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With great thanks to Sharon Mc Donnell.
The Carretera Austral (CA - a gravel road running 1,000km from Puerto Montt to O Higgins) is a great one or two month trip for those who love or want to try multiday trekking and camping in pristine and incredibly diverse landscapes. There are enough locals and travellers that you´re never alone but certainly still a very authentic experience and far less touristy and more affordable than southern Patagonia or in much of the rest of South America. Great hikes include Cerro Castillo, Jeinimeni via Valle Chacabuco to Cochrane and San Lorenzo, all with basic but beautiful camping areas.There are options with the boat from Puerto Montt or Chiloe, flights to/from Coyhaique and O Higgins and border crossings with Argentina (Chile Chico) which permit fast-tracking. Best done in December and best done now before the whole thing is paved in the next 20 years!
To continue further south from O Higgins (the end of the Carretera Austral) you must get a boat over Lago O Higgins (46,000 CPL). Many choose to enter Argentina from Chile Chico and bus down to Chalten but it´s worth going through Chile if you have the time. The usual trail of Fitzroy, Perito Morneo and Torres del Paine can be done the touristy way but doing the full trail and camping is beautiful and definitely worth it despite the number of people. If you do the CA in December you´ll arrive to these parks in peak season but they´re always really busy anyways so it´s much of a muchness. Your experience will be totally dependent on the weather and much less on the exact numbers of tourists. A much less known and recommended trek south of Punta Arenas is Cabo Froward; a 4 day trek to the southernmost point of the American landmass and from commentaries far more beautiful, less touristy and cheaper than going to Ushuaia.
Santiago to Puerto Montt is approx. 1,000km or 12 hours in bus and there are a decent selection of good hostels in popular coastal, city and volcano destinations in between i.e. Pichilemu (to surf, Pucon (Volcan Villarica – very gringo cafes), Valdivia (a cultural city with decent pubs), areas around Lago Llanquihue i.e. Puerto Varas, Frutillar, Puerto Octay – average cost 8,000 CLP.
National Parks/Reserves worth noting are Conguillio north of Pucon, and Cochamó east of Puerto Varas a.k.a. Chilean Yosemite and very famous for challenging day hikes and climbing with possibility of interesting border hikes over to Argentina through Paso el Leon and Paso el Bolson.
Many also head two hours west of Puerto Montt on bus (on ferry) to the island of Chiloe, the highlights of which can be seen in 2/3 days; a day on the Pacific west coast (10k walk from Duhatao caves to Chepu river in northwest more impressive than national park), one in Castro the capital and a day on the calm east coast with views over to the volcanos in Pumalín on the mainland (recommend Tenaún and San Juan). It can be mixed weather in September Oct but far less people competing for hitchhiking. If you have the resources and are stuck for time renting a car to do Lago Llanquihue and Chiloe might be a good idea and easily done in a week.
To the Carraterra Austral)...
The Carretera Austral is a gravel road running 1,000km from Puerto Montt to O Higgins which is normally travelled by campers in car, by bike or combo of hitching/buses which takes about a month to two months depending on how many hikes you do. It is a great spinal route off which there lots of amazing and cheap national parks and reserves with far fewer tourists than southern Patagonia, particularly in December (peak season Jan/Feb).
Best done with a tent to allow hopping from one multiday trek to another (trekking gear is available in Santiago but hard to find anywhere else and four times more expensive in Argentina so best brought from home). Travelling this way makes Patagonia very affordable.
The region Aysén around Coyhaique and Lago General Carrera is has a particularly high concentration of beautiful hikes including Cerro Castillo south of Coyhaique (3/4 days), Jeinimeni to Cochrane via Valle Chacabuco (2-5 days) and San Lorenzo to the east of Cochrane (5 days). (Basic but sufficient maps provided at CONAF offices at entrances). Access options include road access by the CA, or boat from Puerto Montt/Chiloe to Puerto Chaiten/Chacabuco close to Coyhaique, plane to Coyhaique, entry to/from Argentina at Chile Chico. It´s worth noting that there´s also a subsidised flight between Coyhaique (Balmaceda) and O Higgins for 30,000 CLP which flies over the northern and southern icefield in a small plane twice a week.
The only option to proceed from O Higgins down to Chalten in Argentina is by boat over Lago O Higgins which is pricy at 46,000 CLP with the option of boating or hiking the second lake Lago Desierto (which is a challenging 15k but beautiful hike with views of Fitzroy). There is also a beautiful 3 day hike in between the two lakes to Glacier O Higgins OR you can pay extra and include it in the boat crossing over Lago O Higgins. Many choose to FastTrack down to Chalten by passing through Chile Chico into Argentina and bussing it down.
* Note that there is an ongoing 20 year project to pave the entire length of the Carretera Austral which is currently paved in parts but mainly as far south as La Junta.
They are moving the main port from Puerto Chacabuco to Puerto Cisnes and as a result prioritising paving from here up to Chaiten. There is a lot of construction around the Quelat area (which makes for many hitching options with roadworkers;) but NOW is the time to do the CA before it becomes totally overdeveloped!! I had never hitched in my life and had no problems, found the people incredibly hospitable and the experience very authentic.
A final thanks to Sharon Mc Donnell for sharing her expertise here.
This is where you hit the mobs of English speaking tourists! Chalten was only built to accommodate tourists for Fitzroy (Parque los Glaciares) but is accessible by walking directly from the town and camping is free. Very doable in 3 days or by day hikes from Chalten which makes it a great option for those without camping gear (or it can be rented but is pricey).
Buses are more expensive in Argentina but there is a well serviced paved tourist trail from Chalten through Calefate (tourist and transport hub ..see Perito Moreno Glacier from here) onto Puerto Natales (from where you do Torres del Paine - recommend full circuit starting at the tail "Q" – guide not necessary) onto Punta Arenas. One hour south of Punta Arenas there is an easily accessible spectacular 4 day hike to la Cruz de los Mares at Cabo Froward, the southernmost tip of the American landmass with views over Tierra del Fuego and considered by many to be a far nicer, cheaper and faster way to reach a symbolic end point. Many considered Ushuaia to be underwhelming and very expensive (also Argentinian Patagonia is dry yellow pampa in comparison to green mountainous Chile). You can also boat (36 hours, 100 dollers) or fly (65 dollars) from Punta Arenas to Puerto Williams on the island of Navarino, Tierra del Fuego to do the highly recommended Dientes de Navarino 5 day trek. It´s much more expensive to do the 20 minute boat ride from Ushuaia (200 dollars). Recommended in November/December as booked out in high season but transport not guaranteed with weather. In my experience best not to reserve anything except essential flights and give yourself plenty of leeway with timeframes particularly if you have boat crossings.
Chalten and Calefate are very touristy but Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas are established cities which can far better assimilate the large tourist numbers and are actually quite pleasant. Hostels are a little more expensive but not unreasonable at 9- 12.000 CLP and there is nearly always a campsite for 5000 CLP. Hostels are more expensive in Argentina.
Many choose to fly back up to Santiago from Punta Arenas but there is the option to loop back up through Argentina i.e. 24 hour bus from Calefate to Esquel (130 dollars). Spend some time between Esquel, El Bolson, Bariloche, San Martín de los Andes. Recommended is Parque Los Alerces between Esquel and El Bolson with the option of hiking over Paso El Bolson from Lago Puelo to Rio Puelo and onto either Cochamó or Puerto Montt in Chile (3 day hike/boat / bus combination) information and map available to photocopy from tourist office in El Bolson) OR you can cross from Bariloche by bus back to Puerto Montt via Osorno.
I expected the Carratera Austral to be practically deserted but found there was always little villages, houses, towns, or someone willing to help you out and point you in the right direction. There are lots of campsites but many also ask permission to camp in peoples gardens and really enjoy the experience. Very doable, very enjoyable, very authentic. Southern Patagonia is more touristy, more social and slightly more expensive but a lot depends on your particular style of travelling. It can be done relatively cheaply if you camp.
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