For twenty years, the Carretera Austral was built through rainforests and coastal regions, across rivers and around lakes, through rock and along fjords and beaches, until it was completed in 1996. Previously inaccessible regions were opened up by it. Beginning in Puerto Montt, the Carretera Austral winds its way across 1100km / 688mi (in parts already paved) to Caleta Tortel.
The coastal areas of this region have a cool climate. It rains a lot: up to 4000mm per year, whereby most precipitation falls during the winter. Due to the moderating influence of the sea, the differences between summer and winter temperatures tend to be small, which means summers are relatively cool and winters are generally mild. The average temperature for the coldest month does not sink below 4ºC / 39ºF, while for the warmest month, it rarely gets above 14ºC / 57ºF. Strong winds and storms can occur during summer. Towards the east, near the Andes, the climate is more Continental, which means summers are warmer and the winter is colder than near the coast. There is less rainfall, but it can also fall as snow during winter.
Originally, the region crossed by the Carretera Austral was inhabited by the Kaweskar and Tehuelche tribes, who lived from fishing, hunting and gathering. It was first explored by Spanish expeditions in the mid 16th century, but not settled by them. During the so-called ‘Araucarisation’ in the 18th century, when the Mapuche penetrated south, the Tehuelche and Kawekar partly accepted their language and culture. The settlement by Europeans came very late to this region, due to the long and fierce resistance against their oppression offered by the Mapuche. The first small towns were only founded in the 1920s.
Visitors can use hiking routes to explore the evergreen forest of Coigüe and Tepú in the 154,093 ha/380,764 acre Parque Nacional Queulat in the parish of Puerto Cisnes, and also admire the giant leaves of the Nalca fern. The park is home to a varied fauna, including the protected species of Pudu, black-necked swans, kingfishers, beavers and many more.
Numerous lakes and waterfalls contrast with the green of the forest. Without doubt the highlight of the park is the ‘hanging glacier’ whose ice mass protrudes between two walls or rock. According to a report by the pioneer captain Enrique Simpson in 1875, the glacier once reached within 100m/328ft of the sea shore. Today the sea is almost 8km/5mi away!
The Laguna San Rafael is part of the National Park of Laguna San Rafael, listed as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. It lies like a cul-de-sac at the end of the ‘Elephant Fjord’ and is only connected to it by a very narrow straight. The Laguna San Rafael is a glacial lake and the San Rafael glacier forms a giant ice wall at the eastern end of the lagoon, part of the northern ice fields. Icebergs and ice blocks thousands of years old float in the Laguna San Rafael, glittering in white, blue and turquoise. Every now and then, the glacier calves into the lake and a new ice block falls from the wall into the water with a thundering crash. The Laguna San Rafael can only be reached by boat.
The Parque Aiken del Sur is a 300 ha / 741 acre private nature reserve on the shores of Lago Riesco. White-water rivers, waterfalls and evergreen forest with ferns, of which some species have only recently been discovered, can be explored on three sign-posted hiking routes. Experienced rangers describe the flora and fauna. Visitors at the Parque Aiken del Sur can also try fly fishing here.
The small town of Coyhaique in the broad valley of the Rio Simpson is the regional capital of Coyhaique province. Coyhaique was founded in 1929, to provide an urban centre for the region’s settlers. It is a pleasant town with many green spaces, restaurants and hotels, and is completely surrounded by jagged mountains. It is an ideal base from which to explore the area. A craft market is tempting for shopping strolls and the regional museum highlights the history and nature of Patagonia.
The 2675m / 8,777ft high Cerro Castillo, („Castle Hill“) is without doubt the main attraction of the 180,000ha / 444,780 acre nature reserve of the same name. It owes its name to the many peaks that recall the towers and turrets of a castle. The park is also the location for the Manos de Cerro Castillo („Hands of Castle Hill“). Made by the Tehuelche tribe, they are very well preserved hand prints and paintings that still glow in their original red paint.
It is no exaggeration to call the Capillas de Marmol („Marble Chapels“) a work of art made by nature and they are a ‘must see’ on any journey exploring the Carretera Austral. The combined actions of time and the crystal clear waters of the Lago General Carrera have washed figures and pillars out of the rock and created an extraordinary monument: a marble cavern supported by slim pillars, much like in a cathedral. The Capillas de Marmol can be visited by boat from Puerto Tranquilo.
The Bake River comes from the south and flows out of Lago General Carrera until it reaches the sea by Caleta Tortel. It is wonderfully turquoise and very turbulent. A short distance above the confluence of the rivers Baker and Neff, the mighty „Saltos del Baker“ waterfall can be reached on foot (around 600m / 0.4mi).
The wild Futaleufu River that carves a path through the mountains near the Argentine border is one of the most difficult rafting and kayaking routes in the world (grade 5). The first descent was only made in the 1980s, and the river has been attracting adventurous visitors from all over the world ever since.