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. This region has it all!
The Carretera Austral Highway starts in a port town called Puerto Montt and follows south for 770 miles until its ending point at Villa O’Higgins.
The route has a few sections that are not accessible by land and travelers will need to take ferries to continue traveling along. Overall the highway is pretty straightforward and quite the popular road trip adventure for local Chilean and international visitors alike.
We spent a whole month on a road trip along the Carretera Austral in search of the best outdoor attractions.
If you’re planning a trip to this region, use our guide to discover all of the top things to do along the Carretera Austral Highway in Chile!
Here are 10 of the best places to visit along the Carretera Austral Highway from north to south:
Pumalín National Park
The first stop along the Carretera Austral Highway is Pumalín Douglas Tompkins National Park.
While most people who arrive in Patagonia pass through Pumalín National Park on their way to some of the more popular attractions, we spent a week at Pumalín National Park and hiked 7 of its 12 available trails.
One of the major park highlights is a hike to an overlook of Volcán Chaitén – an active volcano that erupted in 2008 causing violent mudflows and destroying portions of the forest along its way.
The Chaitén Volcano Trail feels pretty surreal. From the viewpoint, you can see smoke and steam coming out of the nearby volcano, burned-down tree stumps, and a colorful Mars-like landscape.
Another popular day hike at Pumalín National Park is the Gonzalo-
For first-time visitors, I 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 more 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. We almost didn’t get to experience this park because when we arrived at Queulat National Park in February, the park was completely overcrowded.
What makes Queulat National Park so special is a hike that leads to an overlook of the Ventisquero Colgante hanging glacier.
The trail to Mirador Ventisquero Colgante is around 2-3 hours long. This trek goes up to a clearing in the woods where visitors can take a peek at the Hanging Glacier and a waterfall plunging from its base.
The park also offers boat and kayaking tours to get closer to the glacier from the nearby lake. From our experience, the viewpoint from the hike is much better.
After Queulat National Park, we stopped at two waterfalls – Sendero Padre Garcia and Salto El Condor.
These two waterfall hikes are super easy, free to do, and ideal for taking a break from an otherwise long drive along this section.
This trail leads through an overgrown rainforest and ends at a wooden viewing platform overlooking the Padre Garcia waterfall.
Salto El Cóndor is another quick and beautiful waterfall hike located 30 minutes south of Sendero Padre Garcia waterfall. This hike leads to a tall waterfall where a few quick hops over rocks will land you at the base of it.
Guide To Patagonia National Park In Chile
Laguna Cerro Castillo
The Cerro Castillo Laguna is one of the most scenic hikes 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. Now it’s one of the most popular day treks in Patagonia with an organized operation behind it.
Although the reserve where it’s located is owned by Chile’s government, all entry points leading to the Mirador Laguna Cerro Castillo are blocked off by local landowners. The only way to hike the Laguna Cerro Castillo trail is by paying these landowners to get access to the trail through their land.
In the last few years, this trek has become increasingly more popular and the entrance fees have risen quite a bit.
It costs 10,000 Chilean pesos ($15) per person to hike the Laguna Cerro Castillo trail making it the most expensive hike we’ve done in Chile.
The Laguna Cerro Castillo Trail is 8.8 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 to beat a rainstorm.
We only spent about 30 minutes at the actual lake because the weather had taken a turn for the worse. The winds in combination with hail were making it almost impossible to take any photos or walk around.
While I did think that 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 summit since the winds up there can get pretty brutal.
I also recommend wearing good hiking boots with sturdy high tops like these Vasque boots to prevent your ankles from rolling on slick rocks. We saw a lady near the top who injured her ankle and had to be carried all the way down.
The Marble Caves (Capillas de Mármol) is one of the most surreal places that we visited in Chile’s Patagonia region.
Located by Puerto Río 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 boat or kayak. Thankfully the little Puerto Río 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.
If you wish to book a tour ahead of time, I recommend this 3-hour Marble Chapels Kayak Tour led by experienced, local guides!
If you’d rather book a tour in person, Puerto Río Tranquilo town has a street with little huts where visitors can arrange Marble Caves boat tours for the same or the next day. The cost for a boat tour is 10,000 Chilean pesos ($15) per person in cash (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.
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 caves.
I highly recommend taking the earliest possible tour. The winds in this region can pick up in the afternoon, making for a bumpy, cold ride back. 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 stunning and makes a great place to spend some quiet, quality time. When we got to the relaxing Pared Sur Camp, we could have stayed in this dreamland forever!
The Pared Sur Eco-Camp is very luxurious and is one of the best places to stay in Patagonia.
This camp offers 8 white eco-domes overlooking the pristine aqua-blue lake, each with beautifully decorated interiors ideal for couples. The property also has 4 bigger lodge-style rooms that can house families or traveling friends.
My favorite part of the eco-camp was their awesome outdoor wooden hot tubs overlooking the lake.
The hot tubs can be rented for day use but notice is required since it takes a while to get them heated up.
Confluencia Rio Baker & Neff
Confluencia Rio Baker & Neff is a quick stop along the Ruta Austral Highway where you can see two rivers joining up – Rio Baker & Rio Neff.
The interesting thing about this viewpoint is that both rivers are different in color. While Rio Neff is milkier and greener in color, Rio Baker is bright blue. When these two rivers clash together 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. Here you can also observe river waterfalls and snow-covered mountains in the background.
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Patagonia National Park
Patagonia National Park is 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 also one of the least visited. If you seek out remote places that offer incredible treks without the crowds, you’ll love Parque Patagonia!
We ventured into Parque Nacional Patagonia after hearing 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 stages of creation but there are a few treks available in the park along with a chance to see plenty of wildlife.
The most popular trail is the Lagunas Altas Loop Trail which starts near the visitor center. This 12-mile-long trail leads up to the summit of a mountain offering jaw-dropping panoramic views of the park and Chacabuco Valley from the top.
After doing this beautiful (but tough) hike visitors can relax at the park’s upscale restaurant and bar located next to the visitor center.
Read more: Guide To Patagonia National Park In Chile
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, Caleta Tortel is quite special and unique – the entire town is built on wooden stilts overlooking the water.
Before having a road
The town has a beautiful wooden path that leads next to the lake connecting all of the residential houses, hotels, and local businesses.
Tortel’s visitor center also offers a boat tour out to O’Higgins Glacier, although the tour often depends on weather conditions.
Villa O’Higgins is the official ending point of the Carretera Austral Highway and even has a sign to prove it!
The town of Villa O’Higgins is very remote and 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, thanks to Chile’s president’s promise to connect all of the Carretera Austral region.
Although the Villa O’Higgins 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 with dramatic views of the surrounding landscape.
The most popular trail near Villa O’Higgins is Cerro Altavista which 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 Highway is regarded as the most beautiful drive in all of 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!
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