The Wild Road: Cycling Patagonia on the Carretera Austral

Desolate lakes, powerful rivers, and receding glaciers along 650 km of deserted road


The Carretera Austral winds through spectacular rural and wild scenery in the Patagonia region of Southern Chile. Because this highway was built on a geopolitical whim in an area with very few people, cars are rare.

The Southern half of the route is the most wild. The road meanders across remote terrain, across a fjord by free ferry, by countless lakes, and across several passes to arrive… nowhere. The road ends at a lake and ice field that is a dead-end for cars. For bikers however, the adventure continues past glaciers and virgin forest by boat and singletrack path into Argentina and to adventures beyond.

We (my wife and I) spent 3 weeks on mountain bikes rigged for touring covering the most remote section of the Carretera Austral (CA) during January.

Yep, this exists. And very few people ever see it.

This is a description intended to both inspire you to make the trip, and to demystify it. It’s intended to be useful for everyone riding the Southern Patagonia section of the Carretera Austral, even those on longer trips. It has campsite recs, gear recs, maps, and a recommendation for where to find the elusive Nuts5Nuts! cart.

While planning, we found little information on the most wild and remote section of the Carretera Austral (from Coyhaique, Chile to El Chalten, Argentina)and a further dearth of information pertinent to relatively short (2–3 week) trips.

We did a 20 day trip on the wildest section and took a few notes along the way.

Average Carretera Austral Scenery

Here’s what’s coming if you keep scrolling:

  1. An Average Day… though every day was above average.

2. Ride Overview

3. Logistics including gear suggestions, locations of towns with good supermarkets, how often you’ll be able to buy gas canisters, a rough budget for a typical trip, and how to get yourself and your bike to either Puerto Chacabuco or Coyhauque to start your ride for a 2–3 week trip using the Navimag ferry.

4. The Adventure Itself… photos from the trip with detailed maps (including campsites).

5. Random Tips for riding the CA (relevant for anyone riding this section of the road). + Links to other guides and maps that we found useful.

6. A high-res picture of the full map for the route from Coyhauque to El Chalten.

Descent South of Chochrane

Riding the CA from Coyhaique, Chile to El Chalten, Argentina was one of the most amazing 3 week periods of my life. Exploring this part of Patagonia by bike is every bit as spectacular as hiking Torres Del Paine. The rocks are just a little less pointy.

As you read this, please leave comments and/or post questions. I try to answer them every few months.

Great, here goes. This is something of an unedited brain dump… unedited yet engrossing and succinct… ish:

  1. An Average Day
Campground at Candelario Mansilla — last night in Chile

Perhaps the best way to give a sense of the ride is to describe, briefly, an average day.

We’d typically wake up in a campsite by a huge and beautiful river, usually with no one else around (though in a few spots, bikers came together and swapped stories over campfires, made friends, and rode together for a few days… very fun). We’d make breakfast and pack up our camp, then head out onto the gravel road around 9:30. After 30 mins to an hour of chatting we’d put in our headphones and listen to podcasts or books on tape, stopping every hour or so to check in and admire lakes, rivers, glaciers and valleys… or to snack on the almond-raisin trail mix we found in just about every grocery store.

Pay campground on the Rio Baker

If we passed through a town that day, we’d try to have lunch in a cafe to charge devices, swap stories with other bikers, get some very slow internet, and eat ave palta sandwiches. If there was no town, we’d usually stop around 1:30pm by a river to refill water and eat a lunch of bread, cheese, mustard, salami, and fruit. We’d hop back on the bikes around 2:30 and ride. About 5:30p we’d start looking for campsites as we went. Usually we’d find a site by a river by 6 or 7, set up camp, fish, build a fire, cook dinner, then eat whatever we’d prepared with red wine or pisco sour. The sun would set around 9:30 (in February) and we’d be in bed by 10:30.

2. Ride Overview or “How much time do I need for this section?”

Coyhaique to Villa O’Higgins (O’Higgins for short) is about 600–650km depending on who you believe. Google says it’s closer to 600, Chile says it’s closer to 650.

Big climbs are better in the morning

10km/hr is a reasonable speed for relatively in-shape but not aggressive riders to do on the gravel. We averaged about 12km/hr and rode on occasion with in-shape people who needed to move fast and were doing 14km/hr. At 10km/hr Coyhaique to O’Higgins is 10 days riding 6 hour days, but it’s easy to ride longer than that. Our trip took 11 days total with two days mostly off.

The ride form O’Higgins to the end of the wild section in El Chalten in Argentina is an additional 2–3 days, though it can be done in one long day if you ride quickly and time ferries.

In summary, it’s possible to do the entire trip from Coyhaique to El Chalten in 11 days. We did it in 14 which felt relaxed but didn’t leave time for side trips or multi-day stops. So yes, you could do this in 2 weeks off from a job on another continent. Allowing 3 weeks makes it even more wonderful and a bit more relaxed. What are you waiting for?

3. Logistics and preparation

Bike Choice

Most people on the CA have touring bikes like the Surly Long Haul Trucker, with fat (usually 40mm+) touring tires because they are doing much longer rides on mostly paved roads. These are the clear best choice if you are doing longer sections that include lots of pavement.

Our cheap rental mountain bike loaded with all the camping and biking gear we needed. Keeping all weight in the rear prevented losing traction on climbs.

But, thinner tires sink into the gravel. Because the Southern portion of the route is 90% gravel and we couldn’t bring bikes, we did it on cheap rental mountain bikes.

The fat tires of the mountain bikes were just as fast and easy to pedal as touring bikes with 40mm tires (we tried lots of other people’s bikes). The mountain bikes could also preserve hard earned momentum better going downhill as the fatter tires/shocks absorbed bumps allowing higher speeds and more coasting. The upright position of the mountain bikes was nicer too. If you do the ride from North to South the wind is mostly behind you so an upright position doesn’t mean you work harder. In short: touring bikes are the standard, and they work great, but hardtail mountain bikes that can fit a rear rack for paniers are probably just as good.

An inexpensive bike with reasonable components should work fine for the ride, but a nice cross-country mountain bike with 29 inch wheels and a rack like this would be the best. If you have a cross or touring bike already, you’d prefer that… but you’ll be glad you if have the FATTEST tires it can handle.

*FYI There seems to be little risk of bikes being stolen in this part of Chile. We brought a lock but used it only in Coyhaique.

*FFYI if you are interested, scroll to the very end for a note about how to do the CA by buying or renting bikes in Chile.

Other Gear You Might Want

There are lots of great bike touring packing lists out there online… I’ll just highlight a few things we loved or wished we’d brought:

  • A chargeable extra battery for charging cell phones/tablets. We brought a solar charger that didn’t work well, and there were places to plug in and charge a USB battery charger every couple of days. A 5000 mah battery powered by a wall charger would have kept our phones charged fine the whole time.
  • A cell phone charged up with lots of music, podcasts, and audio books. We’d recommend using Podcast Addict and listening to Ted Radio Hour, This American Life(even if you aren’t American), Serial, and Reply All.
  • A plug-in/Bluetooth speaker for said phone/ tablet. It’s nice to have music in camp.
  • Long sleeved biking shirt and sun protector for neck.
  • Zip ties/duct tape, extra parts
  • For two people, a small jet boil or pocket rocket and a frying pan is all the stove you’ll need. You CAN find fuel canisters for this type of stove in Cochrane and smaller towns along the way. No need to bring canisters for the whole trip, you’ll see them for sale roughly every other day.

There are sections where you must camp so you’ll need a camping kit (tent, water treatment, dishes). There are many nice lodges and cabanas on the way. With planning, you could probably manage to camp only 2–3 nights… though some camp sites are SO beautiful, you don’t want to miss them.

Getting yourself and your gear to Puerto Chacabuco/Coyhauique (for people riding only the Southern portion of the CA):

You can book flights all the way to Coyhaiuque from the US/Europe/wherever on LAN airlines and its partners. Sadly, LAN hasn’t woken up to the fact that the golden age of their monopoly on Chilean air travel is over… so they can be expensive. From there, I’d highly recommend taking the Navimag ferry (image below). It’s an amazing and beautiful ride and great opportunity to befriend travelers and Chileans.

Chilean Fjords from the Navimag

4. The Adventure (with photos and detailed maps):

The numbers on the map indicate where we spent the night. For example, on day 4 we stopped where the (4) is circled. Please excuse the notes on the map that aren’t relevant… they were written as we went.

Day 1: Puerto Chacabuco to Coyhaique — not on map: All paved, one major climb. A good government campsite half way to Coyhaique if you wanted to stop.

Day 2: Coyhaique is a huge town with great grocery stores, bike and outdoor gear stores, etc. We spent a big chunk of the day here eating empanadas, shopping at the three bike shops, and eating legendary nuts. These nuts are not like your grandmother’s roasted nuts. We could have ridden to RN Cerro Castillo, or farther, had we started early. Get supplies in Coyhaique to last 3 days and get you to Puerto Rio Tranquilo where there are 3–4 grocery stores. We shopped all day and only made it a little way out of town.

Day 3: We took an unpaved alternate road to the west of the main road. There were no cars and the landscape was beautiful. We’d highly recommend the alternate route.

Day 4: Amazing views of Cerro Castillo. Villa Cerro Castillo is a small town with 2 bad grocery stores. You can find lodging here, but it ain’t fancy, better to keep going or camp. Just as you leave town the road turns to gravel (“ripio” in Chilean Spanish).

The end of the paved road… and start of the ripio

Day 5: Stunning ride. I’d highly recommend our campsite (see #5 on the map). To find it, turn off the main road just before the bridge on a little dirt track and camp on the beach 150 meters further down on the East side of the river. *Please practice leave-no-trace camping. We met the owner of this site and he was very nice, but complained bikers often leave trash and he was thinking of closing off the site.

Day 6: This was a really long day. Generally when the road goes right next to lakes, that means a lot of up and down. Puerto Rio Tranquillo is a miniature tourist town with lots of adventure companies, at least 3 supermarkets, and a GREAT and inexpensive sandwich shop. This is a great spot for lunch.

This gives a good sense of what the road is like. It can be pretty washboarded, but most times you can avoid the washboard by riding on one side or the other. Unfortunately, sometimes it can’t be avoided.

Day 7: Right after leaving Pto Bertrand, there are a few seemingly free places to camp right by the rio baker… they looked like the best spots of the whole trip. We went further to the Confluencia of the Baker and the Neff (the Confluencia is amazing and should not be missed. It is a short hike from the road) and then had to backtrack a little to (#7) which is a pay campsite right by the Rio Baker. We got a site 3 feet from the water which was amazing.

The rapid at the Confluencia. Amazing.

Day 8: After the Confluencia, there isn’t really camping for 20km so keep that in mind as you plan. We chose to do the 15K “shortcut” from the CA which starts on a suspension bridge and ends by taking a cable-raft. It was amazing because we went by a couple of beautiful farms and passed 1 horse cart and 3 trucks in 4 hours. However, there is a HUGE amount of climbing (probably 600 meters). It’s probably easier and a bit faster to stay on the CA. Cochrane is a pretty town and a great place to shop (stocked hardware store, many grocery stores) and get on the internet. There is good free camping by the lake ~20km south of Cochrane (along the road before our campsite (8)). Don’t camp where we did… that was along a big stretch with no camping so we hid in the trees on the side of the road on night 8. It wasn’t a bad night, but it’s not recommended.

Cable raft over Rio Baker

Day 9: This ride is beautiful! Once the road rejoins the Rio Baker there are a few free places to camp.

Day 10: Caleta Tortel is 23km out of the way (each way) but we thought it was amazing. There are no streets, just raised wooded walkways… many out over the ocean. There are a couple of great restaurants, lots of wild rasberries, and a crowded but free municipal campground.

The thing on the right that looks like a dock is actual the main path/boardwalk through town.

Day 11: Stunning scenery. Started with a huge climb once we got back on the CA from Caleta Tortel, then down to a free ferry operated by the Chilean Fuerzas Armadas (thanks Chilean military, but that doesn’t let you off the hook for the coup, political disappearances, and the outsize share of copper revenues you still grab from the Chilean government). Between Jan and March the ferry departed at 10am, 12noon, and 6pm each day from Caleta Yungay to Rio Bravo. Apparently this schedule hadn’t changed in a few years, but check this online a few days in advance. After Rio Bravo, the first 20km is flat, then there is some serious climbing. We camped by a river in a spot that was sort of fenced off, but fine to camp. A guy came in the am and asked us for 5000 CHP. If we had made the 10am ferry rather than the noon, we could have made it a bit farther to lots of camping further up the road.

Our lonely bikes on the free ferry

Day 12: Glaciers and waterfalls everwhere. Mostly downhill or flat. Villa O’Higgins is a cute little town with good grocery stores and a few nice restaurants.

Day 13: Left OHiggins at 7:30am for an early 7km ride to get to the boat across Lago OHiggins. The company that runs these boats in 2015 is Robinson Crusoe (www.robinsoncrusoe.com). You have to make reservations a few days in advance, otherwise, you are likely to have to wait in Villa O’Higgins for a day or two. Making the reservation is free and easy by email. You have till ~9pm the day before your ferry ride to pay for the boat in cash in Villa O’Higgins.

Boarding the boat for Glaciar OHiggins and Candelario Mancilla

The boats drops bikers off at Candelario Mansilla first, around 10am, then goes to glacier OHiggins, then comes back to Candelario Mansilla to drop off the bikers that stayed on to see the glacier around 5pm. We went to the glacier which was very cool, but not quite as big as the Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina. If you camp at Candelario Mansilla, you MUST buy the raspberry jam made by the woman who runs the campground. AMAZING.

Day 14: We left Candelario Mansilla campground, passed through Chilean customs, and biked/pushed our bikes over down rutted singletrack and through streams to the shore of Lago del Desierto. The first half of the route is a mostly rideable road that climbs steeply. At the top, it changes to a path that is mostly good rideable singletrack… though there are a few sections where bikes need to be walked and front paniers scraped the side of the track. The bike/hike from Candelario to Lago del Desierto was easily doable in 5 hours. The Argentine customs post is right on the shore of the lake. If the weather is clear, you should absolutely camp here. The view of Mt. Fitz Roy is unparalleled.

Path/singletrack between Candelario Mancilla and Lago Del Desierto

In Feb 2015, the boat across Lago Del Desierto from North to South left at 11 am, and again around 4 or 5pm. It was possible, without too much strain, to go from Villa O’Higgins all the way across Lago Del Desierto in one day. Some friends of ours made it from O’Higgins to Chalten in one day… about 12 hours of travel overall.

Day 15: We crossed Lago del Desierto and made the easy ride into El Chalten, stopping along the way to enjoy the views. El Chalten feels like a cross between a cute mountain town and an old western frontier town. It’s a great place to stay for a few days and do hikes, or recharge and eat Argentine steak. From here, the riding is back on pavement and through vast wide-open and windy scrublands as you head south.

5. Other Miscellaneous Tips

Budget:

Transportation was the major cost:

  • Flight: Santiago to Puerto Montt — ~$120
  • Flight: Punta Arenas back to Santiago (with stop in PM) ~$220
  • Navimag Ferry: ~$160
  • Robinson Crusoe Boat: ~$100
  • We paid about $20 PP/per day for food (self cooked on camp stove with a few restaurant lunch stops).
  • We found free campsights about half the time and paid ~$8 per person the other half the time. The average cost of the hotels we splurged on was about $25/pp/night.

The total cost of the trip ended up being about $1600/person for all 3 weeks round trip from Santiago, including ~$350 for bike rental.

Also:

  • Trying fishing… there are TONS of trout and salmon. I’m terrible and I still caught something. Cheap rods and handlines are available in Coyhauique.
  • In early 2015 there was internet and intermittent 3g phone service along the way. It’s SLOW, but you’ll be able to send emails if you need.
  • Finally, if you’ve made it this far with me, and you are an American, please check out this other post I’ve written on our current politics. I’d love discussion and your feedback.

6. Here is the entire map in one image. This should be printable.

Big Thanks! I hope this description helps someone have an amazing experience. Comment if you find this useful or if you have any questions.

Links:

Carretera Austral: More Inside Scoop — This is a page where I’ve tucked a bit more detail on bike choice, lodging options, ride time required, riding the Navimag, and other misc points. I am also putting additional comments from readers like you in this page and in this link, so please send comments useful to other riders!

There are a couple of very useful CA descriptions that we found online that are geared towards people doing much bigger rides. You may also find them useful:

http://www.recorreaysen.cl/ — A great catalogue of interesting things to do in the Aysen region of Chile where the ride is.

http://theglobelovers.com/worldbiketour/carretera-austral-cycling-guide/ — A great blog with more info on the route

https://thecarreteraaustral.wordpress.com/route/resources — /Another great blog with good maps.

Also, Chilean nuts, really tasty.

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