Cycle the Carretera Austral | The famous road through the heart of Chilean Patagonia 1

Cycle the Carretera Austral | The famous road through the heart of Chilean Patagonia

Chile’s Carretera Austral is probably one of the most famous cycling routes in the world. This road guides you through the heart of Chilean Patagonia. Spectacular scenery filled with turquoise lakes, glacier-fed rivers, and beautiful snowcapped mountains around every corner. Cyclists from all over the world take over the Carretera in summer. Therefore, besides the scenery, meeting fellow cyclists on the road and sharing dinners around campfires has been one of the characteristics of cycling the Carretera Austral. Read more on the Carretera Austral, planning, useful tips for cyclists, and route description.


The Carretera Austral cycling route

The Carretera Austral runs from Puerto Montt in the north to Villa O’Higgins in the south. The construction of the Carretera Austral started in 1976. In the ’90s the ‘highway’ was finished, connecting the southern part of Chile to the rest of the country. Before that, the area was only accessible by boat or flights and some land border crossings from Argentina. It has been one of the most complex and expensive routes built in Chile because of its rugged terrain.

With only one main road through this part of Patagonia, the route is pretty straightforward. You either go north or you go south. You can’t get lost. The further south you go, the landscapes get wilder and in our opinion, the views even more spectacular.

For many travelers, the Carretera Austral adventure stops at Villa O’higgins, and they have to backtrack to leave the region. However, cyclists and hikers can continue beyond Villa O’Higgins and cross the border into Argentina via a small road. This route adds another ~60 km of cycling, and we found it one of the most beautiful parts of the route. The route is not possible by car, because it requires taking two ferries, ánd a 5 km hiking trail. It is a beautiful section with some spectacular views on Mount Fitz Roy.

Road conditions on the Carretera Austral

Currently, about 40% of the Carretera is paved, 60% is ‘ripio’ (Spanish for gravel road). Roughly speaking, most of the road north of Cerro Castillo is paved, and everything south of Cerro Castillo is gravel. Road works are ongoing, and it is to be expected that most of the Carretera Austral will be paved in a few years’ time.

The quality of the gravel road varies, with some pretty bad sandy washboard sections, but overall the quality of the road gets better the further south you go. The highest altitude on the Carretera Austral is 1100 meters near Cerro Castillo. This means that climbs are never too long, but with 16.000 altimeters there are a lot of short climbs going up and down to keep you busy!

cycling the carretera austral
Last stretch of pavement before cycling into Cerro Castillo. In the back the Cerro Castillo mountains
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Meeting fellow cyclists and bikers on the Carretera Austral
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Short but beautiful climb on the Carretera Austral

Planning cycling the Carretera Austral

Weather and best time to cycle the Carretera Austral

The best time to cycle the Carretera Austral is between October and April. It is Patagonia’s summer season meaning the days are long and the roads are snow-free. This part of Patagonia has an oceanic climate, with cool, moderate temperatures and frequent rains. Some fjords create microclimates resulting in even more rainy days around Puyuhuapi, Puerto Aysén, and Caleta Tortel.

Most cyclists cycle the Carretera Austral between mid-December to end-February. It is the peak of high season, and you can expect to see many other travelers. We think that the shoulder season (October, November, March) might actually be better for cyclists. The weather is still ok, but there will be less traffic on the road (less dust!) and less crowded campsites.

And of course, you can always argue that there is no best time to cycle a certain region. Cycling Patagonia in Autumn (April – May) might be less appealing regarding the weather, but the autumn colored leaves make up for occasional rain or snow. With fewer people around the chance to see wildlife, the Huemul for instance, also increases.

Cycling the Carretera Austral in a winter wonderland could also be a fantastic adventure! Landscapes covered in snow and ice, it’s definitely on our wish list. The good thing about cycling Patagonia in winter is that the prevailing winds are only a fraction of the winds in summer. Either way, cycling the Carretera Austral between April and September, be prepared for closed campsites, snow on the road and ferries that run less frequently and maybe not at all.

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Cloudy days covering the green mountains
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Cycling next to lago General Carrera, Chile’s biggest lake

Cycle the Carretera Austral in north or south direction?

Most cyclists ride the Carretera Austral from north to south. One of the main reasons behind this is that cyclists on a long journey through South America often cycle southwards because of the prevailing and notorious northwestern wind on the Argentinian Pampa and Tierra del Fuego.

For the Carretera Austral itself, the wind factor doesn’t matter too much. The wind mostly blows from the west. Going north or south, you will experience headwinds either way. If you plan to cycle the Carretera austral as a part of a longer journey to Ushuaia, go south. If you want to connect the Carretera Austral to Santiago de Chile via the coast, go north. The wind along the Chilean coast will be in your back. The sun can be a factor as well. Going northbound, you will always ride towards the sun, which means you will definitely need sunglasses.

One thing extra to keep in mind in case going northwards, are the ferries between El Chaltén and Villa O’Higgins. Going south, you can book the ferry in Villa O’Higgins and wait for the next boat in the village with hostels and supermarkets. If you cycle the route north, you might get stranded for a few days on the island, because the ferries don’t go every day. If the weather is bad, it can take a few days before the next boat leaves. There are no facilities nor supermarkets at the border crossing. So make sure you have enough provisions with you in case you do get stranded.

Distance per day / required time

The average distance per day is off course very personal. For us, most days we cycled around 50 – 60 kilometers. We expected to cover more distance per day, but this distance turned out to be the ideal combination of making progress, enough time to stop to soak in all the beauty, and ride from campsite to campsite that were located close to villages to stock up for the next day.

We didn’t have a tight schedule and were not in a rush. Having enough time at hand, turned out useful to wait out some bad weather days. It would have been a missed opportunity to cycle in the pouring rain next to glaciers, but not seeing a thing when the views are completely blocked. We also had a few extra ‘waiting days’ for the ferry at Villa O’Higgins.

Based on average km per day and rest days as described above, cycling the Carretera austral will take about 3 – 4 weeks.

Difficulty of cycling the Carretera Austral

Although the route is described by many people as rather challenging, don’t be scared by that. We met many cyclists on their first long-distance cycling trip, older people, and families with kids cycling this route. With the northern section completely paved, it is not as difficult as it used to be 15 years ago. Gradients are relatively gentle compared to other parts of South America. And with many places to camp, you can easily alter long days with shorter days on the bike making this route relatively accessible to many cycling enthusiasts.

The unpaved road between Cerro Castillo and Villa O’Higgins is pretty rough at places. We had some difficult days on rocky corrugated roads, mostly because of road works. In the future, this will probably be a lot easier to ride.

The border crossing between Villa O’Higgins and El Chalten is often described as challenging and might scare some people. But it is really not that bad. For those not wanting to do hike-a-bike, you can always take a ferry at Caleta Tortel to leave the Carretera Austral.

Side trips on the Carretera Austral

Popular side trips along the Carretera Austral are

  • Explore Hanging Glacier at Queulat National Park
  • Hike to Cerro Castillo Circuit
  • Visit the marble caves of Puerto Rio Tranquillo
  • Visit the car-free wooden village Caleta Tortel
  • Fly fishing in Patagonia

Food, water, and accommodation

Although this part of Patagonia is often described as remote, there are villages every  50 -100 km with all the basic facilities you need. Buying food, fresh vegetables, and fruit was not a problem. Unfortunately, it is expensive. Expect to pay European prices for just about everything.

There are plenty of campsites and most ask for ~5000 Chilean pesos p.p.p.n. (~5,- euro). We used iOverlander to find good campsites, hostels, wild camping. The app also turned out useful to find the latest information on the ongoing road works.

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Enjoying a coffee in the morning on a wild camping spot
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We sheltered from the rain with fellow cyclists in this wooden mountain hut
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Flyfishing in Patagonia

Transport

There are busses and multiple ferries between the villages to skip certain sections or to leave the Carretera Austral. We have seen many pick-up trucks and, as we experienced at first hand, they gladly offer cyclists a ride in case you would need it.

Ferry crossing at Villa O’Higgins

The schedule of the ferry from Villa O’Higgins to Candelario Mancilla can be found here. Note that the schedule is more a guide because if the wind is too strong the ferries won’t go. The boat leaves at 08:00 in the morning from the port of Villa O’Higgins, 7 kilometers south from Villa O’Higgins. It takes roughly 2.5 hours to cross Lago O’Higgins.

There are two places in Villa O’Higgins where you can book the boat: Robinson Crusoe and Cabanas Las Ruedas. Las Ruedas offers a better price. Prices are around 40.000 pesos.

The ferry to cross Lago Del Desierto (located in Argentina) runs twice a day at 11.00 and 17:00. It takes about 1 hour and costs 40 dollars per person.  You can pay for the ferries by card in the offices of O’Higgins, or in cash (pesos and dollars) on the boat. Another option is to put the bikes on the boat, hike 10km around the lake, and collect the bike at the other side. The transport of the bike costs 20 dollars. Although it is not permitted, people have hike-a-biked around the lake to keep the money in your pocket and spend it on something else. Beers & burgers in El Chalten for instance.

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Ferry crossing Lago Del Desierto with on the back the famous Fitz Roy Mountain

Our experiences on cycling the Carretera Austral

Well, we must say we have been quite spoiled with cycling in South America, and our expectations of the Carretera Austral were sky-high. In fact, our whole cycling trip in South America started with the idea to cycle the Carretera Austral. We were pretty excited to get to this part of the world, because of all the good stories we heard from others cycling the Carretera Austral.

Once we finally made it to the Carretera Austral after one year of cycling we just reached that point that we were a bit of travel tired as they call it. Deep down we just wanted a break from cycling for a few weeks. Well, we got that break now (corona lockdown). We had enough time to contemplate what we think of the Carretera Austral. So here’s our opinion:

Scenery on the Carretera Austral

Patagonia is a very beautiful place. It also has a lot of picture-perfect locations. Where-ever you look the colors are intense and the scenery spectacular. But one thing you can’t capture in a picture is the vastness. It is not one place, it is a stretch of 1200 kilometers of beauty. It keeps on giving. One of the big surprises were the skies. The cloud formations and changing colors have left a big impression on us.

Our favorite part of the Carretera Austral was the road south of Cerro Castillo. Once the road turns into gravel, the Carretera gets its character back of being a wild and remote place. We were definitely in our happy place again.

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Different layers of clouds above Lago General Carrera
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Lenticular clouds at Villa O’Higgins. Lenticular clouds form when moist air is blown in a circular motion. Strong winds of Patagonia and the mountains are the perfect ingredients for these cloud formations

Fellow cyclists and travelers on the Carretera Austral

We could have guessed, if so many people can tell stories about the beauty of the Carretera Austral, that means there are also quite a lot of tourists!  Cycling in high season, also means that campsites were packed. The infrastructure has adapted to all the tourists and with it comes more luxury. Restaurants, hotels, English speaking people. We met fellow travelers who offered us a cold beer in the middle of nowhere (they had a van and a fridge). It felt like a holiday!

We have never seen so many bike travelers before. Cyclists have really taken over this part of the world. It is fun to meet all types of travelers, sharing dinners, stories, and tips. But meeting on average 20 cyclists a day on the road, – and those were only the people cycling in opposite directions –  does impact the feeling of ‘remoteness’ we were hoping for. 

Traffic on the Carretera Austral

There was more traffic than we expected. Vans and cars were sheering by at full speed. On the gravel roads, this resulted in a lot of dust in the air and rocks flying around hitting our bikes and legs. We had a few moments we wanted to pull the drivers from the car to make them aware of what it means for cyclists if you drive by full speed on less than a meter distance. There haven’t been any dangerous situations, but it was just really annoying and it affected our moods at times.

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Trucks and vans on the Carretera Austral

Final words on cycling the Carretera Austral

We would have loved to cycle the Carretera Austral 20 years ago before it became a must-do road trip. We think the northern part of the Carretera has already lost a bit of its character of remote and wild Patagonia.

In hindsight, we should have started our south America cycling trip with the Carretera Austral. It is the perfect place to get into the groove of cycling South America. Or do things differently, follow the alternative routes on the Carretera, or discover Chilean Patagonia outside the high season. We are already longing back to Patagonia and dreaming of new cycling adventures. Just not at the peak of high season.

Other useful sources

Bradt Guides has written a detailed travel guide on the Carretera Austral. This is the most complete book on the Carretera Austral. It is not specifically focused on cycling or bikepacking the Carretera Austral, but it does provide tons of information on history, background information and information on guided tours. Bicycle Patagonia provides a detailed description with useful information to cycle the Carretera Austral.

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