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ADV News9 Extraordinary Places To Explore On Patagonia’s Carretera Austral

9 Extraordinary Places To Explore On Patagonia’s Carretera Austral

Don’t miss these unforgettable spots off Ruta 7 on a ride through Patagonia.

Published on 10.17.2022
Carretera Austral adventure motorcycle ride

Patagonia! 

For most, the word conjures visions of expensive down jackets, or those salmon-patched truckers caps bobbing around the local farmer’s market.

But for those aware this word exists beyond trendy outdoor apparel shops, it conjures visions of windswept landscapes, glaciers, alpine peaks, and mile-after-mile of open expanses, prime for two-wheeled exploration!


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One road in particular embodies the very essence of these storied lands, and no, it’s not Argentina’s famous Ruta-40 that takes you to the official ‘end of the road’ in Ushuaia.

Seemingly, after months (and sometimes years) on the road, a lot of travelers succumb to target fixation, twist the wrist and pound mile after mile down the remote and, let’s be honest, monotonous Ruta-40 on the Argentinian side of the Andes. In doing so, many PanAm veterans unwittingly pass some of the best riding, and scenery on earth, located along the remote expanses of Chile’s Northern Patagonia – The Carretera Austral.

Carretera Austral adventure motorcycle ride

A brief geography lesson:

Having traveled, lived and ridden motorcycles throughout Patagonia, on and off since early 2004, I’m aware of the considerable confusion surrounding what, or where, Patagonia is.

Patagonia is a geographic region comprising the southernmost reaches of the South American continent, 90% of which lies in Argentina, and the remaining 10% in Chile. 

Argentine Patagonia, east of the Andes Mountains, is home to the 8th largest desert in the world. The Patagonian Desert or “steppe,” (pronounced: ‘step’) is a cold-weather desert, consisting largely of flat plains or pampas. This windswept, cold-weather desert is home to Argentina’s Ruta-40. One of the most perilous and oft-storied moto routes on the planet. On a good day, when the winds abate and the sun shines, it’s also one of the most boring. And while Argentine Patagonia may boast such gems as Baralochi, Portieno Morreno, and Mount FitzRoy, the majority of the road is nothing to write home about. 

Chilena Patagonia is a narrow strip of land sandwiched between the Patagonian Archipelago (along the country’s largely barren Pacific coast) and the Andes Mountains. The geography is wildly fragmented, and difficult to navigate as a result. 

Carretera Austral adventure motorcycle ride

For our purposes, the beginning of Ruta-7 (aka The Carretera Austral) in the bustling port-town of Puerto Montt serves as our zero-mark. While Villa O’Higgins, 1,222 km / 760mi to the south is where Ruta 7 ends, marking the ceremonial end of Northern Patagonia. You can certainly rip the grip, blast through in a few days, and “check it off the list”, but in doing so, you’ll miss much of what this region has to offer. 

My advice: take a few weeks and engross yourself in what this unique part of the world has to offer, starting with our top-9 list of places to see and things to do, both on and off the motorcycle!

1. Pumalín National Park 

South of Puerto Montt along Ruta 7, is Chile’s largest private nature reserve. This pristine temperate rainforest looks like something out of a children’s novel. Riding through this modern-day “Land of the Lost,” you may find yourself keeping an eye out for dinosaurs in the shadows…

The Carretera Austral follows a tidal river through the park, alternating between lush foliage and lands laid bare by the pyroclastic flow of the 2008 eruption of the Chaitén Volcano, which dominates the skyline.

Ruta 7 Patagonia adventure motorcycle ride

A few short and worthwhile day hikes accessible from the road will have you second-guessing what you thought you knew about Patagonia!

2. Futaleufú

Departing Ruta-7 at the small village of Santa Lucia, one can’t help but notice the wreckage of a catastrophic landslide from 2017, that claimed the lives of 22 people. The northern edge of the village still bears the scars, with a vast swath of houses torn asunder and  debris of those who lost their lives on full display. 

Riding past this sobering reminder of the power and unpredictability of nature, a wide washboard road along the banks of Lago Yelcho leads to the banks of a turbulent turquoise river. Futaleufú or “Futa,” as the locals call it, is a lively, picturesque little commune that conjures images of a quant Swiss village. It is also the hub for what is widely considered to be some of the world’s best rafting and kayaking. 

Ruta 7 Patagonia adventure motorcycle ride

This little mountain town, a stone’s-throw away from the Argentinian border, is a world-renowned destination for white-water junkies, and luckily, there are a few reputable guide services that will book anything from a half-day, to a multi-day trip on the Futa.

3. Ventisquero Colgante

The small fjord-side village of Puyuhuapi, with its many charming restaurants and accommodations, makes for the perfect jumping-off point for a day trip to Queulat National Park. Home to one of the world’s most spectacular waterfalls, this quick stop is an absolute “can’t miss”.

Ventisquero Colgante is a 550m / 1,800ft tall waterfall fed by a hanging glacier precariously perched at the edge of a cliff. A 3.5mi hike begins across an impressive suspension bridge before ascending through evergreen forests, to a vista across the valley. Those lucky enough may also be treated to the glacier calving thunderously into the valley below. This is considered a moderate to difficult hike (pending conditions) and not suitable for riding boots, so be sure to pack some lightweight trail shoes!!

4. Fly fishing Coyhaique

As the main hub in Northern Patagonia, complete with an airport, motorcycle shops, craft breweries, and a vibrant downtown scene packed with restaurants and bars, Coyhaique is the place to restock and rejuvenate for those of you longing for modern conveniences!

It is also considered the capital of Patagonian fly-fishing. Trout fishing on the Paloma & Baker Rivers has been featured in the New York Times and is considered on par, if not better, than Montana! Even if wearing hip-waders isn’t your go-to for a good time, the opportunity to spend the day on a pristine, remote river indulging in some world-class fly fishing is worth trying at least once, and no better place than here.

Services range from guided day-trips to all-inclusive luxury lodges, depending on your timeline and budget…

5. Cerro Castillo

Pushing further south, the Carretera Austral starts to take on a different vibe altogether. North of Coyhaique lies the rest of the world and civilization. To the south, lie the end of the map, vast swaths of wilderness, and the remote output of Villa Cerro Castillo. Located in a National Park by the same name, Cerro Castillo is widely considered the “little brother” of Torres del Paine (the crown jewel of Patagonia), with a fraction of the crowds. 

Cerro Castillo boasts some of the most remote and rugged alpine trails in Patagonia, if not the world. But if hiking boots and backpacks aren’t your thing, simply riding through the park offers amazing views of this vast and ever-changing environment. 

Ruta 7 Patagonia adventure motorcycle ride

This section of the Carretera Austral frequently changes from concrete to deep gravel without warning, and often in blind corners, so best to keep your wits about you and your eyes on the road! Riding south, past the otherworldly milky-turquoise confluence of Lago Verde and the Ibáñez river, the glaciated valleys yield to a wide, alpine meadow, studded with colorful foliage and autumn colors at the right time of year. From here, the pavement ends for good! 

6. Marble Caves

Rio Tranquilo is your jumping-off point for the famous marble caves of General Carrera Lake, the largest lake in Chile!

The “Capillas de Mármol” (Marble Chapels) are a series of sculpted erosion caverns, tunnels and formations along the shores of the lake. Pillars of etched marble rise from the depths of the stunningly blue water, which reflects the sunlight into the caverns, accentuating the colorful highlights of the stone.   

Ruta 7 Patagonia adventure motorcycle ride

While many of the online photos have been subject to some creative photoshopping, the bright yellows, blues and white marble cathedrals are certainly worth the 1.5 hour boat ride or half-day kayak trip!

7. Valle Exploradores

From Rio Tranquilo, another one of my personal favorite detours takes you deep into Valle Exploradores, along the banks of the Exploradores river, past waterfalls, hanging glaciers, lush valleys and alpine lakes. The remote and thrilling Ruta X-728 through glaciated valleys and over sketchy suspension bridges, embodies everything you’d expect a true adventure bike tour to include, and is a “must” on my list of detours along Ruta-7.

And for those of you who want to take your adventure to the next level, a handful of guiding services lead glacier hikes to Glacier Exploradores, in the shadow of Mount San Valentín. Strapping on crampons and donning ice-axes, this full-day expedition leads you deep into the valley and onto one of the most accessible glaciers of the northern ice field, where you can practice your ice-climbing skills and explore National Geographic-worthy ice caves! 

8. Caleta Tortel

Approximately 100 miles south of Cochrane (your best chance for any last minute supplies before departing Northern Patagonia) lies the unique seaside village of Caleta Tortel. Void of any streets and accessible only on foot, a maze of elevated walkways navigates a series of stilt houses along a rocky inlet of approximately 500 residents. 

Parking your motorcycle in the communal lot just off the highway, Tortel can only be accessed via a number of steep, and often slippery, wooden starways. Should you choose to spend the night and bathe in the “unique charm” of this village and its inhabitants, many of whom have spent their entire lives here, a number of locals rent spare rooms in their family homes. Inexpensive ferry rides are a good alternative to reach some of the more remote parts of the village, for those of you not wanting to carry the contents of your painners over 1.5 miles of cyprus causeways. 

Ruta 7 Patagonia adventure motorcycle ride

Caleta Tortel is definitely a worthwhile day trip, and one of the most interesting villages I’ve unwittingly found myself stuck in…

9. The End of the Road & Bernardo O’Higgins National Park

A short ride from Tortel, the road ends abruptly at the mouth of a fjord in Caleta Yungay. Yungay is home to a remote military outpost, a ferry terminal, a collection of abandoned buildings, and not much else.

From Yunguy, the true end of the Carretera Austral awaits you in Villa O’Higgins, on the other side of a free 45-minute ferry ride across the channel to Rio Bravo. Departing 4 times daily during high-season (twice daily off-season). This short ferry allows you to access the furthest reaches of Ruta-7 and the end of the road for motorcyclists.

Those who choose to continue the journey south, or bypass O’Higgins altogether, can take a 41-hour ferry ride from Yungay through the inside passage, and the remote reaches of Bernardo O’Higgins National Park. Vast and wild, this marine park is home to diverse wildlife, and the indigenous populations dubbed “Patagón” (the namesake of the region) thought to be giants by early European explorers…

The ferry makes a brief stop in Puerto Eden, an indigenous hamlet served weekly by the ferry and only accessible by sea, en route to Puerto Natales. Once in Natales, the adventure rolls on into Southern Patagonia!

BONUS DETOUR – Chiloé Island & Hito Cero: 

Ruta 7 Patagonia adventure motorcycle ride

Before heading down Ruta 7, take a detour and explore the Grand Island of Chiloé to the west.  Ruta-5, aka the PanAmerican Highway, bypasses downtown Puerto Montt before terminating at Chacao Channel. From there, a short ferry ride takes you to the Grand Island of Chiloé, an island steeped in Chilean folklore and best known for its colorful stilted houses, wooden churches, and… potatoes —- 286 varieties to be exact!

Austral Road Patagonia adventure motorcycle ride

Most will elect to spend a couple days exploring the island, with the majority of what there is to see and do centered around the capital city of Castro. Including the opportunity to admire the amazing woodwork of Iglesia de San Francisco, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

From Castro, the final 56mi of the PanAmerican Highway stretches south, just past the city of Quellón to “Hito Cero” where a landmark signifies “kilometer zero” of the PanAm. Certainly worth the quick ride, a photo for the album and a feather for your cap! 

Choose Your Adventure

There are many ways to ride the Carretera Austral. You can rip the throttle, hold on for dear life, and blast from top to bottom in a few days, or you can take your time, soak in the surroundings, explore side roads and easily kill a few months. How you do it is up to you, but the most important thing is do it, and do it as soon as possible.

Austral Road Patagonia adventure motorcycle ride

As much as it pains me to say this, the Carretera Austral is an endangered species. Ongoing efforts to pave Ruta-7 and the increased traffic that will undoubtedly bring will diminish the solitude and grandeur of one of the best moto roads on the planet. 

Riding seasons and weather will play a significant role in any ride through Patagonia. I prefer the relative peace and solitude of shoulder-seasons, where tourism and traffic are minimal AND most services, facilities and lodging are still in operation. I’ve always been lucky late-summer to early-autumn (March through May) as temperatures cool, and fall colors paint the landscape. 

Spring (September – November December) is a great time for wildflowers throughout certain parts of Patagonia as well, but be aware that the Chilean national holiday of September 18th could affect travel plans. 

Carretera Austral Patagonia adventure motorcycle ride

No matter when you ride in Patagonia, weather will likely be an issue. The more time and flexibility you have, the easier it is to wait out unpredictable weather to ensure you don’t miss any of the amazing views along the way!

Whether you’re ending your PanAmerican journey, or simply flying down to rent a bike or take a tour with a company like Moto Patagonia, the Carretera Austral should be on every moto-travels bucket list. 

Resources For Your Trip

Motorcycle Rentals &  Tours – Moto Patagonia – Puerto Varas

https://www.motopatagonia.com


Ferry between Caleta La Arena – Puelche

Ferries depart every 45 minutes and operate 24 hours per day
No advanced reservations required
Cost: 7.400 CLP / Approx. $9 USD per motorcycle
https://testuario.cl/en/routes-and-schedule/


Ferry between Caleta Hornopirén – Caleta Gonzalo

Ferries depart daily and advanced reservations are required
Cost 16.900 CLP / Approx. $21 USD per motorcycle
https://www.barcazas.cl/barcazas/hornopiren-caleta-gonzalo/


Ferry between Puerto Montt (Pargua) – Chiloé (Chacao)

Ferries depart approx. every 90 minutes and operate 24 hours per day
No advanced reservations required
Cost  9.000 CLP / Approx. $11 USD per motorcycle
https://www.transmarchilay.cl/our-route/


Ferry between  Quellón – Chaitén

Ferries only operate certain days of the week / weekly depending on season 
Reservations strongly recommended
Cost $60.000 CLP / Approx. $73 USD per motorcycle
https://navieraustral.cl/ruta/chiloe/


Whitewater Rafting –  Futaleufú River

Half-day trips start at 50.000 CLP / Approx. $61 USD 
http://patagoniaelements.com/
https://bochinchex.com/


Queulat National Park – Ventisquero Colgante

Park entrance fee $8.200 CLP / Approx. $10 USD

https://www.conaf.cl/parques/parque-nacional-queulat/


Laguna San Rafael National Park Expeditions – Puerto Aysén

Multi-day trips start at 400.000 CLP / Approx. $470 USD
per person / double occupancy
http://ecoturismolapancha.cl/
https://aguahielo.cl/


Fly Fishing – Paloma & Baker Rivers – Coyhaique

Services range from guided day-trips for 200.000 CLP / Approx. $235 USD per person to all-inclusive luxury lodges $$$$
Vista Patagonia Lodge – https://vistapatagonia.com/ 


Marble Caves – Puerto Rio Tranquilo

Multiple guides and agencies have kiosks set up on the beach in town
1.5 – 2 hour boat tours start at 12.000 CLP / Approx. $14 USD per person
4-6 hour kayak tours start at $30.000 CLP / Approx. $35 USD per person


Glacier Exploradores Ice Hike –  Puerto Rio Tranquilo

Glacier exploration including transport, equipment, certified guides, lunch and entrance fees to Laguna San Rafael National Park.
Full day tours start at $80.000 CLP / Approx. $93 USD per person
Valle Leones – https://www.valleleones.cl/
Ecoturismo Explorades – https://www.aghielonorte.com


Patagonia National Park – Chacabuco Valley

Park entrance fee $8.200 CLP / Approx. $10 USD
https://www.conaf.cl/parques/parque-nacional-patagonia/


Ferry between Yungay – Puerto Natales

Ferries depart weekly and advanced reservations are required
Cost $172.000 CLP / Approx. $200 USD per passenger w/ motorcycle
Includes meals and seat berth
Austral Broom – http://www.tabsa.cl/portal/index.php/es/


Photos by Chad Horton

Author: Chad Horton

Originally from Los Angeles, Chad threw a leg over a motorcycle for the first time at the ripe old age of 30. Instantly hooked, he competed in his first District-37 NHHA race less than a year later. Whether racing in the Mojave, riding mopeds through Thailand, Route-66 on a Harley, surviving “Mad Sunday” during the Isle of Man TT races, or riding his Honda Africa Twin solo from California to Patagonia, Chad lives and breathes all things two wheels. When not behind bars, Chad is an active SCUBA Diver, skydiver, avid snowboarder, world traveler and below-average surfer.

Author: Chad Horton
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