If you read my first Carretera Austral Blog Post, you know that my friend Brenda and I (with Curious George) are halfway along an epic road trip through the rugged and remote mountains of Chilean Patagonia. We spent our first week crossing deep ocean fjords, exploring ancient temperate rainforests, hiking to glacial lakes and rafting the emerald waters of a raging river – all of this before the town of Coyhaique! As we continued south toward Villa O’Higgins, our adventures just kept getting better.

The Carretera Austral is a 775 mile road trip (one-way) though the remote mountains, valleys and fjords of Patagonia, Chile. We had three weeks to complete the trip in a rental car from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins and back. Three weeks was barely enough time for all the adventures we had!

Villa Cerro Castillo and Cerro Castillo National Park

Heading south out of the rolling plains of Coyhaique, the hills got steeper, and the pot holes in the pavement got deeper. The problem was that it was hard to keep our eyes on every inch of the road as the scenery becomes increasingly more dramatic. Villa Cerro Castillo is a little haven set in a green valley under an imposing “Castle” or “Castillo” of rocky crags. On this particular day a fresh coat of snow dusted the highest of the peaks and the golden grasses glowed in the morning sun. It was spectacular.

The beautiful crags of Cerro Castillo pulled our eyes upward making it hard to watch out for the potholes and the chickens along this incredible winding road!

Both Brenda and I had read a lot about Cerro Castillo National Park, mostly for its hiking opportunities. So we each bought into the exorbitant entrance fee and trail-user price of $25 to climb the trail to Laguna Cerro Castillo. This trail had been closed for the previous two days due to severe rainfall and another storm was expected later that afternoon. So, with the sun on our shoulders for the moment, we headed out. Up, up, up we climbed through beautiful forests, cow pastures, and wide open rocky slopes; the views of the distant mountains, lakes and valley below were breathtaking.

Four hours later, as if on cue, the storm arrived at the exact moment that we reached the rim of the glacial lake. I watched as the fog enveloped the scene before me and quickly donned my thermals and rain gear in the icy mist. It was so enchanting, but not exactly picnic weather.

So, almost immediately, we turned downward, stepping delicately across the muddy spots and slippery rocks now in the pouring rain. By the time we made it back to our car, we were thoroughly wet and cold. A quick check of our App, IOverlander, told us that there were no campgrounds in the area with covers for tents and we both knew Brenda’s tent wasn’t going to hold up in this rain.

The “salto” or waterfall of Rio Ibanez, swollen after the rains

“What do you think about splurging tonight for a nearby bed and breakfast?”


30 minutes later we were welcomed into the most beautiful home in Puerto Ibanez, with hot showers, mugs of aromatic tea, soft beds, and a lovely breakfast the next morning. It was a great reprieve for us both!

It also gave us a chance to assess the state of our car tires. One had fared especially badly in the potholes from the day before. We decided we better go visit a “volcanizador” or tire guy… which is literally a family who has some jacks and some extra tires for sale in the back of their lean-to. This is how we met Amar. With two hours of small talk and a few minutes of work, he patched our tire, rotated it to the back and sent us on our way. All we could do was hope for the best… if we could make it to the end of the Carretera Austral and back to the rental lot without having to change a tire, it would be a miracle!

What we didn’t know was that soon after this stop, the pavement would permanently end and a tedious gravel road was our future for the next 10 days.

Puerto Rio Tranquillo

Driving much slower now and using the whole wide road to navigate the holes, we headed south into the pouring rain. The swollen rivers, overflowing culverts and enormous waterfalls along the route all threatened to flood the road, but we made it to Puerto Rio Tranquillo- only to find more problems. The rains had closed the road to the nearby Laguna San Rafael National Park and overwhelmed the town’s municipal water system; the locals hadn’t had drinking water for days. Luckily we had enough bottled water to get by. We agreed to stay in a small hostel again that night and hope for some better weather in the morning.

Dawn came with a stiff wind, which brought some clear skies and sunshine. Perfect for a boat ride!

Puerto Rio Tranquillo sits in a little cove alongside Lake General Carrera. The golden hills and the blue, blue water of this enormous lake were so lovely… but also very familiar. I got out my map. Yes! Lake General Carrera in Chile and Lake Buenos Aires in Argentina is the same lake! I camped on its shores about a month ago just across the border in Los Antiguos, Argentina. This lake, straddling and sporting the same glacial blue hue in both countries, is the second largest lake in all of South America. It was fun to see it again.

The beautiful blue-green waters of Lago General Carrera, Chile

In addition to the lake itself, Puerto Rio Tranquillo is famous for its close proximity to some caves located around the lake. When I had first heard about these “Capillas de Mármol” or “Marble Chapels”, I really didn’t think I would bother paying for a tour. But again and again throughout my travels, I had talked to people who were traveling way out of their way just to see them. So, Brenda and I thought we should buy into the boat trip and see what all the fuss was about. I confess, they were really worth it!

It turns out that Lake General Carrera is surrounded by limestone cliffs and thousands of years of wave action and erosion has sculpted this sedimentary rock into colorful structures and beautiful caverns. Although it’s not technically marble, it looks enough like it to warrant its name. Only small narrow boats can enter the caves, so that’s why a boat or kayak tour is necessary to marvel at these natural works of art.

Here we are checking out the Marble Caves with our French friends, Hasibe and Romain. After giving them a ride two different times along the highway, unexpectedly seeing them in Coyhaique and on the trail in Cerro Castillo, then staying at the same hostel with them in Puerto Rio Tranquillo, it was only natural we take the boat ride together, too!

After our boat trip, Brenda and I continued south to see more of the sights in the sunshine. The views across Lago General Carrera, and Lago Bertrand were amazing.

Puerto Bertrand

Nestled between the mountains and the Baker River, Puerto Bertrand was a sweet rest stop with a few houses and businesses promoting white-water rafting adventures. They even had a two-tiered “McPatagonals” already closed for the season.

A little further south, La Confluencia, or the confluence between the Baker and the Neff Rivers, was quite a site! You just can’t imagine all the variations of greens and blues that we saw in the water on this day.

Also, along this stretch, we saw oodles of rosehip bushes. We learned that many locals harvest the fruit to make marmalade or a specialty dessert from the pulp. Unfortunately though, we never saw any of these products to try along the way.

Patagonia National Park

By the end of the day, we had reached the infamous Patagonia National Park. This park is another beneficiary of Douglas and Kristine Tompkins (founder of North Face). Thanks to their donation, the Valley Chacabuco, which was once a large sheep estancia, is now a rare preserve restoring and protecting the native grasslands of Chile. This valley was combined in 2018 with two other existing nearby reserves to form one of the largest and nicest national parks in all of Patagonia.

Wanting to see more of it, we headed into the park in the early evening only to find out that the campgrounds had been closed for the previous days’ rain. We were a long way from other options and it was quickly getting dark. So, we opted to camp in a flat gravel parking lot at a trailhead and figured we’d deal with the fallout from a Ranger in the morning. Luckily, there was no fallout. Just curious guanacos and an incredible view of the Milky Way throughout the night.

In the morning, we paid our park entrance fee and took a hike to appreciate more of these beautiful Chilean grasslands.

On to Cochrane

Cochrane is the next little outpost heading south and it is truly the gateway to Patagonia National Park. With mountains all around, I think tiny Cochrane could promote its outdoor adventure opportunities a little more! Although there was no reason to hang out in town, we were thankful for its ATM, expensive gas, and really good homemade cookies at a local grocery store. Then, we had more miles to explore!

Caleta Tortel

“Precioso!”, or Precious!

This was the one word that everybody expressed when they spoke of Caleta Tortel, which meant we needed to see it, too! Leaving the Carretera Austral, we headed west toward the ocean to visit this little fishing town clinging to the steep cliffs above a fjord. Tortel’s selling point is that it was built entirely from cypress wood which forms the houses and boardwalks between the buildings. That is the town. There are no roads. They didn’t need them. This town was completely isolated from land access until a road extension was built from the Carretera Austral in 2003. So, we parked our car in the lot above the town and descended onto the boardwalks for a stroll. It’s true, there are houses, stores, schools and even a playground built on stilts into the hills – all connected by wooden boardwalks. Interesting.

But not really. Unfortunately, the tide was out which made the port not very picturesque, and we had arrived in the mid-day closure so the town felt empty and desolate. Not worth our time.

Besides, if the road was good, we might make it to Villa O’Higgins- the end of the Carretera Austral- by the end of the day! Our excitement pulled us southward!

Villa O’Higgins

One more ferry ride, a much better road, and an incredibly beautiful range of mountains made our final stretch a breeze into little Villa O’Higgins.

In the setting sun and with a perfectly placed rainbow, we reached the end of the Carretera Austral and took lots of pictures of the official sign to celebrate our accomplishment. It had been quite a road trip!

In Villa O’Higgins, we decided to languish an extra day to do our laundry, enjoy some hiking, and sunny views of the surrounding mountains and glaciers. It did not disappoint!

Scenes around beautiful Villa O’Higgins, Chile. The official end of the Carretera Austral.

Upon reaching Villa O’Higgins, we quickly noticed that the air had turned crisp and a storm was in the forecast. So, we opted for a dormitory in what ended up being a bicycle hostel. There are so many people from around the world that bicycle the Carretera Austral. We told them that we felt sorry for them on the gravel roads, but they all assured us that they were loving the adventure. The scenery after all was so amazing. I have to say, I love adventure too, but I think I’d still prefer a car on this road.

It turns out that our hunch about the weather was right. The temperature dropped throughout the night and we woke to a fresh powdering of snow on the mountains all around. The leaves seemed to be changing colors before our eyes. Fall had come to Patagonia. Despite my desire to stay and enjoy this autumnal showcase, we only had seven days to cover all the distance again, return the rental car and put Brenda on a plane back to Portland, Oregon.

We waved goodbye to the end of the road and turned our tires northward.

We had a beautiful day to mountain gaze and enjoy the domestic animal sightings along the way. Throughout our trip, we had to stop the car for roadside sightings of horses, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, turkeys, geese, dogs and cats. There’s a lot of animals in Patagonia – but interestingly enough, not many wild game animals, nor little rodent-like animals in the forests. This made cooking outdoors and camping a lot easier. That said, we did see several condors, woodpeckers, kestrels, eagles and hawks throughout our journey.

We also found this little cafe in the middle of nowhere! We bought some fry bread, known at Sopaipillas, and chatted with the owner for awhile. She’s a young woman who was teaching in the bigger “towns” but wanted to return to the valley of her childhood. So, while her husband and daughter live several hours away for work and school, they return to her and the little cafe business on the weekends. She admitted that it gets very quiet for long periods of the day. We wished her well and carried on.

Northward we headed…back through Cochrane to stock up on more cookies and discover a favorite lake campground in Patagonia National Park.

Back along Lago Bertrand for a quick dip in its icy waters.

Back past Puerto Rio Tranquillo, and along Lago General Carrera, where we found a fabulous campsite at a farm on its shores near Rio Bravo!

Back into the valleys of Rio Ibanez and Cerro Castillo, with a quick celebration when we saw pavement again!

Back through Coyhaique, and the dramatic mountains and canyons around Las Mañiguales. Finally, we were reaching Queulat National Park, ready for our second chance to see all the areas obscured by the rain clouds during the weeks before. But then we realized it was Monday. The park is closed on Mondays. Hiking to yet another glacier wasn’t meant to be. So, we went to the nearby hot springs instead. Ahhhh.

Watching dolphins swimming in the fjord in front of Termas del Ventisquero, Puyuhuapi

Then, in our last push north into Pumalín National Park, we found lovely Yelcho Lake, another beautiful campsite, and a free kayak to enjoy. Opting to not climb a nearby volcano, our last day to play in Patagonia was spent blissfully doing nothing.

The next day, we continued north through the Park, boarded the ferry and then another and another, all the way back to Puerto Montt.

Two friends…

21 days of driving over 1800 miles…

a hundred roadside pee breaks…

tens of miles of hiking…

a thousand photos of rivers, lakes, fjords, mountains, glaciers and valleys…

unforgettable vistas, camp sites, and all the glories of the remote Carretera Austral,

with a million potholes to make the trip just that much more epic!

Thank goodness we had a good supply of peanut butter sandwiches, wine, chocolate and laughter for the adventure.

Thank goodness we never had to change a tire. Thank goodness for friends like Brenda!