Chile: A compact guide to the Carretera Austral highway

Photo: Abigail Adler

There’s nothing I love more than a good road trip. And on my post-army backpacking trip in South America, one of the many highlights was the Carretera Austral highway in Chile.

For the typical post-army Israeli, this highway is a must on their adventures. Most do it through hitchhiking or renting or car, depending on the travel budget. Only the truly in shape bike the highway, and I’ve only met one fit backpacker who lived to tell the tale.

No matter what form of transportation you choose, there are so many breathtaking views to take in on the Carretera Austral. You’re going to make many random pitstops along the way, but there are a couple of stops that definitely have to be on your list. 

For a more detailed description of the day-to-day Carretera experience, click here

1Chile Chico 

Photo: Abigail Adler

Chile Chico is where your journey truly begins. It’s the first stop after crossing the border between Argentina and Chile, and therefore, it’s also your first taste of Chile. You should start your trip at “Plaza del Viento,” a viewpoint where you could take in all of Chile Chico and General Carrera Lake from above. It’s a great way to enjoy the amazing views before driving through them. Consider Chile Chico your intro course to the Carretera Austral. 

2Rio Tranquilo Marble Caves

Photo: Abigail Adler

Given the perfect aesthetic of the rocks and the vivid blue of the water, you’ll be completely overwhelmed by the beauty of the natural world. It’s an ideal destination if you’re already road-tripping across the highway; making it out to the Marble Caves for just a day trip from any nearby city will take forever.

Once you arrive at the riverbank, there will be plenty of agencies to choose from for a tour of the marble caves. The boat tours all cost around 10,000 CLP (about $13.80 USD) per person.

For a more intimate experience with the caves — and more physical labor on your part — you could book kayaks for a higher price.

Tour guides at the caves generally only speak Spanish, so I highly suggest brushing up on your Spanish before taking the tour. If not, you could always just take in the views without extra information. After all, language barriers never hinder our connection with nature. 

With the surreal blue color of the water, the unreal aesthetics of the marble caves, and the wind blowing coolly through your hair, it’s guaranteed to be a perfect day. 

3Laguna Cerro Castillo 

Photo: Abigail Adler
Photo: Abigail Adler

If you’re looking to build up your stamina while immersing yourself in unreal views simultaneously, the Cerro Castillo day hike is definitely for you. The entrance fee to the hike is 10,000 CLP (about $13 USD), and if you stay at a camping site nearby the night prior, you’re entitled to a discount. 

The entire hike should take about eight hours, but don’t worry if you fall behind. I was a total beginner when I hiked the Cerro Castillo. While it was definitely challenging, I managed to make it to the top. All it took was a group of supportive friends, drinking water every time I wanted to complain or give up, and snacks as my reward once I made it to the laguna. Peanut butter sandwiches, Lays chips, and granola bars were the ultimate prize while I laid back and enjoyed the beautiful blue of the laguna. 

4Kayaking on Futaleufu River 

Photo: Abigail Adler

Till now, you’ve encountered the blue waters of Chile in states of calm. The time has come to step it up a notch! Whitewater rafting on Chile’s Futaleufu River is perfect for adrenaline junkies looking to ride and tackle the waves on their own terms. If you’re less of a risk-taker, you still shouldn’t shy away from the river; every tour company provides you with friendly, qualified English-speaking guides to take on the waves with you. 

A kayaking adventure on the river generally costs 40,000 CLP (about $53.40 USD). The fee includes whitewater rafting gear, a photography crew documenting the entire experience, and lunch near a roaring hot fire to recover from all the action and freezing waters. You’ll especially need that roaring fire if you decide to take a plunge into the river along the leap. I would highly recommend taking that dip into the water. After all, you haven’t truly immersed yourself in nature if you haven’t jumped right in. 

5Queulat National Park

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