Chile’s slender ribbon-like shape is cut in half by an even thinner ribbon of road: the 770-mile Carretera Austral. Also known as the Southern Highway or Highway 7, one might think this modern convenience would make traveling through the region easy, but the road runs the gamut from smooth pavement to huge potholes, bumpy washboard lanes and narrow hairpin turns. It took 20 years to complete and even now acts as Chile’s most challenging drive. Its existence may have added a bit of civility to the wilderness, but it certainly didn’t tame it.
The road runs from Puerto Montt in the north to Villa O'Higgins in the south. While gas stations are fairly common, ATMs, Wi-Fi, food and many other modern conveniences aren't readily available. Despite these inconveniences, a ride on the Carretera Austral is an absolute must for adventure seekers yearning to experience nature as it was intended: vast, tangled, untamed and untouched. Here are just a few of the journey's highlights.
Puerto Montt -- Parque Parmulin: 103 miles
This 790,000-acre plot of protected land serves as a prime example of the effect a single individual can have on environmental preservation. Encompassing one of the world’s last strongholds of temperate rainforest in the Andes Mountains, Parque Parmulin contains a multitude of calm lakes and crashing waterfalls, snow-capped mountains and some of the oldest tree species on the planet. Doug Tompkins, an American conservationist and founder of North Face, believed this rich landscape was worth preserving so in 1991, he personally acquired 42,000 acres of it. Since then, 700,000 acres have been added and the area declared a Nature Sanctuary by the Chilean government. Hiking and camping options abound, so plan to spend several days exploring the area.
Parque Parmulin -- Futaleufu: 140 miles (50 mile detour from Highway 7)
The enticing mint-green waters and frothy, ferocious rapids of Rio Futaleufu converge to create one of the most exciting river trips in the world. Rafters and kayakers flock to this remote mountain town to take on its Class IV and V rapids which are appropriately given names like “the Terminator” and “Hell.” The town itself is 20-block grid of pastel-colored houses that can be explored in an afternoon, but river excursions can extend for days. Even if raging rapids aren’t your thing, there plenty of other activities like horseback riding, mountain biking, fly-fishing or tubing to keep you busy.
Futaleufu -- Puyuhuapi: 118 miles
If lagoons, hanging glaciers and hot springs sound appealing, this small fishing village is the perfect stop as you work your way south. Puyuhuapi itself doesn't offer much, but it serves as a springboard for nearby Parque Queulat and the famous Termas de Puyuhuapi hot springs. As the case with all Chilean national parks, Parque Queulat has no shortage of rivers, fjords, waterfalls and mountain views. However, the crown jewel of Queulat is the hanging glacier that goes by the same name. Follow the two glacier-fed waterfalls down 600 meters onto the rocks below before washing into the lagoon.
Puyuhuapi -- Cerro Castillo: 204 miles
Cerro Castillo National Reserve sits in a region so remote that guanacos often outnumber people. Though not as well known or oft visited as the legendary Torres del Paine, it still boasts some of the best scenery in Chile. The jagged rock outcroppings of Cerro Castillo serve as a backdrop to some of the best views of the reserve and overlook glacier-caked mountains, lagoons and woodlands. There are many hiking trails, but one of the best is a 27 mile, 4-day backpacking trip excursion called Valle La Lima-Villa Cerro Castillo. As you walk along paths that were once used as cattle trails by early settlers, keep your eyes peeled for wildlife like the huemul (an endangered southern Andean deer) as well as foxes and pumas.
Puerto Rio Tranquilo
Cerro Castillo -- Puerto Rio Tranquilo: 75 miles
Puerto Rio Tranquilo is, as its name indicates, a tranquil place, so little excitement occurs in the town itself. Instead, it exists primarily as a gateway to the famous Caverns Mamoles (Marble Cathedral) and Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael. The Marble Cathedral is a mere kayak ride away and its ever-changing colors draws in photographers from around the world. Heading on a tour of the San Rafael Glacier is a much more expensive pursuit but a worthwhile excursion if you want to see one of the largest, most quickly retreating glaciers in all of Patagonia.
Puerto Rio Tranquilo -- Caleta Tortel: 148 miles
The comfortable creak of wood boardwalks, the fragrance of cypress and the pale green waters of a Pacific Ocean inlet have a way of charming those who decide to stay for a night or two. The small community of Caleta Tortel is a smattering of small houses built into the forested slopes and its residents rely on tourism and the lumber industry to survive. So isolated it was impossible to reach by car until 2003, the town still doesn’t have any roads. Instead, houses are connected by a network of walkways, bridges and staircases. As to be expected, the pace of life is slow which may be exactly what you need after weeks of frantic life on the road.
Caleta Tortel -- Villa O’Higgins: 95 miles
When you reach Villa O’Higgins, you’ve hit the finish line. The ice field south of town remains impassable today. The only way to continue further into Patagonia without retracing your steps is to take the Paso Mayer to Argentina (only passable in mid-winter when glacial meltwaters can cross the Carrera river), or float across the windswept waters of Lago O’Higgins.