The Carretera Austral!
Anyone who has heard the smallest bit about Patagonia has heard about this iconic road. If it’s not the mother of all road trips it is definitely one of her children. Easily placed within the top roads to drive once in your lifetime next to Route 66, Great Ocean Road, Ruta 40, Karakoram Highway, Highway 1, Guoliang Tunnel Road, Stelvio pass … and many more. You get the point, there are many roads a (wo)man must take in their life.
Did you know?
Pinochet, in the ‘haydays’ of its reign, wanted to have a road towards the south of the country so the remote areas in the south were connected with the north of Chile. Its former name was “Carretera General Augusto Pinochet”, and was initially constructed by his army men of whom many lost their lives during this dangerous task.
Side note: Manuel, the father of the family in Huépil where we are currently staying, also helped constructing this road during his military service, being roped up from the cliff side, dynamiting the mountain to make room for the road.
Being the most ambitious and expensive project of the country, more than 40 years later, it is still not finished.
It is a work in progress for the ‘simple’ reason that Chilean Patagonia is a region with snowcapped mountains, dense forests, lakes, fjords, glaciers, volcanoes, … basically all elements of nature have to be overcome to make a way to the South. One can drive about 1250 KM south from Puerto Montt to Villa O’higgins where the Carretera stops in the middle of nowhere. This nowhere is just before the ‘Campo de hielo Patagonico Sur’, the 3rd largest snowfield in the world after Greenland and Antarctica. This is the reason why you have to drive through Argentina to get to the south of Chile. Or take a boat or plane…
OK, all that is fine, but what did this route mean for us? Very simple: AMAZING LANDSCAPES!
After our visit to El Chalten, and about 500KM back the same way on Ruta 40, we took Paso Roballes to cross between Argentina and Chile. Arriving after dark at the border and because we had dodged about 50 rabbits on our way, we asked the border patrol where we could camp not too far off in order to minimize roadkill. With the next campside being 50km away -which would take almost 2 hours on this road and after dark- and the sight of our almost-desperate faces they responded: “You can sleep here in our “Gym”. It was not heated, but at least it was inside!
The next day we drove the most beautiful stretch according to us: Valle Chacabuco in Parque Patagonia. An incredibly beautiful valley with hundreds of guanacos, birds and we even saw – thanks to Céline’s eagle eyes – 3 PUMAS! This surely made up for missing an armadillo in Argentina. Seeing them really made our day.
We arrived on the Carretera Austral! And this part being a ‘road trip’, the drive itself is the main adventure. But we did do some activities along the road of course:
- We visited Caleta Tortel: The strangest town we have visited so far. And we have seen our part already. Tortel, a village completely in wood at the seaside, where all houses are built on stilts (not in the water, but on the hill side!) and everything is connected with – of course – wooden footbridges.
It was a strange feeling walking there at the end of the season: Everything seemed close except from a handful of locals and seeing more stray dogs than people, gave the village a bit of a ghost town feeling. We stayed at a ‘hospedaje’ run by an old couple and being the only guests there we felt like part of the family, part of the locals.
The next day we joined the husband at his work: he sailed daily from Tortel to remote locations in the area to deliver groceries or big goods like wood or animals to … people who live in these remote locations. The day we joined he brought – not kidding – 2 boxes of groceries to a family of five who lived – again not kidding – a 5 hours boat drive away in the middle of nowhere. So a 10-hour boat trip to deliver about half a shopping cart to people. And he does this trip every two weeks. Me, calculating and thus wondering what this all had to cost for the family was simply answered by the captain: “nothing [more]. The state pays for this transport”. This is one of the actions of the government to stimulate people to live in the South of Chile. What an effort!
- Visited Puerto Rio Tranquilo and its Marble Caves: Again a small town (+/- 400 inhabitants) with more dogs than tourists at the moment. You got to love that end of season vibe … We went to the mechanic to repair a tire (of course) and went on a boat trip to see the Marble Caves. At the lakeside you can find cubic hectares of marble, eroded by the lake which shine bright like a … marble stone. Together with the clear blue water it was a nice effect.
- Tried to reach Lago Leones and its mirador to the Campo Hielo Norte, but we got lost (for the first time ever during this trip, not bad no?!: This was a day full of good luck. First we drove to the start of the hike. Read: 1 hour south on dirt road + 1 hour on really dirt dirt road, where – of course – we had a flat tire. Next up, somewhere during the hike we got lost and met the impermeable nature so we had to get back after 4 to 5 hours hiking in the valley before we reached the lake. On the way back the front axle started to rattle extremely loud… one of those days. But the valley was nice to walk in.
- Climbed up to the lagoon below Cerro Castillo: Hiking uphill for 4 hours, with the last parts being quite tricky on ice and in knee-deep snow (ok, we admit, we lost the track and got slightly lost again, which makes it the 2nd time of our trip) made it a strenuous hike but as always, the views were absolutely worth it! As were the melted marshmellows at night as a reward for our hard work!
- Went to Coyhaique to look for spare parts (front axle) for the car but didn’t find them. So we decided to have it repaired in Santiago.
- Visited Puerto Raúl Marin Balmaceda: We heard you could spot dolphins from the shore. We didn’t see any, but we did enjoyed the drive up there, the private ferry, a nice beach walk and a rustic lunch spot.
- Climbed Volcan Chaitén: An active volcano that erupted heavily in 2008: a strenuous uphill hike through a burned forest to the outer rim of the volcano. The eruption made the volcano 200m higher, which you can clearly see from the outer rim. These are the type of battlefields we don’t mind to see: the one between elements of nature. It was a cloudy rainy day, but it made it very mysterious and impressive!
- Saw the Alerces trees in Parque Pumalin, the tallest trees in Patagonia during a short forest walk.
- Enjoyed the beauty of Volcan Osorno in the morning.
Things we have learned from Patagonia:
- Dirt road is dirty: don’t wash your car in the south. It gets really dusty or muddy.
- Dirt road goes slow: don’t expect to make plans of reaching a specific place on the map. Just start early and see where you end.
- Dirt road kills tires: we had 6 flat tires on about 6000 KM. Asking a car tire specialist which brands are better he said: “There are no good brands for dirt road. All tires get wrecked.” Thanks for the heads up!
Side note: with our statistic background we extrapolated that we will encounter 20 flat tires if we will drive 20000 km .
Note to self: buy stocks from tire companies.
- Some people live extremely remote. The towns were there before the Carretera. This meant that the only way to reach the towns were horses and boats.
- The scenery looks similar to New Zealand, but a lot bigger. And in New Zealand you can’t find glaciers ending in lakes like here in Patagonia. And a kiwi -which we consider as a reliable source so we didn’t double check it- told us that the leaves don’t turn yellow-red-brown in New Zealand.
- Huemules (=the local deer) are damn hard to spot. Pumas also, but we did see three of them so we can live with the fact that we didn’t see huemules!
- If people wouldn’t make paths/walkways/trails it is nearly impossible to reach any place in this type of nature.
As you can see, we really did take the long way home. Not our real home of course, but our home far away from home, in Huépil, with the family that we met when we bought the car and were we stayed before we left for Patagonia. What a better way to end our Patagonia trip back here!
Great to meet Manuel & Iza and their kids again, feel the comfort of a house, cooking dinner, joining Iza to yoga class & a Mexican concert for mother’s day, being invited for a family dinner, …
Thanks Iza & Manuel, we are glad we met you along our way! Te quiero 😉
To round up our Patagonia adventures we made a video to even better get the feeling of what it’s like:
The route we did so far: