Driving the Carretera Austral
Although it is possible to reach most destinations in this region by ferry, bus, or plane, road improvements and an expansion of services mean an increasing number of travelers are choosing to drive the Carretera Austral. It's not as enormous an undertaking as it sounds, but it can be costly, especially when you factor in the cost of ferry rides, drop-off fees (about $500/£333), and gas. Also, the remoteness and increasing popularity of the region among travelers makes it one of Chile's more expensive destinations.
Several agencies in Puerto Montt (at the airport) and Coyhaique offer one-way car rentals, and some allow you to cross into Argentina or leave the car as far away as Punta Arenas, Chile. Alternatively, you could rent a car in Coyhaique and drive north, stopping in Puyuhuapi before heading on to Futaleufú. Although you'd have to backtrack to Coyhaique to return the car, this is a less expensive option, even if you pay the extra insurance necessary to return via Argentina.
The most troublesome considerations are flat tires, slippery roads, and foul weather, any of which can strike at any time. Renting an extra spare tire is a wise add-on.
It gets even remoter the farther south you travel. That may change over the next decade as a result of the giant hydroelectric projects planned along the Baker River, which has enough power to light up all of Belgium, tempting companies seeking to feed Chile's energy-guzzling economy. The number of residents could double temporarily for construction, worrying environmentalists. In the meantime, Cochrane is the last place where you can reliably buy gas and get cash from an ATM; BancoEstado has an outlet on the main square. There are a few hotels and basic restaurants, but Cochrane is a rather gloomy, windswept place. The Esso station near the town's entrance has some information and brochures for travelers. Cochrane is the closest place from which to visit the Estancia Valle Chacabuco, a huemul and guanaco haven alongside the Tamango and Jeinemeni preserves, which the Conservación Patagónica Foundation, associated with Douglas Tompkins, bought in 2004 and seeks to transform into Patagonia National Park (www.conservacionpatagonica.org).
There are a number of decent places to stay here including the popular Hosteria Lago Esmeralda (San Valentín 141; tel. 67/522621; $20/£13 double) and larger, and more modern Hotel Ultimo Paradiso (Lago Brown 455; tel. 67/522361; $70/£47 double). The best place to eat is at El Fogon (San Valentín 651; tel. 67/522322), which serves Chilean standards and even has a few rooms in back. For supplies head to Casa Melero at Las Golondrinas 148, the very last place until Punta Arenas for fishing equipment, camping gear, most basic food stuffs, and wine.
Cochrane is the transportation "hub" for the limited southbound bus services: Turismo Interlagos (tel. 67/522606; daily to Coyhaique at 9am), and Don Carlos at Prat 281 (tel. 67/522150; Wed, Fri, and Sun to Coyhaique at 9:15am). Los Ñadis (tel. 67/211460) heads to Villa O'Higgins Mondays and Thursdays and returns on Tuesdays and Fridays. Buses Acuario 13, Rio Baker 349 (tel. 67/522143), runs to Caleta Tortel (3 hr.) Tuesday to Friday and Sunday at 9:15am. The frequency of buses drops significantly outside of the summer.
Continuing onward, the road narrows, but the scenery stays spectacular, passing through the Andes along multicolored peat bogs, finally descending into deep temperate rainforest. The road branches off to the remarkable little logging town of Caleta Tortel, an unreal, S-shaped place suspended somewhere between the steep slopes of a cypress rainforest and the pistachio green waters at the mouth of the Baker River, resembling a Patagonian Venice of sorts. Wood-shingled houses in bright or natural colors cling precariously to the hillside; cypress wood walkways and boats are the only ways to get around. Cars are banished to a lot at the end of the Carretera Austral -- even the fire engine is a boat, just like in Venice. The scent of the planks and wood-burning stoves adds spice to the fresh mountain, forest, and sea air. There's little to do beyond exploring the boardwalk maze, though this can be as magical an experience as a walk through Torres del Paine. Hiking trails and fishermen's boats can take you to even more remote spots, including the Montt and Steffens glaciers and the Isla de los Muertos; check at the little municipality in Tortel for detailed information on how to get there. There are few residenciales, among them Brisas del Sur -- a long walk from the parking lot and hence not a good choice for a brief stay -- and Don Adán (both are reachable at tel. 67/211876) and El Estilo (no phone). For dining, El Mirador (no phone; above the Plaza de Armas) is the most formal restaurant with the best menu, though it tends to be pricey. Sabores Locales, up a narrow staircase (no phone; look for a sign on the waterfront), has cheaper meals, though the menu is simpler -- comprising basically whatever they have fresh that day. There is an Entel office for phone calls on the plaza, and the library has free Internet service in 30-minute increments.
A new ferry, Padre Antonio Ronchi, takes vehicles across the Bravo River from the hamlet of Puerto Yungay (summer hours: 10am, noon, and 6pm, returning at 11am, 1, and 7pm) for travelers heading on to the end of the road at Villa O'Higgins, an unattractive frontier outpost in a broad valley. It's like a mini-Cochrane with fewer services. The deep azure, multi-fingered lake by the same name is fed by the Southern Ice Field, the world's biggest non-polar mass of ice. Again, the landscape is marvelous, and hikers with plenty of time can cross into Argentina without too much trouble via lovely Laguna del Desierto, eventually ending up in El Calafate. Tour outfitter Hielo Sur/Villa O'Higgins (tel. 67/431821; www.villaohiggins.com) offers boat trips to see glaciers and Mount Fitz Roy from the lake, and 1-day to 1-week hiking and horseback tours, including the crossing to El Calafate.
The area's next big attraction is a new Cruce del Lagos cruise from Villa O'Higgins to El Chaltén that avoids the cattle herd feel of the one from Puerto Montt to Bariloche -- few realize that it even exists. The 50km (80-mile), 3 1/2-hour, twice weekly journey ($35/£23) on the Quetru to the border at Candelario Mancilla passes Glaciar Chico and Glaciar O'Higgins, where you can either hike the 15km (24 miles) or hire a launch to Laguna del Desierto, where you can find buses to El Chaltén. The website has plenty of solid information (in Spanish), while the public library has free Internet service. The village has about a dozen basic places to stay. Check with the Oficina de Turismo Rural in Coyhaique (Ogana 1060; (tel. 67/214031; www.rutatranspatagonia.cl) for even more remote lodgings. Note that a road is being built near the ferry launch to Glacier Montt, about 70km/112 miles away, though it won't be finished until roughly 2012.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.