Planning a Trip
Ferry Crossings -- Make reservations for ferry services well in advance, as they tend to fill up, even during the low season. The trip from Puerto Montt to Chaitén requires a ferry crossing (ferries are in operation all year, though the frequency is less than in previous years). Contact Naviera Austral (tel. 65/270430; www.navieraustral.cl) for information.
Gas -- Service stations can be found at reasonable intervals, and some smaller towns such as Futaleufú or Villa O'Higgins sell gas in jugs from stores or private residences, but some travelers feel safer carrying a backup canister of fuel. Canisters can be purchased from any service station or rented from any car rental agency.
Crossing Into Argentina -- Drivers who head into Argentina must prove that they are the owner of their car, or have their rental agency set up the proper paperwork, which must be completed by your agency 48 hours in advance, to show you are driving a rental car. Extra insurance usually has to be purchased; check with the rental agency. The department store Falabella offers a 10-day plan for $37 (£25) and a 30-day plan for $60 (£40). Drivers must fill out a detailed form and are then given a copy to carry with them until crossing back into Chile.
Road Conditions -- The Carretera Austral is made largely of dirt and gravel, which can get slippery during a storm. A 4*4 vehicle is necessary if going beyond any town center, especially if snow is in the forecast. Some rental agencies insist that you rent a truck with high clearance. Giant potholes are the exception, not the norm, but they can cause a car to spin out or even flip if driving too fast. For this reason, drivers are cautioned to keep their speed between 40kmph (25 mph) and 60kmph (37 mph). When it's wet or the road curves, you need to slow down even more.
Hitchhikers -- Road courtesy dictates that you might have to pick up a hitchhiker or two along the way. Most hitchhikers are humble local folk who simply do not have the means to get from place to place (during the summer many foreign backpackers try to get a lift, too). Use your own judgment. You should always lend a hand to anyone whose car has broken down.
Getting Around by Bus
There is inexpensive, frequent summer service and intermittent winter service to and from destinations along the Carretera Austral for those who choose not to drive. It takes longer, and you won't have the opportunity to stop at points of interest along the way, but every town has a tour operator that can usually get you to outlying sites for day trips. Also, the breathtaking scenery never fails to dazzle, even if you can't get off the bus.
The 5-hour journey from Puerto Montt to Hornopirén (for the summer-only ferry to Caleta Gonzalo) is no longer running due to the eruption of the Chaitén volcano in May 2008, and there is no telling when operations might resume. Call Buses Fierro (tel. 65/421522) for updated information. Buses from Chaitén previously left for Futaleufú an average of five to six times per week during the summer, and about three times per week during the winter, though again, service has been significantly affected here; you should check on the present conditions before making any plans.
Buses from Chaitén to Coyhaique, stopping first in Puyuhuapi, used to leave up to four times per week year-round, though timetables will continue to be affected by the eruption.