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Carretera Austral
Chile's southern highway


Until the opening of the Carretera Austral, the southern third of Chile was poorly connected to the rest of the country. There was limited airline service and overland transport was practically non-existent unless you crossed over into Argentina.
Begun in 1976, the Carretera Austral was completed in three sections:
  • Central Section, opened in 1983, running from Coyhaique to Chaiten, a total of 435 km (265 miles)
  • Northern section, opened in 1988, running from Chaiten to Puerto Montt, a total of 242 km (148 miles) with 3 ferry crossing linking various sections
  • Southern section from Coyhaique to Puerto Yungay just south of Cochrane, a total of 421 km (257 miles), and can go no further because of the continental ice fields
The Carretera Austral is described as "camino ripio", meaning paved in stones. This translates into gravel & dirt, though it is mostly gravel. Any time the description "all weather road" is used, you can be absolutely certain it means a gravel and-or dirt road.

It is mostly a narrow, almost single track road that was carved out of that narrow strip of land between the Andes and the Pacific based on aerial photography. It is often hugging the Pacific, and as often crossing through forests and over mountains. It affords wonderful panoramas and vistas of mountains and forests and channels.

While it is the only overland lifeline, the main traffic occurs during the height of their summer, December through February. During the shoulder months of September through November and March through April, traffic is practically non-existent, especially by North American standards. A count during four hours on one segment between Coyhaique and Puyuhuapi in April '99 numbered only five passing vehicles!

And just as infrequent as the passing vehicles are places to stop and "refresh" . Pre-trip planning and opportunistic refueling of vehicle and stowing away snacks and liquids along the way is an absolute must.

Anytime you are on the highway, care must be taken for flying rocks when passing other vehicles. Almost every vehicle - even the new ones - have nicks and cracks in the windshield. The tradition of touching the windshield while passing, which supposedly helps to insulate the glass from the shock of a flying stone and thus acts as a preventative to nicks and cracks, seems less than effective and is more often than not misunderstood to be a wave "hello".

The Carretera Austral is not for everyone. Driving times are long, not because of distances but because of the road conditions. It is sparsely sprinkled with conveniences and overnight stops must be planned and preferably pre-confirmed to assure availability, especially in December through February.

But without a doubt, it is one of the great overland trips amidst spectacular scenery.