regarded by many as the most beautiful drive in all of North and South America. There’s a good reason for that: the entire drive offers dramatic views of pristine lakes, turquoise rivers, hanging glaciers, waterfalls, and plenty of wildlife, all without even leaving the road.
For those looking for an adventure that isn’t quite as popular and overcrowded as other destinations in Patagonia, the Carretera Austral is the answer.
We’ve already begun counting the days until our next visit.