Carretera Austral: A Ripio Odyssey

The construction of the Carretera Austral under General Pinochet aimed to connect remote communities in Chilean Patagonia as tensions escalated during the Beagle Channel conflict in the 1970s.

Today it remains a grand feat of engineering linking the remote and isolated communities of Puerto Montt in the north with Villa O’Higgins in the south. Perhaps a curiouser byproduct is that of the adoption of this rough isolated road spanning 1200 kms by cyclists. Voted one of the top ten cycling destinations in the world, each year more and more come to make their pilgrimage to the holy grail of adventurous cycling.

As I battled north through the Patagonia pampa day by day the Carretera Austral was the one thing to keep me sane. Promises of peaceful serene landscapes and light traffic only added to the allure as south bound cyclists  recounted their time on this ribbon of ripio. For many a fitting crescendo to their long journey south.

After an early morning arrival at the port of Villa O’Higgins, bleary eyed I drop my tent and cycle in town to buy food and supplies for the coming days riding. Slowly the cyclists and backpackers from last nights ferry ride amass on the one shop in town.

If Ushuaia is the end of the world, Villa O’Higgins feels like the end of the road. More house front room than shop, with limited stock in the shop provisions are far from bountiful, and let’s forget the 5 a day fruit and veg intake.

Despite my concerns at the rain I’m promised on the Carretera things get off too a great start and hold for almost 10 days worth of cycling.

Dead wood sits on beaches, patches of snow remain on the mountains.

The road wending its way past marshes and long grass.


Whilst days are warm with blue skies in the south. Mornings have an Autumnal chill as the suns rays take their time to reach the valley floor.

Sometimes I ride above the cloud.
Cloud Inversion

The road allegedly descends. Seems to be a lot of climbing to me.

It does wiggle though.

Ferries connect the bits where the roads end.

Bridges appear occasionally.

Brilliant blue rivers like Rio Baker abound.
Blue Baker

Curious dead forests.

Pajores Muerta

The remote fishing town of Caleta Tortel provides an interesting side trip. The Carretera Austral was only extended to this town in 2003.

Tortel Boats

Wooden stilts and walkways are the order of the day.

Those Patagonian Shingles.

Even the graffiti is tastefully done. An objection to the Patagonian damming project.

Wild camping opportunities abound. Views with hanging glaciers.

Or waterfront.
Wild Camping

Alpenglows come for free.

As do fiery skies.

The night skies aren’t bad either.
Night skies

Breakfasts are admittedly on the basic side.

Traffic is light, often with Gauchos going about their daily business.

Or just moseying along.
Moseying Along

Southbound cyclists thin out.

Gianni and Marcelo

Even occasional north bound cyclists.
Northbound Cyclists

Reaching the town of Villa Cerro Castillo things change. Ripio is replaced with tarmac.


The large town of Coyahaique comes as a surprise after the best part of 10 days in the wilderness. No objections to sampling the Cerveza Artesanale though.

As small holdings give way to industrialised farming.

The rate of change feels palpable. Throaty rumbling Ford pickups are put out to pasture.
Ford Pickup

Replaced by Japanese brands. Combined with a 100 km stretch of tarmac and ever increasing road improvements as Cass and Anna lament; get it before its gone.

As south bound cyclists thin out day by day racing to catch the final Villa O’Higgins ferry I expect to have the Casa De Cicilistas in Villa Manihuales to myself. Instead I find Kurt bursting out of the door.

Before long we are joined by Simon and Olivia, a convivial evening is had as we drink beer, chat and serve up a communal meal.

Main course Kurt and my stylee. Fine dining served on a child’s chair.
Main Course

Bread and Butter pudding courtesy of Simon and Olivia.

With such fine company and a (supposed) bad weather forecast I stay on for another day, a chance to pick Kurt’s brains and draw lines on a map. Freddie and Flo, two French cyclists join us for our second evening together.

Time to say our goodbyes. A man who likes travelling light and drinking beer at a rate of knots it would have been a pleasure to ride with Kurt, pity he was headed south.


I ride with Flo for the next couple of days north. Things get a bit murky as we have heavy rain.

Before turning to snow the next morning.


Then back to murk.


Quelat National Park has an Into the Wild feel, abandoned bus with wood burner. Seems I’m not the only one that thinks that.
Into the Wild

Arriving in Puyuhuaphi cold, wet and miserable Flo’s friend Diego takes pity on the two dishevelled cyclists that turn up at his door, inviting us in we stay the night and thaw out. With a thread bare front tyre, no rear brake and friends further down the road I leave Flo and ride on to La Junta.

At La Junta its time to bid farewell to the Carretera Austral, its been an incredible couple of weeks of cycling and I’m sure this will remain one of my highlights of my trip north.

Time to follow some lines on my map.


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