Carretera Austral

| Johan van Rijswijck

1240 km majestic beauty

On the map of South America it is a meaningless line from north to south. But appearances can be deceiving. The Carretera Austral is not only one of the most beautiful car routes in Latin America, it also belongs to the top of the world. Johan explains why.

Of all the routes I've driven, the Carretera Austral is ranked high.

"In the 15 years that Sapa Pana Travel has been in existence, I have driven a lot, a lot, through Latin America by car. All in all I estimate about 80,000 kilometres. That's about twice around the world. It started when we shipped cars from the Netherlands to South America for the first time in 2008. The goal was to take a route from Belém, in the northeast of Brazil, to Ushuaia, in the south of Argentina. From that moment on I was sold. We drove over endless roads, past sleepy villages and through spectacular landscapes. Since then I am always looking for new, undiscovered routes in Latin America. Of all the breath taking routes I've driven, the Chilean Carretera Austral is ranked high."

Largely unpaved

Until the 1970s, Aisén, the tenth region of Chile, was considered an impenetrable, mountainous and rugged area. In 1976 dictator Pinochet wanted to change this by constructing the Ruta 7, the later Carretera Austral. That was a gigantic job. The area consisted of volcanoes, lakes, fjords and dense forests. Only in 1996 the village of Puerto Bungay was reached. And in 2003, Villa O'Higgins. With that, the road counted 1,240 kilometres. Of which more than 60 percent is unpaved. This route starts in the Chilean port city, Puerto Montt. Here you take the Ruta 7 to the south. When you leave the city, you also leave the inhabited world behind you. The road is no longer paved and meanders along the Pacific Ocean. Soon you will arrive at the first of the four ferries you will encounter along the way. Driving on the Carretera Austral is like watching a much-praised nature film: the most beautiful landscapes pass you by.

Gift for Chile

This environment also impressed Douglas Tompkins, founder of outdoor sports brand The North Face and clothing brand Esprit, and his wife Kris. Adventurer Tompkins travelled to the Aisén region in 1968 to climb the Corcovado volcano. In the documentary 180 Degrees South he tells about this special journey. After he had sold his companies, he returned to this region in the early nineties. Together with his wife he bought land to make it a nature reserve that he eventually wanted to give back to the Chilean government as a protected nature reserve. To him Chile owes the Pumalín Park and the Corcovado National Park. That last one is home to no less than 82 lakes and pumas. Here the rivers Corcovado and Tictoc flow into the Gulf of Corcovado; an exceptional habitat for coastal birds, penguins, sea lions and blue whales. Douglas Tompkins died in a kayak accident in 2015. In February 2018, his wife donated the 400,000 hectares of nature reserve to the Chilean government.

Guiding Dolphins

You continue on the Carretera Austral. After you have crossed the Reloncavi fjord, the road runs through a dense forest. Occasionally the snowy top of the Apagado volcano shows itself. Again you board a ferry. With some luck, nice weather for example, you will see the snowy peaks rise above the dense forest. It even happens that dolphins guide the boat through the water. The Carretera Austral actually meanders from national park to national park. In total, you will drive through five parks and three nature reserves, each of which is breathtakingly beautiful in its own way.

Although you drive through one of the most rugged and sparsely populated parts of South America, you will occasionally come across a village where you can buy provisions or refuel. Maybe the locals are in for a chat. If you are half way along the route, you will reach Coyhaique. This city is with 60,000 inhabitants the centre of the region. The rivers Simpson and Coyhaique meander around it through a wide valley. In spring the lupines are in full bloom here. Like a sea of purple, yellow and green, the flower fields stretch out in front of you.

The Carretera Austral meanders from National Park to National Park

Glacial lake on the border with Argentina

Further south the area becomes rough and rocky. If you are near the Cerro Castillo national reserve, Ruta 7 is no more than a very narrow dirt road through a dense forest. A little further down the road the trees give you a view on General Carrera. One of the largest lakes in South America that lies on the border between Chile and Argentina. Argentines call this lake Buenos Aires by the way. It is fed by glaciers that make their way from the tops of the Andes. Via the Baker River the excess water is drained to the Pacific Ocean. It is recommended to make a boat trip to take a look at the cave formation in the lake.

From the Carretera Austral to the Argentine Ruta 40

As long as you're in Patagonia, you might as well stop by the majestic Perito Moreno Glacier. For this Argentinean giant you leave the Carretera and drive through the pampas via the Argentine Ruta 40. The glacier ends in an ice field with sixty metres thick ice over a width of five kilometres. After that you will return to Chile for the Torres del Paine National Park. This granite massif and the surrounding landscape is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Pumas live there, the Chilean pig snout skunk feels at home and the mighty Andes condor flies right through it. It is an impressive end to a journey through a dizzying scenery that takes you past endless and untouched landscapes. Johan: "The Carretera Austral, literally 'road to the south', may be nothing more than a meaningless dash from north to south on the map, for me it is much more. As far as I'm concerned, this route is not only one of the most beautiful car routes in Latin America, it's also one of the world's top."

Travel through Chile - And drive the Carretera Austral?

Would you like to make a trip across the Carretera Austral yourself and are you curious about the possibilities? Then take a look at the travel itineraries that we have put together for inspiration. You can book these trips directly, but we are also happy to create a personal programme based on your wishes and ideas.

Do you have a question? Feel free to contact us. Call +31 73 610 62 04 or send an e-mail to We are happy to help.

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