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The Carretera Austral (CH-7) is the name given to Chile's Route 7. The highway runs about 1,240 kilometers (770 miles) from Puerto Montt to Villa O'Higgins through rural Patagonia. Carretera Austral provides road access to Chile's Aisén Region and southern part of Los Lagos Region. These areas are sparsely populated, thus despite its length, Carretera Austral provides access to only ca 100,000 people. South of the highway's start in Puerto Montt, Coyhaique (population 44,850) is the largest city along it.
Construction was begun on the highway in 1976 under the presidency of Augusto Pinochet in order to connect a number of the remote communities. Before that, in 1950s and 1970s, there had been unsuccessful attempts to build access roads in the region. The highway opened to traffic in 1988, and by 1996 was completed to Puerto Yungay. The last 100 kilometers (62 miles) to Villa O'Higgins were opened in 2000. In 2003, a branch road to Caleta Tortel was finished.
Carretera Austral near Caleta Gonzalo.
Traveling the entire route requires the use of three ferries:
a 30 minute crossing about 45 kilometers (28 miles) south of the start of the highway in Puerto Montt.
a 5 hour crossing from Hornopiren (110 kilometers (68 miles) south of Puerto Montt) to Caleta Gonzalo.
a 50 minute crossing from Puerto Yungay to Rio Bravo, connecting to the final 100 kilometers (62 miles) of the highway.
The ferry from Hornopiren to Caleta Gonzalo only runs during January and February. Thus, for ten months of the year it is not possible to travel straight down the carretera Austral. The portion of the road south of Hornopiren is connected to Argentina year-round though, using several border crossings along the way.
The highway began as almost entirely unpaved, but more sections are becoming paved each year. As of 2008, most of the road is still unpaved.
In October 5, 2006, construction of a road between Hornopirén and Chaitén, crossing Pumalín, was announced. The project is estimated to have a cost of some 100 million dollars.
There is also a plan to extend the road to Magallanes Region, which still lacks domestic road connection to the rest of Chile. This means constructing a 935 km branch Rio Bravo-Ventisquero Montt-Puerto Natales, with 9 ferry crossings planned. By January 2007, the construction on the Rio Bravo-Ventisquero Montt section had begun, with the branch off point from the main Rio Bravo-Villa O'Higgins road being at 48.00°S 73.13°W.