Carretera Austral is Chile's most iconic drive
The big one. The so-called "Southern Highway" is Chile’s most iconic drive that snakes south from Chile’s Lake District across a landscape of dense forest, snow-peaked mountains, volcanoes, glacial rivers, and misty fjords. A Pinochet-commissioned project in the 1970s, the road was supposed to tame the wilderness and help settle the isolated Aysén region. The southern section is still not paved, which makes travel more challenging. Be prepared for inclement weather and occasional delays (landslides, having to wait for car ferries, etc).
Start in Puerto Montt, the Lake District’s port city, take the first of four ferries, then pass through the salmon-farming town of Hornopirén, before taking two interconnecting ferries through the fjords, with a strip of land in between, to reach the southern half of Parque Nacional Pumalín Douglas Tompkins – a vast area of native forest, gifted to the state by the Tompkins philanthropists. Just south is Chaitén, half buried by the volcanic eruption of 2008 but since recovered, followed by the Villa Santa Lucía crossroads town; from here, you can detour to Futaleufú – Chile’s whitewater rafting capital. Passing through dense woodland, you reach the market town of La Junta, before arriving at picturesque, fjordside Puyuhuapi, famous for its hot springs. The road skirts the fjord and passes high-end fly-fishing lodges before the highest section of the Carretera Austral takes you over Queulat Pass, with mist-shrouded mountains looming ahead. Stretch your legs in Parque Nacional Queulat before following the hilly ribbon of road to Coyhaique, the largest town halfway along the Carretera Austral.
The southern half of the journey is even more remote, sweeping through the pioneer town of Villa Cerro Castillo, past the glacial Lago General Carrera, and through tiny Puerto Río Tranquilo – the jumping-off point for glacier hikes and boat trips to the Capilla de Mármol. Farther south, the ranching town of Cochrane is a good overnighter, and a convenient base for visiting Parque Nacional Patagonia – another Tompkins conservation project – before detouring off the main route to Caleta Tortel – a unique village with cypress boardwalks instead of streets. A final ferry crossing from Puerto Yungay, and narrow hairpin bends of a particularly precipitous stretch of road, with glimpses of forest-clad mountains and raging glacial river below, bring you to Villa O’Higgins, a small pioneer settlement at the end of the road. Then you can either retrace your steps or take a weekly ferry from Puerto Yungay to Puerto Natales, and adventure further in the south.