“Doing” the Carretera Austral requires a certain amount of forward planning, and time should always be allowed for unexpected delays. In peak season, the villages are covered by a combination of minibuses, ferries and even local flights, but outside the summer months the services drop right off, barring the regular long-distance flights connecting Coyhaique to the rest of Chile. Cyclists will need to carry all necessary spare parts and supplies, because of the challenging road conditions and absence of bike shops (barring Coyhaique).
The words “Carretera Austral” or ‘Southern Highway’ conjure up images of a smooth, paved, multi-lane road, right? Wrong. The Carretera Austral is still very much a “triumph” of man over nature, and Chile’s ultimate road trip to boot; though parts of the road have been “tamed”, it is still a challenging – not to mention spectacularly scenic – drive. Those with their own vehicle may need to consider the entering it via Argentina and Futaleufú (make sure you have the correct paperwork) as the ferry services connecting the top end to Hornopirén are less frequent outside the summer months.
What type of car do I need?
Most car rental agencies will insist that you rent a 4WD for the journey, but while certain sections may be easier to drive in a 4WD, it’s not mandatory. However, a vehicle with high clearance is.
What are the road conditions like?
The question you should be asking yourself is not “Will there be potholes?” It is: “Which of the following potholes should I hit to minimize the damage to my vehicle?” Some sections are more challenging than others; see below for a brief guide to the different stretches of road.
Will there be anywhere to buy petrol?
The vast majority of settlements along the Carretera Austral have petrol stations, so you needn’t worry about running dry.
What essentials should I bring?
Make sure you have a spare tyre (neumático), and all equipment necessary to change said tyre, as you’ll only be able to rely on yourself and passing motorists (all of whom should stop and help you should you need assistance). It’s also a good idea to carry food, water and a sleeping bag.
What about crossing the border into Argentina?
You’ll need to have the required paperwork from your car rental company as well as relevant insurance.
Any other precautions I should take?
Try to avoid driving at night, as not all curves in the road are marked with reflectors. Driving too close to other cars is a bad idea as the loose gravel flying out from under the wheels of the vehicle in front of you will crack your windscreen. Do not attempt to take corners at high speeds on the ripio (dirt and gravel) sections of the road, as you’ll skid right off the side of the road. If travelling via Hornopirén and Caleta Gonzalo, book ferry tickets in advance.
Road conditions by section
Chaitén to Villa Santa Lucia Partially paved, otherwise heavily potholed and prone to landslides in rainy conditions.
Villa Santa Lucía to Futaleufú Valley Somewhat potholed, mostly good gravel road.
Villa Santa Lucía to Puyuhuapi Somewhat potholed, at times narrow road.
Puyuhuapi to Puerto Cisnes crossroads The most challenging section is the Paso Queulat – narrow, steep, deeply rutted and with tight curves.
Parque Naciuonal Queulat to Puerto Cisnes Partially paved; the rest is a somewhat potholed dirt-and-gravel road.
Parque Naciuonal Queulat to the turn-off for Puerto Aysén Newly paved.
Coyhaique to Puerto Aisén Completely paved but with some blind turns.
Coyhaique to Cochrane Partially paved; otherwise mostly good gravel road with few potholes.
Cruce El Maitén to Chile Chico Mostly good gravel road, but narrow and with precipitous drop on one side.
Cochrane to Villa O’Higgins Mostly good gravel road, steep in parts; ferry crossing required at Puerto Yungay; some sections are very narrow with hairpin bends and sheer drop to one side.