Along Chile’s remote Carretera Austral, pioneer families run small-scale Andean ranches in the emerald hillsides. At these off-the-grid homesteads, travelers can ride on sheepskin-padded saddles, gather round the fire pit for barbecues or simply sip mate by the wood stove.

Rural tourism is a concept both nonexistent and omnipresent along Chile's Carretera Austral. That is to say, due to its remote character, almost all tourism here is rural, though not by design. With road access only completed in the late 1990s, tourism along the Carretera Austral still remains a very homemade affair where informal, family-run hotels or hospedajes are the norm and hosts are likely to invite guests for tea and a tour of the greenhouse.

Make contact

To travel this region, reservations are rarely necessary outside of the summer high season (December to February). If you prefer to wing it, it’s not a stretch to just show up. However, to get into the rugged backcountry, it’s most useful to start planning well before you go. Trails rarely have adequate signage, which means that going with a guide might be the key to not getting lost.

The rural landscape seen on Chile's Carretera Austral © Carolyn McCarthy

In recent years, the region has invested a lot of effort in training rural inhabitants as hosts and guides. The result has been wonderful, offering visitors a close-up of life on the range. While most of these hosts only speak Spanish, their hospitality does not falter. Nonprofit Escuela de Guías de La Patagonia (escueladeguias@gmail.com), based in the regional capital of Coyhaique, trains young locals to be professional certified guides and can offer recommendations.

Another option is to check out the off-the-beaten path options at the Discover Patagonia Circuit (patagoniapordescubrir.com). This innovative government-funded project offers travelers original DIY circuits in rural Aysen, available as downloads in English or Spanish.

Explore the seductive side roads

From dusty, languid villages to steep valleys split by turquoise rivers, the best of the Carretera Austral is often found just beyond it, via the rough gravel roads that run from east to west. These lateral roads access the little-known seaside haunts, remote glaciers and clustered populations near the border of Argentina.

The Carretera Austral is often unpaved © Bas Wallet / CC BY 2.0

One such gem is Palena, a valley of cowboy traditions and narrow, meandering trails that lead to remote farms and forests. Fly-fishing has brought high-end lodges to this remote spot, but there are also excellent opportunities for horse treks and lazy river descents. A standout is the wonderful Casanova family farm Rincón de la Nieve. There’s no road access – guests arrive via a moderate day-long hike or horseback ride from Palena. Once there, visitors can relax, help herd the cattle or feed the orphaned sheep with a baby bottle. There’s also the option to continue along this route for a truly incredible five-day round-trip ride to remote Lago Palena.

The Palena tourism office (municipalidadpalena.cl) can help make homestay arrangements. Allow some lead time, since some remote outfitters can only be reached by radio.

High style on the lost coast

The homespun style of Patagonia also lends well to the lodge experience. Fundo Los Leones (fundolosleones.cl) provides the ultimate retreat in tiny shingled cabins that offer views of the changing tides of the Piti Palena Fjord. It’s located near the long-isolated coastal village of Raul Marín Balmaceda.

The Río Palena © Danita Delimont / Getty Images
The Río Palena © Danita Delimont / Getty Images

At the mouth of the Río Palena, the watershed preserve teems with wildlife, such as otters, sea lions and austral dolphins, which can be observed by boat and kayak tours. In the main lodge, guests join the host family for organic farm dinners and stories about the quirks of living along this isolated coastline. The village has wide sandy streets and grassy paths to a lovely beach.

In the remotest corners of an already remote region, Patagonia Adventure Expeditions (adventurepatagonia.com) leads expedition-style journeys. Their Ice to Ocean trip offers two weeks of trekking and rafting from the Northern Ice Field to the Pacific, accompanied by professional guides and local gauchos leading pack horses. Though roughing it is somewhat of a prerequisite for this remote route, pampering comes into play with thick air mattresses, top notch equipment and gourmet fare.

Summer festivals and events

All over southern Chile, January and February are sunny festival months when each locality celebrates its ‘birthday’ with public barbecues featuring whole lamb on a spit, rodeos and dances. For a full schedule of events, see the events listings on the English-language website of the Servicio Nacional de Turismo (SERNATUR, chile.travel).

Gauchos in Palena © Bernardo Gimenez / Getty Images

The most notable is Villa Cerro Castillo’s Festival Costumbrista (Traditions Festival). Usually held in February, the celebration offers an authentic take on Patagonian rodeo (don’t worry, no bulls are harmed here). It also draws artists and artisans from all over Chile and Argentina. In Palena, the rodeo, held on the last weekend in January, and during the week-long Semana Palena in late February, features cowboy festivities and live music.

When to go

The best weather in Patagonia usually comes between March and April, though services like public transportation and hotels only go into full swing during the shorter summer high season (January to February). This doesn’t mean that travelers can’t go off-season. In fact, the brave off-season visitor is usually rewarded with heaps of hospitality. Those traveling between April and October should be aware that landslides can close roads and foul weather can mean ferry and flight delays. Visitors should schedule in some extra days to stay on schedule with international flights. It’s the perfect opportunity to practice the most Patagonian of virtues: patience.

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