From Puerto Montt begins Chile’s Ruta 7, the Carretera Austral – one of Latin America’s most famous highways. From spring to fall, travelers mount their motorcycles and bikes to undertake the 1247-kilometer (775 mi) journey south to the end of the road at Villa O’Higgins. Some backpackers (especially Israelis fresh out of their military stints) stand by the roadsides, thumb outstretched, to explore the road that way.
The Carretera Austral goes through the southern section of Chile’s X Región de los Lagos and through the entire length of XI Región de Aysén. At some places, ferries connect pieces of the road, between Caleta la Arena and just north of Contao, from Hornopirén to Chaitén and across Fiordo Mitchell from Puerto Yungay to Río Bravo. It’s a journey that takes patience, but the intense beauty of this virtually untouched part of Chile makes up for the hardships of rain, cold and wind.
Almost half of the region is protected by national parks and reserves. The road is edged with glacier-packed mountains, turquoise rivers and sapphire lakes. It’s an outdoor sportsperson’s paradise, with hiking, ice trekking, mountain climbing, fly fishing, whitewater rafting and kayaking. You’ll encounter some of the country’s rarest animals and birds in pristine temperate rainforests. In this Northern Patagonia are four international lakes, spanning the border between Chile and Argentina: Lago Palena (Lago General Vittner in Argentina), Lago General Carrera (Lago Buenos Aires, South America’s second largest lake, Lago Cochrane (Lago Pueyrredón) and Lago O’Higgins (Lago San Martín).
The face of the Carretera Austral is quickly changing. During the warm months, crews work widening the road. It is projected that by 2014 the entire highway as far as Cochrane will be paved.