Health and safety on the Carretera Austral

Health

Before you travel, check the current Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) travel advice as well as the country-specific page, which details any travel restrictions and entry requirements, as well as safety and security advice.

Ensure that any insurance is appropriate for the type of travel that you intend to do; currently this should include cover for Coronavirus-related events such as health problems and travel disruption.

Medical facilities are limited in the Carretera – any serious accident or illness will involve evacuation to Puerto Montt or Santiago. Every village has a posta de salud, which is a minimal medical centre for minor problems. Certainly outside of Coyhaique it is unlikely that doctors will speak English.

Tap water is drinkable across Chile, although mineral water is almost always available. To be really safe, stick to mineral water (though this should not be used to make up babies’ feeds as the salt content is likely to be too high) or bring water to a rolling boil or use a water filter bottle such as Aquapure to filter any water that you drink. Anyone with a compromised immunity is more susceptible to infections.

Food poisoning and cholera are not a great problem, but uncooked ceviche (shellfish) should be avoided. Depletion of the ozone layer, coupled with dry, unpolluted air, has led to increased levels of ultraviolet radiation in southern Chile, causing sunburn and increasing the risk of cataracts and skin cancer. Be sure to wear good sunglasses and plenty of sunscreen.

Inoculations

No vaccinations are legally required, but make sure you’re up to date with tetanus and diphtheria – which these days comes with polio as the all-in-one Revaxis – and measles mumps and rubella vaccine (MMR).

Hepatitis A and typhoid vaccines may be recommended. These food and waterborne diseases are more likely to occur in travellers who are visiting friends and relatives, long-stay or frequent travellers, or those going to areas where there is poor sanitation. In addition hepatitis A would be also advised for certain occupations, men who have sex with men and intravenous drug users.

Hepatitis B is carried by about 2% of the population of Chile which is classed as an intermediate/high prevalence. Vaccination should be considered for everyone ideally, but especially those who may be at increased risk. Hepatitis B can be spread by having unprotected sex, sharing needles and through working in medical settings and with children.

Chile is considered a low-risk rabies country as rabies is only reported in wild animals. Anyone working with animals in Chile should be vaccinated. Most other travellers will be at low risk, but you should consider having a pre-exposure rabies vaccine if you are travelling longer term or are going to be away from good medical care.

Yellow fever is not present in Chile and there is no requirement for proof of vaccination even if you are entering the country from yellow fever-infected areas.

Animal/insect bites

There are no venomous snakes, although the recluse spider (araña de rincón), found in many homes, has a venomous bite which can kill. There are biting insects in summer in the south (and sometimes around Arica) but they don’t carry diseases such as dengue, chikungunya or zika. Tabanos (horseflies) are prevalent across Patagonia in the summer. They are a nuisance but not life-threatening; they attack humans – particularly short-sleeved-shirt- and shorts- wearing trekkers – often in swarms, and do give a nasty bite. However, they are slow and easily swatted once they have landed on exposed skin. Motorcyclists should keep their visors closed if there is any danger of tabanos.

Safety

The entire region of the Carretera Austral is astonishingly safe. The greatest threats are road accidents, or accidents relating to outdoor activities. Consider that communications are often poor, ambulances may have to travel extended distances on poor-quality roads, and medical facilities are limited.

The best means to avoid road accidents are: drive slowly; avoid driving at night; always use headlights (even during the day); use a vehicle suitable for the road conditions; ensure you can see through the rear-view mirror; assume there will be an oncoming truck or horse in the middle of the road on every blind corner and brow of a hill; do not stop on a corner; and pull off to the side of the road when snapping a photograph.

Outdoor activities such as climbing, rafting, diving and horse riding carry inherent risks. Ensure the guide is qualified, has insurance, and participate according to your abilities. Use reputable operators, and if in doubt ask to see the SERNATUR qualification. Companies offering water activities require a licence, although informal and unlicensed companies also operate. Trekking, particularly in mountains, can be lethal for the ill-prepared. Although not as high as other parts of the Andes, weather can deteriorate rapidly.

Women travellers

Women travellers are equally safe. Care must be taken in certain rougher areas of Puerto Montt largely due to the prevalence of drunks. Taxis are the best means to travel at night. South of Puerto Montt there are very few safety issues. Around the mining areas it is possible to encounter the occasional drunk miner, but the same common-sense rules apply here as at home. Bars with suspicious red curtains are generally not the safest places in town, as they offer a range of ‘services’ not found in standard bars, and are perhaps best avoided by women travellers.

LGBTQ+ travellers

While same-sex unions were legalised in Chile in April 2015, this remains a very conservative country and gay couples would be best advised to avoid public displays of affection. The only gay bar along the Carretera Austral is Club Angels in Puerto Montt.

Travelling with a disability

The UK’s gov.uk website provides general advice and practical information for travellers with disabilities preparing for overseas travel. Where possible this guide lists hotels and restaurants with facilities for travellers with disabilities; unfortunately, these are few and far between. Significant sections of the Carretera Austral are not paved and, although this is slowly changing, the reality is simply that disabilities have not been considered in the construction of the vast majority of towns, buildings, restaurants, hotels, public transport options, roads or tourism facilities, and nor are the inhabitants of this region accustomed to assisting those with disabilities.

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