The Carretera Austral

There is this one mystic road in Chile that we had heard of: “The Carretera Austral”. Starting in Puerto Montt, it winds more than 1200km South and ends in Villa O’Higgings, a small town in the middle of nowhere. Surrounded by vast forests, torrential rivers, snow capped peaks and rumbling glaciers, it took more than 20 years to construct the Carretera Austral. It is still nowaday mainly made of dirt tracks, or ripio as the locals call it. 

After spending a few days on Chiloe, we planned to head directly to El Chalten. Indeed, it was already the end of November and we had two appointments coming closer:

  • on the 13th of december, we had to be in Torres del Paine as we had booked there our camping sites for the 9 days O Circuit
  • on the 23rd of december, we were to meet my parents in El Calafate and spend 12 days with them in Argentina 😀

Before that, we wanted to discover El Chalten and its beautiful Fitz Roy. Therefore, we had to hurry up and go quickly to El Chalten from Chiloe.

Our itinerary from Chiloe Island to El Chalten

The Carretera is quite long, we decided not to travel it completely by bus – especially because we planned to do that later in our trip! So we instead booked a boat ride from Quellon, a city located at the South of Chiloe Island, to Puerto Chacabuco (see blue line below).  

From Chacabuco, there are buses running South toward Villa O’Higgings. And from Villa O’Higgings, we had seen it was possible to combine a bus/boat ride and a 2 days hike in order to reach our aim, El Chalten.

Ferry from Quellon to Puerto Chacabuco

In Quellon, we booked our ferry tickets with the Naviera Austral company and were told it would take 28 hours to reach Puerto Chacabuco. At 10:00pm, we got up on the ferry and at 11:00pm, we finally casted of. 

There are no bed on the ferry, only seats. Luckily, the boat was far from full and we had 5 seats for 3 – Valerie was still traveling with us 🙂 we even managed to get the last row and had some space behind our seats to place our bags and lie down. As we had all of our camping equipment with us, we unpacked our mattresses and sleeping bags and spent a surprisingly good night!

When we woke up, the sun was shinning bright and high in the sky. The views from the ferry were beautiful and the scenery looked so peacefulWhile preparing our lunch, we met 2 French travelers, Ophélie and Simon, and ended up spending the afternoon and the evening with them, playing cards on the deck outside and in the ferry when it started to be cold. We went late to bed, lulled by the sound of the see.

In the end, instead of 28 hours, it took 34 hours to reach Puerto Chacabuco. But we didn’t mind the delay as we really enjoyed the ferry ride, especially because the weather was so good and we could spend the whole day on the deck. Moreover, we spent two good nights as the boat was not full and we had much space to lay down and sleep.

From Puerto Chacabuco to Villa O’Higgings

We knew that there were buses running along the Carretera Austral to Villa O’Higgings. What we didn’t know it that the bus schedules are very strange and irregular… When we arrived in Puerto Chacabuco, we took a shuttle to Coyhaique, one of the biggest cities this South on the Carretera Austral. In one hour, we arrived in the city center and enquired about the possibility to take a bus to Cochrane, the city in which we had planned to sleep. Sadly, there is only one bus a day, and it leaves early in the morning, so we had missed it…

Because we didn’t want to spend time in Coyhaique, we bought enough food for 2 days and decided to hitchhike in the direction of Cochrane. Chilean people are really nice and helpful and we didn’t have to wait long at the exit of Coyhaique for a car to stop and ask us where we wanted to go. After a good hour, the nice couple left us at the crossing in the direction of Cochrane. There, we waited quite a while as very few cars drive this South on the Carretera Austral. After two more rides, we arrived in Cerro Castillo and engaged in a lively conversation with 4 Chileans. After a beer and a snack, we decided to spend the night there as it was already late in the afternoon and we were quite tired. We found a very nice camping site at the exit of Villa Cerro Castillo and set our tents there.

On the next morning, we took a bus to Cochrane around 11:00am and arrived there at 05:00pm. There, we had 2 solutions:

  • either take a bus at 07:00pm to Tortel, a small village 7 hours away from Villa O’Higgings. From there, there would be a bus leaving in 2 days to Villa O’Higging
  • or spend 2 nights in Cochrane and take a direct bus to Villa O’Higgings in 2 days.

We quickly decided on staying in Cochrane for 2 nights as we were all quite worn out from all the travel. We found a nice hostel to spend the night and headed to a restaurant to regain some strenght! After a good night, we woke up refreshed and decided to walk around Cochrane: the hike we did was beautiful, but there were so many horseflies around that it got quite annoying…

Finally, on the next day after 3 hours in a bus, then 30 minutes in a ferry and then again 2 hours in a bus, we arrived in Villa O’Higgings. We had the feeling to be at the end of the world. From Quellon, it took us 2 ferries, 3 hitchhikes and 3 buses to get to Villa O’Higgings: this city is definitely not a place where you arrive randomly, you have to work for it 😉

From there, we have planned to hike to El Chalten, but we will tell you about it in our next article!

Practical Information

Transportation Information and Prices

As mentioned in this article, ferries and buses do not run everyday. So check carefully the departure dates when you plan your itinerary. Here is a list of our transportation means with Prices:

  • Ferry Quellon/Chacabuco: the journey takes around 30 hours and one seat costs 17.500CP – there is no bed on the ferry. Bring food with you, there is not much to buy on the boat and it is expensive. It is possible to get hot water for free at the cafeteria. 
  • Bus from Puerto Chacabuco to Coyhaique: the ride takes about 1 hour and it costs 4.000CP/Person.
  • Bus from Villa Cerro Castillo to Cochrane: the bus starts in Coyhaique every monring at 08:00am and passes through Cerro Castillo around 10:30am. The ride to Cochrane costs 11.000CP/Person .


We stayed in a very beautiful camping site in Cerro Castillo. I can’t remember the name, but it was on the right side at the end of the village and it cost 5.000CP/person.

In Cochrane, we stayed in an enjoyable hostel for a reasonnable price – thanks to Valerie negotiation’s skills! We paid 25.000CP/double room/night. 

In Villa O’Higgings, we stayed once again in a nice camping site called El Mosco for 6.000CP/person with toilets, hot showers and a kitchen.

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