The Carretera Austral, South to North

The Carretera Austral is a partially paved highway in Chile (Route 7), extending from Villa O’Higgins in the south to Puerto Montt in the north.

Between December 23rd, 2023 and January 29th, 2024, two friends and I cycled most of the Carretera Austral northward, with the addition of El Chaltén (Argentina) in the beginning and Bariloche (Argentina) at the end. We did anywhere between 15-85km per day, depending on road conditions, elevation change, and weather. In total we rode roughly 1250km with 20,000m of vertical gain: the equivalent of two Mount Everests.

If you’re thinking about cycling the Carretera northward, this post will help you know what to expect. For everyone else—enjoy the ride!

Click here for an interactive map of our journey.

So, you’ve decided to ride the Carretera Austral from south to north. Because why not? You recruit some friends, box your bike, fly to El Calafate, take the bus to El Chaltén, reassemble your bike, stock up on supplies, and prepare to depart. That’s not exactly how it goes—that’s never exactly how it goes—but close enough. Off we go.

Hitching a ride from El Chaltén to Lago del Desierto

Lucky you—you’ve already learned a few things about the Carretera. You know that most people ride north-to-south. You know that the southern half of the Carretera is more remote and intense. And you know that the first stretch for you (which is the final stretch for others), from Lago del Desierto to El Chaltén, may be the least pleasant of all.

So you decide to kick the trip off right, and you hitchhike those first 36 kilometers. You are not purists; you will not regret this.

Boarding the ferry at Lago del Desierto

Between Chaltén and Bariloche, multiple bodies of water stand in your way. Fortunately, some enterprising souls will accept USD$55 to shuttle you across the first obstacle, Lago del Desierto, which certainly beats pushing your bike along the rough trail bordering the lake.

“That crazy section” between Lago del Desierto and the Chilean border

Now, the interesting part: the crossing into Chile. Between the Argentinian border control on the northern edge of Lago del Desierto and the Chilean control at Candelario Mancilla, there lies a sort of no-man’s-land, a place of which cyclists speak only in hushed tones. “You have to push your bike on a crazy hiking trail!” Time to see what all the fuss is about.

One of many river crossings

In the end, it’s not so bad. Yes, you’ll need to repeatedly remove your bags to cross fast-moving streams and climb impossibly steep hills. Without rain or snow or mud or heat, you will complete the hike in three hours, sacrificing nary a derailleur.

No-man’s-land: not so bad!

At the Chilean border, the trail will turn into a decent-looking gravel road. You will take glory shots to celebrate. Gracias, Chile!

Little did we know, the Carretera punishes smugness

Yet it will be just a few kilometers before the rípio turns ugly (that’s the Spanish word for “gravel”). You will learn now—and again, and again—that there is no “nice” gravel on the Carretera. Loose rocks, sand pits, and rutted washboard are your constant companions on these seldom-improved rural roads. The rípio is not your friend. Get used to it.

The rípio descent to Candelario Mancilla

In Candelario Mancilla a gendarme stamps your passport, and you pitch your tent at the one-and-only campsite. The owner asks for 5000 Chilean pesos that you do not have. Maybe you should have exchanged for some in El Chaltén. (Yes, you should have.)

Boarding the ferry at Candelario Mancilla in deceptively calm waters

The next morning, if you have planned correctly (by messaging one of the ferry companies in advance), and if the weather gods bless you, another ferry will shuttle you northward for three hours (CLP55,000/USD$60, payable by credit card) across Lago O’Higgins. But this is not like the other ferries you’ll encounter. This is a small boat fighting the prevailing winds, shaking your fillings loose as it slaps the water’s surface with unspeakable violence. A small cup of coffee and hard candies will be given to you in recompense.

From the ferry terminal it’s a short ride (or free shuttle) to Villa O’Higgins: the official end of the Carretera Austral (the beginning for you), where supermarkets, campgrounds, cabañas, and other amenities await. But no ATM. Good luck getting those Chilean pesos! Maybe Santa will bring you some.

Firefighters passing out candies on Christmas in Villa O’Higgins

Now you’re on the actual Carretera Austral! It’s happening! Hurrah!

Riding surprisingly decent rípio just north of Villa O’Higgins while modeling a shirt made by my friend in El Chaltén.

Benefit #1 of going south-to-north on the Carretera: You immediately enjoy the most dramatic wilderness of the entire route. Southbound riders have to wait for all the best mountains, glaciers, and mega-hills. Not you! The pay-off is immediate.

What up, glaciers

Using iOverlander in offline mode, you can find unofficial “wild camp” to pitch tents for a night. You’ll only need to wild camp a few times on this trip, mostly in the southern half. (Farther north, paid campgrounds will be everywhere.)

Wild camping between Villa O’Higgins and Rio Bravo (see on iOverlander)

Another feature of this section of the Carretera: passing cars are few, and most drivers are excited to help you. So if you’re too tired to ride—if, for example, you suffered an unexpected bout of food poisoning in Candelario Mancilla—you have a good chance of waving down a camioneta (small truck) that will pick you up. Just look friendly and pathetic.

Hitchhiking a short stretch with David from Villa O’Higgins

The next ferry you’ll need to take, from Rio Bravo to Puerto Yungay, is free. On the Rio Bravo side there is a public shelter with bathrooms but no food; on the Puerto Yungay side there is a shelter with food to buy (during daytime hours) but no public bathroom. Did you get that? Plan accordingly.

Camping outside the shelter at Puerto Yungay

North of Puerto Yungay, a “very steep hill” awaits you, as advised by Google Maps. (Most days, it turns out, include a “very steep hill.”) One member of your group will crank up such hills, another will bomb down them, and you—you will find your happy place on the flats. At the end of the day, your group is nicely matched on speed. This is nice.

Going up the “very steep hill” on a surprise patch of pavement
Just kidding! Back to good ol’ rípio

On the other side you’ll enjoy a fantastic downhill—one of many to come, as we northbound riders seem to uniquely enjoy—and then you’ll face a choice: to detour west to Tortel, or to continue east on the Carretera toward Cochrane. (We went to Tortel, because it has food. We like food.)

Sticker culture is strong on Carretera signs

Benefit #2 of going south-to-north: You meets lots of cyclists going the opposite direction, and these people have information.

At the Tortel junction, for example, we met three super-fit German bikers who told us that the Tortel road sucks—it was so bumpy, in fact, that it broke one guy’s hardware that connects the bike rack to the frame.

We took this advice seriously and hitched a ride with two friendly fiber-optic maintenance guys. Before they showed up, we entertained ourselves with rock juggling. Low-cost good times, for the win.

Finally, making the rípio work for us

In good weather, Tortel warrants a visit. Nestled among dramatic mountains at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, you get around town almost exclusively via raised wooden boardwalks (instead of roads and sidewalks).

Caleta Tortel: more boardwalks than Santa Cruz
Apparently it rains a lot in Tortel, and we were quite lucky to actually see the mountains

After a few nights of wild camping, you may be tempted to start staying in cabañas: vacation homes rented by the night. We certainly were. Split among a group of 3-4 travelers, cabañas cost around US$15-25 per person, per night. Most are not advertised online. Just ride around town, look for the signs, and knock on doors. Cabaña owners deal exclusively in cash. If you still don’t have Chilean pesos, try offering some of the US$100 bills that you definitely brought with you; they’ll give you change in pesos.

Living that sweet cabaña life in Tortel

Leaving Tortel, if you fail to find another friendly fiber-optic technician, you’ll end up cycling the bumpy rípio of which the Germans warned you.  And perhaps it’s for the best, setting appropriate expectations and all. There’s so much more rípio to come.

And do you know what else awaits you? Do you know what most online reports utterly fail to mention? HORSEFLIES. If the sun is out, these little bastards are everywhere. They’re slow and easy to kill when you have both hands free. On the bike, it’s another story.

On one particularly hot, slow uphill, while being swarmed by your very own insect Luftwaffe, you may ask your friend, “On a scale from 1 to 10, how crazy are the horseflies making you?” “Eleven” she will respond. “I’m about to throw my bike in the river and hitchhike the rest of the way.” And you will believe her.

Meeting nice travelers on the road helps you to forget the trauma which is HORSEFLY

But the Carretera knows how to regain your trust. Just as you’re reaching peak horsefly / peak rípio, you stumble upon the wild camp known as Paradise 2 (thanks again, iOverlander). With stunning views, a glacial stream suitable for bathing, and (almost) no horseflies, you will forget the day’s traumas and relish 360° of Patagonian splendor. The world is right again.

Paradise 2

Is this post about you, or is it about us? Which voice are we even writing in—second person singular, or first person plural? Such concerns matter little on the Carretera, because you are tired. This is a hard road. You deal with this by napping—almost anywhere that can be napped.

Roadside power nap

Passing drivers are always friendly, honking in praise of your efforts. You don’t even have to be cycling! You might just be standing next to your bike, and they will honk and smile, sending you a wave or thumbs-up. This is reassuring.

Sometimes you’ll need to wild camp in less-than-ideal spots. Chile has a lot of private property protected by barbed wire, and the Carretera is no exception. Some days, you’ll need to pedal 10-20 extra kilometers to find a suitable spot.

One of the only wild camps we could find on the final approach to Cochrane. While setting up our tents, we still got praise honks!

Just before Cochrane, you will hit your first patch of real, honest-to-god pavimento. This will feel goooood. You will silently thank every single person who ever laid an inch of asphalt. You may even be reconsidering the title of “gravel lover” that you gave yourself before this trip. The rípio is shaking that identity right out of you.

Pavimento, let’s never fight again

Not only does Cochrane have an actual ATM, gracias a diós, it has people! You stumble into lots of other cyclists there (all southbound) as well as Daniela, a cicloviajera from Colombia who made her way to Cochrane and ended up staying. Together, you’ll spend New Year’s Eve chatting under the town’s big (fake) Christmas tree in the main plaza.

Daniela + the crew

Rest, recovery, resupply—then más Carretera!

Cycling north from Cochrane
I should probably mention that many of these photos were taken by Vince and Hannah, not just me. Gracias for this one, Vincente!

Cycling north, you continue to to find campsites through a combination of iOverlander, Google Maps, and word-of-mouth. Some are far superior to others—like Alma Verde.

A private swimming hole at Alma Verder? Si, por favor.

Inspired by the stories of two Swiss cyclists you meet in Cochrane, you decide to detour east to beautiful Chile Chico instead of continuing north to Puerto Rio Tranquilo (which is apparently a tourist hell) along more rough rípio. But the rípio near Chile Chico is also apparently horrific—”You will suffer,” the Swiss guy warns—so you decide to part of it and hitchhike the rest.

At Puerto Guadal, you plant yourself at the one road out of town, and stick your thumbs out. How hard could it be for three cyclists to find one, nice, empty pickup truck, after all?

The answer: Very, very hard. You wait for 9 hours before giving up and slinking back to the campground.

Not pictured: Hannah and Vince filling in a pothole to pass the time.

The next morning, after two more hours of unsuccessfully haciendo dedo (making the thumb), you talk to an old guy who’s been watching you from across the street. He had a Toyota pickup, and he’s happy to take you to Chile Chico… for the low, low price of CLP$120,000 (the equivalent of two nights in a cabaña).

Enough said. You win, old man. You enjoy the drop-dead gorgeous views on the way to Chile Chico, thank god you didn’t attempt that nightmare rípio, and celebrate a hard day of non-cycling with pizza and beer.

Bacon & egg pizza: breakfast plus lunch in one

From Chile Chico you grab a dirt-cheap ferry to Puerto Ingeniero Ibañez and pedal north to rejoin the Carretera near Cerro Castillo. By taking this alternative route, you have skipped a roughly 170km section of the Carretera—but a section that a southbound cyclist in Cochrane described as “just not that fun.” Good thing you’re here for fun, not purity!

Pushing up another “very large hill,” north of Puerto Ibañez

The stretch between Puerto Ibañez and Villa Cerro Castillo is fully paved and gorgeous. It’s the kind of riding that makes you think, Damn, I’m doing something really cool. Also: Damn, taking alternative routes is just fine.

You know what else is cool? Multi-course roadside lunches. You know what’s not? How everyone poops behind the bus stop shelters.
Vince, capturing a portrait of a landscape

In Villa Cerro Castillo, instead of hiking the ultra-popular trail to Laguna Cerro Castillo (with its steep entry fee), you choose the less popular route to Estero Parada. Clouds obscure the views, but it doesn’t really matter, as you entertain yourself with a blind Takis taste test. In Chile, you have all become huge fans of Takis. One of you—the younger, hipper, more social-media-savvy one—will even get yourself featured on the Takis Chile Instagram.

Original, Blue, Fuego, and Xplosion: actually not so easy to tell apart

Returning from the hike, struggling with a flat tire, and desperately wanting to avoid the 7km gross rípio approach you rode that morning, a long-held prophecy will finally come true: you will hitch a ride in a red truck.

Back in Puerto Guadal, while waiting all day to hitchhike, red trucks took on a mythical status. You always felt optimistic about red truck. Whenever you saw one, someone said “Red truck!” But none ever stopped.

Finally, your truck has arrived.

Damn it feels good to be a gangster

Cycling north out of Villa Cerro Castillo, a huge uphill awaits you. Great place for a sexy glamour shot.

Vince’s bike, plus some annoying nature in the background

On the other side of this epic hill is a truly majestic extended downhill, the stuff of legends. At the bottom, however, you may face a headwind like a brick wall. You may be stuck in your lowest gear just in order to ride on a flat road. You may… once again hitchhike. And you will! Because you’re us.

In the tiny town of El Blanco, it won’t take long for a truck driver and off-duty taxi to deliver you squarely into the heart of Coyhaique—the biggest little city on the Carretera—where you promptly service your bikes, withdraw more pesos, and crush some sushi. You even pick up a stray Canadian at a bike shop and reconnect with a NOLS Chile instructor you previously met, who will teach us how to play truco, a popular South American card game.

Cabañas: excellent for mini-fiestas

North of Coyhaique, you’ll face two choices: sticking to the pavement (via Puerto Aysén) or following the Carretera proper (with rípio) toward Villa Ortega. In a rare moment of resolve, you will actually choose the rípio, because you hear the views vale la pena.

The weird thing about the Carretera is that you find random stretches of perfect pavement in the middle of otherwise terrible, unmaintained rípio. This stretch before Villa Ortega was especially perfect.
And… what most of our 80km day actually looked like.

At a campground in Villa Mañihuales you’ll meet interesting fellow cyclists from Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland—and then they will disappear from your life forever 🥲 Unless you already made plans to be in El Chaltén next month, at the same time that they’re ending their trip. (Lucky you—you did!)

Vincente pedaling toward Puyuhuapi

North of Villa Mañihuales, the riding becomes easier, and the scenery less mountainous. This is another reality of riding south-to-north: you have less dramatic nature to look forward to.

Unless you leave the Carretera. And head back to the mountains of Argentina.

In a frickin’

After waiting approximately 30 seconds to hitchhike in Villa Santa Lucia, it was the first car that pulled up… #redtruckvibes

“Okay,” you might be thinking. “These are not serious cyclists. They’re just hitchhiking everywhere.” To which, we respond:

When you skip mind-numbing rípio, it leaves more time for nice things… like whitewater rafting in Futalefú.

At Villa Santa Lucia we said goodbye to the official Carretera and red-truck’d our way over 75km of gross uphill rípio to the little mountain town of Futaléfu, where we cabaña‘d it up, tarjeta‘d it up (i.e. paid for things with credit cards), and went river-rafting on class 4/5 rapids. Then we cycled eastward, through lovely pine forests, back to the Argentinian border.

(Why not finish the official Carretera, you ask? Because it would have dumped us in Puerto Montt—which apparently is quite dumpy—and because many other cyclists had advocated for taking the alternate route to Bariloche via Futalefú. More mountains, more varied scenery, and at the end of the rainbow, more chocolate. We were sold.)

Crossing back into Argentina
A close-up of the rípio en route to Travelin. Imagine this pulsing through every inch of your frail human skeleton for hours on end.

From the glorious, pine-scented, Chilean border, you now drop into a rípio hellscape, perpetually dusted by passing cars rattling by over washboard ruts. Fortunately, you still have naps.

A sweet hierba nap spot

In Trevelin you change dollars for pesos (inflated 20% in the past month) and then press on to the gravel roads of Parque Nacional Los Alerces. Despite the rípio, this route is far superior to windy, desolate Ruta 40.

Better than Ruta 40, for sure
In Parque Los Alceres (Got you, Hannah!)

After a lovely night of riverside camping in the natural park, you arrive in Cholila, former home of Butch Cassidy, where you devour licuados and helados and asado in a desperate bid to forget those final 15km of violent rípio. Staying in the cabaña next door is a French-Canadian family who is traversing Patagonia on horseback.

Screenagers in Cholila

Continuing north to Lago Epuyén, you stumble upon a music and arts festival, nary another gringo to be seen. A big bag of fresh cherries costs ARS2000 ($1.75), and you spontaneously run into a fellow northbound cyclist and familiar face: Unai, from Spain’s Basque Country, who you briefly met way back in Candelario Mancilla.

El Encuentro de Artesanos, Lago Epuyén

Your bikes are falling apart. The rípio has punished them. Tubes are popping, handlebar tape is spiraling off, spokes are going rogue. You do your best with what you’ve got.

Playing mechanic in Lago Epuyén

You still flip-flop between cabaña-posh and dirtbag-max. Sometimes you pay $3 to stay the night, sometimes $25, sometimes $0. Amenities fluctuate wildly from day to day. This is not a trip for those who crave predictability.

Hot water on full blast in a campground shower, Lago Epuyén.

You press on to El Bolsón, the biggest city yet. The road is busy now, with cars and trucks passing fast, and sometimes too close. But by now you’ve found your resolve; you’ve come to terms with the risks. Sometimes you even smile at how you’ve become one of those crazy people on the side of a highway, hamster-wheeling a fully loaded touring steed. You’re that person doing some big adventure. The passing foreheads pressed to passenger-side windows can only dream of what you’ve seen.

Entertainment upon entering El Bolsón. He definitely earned his ARS1000.

In El Bolsón you reconnect with another Couchsurfer with a big heart and even bigger dreams of travel. You connect her with Unai, who ends up staying with her longer than expected. Together, you drink really, truly, excellent beer—two dollars a pint.

With Unai and Belu in El Bolsón

Then, all of a sudden, you’re almost there—the outskirts of Bariloche! You’re so close now!

Entering the greater Bariloche area

Thanks to all those hitchhikes, you’ve got a few extra days to burn. So you stay with a group of ultra-friendly Christians from the United States via Warmshowers, a family that enjoys hosting passing cyclists and climbers. You enjoy a little slice of home and a miraculously reliable shower.

Breakfast at the Christian compound on Lago Gutierrez

You cycle the Circuito Chico just west of Bariloche, the same one you rode 17 years ago on your first-ever visit to South America, admist your quarter-life crisis. You remember again why you fell in love with this region. It feels like Lake Tahoe.

Circuito Chico 2007/2024

The first time you came to Argentina, you received 3.5 pesos for a dollar. Today, you get 1200. It’s fun to feel like a drug dealer when you change USD$100 into ARS120,000. But your heart also goes out to all the Argentinians you know who can’t afford to travel anymore, or buy imported products, or have the most basic faith in their economic future.

When you exchange dollars and receive ARS500 notes in return, you end up with a ridiculous pile of cash

These five weeks on the saddle have brought so many scribbled notes, so many gut feelings, so many unfinished conversations. You have some serious processing to do. But for the moment, you don’t worry about that. You celebrate with your friends, you feast on steak and gelato, and you give the evil eye to every little patch of rípio, hoping it will be your last. This is an adventure of which you’ve long dreamed, and now it’s ending. You sit with that.

Blake & Vince: 20 years of outdoor hijinks and counting

Gracias, Carretera.
Gracias, Vince and Hannah.
Gracias, Chile.
Gracias, Argentina.

We did it.

If you’re planning a northward journey on the Carretera and have more specific questions, feel free to write:


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